The question of the title of the blog post is frequent. Questions, confusions, even concerns abound on the presence of seemingly rampant immorality and polygamy in the Old Testament.
A daily Bible reader gets confused as they march through the Old Testament. Why is there so much polygamy and pursuit of concubines that seems to go unrebuked by God?
A woman hurts over the pain others' sexual sin has caused in her life. Suddenly, reading the Old Testament is painful. Supposed heroes like Abraham (Gen. 25:6), Jacob (Gen. 29-30), and Gideon (Judges 8:30-31), just to name a few, pursue multiple wives or concubines. Are women just property in Old Testament ideals?
A man stumbles into sexual sin, reads his Bible, and thinks he finds a justification for it in the Old Testament. If David had many wives, what's the problem with a struggle with occasional pornography?
The culture expands its views of sexual ethics and starts to articulate a doctrine of polygamy ... from the Bible? I'd encourage you to listen to the guys at 3GT as they take on this issue in particular in a helpful podcast discussion.
As we see the confused grief the Old Testament can cause on this issue, our minds go to the book of James: "My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:10).
Sadly, though, they are so. The prevalence of polygamy and sexual immorality in the Old Testament is a frequent cause of heartburn for the student of Scripture. Often, the confusion here comes not with incidents like David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11) or Abraham's sin with Hagar (Gen. 16). After all, they seem to get their just rebuke for those sins. Instead, the confusion comes with the prevalence of seemingly unrebuked polygamy and pursuit of concubines in the likes of Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, David, and others.
Why does the Old Testament read in this way, and how does this impact our approach to reading the Old Testament?
For me, the most helpful anchor to address these questions is found in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. There, directives are given to Israel’s future kings. Four major requirements for Israel’s kings can be found there:
- V15: They must be from among the people of Israel.
- V16: They must not acquire many horses for themselves or go back to Egypt. In other words, they must not depend on the world and so forsake the God who redeemed them.
- V17: They must not acquire other wives.
- V18-20: They must study, know, and obey God’s law.
Now, for the sake of this article, the obvious item to highlight is v17, on not acquiring other wives. Kings are forbidden from polygamy! This hearkens back to the initial marriage formation in Genesis 2.
But to understand this law and its import for our question, we must understand how kings relate to their nation in Israel. In the Old Testament, the pervasive theme is this: “As goes the king, so goes the nation.” Kings are not given a different law than the nation, but they are given the law, which they are to lead the nation in following.
This theme is prominent in 1 Kings. In that book, there is a repeated record of evil kings. And the emphasized point is that their sin was then replicated in the nation. One example is Nadab in 1 Kings 15:26: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father, and in his sin which he made Israel to sin” (see also 1 Kings 14:16, 15:34, 16:2, 16:13, 16:26, 21:22, 22:52).
So, using Deuteronomy 17:14-20 as our grid, we discover that kings are to model and guide the whole nation in being truly identified as God’s people (Deut. 17:15), relying only on the Lord (Deut. 17:16), living in sexual purity and monogamy (Deut. 17:17), and loving God’s law (Deut. 17:18-20).
Now, what happens, particularly in the area of monogamy and sexual immorality? Kings repeatedly fail. And Scripture, though, does not need in every place to utter the rebuke of the king for failing. Why? Because the rebuke is already written into the law for the kings in Deuteronomy 17.
Let me give an example of how this works in another one of the “Deuteronomy 17 Commands”. In 1 Kings 10:28, Solomon acquires horses from Egypt. This is a blatant violation of Deuteronomy 17:16. No rebuke is given, because it is not needed. The student of Scripture immediately reads 1 Kings 10:28 and laments: “Israel’s king has broken the standard of Deuteronomy 17. He will surely suffer for this.” And from that point forward, Solomon’s reign and kingdom begin to go downhill.
The same rubric can be applied when reading of polygamy, concubines, and so forth. The clearest example is in 1 Kings 11, where Solomon continues his desecration of the Deuteronomy 17 standards and pursues other women. The outcome is destruction.
And so, we can read the actions of David and other kings in the same way. Even for Abraham or Gideon, those who had ruling authority before Israel had true kings, the same standard of the moral law is broken in their sin.
And, it’s important to see the ultimate outcome. Though Scripture does not explicitly condemn the polygamy/immorality at every location it exists, the kingdom of Israel gets what it deserves. It ends up in exile. In Deuteronomy 28:15-68, God had made clear that life would not work out for the law-breaking nation. Sexual immorality – polygamy included – should be seen on the list of sins that drove that nation into exile.
In sum, polygamy and other forms of immorality are a disgusting entrant into the kingdom of God.
But here is the joy of the believer today. Now, the kingdom of God is ruled in a new and particular way by the risen King Jesus. In His reign, He has brought renewed clarity to how the kingdom of God must be. He is the ultimate Deuteronomy 17 King: teaching us His law, not depending on the horses of the world for help, purchasing His one bride, and teaching us to do likewise (see Matthew 19:4-6).
Even Ephesians 5:22-33 (a clear monogamous passage) comes to us under the rule of King Jesus (see Ephesians 1:18-22, where Christ is raised above every name). A new clarity on monogamy and sexual purity comes in the New Testament under our perfect Deuteronomy 17 King.
We grieve the failures of the imperfect Old Testament models of kingship. We rejoice in our perfect King.
So then, what would I say to those audiences I noted at the beginning who struggle with these questions (struggling men, hurting women, Bible students, and culture)? 4 brief thoughts:
1. To the man struggling with sexual sin: Across Scripture, God abhors sexual immorality. His own Son had to come as King to pay for the sins of the sexually immoral among His own people. Do not trample underfoot the Son of God as you continue in sexual immorality (Heb. 10:29)!
2. To the woman hurting as she reads the Old Testament: Jesus wept as well over the sin of the nation of Israel (Matthew 23:37-39). He grieves, and He cares when His people break the law. He values women and their life in the church, and He protects the helpless.
3. To the culture: Jesus had strong words for those who abuse His clear word (Matthew 23). Do not distort the Bible’s clear teaching on morality and marriage!
4. To the confused Bible reader and to everyone: Learn to live the life of Hebrews 11 faith. There, we learn to learn from and look to the likes of noted great sinners such as Abraham, Moses, Gideon, and Samson as heroes of faith, all while acknowledging their failures. We can read and profit from the infallible Scriptures written by men who stumbled in this area.
But ultimately, Hebrews 11 faith becomes Hebrews 12:1-2 faith, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”