Polygamy in the Old Testament


Hey, everyone. This is something I have been struggling with for a little while. In the Old Testament, there are examples of polygamy such as King David having many concubines and Abraham also practiced polygamy. How does one reconcile this with the Church’s teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman only?


In one of the Gospels this point was brought up. And Jesus said that God had not intended for this to happen from the very beginning, but due to the hardness of their hearts, God allowed it.


Polygamists usually refer to these in justifying their polygamy.

[quote=fred conty] In one of the Gospels this point was brought up. And Jesus said that God had not intended for this to happen from the very beginning, but due to the hardness of their hearts, God allowed it.

This in itself does not say that Jesus disallow polygamy. If they had hardness of heart, as in the case of Abraham, Jacob or David, they were allowed to have more than one wife. In David’s case it was explicitly given another wife by God.

So if today, we have hardness of hearts and want to practice polygamy, like the patriarch before us, we are allowed polygamy too, without Jesus categorically prohibited it.

So it is still unclear point, just like divorce is allowed with reason of adultery.

So how does Catholicism address this issue from what Jesus said in that passage (Mt 19)?

I, too, am interested in an explanation to this, so as to give a clear stance.

I have been trying to explain the negative consequences of polygamy as in the case of Abraham, Jacob or David’s families respectively, but that still does not explain the prohibition.


God did NOT allow rather Moses ALLOWED it.


We no longer live by the Old Testament as the Old Testament was fulfilled in the New Testament. God no longer permits polygamy as he said in the New Testament one is only to have one spouse. By the way, the only SIN God can NOT forgive is HARDNESS of HEART!



Focus on the implicit proverbial “nuclear fallout” associated with the polygammy that occurred in the Old Testament.

Lamech in Genesis 4, and even your examples of Abraham and King David.

Jesus gave us the seven Sacraments including Sacramental marriage, so now in the New Testament era, there is a chance to rise above this sort of thing aided by God’s graces.

God bless.



Its hard to fathom in our background under puritanical systems in the US, but there is a difference between toleration of a practice, and encouraging or promoting a practice. In historically Catholic countries, you will find many things tolerated that are disagreeable and outright sinful because the it is often far more civilly unpalatable to suppress by force than it is to tolerate. This does not mean the practice is necessarily exemplory or encouraged. But Catholicism often chooses to encourage virtue by fraternal correction or an appeal to moral conscience, rather than the arm of the law or criminal systems


Polygamy was rare. Abraham was not a polygamist. Jacob had two wives, though he only wanted one, the only way to get that one was through an act of honour. Abraham did not have multiple wives. Abraham had Sarah only. Abraham was given Hagar by Sarah to bear a progeny when she was barren, and only for that reason.

Kings were polygamists for the express purpose of making treaties. Nobody else could afford them.


Polygamists say this here

"And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things."
2 Samuel 12:8

If God was against David’s polygamy, He certainly would not have said that He had GIVEN David his wives.

But the LORD did not stop there. That verse 12 shows that the Lord took it even one step further than that! The LORD God even went on further to say that if David had wanted more wives, the Lord Himself said that He would have given David even more!


Yes, this is a good one. I have tried using this explanation too. :slight_smile:

We live by the New Testaments.


This got me thinking. Did the Jews of Jesus’ day practice polygamy? They don’t now and they don’t follow the New Testament.


According to this explanation, the Jews disallowed polygamy ’at around the year 1000, the rabbinic leadership of Jewry living in France and Germany (or “Ashkenazic” Jews, many of whom would later migrate to Eastern Europe) declared a ban on polygamy, which still stands today. Hence in the English-speaking world today it’s virtually unheard of’.

…it was accepted in the times of Kings David and Solomon. Those kings are recorded as having quite a few wives (though Deuteronomy 17:17 warns against having too many, “lest his heart be swayed.” (King David is recorded as having six; Solomon married way too many, apparently as a form of diplomacy with surrounding nations, and it appeared not to have gone well for him.) We don’t know how prevalent it was for the average commoner in that era. Samuel’s father, for instance, had two wives. My sense is the average was probably 1.3 or so.

**The best record we have, from a traditional Jewish perspective, on first-century life would be the Talmud, the first stages of which were published around the year 200.

Any legal matter pertaining to marriage very clearly accounted for the possibility of more than one wife – e.g. the Talmud discusses how to divide an estate between multiple wives, or how levirate marriage works if there’s more than one wife. **There is one mention of a limit of 4, just as a practical matter of how much um, “physical attention”, a normal guy can be expected to provide to all these women. (A recent TV show addressed this issue with a character rushed to the emergency room due to an overdose of blue pills.) There was similar concern for a fellow who traveled between two far-flung places and had a wife and children in each place, that the half-siblings may one day grow up, meet and marry, not knowing of their relationship. (Today this could be solved by DNA testing).

**Around the year 1000, the rabbinic leadership of Jewry living in France and Germany (or “Ashkenazic” Jews, many of whom would later migrate to Eastern Europe) declared a ban on polygamy, which still stands today. Hence in the English-speaking world today it’s virtually unheard of.

The ban never extended to the Jews of the Mediterranean or Northern Africa (known as “Sephardic” Jews). In some communities some ban caught on at some point, and in others polygamy was still not-unheard-of 100 years ago. Jewish marriage contracts from 200 years ago in the Arabic-speaking world often contained a penalty clause if the husband took an additional wife without the first one’s permission.**

In the twentieth century, nearly all Jews from the Arabic-speaking world immigrated to countries speaking European languages (US, Europe, South America, etc.), or to Israel. In the former, polygamy is banned, both by civil law and by de facto Ashkenazic majority standard. In Israel the situation is a bit more complex; my understanding is that 50 years ago, a new Yemeni immigrant to Israel would have been allowed to keep his two wives; today Israeli law increasingly insists on monogamy.
So it’s virtually unheard of today.**


However, Abraham did have multiple concubines.


For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. (Hebrews 8:7)

It seems to me that God thought it would be a good idea to use a two-step approach to raise the moral standards of mankind to what they should be by first establishing Judaism in Israel as a way of introducing the pagan world to good moral standards and then, after the witness of Judaism was firmly established in the world, by establishing Christianity with its even higher moral standards. Thus, it should not be to surprising that such things as divorce and remarriage and polygamy were permitted under Judaism but not under the higher moral standards of Christianity. Consider those times in his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:21-48, when Jesus said, “You have heard that … But I say to you that …” or similar phrases, calling people to even higher moral standards.


Here’s what needs to be kept in mind

1 This is something that God tolerated; but neither desired or approved of

  1. This was a different time and culture, and a people being formed, FAR MORE than being informed

  2. we live in a different time and culture where Christ has raised “Marriage” to the level of a Sacrament; a MEANS of grace

Thanks for asking



God simply tolerated it but it was not his ideal.

We can’t impose our current Christian moral standard on pre-Exilic Israelites. God’s revelation and discipline was gradual as he dealt with his people according to their maturity and understanding.

These guys were not Catholic.


Thank you. This probably nails it unless there is more specific explanation. :thumbsup:

We live by the new covenant and Jesus really did raise the moral standard - adultery, murder, marriage and love - perhaps into the spirit of the law.


Hey everyone! Thanks for your replies! They have helped!


Polygamy may have been a necessity to ensure the survival of the women-folk in those times. The men-folk get killed in battles/sickness and widows are left with no support. Women in those times are wholly dependent on their husbands and can be deemed some sort of chattel. Inheritance laws and birthright favor the men. There were no social welfare for a largely nomadic tribe.

With an official marriage, the man and women can at least be deemed to be in a
‘proper’ relationship. Without the marriage, they would have to answer to charges of adultery and what not.

As Jesus indicated , Moses tolerated it though it wasn’t ideal. Who is going to support the widows and their children? In Acts 6:1 you see how early Christians helped these widows and extend the help to the gentiles as well.


It is interesting how these things are kind of glossed over in Sunday School… I was well on in life before I realised the 12 tribes of Israel involved many mothers, But maybe that IS the right way to approach it, from this thread.

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