Why did God allow multiple marriages in Old Testament times?


#1

In Genesis, Abraham is married to Sarah and then also takes Hagar as his wife when Sarah at first can’t conceive. It appears he also marries Keturah while still married to Hagar. Abraham’s son Isaac has two wives, Rebekah and Leah. Isaac’s sons Esau and Jacob (by Rebekah) each have multiple wives.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all blessed by God. He appears to them several times to encourage them and assure them of his promises. As God seems to be very close to these patriarchs, and guiding them in their life, why does he not take this opportunity to teach them about the sanctity of marriage?

On a related note, can someone help me understand marriage in the culture at that time? It seems like the men simply decided who they wanted as a wife and then took her.


#2

Polygamy was fairly common in the ancient world. A man in general could have all the wives he wanted, as long as he could support them (I think women were restricted to 1 husband).

You have to remember, this was way before the woman’s rights movement from the late 1900s. Women were considered either property or (at best) below a man. They had very limited rights, if any, and had little education.


#3

God does not stop us from sinning. Jesus tells us that God intended that a man have one wife. Multiple wives began with Cain’s descendants. The line of Seth saw it, and it “looked” good to them. God works through changing hearts. Also, this was before the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s intent, and His disciples taught what He revealed. God does not “physically” prevent someone from sinning. God hates divorce. Moses, due to the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts allowed divorce. It is very possible that Moses allowed multiple wives for the same reason.

Marriages were normally arranged by parents, as it is still practiced in some countries. “Love” is not a feeling. When we talk of seeing someone and “falling in love,” that is lust. When someone is thinking marriage, he/she must put thought into it. Is the other a Catholic–it is not necessary but it helps–do they agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding marriage and children and contraception, do they believe marriage is for a lifetime, etc. If they do not, it does not matter how one “feels” about the other, do not marry the person!


#4

I’ve done much reading/research on this. From what I understand, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram as a surrogate, any children (from Abram and Hagar’s union) are Sarai and Abram’s. (They aren’t Abraham and Sarah yet.) Hagar is still a maidservant. “took to wife” is a euphemism for sexual intercourse.

Abram never marries Hagar. Surrogates were common at the time, especially for barren wives.


#5

I wouldn’t say that seeing someone and falling in love is lust. lust is purposefully objectifying them for your own pleasure.

if you get to know someone and feel attracted to them or nice feeling, it’s not necessarily wrong. but you’re right, it’s not all about feelings. if you decide to marry them and the feelings die down, sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, you can’t just opt out of the marriage because of that.

I also don’t know if forced arranged marriages are a good idea either. and it’s not true that that was the case always in Christian society. the church emphasized person choice and mutual consent from what I’ve learned.

as for the multiple wives, I agree, many things happened in old testament times that god didn’t approve of but he let it go because of the hardness of hearts. though I wouldn’t say that he approved with Abraham’s relationship with hagar, since Ishmael basically became disinherited.


#6

I did not comment as to whether arranged marriages were good or bad. St Peter instructed older women to teach the younger women to love their husbands. My marriage was not arranged, and we will be celebrating 40 years. However, I truly began loving her exceedingly when I told myself that I love her because I choose to, no matter what. That can also be done in arranged marriages. I do not speak as the goodness or badness because I have no knowledge. I do not know the Church’s stand, which I would go by. If you have cites, that would be nice. I would think the Church might have a recommendation or preference, but I would be surprised if it condemned arranged marriages. Arranged marriages are not the same as forced marriages. Forced is an entirely different matter.


#7

I would also think that practicality entered into it. The Jews were surrounded by much larger, hostile nations. Infant and maternal mortality worked against the survival of the Jews as a people. Polygamy would have been seen as a means of national survival I would have thought – although not necessarily to the degree of Solomon’s thousand or so alleged wives.


#8

In ancient times, men are often times at war. For nomadic peoples, as they move from place to place, encountering hostile peoples will result in casualties. With husbands dead and wives with no support and with no male heirs, polygamy is the practical solution. Hence newly married men are exempted from war during the first year Deu 24:5. Perhaps to produce children to inherit his name?


#9
  1. Someone else has already pointed out that Hagar’s relationship with Abraham was that of concubinage, not matrimony.

  2. When Abraham married Keturah, Sarah was dead, and Hagar was long gone.

  3. Leah was the wife of Isaac’s son Jacob, not of Isaac himself. Isaac had only one wife, Rebekah.

On the subject of polygyny itself, there have been several good answers, and I have nothing further to add.


#10

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this article:
newadvent.org/cathen/09699a.htm
“The monogamic and indissoluble properties of marriage were for a time dispensed by Divine permission. Thus in the patriarchal times of the Old Testament polygamous marriage was tolerated.”

The Supplement to the Summa says much the same thing.
newadvent.org/summa/5065.htm
The gist of these articles is that having multiple wives in OT times was not directly against the natural law, and was permitted by God by dispensation for a time.

The CCC seems to take a different approach, calling polygamy in OT times not yet explicitly rejected. Then making a general statement that it is contrary to marital unity.

But marriages before Christ were only natural marriage, not the Sacrament of Marriage. It is not possible to have multiple wives at the same time in the Sacrament.

Why did God allow polygamy among the Patriarchs? My opinion is that polygamy in natural marriage is not intrinsically evil, and God granted a dispensation to permit it for a time. Perhaps it served to build up the Israelites as a people more quickly, since a man with more than one wife can possibly have more children over time. The wars that Israel suffered in OT times may also have reduced the male population significantly. Without polygamy, many women would not have husbands and the population might diminish, rather than increase. The survival of the Israelites could well have been at issue.


#11

Hi,

God did command the Israelite kings at least not to have many wives - whether this means only have one wife or not is open to question.

“17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.” Deut. 17:17 (NRSV)

Something interesting I’ve noticed, however, about the individuals who had more than one wife is that they had many problems. Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon all had serious problems because they had more than one wife. Possibly Scripture is trying to tell us something.

There is one passage, however, that’s particularly hard to interpret:

“7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” 2 Sam. 12:7-8 (NRSV)

I suppose we could try to rescue the passage by saying that “bosom” means “care” instead of the romantic definition, but otherwise this passage indicates that God gave David his different wives. I do have to admit that’s certainly a strange thing considering that it seems we’re only to have one wife in the NT.


#12

They asked Jesus that, didn’t they? What was His answer?


#13

No, they didn’t; they asked Him about divorce.


#14

It seems to me that mankind had fallen into such moral chaos that God felt it best to improve their morality in incremental steps rather than all at once. As the saying goes, “We must learn to walk before we can run.”


#15

The Torah is in no way “incremental steps.” God does seem to allow more than one marriage in the OT law, however:

“15 “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other [k]unloved, and both the loved and the [l]unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the [m]unloved, 16 then it shall be in the day he [n]wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the [o]unloved, who is the firstborn. 17 But he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the [p]unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that [q]he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; to him belongs the right of the firstborn.” Deut. 21:15-17 (NASB)

I would have to say it must be something that God permitted for a time, like divorce, which Christ says Moses permitted “because of the hardness of your hearts.”


#16

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