WVW: Leviticus 18:18- Does the Bible Support Polygamy? Part 1
I’m a bit hesitant to admit this, but there was a time in my life when I was really intrigued with the show Sister Wives on TLC. The series first premiered during the fall of 2010 and I was in my senior year of college. The series follows Kody Brown (the “patriarch”), his four wives, and their combined 18 children as they navigate the inner workings of their family life, their religion, and as they try to live out a normal life day to day. According to TLC, the show is currently on its 14th season.
I remember when it was being advertised and marketed on TLC back in 2010 and how it was kind of a big deal since it was giving you a reality TV experience into a part of the Mormon faith that was “hush-hush” and into a practice that was strictly outlawed by the government. There was some buzz around the show on my conservative, Christian college campus (it was a small college town and entertainment was sparse—we took anything we could get!). I remember piling into our dorm room with friends as we watched the pilot episode. We continued to watch it that year and I’m pretty sure I continued to watch on my own for a couple of years after graduation.
The reason this show was so intriguing to me was because I was able to watch this family on screen navigate the complications that arose from choosing this lifestyle. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and despairing in many ways (an analogy of a bad car crash comes to mind here...) as they tried to make something fit into modern society that is so clearly not meant to be a part of our society.
On top of the awkwardness of the show, it was also sad because I knew that the Mormon faith was a false religion and that polygamy, unfortunately, was a result of Joseph Smith, and “prophets” that followed, not understanding the whole of Scripture (in more ways than one). We were able to see the damaging effects in real-time of a false religion and a faulty interpretation of the Bible on a family and community.
So, do I give this lengthy introduction recounting the Sister Wives to remind you that false religion has real damaging, eternity-altering effects on people? Yes, as a broader picture. But also, more specifically, to draw your attention to this weird concept of polygamy in the Bible and to point out that there are still people alive today (whether they practice polygamy or not) that defend polygamy as a safe and healthy practice that is approved by the Bible.
How do they get there? With verses like our weird verse for today:
“And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.” Leviticus 18:18
While the context here might be obvious to some that this clearly outlaws polygamy, there are still those today that would use this verse to defend the practice of polygamy—whether now or in the Old Testament.
How? Let’s take a deeper dive.
Does the context defend polygamy?
The book of Leviticus as a whole addresses the responsibilities of the Levites so they can help God’s people worship Him properly and it also informs the people on how they are to live a life that’s holy and pleasing before God. Before the law was recorded here, the Israelites had never been instructed in these matters before, having just come from slavery in a nation that worshiped many gods—they needed instruction on how the true God demanded worship.
Leviticus 1-16 tells the people how to have personal access to God through appropriate worship practices; and Leviticus 17-27 tells the people how to live holy, spiritually acceptable lives through an obedient life to God. This last section is where our weird verse is found.
Chapter 18 of Leviticus deals primarily with the laws pertaining to sexual sin and practices. God wanted to be clear with His people that they should not practice any of the abominations found in the heathen lands around them. They were not just to set themselves apart outwardly, but inwardly (with their bodies) as well. Verses 6-18 of this chapter focus primarily on incestous relationships.
It may be clear to some already that this verse clearly outlaws polygamy since it would fall into the category of sexual sins. However, let’s read it again through the lens of someone who might be trying to defend polygamy:
“And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.”
Some would take this (and have taken this) to mean that God is just prohibiting a man from marrying his wife’s sister, but he is free to marry any other woman as long as it doesn’t conflict with the sexual prohibitions already laid out in the law here. And to be fair, there is nothing in this verse that prohibits the marrying of another woman not related to your first wife.
While most Christians today would agree from the basic reading of Scripture that polygamy is immoral, the reality is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit or condemn it. Which is why pro-polygamists can take verses like Leviticus 18:18 and any other verses that talk about marital or sexual relations in the Old Testament law (specifically they reference Deuteronomy 21:15 and the examples of the great patriarchs of the faith) and excuse polygamous relationships as somewhat necessary.
So, what’s going on here? If God doesn’t explicitly condemn polygamy in the Old Testament, then is it okay? Why would he allow it (and even bless the great patriarchs of the faith) if it was considered a sexual sin?
Why did God allow polygamy in the Old Testament?
In regards to our weird verse in Leviticus 18:18, John MacArthur explains in his commentary that we should read and understand this verse as a direct prohibition against polygamy. He suggests here in this verse the prohibitions shift slightly. Before they were more focused on incestous relationships, but here Moses shifts to the ideal concept of marriage (first given in the Garden in Genesis 2) which is one man married to one woman (especially while the other person is still alive). Other commentators have also interpreted the Hebrew here for “sister” to mean all Israelite women, not just biological sisters.
So why did God seem to allow this practice and even choose to bless men in the Bible who engaged in polygamous relationships—specifically the patriarchs of the faith like Abraham, Jacob, and David?
The first mention of polygamy in the Bible is very early. It comes in Genesis 4:19-25 as it mentions Lamech, a descendant of Cain, which would be before the flood. Even early on we see a distortion of what God always intended marriage to be. Just two chapters before this, God describes how marriage should be, and just like all things that came after the fall, sin corrupted.
One important fact to point out is that many of the great patriarchs of the faith—like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—all came BEFORE the law was given to Moses. Polygamous relationships, especially ones where sisters were taken in marriage by one man, were very common in these ancient cultures. These men, though it doesn’t excuse their choices, were often still learning about God and His ways as they went throughout their life.
Another reason God may have tolerated it at this time was because it was a means to fulfill the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” One man could easily impregnate many women at once, therefore ensuring that the population would grow quickly and people would begin to fill the earth.
What about the patriarchs and great men that came AFTER the law—like Gideon, David, and Solomon? Why did God allow for these men to be honored and used by Him though they practiced polygamy?
The closest verse we have in Scripture that would oppose polygamy is in Deuteronomy 17:17 which was an instruction for the kings who were to rule Israel. It says, “And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.” It’s clear here from this verse that King David, and especially Solomon, disobeyed God.
So, while the Bible doesn’t directly prohibit polygamy with a specific verse, we can see all throughout Scripture how polygamy is always painted in a negative light and how it often ends in tragedy or tension.
I know this seems like a teaser, BUT next week, we will continuing looking at the tragedy and tensions as a result of polygamy in scripture and we will also talk about how marriage is a perfect picture of Christ’s Bride! Tune in next week for Part 2!!!
Dingers, this WVW was written by our sister in Christ, Leanne! You can find her on instagram @faithfuldefender where she has blogs, podcast interviews, book reviews, and more! Make sure you check it out!