WHY DID THE LORD ALLOW MEN TO HAVE CONCUBINES AND/OR MORE THAN ONE WIFE?
It is Obvious From the Old Testament that Some Men Had Several Wives and Sometimes Several Concubines as Well. Why?
Was a Man With Several Concubines Considered an Adulterer?
First of all let us consider concubinage.
We may start off by considering some comments from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible:
'Concubinage was practised in many ancient cultures, especially in Mesopotamia.....where a private citizen might have one or two concubines in addition to his primary wife.....a concubine was often a slave or part of the booty of war (Judges 5:30). A man might have a concubine simply as an economical form of marriage, since no dowry or bride-price was required. A concubine could add to a man's prestige by giving him two wives and thus an increased capacity for children. Such offspring were normally delivered onto the knees of the legal wife, thus establishing their legitimacy as family members. The concubine was also another servant to add to his work force.' (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1997, Vol 1, p504).
So there we have it in a nutshell: a concubine was essentially a servant girl whose duties included sexual services to her master. She was seen as more 'low-born' than the wife although she was still allowed certain rights within the household. It might seem odd to women of our own day why the wives did not object to this arrangement, but in fact all the evidence is that concubines were warmly welcomed by wives into the household since they mainly became the servants of the wife. The ancient world simply did not carry the modern post-Christian expectation that a man would have only one sexual partner, neither did wives expect it of their husbands. Of course sometimes men had two or more wives (rather than concubines). Wives had greater rights but cost their husbands a lot more!
This might all seem strange today, but we sometimes don't realize how much of the 'one man-one woman' scenario developed from Christianity which was later reinforced by the 19th century Romantic movement (just think of the novels of the Bronte sisters with their passionate concern for private 'one man-one woman' love). Indeed, we still see the acceptance of plural marriage in cultures which have not been influenced by these things – including in parts of the Islamic world.
If we look at the period of the patriarchs, we immediately must note that concubinage etc is the expected 'norm' – note Scriptures such as Genesis 22:24; 35:22; 36:12, also note how concubinage was welcomed by wives who were barren: Genesis 16:1-3; 25:5-6; 1 Chronicles 1:32. If a concubine provided children for a barren wife, those children could gain an inheritance and real prestige (but they would legally be considered the wife's children – not the concubine's).
Some Bible commentators have suggested that the Lord allowed men to have more than one wife or several concubines during the period from the Great Flood until the Old Covenant in order to build up the world's population (which had obviously been decimated by the Flood), but from the time of Moses receiving the legal package on Mount Sinai, concubinage was banned. But this is totally incorrect for two reasons:
Firstly, we should not forget that the Old Covenant was given to Israel alone!
Secondly, the Old Covenant did make provision for a man having more than one wife. Please note Deuteronomy 21:15-17 !!
We must also note that Moses himself took a second wife who was an Ethiopian woman (Numbers 12:1). Moses had already married Zipporah (Exodus 2:21). Aaron and Miriam criticized their brother for taking this second wife, but they were immediately punished by the Lord for their criticism, making it plain that Moses had done no wrong in His sight (Numbers 12:1-15). Of course, it is possible that Moses' first wife had died, but the text gives no indication of this.
Later on people like David continued to have wives and concubines without receiving a single reproach from the Lord! David only received punishment when he added another man's wife (Bathsheba) to this group thereby clearly committing adultery.
Often Bible teachers in Sunday School are embarrassed about people like Abraham, Gideon and David having several wives and concubines – they simply don't know how to handle it! They usually react by calling David an adulterer who still had lessons to learn - but this is just not what the Bible teaches. The fact is: prior to the Christian New Covenant, God did allow this practise and it was not adultery! Adultery is taking another man's wife (or another woman's husband), but if a man had two wives and two concubines he was expected to be faithful to them all – it is clear from the Scriptures that this was not considered adultery, unpalatable though this may be for some!
Not a Christian Approach
The practise of a man having more than one wife or concubines continued into the Roman society of Jesus' day but although no single statement of Jesus or Paul completely barred this approach for Christians it starts to become clear that the practise is hardly consistent with the Christian life. A consideration of Jesus' comments in Matthew 5-7, Matthew 19:1-9 and perhaps especially Paul's comments on marital love in 1 Corinthians 7 tell us much more. Paul assumes either no marriage or monogamous marriage within the Christian life, although it is true that he never specifically refers to plural marriage or concubinage at all. Others have expressed surprise that in Acts 15 when the disciples made a decision – guided by the Holy Spirit – as to what new gentile Christian converts most urgently needed to be warned about as being inconsistent with the Christian life, neither plural marriage nor concubinage are mentioned, although 'sexual immorality' certainly is mentioned (Check out Acts 15:27-29).
There are strong indications that during the first century AD some new Christians brought their plural marriages into the Church (in 1 Timothy 3:2 the comment is made that a man to be ordained an Elder should only have 'one wife' – I am unconvinced at the efforts of some to say that this just referred to divorce and remarriage which would have been extremely rare in that world), but the practise appears to disappear within a hundred or so years as it was increasingly seen as being incompatible with the Christian life and it is Christianity – more than anything else – which largely caused plural marriage and concubinage to virtually disappear from Europe.
So why did God ever allow such things?
I think that here we have to remind ourselves that we cannot question the choices or decisions of God!! In the very early years after Creation, for instance, men would necessarily have had to marry their close female relations, but later on this became barred with strict laws against incest. Are we going to question God over this? What right would we have to question the wisdom of our Creator? Then, for a long period of time, plural marriages, concubinage and very large families were allowed (and the latter certainly encouraged), and there is ample reason to think that the need to re-build the world's population, post-flood, may well have been a reason for this. But where these things were taken to excess, the Lord issued warnings. See Genesis 6:1-2 for instance.
But regarding the Christian life, the New Testament issues repeated warnings about the need to avoid sexual immorality and about the need for Christians to manifest good upright moral behaviour and today it would therefore be entirely wrong for a Christian man to be involved in a plural marriage: Matthew 15:19-20; Acts 15:29; 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; 6:9-11,13,18-20; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3-7; Colossians 3:5-6; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Jude 7; Revelation 2:14,20-21; 9:21.
Robin A. Brace, 2005.
A Follow-up Question on this article sent to me by e mail:
“I understand and agree with what you wrote re: polygamy in the Bible.
One question though concerning Christians. Wouldn't Jesus' statement in Mat 19:5 seem to indicate that He teaches monogamy?”