All the languages of the world are not sufficient to express the filth of polygamy. It makes of man a beast, of woman, a trembling slave. It destroys the fireside, makes virtue an outcast, takes from human speech its sweetest words, and leaves the heart a den, where crawl and hiss the slimy serpents of most loathsome lust. … The marriage of the one man to the one woman is the citadel and fortress of civilization. Without this, woman becomes the prey and slave of lust and power, and man goes back to savagery and crime.
So proclaims the great agnostic orator of the 19th century, Robert Ingersoll, in his meditation Some Mistakes of Moses.
But did Moses really make a mistake? Does the Bible allow polygamy?
At a minimum, we can say that the Bible tolerates it. Commands against it are few if any. As the ultra-Bible-literalist organization Answers in Genesis admits,
The only direct command against polygamy was given to the kings that were to rule Israel, as they are told not to “multiply wives” for themselves (Deuteronomy 17:17).
He [the king] must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray…
Pretty straightforward: the king must not take many wives. That means he must have only one, right?
That is what Dr. Copan would have us believe, but both he and Answers in Genesis neglect the context. The rest of the verse says the king “must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” The verse before it says the king “must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself.”
Has anyone ever interpreted these context-setters to mean that the king should live as a peasant, or have only one horse? Of course not. These commands are about running to excess. In the cultural context of the ancient Near East, a handful of wives was not considered excessive. This, too, is a context in which we must interpret Deuteronomy 17:17.
Dr. Copan interprets Leviticus 18:18‘s prohibition against marrying “your wife’s sister as a rival wife” to be an injunction against marrying any “sister Israelite,” but if that were the intent why wouldn’t the Bible have simply said, “do not marry two women”?
The other passages that Dr. Copan discusses do not prohibit polygamy either. They are passages that people say support polygamy and Dr. Copan argues that they do not go that far. For example, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 begins, “If a man has two wives…” Dr. Copan rightly observes that “If” is not a command.
Dr. Copan also cites several examples in the Bible where polygamy led to the jealousy and conflict that we might expect, but these stories are not commands against the practice. If we were to say that all conflict-producing actions in the Bible must be wrong, then Israel should never have taken the Promised Land and Jesus never would have said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
As bad an idea as polygamy may be, you will not find a clear command against it in the Bible. Once again, the Bible is a product of its times.
I’ve only scratched the surface. If you really want an eye-full, visit BiblicalPolygamy.com. You’ll begin to appreciate why the Mormons upheld polygamy as perfectly biblical.