Summary: This sermon answers a question from a church member regarding polygamy and concubines.
Note: This sermon was part of a series where I answered questions about the Bible submitted by the congregation.
Why did God leave polygamy of His people unchallenged? How did wives/concubines differ?
Let me start with the second part of that question, because that is the easier part to answer.
In ancient times, a concubine was a woman living in a lawful marriage arrangement with a man, but whose status was regarded as being less than a wife. Concubines were respected, had legal rights, and their children were regarded as legitimate, although the children of the wife (or wives) were most often given preference in matters of inheritance.
We’ll deal with the issue of whether it was lawful for a man to have one or more concubines in connection with the first part of the question that deals with polygamy, since concubines would be included with other wives for the purpose of our discussion regarding polygamy.
So there is the easy part of the question. Concubines primarily differed from wives because they were considered inferior. Although they had some specific legal rights, generally their offspring were not accorded the same right of inheritance granted to children of man’s wife or wives.
That brings us to the first part of the question, which is much harder to answer: Why did God leave polygamy of His people unchallenged?
A little boy was attending his first wedding. After the service, his cousin asked him, "How many women can a man marry?"
"Sixteen," the boy responded.
His cousin was amazed that he had an answer so quickly. "How do you know that?"
"Easy," the little boy said. "All you have to do is add it up, like the Pastor said: 4 better, 4 worse, 4 richer, 4 poorer"
Before I answer the question about polygamy, there is a larger issue here that we need to discuss first:
There are many places in the Bible where events that take place are just recorded as historical information. In those cases, the Bible neither condones nor condemns the particular actions. In other words, the Bible doesn’t give us a command to follow nor does it prohibit us from a certain behavior because it is a sin.
Let me give you a couple of examples before we turn to the subject of polygamy:
• In Chapter 1 of Job, we read that Job had a habit of making sacrifices on behalf of his children, just in case they had sinned. The Bible is silent about this practice. God never commanded Job, or anyone else to make sacrifices on behalf of their children. On the other hand, God doesn’t specifically prohibit the practice, either.
• In Acts 4, we read that some wealthy people in the church sold land or houses and brought the money to the apostles so that it could be distributed to the needy. Again, there was no specific command in the Bible for the people to do that and there was also nothing to prohibit them from doing that. When Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of land and brought only part of the money to the apostles, God killed them because of their deceit, not because they were required to sell their property and bring the proceeds to the church.
So how are we to deal with these kinds of situations? We have to look at the totality of Scripture to determine whether a particular action is right or wrong when the Bible doesn’t specifically address the action. That’s what we need to do with the issue of polygamy. The person who wrote the question was essentially correct – when we read the Bible it seems that God never directly challenges those who take multiple wives and concubines. But neither does God specifically condone that practice. So we have to look at the totality of Scripture to understand the issue.
It seems to me that the best place to start is to go back to the very first instance of polygamy in the Bible. Go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Genesis 4. Genesis 4 records the escalation of sin in the world after the fall of man. The world’s first murder takes place when Cain kills Abel. And then in v. 19 we read this:
Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.
Genesis 4:19 (NIV)
Then, a few verses later, Lamech is mentioned again:
Lamech said to his wives, "Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times."
Genesis 4:23, 24 (NIV)
I’ve gone back and re-read this account and all the surrounding verses several times and the Bible is silent about both of Lamech’s actions – marrying two women and killing a young man. It neither condones nor condemns either action.