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Does 2 Samuel 12 approve of Polygamy?

A recent caller to the Bible Answer Man broadcast asked for further clarification as to whether 2 Samuel 12:8 might well suggest that God approves of the practice of polygamy. I promised to provide additional perspective to this very significant question, and I say “significant” in that one may legitimately question a God who approves the practice of polygamy. 

In 2 Samuel 12, the Lord, speaking through Nathan the prophet, says to King David, “I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added you many more things like these.”

At face value, this seems to suggest that God gave David multiple wives, and then stood ready to add to his harem with divine sanction. Of course, that’s precisely the problem with pressing Scripture into a wooden literal labyrinth, because—in truth—if Nathan’s words are anything at all, they are ironic. David had just murdered a man in order to have another woman appended to his harem. Despite the generosity of the very God who had made him sovereign ruler of the land, the king had stolen the wife of a servant and that to satisfy his carnal lust. Thus, in language that dripped with irony, Nathan the prophet pronounces judgment against Israel’s king. As such, 2 Samuel 12 hardly constitutes divine approval for the practice of polygamy.

And this is not a singular case. As with David, Solomon, David’s son, had extravagances in multiplying not only horses, but multiplying wives, and that was a significant factor in the unraveling of a kingdom. Who can forget the explicit admonition of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:17: Do not multiply wives or your heart will be led astray! If this applied to the great kings of Israel, how much more the subjects of the kingdom. Moreover, monogamous marriage is clearly taught in Genesis (2:22-24), and then reiterated by Christ himself. Indeed, Jesus went on to say that, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt 19:9). Not only so, but marriage is an analogy for the relationship that God has with his people, with the Church, His one and only bride.

Furthermore, reading the Bible for all its worth involves recognition that the narratives of Scripture are often descriptive as opposed to prescriptive. The fact that Scripture reveals the patriarchs with all their warts and moles and wrinkles is to warn us of their failures, it’s not to teach us to emulate their practices. Far from blinking at David’s polygamous behavior, the Bible reveals that as a result of his sin, the sword never left his home.

Finally, let me say this; As God permitted divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts, so too He put up with polygamy because of humankind’s insolent stubbornness. Indeed, God causes even the wrath of man to please Him. Thus, in His sovereign purposes, He might well have tolerated the practice of polygamy for the very purpose of providing economic stability and security for women trapped within the confines of a patriarchal society. Yet, as redemptive history reveals, God does not simply leave His people where they are—He moves to sanctify them. In the effulgence of Scripture, women are elevated from the confines of a patriarchal society to the status of complete ontological equality with men. As such, the apostle Paul in definitive fashion says just as there are no slaves but only free in the economy of God, so too there is no male or female but all are one in Christ. Indeed, one might well say that the words of Paul in Ephesians 5 have ennobled and empowered women in the West such that far from being chattel, they’re considered co-laborers in Christ with the very men who are instructed to give up their rights for them.

While Islam abides polygamy, it certainly plays no part in the Christian ethic. Speaking of Islam, we have a brand new book out on Islam, entitled, Islam: What You Must Know. It equips you now how to correctly think about Islam. Unfortunately, we have all sorts of pre-texts about Islam. Sophistry, sloppy journalism, and sensationalism has won the day even in the Christian church. We put together this book to help you determine questions such as, “Is Islam a maniacal monolith or is it multifaceted?” “What’s the difference between Shiite and Sunni?” Islam is a mission field on our own doorstep, and I encourage you to get a copy of this book at our website of www.equip.org or by calling us at 1-888-700-0274.

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