What does allowing polygamy say about the character of God?

Q. I read your post about Ruth and Boaz. There you said that in the Law of Moses it was right for the brother to marry the widow. I get so furious about this because for 40 years it has tripped me up with my relationship with God. No matter what the time, how was it right for a man to be a polygamist? If God is never changing and he created Adam and Eve and said one man and one woman, why would he change? Why would this be a compassionate gesture to the woman? I am a Christian who seeks and seeks and knocks and looks for answers and I pray and pray. Please, please help me to understand this. Even the kinsman-redeemer made me hurt and not want to trust God because if Boaz was married, and helped Ruth, what does that mean to me? If God is my kinsman-redeemer, then how can I trust him? This may sound angry and I do apologize, but I am truly looking for help and want to live in peace and not hurt. This has been a block for all of my life and I do ask God all the time about this and maybe he can help me through you. Thank you for all that you do and God bless you.

Thank you very much for sharing your heartfelt question. Even though it arises from the issue of polygamy, it seems to me that your question is ultimately about the character and trustworthiness of God. So before I say anything else, let me say  that we learn about the character of God primarily from the ideals that God presents, and only secondarily from the arrangements that God makes in history to accommodate human limitations.

I would invite you to read this other post on this blog:

Is it a sin for a man to be married to more than one woman?

In that post I suggest that Jesus would have said the same thing about polygamy that he did about divorce: “It was not so from the beginning.” God’s ideal, as you have noted, is that marriage be between one man and one woman for life. Jesus explained that the Law of Moses permitted divorce, it did not command or endorse it, and the case is the same for polygamy. Under certain circumstances, at the time, it was the best, or perhaps the least bad, arrangement that would help protect and provide for women in a society in which they were vulnerable. But it was not God’s ideal, and so it did not reveal God’s character the way the statement of the ideal at the beginning of Genesis does.

Beyond what I say in that post, I would observe that as we move into the New Testament, Jesus and his followers assert more and more that believers should aspire to live out God’s original ideals. So, for example, Paul says in 1 Timothy that the church as a whole should provide for the needs of widows. No longer is the late husband’s brother or another close relative expected to marry a widow to provide for her. This is the responsibility of all believers, to care for a person in need in their community.

And as Paul also says in 1 Timothy, the spiritual leaders of the church (“overseers” or “elders”) must be “the husband of one wife.” While polygamy was not widely practiced by the Romans, it was known from the cultures that the Romans interacted with, and in Asia Minor (where Timothy was, in the city of Ephesus) there seem to have been actual polygamists, due to the influences of those cultures. Without judging them or condemning them, Paul makes clear that their lives do not illustrate God’s ideal, and so they should not be in spiritual leadership positions.

I, too, hope that nothing I say here will be taken to judging or condemning people in cultures that still practice polygamy. As I make clear in my other post, this is a very involved issue and it will be complicated to sort it out. I also hope that nothing I say will be taken as judging or condemning people in other situations. At the same time, I do believe that God’s ideal is for marriage to be between one man and one woman for life, and that that ideal reveals God’s character.

And so I hope that you will come to know God better and better as the one who said to his people through Hosea:

I will take you to be my wife forever.
I will take you to be my wife in righteousness,
justice, love, and compassion.
I will take you to be my wife in faithfulness,
and you will know the Lord.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “What does allowing polygamy say about the character of God?”

  1. Thank you for your enlightening answer. If I may add to it, I, as a woman, have struggled with similar feelings as the questioner. I felt like I needed an answer for myself and asked God in prayer. His answer to me was a clear and deep reassurance of how much He loves and values me as His daughter. This was the perfect answer to the questions I didn’t realize I was asking, but that He knew I was asking: ” Are women just property?” “Am I as valued as a man is?” “Do women matter to you?”

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