What of this polygamy?
We ought to begin by restating that the Scriptures teach in various ways. There is the methodology of straight rebuke, wherein sin is both denounced and punished. But there is also a more subtle and deductive way, in which Scripture teaches more through story than prescription. And in this way, the Scriptures do teach against polygamy. For we learn by story and example how polygamy causes nothing but trouble. In fact it leads to factions, jealousy, envy, and at times, murder. But as we shall see, the problem is less the wives themselves than the sons they have borne.
But, to be clear, polygamy was a common thing among the Old Testament patriarchs. The list is not short:
Lamech (a descendant of Cain) practiced polygamy (Genesis 4:19).
Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6, some are called concubines).
Nahor, Abraham’s brother, had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29; 22:20-24).
Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30) and later he received two additional wives, making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
Esau took on a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them “had many wives” (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of which was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
David, had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23; 20:3).
Solomon, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21), and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
Jehoram had multiple wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
Jehoiada, the priest, gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3).
Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).
Well, you get the point. So we have to be honest: polygamy, at least among wealthy and powerful men, was practiced and its practice brought little obvious condemnation from God or His prophets.
But the silence of God does not connote approval, and not everything related in the Bible is told by way of approval. For example, it would seem that God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8). But to reluctantly permit, as God does, is not to command or to be pleased. Jesus would later withdraw divorce and remarriage from the range of tolerated behaviors. And polygamy seems to have largely abated by the time of Jesus.
And, as we have noted, God teaches in more than one way in the Scriptures. For the fact is, polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with (i.e., mentioned more than merely in passing), always spelled “trouble” with a capital “T”.
Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies.
Jacob had four wives, whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (with whom he felt “stuck” and whom he considered unattractive), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah). Rachel was stubbornly infertile but finally bore him Joseph and Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, and Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.
Now all these sons by different mothers created tension. But the greatest tension surrounded Joseph, of whom his brothers grew jealous. His father Jacob favored him because he was Rachel’s son. This led to a plot by the other brothers to kill him, but Joseph ended up being sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites. At the heart of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The unspoken but clear teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”