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A Biblical Catechism on Sex and Marriage: Polygamy, Concubinage, and Levirate Marriage

[This post continues a series of posts entitled 'A Biblical Catechism on Sex and Marriage'.  The intention is to provide basic material for further instruction by a trusted teacher of God's Word in a church that is committed to Biblical authority.  The Church’s mission is to invite all people to live under God’s righteous rule.]

Question 9. Does the Bible allow polygamy, concubinage, and levirate marriage?

Answer: The creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28) largely accounts for Old Testament practices of polygamy, concubinage, and levirate marriage in ancient Israel that are no longer practiced by Christians.

Comment 1: Polygamy is marriage where a person has more than one spouse at the same time.  Polygyny refers to a husband having more than one wife—a practice found in the Old Testament (and never a wife having more than one husband—polyandry.)  Concubinage is when a husband also has sexual relations with his wife’s maid servants.  Both polygamy and concubinage are permanent relationships (a man would not, e.g., have sexual relations with a married maid servant).  These were cultural practices in Old Testament times.  They are not sinful practices even if no longer practiced or even advisable.  They do not stem from the theology of ‘one flesh’ in Genesis 2:24, but can relate to being fruitful and multiplying (Genesis 1:28).  

Comment 2: The main purpose of polygamy or concubinage seems to be to multiply the size of the family.  Thus these arrangements were in fulfillment of the creation mandate.  In ‘levirate marriage,’ where the widow of a deceased man with no offspring could become the wife of his nearest kin, the purpose was to maintain property within the clan and to raise up children in the name of the deceased man (cf. Ruth and Boaz).  Thus these arrangements are more related to the early years of Israel, and are not noted in the New Testament.  Christians have usually opposed such practices, especially as they can place stress on the loving relationship of one man and one woman in a marriage.

Comments 3: Polygamy and concubinage are a permanent, marital relationship, as with any marriage and unlike having a mistress.  A wife was given to a man by her father, whereas concubines were servants given to the man by the man’s wife.  Concubines might be considered wives of lower status, but they, too, had a permanent relationship to the head of the household.  The story of Abraham dismissing Hagar is not meant as a positive example (Genesis 16).  Polygamy was not practiced as a form of divorce, when the husband was tired of the first wife (cf. Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

Comment 4: The polygamy of Israelite kings was a matter of status (2 Samuel 5:13) and/or political (1 Kings 11:1-3), a Middle Eastern practice of making treaties by marriage.  The practice is viewed unfavourably in Scripture (Deuteronomy 17:17; 1 Kings 11:1-8).

Comment 5: As polygamy, concubinage, or levirate marriage were not practices in Paul’s day or context, his words about an overseer, elder, or deacon being the husband of one wife do not refer to this practice.  As Paul encourages younger widows to remarry, he is also not referring to remarriage.  Thus, he must be restricting these roles in the church to persons who have not divorced and remarried.  (See Question 10.)