One of the divine hallmarks of the book, or collection of books, we call the Bible, is its incredible unity. Written over a period of 1500 years, by more than 40 different human authors, each writing from a different cultural place and a different period of time – it nonetheless possesses such a consistent whole that often the uninformed can read it not realizing it is actually an anthology of books.
Nonetheless, despite this unity of thought within the Bible, it has become typical for skeptics to attack the Bible as teaching different and conflicting ideas. For instance, when it comes to marriage, the Bible teaches that God’s pattern is one man married to one woman for life. When this is mentioned, skeptics will claim that such a view is only one interpretation of the Bible and that the Bible also teaches a multitude of other kinds of marriage. They will sometimes even cite examples – stating for instance that Solomon had 700 concubines and 300 wives.
To one who does not give the matter much thought, such a style of argumentation might seem convincing, but it is a superficial form of reasoning that misses the truth by a wide mark because it is based on some false assumptions. It assumes, for instance, that if the Bible describes an event happening then the Bible must be giving tacit approval to the actions therein. It also assumes that the behavior cited has no other text criticizing that same behavior.
While this sort of attack is made against the Bible using a variety of topics, we will stick to the question of marriage as it is a subject oft in the news and oft on people’s minds.
As we survey the whole of the Bible, we begin at the beginning and notice that God made Adam, and then He created Eve to be Adam’s wife. (cf. Genesis 2). Adam did not get a second or third wife, and Eve ever only had the one husband. Thus Jesus, many years later, when asked about marriage, rightly pointed out that the pattern, from the beginning, was one man and one woman (cf Matthew 19:4-6).
This clear doctrine of a divinely inspired pattern for marriage pervades the whole of the New Testament and is a foundational principle through which all the rest of the New Testament is properly understood. Thus, we understand why a man is not qualified to be an elder or overseer (bishop) of the church unless he is the husband of one wife. (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-6). Likewise, in Ephesians 5, when Paul talks about husbands and wives, he assumes a husband has his own wife, and a wife her own husband and this monogamous relationship becomes the perfect symbol through which to describe Christ’s relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:31-33).
And yet, some will protest, do we not see polygamy in the Old Testament. And the answer to that is yes… we do. But just because a thing happened does not mean that the example is intended to be followed. Some things were written as warnings for us, examples we should not follow. (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-11). This is the problem with assuming that all examples are good examples.
The first man mentioned in the Bible as having multiple wives was a man named Lamech, a descendant of Cain, who murdered his brother. Lamech is mentioned in passing as not only being a polygamist but a proud murderer who gloried in his sin (cf. Genesis 4:19-24). Lamech is clearly not recorded as a role-model, but rather as an example of the degradation of the line of Cain.
And what of Solomon and his many wives and concubines? One has only to look to the law of Moses, where God specifically told the future kings of his people that they were not supposed to multiply wives to themselves. (cf. Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon’s behavior was not evidence of divine approval of polygamy, but rather an example of how even a wise man could be led astray when he did not listen to God.
Clearly there are many examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but this does not show that God wanted men to live this way, it simply illustrates that sometimes men did make such choices. It is notable that there is scarcely a single example of polygamy in all the Old Testament that is not also connected in some way with unhappiness and misery. Whether the individual is Abraham, Jacob, or David – in each case when polygamy occurred the Bible is very clear in showing how it created conflict and turmoil. In David’s case, it even led to an actual civil war in Israel.
Despite claims to the contrary, the Bible shows a clear unity of thought throughout. It lays down a principle by which men should live their lives, in this case monogamy, and also shows how breaking this principle creates problems. Those who claim the Bible is teaching multiple ideas about marriage are simply showing they haven’t actually read the Bible sufficiently to understand that not all examples are meant to be followed.
If you are interested in studying the Bible further, to better understand God’s plan for your life, the church of Christ invites you to study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.