Throughout many cultures and time periods, the acceptable marriage standards have changed due to the necessity of providing for the children, the rights of women and to ensure the maintenance of the family line. Why the Bible allows polygamy is a common question I see asked around the Internet. That question is closely followed by why did King David get away with having so many wives and concubines? This page answers those questions from an objective, sociological and psychological viewpoint.
Polygamy is currently considered unacceptable throughout the western world, even though our ancestors relied on it for survival. It is criticised as through the eyes of our first world culture because we see it as:
– a means of increasing gender inequality;
– patriarchal behaviour which may involve favouritism and children being given less nurturing than they deserve due to their numbers;
– narcissistic, sexual greed;
– an impractical lifestyle placing too great an economic burden on the welfare State or the family, due to the high cost of raising families in cities and towns;
– a source of conflict, jealousy and unhappiness to the wives and
– open to abuse by a dominant, head wife who controls all lesser wives under her.
For a man to take multiple wives in our modern nations, the above indeed, could be considered a serious problem, plus you have demographic issues arising from women gravitating towards high status males with secure economic standing, or being monopolised by those males, which leaves the ‘lesser’ men unable to find life partners. That leads to complex social problems.
It is also worth noting that polygamy was not bigamy in Biblical times. Bigamy only occurs when current, western marriage laws are broken. The godly, Biblical patriarchs were polygamists and the Lord blessed them with the command to be fruitful and multiply.
However, in a great many parts of the world, polygamy is still the norm, especially where cultures rely on agriculture and having many children and many wives, enhances the ability of all members of the family to survive famine, drought, natural disasters, maternal, infant and child mortality rates, disease, war and misfortune. The strength of an extended family also means that regardless of health or disaster, there will always be someone else to shoulder a wife’s household tasks, care for her children (particularly if the parent is ill or deceased) and be there as part of a loving family community. In everyday life, that can be a great asset which would reduce our cultural epidemic of loneliness.
Studying at the survival statistics in Africa, an example of what the health and living conditions in King David’s time would have been like, the results are harsh and heart breaking. Roughly speaking, one in forty-eight women had a chance of dying in childbirth. The younger the woman was (under fifteen years of age), the greater chance of that happening. Women who had child, after child with little break could also suffer maternal depletion syndrome, as their bodies did not have the diet or recovery time to rejuvenate after pregnancies. Again, this leads to serious health problems and often, death. In addition, it was very common for women to suffer illness or injury because of childbirth, even if they survived the process, so again, there is loss of life and the need for other members of a strong, extended family to be able to step in and assist with bringing up existing children.
One in seven women would have also suffered complications in childbirth. Common complications include bleeding, infection (remember, there were no antibiotics, so simple issues had dire consequences), and obstructions such as breech deliveries. It is without doubt that King David would have lost multiple wives to problems arising from childbirth, so when looking at his family tree, keep it in mind that not all of these women would have lived.
If a child successfully made it’s way into the world, they are a great risk of dying within the first forty-eight hours. Depending on what statistics you read, at a conservative estimate, 30% – 40% or more of children would not make it to adolescence. This could be because of birth defects, malnutrition, malaria, smallpox and other childhood diseases, accidents etc. In short, it is obvious that for any family to survive, the best option is to reproduce in high numbers. One psychological study likened it to the animal kingdom, where most species have multiple mates as higher numbers mean greater success.
So this brings us then to the Biblical question, did David have too many wives? The prophet Nathan had indicated that the number of wives David had, were not a problem to the Lord. [2 Samuel 12:80] They had never turned his heart away from God, as happened with Solomon. However, there were consequences of taking that many wives and concubines. Whilst marrying the wives and concubines (secondary, lower status wives) gave all the women and children a secure economically sound home, we do see the example of how the demands of Kingship and fatherhood led to less than perfect parenting by King David.
1 Kings 1:5-6 tells us: “About that time David’s son Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, began boasting, “I will make myself king.” So he provided himself with chariots and charioteers and recruited fifty men to run in front of him. Now his father, King David, had never disciplined him at any time, even by asking, “Why are you doing that?” Adonijah had been born next after Absalom, and he was very handsome.” This illustrates the potential problems.
Within any relationship there are conflicts and joys. The greater the number of wives and children, the more room there is to smother, or hide from the need for problem resolution. The addition of each new wife and concubine would also alter the ‘pecking order’ and security of current wives, which could create a slew of problems. I cannot see it as a perfect system, but then, neither is monogamy. Jealousy, extramarital affairs, conflicts and child rearing issues are massive complications within both systems. For any family to work, a solid set of faith-based, moral values and behaviour which is firmly grounded in the *fruit of the Spirit is critical for any form of success.
– Childbirth in Developing Countries: http://www.worldpress.org/africa/3834.cfm
– Mortality, Childbirth from the Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying: http://www.deathreference.com/Me-Nu/Mortality-Childbirth.html
– Infant Mortality in The Land of Israel in Late Antiquity: https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/infant.html
– Wedding and Marriage Customs in the Bible: http://www.bible.ca/marriage/ancient-jewish-three-stage-weddings-and-marriage-customs-ceremony-in-the-bible.htm
– Ancient Jewish Marriage from My Jewish Learning: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage/
– Why Did the Lord Allow Men to Have Concubines? http://www.ukapologetics.net/concubine.html
– Concubine: Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary: http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/concubine.html
– World Health Organisation, Maternal Mortality: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs348/en/
– World Health Organisation, Child Mortality: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs178/en/
– Psychology Today on Polygamy: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-human-beast/201210/the-three-reasons-polygamy
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