Does Torah allow polygamy?

Posted by on Aug 17, 2019

Question: Does Torah allow polygamy?

Answer: Torah presents the original type of marriage—that of Adam and Chavah—as monogamous. Besides the monogamy, every instance of polygamy in the Torah is related directly to some sort of strife between competing wives.

The verse that the Torah allegedly gives a green light to polygamy says, “If a man have two wives, … then …”. The law does not command polygamy, but simply says “if … then …”,

If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first-born son be hers that was hated; then (Deu 21:15-16 JPS)

To better understand this law, we need to first understand how the social life and human experience were functioning in its historical context. Back in the Biblical times, the size of the family, that is the numbers of children, and of the society did matter: the bigger the family is the stronger and therefore the more prosperous the family is. At that time there was no social security regulations we have today. If a family had one or two children (the average size of a western family), it would have slight chances to survive.

For example, an agrarian or nomadic society whose male population was decimated by war would experience a great deal of hardship in the economy and reproduction. Women in order to survive and provide for their children would need to remarry, but if the male population was decimated, how would she remarry and be the only wife?

Similarly, a barren wife who could not give children to help in the field would find insecurity in the family and in the society.

In such situations, the if-then-clause in the Torah provides legal regulations for the sake of surviving of the woman and the family. In these situations of wars, death of husband, etc., the permit for a second wife in the family should be seen as a form of compassion.

We should note that the Torah does not allow the husband to have many wives and concubines at the will of the husband—that would be polygamy foreign to the Torah. 

Do we find examples in the Scripture of polygamy? Yes, we do, and King Shlomo (Solomon), who had 1,000 wives and concubines, is one of them, but they were contrary to the Torah. The original form of marriage established by the Creator is still: one man and one woman, which no one is allowed to abolish.