Bible Q&A: When did monogamy become the norm?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Many of the Old Testament leaders had more than one wife. At what point in Jewish history did monogamy become the accepted norm?

Answer:

We could say that monogamy was presented as the moral norm through the first man and woman! In Genesis, there is no indication that Adam took any wife other than Eve. Furthermore, the tone of Genesis 2.23–24 indicates that Eve alone was enough to ‘complete’ him or sate his loneliness, indicating that monogamy was God’s plan for marriage as it was instituted for the first couple. 

Cain’s descendant Lamech was the first polygamous husband, in Genesis 4.19. This is reported impartially, with no repercussions for Lamech indicating God’s disapproval. However, Lamech’s character is not presented positively, as he is shown to follow in his ancestor Cain’s footsteps, being the one who committed the second murder recorded in the Bible.

However, more positive figures such as the kings of Israel, including David and Solomon, were polygamous. The Bible narratives indicate, however, that God will allow institutions he doesn’t necessarily approve of, as is shown in 1 Samuel 8 by God’s tolerance of a monarchy. Just as God didn’t originally plan for Israel to have a king, but made concessions and gave David excellent skills in ruling, so he allowed David many wives even though that wasn’t his original design.

But why would God permit this? In its early history, when Israel was constantly at war with other nations, the option to marry an already married man may have been beneficial to women who were dependent on men for provision. This is because the conflicts resulted in many men’s deaths – meaning that sometimes the gender ratios would have been skewed. It may also have benefitted men who found that their first wives couldn’t bear children, as polygamy would mean that they could have children without divorcing those wives. However, as the stories of Sarah and Hagar, Rachael and Leah, and Hannah and Peninnah demonstrate, this wasn’t always a problem-free solution, and trusting in God for fertility was preferable.

From the time of the Jews' return from exile in Babylon in 539 BC, monogamous relationships became the cultural norm, with very rare exceptions. The first person to outright ban polygamy in Jewish law was Rabbi Gershom in approximately AD 1000, which was accepted by western Jews – but by this time, the practice of monogamy was already well established.


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This article was written by Hannah Stevens, who works in our sales team​.

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