As we preach the stories in the Old Testament, and many of our people are reading the Old Testament, a question that often comes up deals with the weird issues in the Old Testament that seem to be contrary to God’s will, but these things are done by the people in the stories. The main example is the practice of polygamy, but there are many other issues as well, some of them pretty brutal. Some of the people God uses and even blesses visit prostitutes, openly lie and cheat people, and participate in unethical business practices. These people are then presented as some sort of hero of the story, as God interacts with them, makes covenant with them, blesses them, and puts them in His book. And as these things are done, there is no commentary repudiating these things, at least nothing in the immediate text and context. As we read, we would like something in parenthesis saying something like this, (This guy cheated, had multiple wives, and did all other crazy and messed up things, and God is really ticked at him, but and doesn’t agree with his lifestyle). But the Bible just keeps telling the story, and the implication can be that there is tacit approval to the actions of the character.
So we meet Jacob and he ends up with four different women, two wives and two concubines. Sampson marries a foreign, unbelieving woman and has all kinds of non-married sexual relationships. Judah visits who he thinks is a prostitute who really is his daughter-in-law and gets her pregnant. King David has multiple wives, and his son Solomon hits the jackpot with 700 wives and 300 live in hookers (concubines). God seems to bless and use each of these people, and there is really no real open rejection. So how do we interpret? Is there secret approval of things God will at other times say is sinful?
The answer is no, and this raises some key things to remember as we read and interpret the Bible, specifically sections that are historical narrative (telling the historical story of God’s people). The main thing to know is this, the Bible does not support everything it reports. As the Bible tells the story, it just tells the story. These people are all jacked up, wicked and in need of a redeemer. No Old Testament character is the hero, in fact, the Bible almost goes to painful detail in showing us the true character of the people, warts and all. It doesn’t hide their character flaws, unfaithfulness, and idolatry. Rather it exposes it and shows it. The reason is because the only hero in the Bible is Jesus, and every one of these people need the redemptive grace of God as revealed in Jesus. So God loves these people anyway, when they don’t deserve it, when they make messes and live broken lives. But that is the main idea, the Gospel is that God loves the unlovable, redeems the wicked, pardons the guilty, and changes the rebellious. As it tells the story, it just shows us God reaching into these people’s lives and gracing them.
So let’s look specifically at how this applies to polygamy. In Genesis 2 God brings Adam and Eve together and sets the clear purpose of marriage in motion, which is affirmed everywhere there is didactic teaching on marriage in the Bible. “A man will leave his father and mother, hold fast to his wife (not wives), and they (the two) shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).” Notice the initial purpose is one man, one woman, one flesh, one lifetime. This is the purpose of marriage and the trajectory set as God will display the Gospel in marriage. But the people God reaches live in a fallen world and for multiple reasons many of them take more than one wife. Jacob is tricked. Kings do this primarily for reasons of power and prestige. No matter the reason, it is not God’s design for marriage. But why doesn’t the Bible then condemn these men for doing this. The truth is, it does. But in story form. I would challenge any person reading this to find an example of polygamy in the Bible that went well. Every man who has multiple wives ends up with all kinds of weirdness, relational messes, and broken families as a result. The woman Jacob sleeps with fight like a bunch of middle school girls who like the same popular guy in school. David’s family becomes a total mess as the children from one wife fight (and even rape) the children from a different wife. Solomon’s life is a complete disaster and the Bible tells us that the reason is because accepted foreign women into his lives, and they led his heart away from the Lord (I Kings 11:1-8). So while there is no parenthetical statement on polygamy in the story, sin has its consequences in all their lives. But God loves, blesses, and gives them grace anyway.
The other thing that can trouble us as we read is that it also seems that God actually uses the outcome of the sinful lives. If God does not approve, why do things end up so well in the story. But once again, that is the point! God is sovereign, and one of the amazing truths displayed in the narratives is that in His Sovereign will, God uses and blesses the wicked decisions and lives of His people to accomplish his great purpose in redemption. So Jacob has four wives, they fight like crazy and have all kinds of jealousy issues, and Jacob’s life is so brutal as he tries to keep four women happy. But these women have twelve sons who become the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise God made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham that his descendants would become a great nation. Jacob’s son Judah sleeps with the prostitute/daughter-in-law (see Genesis 38 for the story), and she gives birth to twins (a “I’m my own Grandpa” redneck story if there ever was one). But the Bible is painstakingly clear that Jesus, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, has in his family tree one of the twins, Perez. This sin did not catch God off guard, He knew, and while He did not cause the crazy choices, God sovereignly orchestrated His purpose so that even sinful decisions and failures are used to move the story forward to the ultimate redemptive purpose.
So remember, the Bible does not support everything it reports. But we can give praise to the God of glory because the story demonstrates His character and goodness again and again, and the reminder is that even when we make messes of our lives, God gives grace to bring beauty into the mess and use it for His glory, our good, and to bring transformation to life. To Him the the glory!!!