Does the Torah allow polygamy?
The Torah “allows” polygamy, but frowns upon it. Its treatment of polygamy is a good example of Maimonides’ teaching in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 where the sage stated that humanity during the Torah’s early history was primitive; while God could change human nature, God did not want to do so; therefore the Torah had to “allow” certain acts that are far from ideal.
The Torah, Maimonides wrote, gives a clear example when it states that God took the Israelites through the desert rather than the direct route to Canaan because the Israelites would encounter the Philistines during the shorter path and would run fearfully back to Egypt (Exodus 13:17-18). There are many laws that the Torah allows but disapproves. Maimonides cites sacrifices that God neither wants nor needs, but only allowed due to the misguided mindset of the people at that time who felt that sacrifices were necessary because they were accustomed to it and saw other people serving their gods in this way. Other examples include slavery (Exodus 21:2-11) and having sex with a woman captured in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Maimonides states that while allowing certain behaviors, the Torah established rules that diminished the acts, modified and controlled them, and gave hints to those who could read the text properly that the practices were wrong. Polygamy is an example. A careful reading of the Torah shows that it disapproved of this behavior and preferred monogamy.
The Torah begins by describing monogamous humans in the paradisiacal Garden of Eden. Noah and his sons, who were saved from the flood because Noah was “righteous and whole-hearted” and “walked with God,” had only a single wife each (Genesis 6:7, 13). The first recorded instance of a polygamous marriage was Lamech, a descendant of the fraternal murderer Cain, six generations after Adam and Eve. The Torah states that this first polygamist was also a murderer, perhaps suggesting that certain abnormalities exist in polygamists (Genesis 4:19-24). The Torah continues by showing that even good people have serious problems resulting from polygamy and thereby depicts it as far from desirable.
Abraham took Hagar as a wife or concubine because his wife Sarah urged him to do so, not because he felt it was right (Genesis 16:2, 3). As a result, Abraham sired Ishmael who aggravated him and Sarah, and Ishmael is traditionally considered the forefather of the Arabs. Jacob was tricked into a polygamous marriage because he loved Rachel and was given Leah, and had to keep both (Genesis 29). He took the two slaves of his two wives as concubines at the insistence of his two wives (Genesis 30:4, 9). He continually showed Rachel greater love than Leah, and the Bible perhaps overstates that he hated Leah, but it is clear in the narratives that his greater love of Rachel caused family problems. Later there was strife between his children, Jacob suffered, his family settled in Egypt, and this led to the enslavement of his descendants and the future split of the Israelites between the descendants of Judah and Joseph, two of the four wives. Elkanah, the father of the prophet Samuel, had two wives, presumably because his first wife, Hannah, the later mother of Samuel was barren during the early years of his marriage to Hannah, and Hannah suffered because of the other wife. Later, she had to give up her first-born son, Samuel, to serve as an aid to the high priest as part of a “deal” she made with God if God would open her womb (Samuel 1 and 2).
There is no indication in the Torah that Isaac, Jacob’s twelve sons, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, the many prophets, or King Saul, Israel’s first king, practiced polygamy. King David did with terrible results, including his son raping his daughter from another wife, revenge, murder, and a revolt by a disgruntled son. King Solomon did so and the Bible attests that his wives led him to build houses of worship for idols and perhaps his own idol worship (II Samuel 5:13 and I Kings 11:1-3).
The Torah set parameters to diminish the practice. It warns men who take a second wife not to diminish the other wife’s food, clothing, and conjugal rights (Exodus 21:10) and if the man loves one of his wives more than another and the son of the hated wife is the first-born, this son’s first-born rights, including being given a double portion of his property at the time of his death, may not be diminished (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). It told kings not to multiply wives and prohibited high priests from marrying more than a single wife (the rabbinical interpretation of Leviticus 21:13; BT Yevamot 59a; see also BT Yoma 2a). The Bible compares monogamy to the union of the Jew and God, while seeing polygamy as being similar to idol worship (Hosea 2:18, Isaiah 1:1, Jeremiah 2:2, and Ezekiel 16:8). The final chapter of Proverbs describes an ideal home life and speaks of monogamy.
Many but not all Talmudic rabbis and other ancient traditional sources recognized that the Torah was dissatisfied with polygamy. We know of only one Talmudic rabbi who was a polygamist. Rabbi Ami argued that if a man took a second wife, his first wife could demand a divorce (BT Yevamot 65a). Rabbi Isaac contended that Boaz’s wife died on the day Ruth entered Judea allowing her to wed Boaz (BT Bava Batra 91a). The Aramaic translation of Ruth 4:6 sees the kinsman of Naomi saying he cannot marry Ruth because “I have a wife and have no right to take another in addition to her, lest she be a disturbance in my house and destroy my peace.” Even Talmudic rabbis who condoned polygamy called the second wife a tzarah, “trouble.”
In the eleven century, Rabbi Gershom ben Yehudah, called “the light of the exile,” (960-1028), issued a ban on polygamy that was accepted by all the communities of northern France and Germany. Jews in other countries continued the practice for many years, but after time they also ceased doing so. In modern times, when Israel brought Jews back to Israel from primitive counties, it allowed men who had polygamous relationships to keep their wives but forbid polygamy in Israel in the future.
Thus, while allowing polygamy, the Torah showed with many examples that the system is undesirable. As with sacrifices and having sex with a woman captured during war, it set limits to it, modified and controlled it, and it gave broad hints that the practice was an abnormality and wrong.