Understanding the Torah’s Polygamy Regulations (Exodus 21:7-11; Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on davidwilber.me. Tabernacle of David considers this ministry trustworthy and Biblically sound.

Author: David Wilber

Some Christians think that God approves of polygamy because the Torah has legislation regulating it. Exodus 21:7-11 and Deuteronomy 21:15-17 are the two most commonly cited passages that allegedly demonstrate God’s endorsement of polygamy. However, as I explain in my book, the Bible teaches that God disapproves of polygamy. (Leviticus 18:18 might even prohibit it directly.) How do we make sense of the Torah’s polygamy regulations in light of the Bible’s overall condemnation of this practice?

The first thing we need to recognize is the distinction between what Charles E. B. Cranfield called “those elements of the OT law which set forth the perfect will of God” and “those elements which, taking into account the fact of men’s sinfulness, indicate not God’s perfect, absolute will, but His will in response to the circumstances brought about by human sin.”[1] That is, some laws in the Torah are not ideal but given to address the realities of a fallen world (e.g., slavery regulations, which I address here). Yeshua taught this principle when he said of the laws permitting divorce, “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). Divorce is not in alignment with God’s perfect will. But since divorce is a real situation that arises from people disregarding God’s perfect will, there is a need for laws addressing how to handle this less-than-ideal situation in the best way possible.

Similarly, we can understand the Torah’s polygamy legislation as representing not God’s perfect will but his response to the realities of a fallen world. In the beginning, polygamy, like divorce, “was not so.” Marriage in creation was a monogamous union. Polygamy comes into the picture only after sin enters the world and corrupts God’s good creation. Since people disregarded God’s perfect will for marriage and entered polygamous arrangements, there was a need for laws addressing how to handle this less-than-ideal situation. This is precisely what we see in Deuteronomy 21:15-17, which details inheritance rights within a polygamous family:

If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

As we can see, this law addresses an undoubtedly common situation in a polygamous marriage: one wife is loved and the other unloved. Despite the father’s inclination to favor the son from the wife he loves, the Torah protects the legitimate firstborn’s inheritance rights by prohibiting the father from treating “the son of the loved [wife] as the firstborn.”

Once again, the fact that the Torah provides regulations for this type of situation isn’t proof that God approves of the situation. The Torah addresses the realities of a fallen world. As Tim Hegg writes, “In the same way that the Torah provides a solution for the thief (restitution of the thing stolen plus additional compensation), yet in every way condemns stealing, so the Torah provides solutions for the inevitable negative outcomes of sinful choices in marriage and family.”[2] Additionally, Deuteronomy 23:18 forbids prostitute wages from being used as payment of vows, but the existence of this law doesn’t legitimize prostitution. In the same way, the existence of a law detailing the legal rights of the firstborn son in a polygamous family doesn’t legitimize polygamy.

What about Exodus 21:7-11? This passage concerns the “selling of a young woman to a family as an intended wife for either the man or for his son (vs. 7-9), in a kind of indentured servitude vis-à-vis an arranged marriage for a family that is destitute and needs a daughter provided for.”[3] This was a common practice in the ancient Near East that the Torah permitted and regulated in the best interests of the maidservant:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money. (Exodus 21:7-11, emphasis added)

This is another passage that some people cite to say that God approves of polygamy. “After all,” critics argue, “the text says that if the man takes ‘another wife,’ he still must provide for his first wife’s needs, including her ‘marital rights,’ that is, her sexual rights! The man must keep both women as wives!”

First, even if we assume that this passage concerns polygamy, this still wouldn’t be evidence that God approves of this practice. Similar to what we discussed above, this is an example of case law. As Richard Davidson explains, “Case laws do not legitimize the activity of the case described but only prescribe what should be done in such cases.”[4]

Second, a careful reading of the text reveals that this passage actually has nothing to do with polygamy at all! Let me explain. When the passage speaks of the man taking “another wife to himself” in verse 10, many people assume that this refers to another wife in addition to the maidservant. But in reality, the text indicates that this is another wife instead of the maidservant. This means that verse 10 describes how the maidservant should be treated if her master takes someone else as a wife instead of her.

To summarize: if the master decides not to marry the maidservant, then she can be redeemed—that is, bought back. Alternatively, she and the master’s son could get married. If that happens, then the master is to treat her not as a servant but as his daughter. If she is not redeemed, and if she doesn’t marry the master’s son, and if the master decides to marry someone else, then the master is still required to meet her basic needs. If he doesn’t provide what she needs, the maidservant is to be considered a free woman and can leave.

Thus, this passage doesn’t address polygamy; verse 8 already tells us that the master chose not to marry the maidservant.[5] Therefore, “another wife” in verse 10 should be understood as another wife instead of the maidservant, not in addition to her.

But what about the maidservant’s “marital rights”? Doesn’t this indicate that she is indeed a wife deserving of sexual rights? While this interpretation is reflected in several English Bible translations, the word onah, translated as “marital rights” in the ESV, does not mean conjugal rights. We know this because, as Tim Hegg explains, “documents from other ancient Near Eastern cultures (such as those found in the Akkadian language) have similar laws, with this wording: ‘food, clothing, and old’ or ‘food, clothing, and shelter.’ The Hebrew word [onah] could easily be cognate to the Akkadian terms used for ‘oil’ or ‘shelter.’”[6]

Thus, the passage’s meaning is simply this: if after purchasing the maidservant for a bride the master decides not to marry her but instead marries someone else, then he must still provide for her basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter/oil. If he fails to provide for her, “she is to be set free without the need to pay any redemption price.”[7] Once again, the text does not indicate polygamy.

In conclusion, not every law in the Torah sets forth God’s perfect will; God gives some laws in response to human sin. Like God’s laws governing divorce, the laws regulating polygamy are given because people have disregarded God’s perfect will for marriage; therefore, there is a need for laws addressing the negative consequences of such situations. The existence of legislation like Deuteronomy 21:15-17, which addresses the less-than-ideal situation of a polygamous family, does not prove that God approves of the situation. The same could be said for Exodus 21:7-11 if the passage addresses polygamy. However, a careful reading of Exodus 21:7-11 reveals that this passage does not actually concern polygamy at all.

[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Bible and Christian Life (T & T Clark, 1985), 229-230

[2] Tim Hegg, Studies in the Torah: Deuteronomy (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2016), 145

[3] J.K. McKee, Men and Women in the Body of Messiah: Answering Crucial Questions (Richardson, TX: Messianic Apologetics, 2018), pp. 273-274

[4] Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 191-192

[5] This is even clearer in the Hebrew. See J.K. McKee, Men and Women in the Body of Messiah: Answering Crucial Questions (Richardson, TX: Messianic Apologetics, 2018): “V. 8a in most Bibles is rendered as ‘If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself’ (NIV). There is a very subtle, yet significant, difference in the reading lo, ‘for himself,’ versus lo or ‘not,’ with only a handful of Hebrew witnesses reading with lo ‘for himself.’ Both sound exactly the same audibly, yet textually the superior reading is lo or ‘not.’ When ‘not’ is recognized as the correct reading, the clause asher‐lo ye’adah translates as ‘so that he does not choose her’ or ‘so that he did not designate her.’ The textual issue of v. 8a is important because of what is seen in v. 10, ‘If he takes to himself another woman…’ Because of the man’s rejection of the woman contracted to him (v. 8a), he is now free to take another as his wife (v. 10). No polygamy need be present.” (274)

[6] Tim Hegg, Studies in the Torah: Exodus (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2014), 134

[7] Ibid.

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David is first and foremost a passionate follower of Yeshua the Messiah. He is also a writer, speaker, and teacher.

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