Powerful ancient Near Eastern men competed for commodities like livestock (e.g. cattle & sheep), draught animals (e.g. donkeys & horses), slaves, precious metals (e.g. gold and silver), and, of course, fertile land (cf. Genesis 13:2, 20:14, 30:34, Job 1:3, 1 Kings 10:14-29).
It comes as little surprise, therefore, that the promise of just such a land—a land flowing with milk and honey—is key to God’s covenant with Israel’s ancestors. To live in this rich land, God also promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob innumerable seed, offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore. In exchange for Israel’s continued covenantal obedience, the God of the Patriarchs would make Jacob’s children into a great and mighty nation, highest of all the nations of the earth, a nation that would possess the gates of its enemies.
Fruitful women were, of course, essential to this patriarchal-nationalistic project. Son-bearing wives and concubines—perhaps the most valuable commodity in antiquity—would secure Israel’s divinely-promised future and transform their small tribal people into an unrivaled kingdom. As the nation submitted to their divine master, so God would open and bless the wombs of Israelite women (cf. Deuteronomy 7:13, 28:4, Leviticus 26:9).
Among those who could afford to provide for multiple mates, polygyny was therefore not just a morally-tolerable arrangement (cf. Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 21:15), but a morally-beneficial one. In partnership with various wives and concubines of childrearing age, a single man could sire many children throughout his adult life. These children, particularly the sons, would build up their father’s household and establish their father’s name into posterity. Given the much higher rate of fatal complications in childbirth and infancy in the ancient world, many peasant men—those unable to obtain multiple partners at one time—were not so fortunate, sometimes dying without sons to carry on their legacy.
The Davidic king, moreover, was expected to raise up a multitude of sons so as to cultivate his political power and longevity: “Your sons will carry on the dynasty of your ancestors; you will make them princes throughout the land. I will proclaim your greatness through the coming years, then the nations will praise you forever” (Psalm 45:16-17). David’s sons were destined to rule over the peoples of the earth: “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen… that they may possess the remnant of Edom…” (Amos 9:11-12).
Accordingly, the Chronicler reports that King Rehoboam of Judah was “wise” in the management of his seed. He took 18 wives and 60 concubines and with them produced 28 sons, many of whom he set over the fortified cities of his kingdom (2 Chronicles 11:18-12:1). Rehoboam aggrandized his heritage further by attaining “many wives” for his sons. Kings David and Adonijah, like Rehoboam, acquired “strength” by the expansion of their houses through polygyny (2 Samuel 3:1-5, 2 Chronicles 13:21).
For righteous men such as these, the royal harem and the reproductive reward it afforded the king was viewed as a gift from God (cf. Psalm 127:3-5). Following David’s adultery with Bathsheba, for example, God reminds the king that it was he who gave Saul’s wives into David’s hand. God adds that had David desired more wives “I would have given you more” (2 Samuel 12:8).
Notwithstanding the procurement of pagan wives then, the Israelite writers of the biblical literature looked upon polygyny as a natural phenomenon among tribal and royal leaders like Jacob and David. Great and powerful men, those blessed by God no doubt, collected wives and concubines just as they collected gold and silver, land and cattle. All this they did for the sake of their reputation among the elite men with whom they were in competition. Aided by his many wives, a patriarch could enlarge his realm and magnify his name with the help of loyal sons and loyal grandsons. Such were the political dynamics of ancient Near Eastern societies. Needless to say at this point, the biblical God takes no issue with such practices.
In the context of Israel’s Great Nation myth, moreover, polygyny represented one mode by which God fulfilled his promises to the Patriarchs and to David. Through polygyny God both multiplied Jacob’s descendants into a great and mighty nation and expanded the Davidic house into a great and imperialistic kingdom.
2 thoughts on “Promises and polygyny in ancient Israel”
I wrote a post about this several years ago. This was my conclusion:
“Debates over gay marriage often lead to the following statement: ‘If gay marriage is legalized, what’s to keep polygamy from being legalized. The biblical definition of marriage is the best definition!’
While I agree with the logic behind the first sentence, I’ll be slow to agree with the second sentence. Are we talking Adam & Eve or David & Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, Bathsheba…?”
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