“King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods’; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:1-3 NRSV).
Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. The mind boggles at the thought! How can one man have so many wives? How could he fulfil his marital duties effectively? If he slept with one wife every night he would be busy for over three years. And, in the confusion of faces, he’d forget which ones he preferred, which ones he would sleep with again. If he slept with each one on a roster basis, by the time he got around to the first one again, he would have forgotten her and it would be like sleeping with yet another woman/wife. And how could he love just one woman? At the beginning of his reign, apparently, he wrote his great love poem, The Song of Solomon. It opens with declarations and expressions of ardent love between Solomon and “The Shulamite”. They can’t get enough of each other, and all he can think of is his bride. This was the woman he had chosen, the one he loved passionately. But later, in his fickleness and being surrounded by so many desirable and available women, he loved his other wives and gave his heart – that which he had given to The Shulamite – to the foreigners; “he clung to these in love” (1 Kings 11:2).
And what about the women themselves? The system was so unfair, to say the least. They could only hope to sleep with their husband every three years at best, unless they were favoured. Even “The Shulamite” experienced this lack eventually. And if they didn’t please him the first time, there probably wouldn’t be a second (Esther 2:12-14). If one of them pleased him, such as The Shulamite, then he’d be dallying with her for who knows how long, which would have a knock-on effect down the line for the other wives who were yet to take their turn with their husband; so the competitive spirit within the harem must have been intense. And the harem would have been prone to, if not rife with, all kinds of sexual immorality as the women tried to satisfy their natural urges and desires. And if one of the wives was up to some kind of illicit sexual activity and a rival wife found out about it, all she had to do was report it and the guilty wife would have been killed.
Women who were chosen for a king’s harem were beautiful young virgins that were given to him for various reasons, having had no say in the matter (e.g. 1 Kings 1:1-4; Esther 2:1-4). It wouldn’t be at all surprising if a large percentage of them would have chosen a life with a humble husband who managed his land, if they’d been given the choice; a life with a man who would love her and care for her, and give her children to bear and raise. Her natural instincts and desires for love and motherhood would have been fulfilled under such a circumstance. But such love, security, and fulfillment were denied the women in the harem. Harem life was unnatural. However, there would also have been many for whom being chosen to be the king’s wife or concubine was very desirable, and would be seen as an opportunity.
But whether the women liked their situation in a harem or not, they had security, all their other earthly needs were catered for, they had everything they wanted, and they were under the protection of their husband, the king. There would have been a social structure within the harem, the wives of longer standing being higher in the pecking order and thus having more authority than the more recently acquired wives and concubines; and, no doubt, the current favourite would also be up there. In Solomon’s harem, all the wives were princesses, with the queen, Pharaoh’s daughter, being over all. She therefore would not have lived with the other wives though, because he gave the queen her own house (1 Kings 7:8; 9:24; also Esther 2:9, 17). However, history has recorded that even some concubines, such as in the Ottoman and Chinese empires, were able to gain the emperor’s affection, and consequently rule the harem, have a say in the politics of the empire, and also ensure that it was their son who was in line for the throne on the death of the emperor.
I read somewhere that when the harem of either the Ottoman sultan or some Indian Hindu ruler was disbanded after the Europeans conquered them, the wives were “set free”. But the wives were distraught because everything they knew and all their security was being ripped away from them. They didn’t want to leave the harem – they had nowhere to go – they were homeless. So while I as a Westerner think of the evils of a harem, the wives didn’t necessarily see it that way.
The daughter of Pharaoh seems to have been his principal wife and queen (1 Kings 3:1; 7:8; 9:16, 24) so, for the sake of argument, let’s assume she was his first wife. He would have inherited some of the others from his father, King David. Some of these would have been old women by the time they entered Solomon’s harem, so he would have cared for them for the remainder of their lives and not had sexual relations with them. The last of David’s wives was a young and beautiful virgin named Abishag (1 Kings 1:1-4). She had been drafted into David’s harem simply to keep him warm, and when she became Solomon’s wife by inheritance from his father, it seems she remained a virgin. Abishag is a prime example of the injustice of men regarding women as chattel. She was effectively nothing more than a hot water bottle for an old man, and by those who selected her she was as little regarded. Solomon’s brother, Adonijah, asked to have her as his wife, which he couldn’t have done if Solomon had fulfilled his conjugal duties to her. Solomon rightly saw Adonijah’s request as an attempt to gain legitimacy as heir to the throne by having one of David’s wives (1 Kings 1:2:13-25). So again, Abishag was seen as a means to a selfish end for a man, and her feelings completely disregarded.
However, the issue that the above scripture passage has is not with harems and multiple wives per se; God told Solomon not to have foreign wives, the reason being that they would turn him from the Lord. He wasn’t told not to have them for the reason that having multiple wives was wrong, or immoral, or a breaking of the principle of monogamy given in Genesis 2:21-25; the reason that having multiple foreign wives was wrong was the danger they would turn his heart away from God. These women were from the nations with whom Israel was not to have any intermarriage or sexual relations because of the danger of their being seduced into worshipping those nation’s gods. And this is, in fact, what happened to Solomon (1 Kings 11:3-10). Solomon, the king, led by example, and brought Israel into idolatry and apostasy, and subsequently judgment in his son’s reign (1 Kings 11:11-13); and the nation struggled with idolatry for the rest of their history until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.
One of the significant fruits or casualties of Solomon’s disobedience to God by marrying foreign wives was Rehoboam, the heir to Solomon’s throne, and the son of Naamah, an Ammonite woman. Naamah, one of Solomon’s forbidden wives, no doubt taught or at least influenced Rehoboam about her gods. Just as she had seduced Solomon into worshipping Milcom, “the abomination of the Ammonites” (1 Kings 11:5), more commonly known as Molech (1 Kings 11:7), she also taught her son to do the same. Consequently, Judah, under Rehoboam’s reign, “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all their ancestors had done. For they also built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill, and under every green tree; there were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the LORD drove out before the people of Israel” (1 Kings 14:22-24).
Following the example of his father, Rehoboam also took many wives: “Rehoboam loved Maachah the daughter of Absalom more than all his wives and concubines (he took eighteen wives and sixty concubines; and became the father of twenty eight son, and sixty daughters)” (2 Chron 11:21, 23).
Hezekiah and Josiah
You could make some of the same observations, or at least speculations, about Hezekiah and Josiah. Presumably, each had a harem as well; and some of their wives would have been inherited from the previous king. Therefore some of these wives may well have been from the same nations, for the sake of political alliances, that Israel had been warned against. Yet Hezekiah and Josiah were praised as being the two best kings, because of their godliness, that Judah ever had (2 Kings 18:1-8; 22:24-25).
But polygamy, even without the problem of foreign wives who might turn their husband aside to worship their nation’s gods, was breaking the law of monogamy. Take David for example; we’re told that before he became king, he had two wives with him, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail, wife of Nabal who had died. He was also married to Michal, daughter of Saul, but Saul had since given her to Phalti, son of Laish (1 Sam 25:42-44). When he became king in Hebron, we’re told, “In Jerusalem….David took more concubines and wives” (2 Sam 5:13). He also took back Michal as soon as he got the opportunity.
But this doesn’t seem to have been enough for David because after accumulating many other wives, he stole Uriah the Hittite’s wife, Bathsheba, and committed adultery with her with the result that she fell pregnant. Following all the dirty deeds resulting from his watching Bathsheba as she bathed (2 Sam 11:2-27), God condemned David and what he had done. He said to David through Nathan the prophet, “I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Sam 12:7-9).
It is significant that God condemned David for breaking the sixth and seventh commandments (Exod 20:13, 14, 17), i.e. murder and adultery. And God pointed out that he had blessed David by giving him the wives of Saul, even though he already had an unspecified number of wives and concubines of his own. Moreover, if that wasn’t enough for David, he would have given him more wives. God was angry at David for committing adultery but he said nothing about polygamy. In fact, he regarded giving more wives to David as a blessing!
And yet, despite David’s terrible sins, God commended him: “Nevertheless for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem; because David did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:4-5).
There are other examples of men who had multiple wives, e.g. Gideon had many wives and seventy sons (Judges 8:30); Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah (1 Sam 1:2); one of the descendants of Judah, Ashur, the father of Tekoah, had two wives, Helah and Naarah(1 Chron 4:5); one of the descendants of Benjamin, Shaharaim, had two wives (1 Chron 8:8); and so on.
God even gave instructions to husbands for right and fair conduct towards multiple wives, insisting that if a man had two wives, one whom he loved, and the other whom he either hated or loved less, hated, and they have borne him children, the firstborn son, even if borne by the hated wife, still had the right of the firstborn, namely, a double portion of the entire estate (Deut 21:15-17). But he didn’t condemn polygamy; he only gave rules to protect the wife who was disadvantaged because of her husband’s preference for another wife. He doesn’t seem to be concerned about polygamy at all; it doesn’t seem to be an issue with him.
Adultery and Illegitimate children
God would not allow illegitimate children to enter the tabernacle or temple (Deut 23:2). He also absolutely forbade adultery (Exod 20:14). So, for the sake of argument, if the ideal of monogamy was one man and one wife, does that make polygamy tantamount to adultery? If so, the 999 wives and concubines after Solomon’s first wife were adulterous. In fact, if polygamy was tantamount to adultery, Solomon himself was illegitimate because his mother was not David’s first and only legitimate wife. Yet God never told David to put Bathsheba away; instead, he chose Solomon to be the one who would have a unique and lasting relationship with God, and the founder of an everlasting dynasty that would culminate in the Messiah, Jesus Christ (2 Sam 7:12-17; 1 Kings 9:1-9). God also blessed Solomon by giving him great wisdom, glory and wealth, so abundant that it was a byword throughout the world (1 Kings 3:5-15; 10:23-27). But if polygamy is tantamount to adultery, then Solomon was consequently illegitimate, and the Law forbade him to enter the “congregation of the Lord” (Deut 23:2). However, Solomon not only entered the tabernacle as a worshipper of God, he built the temple, entering it and offering sacrifices by the priest.
Again, some of the same speculative reasoning could be applied to Jacob. Leah was his first and therefore only legitimate wife; the three others were adulterous, if polygamy is wrong. Yet God built the nation on these four wives and their twelve sons, and the scriptures always speak of these wives with honour; and the twelve sons were the patriarchs of the nation. But God didn’t regard them as illegitimate. When Jacob tried to flee from Laban, and took his family and possessions with him, Laban pursued Jacob with murderous intent; but God came to him in a dream before Laban had caught up with Jacob, and warned him not to threaten or harm Jacob (Gen 31:24). And when Esau confronted Jacob after they had been apart for twenty years, and he saw Jacob’s wives and children, he asked, “’Who are those with you?’ Jacob said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant’” (Gen 33:5). How could such great blessing which produced the nation of Israel, the chosen people of God, be built on adultery and illegitimate children?
If polygamy is wrong, why doesn’t God say that somewhere? None of the men who had multiple wives was ever said to have done wrong. Why was that? Even in the brief account of Lamech, the first polygamist, and second recorded person to have committed murder, there is no adverse comment made about his polygamy. However, Lamech knew he would be punished, or at least warranted punishment, for murder. One would think that if Lamech had broken the principle of monogamy so soon after it had been established, that God would have said something.
What to do?
When confronted with a dilemma such as this, we need to look at the plain passages of scripture and see how the more obscure passages compare. For example, feminists ignore the plain passages of scripture (1 Tim 2:11-15 and 1 Cor 14:34-38) which clearly set out the places of men and women in public worship and the life of the church, and present obscure verses, which they have to distort, to present a case that women can preach and be elders. And on the way to that unbiblical position, they resort to the most bizarre imaginings and speculations to nullify the word of God, and even try to remove the clear passages that offend them by saying they weren’t written by the apostle and shouldn’t be in the bible. So, in trying to resolve the problem of polygamy and avoid falling into the same quagmire that feminists have, we need first to consider the plain passages of scripture concerning marriage, and then, in the light and clarity of the clear passages, we can make a judgment on the more problematic passages concerning polygamy.
What Does the Bible Say?
When Adam was the only person in existence, “…the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him……And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof: And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen 2:18, 21-24).
At the creation of humanity there is implied a special intimacy between the man and the woman; she was taken from Adam and this, along with the statement that the man would “cling to his wife, and they become one flesh”, signifies the extent, strength, and depth, of the marriage bond. It is clear that God designed marriage to be a life-long monogamous relationship, where the husband and wife are devoted to each other and to the marriage.
Jesus confirmed this view (Matt 19:4-6) and, in the Sermon on the Mount, he likewise taught on divorce, saying, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt 5:31-31).
Just as God allowed divorce because of the hardness of men’s hearts, he likewise allowed polygamy for the same reason. Polygamy and divorce do not express the purpose of marriage in the way God designed it; polygamy doesn’t allow the closeness, intimacy, mutual knowledge, security, and one-flesh nature of marriage. It comes close to some of these but falls short in all of them.
We see examples of monogamous marriage in the New Testament. For example, Paul wrote to Timothy and stipulated certain requirements for any man who would hold the office of elder in the church. One of them is that he must be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2 RSV-CE); he gives the same instruction To Titus (Tit 1:6). In the Revelation, John says of the Church, “Then one of the seven angels …..came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb’” (Rev 21:9); he talks of the bride and the wife, both in the singular, just as he does of marriage between a man and a woman. There is no room anywhere in the New Testament for polygamy or polyandry.
Guarding against Apostasy
One of the Lord’s specific instructions to Israel for their king was: “…he must not acquire many wives to himself, or else his heart will away” (Deut 17:17). Solomon had disobeyed this command on a grand scale, with the result that Israel spent the next 400-500 years in apostasy and rebellion against God, until he removed them from the land. When the two tribes of the southern kingdom had been in captivity for seventy years and then returned to rebuild Jerusalem, despite opposition from the surrounding nations, and under the direction and leadership of Ezra, they completed the temple. Subsequently they dedicated the temple with sacrifices and celebrations (Ezra 6:21).
However, it wasn’t long before they started to intermarry with the heathen nations around them. In a scathing rebuke of the Jews after they had returned from the Captivity in Babylon, when they had already started to apostatise by marrying women from the surrounding nations, and even divorcing their wives in order to do so, God accused them of treachery. When they asked why he regarded them as treacherous, he said, “Because the LORD was a witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant…..So take heed to yourselves, and do not be failthless” (Mal 2:14, 16).
An incidental point to note here is that the marriages violated were monogamous; the offending husband had cast off the “wife of his youth”, the wife with whom he had made a covenant. But the main point is that Israel was again apostatising by marrying unbelievers and idolaters, and thus calling down the judgment of God upon the nation.
But it isn’t just Israel and Old Testament believers that this applies to. The apostle Paul gave various instructions to the Corinthian church concerning marriage. He stipulates that Christians should only marry Christians: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will, only in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). And they are forbidden to marry unbelievers, for the same reasons that God prohibited his people in the Old Testament from marrying unbelievers and idolaters (2 Cor 6:14-18).
However, God doesn’t require people who have come to know him since marrying to put away their unbelieving husband or wife. If the unbelieving spouse is willing to remain married to the Christian, the Christian is not to leave them, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not under bound. It is to peace that God has called us” (1 Cor 7:14-15).
A Final Comment
The final verdict of scripture and history on Solomon’s leadership in and to apostasy is found in the book of Nehemiah. Because of Israel’s sin in serving the gods of the nations around them, God finally judged them by having the ten northern tribes defeated and captured by the Assyrians, their cities destroyed, and the people being carried away as captives, never to return. Judah lasted longer but ultimately their sins were so great that God brought the same punishment upon them, using the Chaldeans of Babylon to take them from their land and settle them in Babylon. At the end of the time of captivity, God brought them back to their land of Judah where they rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple. However, many of the people married wives from the surrounding nations, thus placing the nation in danger of God’s judgement again. When Nehemiah found out that this was happening, he told them to get rid of their foreign wives. Nehemiah tells us: “And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not King Solomon of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” (Neh 13:25-27).
“The Scripture quotations contained herein are made from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”