Why did God allow polygamy among the Israelites?

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this approach to the problem:

“The monogamic and indissoluble properties of marriage were for a time dispensed by Divine permission. Thus in the patriarchal times of the Old Testament polygamous marriage was tolerated.”

The Supplement to the Summa Theologica — not written by Aquinas, but based on his work — says much the same thing, adding that polygamy is not against the first principles of the natural law, but the second principles.

The CCC seems to take a different approach, calling polygamy in OT times not yet explicitly rejected. Then making a general statement that it is contrary to marital unity.

But whenever we are speaking of polygamy in the Old Testament, it is a case of only natural marriage, not the Sacrament of Marriage. The Sacrament as established by Christ is only valid with one man and one woman.

Why did God allow polygamy among the Patriarchs? My opinion is that polygamy in natural marriage is not intrinsically evil, but is moral or immoral depending on intention and circumstances.

God permitted polygamy among the Israelites for a time, for certain purposes. Perhaps it served to build up the Israelites as a people more quickly, since a man with more than one wife can possibly have more children over time. The wars that Israel suffered in OT times may also have reduced the male population significantly. Without polygamy, many women would not have husbands and the population might decrease, rather than increase. The survival of the Israelites could well have been at issue.

This problem is similar to the problem of the propagation of the species after Adam and Eve were kicked out of Paradise to live in this fallen world. Who did their children marry? Marriages in the direct line (parent/child, grandparent/grandchild) are intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral. Marriages in the collateral line (sibling, cousin) are the only other option. Even today, you are always marrying someone related to you, at least distantly. We are all members of the same human family. So marriage in the collateral line is not intrinsically evil. God permitted the children of Adam and Eve to marry one another. But very quickly marriages to more distant relatives (first cousin, second cousin) would have been possible. The dispensation from God in this regard only needed to continue for a brief time. For the Sacrament of Marriage, the marriage is not valid with a sibling or first cousin, and second or third cousin marriages are only valid with a dispensation.

Sometimes the issue of polygamy in the Old Testament is raised in arguments for same-sex marriage. They counter the position of “one man, one woman” by citing the “one man, multiple women” marriages of the Old Testament. The most fitting reply, in my view, is to distinguish between the two types of valid marriages. Natural marriage is always heterosexual. Polygamy was only permitted (or tolerated) in past times under a dispensation. The Sacrament of Marriage has always been one man and one woman.

[Matthew 19]
{19:1} And it happened that, when Jesus had completed these words, he moved away from Galilee, and he arrived within the borders of Judea, across the Jordan.
{19:2} And great crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
{19:3} And the Pharisees approached him, testing him, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to separate from his wife, no matter what the cause?”
{19:4} And he said to them in response, “Have you not read that he who made man from the beginning, made them male and female?” And he said:
{19:5} “For this reason, a man shall separate from father and mother, and he shall cling to his wife, and these two shall become one flesh.
{19:6} And so, now they are not two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man separate.”
{19:7} They said to him, “Then why did Moses command him to give a bill of divorce, and to separate?”
{19:8} He said to them: “Although Moses permitted you to separate from your wives, due to the hardness of your heart, it was not that way from the beginning.
{19:9} And I say to you, that whoever will have separated from his wife, except because of fornication, and who will have married another, commits adultery, and whoever will have married her who has been separated, commits adultery.”

Perhaps polygamy was permitted for a time also “due to the hardness of your heart”.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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