Recently, I preached on the devastating consequences of Jacob’s polygamous and incestuous marriage to Leah and Rachel. This was not the first time the Old Testament confronts us with the sticky problem of polygamy. It first appears in the genealogical record of Cain’s reprobate descendants, where we read of Lamech’s polygamous marriage and subsequent boastful defense of his murderous aggression (Genesis 4:19-24). We also read about Abraham’s relationship with Sarah and Hagar. We see the problem of polygamy unraveled in the narratives of other godly saints in the Old Testament. If the creation account in Genesis 1-2, the teaching of Malachi 2:15 and the clear testimony of the New Testament is that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, what are we to make of the fact that the patriarchal narratives seem to teach that God tolerated polygamy in the Old Testament?
Old Testament Ethics
In his Christian Theistic Ethics, Cornelius Van Til sought to explain Old Testament redemptive-ethical concessions by means of the analogy of a sick child who was not able to receive, all at once, all the medicine that he needed in order to live. He wrote,
“The case of polygyny being tolerated in the Old Testament is the classic illustration of the supposed low type of Old Testament ethics. Yet…Jesus himself interprets this as a pedagogical measure on the part of God in order to lead Israel on to the absolute ideal. It was for the hardness of man’s heart, and for the blindness of man’s eyes that God was willing to come down so low as to tolerate for a time that which is ideally out of accord with the absolute standard, so long as it was a stepping stone toward the absolute ideal. God frequently set the absoluteness of the ideal before men very vigorously. And that might lead us to ask why he did not do this consistently and at once set up the absolute ideal along the whole front of the ethical life. If God expects Abraham to be so absolutely submissive as to be willing to sacrifice his only son, why does he not also demand absolutely monogamous marriage on the part of Abraham? The answer to this, we believe, must be found in the analogy of the convalescent child. The convalescent child needs strong medicine in order to live. It may need many varieties of strong medicine. But if these were all administered at once the child would die. So too if God had maintained the absolute standard at once along the whole front of the ethical life, we can see that he would not have attained his purpose. It was the all-wise physician who was healing his patient slowly and giving him just the medicine that he could bear and no more.