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When One Wife Isn’t Enough: The Problems of Polygamy

Sister_Wives_TV_series_logoPolygamy is the next battleground for marriage in the United States.  In fact, just last month a federal judge declared laws on the books in Utah that guard against polygamy to be unconstitutional.  The state may still outlaw plural marriages, but it cannot prohibit polygamous cohabitating, thus weakening anti-polygamy law.  The plaintiff in the case was none other than the “star” of The Learning Channel’s (TLC) polygamy reality show Sister Wives, Kody Brown.  Mr. Brown, a fundamentalist Mormon, is an outspoken polygamist with four wives although he is only legally married to one of them.  Undoubtedly, he or someone else will challenge the outright ban of polygamy in the near future.

Is anybody surprised that this decision was handed down?  The cultural slippery slope that was predicted with the increasing legality of same-sex marriage is coming to bear.  Many argued that redefining marriage to include homosexual marriage would open the door for marriage of all types, and the prediction is proving to be accurate.

However, the situation doesn’t only have to do with Mormons in America.  There’s also the growing tide of Libertarian political philosophy, which basically says “do whatever you want, and so will I.”  People who don’t even desire to be polygamous are beginning to push for polygamy in the name of “freedom.”  Furthermore, many overlook the growing Muslim population in the United States.  It has been rapidly growing over the last century due to immigration, conversion, and high birth rates.  It is estimated that are over 3.5 million Muslims now live in the US.  Some expect that number to double by the year 2030.  These stats are pertinent to the conversation on polygamy because men are allowed to have up to four wives in Islam.  Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of fuel here in the demographics to push polygamy even further toward reality in America.

The cultural elites have been increasingly pushing polygamy for almost a decade.  In March 2006, Home Box Office (HBO) debuted its fictional polygamy show “Big Love” and, as one might expect from HBO, played heavily upon the erotic idea of having multiple wives.  The name of the show itself was a polemic against monogamy, portraying polygamy as better through the idea that bigger is better:  our love’s bigger than y’all’s love.

That very summer, a real story of polygamy burst onto the scene when Warren Jeffs, the “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was arrested for numerous crimes of polygamy, incest, and child abuse in several states.  The whole real-life drama widened the conversation about polygamy.  The producers of “Big Love” couldn’t have asked for anything more because the news undoubtedly drew viewers to their show.  That show ran for five seasons until 2011.

After the third season of “Big Love” in 2010, the reality TV show mentioned above, “Sister Wives,” hit the airwaves.  Brown and his wives have been clear that their purpose in doing the show is to make the public more aware of polygamist families and to combat societal prejudices.  The cumulative effect of these shows, especially “Sister Wives,” is to soften people toward the idea of polygamy.  After all, these are just normal people trying to live life and to live out their faith.  There’s nothing wrong with it, right?

It is my strong belief that people with any common sense should know that polygamy is bad, and we who are people of the Bible should surely know it.  Polygamy is all throughout the Scripture as part of the narrative.  For this reason, critics of Christians often throw the Bible in the face of Christians.  “Polygamy is in the Bible.  You can’t argue against it!” they say, but what these critics fail to realize is that the Bible includes a lot of things in its narratives that are never prescribed by God.  In fact, if one was to actually look at the accounts of polygamy in the Bible, one would quickly see that there’s not a single instance where it leads to something good.  Polygamy is always a gateway for trouble in the narratives.  Always.

The narrative in Genesis 30 is the perfect example.  By this point in the story, Jacob (aka., Israel) had already married Leah and later married her sister Rachel.  The chapter begins with jealousy between the “sister wives” because Rachel was barren while Leah was not.  Leah had already borne Jacob four sons.  This jealousy led Rachel to convince Jacob to take her servant as a wife (three wives now) and to have sex with the servant in the hopes of the servant bearing children for Rachel.  That request in itself is way messed up!

After Rachel’s servant had a couple of children who Rachel claimed for her own, Leah struggled to get pregnant again.  So, she convinced Jacob to take her servant as a wife as well (four wives now) and to have sex with the servant in the hopes of the servant bearing children for Leah.  Underlying all of these sinful decisions was the desire to have the favor of Jacob.  Each woman simply wanted to be Jacob’s favorite.

Not long after that, the women got into a fight over some mandrakes Leah’s son found, which by the way are believed to be a home remedy for infertility.  Rachel wanted some, but Leah in bitterness against Rachel refused.  So, Rachel came up with a great idea.  She would let Leah sleep with their husband that night in exchange for some mandrakes (apparently it was Rachel’s turn).  Rachel literally prostituted Jacob.  That night Leah conceived and eventually bore a son.  She later conceived again and bore yet another son (six sons altogether).   Again, all of this drama was in the hopes of being Jacob’s favorite.  That’s why Leah said after the firth of her final son, “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons,” (Gen 30:20).

What a test case for the problems with polygamy!  Very sad indeed!  From Genesis 30 alone, we see six problems with polygamy.

#1 – Polygamy exploits and commodifies men and women.  In this case, Jacob was exploited and commodified.  He was prostituted by his own wife to his other wife.  Jacob became an object to gain.  However, the situation here with Jacob is in one sense atypical.  It’s atypical in the fact that the man was the one exploited.  In the typical polygamous culture, the women are the ones exploited because there are never enough women to go around given that each husband has multiple women.  So, in a race to get a bride, women are married off to men at younger ages.  Furthermore, since the demand for a women is so high, brothers, fathers, and husbands tend to control their women more.1 As one author stated, “Far from polygamy being beneficial to women, it usually is anathema to women’s economic, social and emotional well-being.”2

#2 – Polygamy is institutionalized adultery.  They may all be called “wives” or “husbands,” but what every single one of them is after that first marriage relationship is adultery.  Jacob had one wife (Leah) and three adulteresses (Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah).  No, they weren’t secret adulteresses.  They were institutionalized adulteresses.  The Bible clearly defines marriage as one man and one woman.  Any sexual relationship outside of that is adultery, even if it’s not called that.

#3 – Polygamy kills intimacy between husband and wife.  Imagine the thought of knowing that your spouse is in the next next room having sex with someone else.  In just a few nights, he or she will be having sex with you.  What does that do to intimacy?  It stomps it to death.  But, intimacy is more than sex.  It’s that trust of sharing everything about yourself with your spouse that nobody else gets access to.  It’s being able to give yourself to your spouse without having to worry what somebody else is thinking or if you’re being fair to other people who “deserve” your intimacy too.  The emotional pretzels that polygamy pushes a person into must be exhausting at the least, if not excruciating.

#4 – Polygamy spreads the husband or wife too thin.  Technically, polygamy is the marrying of more than one wife or husband.  So, polygamy can be a wife with multiple husbands (technically called polyandry) or a husband with multiple wives (technically called polygyny).  However, polyandry is almost nonexistent in the world.  Polygyny is almost the sole practice of polygamy, such that the two have become synonymous.  Therefore, it is typically a husband who gets spread too thin because he has to meet the needs of multiple wives.  It is difficult enough for a man to meet the needs of one woman, but imagine trying to please multiples.  It undoubtedly leads to great frustration or simply giving up trying any more.

#5 – Polygamy causes jealousy among husbands or wives.   God never intended for a wife to share her husband with another woman or for a husband to share his wife with other men.  He has designed us in a way that to do so is emotionally and spiritually hurtful.  God created a woman to long to be her husband’s sole desire, and when a “competitor” is brought into the picture, jealousy naturally and rightly arises.  Of course, it doesn’t often end with jealousy.  Jealousy, even righteous jealousy, is like a gateway drug.  It often leads to great sin, and we certainly see that with Rachel and Leah.  Rachel and Leah both encourage Jacob to go deeper into adultery (refer to #2) by convincing him to take their servants as his wives also.  Obviously, jealousy led to bitterness between the two women, evidenced by Leah’s remarks to Rachel over the mandrakes.  Jealousy also led to the ladies agreeing to prostitute Jacob.  Rachel sold, and Leah bought.  Of course, jealousy leads to even greater sins than these, like murder.  Thankfully Rachel or Leah never attempted that!

#6 – Polygamy falls short of God’s design in marriage.  Jesus tells us clearly in in Matthew 19:4-6 that God created male and female and joined them together in marriage as a one flesh union to death.  Polygamy falls short of that two becoming one flesh ideal.  There’s no oneness.  There’s more a conglomeration of unions with typically the man as the hub.  This scenario is what we saw with Jacob and his wives.  He’s connected to multiple women, but there’s no connection between the women.  Oneness isn’t even possible.

These six problems are located in the text of Genesis 30, but there are at least two others not alluded to in the text.

#7 – Polygamy leaves numbers of unmarried men.  Keeping in mind that the typical polygamous situation is polygyny, a few men marry up all the women.  Potential wives are not infinite resources.  There are only so many to go around.  In fact, the boy to girl birth ration is basically 1:1.  Mathematically speaking, that means there is only one women for each man.  So, when one man ends up with four wives like in the case of Jacob, three men are left likely to never marry.  That reality is problematic for men and for society.  Men who don’t have wives or children to live for are much more prone to form harmful habits such as substance abuse and to commit crimes of all sorts, including rape, theft, abduction, and murder.  China is a good example of what happens to societies where many men have no opportunity to marry although China’s marriage gap is due to preferring male children under a one-child-only government policy and has nothing to do with polygamy.3  Nevertheless, the outcomes are the same because numbers of men are left unmarried.  It’s bad news for the men and the society around them.

#8 – Polygamy spreads dads too thin.  Fathers in a polygamist family have to balance their time between multiple wives who usually have multiple children.  That can be very difficult!  Let’s take Kody Brown’s family from Sister Wives for instance.  He has 17 children by 4 different wives.  That many children typically isn’t possible with a monogamous couple (the Duggars are the exception!), but it’s easily attainable with four wives.  Perhaps the most famous polygamist is Brigham Young, the successor to Joseph Smith and the founder of Salt Lake City.  Young had approximately 55 wives and 56 children through only 16 of those wives.  Undoubtedly, Young was spread thin, which is what happens in polygamous families.  In a very real sense, many children of polygamous families grow up virtually fatherless because the father is spread too thin between so many wives with so many children.  This reality is neither good for the children nor for the father.

One other problem may be manifest in polygamy although at this point I don’t really have any evidence.  I merely have a hunch that polygamy produces jealousy among half-siblings as well.



The acceptance of polygamy seems to be gaining ground here in America.  It’s a bankrupt marital arrangement that hurts everybody involved.  May we who are salt and light spread truth so that men and woman can enjoy the blessings of biblical marriage!

~Ben Simpson  :  @JBenSimpson  :  :  West Main Baptist Church

1Libby Copeland, “Is Polygamy Really So Awful?”

2Shoshana Grossbard, “Polygamy Is Bad for Women,”

3Rob Brooks, “China’s Biggest Problem? Too Many Men,”


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