The creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 and the creation of the first human beings introduce an ideal for marriage that portrays heterosexual and monogamous marriage as the will of God for his creation. This design continues to be the ideal throughout the Bible, even though many deviations from this norm are found within the narratives of the Old Testament.
The apparent reality of monogamous marriages is seen in the many stories of couples in the Old Testament: Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-4), Cain and his wife (Genesis 4:7), Noah and his wife (Genesis 7:7, 17), Noah’s three sons and their wives (Genesis 7:7, 13), Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24), Joseph and Asenath (Genesis 41:45), and many more.
From these examples and many others, it is clear that most marriages in Israel were monogamous. In fact, when one looks at the history of Israel narrated in the books of Samuel and Kings, a history which covers a period of about five hundred years, one does not find a single example of bigamy among common people, with the exception of the case of Elkanah, Samuel’s father, who had two wives ( Samuel 1:1-2). It is possible that Elkanah’s case was similar to that of Abraham’s (see below). It ancient Israel, polygamy became popular in the days of the judges and in the period of the monarchy and it was generally practiced by the rich and powerful.
In the Wisdom books, a collection of writings which reflect popular wisdom in Israel and which mirror life in Israelite society, there is no mention of a single case of bigamy. The book of Proverbs, which has much to say about wives, children, and family life never mentions polygamy. The model for marriage in Israelite society is found in the eulogy to the excellent wife (Proverbs 31:10-31), a passage that can only be understood in the context of a monogamous family.
The first case of bigamy in the Old Testament appears in the genealogy of the sons of Cain, when Lamech took two women to be his wives:
19 And Lamech took two wives. The name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. 20 Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. 22 Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron. The sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah. 23 Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:19-24).
According to the writer of the book of Genesis, Lamech was the first bigamist and the first polygamist of the Bible. Lamech’s words in which he boasted to his two wives that he killed a man for wounding him, indicates that his two wives were alive and that they were contemporary rather than successive wives.
The text describing Lamech’s bigamy shows how human activity, including marriage, is affected by sin. Nevertheless, the fact that the statement in Genesis 2:24 pictures the ideal relationship between a man and a woman, it is evident that the author regards monogamy as the norm and that Lamech’s bigamy reflected one aspect of man’s decline from the creator’s pattern for human life.
The Biblical text presents a very negative view of Lamech, a view that may show an ugly aspect of Lamech’s moral character. Lamech not only violated God’s design for monogamous marriage by taking two wives, but he was also a violent man who killed a young man for striking him. Thus, the writer of Genesis presents Lamech as a violent and vengeful man and a murderer, just like his ancestor Cain.
John Goldingay, in his book Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 155 wrote that in Lamech we find “A machismo that reveals itself in classic forms, in the finding of identity and significance in the number of women you possess and the number of men you overwhelm.”
In the genealogy of the sons of Cain, Lamech is the seventh generation from Adam. This contrasts with Enoch who was the seventh generation from Adam in the genealogy of Seth. Thus, the narrator is emphasizing and contrasting the seventh generation from Adam since in the Hebrew Bible, the number seven symbolizes the idea of completeness and fullness.
The narrative of Genesis presents a distinction between the descendants of Cain and the descendants of Seth. The genealogy of Cain represents the line of those people who rebelled against God while the line of Seth represents those people who called the name of the Lord in worship (Genesis 4:26).
While in the seventh generation of Cain, Lamech took two wives and thus rebelled against God’s design for monogamous marriage, Enoch, the seventh in the generation of Seth, walked with God and was no more because God took him (Genesis 5:24).
It seems that the intent of the writer in listing the two contrasting genealogies and emphasizing the seventh generation of each genealogy, was to condemn Lamech’s bigamy. To emphasize that Lamech was a bigamist, the writer said three times that Lamech had two wives (Genesis 4:19, 23a, 23b). This repetition was another way by which the writer emphasized that the polygamous marriage of Lamech was a departure from the order God established at creation.
To the writer of Genesis, Lamech and his family symbolizes a godless culture that is marked by self-aggrandizement and human irrationality that culminates in violence, vengeance, and murder. Lamech also represents the progressive development of the consequences of sin. His polygamous marriage and killing represent the downward moral degeneration of human beings, a moral descent that began with the sin of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of Abel, and polygamy and the killing committed by Lamech.
Polygamy became a common practice throughout the Ancient Near East and in many parts of the world. Later on, Biblical laws had to accommodate this deviation from God’s principle by permitting a man to have more than one wife (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).
The patriarchs followed the customs of their culture. For instance, Abraham had only one wife, Sarah. Because Sarah was barren, she gave her handmaid Hagar as a secondary wife to Abraham. This practice was common in the society where Abraham lived. According to the Code of Hammurabi, a husband could not take a second wife unless the first wife was barren. Probably, it is in the context of the barren wife motif that Elkanah’s story should be interpreted.
Although Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and several others had more than one wife, God’s original design at creation was for the “one man, one wife” principle. When God created human beings, he created one man and one woman. God could had given Adam two wives, but he did not.
Barnabe Assohoto and Samuel Ngewa, writing in the Africa Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) p. 19 wrote: “God had made Adam only one helper, although he could have made more as Adam still had more ribs.”
When God brought the woman to the man, God also established a principle that promotes monogamy: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). In light of God’s ideal for his creation, the modern prohibition against polygamy is consistent with the ethical spirit that we find in the Bible.
NOTE: For a comprehensive collection of studies on the Book of Genesis, read my post Studies on the Book of Genesis.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Consider the Book of Lamech of Cain. It unpacks the song of the sword and other aspects of this particular passage of scripture.