Augustine Explains Old Testament Polygamy

Augustine, in his On Christian Doctrine, explained Old Testament polygamy in a way that in his mind logically set forth its acceptance then (cf. 3.17–22). The rule of interpretation he gave to the subject was “that some commands are given to all in common, others to particular classes of persons, that the medicine may act not only upon the state of health as a whole but also upon the special weakness of each member” (3.17)(1). What may be construed as relativism by readers was not so to Augustine. Since the Mosaic Law was given to Israel, it was, therefore, relevant to them and tailored to their weaknesses. Jesus also seemed to affirm this point when he referred to the hardness of the Jews’ hearts as a reason for allowing divorce (Matthew 19:8).

However, Paul realized that Gentiles were also bound by the law even though they were without it (cf. Romans 1:18–32). They became law unto themselves when they, by nature, observed what the law required (cf. Romans 2:14–16) (2). What changed the acceptance of the practice of polygamy was the “Lord’s advent.” Men were not to “transfer the act to his habits of life” (Christ. Doctr. 3.22).

Augustine’s thesis of what made polygamy right or wrong was the presence or absence of lust. One who had many wives but used them for the “object suited to the circumstances of the times” (i.e., procreation) received “greater approval” as opposed to the man who used his wife to gratify “a lust which [was] engrossed in temporal enjoyments” (3.18). Augustine argued that one man could “use many wives with chastity [while] another [used] one wife with lust” (loc. cit.). The latter was he who was most unwholesome, and this seems to suggest that if one views his wife with lust, according to Augustine, then he participates in sin.

A principle Augustine drew from his example of lust with one wife versus chastity with many hinged on his belief that one was less near to God because of their lust (Christ. Doctr. 3.18). Augustine drew a parallel between polygamy and monogamy to eating. Whereas a person may eat for the sake of nourishment, one may also indulge in gluttony to the displeasure of God. Augustine believed that the polygamist would have readily become eunuchs had they lived to see the Lord’s advent: “For there is no difficulty in abstaining unless when there is lust in enjoying” (loc. cit.).

The problem Augustine identified that modern readers of these polygamist heroes of faith have is that the reader transfers their lusts into the hearts of said heroes. When the reader has a lust for sexual gratification, they “do not believe it possible that the men of ancient times used a number of wives with temperance” (3.19). “What [the lustful], who are entangled in the meshes of lust, do not accomplish in the case of a single wife, they think utterly impossible in the case of a number of wives” (loc. cit.). The fallacy of thinking this way is that an audience presumes that their feelings must be those of others in the same situation. This occurs when we read our own emotions back into the times when marriage wasn’t viewed as we tend to view it today, as I would understand him to say. “Let them believe, on the contrary, that the apostles of our faith were neither puffed up when they were honored by men, nor cast down when they were despised” (3.20). The emotions an audience might exhibit in the circumstances must not be transferred to those who have also experienced them; thus the injustice is transferring lack of control to the character because of the reader’s vices.

Augustine’s strongest argument for the acceptance of polygamy in the Old Testament hinged on David’s adultery with Bathsheba. David had concubines (cf. 2 Samuel 5:13; 16:21; 20:3), but when he lustfully took another’s wife, he sinned. Augustine pointed out that the sin for which David was convicted by Nathan’s parable centered, not on the murder of Uriah, but on the adultery indicated by the poor man’s ewe-lamb (Christ. Doctr. 3.21). Augustine noted that “the sentence of condemnation is pronounced against the adultery alone” (loc. cit.). Augustine’s interpretation appears correct because Nathan’s parable made no mention of the owner of the ewe-lamb suffering death, but theft. Augustine further noted that “the unlawful appetite is called … a guest” (loc. cit.). When Solomon was born, Augustine argued, he lived as a king rather than the child who died as a guest—an allusion to the former being born of legitimate motive while the latter was born of “unlawful appetite.” Closing his argument, Augustine wrote, “For many things which were done as duties at that time, cannot now be done except through lust” (3.22).

What may give further impetus to polygamy being accepted in its time was the Levirate marriage law (Deuteronomy 25:5–6, 9–10; cf. Genesis 38:8; Leviticus 18:16; Ruth). However, when Jesus explained marriage, He did so appealing to the creation of Adam and Eve thus illustrating God’s original and valid design for marriage (Matthew 19:4–6). God overlooked many evils in the Old Testament, but with the advent of Christ, the call to selflessness became greater (cf. Acts 14:16; 17:30) and a better way was given. Whether the reader would agree with Augustine or not is of no consequence, but it is rather intriguing to see how the bishop addressed the issue, at the least.

  1. Trans. J. F. Shaw (n.p.,, 2009).
  2. See Jack Cottrell, The College Press NIV Commentary: Romans (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 2005), 114–18.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.