Some people have asked me why I think the Bible doesn’t seem to explicitly condemn people who have more than one wife. Usual examples of this include David and Solomon, both of whom don’t seem to be called out on their polygamy. Abraham, too, had many wives but he is never called out either. Does this mean that the Bible accepts polygamous relationships?
The answer, of course, is no. Deuteronomy 17:17 clearly lays out a rejection of polygamous marriages and gathering too much gold. Some scholars would say that this is a reflection of the Deuteronomist’s misogynistic views on women because he sees women as a commodity like gold. I would suggest that there is a different reason: both are symbols of glory.
Gold was found in the Garden of Eden. The Temple, as a microcosm of creation and a recreation of Eden, now contains gold, too. The construction of the Ark involves gold, and gold lines the temple. Golden utensils are used all over the Temple in priestly service. Gold is a symbol of strength in Daniel’s visions. Gathering too much gold for oneself rather than gathering that gold in service of the temple is a false gathering of glory.
Peter Leithart argues that women are viewed as glory, too. Israel is ripped from the side of Egypt in the Exodus to be the bride of Yahweh just as Eve was ripped from the side of Adam to be the bride for man, meaning Sinai was a sort of marriage. Before Sinai, there were no peace offerings with God. At Sinai, Leithart points out that the term “ishsheh”, a term I’ll return to shortly, is introduced into all five of the major offering types. At Sinai, the covenantal-marriage cutting with God, the peace offering is instituted, a sort of bridal feast. After this, the tabernacle becomes the place where the continuous wedding feast is celebrated (Isaiah 61:10-11).
He argues persuasively that it has etymological relationships with “ish”, man, “ishah”, woman, and “esh”, fire. At first, man is referred to as “adamah”, but when he is introduced to “ishah”, he becomes “ish”. Just as Adam first speaks when he is given his Bride, Woman, Yahweh’s tongue is loosened by his bride (cf. Zephaniah 3:17, one of the most beautiful passages in the minor prophets) and he speaks from Exodus 25-Leviticus. The introduction of the Bride loosens the Husband’s tongue to speak the praise of God’s name, a sort of fire to light the sacrificial life of the man.
Yahweh is not associated with fire until the exodus approaches (Ex 3:2) as he leads Israel from Egypt (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:24), and when he breaks out into fire to eat the sacrificial offering (Leviticus 9:24). At the same time that Yahweh is compared to fire we learn that he is jealous (Ex 20:5; 34:14). Yahweh is light on “esh”, fire, when he is introduced to “ishah”, his Bride Israel. Adam becomes a sacrificial, jealous protector of the Bride when he is introduced to his “ishah”.
Based on Leithart’s analysis so far, then, I would tentatively suggest that polygamy is wrong because it is the acclimation of a false glory cloud. The glory cloud is a symbol of the Spirit surrounding God: the incense of a priest is a glory cloud that protects them from seeing God; the one like the Son of Adam rises to the Ancient of Days throne on a glory-cloud reminiscent of the priest’s incense; the prayers of the saints are imagined as a glory cloud in Revelation; the people of Nehemiah surrounding the wall are imagined as a glory cloud. If a singular woman is the glory of man, gathering too many brides is an act of gathering a false glory cloud to exalt oneself. God doesn’t take too lightly to people challenging his glory by gathering up a false flame on the altar of their life. And just like Aaron’s sons, punished for trying to use a strange fire, God will punish those who light their lives with a false fire of too many wives.