The Second Wife: What Does the Bible Say about Polygamy? Part 1

Note: I do not support polygamy, but I do want to give my readers a more clear picture of why it was/is practiced in the culture that I now live in.

Okay, so I know this is a topic that may be pretty unusual for me to bring up. But just go with me for a minute or two as I get a few thoughts down on paper…well actually on the computer (but you know what I mean).

Yesterday, I had one of the most unusual conversations that I have had in a long time. Being in a different culture, where different things are valued is, well…different for me. And I tend to have more unusual conversations than the ones that I’m used to having with friends in the States. And when I say unusual, I just mean they are different for me.

I literally had no advice to give the young woman I was talking with yesterday. If you know me you know I almost always have some type of biblical advice for my friends. But this conversation with *Jane really baffled me.

Since I left last year and then came back, Jane and I have slowly been growing our friendship. Jane and I are age mates, meaning that she is my age, she’s in her twenties and has a fun personality. I’ve been to Jane’s compound (group of houses for one family) multiple times just to chat and laugh, I have met her husband, and I have even been to her husband’s farm to tour the property.

Well, yesterday Jane came to our compound and we were talking and I remembered to invite her for our new bible study starting at our house that night.

She responded by saying, “Oh I don’t think I will make it, tonight is my turn to make dinner and we will just be cleaning up at 7, all of the work falls in me at the house because the other lady is lazy.”

I was a little confused, but of course I have learned some of the cultural norms in this area; so I asked the BIG question, “ What other lady?”

His senior wife. She doesn’t like to do chores and she makes it hard for me. Our grandmother (mother in law) has had to make a list of chores that she does, and that I will do to make things easier for me.” Jane said casually.

I probably looked a little dazed, but I quickly recovered not wanting her to feel bad about my reaction. “Oh okay so you are his second wife?”

“Yes.” Was her response.

After that, it was quiet for a few seconds it was a little awkward…

Thankfully, her toddler son did something funny and I made some jovial comment about him. But everything else that was said was lost for me. I just kept thinking about , how it would be to be the second wife? Is this still legal? I don’t think it is, but I guess it is tradition…

The interesting part was that I’d known her for one year and I had no idea she was the second wife?!

Her husband couldn’t have been over 30 years old…how is it possible that this still happens today? They have only been married for 3 years, that means polygamy still happens in the twenty-first century?!

But, let me digress for a minute. In order for all of this to make sense, I may have to give some historical background.

In some countries here in West Africa, in the past…like a long, long time ago it was tradition for a man’s brother to marry his sister-in-law in case of the man dying an early death. In the context of the culture and cultural norms here, that practice made sense. There was no church here at that time, to take care of orphans and widows. So it is understandable that people were innovative and came up with a practice that took care of everyone in the community in case of calamity.

For a woman, marriage is extremely important here. You don’t really have full rights, or a voice in the community if you are not married (but this is definitely changing in many places, as women are getting more education and more career opportunities). However, there is some carryover of this traditional way of thinking in some more rural areas.

Because of the importance for women to be married, it became common for wealthier men to marry more than one wife; I guess they saw it as mutually beneficial. The man had more help around the house and on the farm by marrying more than one wife, and the women were granted more respect and more of a voice in the community.

Whatever our cultural norm is, whether multiple divorces and remarrying multiple husbands/wives (hmm **clears throat…) OR marrying multiple women while still married…we as Christians must filter our cultural norms through a biblical lens.

One question that I kept asking myself after that conversation with Jane was…is it biblical? Jane is a Christian…What does the Bible have to say about this?

Stay tuned for part 2 of this topic if it interests you…but until then, just pray with my hubby and I as we encounter more and more traditions that are different from the ones we are used to, and as we learn, teach and mentor young people how to filter tradition through the lens of the Gospel.

*Jane is a pseudonym to keep the identity of this friend private.

Love y’all! And God loves you so much more!

– Jeanette

5 thoughts on “The Second Wife: What Does the Bible Say about Polygamy? Part 1

  1. I find that people interpret the Bible of two ways – the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. The letter of the law is those who read it literally – who read that a widow ought to marry her brother-in-law and think it applies the same today. Others recognize the spirit of the law: in ancient Israel, women had few support systems, weren’t permitted to work, and there wasn’t any programs designed to help lift them out of poverty.
    In the New Testament, Jesus taught his church to care for the widows and the orphans, those who were poor because they didn’t have a husband/father in a world where if you didn’t have one you were a second-class citizen. The early church created the Order of the Widows, a church family would ‘adopt’ a widow, pay for her needs in return for her prayer over their lives.
    Having multiple wives – started towards the very beginning of Genesis – when Lamech married two wives. Many of the patriarchs had concubines on the side, some had multiple wives and concubines. Then the Kings of Israel also had multiple wives, concubines, and in the case of King David, an affair with another woman. They probably found ways to justify their behavior, because it always seems to be okay for men to have many women and never the other way around.
    If your society had a better safety net for their widows, they might not have to marry into a polygamous household. If your society believed that women should work in safe environments earning the same pay as men, then things would be different. But as long as women are second-class citizens, then they’ll often find themselves vulnerable.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jamie, I completely agree! Although this was a cultural practice in ancient Israel, we do have to be aware of the spirit of the law. Similarly, we have to understand a culture to be able to speak God’s Truth into the hearts of men and women in the culture. This post is my understanding of the culture, and the next blog, Part 2 will go more into a view of Polygamy from a Kingdom/Gospel centered lens. God bless, and thank you for your comment!

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