Love and marriage in the Bible were quite different from what most people experience today. Here are some frequently asked questions about husbands, wives and lovers in the Old Testament.
How many wives did King David have?
According to 1 Chronicles 3, which is a genealogy of David's family for 30 generations, Israel's great hero-king hit a jackpot regarding love and marriage in the Bible. David had seven wives: Ahinoam of Jezreel, Abigail of Carmel, Maachah the daughter of King Talmai of Geshur, Haggith, Abital, Eglah and Bath-shua (Bathsheba) the daughter of Ammiel.
With all those wives, how many children did David have?
David's genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3 says that he had 19 sons by his wives and concubines and one daughter, Tamar, whose mother isn't named in scripture. David was married to Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacha, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah during the 7-1/2 years he reigned from Hebron. After he moved to Jerusalem, he married Bathsheba, who bore him four sons including the great King Solomon. Scripture says that David fathered a son with each of his first six wives, plus his four sons by Bathsheba make 10, leaving another nine sons whose mothers are presumed to be among David's concubines since they aren't named.
Why did the biblical patriarchs take so many wives?
Aside from God's command to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28), there are likely two reasons for patriarchs' multiple wives.
First, health care in ancient times was much more primitive, with skills such as midwifery passed down through families as oral tradition rather than formal training. Thus childbirth was one of life's most dangerous events. Many women died in childbirth or from post-natal diseases along with their newborns. So the sheer necessities of survival motivated many plural marriages.
Second, being able to care for many wives was a sign of wealth in ancient biblical times. A man who could sustain a large extended family of several wives, children, grandchildren and other kin, along with the flocks to feed them, was considered rich. He also was considered faithful to God, who commanded that humans increase their numbers on the earth.
Was polygamy a constant practice among the biblical patriarchs?
No, having multiple wives wasn't a uniform marital practice in the Bible. For example, Adam, Noah and Moses are each noted in scripture as being the husband of only one wife. Adam's spouse was Eve, given to him by God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3). According to Exodus 2:21-23, Moses' spouse was Zipporah, the eldest daughter of a Midianite sheik, Reuel (also called Jethro in the Old Testament). Noah's wife is never named, only acknowledged as part of his family who accompanied him on the ark to escape the great flood in Genesis 6:18 and other passages.
Did women ever get to have more than one husband in the Old Testament?
Women really weren't considered equal players when it came to love and marriage in the Bible. The only way that a woman could have more than one husband was if she remarried after being widowed. Men could be simultaneous polygamists, but women had to be serial monogamists because that was the only way to assure the identity of children's fathers in ancient times before DNA testing.
Such was the case with Tamar, whose story is told in Genesis 38. Tamar's father-in-law was Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. Tamar first married Er, the eldest son of Judah, but they had no children. When Er died, Tamar married Er's younger brother, Onan, but he refused to impregnate her. When Onan also died not long after marrying Tamar, Judah promised Tamar that she could marry his third son, Shelah, when he came of age. Judah's refusal to keep his promise when the time came, and how Tamar outsmarted this marriage system, is the plot of Genesis 38.
This practice of younger brothers marrying their older brothers' widows was known as levirate marriage. The custom was one of the more curious examples of love and marriage in the Bible, because it was intended to make sure that the bloodline of a widow's first husband was not lost if the husband died without fathering children. According to levirate marriage, the first child born of a union between a man's widow and his younger brother would be considered legally a child of the first husband.
Love and Marriage in the Bible Sources:
- The Jewish Study Bible (2004,Oxford University Press).
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (1994,Oxford University Press,).
- Meyers, Carol, General Editor, Women in Scripture, (2000 Houghton Mifflin New York)