Commentary on Galatians 4:23
Works II, pp. 298-299
Touching the fact of Abraham, it may be demanded, what is to be judged thereof? The ground to the answer shall be this: that marriage is the indivisible conjunction of one man and one woman only. This Christ of purpose teaches (Matt. 19) where He says that “God created them at the first man and woman,” and not women (v. 4), “that a man must forsake father and mother, and cleave to his wife,” not to his wives (v. 5), that “they twain shall be one flesh” (v. 6). And in all this Christ makes no new law, but only revives the first institution of marriage made in paradise. And Moses having set down this divine institution, adds withal that Lamech was the first that broke it by taking many wives.
Now then, the answer to the question is two-fold. Some say that Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs had a dispensation from God to marry many wives, and therefore that it was no sin in them. Of this mind are sundry learned men, both Protestants and papists. But the answer is only conjectural and has no evidence in Scripture.
The second answer is that God did not approve the polygamy of the fathers or commend it, but did only tolerate it as a lesser evil for the preventing of a greater. This toleration appears in that God commanded that “the king must not multiply his wives” (Deut. 17:17) and that the child of the hated wife (though she be the second wife), if it be first born, shall be the heir (Deut. 21:15). The occasions of this toleration were two. One was a desire in the patriarchs to multiply their posterity, that if it were possible the Messiah might descend of their line. The second was the common custom of men in the East countries who made no matter of it to marry many wives. And a common custom bred a common error, and a common error bred common ignorance, whereby that which was indeed a sin was esteemed no sin.
It may be objected, if the having of many wives were an offence, that Abraham and the rest of the holy patriarchs lived and died in a sin without repentance, because we find nothing in Scripture touching their repentance for that sin. Answer. Known sins require particular repentance. But if sins be unknown or unconsidered by reason that men are carried away with the sway of the times (as the patriarchs were), a general repentance suffices (Ps. 19:12).
Again, it may be alleged that Abraham took Hagar by the consent of Sarah. Answer. That suffices not to make a full excuse for Abraham. For if marriage were a mere civil contract, as it is made by the consent of men and women, so it might be dissolved by like consent. But it is more than a civil contract, because in the making of it, beside the consent of the parties, the authority of God is interposed. And therefore Sarah’s consent (in giving Hagar to Abraham) is nothing without the allowance of God. And we may not think that God will allow of that which is directly against His own ordinance.
Thirdly, it may be alleged that if the having of many wives be a fault, then Abraham and the rest were adulterers. Answer. Not so, the polygamy of the fathers is to be placed in the middle between adultery and holy wedlock. They took not wives of a lewd mind for the satisfying of their lust, but of a conscience not rightly informed in this point.
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God did not approve the polygamy of Abraham, yet does He use it to signify the greatest mystery of our religion. Here we see a great point of the divine providence of God, who orders and uses well the things which He does not approve. This is the foundation of our patience and a means of true comfort. Joseph thus comforts himself and his brethren that God ordered and disposed their bad enterprise to his and their good (Gen. 45:5–7). [p. 303].