How Many is Too Many?

This page is also available in: Español

by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Why did the kings of Israel have so many wives?

I suppose your question is really about how God related to this practice, and what motivated the kings to have so many wives. Apart from the corrupt cravings of human passions, there were other social and political reasons for this practice. I will summarize God’s will on this issue, examine the purpose of marrying so many Israelite women, and finally explore the reason for having no Israelite royal wives.

1. God’s Will: It appears that it was always God’s intention to appoint at some point in the history of His people a king over the nation. To that end, God provided legislation defining the appointment and role of the king (Deut. 17:14-20). To a certain extent, the king was to function as a model for the nation in the study of the law, in relying on the power of God, and in God’s purpose for marriage. The law clearly established: “Neither shall he multiply wives for himself” (verse 17). In other words, he was not to have a royal harem. God expected from the king what He also expected from every male Israelite: to have one wife. In this respect kingship in Israel failed the Lord.

2. David’s Many Wives: It is mainly through David that the royal practice of having many wives was introduced in Israel. He had at least nine wives, and no less than 10 concubines. The function of his concubines is not clear. They were at the service of the king to provide children for him (2 Sam. 20:3), and may have also been responsible for the upkeep of the palace (2 Sam. 15:16). In the ancient Near East the king’s sexual prowess was part of his image as king, and having many wives conveyed this idea to the people. David was simply following the cultural practice of the time. He also took several Israelite women as wives. They may have been the daughters of influential and powerful Israelites whose support David thought would be useful in the consolidation of his kingdom. These were politically motivated marriages. Although most of his wives were Israelites, it appears that he took a foreign wife, “Maacah, the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur” (2 Sam. 3:3), a princess. This marriage was politically motivated and served to strengthen David’s influence as king among the Canaanite nations.

3. Foreign Wives and Idolatry: What David initiated was practically institutionalized through Solomon: “He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines”
(1 Kings 11:3). Many of his concubines, if not all of them, may have been Israelites, but the wives were probably foreign women, daughters of kings with whom Solomon entered into covenant relationships. This is the common understanding of ancient Near Eastern royal marriages. Such marriages consolidated the kingship of Solomon and contributed to peaceful relations between him and the surrounding nations (e.g., Sidon, Moab, Ammon). Any political marriage could have seriously damaged the integrity of the king, and, in the case of foreign women, would have led the king into idolatry (Deut. 17:17; 1 Kings 11:2).

When this type of marriage was arranged, the marital agreement included an understanding that the princess would continue to worship her god in the palace of the husband, in this case Solomon. It could be that some of them became Israelites; we do not know. Each of these wives were accompanied by her own maids, and often by a religious leader to assist her in the worship of her god. The husband was to provide a place of worship for her and her entourage. Following this pagan practice, “Solomon built a high place for Chemosh . . . , and for Molech. . . . And he did likewise for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods” (1 Kings 11:7, 8). These are typical ancient Near East political and religious practices. They directly contributed to the fall of God’s people in the Old Testament.

It is always good to listen to the Word of God, particularly in the setting of cultural practices that tend to turn us away from the Lord.