It was Abraham who was first recorded in Scripture as having more than one wife. God had appeared to him in a dream and told him his heirs would number the stars in heaven. With his wife, Sarah, having been unable to bear him any children, in their haste to help God along Sarah offered Abraham her handmaiden, Hagar, to be his wife. It was then jealousy set in, as Sarah told Abraham, “…when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes.” As a result, Sarah dealt harshly with her, causing Hagar to “flee from the face of her mistress.” Hagar was told by the angel of the LORD to “Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands,” which she did until she was cast out again when Ishmael was older and Isaac was born (Genesis 15-16, 21).
Over 700 years later Elkanah’s wife was also barren, having been unable to have children. Elkanah, having two wives, was the father to his wife Peninnah’s children, but Hannah had no children by him. Hannah’s “adversary also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb.” When the family made their yearly trek to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice unto the LORD, Elkanah “gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions: But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb.” As Elkanah did so year by year, Peninnah continued to provoke Hannah, “therefore she wept, and did not eat.” It was there Hannah cried out to God “to look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid,” and asked God to give her a son, promising to give the child back to the LORD in service to Him. God answered her desperate prayer, and Hannah gave birth to the prophet Samuel (I Samuel 1).
It is Solomon who is remembered for having numerous wives and concubines; 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines to be exact. Many of these were daughters given to him as gifts from surrounding idol-worshipping kings and dignitaries seeking his good favor. In First Kings 11 it is written that “when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God.” It also is recorded that “Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD as did David his father.” Further in the chapter we read, “And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the LORD God of Israel.” In the closing chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, Nehemiah warned the Jews of marrying daughters of idol worshippers and said, “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?… even him did outlandish women cause to sin.”
Having multiple wives in Old Testament times was not a practice to be emulated; it was a sin to be avoided. God, through His infinite wisdom, included in His written Word the disastrous results men and women in time past endured because of their disobedience to Him in not being the husband of one wife.