Abraham had a principal wife, Sarah (Genesis 11:29), and two secondary wives, Hagar and Keturah (Genesis 16:3; 25:1).
Abraham’s first wife was Sarah. She alone would possess legal rights and social standing as Abraham’s wife, and only her child Isaac would become the rightful heir to the family inheritance.
Sarah, who was unable to bear children, gave her Egyptian servant, Hagar, to Abraham as a concubine, although the Bible also calls Hagar Abraham’s wife (Genesis 16:1–4). A concubine was a woman, often a servant or slave, who lived with a man as if she were his wife, having sexual relations with him and bearing his children. When one’s wife was unable to produce an heir, taking a concubine was a common solution in ancient times. But a concubine held “secondary wife status,” lower than that of the primary wife. The concubine’s position, while subordinate to her master and mistress, was permanent. Concubines were provided for and protected as part of the family.
Hagar gave Abraham a son, whose name was Ishmael, but he was not to be the son of God’s covenant (Genesis 17:1–14). It was through Abraham and Sarah’s child Isaac that God had promised to establish His everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:15–19).
Keturah was Abraham’s second wife after the death of Sarah: “Abraham had taken another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah” (Genesis 25:1–2). Like Hagar, Keturah was called both “wife” and “concubine” in Scripture (1 Chronicles 1:32). As a “wife,” Keturah was married to Abraham in the legal sense, living in a sexual union with him. Yet, as a “concubine” she held a rank inferior to Sarah’s. Keturah may have first become Abraham’s concubine when Sarah was still alive but was later elevated to the position of wife after Sarah passed away.
Before Abraham died, he gave all his material possessions and the blessings of the covenant to Isaac, the child God had promised to him and Sarah. To the sons of Hagar and Keturah, Abraham gave only gifts from his house and then sent them away to live in the country east of Israel (Genesis 25:5–11).
Does the fact that Abraham had three wives prove that God condones polygamy?
No. God’s ideal pattern for the marriage relationship has always been a monogamous union between one man and one woman (Genesis 1:27; 2:24). From the time of Lamech (Genesis 4:19), people engaged in polygamy, but it was never God’s design. Even though the practice is not expressly forbidden in Scripture, its consequences were often harmful and problematic (Deuteronomy 17:17; 1 Kings 11:1–3; Judges 8:30—9:57; 1 Samuel 1:1–7).
The Bible does not explicitly clarify why God tolerated polygamy among His people. One reason may have been to provide a secure home for unmarried women who had no other safe way to provide for themselves in the male-dominated, patriarchal society of the ancient world. At that time in history, women were not educated or trained for employment and thus depended on male members of their families to protect and support them. With prostitution, slavery, or starvation as the only other choices, many unmarried women turned to concubinage.
Polygamy also served to develop the growth of humanity at a much faster rate, fulfilling God’s command to “be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it” (Genesis 9:7). Perhaps God tolerated polygamy in ancient times to solve some of these problems, but the New Testament clearly specifies God’s ideal intent for marriage to be the union of one man and one woman for life (Ephesians 5:22–33; 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).