Biblical Polygyny (part 1): Definition of Words

CAUTION! This article contains many Scriptures which will likely require you to reconsider what you may have believed the Bible says about marriage, divorce, adultery, sexual conduct and related matters. If you are not completely committed to placing the written Word of Elohim above all other sources of information, it is highly recommended that you NOT continue reading this article.     

     Of all the articles on our web site, this article has the potential to be the most offensive to some people. It will contradict things we think we know and have accepted in our society and may be difficult to acknowledge in our current Western-thinking mindset. It is a controversial subject and one that believers in Messiah, at large, have not accepted or even understood. Nevertheless, the impact of this information is enormous. It has the potential to shape our fundamental values and affect the way we live and judge others. It will search the mind of Elohim (God) regarding the first institution of man after creation -- the way of union between man and woman, which is the central issue of life. It will determine what is moral or immoral. It is certainly not an issue to be taken lightly.

     Throughout the Scriptures, Elohim has communicated His divine will for man and has done so for the purpose of having us understand His message. Yet throughout the world, there is a real problem with people misunderstanding, misapplying and misinterpreting this vital message. Elohim, in His divine wisdom, has given us His Word, which can be understood correctly by anyone with a sincere and open heart who is willing to take the time to study and know His will.

     However, one of the problems that hinder our understanding of His will is the cultural gap that exists. There is a tremendous difference between the culture of the Jews and Greeks of the first century and that of the culture that we are familiar with today. The culture in which we live is a considerable factor as to how we view reality.

     There is a story told of a little girl who drew a picture of an automobile with a driver in the driver's seat and two passengers in the back seat. When the mother asked what Bible story she was drawing, the little girl replied that it was God driving Adam and Eve out of the garden. This little girl had viewed the concept of driving as it is used in our culture. When we think of a wedding, a funeral, eating habits, political structures, and many other things, we see them as they are in our culture and not necessarily the way they were originally understood.

The Definition of Words

     In presenting any subject for discussion, it is essential that pertinent words be accurately defined. It has been said that if one is allowed to define or redefine words, he will be able to "prove" anything. Therefore, for the purpose of this article, it is crucial that the terms we use are accurately defined, and that they are comprehensible.

     Consider the statement, "Thou shalt not kill". This is a quote of Exodus 20:13 from the King James Version of the Bible. So, what does it mean when it says, "Thou shalt not kill"? The Hebrew word being translated here as "kill" is ratsach, which means to kill a human being, specifically to murder. In fact, most other English translations more accurately translate the word into English as "murder", rather than "kill".

     What's the difference between "kill" and "murder"? Killing is taking the life of a person or animal. Murder is taking the life of a person, deliberately and unlawfully. There is a very specific difference between these two words. An animal can be killed but never murdered. A human being can either be killed or murdered, depending on the circumstances and whether the act was lawful.

     Is such a subtle distinction really necessary? Absolutely, if you want to gain a clear understanding of what is actually being said in Scripture. I once heard someone argue that the Bible is filled with contradictions, and as an example, pointed to "Thou shalt not kill" in the KJV and then pointed out how people were actually instructed to kill in other places in the Bible. Without the proper Biblical definitions of the words "kill" and "murder", it would have been difficult to reconcile these Scriptures.

     Modern dictionaries and definitions have come to define words in Scripture and interpret them for us, often times twisting their original Biblical meanings. For example, what is one's definition of "marriage"? That of the American and British Dictionaries or the Bible Dictionary of the Hebrews? The modern dictionary definition currently reads as the "legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife". But the legal definition of marriage may soon be changed to include man-to-man and woman-to-woman relationships as well. Without understanding the proper Biblical definitions, one could argue that contrived "same-sex marriage" is perfectly acceptable to Elohim, since Hebrews 13:4 states "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled..." (KJV). The one who defines the word sets the rules and determines the course.

     It is important for us to understand the correct meaning behind a word in Scripture when we see it or use it, so we have the correct interpretation behind what is being said, regardless of how our culture puts a "spin" on it. To accomplish this, we must first establish how we are going to arrive at a definition. We can either look to our English dictionaries and modern definitions to define words, or we can look to the Scriptures.

     However, the Bible is not a dictionary, and we should not expect it to define a word in the same manner as a dictionary would. So in defining terms like adultery, fornication, marriage or divorce, those who seek the truth must study and compare various passages of Scripture. Only then will we be able to ensure an accurate, Scriptural definition.


     When studying these issues, we have to first unlearn what the world has taught us and learn to think Biblically. In today's politically-correct climate, to be gender-specific is almost considered leprous, but the Scriptures are ALWAYS gender specific when dealing with topics of sex, marriage, divorce, remarriage, adultery, and the like. In general, the rules concerning sexual conduct and marital infidelity within the Torah were not applied to men like they were to women. Most believers are entirely ignorant as to what the Scriptures actually say on these matters, and as a result, they are confused regarding adultery and fornication. Some are not sure what the terms mean. Others think they know what the terms mean, but are not sure of Elohim's position on the subject.

     Adultery is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as "voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful husband or wife". However, the Biblical definition of adultery is a violation of a marriage contract, and occurred when a man (married or unmarried) had sexual intercourse with a woman who was either married or betrothed to another man. The word "adultery" was also used by Elohim to show Israel's spiritual unfaithfulness to Him. Thus, there is both a physical side and a spiritual side to adultery, although for the purposes of this article, we will be focused primarily on the physical side of adultery (i.e., actual sexual intercourse between a man and a woman).

     As amazing as it may seem, there is no definition of adultery in the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) and we must go to the Tanak (Old Testament) for that. In the Tanak, the Hebrew word for adultery is na'aph (Strong's #5003), and literally means "woman that breaketh wedlock". Because male-female roles are different in a Biblical marriage relationship, what constitutes adultery for a woman is not the same as for a man.
     'And a man who commits adultery with the wife of another man, who commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor: the adulterer and the adulteress shall certainly be put to death.' (Leviticus 20:10, The Scriptures)

     "When a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman. Thus you shall purge the evil from Yisra'el. When a girl who is a maiden is engaged to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and shall stone them to death with stones, the girl because she did not cry out in the city, and the man because he has humbled his neighbor's wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst." (Deuteronomy 22:22-24, The Scriptures)
     These two passages comprehensively define what adultery is. A married or unmarried man commits adultery if he has sexual intercourse with another man's wife (as King David did with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah) and the woman also becomes an adulteress. This is true whether the woman is fully married (having consummated the relationship) or is betrothed (having entered marriage vows in the presence of witnesses without the relationship having been consummated). This is the only definition of adultery in the Scriptures.

     In worldly marriages, husband and wife are joined to each other, but this is not Biblically correct. According to the Scriptures, a wife is joined by contract to her husband, not the other way around. This is why na'aph (adultery) means "a woman who breaks wedlock" and never a man. This is confirmed in the allegorical marriage of believers to Messiah, where we (the branches) are joined to Yahushua (the vinetree). Those who reject Him (commit spiritual adultery) are cut off and burned.

     Adultery is solely and specifically predicated on the marital status of the female participant. Elohim made males and females very different for a reason, and we miss the mark when we fail to recognize the differences He made and instituted. There are different Scriptural laws for men than for women regarding adultery. Although it may surprise most believers brought up in the European-American mindset, a married man does not commit adultery if he has sex with an unmarried woman! This transgression is actually called fornication.


     Fornication is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as "sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other". However, the Biblical definition of fornication is any unlawful sexual relations. By its very definition, fornication encompasses adultery, but it also includes all other forms of sexual sins.

     In the Tanak, the Hebrew word for fornication is zanah (Strong's #2181), and is translated by such expressions as "fornication", "whoring", "whore", "harlot", "play the harlot", "whoredom", and "go a whoring". Throughout the Tanak, the Hebrew term zanah is used exclusively in the context of whoring, and occurred when a man (married or unmarried) had sexual intercourse with a woman other than his wife. A whore or harlot, in Biblical context, is a woman who engages in such sexual intercourse, including one who prostitutes her body for hire.

     In the Messianic Scriptures, the Greek word for fornication is porneia (Strong's #4202), and is translated by such expressions as "fornication", "whoring", "sexual immorality", "marital unfaithfulness", "unchastity", and "impurity". The Greek term porneia refers to whoring, whether it occurs inside or outside of marriage, but porneia is broad enough to include other forms of sexual immorality, including adultery and incest.

     With fornication (either zanah or porneia), there is no distinction between married and unmarried people. For example, the woman described in Ezekiel 16 who committed "adultery" also committed "fornication" (zanah), as seen in Ezekiel 16:26,32. Likewise, in the Messianic Scriptures, both words are used of the same situation.
     "And I gave her time to repent of her whoring (porneia), and she did not repent. See, I am throwing her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great affliction, unless they repent of their works." (Revelation 2:21-22, The Scriptures)
     There are several Scriptures in the Tanak which refer to married people committing fornication (zanah). In Ezekiel 16:26, Jerusalem is likened to a married woman with sons and daughters who "committed fornication (zanah)". Amos 7:17 prophesies to a king: "Your wife shall become a whore (zanah) in the city". A married woman "committed whoring (zanah) with many lovers" and was given a certificate of divorce in Jeremiah 3:1,8. Clearly, these references cannot possibly refer to sexual acts committed by an unmarried person.

     In the Messianic Scriptures, the word fornication (porneia) in 1 Corinthians 5:1 refers to a man who committed incest with his father's wife. The use of the word fornication (porneia) here cannot mean a sexual relationship between two unmarried people. It is translated as "sexual immorality" in modern English Bibles. In fact, other verses in the Messianic Scriptures (Acts 15:23,29, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7, Revelation 17:2-5) demonstrate that the term porneia includes all forms of sexual immorality and applies equally to both married and unmarried people.

     The verse in 1 Corinthians 10:8, "Neither should we commit whoring (porneia), as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell" links the Greek word porneia with the Hebrew word zanah. Paul is referring to the thousands of men who committed "whoredom" with the daughters of Moab. Paul is clearly condemning these acts of sexual immorality for married as well as unmarried men.

Unlawful Sexual Relations

     According to the Biblical definition, if a man, whether married or unmarried, engages in sexual intercourse with an unmarried (and unbetrothed) woman, this is not adultery, but rather fornication. The crime of adultery is only committed when a man, whether married or unmarried, has sexual intercourse with a married or betrothed woman. In this case, the man is considered an adulterer, even if he is not married, and the woman in considered an adulteress. In short, adultery is any illicit sexual intercourse involving a married woman.

     Why the dual moral standard? According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, the wife was considered to be the husband's possession and adultery constituted a violation of the husband's exclusive right to her; the wife as the husband's possession had no such right to him. In other words, if a man had sexual intercourse with a married woman, he would be violating the property of another man and, therefore, he should be punished.

     So what exactly qualifies as "unlawful sexual relations"? In addition to whoring (zanah), Scripture gives us a very detailed listing of sexual immorality in Leviticus 18:
  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of any close male relative (Leviticus 18:6).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his mother (Leviticus 18:7).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his father's wife (Leviticus 18:8).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his sister (Leviticus 18:9).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his half-sister (Leviticus 18:9).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his son's daughter [granddaughter] (Leviticus 18:10).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his daughter's daughter [granddaughter] (Leviticus 18:10).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his father's wife's daughter by his father [half-sister by father] (Leviticus 18:11).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his father's sister [aunt] (Leviticus 18:12).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his mother's sister [aunt] (Leviticus 18:13).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his father's brother's wife [aunt] (Leviticus 18:14).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his son's wife [daughter-in-law] (Leviticus 18:15).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of his brother's wife [sister-in-law] (Leviticus 18:16).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter [step-daughter] (Leviticus 18:17).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her son's daughter [step-granddaughter] (Leviticus 18:17).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter's daughter [step-granddaughter] (Leviticus 18:17).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her sister as a rival while the woman is still living (Leviticus 18:18).

  • A man may not uncover the nakedness of a woman during her menses (Leviticus 18:19).

  • A man may not have sexual intercourse with another man's wife (Leviticus 18:20).

  • A man may not have anal sexual intercourse with another male (Leviticus 18:22).

  • A man may not have sexual intercourse with an animal (Leviticus 18:23).

  • A woman may not have sexual intercourse with an animal (Leviticus 18:23).
     The Biblical definition of fornication, or "unlawful sexual relations", consists of a man uncovering the nakedness of specific family members (prohibiting any contact with their genital organs), a man uncovering the nakedness of a woman during her menses, adultery, a man having anal sexual intercourse with another male, a man or a woman having sexual intercourse with an animal, and of course, whoring.
     'Do not profane your daughter by making her a whore, so that the land does not whore, and the land becomes filled with wickedness.' (Leviticus 19:29, The Scriptures)

     'They do not take a woman who is a whore or a defiled woman, and they do not take a woman put away from her husband, for he is set-apart to his Elohim...And when the daughter of any priest profanes herself by whoring, she profanes her father. She is burned with fire.' (Leviticus 21:7,9, The Scriptures)
Pre-Marital Sex

     As we have already discussed, a man, whether married or unmarried, does not commit adultery if he has sex with an unmarried/unbetrothed woman. Instead, this transgression is called fornication. In pointing this out, we're not trying to suggest that fornication is any less of a serious sin, or that Elohim is giving license for men to sleep around. Rather, we want to make clear the distinction between adultery and fornication, as defined in Scripture. However, there is another situation that ties into this discussion, and that is the issue of "pre-marital sex".
     "And when a man entices a maiden who is not engaged, and lies with her, he shall certainly pay the bride-price for her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he pays according to the bride-price of maidens." (Exodus 22:16-17, The Scriptures)

     "When a man finds a girl who is a maiden, who is not engaged, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl's father fifty pieces of silver, and she is to be his wife because he has humbled her. He is not allowed to put her away all his days." (Deuteronomy 22:28-29, The Scriptures)
     In the case of a man having sex with a maiden (virgin) who is not married or betrothed/engaged, the requirement under the Torah was an obligation to marry the unmarried woman by taking her as his wife. Whether he was married or unmarried, if they had sexual intercourse without the proper marriage vows, they were still committing fornication and in this particular case, he was required to marry her. If she was not a virgin, marriage was not required under the Torah, even though it was an act of fornication.

     Even if neither partner had any prior sexual activity, their first act of intercourse was still fornication (zanah) unless they were married to one another, and under the Mosaic Law, the sexual act was to be followed up by restitution and marriage. The passages above make it very clear that the couple are not automatically married as a result of their fornication, but rather, because she was a virgin, marriage now becomes a requirement of the Torah, unless the father of the girl absolutely forbids it.
     "When any man takes a wife, and shall go in to her, and shall hate her, and shall make abusive charges against her and bring an evil name on her and say, 'I took this woman, and when I came to her I did not find her a maiden,' then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the proof of the girl's maidenhood to the elders of the city at the gate...But if the matter is true, that the girl was not found a maiden, then they shall bring out the girl to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done wickedness in Yisra'el, to whore in her father's house. Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst." (Deuteronomy 22:13-15; 20-21, The Scriptures)
     In this example, the girl is considered a whore because she is not a virgin on her wedding night. It does not matter whether she loved the man that she slept with before her marriage. It does not matter if she slept with one other or hundreds. It does not matter if her sexual acts were for money or not. Scripture makes no such distinction. Even a single sexual act before marriage makes her a whore or a fornicator.

Continued in part 2...




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