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Concubines

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Can you explain to me what a “concubine” is in the Bible?

When your average person encounters the subject of concubines in the Tanach or Old Testament, it can be difficult if the reader is not informed as to what a concubine was in ancient times. The term pilegesh (vg<l,yPi) “seems clearly to be a word of non-Semitic origin…The fact that there are clear cognates in Greek (pallakís/pallekē) and Latin (paelex) suggests that the word is Indo-european in origin, borrowed into all three languages” (EDB).

Concubinage in the Tanach is often associated with some kind of slavery, as Bilhah was called both a slave (Genesis 29:29; 30:3Genesis 29:29; 30:3
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29 And Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah his handmaid to be her maid. 3 And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. have...: Heb. be built by her  

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) and a concubine (Genesis 35:22Genesis 35:22
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22 And it came to pass, when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve:  

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). Likewise, Gideon’s unnamed concubine (Judges 8:31Judges 8:31
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31 And his concubine that was in Shechem, she also bare him a son, whose name he called Abimelech. called: Heb. set  

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) is also called his slave (Judges 19:19Judges 19:19
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19 Yet there is both straw and provender for our asses; and there is bread and wine also for me, and for thy handmaid, and for the young man which is with thy servants: there is no want of any thing.  

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), with him actually being considered her “husband.” TWOT explains, “A concubine was a true wife, though of secondary rank…the concubine was not a kept mistress, and did not cohabit with a man unless married to
him. The institution itself is an offshoot of polygamy.”b Among those who practiced concubinage, the concubine was “A female slave regarded as part of the Israelite family, generally designated as bearing children…In addition to providing offspring and sexual activity (Eccl. 2:8Eccl. 2:8
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8 I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. musical...: Heb. musical instrument and instruments  

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), concubines were responsible for care of the those (2 S. 15:16; 16:21; 20:32 S. 15:16; 16:21; 20:3
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16 And the king went forth, and all his household after him. And the king left ten women, which were concubines, to keep the house. after...: Heb. at his feet 21 And Ahithophel said unto Absalom, Go in unto thy father's concubines, which he hath left to keep the house; and all Israel shall hear that thou art abhorred of thy father: then shall the hands of all that are with thee be strong. 3 And David came to his house at Jerusalem; and the king took the ten women his concubines, whom he had left to keep the house, and put them in ward, and fed them, but went not in unto them. So they were shut up unto the day of their death, living in widowhood. ward: Heb. an house of ward shut...: Heb. bound living...: Heb. in widowhood of life  

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…)” (ISBE).

As concubinage is connected to polygamy, it was often only the rich and/or powerful who were able to afford concubines, as most of those who had concubines were kings (i.e., Esther 2:17; Song of Songs 6:8; Daniel 5:3, 23Daniel 5:3, 23
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3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. 23 But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified:  

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). Keturah, taken as Abraham’s wife after Sarah’s death, was considered both his wife (Genesis 25:1Genesis 25:1
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25 1 Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah.  

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) and concubine (1 Chronicles 1:321 Chronicles 1:32
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32 Now the sons of Keturah, Abraham's concubine: she bare Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah. And the sons of Jokshan; Sheba, and Dedan.  

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), perhaps as a way to honor Sarah as Israel’s matriarch with Keturah being considered of lesser status. Unlike those women who would have been considered wives, “concubines were of a lower status than primary wives because no brideprice (mōhar) was paid for them, or they brought no dowry (šillûḥîm), or both” (EDB).d As a result, any children born of concubines only inherited land at their father’s discretion (i.e., Genesis 25:6Genesis 25:6
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6 But unto the sons of the concubines, which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country.  

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), rather than those children born of actual “wives.”

The Torah’s legislation is mute on regulating the practice of concubinage, as “Concubines are mentioned almost exclusively in the patriarchal period and early monarchy” (ISBE).e “The fact that the word pîlegeš is nowhere mentioned in the legal collections of Exodus and Deuteronomy, nor in the lists of proscribed sexual relationships in Lev. 18, 20Lev. 18, 20
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20 Moreover thou shalt not lie carnally with thy neighbour's wife, to defile thyself with her.  

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, should further caution against too quickly positing that this form of connubial arrangement was widely practiced” (EDB).  Indeed, the fact that the families of Israel’s kings suffered from polygamy—with concubinage as an extended form of this practice with added “lesser-wives”—demonstrates that it was indeed a practice never blessed or sanctioned by God.

With the unfortunate rise of a sector of Messianic polygamist men among us today, it should not be surprising that some are now discussing whether or not concubinage is also acceptable. If polygamy is unacceptable given the Genesis ideal of marriage being between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24Genesis 2:24
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24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.  

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), a principle upheld by Yeshua and His Apostles (Matthew 19:5; Mark 10:7-8Mark 10:7-8
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7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; 8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.  

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; 1 Corinthians 6:161 Corinthians 6:16
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16 What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.  

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; Ephesians 5:31Ephesians 5:31
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31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.  

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)—then just as polygamy would be absolutely
unacceptable in view of the equality of the genders He has restored (Galatians 3:28Galatians 3:28
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28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.  

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), so would concubinage be even more unacceptable! Messianic men today wanting to take concubines to themselves or “lesser-wives” into their homes are doing so only for the purpose of having a sexual outlet. They forget the fact that the Hebrew Tanach depicts both the ups and the downs of its chosen people, and simply practicing polygamy or concubinage because the Patriarchs or kings of Israel did it fails to consider the severe negative consequences that both brought upon their
households and the Kingdom as a whole.
(For a further discussion, consult the editor’s articles “Is Polygamy for Today?” and
“Addressing the Frequently Avoided Issues Messianics Encounter in the Torah.”)

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