Q: #492. What was a concubine in the Bible?
A: The word “concubine” is used 39 times in the Bible. It is used only in the Old Testament, and the Hebrew word “pilegesh” is used in every instance (except for 3 times in Daniel when the Aramaic word “lchenah” is used). (***Note: “pilegesh” is also used once in Ezek 23:20, and is translated as “paramours.”) So, what is the meaning of the word concubine?
Webster’s Dictionary gives us this definition for a concubine: “a woman with whom a man cohabits without being married: such as (a) : one having a recognized social status in a household below that of a wife (b) : mistress.” Isn’t that interesting? In other words, in modern terms, if a woman is living with a man, and they are not married, she could technically be called a “concubine!” Instead, we use terms today like “a girlfriend,” “a partner,” or the aforementioned “a mistress.”
In the Bible, in general, there were somewhat different reasons why a woman ended up as a concubine. Smith’s Bible Dictionary shares these 3 primary reasons: 1. A Hebrew girl bought of her father (Ex 21:7-11), 2. A Gentile taken captive in war, 3. A foreign slave bought. As you can see, in none of these instances did the woman have much of a choice. However, in some cases, the woman freely became a concubine, especially if she was destitute, which was more desirable than homelessness.
The primary reasons why a man had a concubine were for sex, and offspring. Sometimes, the woman was previously a servant for the man’s wife, and the wife gave her over to her husband to have sex with because the wife was barren. This made the servant a concubine. We have several examples of this in the Old Testament. Abraham’s wife Sarah gave her servant Hagar to Abraham to have sex with because she was barren (Gen 16:1-15). Rachel gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob because she was barren (Gen 30:1-8). In turn, her sister Leah gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob (even though she hadn’t been barren) (Gen 30:9-13). (Having children seems to have become a competition between Leah and Rachel.) When these instances happened, the offspring of the concubines appear to have belonged to the wife, rather than concubine / servant.
There were numerous other men who had concubines in the Old Testament too: Nahor (Gen 22:23-24 – the first time a concubine is mentioned), Eliphaz (Gen 36:2), Gideon (Judg 8:30-31), Saul (2 Sam 3:7)(2 Sam 21:11), David (2 Sam 5:13)(2 Sam 19:5)(2 Sam 20:3)(1 Chr 3:9), Solomon (1 Kin 11:3 – he had 700 wives and 300 concubines), Caleb (1 Chr 2:46,48), Manasseh (1 Chr 7:14), Rehoboam (2 Chr 11:21), Ahasuerus (Est 2:14), and Belshazzar (Dan 5:2-3,23).
Without going into details, there is a very disturbing story in Judges Chapters 19 & 20 about a Levite’s concubine who was gang raped, and died as a result. This caused a war between the tribe of Benjamin and the other Israelite tribes, which ended with tens of thousands being killed. (You really should read this story.)
Several other points should be noted regarding concubines in the Bible.
1. A concubine did not share the same rights as a wife. No dowry or bride price was required to have a concubine.
2. The offspring of a concubine did not share equal rights with the offspring of a wife, nor did they have an inheritance (Gen 21:10-12)(Gen 25:5-6)(Gal 4:30)(Rom 9:7)(Heb 11:18).
3. A concubine was not to have sex with any other man. If she did, it was punishable by scourging (Lev 19:20).
4. Sometimes, a concubine did not live in the house with the man she was having sex with (Judg 8:31).
5. If someone slept with the concubine of a king, it was viewed as trying to take over the throne. Absalom tried to do this with David (2 Sam 15:16)(2 Sam 16:21-22), and Adonijah tried to take the throne from Solomon (1 Kin 2:17-25).
6. Reuben slept with his father Jacob’s concubine, and lost his rights as firstborn (Gen 35:22)(Gen 49:3-4)(1 Chr 5:1).
7. Abimelech was the son of Gideon and his concubine (Judg 8:30-31). He was evil, and later killed all but one of his brothers (Judg Ch. 9).
Nowhere in the Bible do we find God condoning the use of a concubine. His plan has always been for one man, and one woman to marry and become “one flesh.” However, He did tolerate this custom for a period of time. As time passed, the custom of men having concubines turned primarily to kings and rulers. However, this too apparently passed, as we see no examples of concubines in the New Testament. It appears to have ended when Christianity began.