Concubine (in the Bible)

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In Biblical usage, a concubine (Heb. pīlegeš ) is a true wife, although of secondary rank. Accepted without question as part of Israel's culture, the concubine regularly lived in the household and was recognized and provided for by Israelite custom. This article treats, in order, of the concubine living in her husband's house, the concubine in her father's house, and the inheritance of the concubine's sons.

Living in Her Husband's House. The Biblical references to concubines are confined to the Old Testament and connote an institution that was an offshoot of polygamy. The English word concubine may give a false connotation, suggesting a kept mistress. In reality, a concubine was a genuine wife. She was not a woman who cohabited with a man while unmarried to him. In the family the concubine held an intermediate place between the wife of first rank and an ordinary slave. In most cases she was a slave raised to a higher dignity by marriage to the master (Gn 16.3). The concubine held position as a wife of inferior or secondary rank. As such, she did not have the full legal status held by the wife of first rank. It is not certain what constituted the difference in rank. Most probably it was based upon the question of whether the wife was considered a purchase, having been sold (in the strict sense) to her husband. (The mōhar or dowry given for the wife was not actually a payment in purchase, although it appears similar.) The possession of numerous concubines in a harem was a sign of wealth. They were purchases exhibited as status symbols (2 Sm 3.7; 16.21). Such would have been the case with Solomon's 300 concubines (1 Kgs 11.3).

Living in Her Father's House. A concubine may have originally been a wife who continued to live in her father's house while her husband lived elsewhere and periodically visited her for conjugal relations. This was a genuine marriage, but without permanent cohabitation. The practice is sometimes found today among the Arabs where the husband is called a "visiting husband." Samson's marriage to the Philistine woman (Jgs 15.1) seems to have been of this type. The Middle Assyrian laws refer to such a custom (J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament [Princeton 1955] 182:2536).

Her Son's Inheritance. The sons of concubines who were slaves had no right to inheritance as such, but the father could, if he chose, raise them to equal status with the sons of the wife of first rank. Such was the case with the sons of Jacob. No distinction was made between the sons of the concubines Bala and Zelpha and those of Rachel and Leah. All had an equal share in the land of Canaan (Gn 49.128). Sarah did not wish Ishmael, the son of the concubine Hagar, to share in the inheritance with her son Isaac. Although Ishmael had a right to the inheritance, in this instance Abraham sent him away, believing it was Yahweh's will (Gn 21.1012). The Old Testament mentions the following as having concubines: Nahor (Gn 22.24), Abraham (Gn 25.6), Jacob (Gn 35.22), Eliphaz (Gn 36.12), an unnamed Levite (Jgs 1920), Saul (2 Sm 3.7; 21.11), David (2 Sm 5.13; 15.16; 16.21; 19.5; 20.3), Solomon (1 Kgs 11.3), Manasseh (1 Chr 7.14), Caleb (1 Chr 2.46, 48), and Rehoboam (2 Chr 11.21). Concubines in the royal harem are mentioned also in Est 2.14; Dn 5.3, 23; Ct 6.8.

See Also: inheritance (in the bible); sex (in the bible).

Bibliography: r. patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East (New York 1959). l. m. epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (New York 1948). r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 2440, 5354.

[r. h. mcgrath]