By Emily Hall, Crosswalk.com
In the Bible, a concubine was a woman acquired by a man as a secondary wife. Her purpose was to provide a male heir in the case of a barren wife, to provide more children in general to enhance the family’s workforce and wealth, and to satisfy the man’s sexual desires. A concubine was endowed with rights and protections by Hebrew law but was not equal in status to a wife.
A woman living as a concubine was more common in Israel during the patriarchal period of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob than in later periods, but it still happened among the wealthy and especially the royal like King David and King Solomon.
Although God provided rights and protections for concubines in the Law of Moses, God did not introduce or approve of this marital model. The Hebrew word for concubine, Piylegesh, isn’t even of Hebrew origin. It’s “a non-Semitic loanword borrowed to refer to a phenomenon not indigenous to Israel,” according to Baker’s Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
David L. Baker, theologian and seminary professor, said this:
“In the ancient Near East, it was acceptable for a married man to have a secondary wife or concubine, so long as he had the resources to support a large family. Apart from working in the home and providing sexual companionship, a major role for a concubine would be to produce children, to increase the work force in a household.
"Polygamy and concubinage were also allowed in ancient Israel and seem to be have been quite common in the patriarchal period (age of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), but after that most marriages of commoners were monogamous.”
Who Were Concubines in the Bible?
According to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, a concubine would usually be either:
1. A Hebrew girl sold by her father (Exodus 21:7)
2. A Gentile captive taken in war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
3. A purchased foreign slave
4. A Canaanite woman, bonded or free
“The rights of the first two were protected by the law, but the third was unrecognized and the fourth prohibited. Free Hebrew women also might become concubines.”
A Free Hebrew Woman Who Sold Herself
In situations of dire poverty, women had very few options. A woman could avoid prostitution and homelessness by choosing to sell herself to one man as his concubine.
A Hebrew Girl Sold by Her Father
Although a rare practice, it was considered a parental right to sell one’s child as a slave. According to the law, a Hebrew slave would be set free after 6 years of service unless they decided to stay in the household as a slave (Deuteronomy 15:12-17).
But a man who bought a Hebrew girl as a concubine must commit to provide for her for life, sell her to another man who would provide for her as his concubine, or return the girl to her father without demanding payment for her (Exodus 21:7-11).
According to Ellicott’s Commentary, “These provisions afforded a considerable protection to the slave-concubine, who might otherwise have been liable to grievous wrong and oppression.”
A Gentile Woman Taken in War
The NIV Zondervan Study Bible makes a note about this situation:
“A perennial problem in war is rape, but this was forbidden in Israel. If a soldier was attracted to a woman, he had to marry her, but he could do so only after she had lived with him in a state of humiliation and mourning for a month (Deuteronomy 21:12-12). If he changed his mind after they were married, she had to be granted her freedom.
“Her dignity had to be guarded, and she could not be treated like a slave. The fact that female prisoners of war could be taken as wives by the Israelites does not sanction the practice so much as regulate and transform an existing evil.”
A Foreign Woman Sold as a Slave
This situation was unrecognized by the law because the law insisted that concubines not be treated as slaves (Deuteronomy 21:14). Forced slavery and human trafficking was against the Hebrew law anyway (Exodus 21:16).
A Canaanite Woman
In Deuteronomy 7:3-4, God warned Hebrews not to intermarry with people from Canaan at all because they worshipped false gods, which often included human sacrifice and sexual religious practices.
Rights of Concubines in the Bible
- A woman’s status as a concubine was higher than a slave but lower than a wife.
- Concubines were entitled to proper food and clothing.
- Concubines could not get a bill of divorce like a wife could.
- A concubine’s children were legitimate, but they may have been socially considered secondary to the children born from a wife. They were not legally entitled to an inheritance but were sometimes included in their father’s will (Genesis 25:6).
“These provisos may not have furnished a remedy against all the wrongs of a weak, and, no doubt, an oppressed class; but they were important mitigations of the existing usages, and protected the slave-concubine to a considerable extent,” according to the Pulpit Commentary.
Concubines in the Bible
These provisions in the law were meant to protect concubines from further oppression, but the Bible records a few stories about the reality concubines and wives experienced.
1. Hagar was Sarah’s handmaid. Her story is recorded in Genesis 16:1-16 and Genesis 21:9-21. Sarah did not trust God to provide a son in his perfect timing, so Sarah gave Hagar to her husband Abraham to have a child. Hagar was hurt by this decision, as was Sarah.
2. Keturah became Abraham’s second wife after Sarah died. She is recorded as a wife in Genesis 25:1 but is recorded as a concubine in I Chronicles 1:32. Genesis 25:6 suggests that Keturah was Abraham’s concubine.
3. The Concubine of Gibeah is unnamed in the Bible. Her heartbreaking story is recorded in Judges 19-21.
After this woman reconciled with her husband, she left her father’s house with him to travel back to their home in another city. On the way, they stayed the night in Gibeah, and a crowd of “wicked men surrounded the house. Pounding on the door,” (Judges 19:22) they demanded sexual relations with the new man in town - the concubine’s husband. They would not relent, so he “took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go” (Judges 19:25). In the morning, she found her way to the front door of the house and died there.
4. Rizpah was a concubine of King Saul. Her story is recorded in 2 Samuel 3:7-11. Abner, a rival to King Saul's throne, slept with Rizpah and defiled her. Ellicott’s commentary explains the political significance of Abner’s act:
“The harem of an Eastern monarch was considered as the property of his successor, and therefore the taking of a woman belonging to it as the assertion of a claim to the throne.”
5. 10 Concubines are King David’s unnamed concubines. They are mentioned in 2 Samuel 15:16, 2 Samuel 16:22, and 2 Samuel 20:3. These 10 women were also sexually violated by a political rival to the throne, Absolom.
6. 300 Concubines are the unnamed concubines of King Solomon. They are recorded in 1 Kings 11:1-8. Not much is known about the stories of these 300 women. But one can imagine the relational neglect and emotional turmoil of sharing a husband with 299 other concubines and 700 wives. This marital model is a far cry from God’s design in Eden.
Why Did God Allow Men to Take Women as Concubines? Things to Keep in Mind
Why didn’t God step in to say this practice is harmful and should not be done by God’s people? The Bible isn't specific about why God allowed his people to continue in sinful systems like this.
We see God’s dream for human flourishing in the Garden of Eden with family, work, and relationship with him. But since the first human chose sin over God’s good way, humanity chose more and more sin that affected these ideals God approved of and set in motion.
Poverty was not part of God’s dream, but because human life now involved sin, God made laws (Deuteronomy 15:1-18) to protect the poor from further oppression, knowing a sinful world would always include poverty (Deuteronomy 15:11, John 12:8).
Concubinage was not part of God’s dream, but because human life now involved sin, God made laws to protect vulnerable women from further oppression, knowing a sinful world would always include broken relationships between men and women.
Here are 2 other things to keep in mind while exploring this question:
1. God did not approve of marriage to involve concubines.
The fact that legal provisions were made for concubines does not mean that God approved of this marital model.
- In Genesis 2:22-24, God clearly designed marriage to be a union of one man and one woman.
- In Deuteronomy 24:5, God made instructions for a husband to prioritize his wife’s happiness.
- In Malachi 2:13-16, God expressed anger at a husband’s unfaithfulness to his wife.
2. The purpose of the law was to expose human sin and point to humanity’s need for Christ.
Historical Old Testament accounts should be approached and applied differently than, for example, Apostolic letters in the New Testament. A key purpose of the Law of Moses was to show the depth of sin and that no human could completely satisfy the law (Galatians 3:19, Hebrews 10:1-10). Or as Matthew Henry put it:
“The law was not intended to discover a way of justification different from that made known by the promise, but to lead men to see their need of the promise, by showing the sinfulness of sin, and to point to Christ, through whom alone they could be pardoned and justified.”
While reading stories about concubines in the Bible (or other tragic stories in the Old Testament), it’s important to remember that God included these stories to expose sin and point to the need for Christ.
Many historical accounts in the Old Testament range from disturbing to horrifying, lacking a happy ending or moral theme beyond “don’t do what they did.” The Spirit of God did not lead writers of the Bible to include these stories to show that God condoned their sin and that’s how God’s people should live. Rather, they are included to show the depth of human depravity – the depth of every human’s need for Jesus Christ.
The stories mentioned above can be heartbreaking for anyone to read. They were also heart-breaking to God. He loves men and women and has plans of flourishing and purity for them. How patient he was to endure his people continually rejecting the goodness of his ways in exchange for the filth of sin. And how gracious he was to stick with them, love them, provide for them, and give his own self as a complete sacrifice for their sin so that they could forever be with him in heaven.
BibleStudyTools.com, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology – Concubine.
Christianity.com, Smith’s Bible Dictionary – Concubine.
Crosswalk.com, “God’s Plan for Marriage: Dealing with Old Testament Polygamy.” Gregory Alan Thornbury, 2012.
David L. Baker. “Concubines and Conjugal Rights. ענה in Exodus 21:10 and Deuteronomy 21:14.” Zeitschrift Für Altorientalische Und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte / Journal for Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law, vol. 13, 2007, pp. 87–101. JSTOR.
GotQuestions.org, “Who was Keturah in the Bible?”
JewishVirtualLibrary.org, Encyclopedia Judaica: Concubine. 2008.
NIV Starting Place Study Bible, “Why Did David Have So Many Wives and Concubines?” pg. 388.
Photo Credit: GettyImages/Tinnakorn Jorruang