Friday, August 20, 2021

Concubinage Among the Hebrew


Dr. Alice C. Linsley

Concubinage was a common practice among the Hebrew ruler-priests. Concubines were usually women of high status who served both the queens and the kings. Among the biblical Hebrew, the concubine resided in the settlement of the queen she served. Hagar resided in Sarah's settlement, and Mesek (mentioned in the Septuagint) resided in Keturah's settlement.

In ancient times and today, concubines serve kings and emperors. The book of Esther is the story of a young Jewish woman who became a concubine in the palace of a Persian king. Esther's story provides a glimpse of the court intrigues to which women of the palace were privy. There is little doubt that concubines exercised influence on the affairs of state. Among the biblical Hebrew, they are often at the center of intrigue or portrayed as competition to royal wives.

The Bible mentions numerous concubines, including the mother of King Abimelech, the son of Gideon by his concubine. David had concubines, and his son Solomon is said to have had 300 concubines. King Saul had at least one concubine. Her name was Rizpah (2 Sam. 3:7).

Esteemed rabbis such as Maimonides maintained that concubines are strictly reserved for kings, and thus a Jewish commoner may not have a concubine. This view is supported by the biblical accounts, all of which present concubines in association with high status persons such a rulers and royal priests.

Sexual relations with the father’s concubines represented an act or usurpation of the father’s rule. Concubines produced children whose status was always lower than that of the children of the ruler’s wives. When a royal wife was unable to produce an heir, a concubine could serve as a surrogate and according to ancient family law the son born to the concubine could rightfully rule over the territory of his father.

According to Horite/Hurrian law, when the principal wife was unable to produce an heir, she could give her handmaid to her husband to produce an heir. This is what Sarah hoped to achieve when she gave Hagar to Abraham (Gen. 16:1-4). This practice appears to have been the exception. Usually, the sons of concubines received grants and were sent away from the territory of the ruler's heir.

Concubines did not have the same social status as wives. However, many concubines of high social status found additional recognition by serving royal wives. This appears to be the case with Hagar and Mesek, Abraham’s concubines. Hagar served Sarah, and Mesek probably served Keturah, Abraham's second wife. Hagar was the mother of Ishmael and Mesek was the mother of Eliezer. Had Sarah remained without a son, the rightful heir to Abraham’s throne would have been Eliezer (Gen. 15). The Septuagint clearly states that he was a son of Abraham by Mesek, but this is not found in the Masoretic text.

Likewise, Jacob’s concubines Zilpah and Bilhah served his wives. Zilpah served Leah and was the mother of Gad and Asher (Gen. 30). Bilhah served Rachel and was the mother of Dan and Naphtali (Gen. 29). If the arrangements for the sons of Hagar and Mesek is like that of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, Ishmael and Eliezer received land settlements, as did Jacob's sons by his concubines. Both Ishmael and Jacob became the heads of twelve-clan confederations.

Ishmael's land settlement appears to have been near Paran on the way to Egypt. The sons of Ishmael were Nebajoth, Kadar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. "These were the sons of Ishmael and these were their names, by their towns and settlements…" (Gen. 25:12-16).

Concubines who were handmaids of royal wives resided in the settlements of the women they served. When Sarah became jealous of Hagar, whose son Ishmael was favored by Abraham, she demanded that Hagar be sent away (Gen. 21:10-12).

It is evident from the conflict between Sarah and Hagar that a concubine could be sent away by the queen she served. It is less evident that a concubine could leave of her own accord, as happened in the case of the Levite’s concubine who returned to her home. Judges 19:1-3 reports that a Levite’s concubine left him and returned to her father’s house in Bethlehem.

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