Ask Me: Why Did God Allow Wives AND Concubines?

What's The Deal With-3

Dear Bronwyn, 

What are your thoughts on what seems like God allowing men to take concubines in the Old Testament? I’ve thought about this before but it’s been in my mind again lately especially thinking about how sex trafficking is horribly wrong and cruel, as well as God’s view of women and our significance in His redemption story. I’m having trouble reconciling these ideas that seem to conflict to me.

 Help? 

Confused about Concubines

Dear CAC,

This is SUCH an interesting question, and one I’d never really looked into – so I sent out a query to some friends online and asked them if they could point me to some resources. One friend from Twitter, Holly Munson, got excited about researching this. Holly is a writer and a wife, and she is also a Mormon – so she felt with polygamy being a high stakes issue for her, she also wanted to do some research. I was really curious what Holly might come with, and very grateful for her research and thoughts. So you get a TWOFER on this one: both my reply and Holly’s!

Bronwyn’s Thoughts:

Before we consider the issue of why God might allow men to take concubines, I needed to do some research on what the difference between a concubine and a wife were. Both wives and concubines were women who were officially married (conjugally united, if you want the bible dictionary definition) to a man. It is instructive that in the (awful, horrible, no good) story of the concubine in Judges 19, the man is referred to as her husband (v3), and the relationship between the man and the woman’s father is described as son-in-law and daughter-in-law (verses 4-7).

There are some laws in the Old Testament that regulate how concubines were to be treated. Interestingly, the provisions in Exodus 21:7-10 which stipulate that a husband “may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights,” and it was these three components of marital care which, over time, became the bedrock of our marital vows between husbands and wives to “love, nourish and cherish” one another. These were not originally marital promises to feel all the feelings: they were promises to provide love, shelter, food and sex regardless of how you were feeling. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 has further provisions on protecting concubines: if a husband became displeased with her, he couldn’t just dispose of her, sell her or neglect her.

So: this is what a wife and concubine had in common: the man was their husband (not just their owner), and there were rights and obligations for protection and care extending to the women.

But what, then, were the differences?

It seems clear from context that a concubine was an inferior wife of some sort: they had less (or no) authority in the family and did not participate in the household government. A novel I was recently reading about ancient China mentioned wives and concubines, and the novel described the difference between the two as being largely economic: wives brought dowries, while concubines did not. This seems congruent with some of the accounts of concubines in the Old Testament: some were slaves who caught their master’s eye, but since there weren’t to be any “family negotiations” to make the woman his wife, she could be taken as a concubine and “promoted” to being a family member, even if of a lesser status.

A little sleuthing in Anglican history records that, whereas a husband vowed to worship and honor his wife, he made no such promise to his half-wife, or concubine. So: less status, less honor in the family.

So why did God allow this? And what does this have to do with sex trafficking today?

Well, I don’t know why God allowed this, but I can only surmise that—like with divorce which is clearly less than his will for men and women— He allowed it because of people’s hardness of heart. If there was to be slavery and unfaithfulness and meanness (as human choice inevitably drifts towards), then God made provision for the protection of the most vulnerable in those situations. Allowing Moses to give a decree of divorce to acknowledge that someone truly had broken their marriage covenant (rather than keep a person bound to an abusive/adulterous/neglectful covenant-breaking spouse indefinitely) is a concession to human weakness, not an endorsement of human wiles. I can only imagine that the rules for concubines (like the rules about Levirate marriage) had to do with protecting women in vulnerable situations, rather than seeking to promote the situation. For sure, when Jesus was asked to comment on marriage – he maintained that God’s ideal was always the one man-one woman unit as being the knots from which the human net-work is wrought.

Even though concubines were sometimes taken from among female slaves, I don’t know that this equates to modern day sex trafficking. For one thing, slavery as a socio-economic system differs substantially from slavery as we know it today. For another thing, I don’t know that choice was a factor for ANY woman in getting married in the Ancient Near East. Marriages were arranged, discussed among men, regulated by law (e.g. Levirate marriage: if your husband died and you were childless, your brother in law had to take you as a wife—even as a second wife—and “do the family duty” to give you children to continue his brothers’ name. Zero choice there.) So yes, these women were perhaps slaves and being married without choice, but I don’t think that quite translates to the horror of sex trafficking as we know it. For sure: Scripture has very, very strong things to say about rape being utterly abhorrent to God. I think those verses are far more apropos to sex trafficking than the question of concubines.

Thanks for a great question. I hope these thoughts help a little. But if they don’t: fear not – Holly has some great thoughts ahead!

-Bronwyn

holly2From Holly: 

(Holly Munson is a mom of a one-year-old and a writer/editor. She blogs at hollymunson.com about parenthood, faith, creativity, girl power, and other matters.)

Dear CAC,

I am right there with you in trying to figure out this seeming paradox.

For me, the question about concubines in the Bible prompts additional, larger questions such as what it means to be a woman and how God views patriarchy in the church and society. Plus, I am a Mormon (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), so I am also dealing with questions about what the heck was the deal with nineteenth-century Mormon polygamy. So many existential questions, so little time!

I can’t promise a tidy (or concise) answer to any of these questions, but I’d love to work through it together. Let’s dive right in and consider the possibilities:

The Good

Perhaps God really views women and men as equal, and concubines are not an ideal part of marriage, but there was a benevolent reason to allow concubinage in the context of ancient patriarchal society.

Many Bible commentaries I’ve seen take this line of reasoning: Becoming a concubine grants a woman (and her future children) a higher socioeconomic status than if she were only a servant or a slave. Therefore, God was working within the imperfect cultural context to improve the woman’s quality of life.

Also, in the cases of both Sarah and Rachel, the wife presented her husband with her handmaiden because they were not (yet) able to have children. You could say that these wives joined with their husbands and handmaidens in what they knew would be a challenging relationship because they felt it was important enough to provide a posterity.

Cultural context somewhat improves in the early Christian church—there are no concubines to be found, at least, but patriarchy is still present, as reflected in the “household codes” that advise on husband/wife, parent/child, and master/slave relationships. (For example, Colossians 3:18–19: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.”)

Rachel Held Evans offers this interpretation on her blog: “The most important question we have to ask when reading the New Testament household codes is this—is their purpose to reinforce the importance of preserving the hierarchy of the typical Greco-Roman household or is their purpose to reinforce the importance of imitating Christ in interpersonal relationships, regardless of cultural familial structures? Are these passages meant to point us to Rome or to Jesus, to hierarchy or to humility?” 

This pattern of God making the most of any given social context seems to be universal. In the excellent book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Karen Armstrong writes that religious people throughout history “could not radically change their societies; the most they could do was propose a different path to demonstrate kinder and more empathic ways for people to live together.”

The Not-So-Good

Perhaps God begrudgingly permitted Abraham and other Old Testament prophets to take additional wives and concubines, or perhaps they were mistaken in their interpretation of God’s will.

This is less inspiring, but it’s also possible, and could be partly true alongside the previous possibility. God lets people make poor choices all the time! And he deals with imperfect people (including prophets) all the time!

There’s the time the Israelites demand to have a king, “such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5–6). God mourns that the people have “rejected me as their king” and tells Samuel the prophet to accede to their demand, but to “warn them solemnly” that they will be giving up their rights to the new king. (Surprise: The whole king thing doesn’t turn out so hot for them.) There’s the time Abraham tries to talk God down from destroying Sodom (“What if there are one hundred righteous people? Fifty? Twenty? Ten?”). There’s the time Moses is initially supposed to get water out of a rock by talking to it, but is allowed to get water out by striking it. There’s the time Jesus reprimands the Pharisees on their misunderstanding of the law of divorce, saying that “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Matthew 19:8).

There are so many times when we ask the wrong things of the Lord or do what he’d rather we didn’t do because our hearts are hard and our flesh is weak. He permits us to choose the wrong things, and by doing so we learn from our mistakes. We can even learn from the mistakes of our leaders; we are all refined in the process.

As Mormon Jeffrey R. Holland, one of my favorite thinkers, has said, “Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”

The Bad

Perhaps God doesn’t exist, and prophets and religious leaders have just been making this stuff up to suit their whims. Even worse, perhaps there is a God who isn’t as benevolent as we think he is, a God who is indifferent to equality and has no problem assigning women an inferior status in marriage or in the eternities.

When you grapple with difficult questions like the one you posed, it can shake you to your core, most taken-for-granted beliefs. And it can be terrifying.

C.S. Lewis once said: “Not that I am I think in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him. The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”

I choose to believe there is a loving God, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the possibility that there isn’t one. To acknowledge the multitude of possibilities—the multitude of things we do not know or cannot prove—is to acknowledge the full weight of faith that is required in the face of difficult questions. As Terryl and Fiona Givens write in The God Who Weeps, “The greatest act of self-revelation occurs when we choose what we will believe, in that space of freedom that exists between knowing that a thing is, and knowing that a thing is not.”

How I Choose

The twentieth-century philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I think the Bible is no exception. Even though I view it as an inspired and inspiring document, it is inseparable from the unequal social structures that have been around since the Fall.

I love the words of Mormon scholar Lavina Fielding Anderson:

“The church neither invented the mechanisms of patriarchy nor shaped the grammar of inequity. The mechanisms of patriarchy are embedded deep in our culture and our language. I have long been dismayed at what the church ‘does’ to women, but the sources of oppression seep through the bedrock of our culture itself. That insight has brought me feelings of understanding and even forgiveness which are very healing.”

Knowing that oppression runs wide and deep, and that the church and the scriptures are not immune from oppression, is hard to swallow. But I also find it reassuring. If the church were a shiny, perfect pillar of equality compared to the rest of the world, what real choice would there be? No faith would be required of us. We need ambiguity and messiness and mistake-making to reveal the desires of our hearts, and to have our hearts refined. And we have Christ at our side, healing the pain of those mistakes along the way.

Thanks for Holly for her thoughtful and helpful insight! Got a question you’re itching to ask? Send it my way! 

 

9 thoughts on “Ask Me: Why Did God Allow Wives AND Concubines?

  1. In societies that were preserved partly by warfare, the proportion of men left living to women was bound to be small. Today in wars men are three times as likely to die as women and in the Irag War women comprised 2.32 per cent of the deaths and males 97.68 percent of the deaths (http://usiraq.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000671#miltfatstat) In the aftermath of such conflicts in primitive societies, the reproduction of warriors was a critical need. Harems and concubines and slaves and the acceptance of widowed sisters-in-law into the household were methods of maintaining the population of the group.

  2. “Perhaps God begrudgingly permitted Abraham and other Old Testament prophets to take additional wives and concubines, or perhaps they were mistaken in their interpretation of God’s will.”

    See, this is my issue when Christians (some, not all) insist the Bible is inerrant and perfect. If there’s even a remote chance that the prophets were mistaken in their interpretation of God’s will, wouldn’t that mean the Bible is not inerrant?

    I still don’t understand why God couldn’t just say, as loudly and clearly as when he gave the Ten Commandments, that men can only have ONE wife and be sexually intimate with her alone (and on that note, he could have been more clear about rape being wrong, too. The OT laws about rape victims having to marry their rapists doesn’t jive with the idea that rape is abhorrent to God. At least not to me).

    As someone who experienced sexual abuse, I have to admit that this aspect of the Bible is a huge stumbling block for me. Consequently, I’ve read more of the New Testament than the Old. It’s just too disturbing and triggering. However, I appreciate the honesty that there’s a chance we could be wrong about there being a God in the first place. That shows a degree of humility that seems very rare in Christians these days.

    • Beth, thank you so much for reading and commenting. This topic must be very hard to read about, indeed. There are just so many things in the bible I don’t have answers for. The killing of enemies’ babies, the Judges 19 concubine, the story that Tamar was “righteous” even though she seduced her father-in-law… all of these things are hard to read and make me wonder so much about cultural context and what this can mean. I am left with so many questions.

      If this post helps give some clarity in any way on a very thorny issue, I’d be glad.

      • Do you ever find it hard to believe that God is good after reading these passages? I feel bad even asking, but I’d be lying if I said I never questioned.

  3. Just a thought bro follow up on. In days of old, young men were sent to war where very few returned, resulting in a disproportionate women to men ratio. The Koran allowed for men to take in these widows and women who did not have the ability to settle with a man and have traditional family into his family and to treat them as wives. May it wasn’t Gods edict, but someone who foresaw problems that could evolve and in this was a way provide a socially acceptable solution?

    • Hey Tony, thanks for reading and commenting. This reminds me of the “reasons why God didn’t allow pork in the Bible” conversation. The Old Testament didn’t say WHY, it just said pork was unclean. Modern pundits speculate that maybe it was God’s provision for health (the Israelites didn’t know about worms etc, but God did)…. but the practicality of the provision is, in some way, a different question from the morality of the thing. It is interesting to contemplate why, though 🙂

  4. Two readers over on Facebook had some excellent insights to add to this conversation. With their permission, I am cutting and pasting their comments here.

    HJ: “David Instone Brewer of tyndale House in Cambridge (UK) has written a heap of stuff on the way the marriage provisions for concubines is crucial for understanding the OT view (and thus to an extent) the NT view of all marriage.

    Provisions for concubines (essentially indentured servants) would a fortiori apply to more regular wives . . . thus the passages relating to concubinage and prohibiting neglect etc must apply just as much if not more so to more regular marriage.

    What the laws make clear (I think) was that concubines were indentured servants when the marriage took place but become full wives within the marriage and no longer servants. They have full rights. BUT humans being humans (men being men, and frankly, women women) history cannot be erased… the way into the marriage would always play a part in the way folk viewed the marriage. The Mosaic legislation (Torah) attempted to counteract that tendency.

    The wife from concubinage was likely to be in one of two main scenarios: (1) she was a second or secondary wife in a polygamous marriage with all the attendant difficulties of that situation – difficulties the OT in no way attempts to gloss over, and in fact in some places legislates for. (2) She was the primary wife but from a much lower social status than the husband.

    (2) In particular comes into play … how come was she sold (or contracted) into indentured labour in the first place? Presumably because her family/clan were too poor/powerless. The social protections within a clan based society as is envisaged in the Mosaic law would have been weak in her case, necessitating extra explicit legislation to provide some legal protections for her.

    The OT laws relating to marriage to indentured labourers protect them from being treated as chattel and being forced into sexual servitude (as happened in the Greco-Roman world).

    As for the brief foray into Anglican history – I’m not sure if your point is slightly obscured there or if you’ve misunderstood your source – but neither English law nor Anglican ritual permitted concubinage. The source you’re quoting is talking about ancient custom meaning the custom in the period of the OT and maybe the Greco-Roman world, not the custom of either the CofE at any point in its history, or of english law 1530’s — present.”

    Another reader noted:

    “All OT understandings of sexual relationships must be governed by Genesis 2:21-25. It is the paradigm. Outside of that paradigm–and, notably, everything post Genesis 3, where sin enters into the equation–is a deviation from the ideal.

    (Correction: not “everything” post Genesis 3 deviates from the paradigm. Many relationships do deviate from the paradigm/ideal, but some relationships seem to fit the ideal somewhat (as much as any sinful human being can).

    Thanks, gentlemen – this is EXTREMELY helpful.

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