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.
Confused about Concubines
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!
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!
(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.)
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:
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.”
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.”
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!