Adultery, concubines, and marriage, in the Old Testament.

by K.W. Leslie, 07 June

Years ago one of my eighth-grade students asked me what a concubine was. ’Cause he wasn’t familiar with the word, and it was in his bible. It’s in everybody’s bibles: Pylegéš/“concubine,” which Strong’s dictionary defines as “concubine; paramour.” I just went with the 21st-century term for paramour: “It’s a girlfriend,” I told him.

Later that day his mother called me to complain. She heard the story, spoke with her pastor, and he assured her a concubine is a wife. Not a girlfriend. What sort of morality was I attempting to teach her son?

Um… it wasn’t a morality lesson. It’s a definition. The morality lesson comes from whether you think the bible’s references to concubines is prescriptive or descriptive: Whether because the patriarchs did it, we can; or whether the patriarchs simply did it, but Jesus calls us to be better than they. (I’ll save you the guessing game: It’s nearly always the second one.)

The patriarchs had concubines. These were, as my Oxford dictionary defines ’em, “a regular female companion with whom a person has a romantic or sexual relationship.” Our English word comes from the Latin con cubaré/“to lie down with.” A patriarch would lie down with one of the women in his household, making her his concubine. Not necessarily have sex with her, as was the case with King David and his concubine Abishag. 1Ki 1.1-4 (And if you wanna argue Abishag wasn’t a concubine, then it doesn’t make sense why Solomon freaked out when his brother Adonijah asked to marry her. 1Ki 2.13-25 Claiming your father’s women meant you claimed your father’s kingdom. 2Sa 16.20-22)

Why do some Christians insist a concubine isn’t a girlfriend, but a wife? Simple: It’s a culture clash.

When we read the Old Testament, we’re looking into an entirely different culture with an entirely different worldview about sex and marriage. We don’t realize this: We figure since they followed God, and we follow God, we share worldviews. And in our culture, a married man with a girlfriend on the side is an adulterer. Well, all these God-fearing OT saints with concubines, like Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, or King David: We’ll can kinda, grudgingly accept they had multiple wives. But multiple wives plus girlfriends? Beyond the pale. That’d make them, to our minds, adulterers.

So to clear them of the charge of adultery, “concubine” can’t merely mean “girlfriend.” It has to be some ancient kind of wife.

Adultery and patriarchy.

Thing is, how we define adultery, and how the ancients defined adultery, are two different things.

Under the patriarchs’ system of government, the father or eldest male of a family was functionally its king. He ruled over everybody in his household. Wives, children and grandchildren and their spouses, other relatives in his care, employees, and slaves. All these people were his subjects. Not outright property, but he was their ruler. As such, he could have sex with any of them he chose.

Wait, how on earth is that not adultery? Because in a patriarchal culture, adultery is defined as having sex with a woman who isn’t yours. Like some other patriarch’s wife, daughters, mother, stepmothers, aunts, female slaves, or any woman in that man’s household. They were his, not yours. Unless you bought ’em, or captured them in battle, or made arrangements with their patriarch to marry them. One way or another they had to first become the patriarch’s subjects. Otherwise it was adultery.

Once the LORD took charge, he forbade a lot of the sexual activity patriarchs felt free to practice. God banned sex between close relatives, Lv 18.6-18 because previously the patriarchs had no qualms about incest: Abraham married his sister, Ge 20.12 both Esau and Jacob married their first cousins, Ge 28.9, 29.9-10 and Moses’s parents were aunt and nephew. Ex 6.20 (Eww eww eww.)

If a man wanted to have sex with his slaves, the LORD ordered that he first free her, or at least treat her as free. Dt 21.10-14 ’Cause you know slaveowners still buy women only for sexual purposes, and God was trying to mitigate a lot of the evil that went on in that day. But beyond these particular issues, he didn’t put a lot of prohibitions on patriarchs’ sexual activity. God was pretty libertarian about it. Far more so than conservative Christians nowadays.

Yeah, these facts tend to shock Christians. Mostly ’cause so many preachers like to insist our society “return to the biblical standard of marriage.” Apparently they have no clue what the biblical standards look like; they just assume it looks like old-timey courtship, engagement, and non-marital sexual activity. And whenever they read the bible, they try to interpret it in light of their worldview. Not the worldview the patriarchs actually had.

You’ll even see these bowdlerized redefinitions leak into Christian reference materials.

Adultery. […] This root represents “sexual intercourse with the wife or betrothed of another man.” Our word should be compared with zaná, illicit heterosexual relations but not necessarily in violation of the marriage vow, and the noun nakriyya, a foreign woman who was generally in a lowered social position and in Prov 5:20; 6:24, e.g., obviously a practitioner of harlotry (cf. RSV). […]

Concubine. The Hebrew equivalent of Greek pallakís and Latin pellex. A concubine was a true wife, though of secondary rank. This is indicated, for example, by the references to a concubine’s “husband,” Jg 19.3 the “father-in-law,” Jg 19.4 “son-in-law.” Jg 19.5 Thus, the concubine was not a kept mistress, and did not cohabit with a man unless married to him. The institution itself is an offshoot of polygamy.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament

Now lemme pick apart some of those words the Theological Wordbook uses in its explanation of “concubine.”

“Husband” Jg 19.3 is actually ish/“man.” If he were her actual husband the author’d use the word baal. The man’s “father-in-law” Jg 19.4 is khotén/“one who gives away his daughter”—usually in marriage, but in this case to only put her in this man’s care, such as it was. The word for “son-in-law” Jg 19.5 is the related word khatán/“relative through marital relations,” because after all there is a relationship of sorts between a man and his daughter’s boyfriend.

What the writer of the Theological Wordbook did was read our culture’s idea of marriage into the Old Testament, with a little help from the KJV and conservative commentators of his tradition. To his mind a concubine has to be a wife. Otherwise so many of our saints are lawless adulterers.

True, it was considered adultery for a concubine to have multiple men in her life. (Yeah, it’s a double standard.) But for men, no problem; and God never called it sinful. He condemned David for stealing Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, 1Sa 11.27 for that’s adultery. But he took credit for giving David his wives, 2Sa 12.8 and never condemned David for having concubines—and we know David had at least 10. 2Sa 15.16 In fact in God’s parable to Ezekiel, he even described himself with two wives—the unfaithful Oholah and Oholibah. Ek 23

So yeah, this is the Old Testament’s worldview. Multiple wives and girlfriends, and none of it sin, for God never prohibited it. Nope, not even in the New Testament. Don’t believe me? Search your bible.

Monogamy and the New Testament.

Our culture values monogamy, the one-woman-one-man setup we find in Genesis. Ge 2.24 Not polygyny, the many-women-one-man arrangement found under patriarchy. If we see any such man practicing such behavior nowadays, we tend to think of him as a lustful sinner; and the women as compromising themselves by condoning such behavior. It weirds us out when Mormons and Muslims dabble in polygyny, because we can’t see how it can’t corrupt everybody involved. We remember it’s the reason Solomon went astray; 1Ki 11.1-8 at best we think of it as a character flaw in every biblical patriarch.

But apart from the Genesis passage, monogamy’s not the norm in the Old Testament. So why’s it the norm in the New Testament? What happened?

Simple: Pagans.

By Jesus’s day, the Jews had been exposed to nearly three centuries of Greco-Roman culture. The westeners didn’t practice polygyny. They found it offensive. Instead they practiced as western pagans still practice today: Serial monogamy. They cohabitated or married; then if they didn’t care for that arrangement, they split up or divorced, found someone else, cohabitated or remarried, split up again or redivorced, and so on.

Yeah, some folks bucked that trend, and slept around. Certain prominent Romans were notorious for their orgies. But society—yes, even pagan society!—didn’t approve. Even King Herod I—hardly the best example of a moral man—practiced serial monogamy, divorcing (or murdering) his wives before marrying another, rather than engage in the common ancient middle eastern practice of assembling a harem.

Because pagans didn’t approve of multiple spouses, they defined adultery as going outside the monogamous relationship. Didn’t take long before that’s also how the Jews defined it. So that’s what we see in the New Testament. Polygyny was out and monogamy was in. Every time Paul referred to wives and husbands, it was always “woman” in the singular—not plural.

Even Jesus’s teaching about divorce reflects this.

Mark 10.2-12 KWL
2 Visiting Pharisees, putting Jesus on the spot, were asking him if it’s right for a man to divorce a woman.
3 In reply, Jesus said, “What did Moses command you?”
4 They said, “Moses permitted us to write a divorce scroll, and to divorce.”
5 Jesus told them, “He wrote you this command for your hard hearts.
6 In the beginning of creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ Ge 1.27
7 ‘For this reason, a person will leave their father and their mother.
He’ll cling together to his woman 8 and the two will be one flesh.’ Ge 2.24
9 People: Don’t divide whatever God joined together.”
10 In the house, the students again were asking Jesus about this.
11 Jesus told them, “If anyone divorces his wife and marries another, he cheats on her.
12 When she, divorcing her husband, marries another, she cheats.”

See, in Old Testament times if a man wanted to marry another woman, he could just join her to his harem. But with no more harems, he had to first divorce his existing wife. Some Pharisees let him, and accepted no-fault divorce. Others insisted divorce was wrong, and could only be done for a serious reason. Jesus appears to agree with them: He made an exception for porneías/“sexual [mis]behavior,” Mt 5.32 and Paul made an exception for abandonment 1Co 7.12-16 —so y’know, reasonable exceptions.

Generally the ancient pagan attitude about divorce and adultery appears to reflect God’s attitude Ml 2.16 far better than the ancient Hebrews’ attitude. In fact Paul even made monogamy one of the requirements of Christian leadership.

1 Timothy 3.2, 12 KWL
2 So a supervisor has to be: Above criticism. Monogamous. Self-controlled.
Prudent. Life in order. Loves strangers. Willing to teach.
12 Deacons must be monogamous, with good, well-behaved kids, and their own homes.

Those who wanna supervise a church, and the ministers who serve under them in any and every capacity, are expected to be miás gynaikós ándra/“a one-woman man.” Not that they were required to be men, Ro 16.1 nor married, but unless they were celibate, Paul’s instruction to Timothy states they’d better be monogamous.

And since every Christian is called to serve the church in some capacity, 1Co 12.4-7 this means every Christian oughta be either celibate or monogamous.

So this rules out all the sexual licentiousness we see in the Old Testament. King David, as much as he might’ve been a man after God’s own heart, as talented as he might’ve been at writing psalms, wouldn’t qualify to clean bathrooms in any church.

No more polygyny. Of any kind: No more girlfriends on the side, nor collecting dozens of them. That also goes for polyandry, one-woman-many-men. If you have a significant other, that’d better be the only person you’re with. And since serial monogamy is likewise wholly inappropriate for Christians, Mk 10.6-9 don’t go there either.

Being in the bible doesn’t make it endorsement.

Look, in both Old and New Testaments, God’s saints did a whole lot of dumb stuff. Contrary to popular belief, the bible isn’t about their good examples. It’s about God’s goodness. Humans screw up; God forgives ’em, or sorts them out. Humans follow God; he blesses them. There are good examples to follow in its books, but there’s also a whole lot of what not to do.

You’ll notice whenever we see polygyny in the scriptures, we quickly see conflict. The women don’t get along with one another: Abraham’s concubine Hagar mocks his wife Sarah. Or Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah fight over their status. Or Samuel’s mother Hannah gets mocked by her husband’s other wife Pennina for being barren. Concubines, because they’re not wives, constantly get taken advantage of, and raped and abused.

With few exceptions, the Old Testament’s male-female relationships are lousy examples for today’s Christians to follow. They’re practices to avoid.

So it shouldn’t horrify us that a concubine is just a girlfriend, and that OT saints had ’em. That was then; this is now. God tightened the standards for our benefit. That’s not the way we’re to live anymore. In God’s kingdom, the curse of women being ruled and exploited by men has been broken. We’re to do away with it. Our new standard is mutual submission.

Ephesians 5.21-28 KWL
21 When you’re submitting to one another out of respect for Christ,
22 the women do so to their own men like they do for the Master,
23 because man is woman’s head like Christ is the church’s head; he’s the savior of the body.
24 But like the church submits to Christ, likewise the women do to the men in everything.
25 And men: Love your women like Christ also, who loves the church and gives himself up for it.
26 So he, who’s clean, can sanctify it with baptism in water and the word,
27 and can personally stand by an honored church.
One which shouldn’t have a stain, wrinkle, or any such thing, but so it’s holy and blameless.
28 Thus men are obligated to love their own women: Like their own bodies.
He who loves his own woman, loves himself.

A man who loves his woman this way, would never settle for her being nothing more than a concubine.