The term “concubine” in the Bible refers to a slave wife. There were two classes of wives in the Scriptures – free wives and slave wives.
A free wife was a woman born to a free man. She was acquired as a wife when a man approached her father and offered him the bride price. If her father consented he would give her as a wife to that man usually accompanied by some kind of wedding feast. While both free wives and slave wives were considered to be the property of their husbands a free wife held a greater place of social honor and her children had inheritance rights that were required to be honored. The concubine’s children had no inheritance rights unless they were granted under special circumstances.
How were concubines acquired?
Slave wives were acquired in much the same way slaves were acquired in general. Sometimes slave women were captured as prisoners of war and later converted to concubines. Sometimes poor women whose fathers, brothers or husbands had died sold themselves as concubines so they could be taken care of. A man could sell his daughter as a slave to another man. That man could either continue to use her only as a servant or he could convert her to his concubine or give her as a concubine to one of his sons. Once a woman was converted to the status of a concubine she had the right to have sex with her husband. Being a concubine in many ways was a step up for a slave woman.
Also it was common for fathers to give their daughters slave girls (hand maids) as gifts as was the case with Rachel and Leah. In many households the free wives ruled over the slaves wives while ultimately the husband was the master of the entire home. Sometimes free wives would give their husband their hand maids to produce more sons as we see in the case of Rachel giving her servant Bilhah to Jacob and Leah giving her servant Zilpah to Jacob(Genesis 30:4-9). It interesting to note that Leah stated God had rewarded her by reopening her womb and giving her another son “because I have given my maiden to my husband”.
Concubines sometimes served as surrogate mothers
The story of Jacob and his sons shows another interesting scenario when it came to slave wives. Some free wives would use their slave wives to act as surrogate mothers and after the children were weaned raised the children as their own. This is why even though some of the twelve sons of Jacob were born of slave women they were all equally considered his rightful heirs.
Were concubines basically sex slaves?
While it is true that many pagan nations may have had “sex slaves” the people of God in the Bible were forbidden from such practices. If a man were to buy a slave woman with the intent of having sex with her had to make the commitment of a husband to her. He could not simply have sex with her and throw her away until he wanted to use her again.
While it is true that a concubine was indeed a slave the truth is she was a wife as well. Another way of stating this is truth is that in Biblical times all concubines were wives, but not all wives were concubines.
We will prove this concept that a concubine was indeed considered a wife in the next section on the rights of concubines.
Did slave wives have any rights?
Today when we think of slavery in any form we think of a person who has absolutely no rights. In fact because of the abuses of slaves throughout history we think all slaves were treated as nothing more than animals. But while God allowed slavery he also required slave owners to respect the rights of their slaves.
A female slave whether she was a concubine or not could not be physically abused by her master
“20 And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished…
26 And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake.
27 And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake.” – Exodus 21:20 & 26-27 (KJV)
Both free wives and slave wives(concubines) had to be provide with food, clothing and sex from her husband
“7 And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
8 If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.
9 And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.
10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” – Exodus 21:7-11 (KJV)
Whether a woman was born to a free man or taken as a slave if she were taken as a man’s intimate sexual companion she was to be treated as a daughter by her husband’s father and treated by him as his wife. She would have the right to have sex with her husband (“duty of marriage”). The pledge of “food, clothing and bed” which was often used in Jewish wedding ceremonies was based on this passage from Exodus 21.
For more confirmation of the fact that concubines were not just slaves but were also considered wives see how Keturah is referred to as the “wife” Abraham took after Sarah died in Genesis 25:1-4 but then she is referred to as his concubine in I Chronicles 1:32-33. Even within the context of Genesis 25 we can see she is considered one of Abrahams “concubines”(Genesis 25:5-6) all of which he sent away after giving their children gifts because he was giving his estate to Isaac.
The reason Abraham sent away his concubines and their children as he knew his death was imminent was to make it clear that Isaac was the only rightful heir to his estate being the son of his first wife who was the only “free” wife he had.
Were concubinage, slavery and polygamy sins that God overlooked?
In this post we have discussed some topics that are all very offensive to our modern cultural values. This is the part of the article where 99% of Christian writers will tell you that the practices of concubinage, slavery and polygamy were all sins God overlooked for a time but then God got rid of in the New Testament.
The truth is that God never condemned the practices of concubinage, slavery or polygamy. He gave strict rules as to how these things could be practiced but he never condemned the practices themselves.
I invite you to look at these two articles that explore all the passages on slavery and polygamy in the Bible and you may be surprised as at what you find.
Was polygamy a sin God overlooked in the Old Testament?