Book: Islam In The Bible, This Chapter is Presented by Courtesy of the Author: Professor Ali Haydar (Thomas McElwain)


Chapter Nine: 

Concubinage or Marriage of Pleasure


Islamic marriage is a contract before witnesses between a man and a woman. A man may under certain circumstances contract marriage with up to four women, in addition to concubines. Concubinage is a form of marriage in which the contract includes specific limitations either on the time or the rights involved in the marriage.

The texts of the Bible can be classified in three groups: those spoken by God Himself and thus giving direct divine commands; those describing the holy example of prophets and other human beings with God-given authority to serve as such holy examples; and finally those texts describing the behavior of ordinary people whose example we might not follow. Obviously the first category is normative, whereas the last is not. The second category also has a certain degree of normative value.

There are three types of marriage mentioned in the Bible: marriage between social equals through contract and dowry, concubinage, and marriage by purchase or capture in war (slave marriage). We shall examine here only the second, concubinage.

In principle we could be certain that concubinage is meant only for those texts where the word "Pilegesh" occurs. This word is of uncertain origin. It is used once in the Bible in Exekiel 23:20 to refer to the male partner in such a relationship. The word is thus both masculine and feminine without a change in form.

But even the use of the word "Pilegesh" does not guarantee that true concubinage is meant. Genesis 25:6, as we shall soon see, gives us the only specific regulation characterizing concubinage, that is, that the children of concubines to not inherit from the father. Therefore the use of the word "Pilegesh" in Genesis 35:22 is a loose application of the word to a slave wife whose children did inherit and who was taken as a wife specifically for the purpose of bearing children. This text, however, is doubtful in any case, and should not be used. In 1Chronicles 1:32, the word "Pilegesh" refers to Keturah, the third wife of Abraham. The Genesis text is ambiguous about this marriage, and it is certain that the marriage was not specifically contracted for producing children. The Genesis text does not state whether Keturah's children inherited with Ishmael or whether they were given gifts with the children of Abraham's other concubines.

There are no texts of direct, God-given revelation that refer to concubinage as such, although many texts of legislation must refer to marriage of all types. We shall have to turn to the two lower categories of texts to find an indication of the Bible attitudes towards marriage of pleasure.

Abraham is the first holy example of concubinage in the Bible. By holy example concubinage is stated for Abraham in Genesis 25:6. The word appears here in the plural, indicating that Abraham had more than one concubine. One difference between wife and concubine is stated: the children of the wife inherit, while those of the concubine are given gifts at the father's discretion. This is the one characteristic limitation of concubinage which the Bible states. It otherwise seems to assume that concubinage is well known and needs no further description.

In Judges 8:31 we find that Gideon had a concubine by holy example, who bore a son, Abimelech, who was the first king in Israel.

In 2Samuel 5:13 by holy example David contracted concubinage as well as normal marriage with many women. 2Samuel 15:16 refers to ten women who were David's concubines. The same group of women is mentioned in 2Samuel 16:21,22 and 20:3. Another group of David's concubines is mentioned in 2Samuel 20:3. David's concubines are mentioned again in 1Chronicles 3:9.

In 1Kings 11:3 by holy example Solomon contracted marriage with seven hundred women and concubinage with three hundred. The surprising number of wives here is of course not normative. The Bible places no restriction on the number of wives. The limitation of four wives is one of the few new legislations of the Qur'an, although some maintain that the limitation follows the example of Jacob.

Two concubines are named in 1Chronicles 2:46,48 which Caleb contracted. Caleb is not specifically a holy example, but there is no mention of his ever committing an act which was condemnable. On the contrary, he is often mentioned for his courageous conduct in connection with the successor of Moses, Joshua.

1Chronicles 7:14 mentions a concubine of Manasseh, son of Joseph. Since Jacob incorporated both of Joseph's sons into the twelve, Manasseh is also a holy example.

In 2Chronicles 11:21 there is mention of concubines for Rehoboam, son of Solomon. Rehoboam, despite his political errors, can be counted as one of the twelve good kings of Judah and thus a holy example.

Song of Solomon 6:8,9 bears reference again to the holy example of Solomon in contracting concubinage.

There are thus five or six holy examples of concubinage specifically mentioned in the Bible as such. We shall now examine texts referring to concubinage that cannot be taken as holy example, and texts referring to holy example of marriage which may or may not be concubinage.

The first mention of concubinage in the Bible as that of Esau in Genesis 22:24. Esau, having given up his birthright, cannot be taken as a holy example. There is another concubine mentioned by name in Genesis 36:12, Timna who was the concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esau. Both of these men were devout, although not holy examples.

There is a long and tragic story about the concubine of a Levite in Judges 19. There is every reason to believe that this Levite was devout, although he was not a holy example.

The concubine of King Saul is mentioned by name in 2Samuel 3:7 and again in 2Kings 21:11. King Saul is not a holy example, for the kingdom was taken from him for disobedience. David himself, however, continued to treat him as the anointed and gave fealty to him until his death. He can be assumed to have been generally devout.

Esther 2:14 refers to the concubines of King Ahasuerus. This king is not a holy example.

The word "Pilegesh" is not used elsewhere in the Scriptures. There are several marriages, however, that may well be examples of concubinage, some of them by holy example.

The story of Tamar in Genesis 38:13-26 is an example of a misguided attempt to obey the command to reproduce. Just as in the story of the daughters of Lot, subterfuge on the part of Tamar leaves Judah guiltless of incest. The action of Tamar only serves again to emphasize how the attempt to obey God without taking divine guidance into consideration will eventually lead astray.

Judah's behavior in this story must be examined. In verse 26 Judah recognizes his fault in not giving his third son Shelah to Tamar as the law of levirate demanded. When Judah learns that the unknown woman with whom he has contracted a marriage is his daughter-in- law, he has no more marital relations with her. It appears that Judah consistently applies marriage legislation except in denying Tamar to Shelah, for this is the only fault he acknowledges. We must therefore look for the legal basis of Judah's relations with Tamar. Verses 16-18 describe the negotiations between Judah and Tamar. These are ordinarily understood as the negotiations between a man and a prostitute. If Judah thought that Tamar was a prostitute, which is not certain, it does not imply that he did not marry her. We have already seen from verse 26 that Judah does not acknowledge having made a negotiation of prostitution. He condemns prostitution in his judgment of Tamar. We know also that Judah, as one of the twelve sons of Jacob, is a holy example. We must therefore conclude that Judah was contracting a marriage dowry. The sons of Tamar are therefore not illegitimate, despite the fact that the marriage was terminated when Judah learned who his wife was. The termination of the marriage is not described in detail. We do not know if it was terminated by divorce, by shortening a contract of concubinage, or by the elapse of the time of contract. This is possibly an example of concubinage, as it is not certain what kind of contract Judah made with Tamar.

A second example is the marriage of Moses to an Ethiopian woman in Numbers 12. We know little about this marriage. The Ethiopian is not Zipporah, Moses's first wife who bore the children of Moses known to us. Zipporah was a Midianite. Moses apparently married the Ethiopian woman while Israel was camping at Hazeroth (Numbers 11:35). The only other thing we know about the marriage is that it was strongly opposed by Miriam the sister of Moses, and that Aaron supported her. We do not know the reason for their opposition. It is possible that this marriage was one of concubinage, although there is no other evidence for this than the intimation that it may have been motivated by the desire for temporary pleasure rather than bearing children.

At this point it may be pertinent to examine the distribution of cases of concubinage. More than half of the individuals contracting concubinage are holy examples whose exemplary lives were authoritative, God-given revelation which the people of their times were required to imitate. The others, with the exception of Ahasuerus, were devout people, some of whom have no spot on their record. There is no specific record in the Bible of any wicked personage contracting concubinage. We can assume that at least the wicked kings had concubines, but it is nowhere specifically stated that this is so. In the Bible concubinage is mentioned only in connection with devout living. An explanation of this may be that wicked people generally resorted to prostitution rather than taking on the responsibility of concubinage.

The Scriptures do not deal with length of contract in marriage. Marriage as generally described in the Bible shows evidence of being permanent, although permanence of marriage is never legislated. Many of the cases of concubinage we do find appear to be of rather long term. Exodus 21:7 directly states that marriage by purchase must be permanent. This is an obvious deterent to prostitution. The inference is that other forms of contract exist.

Concubinage and polygamy both fell out of disuse sometime after the return from captivity and during the rise of rabbinicism. As concubinage fell into disuse among the Jews, problems arose. Although there is evidence of prostitution existing along side marriage and concubinage, the incidence of prostitution may have increased with the decrease in polygamy and concubinage. 

Besides the increase of prostitution as such, we are justified in assuming that the present-day practice of marriage with intent to divorce began to appear. This alternative to prostitution is prevalent today in the Middle East and must have been known at the time of Jesus. It is in this context that we should read the Gospel injunctions against divorce.

Matthew 5:31,32 (Luke 16:18) quotes Deuteronomy 24:1 in regard to the bill of divorce. This is expanded in the discussion of Matthew 19:1-12; (Mark 10:1-12).

This text is generally interpreted to mean that Jesus abrogated the law of divorce for all cases except that of adultery, in which case divorce is permitted. There are two serious problems with this interpretation. The first problem is that Jesus does not have the authority to abrogate the law. He only has authority to reaffirm, clarify and apply it to new or specific situations. The law permits divorce, and even if divorce was given because of the specific situation of the hardness of hearts, Jesus could reapply it only in the situation that hardness of heart no longer existed.

The second problem is that the penalty for adultery is death. There is no use in providing for divorce in the case of adultery, because divorce can only be applied to a living person. What sense is there in divorcing someone only to execute them? This problem disappears when the term "porneia," translated fornication, is rather applied to the list of prohibited marriages in Leviticus 18:6-20. In that case the exception would not be for adultery, but for marriage contracted accidentally as incest. Divorce would thus be considered appropriate only in the rare case when the marriage at some point was found to be illegal because of a degree on kinship that had gone unnoticed earlier.

If we take Luke 16:18 to be the pure legislation, and the exception in Matthew to be the misguided clarification of a later hand, we are left with an unconditional prohibition of divorce. This is easier to deal with. Without abrogating the general law of divorce, Jesus could make the application of divorce in a specific situation unlawful. The text gives no indication of what that situation might be. We must either assume that the application is specific and limited or, on the basis of the ordered hierarchy of textual values, reject the text altogether.

If there is no indication in the text of what specific situation the prohibition of divorced applies to, we must look for such a situation first in the practice of the society of Jesus, if possible, and then in later societies in the same area. We do not have information on the practice of Jesus' time, but we do find examples in the area. The law of divorce is used in the Middle East as an alternative to prostitution. That is, marriages are contracted with the intention of divorce after even so short a term as a few hours. We may safely assume that Jesus is referring to this practice.

The legislation of Matthew 5:31,32 and Luke 16:18 is of the validity of holy example, since it consists of the words of a prophet and divine guide. It clarifies the valid application to cases in which the hardness of the hearts of a married couple contribute to their inability to live together. It clarifies that marriage with the intention of immediate divorce as an alternative to prostitution results in adultery and is therefore an invalid use of the law of divorce.

We can safely assume that Jesus's treatment of marriage with the intent to divorce forms a part of Jesus's legal reform. Jesus rejects rabbinical method as an application of the law. Marriage with intent to divorce is precisely the kind of circumvention that rabbinical method allows. Jesus, by contrast, relies on holy example in his application of the law, and sets himself up as such an example.

We do not know the specific application of holy example that Jesus made in regard to concubinage either in his own person or in regard to the holy example of earlier Scripture. In the Gospels as preserved to us, he never discusses the issue of the decrease in polygamy and concubinage. He only condemns what came to replace them, that is, marriage with intent to divorce. The general assumption that Jesus himself was unmarried has only the textual foundation that no wife is specifically mentioned. It is based on prejudices arising from later Christian ideals of monasticism. Considering Jesus's age and the mores of his time, we could more safely assume that he had one wife. That would be a consistent, modern Jewish assumption. Considering Jesus's authoritative application of the law in contrast to rabbinical method, we could even more safely assume that he could have had more than one wife and concubine. These wives and concubines could be among those mentioned in such texts as Luke 23:55 "And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulcher, and how his body was laid."

In summary, an examination of the whole Bible suggests the following. Concubinage, or limited marriage for pleasure, is mentioned in the Bible in regard to about ten men. It is mentioned, however, in such a way as to indicate that it was a well-known and widespread practice. Its characteristics are therefore not described in detail. There is mentioned only the fact that children of concubinage do not inherit with a man's other children. The Bible does not legislate anything about the time period of marriage, except that marriage by purchase must be permanent. Every example of concubinage in the Bible relates to a devout personage, and more than half of them relate to men whose holy example had to be followed by the people of their times.

The decrease of concubinage and polygamy among the Jews led to an increase in prostitution, and its alternative, marriage with intent to divorce. The most consistent interpretation of Jesus's opposition to divorce points to this specific practice. The Gospel thus reverts back to the holy example of the earlier Scriptures.