What was a concubine in the Old Testament era?
The Hebrew word for concubine and concubines occurs forty times in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 11:3 we are told that King Solomon had three hundred concubines. The word occurs eleven times in Judges 19-21 in reference to a concubine that was owned by a Levite. The purpose of this brief study is to answer the question, “What was a concubine in the Old Testament era?”
Judges 19 helps us understand what was a concubine in the Old Testament times. For example, Judges 19:1 tells us that a certain Levite “took a concubine” to himself; in verse 3 we discover that he is called her husband. That is, they were married.
But his concubine played the harlot against him, and she went away from him to her father’s house in Bethlehem in Judah, and was there for a period of four months. Then her husband arose and went after her to speak tenderly to her in order to bring her back . . . Judges 11:2-3a (NASB)
In Judges 19:4, the concubine’s father is called the Levite’s father-in-law.
His father-in-law, the girl’s father, detained him; and he remained with him three days. So they ate and drank and lodged there. Judges 19:4 (NASB)
The concubine’s father is called father-in-law three times (Judges 19:4, 7, 9). That means the Levite and the concubine were husband and wife. They were married. Harris, Archer and Waltke summarize what a concubine is with the following helpful explanation of a concubine.
Hebrew equivalent of Greek pallakis 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” (Jud 19:3), the “father-in-law” (Jud 19:4), “son-in-law” (Jud 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.
Today’s definition of a concubine is a mistress. A woman who is not married to a man and provides him sexual activity. Webster-Merriam dictionary defines concubine as,
A woman with whom a man cohabits without being married.
But a concubine in the Old Testament was different than the modern day concubine. In the Old Testament era, a concubine was legally a second class wife.
1. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 724.