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 Vol. 6, No. 2 

February 2004

Since You Asked

~ Page 18 ~

Image Names may be included at the discretion of the Editor unless querists request their names be withheld. Please check our Archive for the answer to your question before submitting it; there are over 1,000 articles in the Archive addressing numerous biblical topics. Submit a Question to GGO.

Hagar: Adulterer,
Concubine or Wife?

By Louis Rushmore

Image Please explain to me if Hagar was married to Abraham when the initial sex act between them took place. Did she become his wife or just his concubine? Did Abraham commit adultery with her? Did he marry her before initial sex contact took place? The Bible says "Sarah gave her to Abraham to be his wife." Thanking you in advance, Evangelist RL JOHNSON

The passage under consideration reads:

Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes (Genesis 16:1-4).

Verses 3-4 may be all the further one has to go to answer the query satisfactorily; it says, "...gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived..." The sequence of events suggests no attempt to commit adultery or fornication, but instead the intention to comply with civil law with which Abram and Sarai were contemporary. "The proposal, originating with Sarai, was entertained by both herself and Abram in the integrity of their hearts" (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown). "V. 3 -- Sarah then took Hagar and gave her (i.e., gave her in marriage) to her husband" (Crawford 207).

Two generations later, in the same family, Jacob likewise practiced polygamy, including taking a secondary wife or concubine. In this case, also, the legal status and the sequence of events are included in the text.

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees that I may also have children by her. And she gave him Bilhah her handmaid to wife: and Jacob went in unto her. And Bilhah conceived, and bare Jacob a son. And Rachel said, God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son: therefore called she his name Dan (Genesis 30:1-6, emphasis added; see also Genesis 30:9).

Abram's brother, Nahor, also practiced polygamy, the second of which wives was a concubine. Therefore, Abram appears to have adopted a practice, both with reference to polygamy and with reference to concubines, that was common to both his family and the age in which he lived.

And it came to pass after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, Behold, Milcah, she hath also born children unto thy brother Nahor; Huz his firstborn, and Buz his brother, and Kemuel the father of Aram, And Chesed, and Hazo, and Pildash, and Jidlaph, and Bethuel. And Bethuel begat Rebekah: these eight Milcah did bear to Nahor, Abraham's brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, she bare also Tebah, and Gaham, and Thahash, and Maachah (Genesis 22:20-24).

Obviously, God intended mankind to practice monogamy rather than polygamy (or even polyandry) when he instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:20). God brought marriage into being as the social and physical union of one man and one woman. Note that, strictly speaking, no ceremony was observed regarding the establishment of the first family. There were no civil governments or laws of men yet.

Equally obvious, Jesus Christ restored the divine plan for marriage of one man for one woman for life (Matthew 5:32; 19:1-9). Only death and fornication may interrupt a marriage whereby the surviving marriage partner or innocent spouse may marry again with God's approval (Romans 7:1-3; Matthew 19:9). Mankind is obligated to conform to civil law (Romans 13:1-7) except in the instances where civil law may require one to violate God's law (Acts 5:29); in the Gospel Age, Jesus disallows divorce and remarriage for any reason while one's spouse lives except for the cause of fornication, irrespective of what man's law allows (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). "Christianity has restored the sacred institution of marriage to its original character, and concubinage is ranked with the sins of fornication and adultery (Matt. 19:59; 1 Cor. 7:2)" (Easton).

However, in the years intervening between the institution of marriage in the Garden and the restoration of marriage to God's high ideals by Jesus (during Patriarchy and Judaism), polygamy became firmly established. Polygamy's biblical debut occurred in Genesis 4:19 when Lamech took two wives. Civil law and God's law regulated polygamy, which included secondary wives, called "concubines." It appears that polygamy was some of what God "overlooked" (Acts 17:30, ASV, NKJV and other translations) before the Gospel Age, but it is something he is no longer willing to overlook.

The Bible presents monogamy as the divine ideal. The Creator made marriage as a union between one man and one woman (Gen 2:18-24; Matt 19:4-6; 1 Cor 6:16). Apparently polygamy, like divorce, was tolerated because of the hardness of peoples' hearts (Matt 19:8). (Nelson's)

Hence, Abram and Sarai complied with contemporary manmade laws and with what God tolerated. Numerous resources portray the polygamy of Abram, though inferior to God's ideal for matrimony, as consistent with marriage laws extant in his part of the world and in his time.

Sarah, continuing childless for so long a time, determined to become a mother by proxy (not uncommon in the East) through her maid, whom she gave to Abraham as a secondary wife (Gen 16)..." (Unger's)

After waiting ten years for God to fulfill his promise to give them a son, Sarah presented Hagar to Abraham so he could father a child by her, according to the custom of the day. (Nelson's)

As the promise of a lineal heir (Gen 15:4) did not seem likely to be fulfilled, even after the covenant had been made, Sarai resolved, ten years after their entrance into Canaan, to give her Egyptian maid Hagar to her husband, that if possible she might "be built up by her," i.e., obtain children, who might found a house or family (Gen 30:3). The resolution seemed a judicious one, and according to the customs of the East, there would be nothing wrong in carrying it out. (Keil & Delitzsch)

...the custom of the East prompted Sarai to resort to the expedient of giving her maid to her husband for a second wife, that she might have children by her. ... Abram yields to the suggestion of his wife, and complies with the custom of the country. (Barnes' Notes)

According to family law practiced in Abraham's time, it was possible for a man to have a child by a secondary wife. Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar in this way ( Genesis 16:12 ). (Gowers)

There is no evidence that Abraham ever went to one of the "tablet houses," as the schools were called, but he certainly followed the laws of the Sumerians. The custom that a childless wife might have children by proxy through a servant girl (Genesis 16:12 ) was a Sumerian custom. (Gowers)

Sarai too shared her husband's disappointment and frustration, perhaps even more than Abram, and this led to her suggestion of Abram's having a child by Hagar, her personal maid, a suggestion in which Abram sinfully and unwisely concurred.  Under the legal rules of the society of that age, such a child would indeed have been legally Sarai's. ... It was a legal and commonly accepted practice after the customs of that age, and we can hardly suppose that Abram and Sarai here deliberately chose to violate God's law. ... The Hebrew word rendered 'wife' is the same word also rendered "concubine." (Coffman)

Archeological discoveries have fully substantiated the details of this incident which occurred some eighteen or twenty centuries prior to the beginning of the Christian era. The practice of a slave woman bearing a child for a childless wife is strange indeed from the point of view of the Western world. But that this was a common practice in the patriarchal world is evident from two sources especially, namely, the Code of Hammurabi and the Nuzi tablets. Excavations at Nuzi (or Nuzu), an ancient city of northern Mesopotamia east of the Tigris -- the site is now near Kirkuk in Iraq -- have uncovered thousands of clay tablets in cuneiform script most of which date back to the 11th and 16th centuries before Christ, at the time when the town was under Hurrian (Horite ) domination. From Par. 146 of the Code of Hammurabi we learn that a priestess of certain rank who was free to marry but not to bear children, gave her husband a slave girl in order to provide him with a son. (Crawford 205)

At least two sources dispute God's acceptance of polygamy in general and concubines specifically as circumstances that God "winked at" (Acts 17:30, KJV) or "overlooked" (NKJV, ASV, etc.). "For a man to take a secondary wife or concubine was sinful" (Wycliffe). "We have here the marriage of Abram to Hagar, who was his secondary wife. Herein, though some excuse may be made for him, he cannot be justified, for from the beginning it was not so..." (Henry). Yet, the divine regulation of polygamy and concubines in Scripture (see below), plus the bestowal of several wives upon King David (2 Samuel 12:8), indicate tolerance on God's part at one time regarding the aberrations to marriage as God instituted it. The parents of the great prophet Samuel were polygamists, against whom the Scriptures allege nothing but good things (1 Samuel 1:1-2).

When defining biblical words, it is important that one turn to sources that define words respecting the ways in which they were used in biblical times. For instance, turning to a contemporary dictionary for the definition of the word "concubine" yields a definition that is not compatible with the way it was used anciently: "a woman with whom a man cohabits without being married: ... b : mistress" (Webster's). Contemporary dictionaries merely reflect current usage of words, and as the usage of words invariable changes over time, dictionary definitions are amended accordingly.

The way in which the Bible used the word "concubine" is this: "A woman held as a secondary or lesser wife; although practiced in the Middle East, Greece, and to some extent in Rome, and allowed by God in Israel, it violates God's ideal for marriage and was clearly condemned by our Lord Jesus Christ" (Karleen, emphasis added). "She [Sarai] persuaded her husband to take her handmaid, Hagar, an Egyptian, as a kind of secondary wife (concubine), that by her he might obtain what had been denied her (Sarai)" (Crawford 203). Consequently, several sources that refer to Genesis 16:1-4 speak of Hagar as a concubine, a wife of lesser stature in the family.

Mention is made of her [Hagar]  in two passages (Gen 16; 21:8-21). ... In the first narrative (Gen 16) it is related that Sarai, despairing at her age of having children, gave Hagar to Abram as a concubine. (International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia)

Taken as legal concubine at Sarai's suggestion to raise a seed, in hope of his being the promised heir, when Sarai's age seemingly forbade hope of issue by her. The marriage law was then less definitely recognized than at the beginning, and than subsequently. (Fausset's)

The long continued sterility of Sarah suggested to her the idea (not uncommon in the East) of becoming a mother by proxy through her handmaid, whom, with that view, she gave to Abraham as a secondary wife (Gen 15). ... In all Oriental states where concubinage is legalized, the principal wife has authority over the rest; the secondary one, if a slave, retains her former condition unchanged, and society thus presents the strange anomaly of a woman being at once the menial of her master and the partner of his bed. (McClintock and Strong) Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine ( ch. 16:14 ), so at Nuzi a marriage contract obliged the wife, if childless, to provide her husband with a substitute. Should a son be born of such a union, the expulsion of the slave wife and her child was forbidden -- which explains Abraham's reluctance, to send Hagar and Ishmael away ( ch. 21:10 f.). (Bright)

Then, aged 86, he had a son, Ishmael, by an Egyptian concubine, Hagar, given him by his wife. (Douglas)

Sarah provided a slave concubine for Abraham (Gn. 16:2-3) and handmaidens given as a marriage gift to Leah and Rachel became Jacob's concubines (Gn. 29:24, Zilpah; Gn. 29:29, Bilhah). Concubines were protected under Mosaic law (Ex. 21:7-11; Dt. 21:10-14), although they were distinguished from wives (Jdg. 8:31; 2 Sa. 5:13; 1 Ki. 11:3; 2 Ch. 11:21) and were more easily divorced (Gn. 21:10-14). Kings such as Solomon went to excess in a plurality of wives and concubines. (Douglas)

Sarai presented HAGAR, her Egyptian maidservant, to Abram as a concubine so he could father children by Hagar (Gen 16:2-3). This apparently was a common practice during the patriarchal period in Israel's history. The ancient Hebrews placed great value on having many children. If a couple remained childless after several years of marriage, the husband would often father children through a concubine. (Nelson's)

Concubines as lesser wives had long been adopted by humanity, which practice survived to the first century when Jesus restored the nature of marriage as it was in the Garden of Eden. "In the Roman world the state of concubinatus, or 'lying together,' involved informal but more or less permanent unions without a marriage ceremony" (Douglas). The Jews had fully embraced polygamy, including concubines.

Nor was the practice ever wholly discontinued among the Israelites, for we see that the following men had concubines, namely, Eliphaz (Gen 36:12), Gideon (Judg 8:30-31), Saul (2 Sam 3:7), David (5:13), Solomon (1 Kings 11:3), Rehoboam (2 Chron 11:21), Abijah (13:21). Indeed, in process of time concubinage appears to have degenerated into a regular custom among the Jews, and the institutions of Moses were directed to prevent excess and abuse by wholesome laws and regulations (Ex 21:7-9; Deut 21:10-14). The unfaithfulness of a concubine was considered criminal (2 Sam 3:7-8) and was punished with scourging (Lev 19:20). In Judg 19 the possessor of a concubine was called her "husband," her father is called the "father-in-law," and he the "son-in-law," showing how nearly the concubine approached to the wife. ... Christianity restores the sacred institution of marriage to its original character, and concubinage is ranked with fornication and adultery (Matt 19:5; 1 Cor 7:2). (Unger's)

In the ancient world concubines were protected by law, so they could not be sold if they were no longer of interest to the man. The Law of Moses also recognized the rights of concubines and guarded them from inhumane and callous treatment (Ex 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14). (Nelson's)

The concubine's condition was a definite one, and quite independent of the fact of there being another woman having the rights of wife towards the same man. The state of concubinage is assumed and provided for by the law of Moses." ... Concubinage therefore, in a scriptural sense, means the state of cohabiting lawfully with a wife of second rank, who enjoyed no other conjugal right but that of cohabitation (q.v.), and whom the husband could repudiate, and send away with a small present (Gen 21:14). In like manner, he could, by means of presents, exclude his children by her from the heritage (Gen 25:6). Such concubines had Nahor (Gen 22:24), Abraham (Gen 25:6), Jacob (Gen 35:22), Eliphaz (Gen 36:12), Gideon (Judg 8:3), Saul (2 Sam 3:7), David (1 Sam 5:13; 15:16; 16:21), Solomon (1 Kings 11:3), Caleb (1 Chron 2:46), Manasseh (ib. 12:14), Rehoboam (2 Chron 11:21), Abijah (2 Chron 13:21), and Belshazzar (Dan 5:2). Their issue was reputed legitimate (though the children of the first wife were preferred in the distribution of the inheritance), but in all other respects these concubines were inferior to the primary wife, for they had no authority in the family, nor any share in household government. (McClintock and Strong)

As far as can be gleaned from Scripture, Sarai determined to give her handmaid to Abram as a concubine or secondary wife; in Abram's time, there were two classes of wives, primary and secondary or concubine, but a concubine was nevertheless a wife. Sarai discussed the matter with Abram, who consented; in Abram's time, the acquisition of a secondary wife or concubine may have been no more ceremonious than the first marriage in the Garden of Eden. Abram took Hagar to be his concubine or secondary wife, after lying with her and she conceived. Therefore, it appears that Abram did not commit adultery with Hagar, according to both man's law and God's law at the time.Image

Works Cited

Coffman, James Burton. James Burton Coffman Bible Study Library. CD-ROM. Abilene: ACU Press, 1989.

Crawford, C.C. "Genesis: The Book of Beginnings," The Bible Study Textbook Series. Vol. 3. CD-ROM. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1980.

Barnes' Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.

Bright, J. A History of Israel. Third Edition. CD-ROM. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.

Douglas, J. New Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1982; Seattle: Logos, 1996.

Easton, M.G. Easton's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos, 1996.

Fausset's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1998.

Gowers, R., and F.M. Wight, (1987). The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times. (Updated and rewritten version of Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, by Fred Wight) CD-ROM.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1987.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition. CD-ROM. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991.

International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1996.

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.

Karleen, P.S. The Handbook to Bible Study. CD-ROM. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition. CD-ROM. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2000.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. CD-ROM. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Nashville: Nelson, 1986.

The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody, 1988.

Webster, 1993.

The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody, 1962.

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