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Concubinage; Abraham’s Marriage to Hagar

There is one detail of the story of Abraham and Sarah which was never clear to me. Sarah was unable to conceive, and so Abraham took her handmaid Hagar instead (Genesis 16). How was it permissible to introduce a second woman into the marriage, just because she was in a sense a part of the family? Wouldn’t that have been a form of adultery?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising the interesting issue. In truth, Sarah herself suggested to Abraham that he take her maid in her stead in the hope that she would be “built up” through her (Gen. 16:2). It would not have been an issue of adultery, God forbid, since the Torah does permit polygamy (although it is no longer in practice and was uncommon even in Biblical times – see here).

In the case of Hagar, the Sages understand that it was a different type of relationship – concubinage. Abraham did not formally marry Hagar, which would have made her a wife of equal standing to Sarah. He rather took her as a concubine – pilegesh in Hebrew. (Later, after Sarah’s death, Abraham took Keturah as a concubine as well, who too was never a full wife and true replacement for Sarah (see Gen. 25:1,6). The Torah further records (vv. 5-6) that at the end of his life Abraham sent the children of his concubines away with presents, while leaving his estate to Isaac.)

What exactly is a concubine? The Talmud writes that it is a woman designated to a man but without a marriage ceremony or a ketuvah – a marriage contract (Sanhedrin 21a). Thus, it was a lower type of marriage, lacking the typical obligations of a husband to a wife and the children (Exodus 21:10).

According to most opinions, concubines were permitted to kings alone – and are forbidden to commoners either biblically or due to a later rabbinical decree. Thus, other than the concubines of kings (such as those of King David (II Samuel 5:13) and King Solomon (I Kings 11:3)), we find very little mention of concubinage in the Torah beyond the period of the forefathers – after the Torah was given at Sinai. The most well-known one was the tragic case of the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19-21) – whose horrific death caused a civil war in Israel.

Even according to the minority opinion that concubinage is not forbidden to commoners, it does not seem to have been practiced at all in Talmudic times. There is therefore very little legal discussion of it in the Talmud. There are a few scattered passages in the classical literature – discussing such issues as a man’s obligations to his concubine, the precise method of acquisition, and if its termination requires divorce. But beyond that, the Sages essentially viewed the topic as a historical one rather than an applicable one, and so dealt with it rather sparingly and hypothetically.

The episode of Abraham taking Hagar in place of Sarah is significant in a very different sense. The practice of taking a handmaid as a surrogate mother – in order to bear children on behalf of a barren matron – was a common Mesopotamian custom in Biblical times, attested to by the many clay tablets which have been excavated from roughly the time and place Abraham lived. (Two generations later, both Rachel and Leah would do the same – see Genesis 30.) By contrast, such a practice was unheard of in later cultures in which the Jews lived. This thus provides a strong objection to the theory of the Bible critics that the Torah was compiled centuries later than our forefathers were believed to have lived, such as by a later Canaanite people who wished to reinvent an illustrious national history in conformance with their then religious beliefs. It would be very odd for them to imagine such an unfamiliar practice as the foremother of the nation inviting her maid to bear children for her. Much more plausible is that later scribes faithfully transcribed the Torah as it was passed to them – as strange as such a practice seemed in their time. (See Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews, p. 12.)

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