The Concubinage

Bojidar Marinov

Podcast: Axe to the Root
Topics: ,

“God tied the hands of the powerful to protect the weak.”

Assigned Reading:
Authority and Dominion, Volume 3, Chapter 31, “Servitude, Protection, and Marriage,” Gary North
Authority and Dominion, Volume 3, Chapter 32, “Wives and Concubines,” Gary North
Authority and Dominion, Volume 4, Chapter 48, “Oppression, Omniscience, and Judgment,” Gary North


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Welcome to Episode 37 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about an institution established by the law of God in Ancient Israel: the concubinage. When I say “institution,” of course, I mean it in the broader sense, as a cultural norm and legal practice, not as some official bureaucratic system. We will take a look at the nature of the concubinage, and also at the purpose of it. In the process, we will have to look also at the broader ethical context within which it has been instituted; and especially, at why it had to be instituted in the first place. We will also look at the lessons the concubinage teaches us about the influence of the Gospel in history. Thus, we will see in this particular institution of the Law of God the glory of the goodness of the Father contrasted to the wickedness of men, we will see the meaning of the redemption, and the power of the Holy Spirit in changing culture and history.

Every now and then, in the ongoing debates between Christians and atheists, some village atheist who runs out of arguments resorts to the old slogan of, “The Bible allows men to take women as sex slaves!” And then they point to the institution of concubinage in the Law of God. Now, purely pragmatically, I don’t know why atheists keep using this argument; I have never seen one Christian persuaded by such argument to become an atheist. If there is an argument that has proven to be a failure, it is this one: a person has to already have made up his mind in order to accept it as valid. I would guess, there are other factors involved for the use of this argument. Perhaps it is the personal dreams and fantasies of some atheists, which they project onto the Bible. Or something else, who knows. The bad part, though, is not that atheists use such argument – after all, atheists are such an insignificant portion of the world’s population that hardly anything they say or do is statistically significant. The bad part – and that’s what statistically and culturally significant – is that Christians don’t know what to answer. And because they don’t know what to answer, the position of their opponents wins by default when it comes to cultural and legislative influence. Why can’t Christians answer such an argument? Because they don’t think covenantally, that is, they don’t think in terms of ethical/judicial standards, in terms of the law of God. They don’t know what the Law of God says on such issues, and they remain silent when someone else re-interprets the Law of God against them. They allow their enemies to re-define the terms for them; and they allow their enemies to choose the battlefield for them. Christians have the greatest God with the greatest and most comprehensive and consistent and coherent worldview and ideology of knowledge, thought and action; but because they are ignorant of that worldview and of the Word of their God, they are pushed around. The largest religious group in the world, with the richest resources and infrastructure at their disposal, is pushed around by a vociferous tiny minority and silenced into submission. Not because of the power of that minority, but because of the ignorance of Christians. I have talked in previous episodes of the reasons for this powerlessness of Christians. We will talk about how to deal with it in future episodes.

Of course, since the terms are decided not by the Christian majority in America but by their enemies, the meaning of the term “concubine” is decided by the unbelievers. And in the commonly accepted meaning of the word “concubine,” the word means a woman who lives with a man without being his legal wife. Usually this is because there is some legal impediment to their marriage. One reason would be their social status: if they are from different castes or different social groups and marriage between these groups were banned. Such was the case with many white men in the American South who took black women as concubines, because the law forbade legal marriage between whites and blacks. (But it didn’t forbid fornication between them. So much for the allegedly Christian culture in the South.) Another reason would be the legal ban on marriage for certain groups: for example, the Roman Catholic clergy has had the practice of taking concubines ever since celibacy was legislated and enforced. Another meaning of the word would be closer to the atheist imagination of a sex slave. It was an established practice in many pagan cultures (like China, India, the Muslim world) for men of authority to have a harem of concubines whose purpose was strictly sexual satisfaction of their master. In Islam, the very ultimate promise for the faithful is a personal harem of 72 sexual slaves per man forever. So because the terms are already defined by someone else, and Christians – and especially their leaders – do so little to redefine them, in the final account, the terms are used against them. “See, the Bible speaks about the legitimacy of the concubinage, it must be because the Bible approves of a man taking sex slaves for himself.”

The Biblical meaning of the word “concubine,” however, has nothing to do with the modern meanings. And it has nothing to do with fornication, or illegal cohabitation, or with sexual exploitation of helpless girls. After all, in the Bible, it was the father of the girl who gave his girl away to be a concubine; why would a father sell his daughter to be a sex slave? A concubine was a legal wife, with all the rights of a legal wife, without some privileges. But before we move to learning about the nature of the concubinage, and the differences between a wife and a concubine, we need to first understand the difference between the legal status and the economic status of a person in the society. Without understanding that difference, we won’t be able to understand how a concubine was a legal wife, and yet, at the same time, a second-rate wife. And we won’t be able to understand how the institution of the concubinage was meant to protect women, not to debase them.

In short, in any society, a person is always viewed through the lens of two different value systems. One system is legal, and it assesses a person in relation to the ethical and judicial boundaries in the society. That is, what things are banned, what things are allowed. What is considered good and acceptable for him and what is considered evil and unacceptable. What are his rights and responsibilities in relation to other people. The other system is economic, and it assesses a person in relation to the assets and liabilities in a society. That is, how much control he has of them, and how much he can afford to consume, or invest, or waste. What is affordable for him and what is not affordable. What are his opportunities in relation to other people. There is no dichotomy between the systems, neither is there contradiction within the context of the Dominion Covenant. One system denotes ethical boundaries; the other system denotes productive purpose. The two value systems are summarized as one task in the first specific mandate given to mankind in Gen. 2:15: Adam was placed in the Garden to work and to protect. That is, capitalize righteousness and keep wickedness out.

To put it in another way, our legal status denotes our rights. Our economic status denotes our privileges. That’s why we say we are all equal before the Law but we are all unequal on the market. The lack of understanding – or the perversion – of this basic principle of justice is what fuels modern statism. Modern statism in all its forms is based on an ethical system that conflates economic and legal status. One form of statism – socialism – wants to turn the economic privileges of wealthy people into legal rights for all people. Another form of statism – fascism, or crony capitalism – wants to turn the economic privileges of a small group into legal power for that same group. The two forms are not so opposed to each other, as some imagine, they are the same form, but we will talk about this in more detail in a future episode.

Under the Law of God, a wife in marriage had both full legal and full economic status. Her full legal status established her rights to have the basic things a wife is entitled to: food, clothing, and marital relations, with the last leading to children, who were her main inheritance. That legal status came by default, by the very act of marriage, it was not granted to her. These rights were so basic, she could walk out of the marriage if she was not given these three by her husband, and have no obligations to him whatsoever. This would be a serious economic setback for the husband, for under the Law, he was expected to pay a bride price for her. His wife walking out of the marriage meant he lost the bride price, and if he wanted to take another wife, he would have to pay it again. On the other hand, her full economic status established her privileges of being a ruler of her husband’s house, over his economic resources. The Proverbs 31 woman is such a wife: she manages her husband’s household while he is in the city gates. Such rulership over his house is not a “delegated” authority, as in the ideology of modern patriarchalism; she has it by default, whether her husband likes it or not. Contrary to what modern patriarchalists believe, a woman is supposed to tell her husband what to do in the home. It’s her job under the Dominion Mandate. (As R.J. Rushdoony commented on Genesis 3, Eve’s sin was not that she told Adam what to eat; it was her job. Her sin was that she told him the wrong thing.) The foundation for this economic power and privilege of the wife was her dowry. The bridegroom paid the bride price; the father returned the bride price as a dowry for his daughter, and perhaps also added some of his own assets. Thus, a wife entered marriage having personal ownership over part of her husband’s money (the brideprice) plus over her own. In a normal situation, therefore, she would be richer in resources than her husband – which may be the reason why Genesis 2:24 speaks of the man cleaving to his wife rather than the other way around. Being richer than him, plus being a wife of full rights and privileges, she had authority of her own under God.

A concubine, on the other hand, was a woman for whom the bride price was paid, but her father did not return it as a dowry with her. In marriage, she acquired the legal status of a wife: the Law of God did not legalize sexual relations without such legal status. Having the legal status of a wife, a concubine was entitled to all the rights a wife had: she was entitled to food, clothing, and conjugal relations. If she was not provided these things by her husband, she could walk out of the marriage with no guilt, and her father didn’t have to restore the bride price to her husband (Ex. 21:7-11). Her husband’s refusal to care for her was a sufficient reason for divorce and she was free. In terms of her economic status, however, the situation was different. She entered marriage without money, and therefore she had no economic or financial claim on the family. To put it in Biblical terms, she was without inheritance. While her rights were protected, she was not given any privileges. Economically she was no different than a dependent in the family, or a servant. She was free, of course, to work with her hands and accumulate her own assets; but she had no power over the economic dealings of her husband’s property, except where he delegated responsibility to her. (This is one of my disagreements with modern patriarchalism; by making the authority of the wife dependent on her husband’s delegation of authority, patriarchalists demote modern wives to the position of concubines.) Her children were her inheritance, and, as in the example of Hagar, if the concubine left, her children left with her, and they provided for their mother, not having inheritance in the house of their father. Notice, for example, in Judges 9, Abimelech, the son of Gideon’s concubine, considered his mother’s family as his relatives, not his father’s family. Legally, because of the marriage covenant, she was a wife of full rights. Economically, because of her lack of inheritance, she was a servant with no privileges. Thus, Jacob’s wives were given to him as concubines (Gen. 31:14-16). Ruth the Moabite, on the other hand, entered her marriage as a full wife, with her inheritance (Ruth 4:5).

There was also a special case of a concubine, that of the war bride; the case in which a soldier in an occupying army takes a woman from the defeated nation. This case is special because while technically, the woman was a concubine – she entered marriage without a dowry – the law did not allow the man to treat her as a concubine; the text specifically says that he should be her husband and she his wife. Thus, a captive woman from a defeated nation had the opportunity to escape the devastation of her native country by becoming a wife of full rights and full privileges. He could not sell her for money; she was not his slave or servant. The reason for this privilege was, according to the Biblical text, that he “humbled” or “afflicted” her. The Law of God provided special protection for non-combatants from defeated nations (of which we will talk in a future episode); and a war bride had special privileges. She had inheritance in Israel, in the house of her husband, without bringing in any dowry of her own.

A war bride who married a Hebrew soldier achieved full legal rights and full economic privileges, her children had the right to inheritance, and in case of divorce, she was a free woman with the right to re-marry. Of course, that came with a cost: her male relatives and her home were destroyed in the war. A Hebrew concubine without a dowry had only the legal protection in marriage but not the economic privileges of a wife. Biblical symbolism is outside the scope of our study here, but, shortly, in a way, we can see in these cases a picture of Israel and the Church; Israel being the concubine who had no inheritance but was adopted by God (remember, Paul compares Israel to Hagar the slave wife, Gal. 4:24-25); and the Church who was Jesus’s war trophy, his foreign bride which He acquired and led in captivity to His home to make her His wife of full right and full privilege; as Paul in Ephesians 4:8 quotes from Psalm 68:18, “As He ascended on high, He led many captives in captivity, and gave gifts to men.” (The original verse, by the way, says the opposite, that He received gifts from men; but why Paul misquoted that verse is another topic altogether.) Whatever conclusions we can draw about Biblical symbolism, however, one thing is clear: contrary to the fantasies and the dreams of our atheist detractors, the Law of God does not condone sexual slavery. The Biblical concubine was a legal wife, and she all the rights of a legal wife. She didn’t have the economic privileges of a wife, but as far as her person was concerned,, she was a full-fledged member of the society, and she could leave an abusive marriage without any guilt or scorn or stygma on her.

In the New Testament, of course, the institution of the concubinage was abolished, together with a number of other institutions pertaining to the application of the law to OT Israel – like no-fault divorce, the Jubilee re-distribution of land, etc. There are no second-rate wives in the New Testament; women are co-heirs with men, and therefore taking a wife means that she is automatically the ruler of the man’s house irrespective of the differences in their economic status. Monogamy was restored as the original principle, and with monogamy, the perpetuity of marriage was restored as well. (Mark 10:6 makes no sense in the context of polygamy.) A wife in the New Testament has full economic and legal status, irrespective of her economic and legal status before the marriage. Sometimes this creates conflict with existing customs in pagan societies where missionaries are sent to work. While Christian missionaries are supposed to honor those existing social customs on the mission field with the purpose of smooth transition and protection, they are still obligated to teach the Biblical ideal.

One reason for the abolition of the concubinage is that it had a revelatory function; it pointed to the status of Israel and the Church, and taught the covenant people a lesson about their true legal standing before God: having rights in His covenant but not privileges, until the Son conquers His enemies and takes His Church as His war bride. So now that these truths have been revealed in Christ, there is no reason for the existence of the shadow that pointed to the light. So the institution is abolished. But the more important question for us is not why it was abolished; we all somehow feel in our hearts that a woman must have the full status of a wife when she enters marriage. The more important question is, besides teaching the ancient Israelites a lesson about the covenantal status of Israel and the Church, why did God have to institute a second-rate status for girls of poor families? Couldn’t He institute equality, as under the New Covenant?

The answer to this question is this: God tied the hands of men in order to provide for women. And that because of the hardness of the hearts of the men before the Cross.

We in our day often have hard time understanding the redemption which the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought to this world. We tend to read the Bible and imagine that the world was pretty much the same place as today, and that people were pretty much the same people as today. Every now and them we will encounter a story about exquisite cruelty in the ancient world and we would shiver at the thought of it, but we normally think that the people back then perhaps had the same revulsion towards cruelty; and probably had the same moral conscience as today. The truth is, however, the world before Christ knew very little of empathy, compassion, love, care, respect, and all these other good things we have today which keep our society together. Men could inflict pain and never think of it as anything wrong. Roman women used to torture their female slaves for entertainment; these same Roman women sat in the Coliseum with their men and their children while Christian men and women were raped by soldiers and torn by wild beasts in the arena. Centuries before them the Assyrians – the heirs of the same people of Nineveh who were saved by Jonah’s preaching – used to flay or burn alive thousands of prisoners as part of their military routine. The hearts of men were so hard, we can hardly imagine anything close to it today; so much has our world been changed by the Gospel. When we hear of much lesser atrocities in our own day, we wonder what kind of a person can have such cruel heart; in the ancient world; such were everyday occurrence. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the world after the Cross has done a miracle to the world, and we seldom realize it.

In such a world, a girl in a lower economic status could hardly rely on the empathy of the men in the society, even in Israel. Not having any money to bring into marriage, she would hardly be attractive for any suitors. The result would be that such a girl would run a very low chance of marrying and having children, who would be her only inheritance. A girl would be vulnerable to abuse in such a position; she is a second-rate person anyway because of her economic status; being left alone without a husband and with elderly parents would be a life of nightmare for her. To provide for such girls in a world where hardness of heart was common, God gave a law which acknowledged the lower status of such girls, but built walls of protection around them. A man could take such girl for his wife now without granting her economic privileges; but he was obligated to provide for her basic rights. He had a certain minimum he had to meet: he couldn’t leave her starving, or naked, or without children. On the other hand, there was no ceiling on what privileges he could bestow on her; he could make her a full status wife with all the privileges a wife has. Leah was given to Jacob as a concubine, without inheritance, and she wasn’t his favorite wife; and yet, at the very end of his life, in Gen. 49:31, Jacob asked to be buried with her in the same place where Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah, and Isaac was buried with his wife Rebekah; indicating that in the final account, Leah who has never had his favor, was now to him what Sarah was to Abraham and what Rebekah was to Isaac. The law established a bottom limit of legal treatment, and no limit on mercy. Mercy to the weakest members of the society, in a world of zero empathy and compassion; that’s what God’s Law was about.

This brings us to the modern application. Obviously, concubinage is abolished in the New Covenant economy. But the moral and judicial principle behind it is still in force. And that moral and judicial principle is that for Biblical justice to be complete in a society, we can’t rely on a mechanical ideology of equality before the Law. The Law of God established and protected rights as part of its system of justice, but in the process, it also acknowledged and guarded against hardness of hearts. To do that, it acknowledged the weakness and the vulnerability of certain individuals and groups in the society. And since in an imperfect world powerful and more privileged individuals will always be tempted to use their power and privilege to oppress, the Law established special boundaries around the weaker members of the society. Thus, part of our work in restoring Christendom is to identify in our society those groups and individuals who for one reason or another are in a weaker position, and make sure we establish boundaries of protection. But this will be a topic for future episodes.

The reading I will assign for this week is three chapters from Gary North’s economic commentary on Exodus, Authority and Dominion, part of his economic commentary on the Bible. Now, don’t rejoice too much that I am giving only three chapters of a book, those are long chapters. The chapters are the following: From volume 3 of Authority and Dominion, chapter 31, “Servitude, Protection, and Marriage,” and chapter 32, “Wives and Concubines.” From volume 4, chapter 48, “Oppression, Omniscience, and Judgment.” Read them carefully, you won’t find such detailed exposition of Biblical Law in too many places around.

And, as usual, I will ask y’all to consider Bulgarian Reformation Ministries; a mission in Eastern Europe that has proven effective in bringing the comprehensive message of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to Bulgaria, through translating and publishing of books, media presence, helping and encouraging Christian homeschoolers and entrepreneurs, working among the minorities, and social activism. Visit Bulgarian, subscribe to our newsletter, and Donate. God bless you all.