Contemporary feminist scholars argue convincingly that the meaning of the Hebrew noun pilegesh, which is usually translated as “concubine,” is actually much more complicated than this rather inadequate English translation suggests. Dictionaries of Biblical Hebrew indicate uncertainty about the noun’s origins. Usually, the noun is correlated with the Greek pallakh and the Latin pellex, both translated as “concubine.” This term comes from the Latin feminine noun concubina derived from concumbere, which means “to lie with, to lie together, to cohabit.” Some researchers mention the Middle Assyrian Law 41A as a proof that in the ancient Near East concubines were not married to the man with whom they slept but that a ceremony existed to make her his wife. The English word “concubine” is an anachronistic word for the biblical pilegesh because the English word is attested for the first time only in the thirteenth century C.E. English Bible translations, beginning with the King James Version, have habitually used concubine to translate pilegesh for a Hebrew term of unclear meaning. In the process they have introduced into the text assumptions that devalue women (androcentrism) and make the Near East seem exotic (a process called orientalism). However, the highly respected Hebrew-English lexicon, edited by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A Briggs, observes that the Greek noun “probably” means “young girl.” The Hebrew noun pilegesh can then refer to a sexual relationship between an adult man and a young girl who is perhaps not even sexually mature.
Various biblical references to pilegesh allow for this meaning. For instance, in Judg 19:2 the pilegesh returns to her father’s house after the male Levite takes her, “a woman, a pilegesh from Bethlehem, Judah.” The girl escapes to her father’s house after being statutorily raped by the Levite man. Alas, she was wrong to believe in the safety of her father’s house as the ensuing events in Judg 19-21 unambiguously outline.
Besides the factor of age, another important element in the translation of pilegesh must be recognized. Several biblical texts suggest that a pilegesh grows up to become an enslaved woman with no other function but to sexually please her master and produce his children. An obvious example is the story about David’s ten pilageshim (2Sam 15:16) who were slaves serving the king’s sexual and progeny needs. The women were also raped by the king’s son as a challenge to royal authority (see also 2Sam 3:6-11; 1Kgs 2:13-25).
The most explicit reference to a pilegesh as a slave appears in the story of Bilhah. In Gen 29:29, Bilhah is Rachel’s slave (šipḥâ; see also Gen 30:3-4, Gen 30:7; Gen 35:25; Gen 46:25) and Gen 37:2 lists her and Zilpah as “the women (nāšîm; sing. ’îššâ) of his [Joseph’s] father.” Yet in Gen 35:22 she is “the pilegesh of his [Reuben’s] father,” and Reuben rapes his aunt’s enslaved woman, Bilhah. Interestingly, in 1Chr 7:13 Bilhah is neither Rachel’s nor Jacob’s possession. There she belongs to her sons, who are identified as “the descendants of Bilhah.” These biblical texts about Bilhah’s status and ownership hint at the complicated linguistic and historical situation reflected in the Hebrew term pilegesh.
In sum, the translation of pilegesh as “concubine” hides a complicated translation history that has been flavored by orientalist and androcentric assumptions. For sure, the classification of pilegesh as a prostitute is linguistically, historically, and culturally inadequate. In addition, the classification of the male pilageshim in Ezek 23:20 as “paramours” also relies on antiquated English terminology. Most importantly, the translation of pilegesh as “concubine” ignores aspects of age and social status in the biblical use of the Hebrew noun. It is urgent from an etymological, exegetical, and ethical perspective to establish the meaning of pilegesh as a girl who grows up in involuntary sexual bondage. The noun must be translated accordingly as “(mostly) a sexually trafficked girl in life-time sexual bondage to produce progeny to her master.”
Professor of Old Testament, Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University
Susanne Scholz, Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, USA. Among her many publications are Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect, editor, 3 vols. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013, 2014, 2016); La Violencia and the Hebrew Bible: Politics and Histories of Biblical Hermeneutics on the American Continent, coeditor, SemSt 82 (Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2016); Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible (London: T&T Clark, 2007; 2nd rev. and expanded ed. forthcoming in Spring 2017).
A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.
The practice of placing males or a masculine point of view at the center of one's world view, culture, and history.
Relating to the origin and historical development of words and their meanings.
Explaining or interpreting a text, usually religious.
Of or related to a social conviction in the equality of women.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
An English translation of the Christian Bible, initiated in 1604 by King James I of England. It became the standard Biblical translation in the English-speaking world until the 20th century.
If a man wants to veil his concubine, he must assemble five or six of his neighbors and veil her in front of them, and say, “She is my wife.” In this way she becomes his wife. A concubine who has not been veiled in front of witnesses, or whose husband has not said, “She is my wife,” is not a wife; she is still a concubine.
Representing Asia, especially the Middle East, in a stereotypical way that embodies a colonialist attitude.
2But his concubine became angry with him, and she went away from him to her father's house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months.
The Levite's Concubine
1In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite, residing in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, took to ... View more
16So the king left, followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house.
6While there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul.7Now Saul had a concubine whose name ... View more
Solomon Consolidates His Reign
13Then Adonijah son of Haggith came to Bathsheba, Solomon's mother. She asked, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably.”14Th ... View more
29(Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.)
3Then she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.”4So she gave him her maid B ... View more
7Rachel's maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son.
25The sons of Bilhah, Rachel's maid: Dan and Naphtali.
25(these are the children of Bilhah, whom Laban gave to his daughter Rachel, and these she bore to Jacob—seven persons in all).
2This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah ... View more
22While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Israel heard of it.
Now the sons of Jacob were twelve.
Descendants of Naphtali
13The descendants of Naphtali: Jahziel, Guni, Jezer, and Shallum, the descendants of Bilhah.
20and lusted after her paramours there, whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose emission was like that of stallions.