When we read the book of Genesis today, we see a world that is very different from ours.
Human sacrifice had been practiced by some of the most advanced civilizations of the time. They were constantly making contracts and sealing them in the slain blood of animals and a meal consisting of those animals. Stones were stacked on one another in heaps as reminders of agreements between one another. With their different ways of doing things, we also come across an ancient practice that has been considered inappropriate–concubinage.
We find concubines (secondary wives) in several narratives in the Bible. For something that we consider inappropriate and even sinful (a.k.a. adultery). It makes us wonder why the Biblical authors never really spoke against the practice when recounting the narratives. The author of Genesis certainly spoke against Jacob’s passivity regarding the seduction of his daughter Dinah by ending the argument with his sons and giving them the final word.
The biggest examples of concubinage in Genesis come from two of Israel’s patriarchs: Abraham and Jacob. Abraham sleeps with Hagar who begets Ishmael. Jacob sleeps with Bilhah and Zilpah. Why does the author not condemn these acts? In their ancient worldview, monogamy was the practiced ideal. However, things didn’t always work out according to the ideal, so concessions were made in their cultures to account for non-ideal situations. Concubinage was one of them. So today, I want to discuss three reasons the author of Genesis didn’t seem to think Abraham’s relations with Hagar were not wrong.
Wifely Duty Was To Bear Children
In the ancient Near East (what we call the Middle East), most cultures had a list of duties a wife was to perform. Among those duties was the task of bearing children. Bearing children was how people aspired to immortality in the ancient world. They would live on through their seed. As we mentioned in a previous post (find), Abraham was from Sumerian culture. He may have even been Babylonian (a subset of Sumeria). He left his region when God called him away to a foreign land. Yet we see in his dealings with others, he carried some of his ancestral Sumerian cultural values with him, as did his wife Sarah. In nearly all of the ancient Near Eastern cultures one of the wife’s primary duties was to bear children. The more children a wife could bear, the more blessed a couple was considered to be. For a modern day take on this believe, read up on the quiverfull movement among Evangelicals.
So we get that posterity is a way to immortality and is a blessing from God/gods. But what happens in the event that a child has not been given? What is a man to do when his beloved wife is unable to fulfill her marital duty of bearing children because of her barrenness? Is the man doomed to fade away into history with no hope of memory beyond the grave? In a region of cultures that valued posterity so much, would those cultures allow this to happen to its people? Clearly some sort of solution needed to be presented. That’s where we get the idea of concubinage.
Ancient World Made Concessions for Barrenness
The solution to a childless family was to find a way to bring children into the fold. So concubinage was introduced. In the event a wife is barren and cannot bear children, the husband’s posterity can still be saved if he takes on a second wife (a concubine). Concubines in the ancient world (at least pre-Kingdom years in Israel) were not like what we would expect today. They weren’t sexual playmates for the husband to enjoy in addition to his wife. There were very solemn requirements, namely bearing children.
It is true that kings of old had many concubines in their harem (see Egypt and King Abimelech with Abraham). Those sorts of concubines did serve as playmates and added to the prestige of the king. However, for most common people, concubines were only brought on for the purpose of having children.
In the natural world, it was clear that Sarah was barren–childless and past middle-aged. In her eyes, she had failed in her wifely duty. She never gave Abraham a son. Despite God’s promises, Sarah’s barrenness was a shame on her she felt she couldn’t bear. So she offered up her Egyptian maid servant, Hagar as a concubine. This was both a valid and an expected option for Sarah as dictated by her cultural duty. She was barren. She was older. Her husband needed a child if God’s promises to him were to be fulfilled. It made sense. It was culturally mandated. It was a way for Sarah to make right whatever was wrong in her body. So she took advantage of her cultural background and found a solution.
Solution to Barren Wives Was to Impregnate a Concubine Whose Child Would be Counted As the 1st Wife’s
When Sarah offered Hagar to Abraham, he went along with it. He was from the same culture, and understood what was happening. In the event of a wife’s barrenness, she was expected to help the situation by allowing a concubine to become a secondary wife. A second wife would not have all the rights and privileges of a primary wife, but she would be cared for and respected as the bearer of the husband’s children. The child would be credited to the primary wife with all the inheritance rights of a firstborn.
We read in Genesis that this was not as rosy as one would think. They didn’t all live happily ever after. There ended up being contention between Sarah and Hagar. Hagar was so upset she fled to the desert to get away, until God called her back. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn son and was to be given the firstborn inheritance (usually a double portion). Though there was some drama, things moved along for the first fourteen years or so, until Sarah really did end up pregnant.
In the event of the primary wife having a child after a secondary wife, it was still expected that the firstborn child from the secondary wife would still receive the firstborn inheritance. But once again, culture allows for this kind of anomaly (Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar must not have been the first group this happened to). When this happens, if the primary wife wants her son to have the firstborn inheritance, the real firstborn and his concubine mother have to first be disinherited. Since concubines are typically slaves/servants, they are in some ways considered property with rights. In order to upend the inheritance, the master (in this case Abraham) would have to release them of all servitude and responsibility. He had to give them their freedom.
As Sarah’s insistence, this is what Abraham was pressured to do, though he did it begrudgingly. Having set Hagar and Ishmael free, Sarah’s son Isaac was allowed to receive the full inheritance.
None of this would be considered ethical by today’s standards. But we must remember, there is 4000 years of social development, the institution of human rights, and a New Covenant in Jesus that has affected at least the last 2000 years. In Abraham’s day, this was business as usual. Though he sent Hagar and Ishmael packing, God did promise Hagar that he would see to them and that Ishmael would also become a nation–the Ishmaelites.
So in the end, a little bit of cultural context sheds a lot of light on some of these difficult passages. Those are the three reasons why the birth of Ishmael is not considered wrong in the Book of Genesis.
Thank you for reading my newest post. In two weeks, I will have two more images that are connected to other Creation accounts. Whether you agreed with the point in here or not, I hope this has helped you to
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