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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.”

  • scholz-susanne

    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).