Skip to content

The Titles of the “Secondary” Wives in Genesis and Jubilees: Literary and Legal Implications

Pages 280 - 290


Bet Shemesh

1 The literature on this subject is, of course, voluminous. For a recent overview and assessment of much of the biblical and ancient Near Eastern material, see H.J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East (Leiden: Brill, 2005).

2 For discussion of various issues relating to the biblical portrayal of relationships among the patriarchs, see J.E. Tollington, “Abraham and His Wives: Culture and Status,” in R.P. Gordon and J.C. deMoor, eds., The Old Testament in its World: Papers read at the Winter Meeting, January 2003, The Society for Old Testament Study (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 183–99.

3 The Empowerment of Women in the Book of Jubilees (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

4 See the discussion of this aspect of Jubilees in D. Rothstein, “Sexual Union and Sexual Offences in Jubilees” (JSJ 35 [2004], 363-84). See, also, the view of A. Shemesh, who proffers a similar approach in connection with other documents uncovered at Qumran (“4Q271.3: A Key to Sectarian Matrimonial Law,” JJS 49 [1998], 244-63).

5 I employ this term, which generally denotes women/wives whose status vis-a-vis monetary issues is less than that of a full-wife, despite the fact that Jubilees offers little explicit evidence bearing on this issue; see, below, notes 22–24.

6 See Empowerment, 105–9.

7 The difference between the terms שפחה,אמה, and concubine remains debated, with little consensus having emerged; see K. Engelken, Frauen im alten Israel: Eine begriffsgeschichtliche und sozialrechtliche Studie zur Stellung der Frau im Alten Testament, BWANT 130 (Stuttgart: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 1990) 74–126, G.P. Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant: Biblical Law and Ethics as Developed from Malachi (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 107, n. 96, R. Kessler, “Die Sklavin als Ehefrau: Zur Stellung der ‘āmāh,” VT 52 (2002), 501–12, and F. Mirguet, “Les Titres ‘shifkhah’ et ‘amah’: Recherche de Lexicographie Biblique,” ZAW 116 (2004), 242–250. The opacity surrounding these terms, already in evidence in LXX's inconsistent treatment of them, has recently been discussed by M. Zipor; see “Shem in the Tents of Japhet – Studies in the Septuagint Version of Lev 19-20,” in R. Kasher and M. Zipor, eds., Studies in Bible and Exegesis, vol. 6 (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University, 2002), 293–4 (Hebrew). Accordingly, I have chosen to cite the Hebrew lexemes for maidservant/bondswoman. While the difference between אמה and שפחה in Jubilees is no less obscure, the book's position regarding the status of the concubine is somewhat less opaque; see the discussion below.

8 A similar Tendenz is evident in later Jewish targumic tradition. Thus, Tg. Onq. systematically employs two different lexemes in connection with the terms שפחה and אמה. When treating the relationship between Bilhah and Zilpah and their mistresses, Tg. Onq. employs the Aramaic cognate, “אמתא”; however, when rendering those verses having to do with the relationship between the secondary wives and Jacob, Tg. Onq. employs the lexeme “לחינתא,” i.e., concubine. While the use of “concubine” in Tg. Onq. does not grant the secondary wives the same elevated status as that entailed by Jubilees’ formulation, it must be borne in mind that Tg. Onq., like all translations, reflects the constraint of having to render the entirety of the biblical text, a limitation not imposed on the author of Jubilees; nonetheless, the basic motive informing the approaches of the two compositions is quite similar. This similarity is even more discernible in Tg. Ps.-Jon. ad Gen 16:3 and 30:4,9), which specifies that Zilpah and Bilhah freed their respective maidservants prior to giving them (in marriage) to Jacob, thus ensuring that the maidservants' status would be that of a free woman, rather than one involving bondage; cf. R. Westbrook, “The Female Slave,” in V.H. Matthews, et al., eds., Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, JSOTSup 262 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 228. See, further, the commentaries of Nahmanides ad Gen 37:2 and 44:27 (who notes that Genesis refers to all of Jacob's wives by means of the generic appellative, “wives”), Hezekiah b. Manoah ad Gen 30:4, and the discussion of R.B. Posen, The Consistency of Targum Onkelos' Translation (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2004), 100–101 (Hebrew); see, also, the discussion of Jubilees’ use of the title “concubine,” below. As in the case of Jubilees, it is less than certain precisely what informs the targumic Tendenz involving the enhancement of the status of the secondary wives; is it the desire to upgrade the status of the offspring, to enhance the status of the wives and/or the quality of their relationship with the patriarchs, or all of the above?

9 While the details surrounding the status of concubines in ancient Israel are from clear, there is no question of the lesser status accorded concubines (see the sources cited above, n. 7). Indeed, Mesopotamian sources indicate that the legal status of the offspring of a concubine (esirtu) was lower than that of a maidservant (amtu; see, Westbrook, “Female Slave,” 222, and the discussion below). Note, also, that the anomalous nature of Jubilees’ identification of Bilhah as a concubine is further highlighted by its deletion of this status in connection with Hagar and Qeturah (see below).

10 Of course, it is also possible that the precise legal connotations conveyed by these terms were no longer known to the author.

11 Cf. Halpern-Amaru, Empowerment, 109, and see the following note.

12 See, also, Gen 37:2 and Nahmanides thereto.

13 The following caveat, however, is apposite. Gen 46:18 and 46:25, while stating that Zilpah and Bilhah had been given to their respective mistresses as a “שפחה,” make no reference to the status of the two secondary wives vis-à-vis Jacob. By contrast, Jubilees (44:19,27) may be understood as stating that both women were, in fact, Jacob's wives, a position informed by Gen 32:27. Thus, Jubilees’ formulation at 44:19 and 44:27 actually highlights the fact that although the two women were the maidservants of their respective mistresses, their status vis-à-vis Jacob was that of wife. The combined impact of Jubilees’ formulations regarding Zilpah and Bilhah thereby bespeaks a transparent attempt at foregrounding the fundamentally similar nature of Jacob's spousal relationship with each of his four wives. (Jubilees’ reticence in chapter 44 regarding Leah's status is not surprising, since the author has already provided the reader with a very moving description of the relationship between her and Jacob at 36:22-24.) At the same time, the syntactical structure of Jubilees 44:19 and 44:27 indicates that the title “wife of Jacob” probably qualifies Leah and Rachel, respectively, rather than Zilpah and Bilhah.

14 This is unlikely on intuitive grounds; it is also unlikely in light of the fact that various writings of the Second Temple period, including those of the Qumran community (though not Jubilees), accord Naphtali, a son of Bilhah, a more prominent role than that indicated by the biblical text or that extended to Zilpah's sons; see, inter alios, M.E. Stone, “Testament of Naphtali,” JJS 47 (1996), 311–21, idem, “Warum Naphtali? Eine Diskussion im Internet,” Judaica 54 (1998), 188–91, and V. Hillel, “Why Not Naphtali?,” in E. Chazon, et al., eds., Things Revealed: Studies in Early Jewish and Christian Literature in Honor of Michael E. Stone (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 279–88.

15 See below.

16 Note that the Latin version adds the phrase “she gave her servant girl Bilhah as a wife,” taken from Gen 30:4, to the text of Jubilees 30:4. It is likely, however, that this is a secondary reading, intended to harmonize the discrepancy between the depictions of Rachel and Leah, as well as the deviation from the biblical text; see, further, VanderKam, The Book of Jubilees, Scriptores Aethiopici, vol. 88 (Louvain: Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1989), 180.

17 Compare 36:22-23 and the absence of a similar notice following Rachel's demise, and see Halpern-Amaru, Empowerment, 97 and 101. In fact, however, Halpern-Amaru's position must be qualified, as I have demonstrated in another study (“‘And Jacob Came [in]to [אל + בוא] …’: Spousal Intimacy and The Use of a Recurring Syntagm in Genesis and Jubilees” Henoch 29 (2007) 91–103.

18 Note that LXX (ad Gen 16:2 and 30:3) attests the same bifurcation; at the same time, it retains the statement (Gen 30:4) that Rachel “gave Bilhah to Jacob as a wife”. This state of affairs does not alter the fact that Jubilees’ overall formulation of the relationship between Sarah and Abraham bespeaks an idealized depiction of their relationship. While it is uncertain what literary motives inform LXX's position (or, its Vorlage), it may simply reflect the fact that Abraham had been, until this point in time, without children; by contrast, Jacob had already fathered children by Leah. Accordingly, while this reading does reflect a view of Sarah as being more selfless than Rachel, this is offset somewhat by the different circumstances surrounding each woman's offer. The fact that Jubilees’ formulations of the offers made by Sarah and Rachel are likely informed by LXX's Vorlage does not alter the fact that Jubilees’ overall presentation of the relationship between Sarah and Abraham bespeaks a programmatic reworking of the biblical depiction of their relationship.

19 Ibid., 50-51. Note that rabbinic sources point to a somewhat more complex literary scheme leading up to Rachel's decision to give Bilhah to Jacob. Gen Rabb. 71 suggests that this proposal was the result of the argument between Jacob and Rachel, in which Rachel accuses Jacob of insufficient effort (i.e., lack of alacrity in his prayers) to bring about her pregnancy. In the course of their argument, Jacob points out to Rachel that Sarah had offered Hagar to Abraham; after hearing of this, Rachel responds that she, too, would be willing to give her maidservant for purposes of procreation. Thus, in contrast to Sarah, her decision was not reached independently.

20 At the same time, it must be borne in mind that Jubilees 17:4 states that Sarah's insistence that Ishmael (and Hagar) be expelled from Abraham's house was the result of jealousy. This may strengthen the argument in favor of a Sarah || Leah symmetry.

21 See Lev 18:8,29; 20:11.

22 See Westbrook, “The Female Slave,” 232-3, and E. Lipinski, “Kinship Terminology in 1 Sam 25:40-42,” ZAH 7 (1994), 12–16.

23 Qimhi (ad Gen 35:22) proffered a somewhat a different explanation, viz., Reuben's error lay in his assumption that because Bilhah had previously been Jacob's maidservant (שפחה) she did not enjoy the status of wife even upon becoming his concubine. See, also, the commentary of Nahamnides ad Gen 19:4 and his corrigenda to Maimonides's classification of the commandments (Sepher ha-Miswot, fifth principle), wherein it is noted that concubines do not share the same spousal status as that accorded full-wives. This, of course, would mitigate the severity of Reuben's offense; unfortunately, however, Nahmanides does not explain why it is necessary for Genesis to also refer to Bilhah as Jacob's wife. See, further, Rothstein, “Sexual Union and Sexual Offenses in Jubilees,” 378-79 (cf. Halpern-Amaru, Empowerment, 109). More generally, it is argued therein that 33:16 as well as 41:27 and, possibly 41:20, reflect the view that sexual congress (with or without formal marriage ceremony) is determinative in the violation of laws regulating forbidden sexual unions. Jubilees’ position on this matter is, thus, consonant with its ontological approach to other legal/ritual issues (Rothstein, op. cit.); see, further, D.R. Schwartz, “Law and Truth: On Qumran-Sadducean and Rabbinic Views of Law,” in D. Dimant and U. Rappaport (eds.), The Dead Sea Scrolls: Forty Years of Research (Leiden: Brill; Jerusalem: Magnes Press/Yad Izhak ben-Zvi, 1992), 229–240, C. Werman, “Consumption of the Blood and Its Covering in the Priestly and Rabbinic Tradition,” Tarbiz 63 (1994), 173–183 (Hebrew), and E. Regev, “Abominated Temple and a Holy Community: The Formation of the Notions of Purity and Impurity in Qumran,” DSD 10 (2003), 243–278.

24 See above, n. 8, in connection with the positions of Tg. Onq. and Tg. Ps-Jon.

25 See the variants in Vanderkam, Jubilees, 103–4, note to 17:4. It ought be borne in mind that both readings could reflect a Hebrew Vorlage that read “נערה”. Jubilees’ employment of the term “servant girl” at 17:5 and 17:12 might, prima facie, seem to indicate a diminished status vis-à-vis the other secondary wives, none of whom are so labeled by Jubilees. At the same time, the appearance of the generic “girl” alongside “servant girl” suggests that the issue may not be so simple. Indeed, whatever the author's reason for employing both titles for Hagar, it is noteworthy that 19:11 clearly suggests that Abraham related to Hagar as a wife and that he either hoped to reunite with her at some point or, alternatively, refused to marry another woman during Hagar's lifetime without her consent. I discuss this passage, and others expressive of Jubilees’ enhanced depiction of Hagar, more fully in another article, “Text and Context: Domestic Harmony and the Depiction of Hagar in Jubilees” JSP 17 (2008), 243–264.

26 See Gen Rabb. 61, the commentary of Rashi ad Gen 25:6; see, also, Y. Maori, The Peshitta Version of the Pentateuch and Early Jewish Exegesis (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995), 49 (Hebrew).

27 Indeed, it is likely that this verse provided the author Jubilees with an important basis for his portrayal of an ongoing relationship between Abraham and Ishmael; since Ishmael had already been expelled from his father's household the verse Gen 25:6 could only mean that contact between the patriarch and his son had since been renewed.

28 Cf. the view of Nahmanides (ad Gen 25:6), according to whom she was a Canaanite. This anomaly is explained by the fact that only Isaac constituted the true “Abrahamic” seed.

29 See Nahmanides ad Gen 25:6 for fuller discussion of these points, as well as the sources in n. 6, above; see, also, Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant, 107, n. 96, and the following notes.

30 Indeed, there is no indication in Jubilees as to the act(s) effecting the change in legal status undergone by a concubine or maidservant who becomes a wife (cf. the evidence of the Middle Assyrian Laws [MAL] §A41); see below, n. 31.

31 It is unclear what, if any, difference obtains between full wives and concubines following marriage – in particular, whether Jubilees maintains that the inheritance rights of the sons of (former) concubines are in any way diminished vis-à-vis those of full-wives. This opacity stems, in part, from the fact that Jubilees, following, Genesis, offers no indication that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (would have) enjoyed a lesser status than the offspring of Leah and Rachel in matters of inheritance. Moreover, given the unique nature of divine intervention in connection with Isaac's status vis-à-vis Ishmael (Jubilees 16:16-19), it is possible that Jubilees viewed the instances of Ishmael (and Qeturah's sons) as exceptions to the general rule treating all offspring the same. This entire matter requires further investigation.

32 Compare the view of Qimhi cited above, n. 13.

33 The significance of this point is even more apparent when contrasted with the approach of Josephus, who avoids labeling Bilhah a concubine, while emphasizing that Hagar did, indeed, have this status (see Antiquities, 1.153; 1.214; 5.233). Josephus's position may be informed by the accepted Greek norm wherein children of concubines were “νοθοι,” i.e., illegitimate children; this position is consistent with Josephus's deprecating view of Ishmael. See the similar view of Philo (Quod Deus immutabilis 121; Migratione Abrahami 94). Thus, Jubilees’ approach towards the status of the secondary wives – and that of their children, including the sons of Hagar and Qeturah – differs not only from these two later Second Temple authors but, moreover, from the socio-legal concepts and norms of both Hellenistic and Roman cultures; see K. Engelken, Frauen im alten Israel, 74-126, B.G. Wright, “‘Ebed’ and ‘Doulos’: Terms and Social Status in the Meeting of Hebrew Biblical and Hellenistic Roman Culture,” Semeia 83-84 (1998), 83–111, J. Mélèze-Modrzewski, “What is Hellenistic Law? The Documents of the Judean Desert in the Light of the Papyri from Egypt,” Qumran Chronicle 9 (2000), 1–16, and the brief review of (some of) these issues in M.L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 192–95. This point underscores the need for prudence in positing Hellenistic influence upon the socio-legal practices of Second Temple Jewish circles; cf. ibid., 69–70, and, for a similar warning, see S. Talmon, “Community of the Renewed Covenant: Between Judaism and Christianity,” in E. Ulrich and J. VanderKam, eds., The Community of the Renewed Covenant: The Notre Dame Symposium on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1994), 6, 17–20.

34 See C.E. Hayes, “Intermarriage and Impurity in Ancient Jewish Sources,” HTR 92 (1999), 3–36, idem, Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and Halpern-Amaru, Empowerment, 152–59.


Export Citation