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In the Hebrew Bible, a marriage ceremony is never actually described.

Priests and their attendants (Kohanim and Levites) are responsible for work in the sanctuary, such as sacrifices and offerings, so although they're the people "consecrated to God" and act as intermediaries between the people and God, they don't have any part in helping a man and woman form a permanent union as "one flesh" and become husband and wife.

In Genesis, a union between man and woman is described as just a commitment that two people make to live together, help each other, "be fruitful and multiply." Isaac brought Rebecca "into his tent," and she became his wife, so in their case, marriage is initiated between a couple when they engage in sex. Afterwards, they are understood as being bound to each other, and thus living in a marriage. This is understandable, since biblical times had a very different view of sex than what we see in modern society.

This is why I ask about the difference between what a wife is and what a concubine is in biblical times. Since a marriage ceremony is never described in the Bible, what qualities would make a concubine different than a wife?

Those are two different labels, so is it just suggesting a social status difference? A handmaid, even if she took up permanent residence with one man, would never be a "wife", only a "concubine"?

Bilhah and Zilphah are described as Jacob's "concubines", and Rachel and Leah are described as "wives", although the children from all four women are equal since they all become the twelve tribes. So why not call Rachel and Leah's handmaids wives?

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jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12148-pilegesh although compare to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concubine#In_the_Bible. You'll have to read all the references within for a better understanding. –  bjorne Sep 6 '13 at 13:13
Check out christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/16558/…. The answer includes the three Cs of marriage in the Old Testament; viz., contract, consummation, and celebration. I imagine only true "brides" or "wives" observed all three Cs of a formal marriage. Marriages in the OT were sometimes the means of establishing political and military alliances, and a woman involved in the transaction may have been one of a harem of many women. As concubines, they were not necessarily wedded and bedded by the king. –  rhetorician Sep 9 '13 at 0:23

3 Answers 3

Basically your right it was about status but although the Bible does not describe the ceremony of marriage with a wife there are several bread crumbs that when collected together give us a good idea of the envelope of that ceremony and custom that did take place which would have established the status of a wife above a concubine.

There must have been some kind of betrothal for in Joel 1:8 the allusion to it is made by the statement to 'Mourn like a virgin in sackcloth grieving for the betrothed of her youth'. There was some kind of dowry practice (Genesis 34:12) that I doubt the concubine's parents would get being that they were often slaves being a booty of war. The bride would wear special clothes for the ceremony (eg., Jeremiah 2:32) and be accompanied by bridesmaids (Psalm 45:14). Possibly a wedding feast was typical (Genesis 29:22). There seems to have even been some kind of ritual leading to the act of sex where the woman is brought to the man for the purpose of consummating their intentions (Genesis 29:23). There was also some strange practice about proof of virginity based on the assumption that a virgin will bleed during her first time (Deuteronomy 22:13–21).

With all the social customs surrounding the marriage concubinage seems to have been much more a matter of sexual gratification, slavery and increase in the number of children in a family. Typically the concubines were of less status such as slaves (Genesis 16:2–3) and the wives would naturally rule over a slave/concubine in some sense. As the ceremonies surrounding wives, especially the first wife, is not referred to for concubines, the less ceremonial 'cherishing of the event' must in some way have indicated an admission that the very nature of having additional sex partners was not the ideal represented by Adam and Eve.

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The bride (or her parents) paid the dowry. If there was a divorce the bride got her money back. Concubines got nothing after a 'divorce' as no dowry was paid. A wife paid to get married, a concubine did not. A contract was drawn up in the case of the wife but not the concubine. This answer is based on deduction from what scriptural refereces there are and practices of other peoples of the Middle East. We still see something like this in the procurement of prostitutes that become a 'wife' (concubine) for one night and that is divorced with no paperwork the next morning.

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@Gideon Marx:

Unfortunately there is much confusion between a 'bride-price' and a 'dowry'. A bride-price is paid by the groom to the parents of the bride (or concubine) (see e.g. Gen 34:12, Ex 22:17, Ex 21:7) . In OT times this could amount to more than a year's salary (Deut 22:28). Remember Jacob having to work for 7 years to be allowed to marry Rachel (but got Leah), and then another 7 years to be allowed to marry the real Rachel.

A dowry is a gift of the bride's parents to the bride - a starter package for the marriage so to speak (e.g. 1 Ki 9:16). A concubine would not get this.

A wife didn't pay to get married, it's the other way around. The groom pays the bride-price to her father. The same principle applied to concubines where a man had to pay a price for the concubine to her father, turning her into a slave. But luckily sons of both wives and concubines would get equal treatment in the inheritance.

Unfortunately in translations this difference gets lost, e.g. the KJV sometimes incorrectly translates 'bride-price' with 'dowry' (e.g. Ex 22:17).

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