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I would like to know the meaning of the Hebrew word for “wife” within the context of Genesis 16:3. The reason I ask is because some Bible commentaries suggest that Hagar was not granted the status of a wife in a legal sense, even though it was customary for a man to have more than one wife.

NIV COMMENTARY: After Abram slept with Hagar and conceived, not only Sarai (v.5) but also Abram still talks about Hagar as Sarai's servant (v.6), not as his (new) wife. Furthermore, the narrator continues to call Sarai "her mistress" (v.4). The phrase "to be his wife" in verse 3 is merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse. That is clear from the phrase that immediately follows it as well as from the original request (v.2). The context makes it clear that Hagar remained the slave not of Abraham, but of Sarai. All throughout Genesis we find Sarai addressed as Abraham's wife many times (11:29,31; 12:5,17,18,20; 13:1; 16:1,3; 17:15,19; 18:9,10; 20:2,7,11,12,14,18; 23:3,19) by the narrator, by Abraham, or by God himself. Hagar is never called the wife of Abraham, whether by Abraham, or by Sarah, or by God and only once by the narrator in the above discussed verse 16:3.

NIV NOTES: The custom refered to in verse 2 is well known in history and for instance in Babylonian law a wife was entitled to get children from her husband through her slave, without any idea that the slave would receive the status of a legal wife. In the Bible the same custom is employed again by Abraham's grandson Jacob with Lea and Rachel, his wives, and their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen. 29:31 - 30:23). Source: https://www.answering-islam.org/BibleCom/gen16-3.html

ESV Notes: Hagar’s status, within Abram’s household is changed from servant to wife, although this does not place her on a par with Sarai (see note on 25:5-6). While the OT records occasions when particular individuals have more than one wife, such instances are almost always fraught with complications and difficulties. The taking of multiple wives is never encouraged in the Bible (see 2:24; Deut. 17:17) and usually arises out of peculiar circumstances.

NLT Notes: By custom, a barren woman could give her servant to her husband as a slave-wife; the child born to that union was considered the wife’s child, and could be adopted as the heir. Sarai’s suggestion, unobjectionable by custom, set a problematic human plan in motion. God’s promises would be fulfilled by faith

To say that Hagar was a concubine seems to me to be entirely different to saying (as it does in Genesis 16:3) that she was Abram’s wife. Is the Hebrew for “to be his wife” simply a euphemism for sexual intercourse? Or does the use of the Hebrew word “wife” mean something more? I am not asking for the reason behind Sarai giving her maidservant to Abram, but for the meaning behind the use of “wife” in Genesis 16:3.

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    I think you have answered your own question. The word for "wife" in the NIV is אִשָּׁה which is "woman, wife, female" and there were various rankings of wives. Hagar was certainly a lesser wife which in modern terms would be called either a mistress or a concubine. I prefer the latter term here. The commentaries above make this clear.
    – Dottard
    Oct 27 '20 at 20:31
  • @Dottard - Is the Hebrew word for "concubine" the same as the word for "wife"? I'm thinking of 1 Kings 11:3 (Solomon had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines). I ask because a Christian who was brought up as a Muslim is upset and offended by references to Hagar as a concubine. It's easy to understand why Muslims would find that disrespectful. Anyway, I've been asked to respond to his request for an explanation (by Friday). Any further insights would be greatly appreciated.
    – Lesley
    Oct 28 '20 at 8:06
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    the Hebrew for "wife" אִשָּׁה (ishshah); the word for "concubine" is פִילֶגֶשׁ (pilegesh) - quite different words. The first can also be translated "woman, wife, female". These words were not always used with precision and their meanings overlapped slightly.
    – Dottard
    Oct 28 '20 at 8:17
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Was Hagar the wife of Abram or was she his concubine?

Genesis 16:3 says that Sarai gave her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to Abram “to be his wife”. As Dottard has pointed out in his comments, the word for "wife" in the NIV is אִשָּׁה which is "woman, wife, female" and there were various rankings of wives. Hagar was certainly a lesser wife. The Hebrew word for "concubine" is פִילֶגֶשׁ (pilegesh). These words were not always used with precision and their meanings overlapped slightly. The NIV commentary suggests that “the phrase "to be his wife" in verse 3 is merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse.”

The Bible speaks of wives and of concubines, and it becomes clear that it was not uncommon for men to have many wives. King David is one example. In the case of King Solomon, he had 700 wives (ishshah) of royal birth and 300 concubines (pilegesh) (1 Kings 11:3). So, what was the status of a “lesser” or “secondary” wife during these times, and how were concubines viewed within society back then? Here are two views:

Concubine: a woman who cohabits with a man to whom she is not legally married, especially one regarded as socially or sexually subservient; a mistress. Among polygamous peoples, a concubine is a secondary wife, usually of inferior rank. In Judaism a concubine is a marital companion of inferior status to a wife. Among the Israelites, men commonly acknowledged their concubines, and such women enjoyed the same rights in the house as legitimate wives although they functioned as a secondary wife and surrogate mother. https://www.gotquestions.org/concubine-concubines.html

The custom referred to in Genesis 16 verse 2 is well known in history and for instance in Babylonian law a wife was entitled to get children from her husband through her slave, without any idea that the slave would receive the status of a legal wife. In the Bible the same custom is employed again by Abraham's grandson Jacob with Lea and Rachel, his wives, and their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen. 29:31 - 30:23). Source: https://www.answering-islam.org/BibleCom/gen16-3.html

For a concubine to enjoy “the same rights in the house” falls short of being granted the same “status of a legal wife”. After looking through the Answering Islam article (link above) it becomes clear that throughout Genesis Sarai is addressed as Abraham's wife and the only time Hagar is called “the wife of Abram” is in Genesis 16:3. When the angel of the LORD appears to Hagar he addresses her as "Hagar, servant of Sarai", not as "Hagar, wife of Abram". The article makes this point:

Ishmael is recognized as a son of Abraham (v.26) and they are circumcised together, however that does not make Ishmael the heir of the covenant any more than the male slaves in Abraham's household who were circumcised with him as well (v.27). We should, however, not overlook the mercy and love God shows for Hagar and her son as well as the prophetic promise that Lord gives regarding Ishmael (Genesis 16:11-15). https://www.answering-islam.org/BibleCom/gen16-3.html

There is no difficulty in understanding Genesis 16:3 when Sarai gives Hagar to Abram “to be his wife” when we understand that back then there were subtle differences within the status of first wives, second wives and concubines. Hagar’s status was inferior to that of Sarai and the covenant relationship of God with Abraham continues with Isaac, not Ishmael. But Ishmael and his descendants are always recognised in the Hebrew Scriptures as legitimate descendants of Abraham, verifying Hagar’s legal status as a secondary wife to him, whether or not the word ‘concubine’ is used.

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    As to Ishmael's status. Genesis 22:2, ESV: "He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Only son Ishmael was the only son, Issac was his second son. Genesis 17:20 20) As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. Nov 2 '20 at 10:21
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There was confusion in the roles, for sure. That is the source of the conflict and drama in Genesis 16.

As the commentaries have stressed, Hagar almost certainly had a lesser role than Sarai. The purpose of having a child for Abraham in Sarai's stead implies that the status as wife/concubine was temporary.

However, Hagar took advantage and thought she could take the priority in Abraham's heart because of the son. We don't know how tender the relationship between Abraham and Hagar had become. We do know Hagar began to "despise" Sarah (Genesis 16:5). She wanted her new status with Abraham to break her bondage to Sarai.

Abraham was wise in his response. He clarified lines of authority. Hagar was totally under the authority of Sarai, and Abraham claimed no right to interfere: "Your servant is in your hands. Do with her whatever you think best" (Genesis 16:6).

Later God confirmed this status for Hagar, telling her to return and submit to Sarai (Genesis 16:7-9).

So, to the question, let us use the context (which is all we have) to bring clarity to the meaning of the word "wife" in Genesis 16:3. It seems that Sarai was magnanimous in giving Hagar to Abraham, and may have even considered it more than just a concubine, not having the wisdom to see the potential problem.

Hagar wanted to take advantage and have her position become that of a true wife, on equal status as a competitor to Sarai. This suggests that this was a situation in flux and there probably was not a clear legal unbending status that would fit our categories of wife or concubine. It was the relationship that would determine the status, not the legal status that would determine the relationship.

Thus, Abraham's response was most decisive. He determined clearly and unequivocally that Hagar was no more than Sarai's servant, having stolen none of Abraham's heart, and who could not call on any relationship with Abraham to save her from Sarai's wrath. By Abraham's decision, Hagar became nothing more than the bearer of Sarai's child.

So, it seems best to say that, regardless of Sarai's intent in Genesis 16:3, Hagar did not have the status of a wife of Abraham.

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  • Thanks for your input with regard to Hagar’s position. However, your answer (that Hagar did not have the status of a wife) presents Christians with a serious problem. The Bible categorically states in Genesis 16:3 that Sarai gave Hagar to Abram “to be his wife” (ishshah). Did Genesis 16:3 use that word or did it use the word for concubine (pilegesh)? What was the status of a concubine in those days? After all, God dealt kindly with Hagar because she and her son Ishmael were part of God's plan. I'm looking for a deeper understanding into Hagar's position in Abram's family according to customs.
    – Lesley
    Oct 30 '20 at 15:24
  • Thanks for your clarification. I can't help by providing extra-biblical information on marriage customs. However, very often the context is the best enlightenment of a word's meaning. If Hagar had full legal status as a wife by modern standards, then we would need to conclude that Abraham was a negligent husband, complicit in her abuse by Sarai.
    – DThornton
    Oct 31 '20 at 16:32

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