In Gen. 16:3, it is written that Sarah וַתִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָם אִישָׁהּ לֹו לְאִשָּׁה, that is, "gave her (Hagar) to her husband Avraham for a wife."

For a wife - לְאִשָּׁה

In Gen. 30:9, it is written that Le'ah וַתִּתֵּן אֹתָהּ לְיַעֲקֹב לְאִשָּׁה, that is, "gave her (Zilpah) to Ya'akov for a wife."

For a wife - לְאִשָּׁה

However, both Hagar and Zilpah are described as originally being the שִׁפְחָה of Sarah and Le'ah.

Did Avraham truly marry Hagar, and did Ya'akov truly marry Zilpah? If so, were Hagar and Zilpah equal in status to Sarah and Le'ah? It seems that Zilpah's sons were certainly considered equal to Le'ah's sons. We all know, however, that Avraham cast out Hagar and Yishma'el (Gen. 21:10). That verb is often used for "divorce," which seems to imply that Avraham and Hagar were married.

What status did a שִׁפְחָה have when she was given for a wife (לְאִשָּׁה)?

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    Marrying a barren wife’s maidservant for children was well-established ANE practice; your question is dependent on what the status of this relationship was. The Biblical text is ambiguous, so I don’t think it’s possible to answer you question from there, but ANE scholars might know this from other sources. Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 22:43

1 Answer 1


The hebrew word for wife 'ishshah' is the majority of the time translated - wife but has also been translated 2x as harlot, harem 5x, harlot 3x, and simply woman 1x (Strongs Exhaustive Concordance). I agree with the answer above from J.C. Sa*lomon regarding ANE practice but I would add that they didn't have a word for "surrogate", at least I don't see that word in any biblical translation of the OT. In antiquity a woman who bore your children was your wife in the broad sense of having your child, but not in the actual sense of being the woman you "covenanted" with for life. I might add these slaves could be sent away (like in the case with Hagar) or sold and the children of that slave kept because they were the owners property especially when they were the 1/2 blood of the master. In Ishmael's case in Gen 21:9 Ishmael was "mocking", textually in reference to a feast they were going to have because Isaac was weened, so Sarah wanted him to leave as well. God also confirmed this with Abraham, so thats what he did.

These woman bore children to these men by the initiation of the wife (not to assign blame just to make a point) Sarah said, "I will obtain children through her". I conclude by this account that Sarah believed the child would be hers since Abraham was her husband and Hagar was her slave. This proves that Hagar wasn't on par or equal to Sarah no matter what the term used to describe Hagar was. The full text makes this clear.

For Jacob it is basically the same thing except Jacob had two equal "covenantal"wives (For lack of a better term) - Rachel and Leah who both had slave woman who bore them children.

If you look at Gen 30:10-13, in Rachels eyes they were her children.

She said concerning herself, (these statements had nothing to do with the slave woman who bore the children):

  • How fortunate
  • Happy am I
  • women will call me blessed

  • Plus every child born by the slave was named by Leah

Obviously these maids / slaves were not wives in the sense of having a "covenant" of union with the husband, they were simply surrogates for the wives.

  • @H3br3wHamm3r81 It would be appreciated to give some feed back regarding my answer
    – JLB
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 15:15
  • It would be very helpful if you give a source for your initial assertions about the translation of אִשָּׁה; while I believe you are correct, you've given me no way to verify this claim, I must simply take your word for it. Because of that, I can't in good faith upvote this answer (but I didn't downvote it either). You also make several other unsupported assertions that would benefit greatly from citing verifiable and reliable sources. This is all part of showing your work.
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 3, 2014 at 17:43
  • @Daи The texts I reference expresses all the points I have made. What is unsupported at this point?
    – JLB
    Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 1:33
  • The text doesn't tell you the meaning of the word, you bring that understanding to the text (a lexicon would be a good source here). I see you added Strong's, but it is actually not a lexicon, that's a misnomer. You made an assertion about what it means to be a wife in antiquity without giving any support (textual nor historical). Adding textual references will often support most of your points. Again, this isn't a bad answer. I didn't downvote it. I just didn't upvote it either.
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 2:02
  • My standards are perhaps a little higher than others for upvotes (and that's OK). You are free to vote for whatever you find useful. For me, I like to see verifiable and reliable sources, which is not a requirement by any means, just my preference. I only commented because you specifically asked for feedback and I saw you never got any - so I wanted to be nice and offer my opinion. But it is only that - an opinion. You are under no obligation to follow any of my recommendations.
    – Dan
    Commented Feb 8, 2014 at 2:03

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