Why is Bilhah referred to as Jacob's wife in one passage and his concubine in another? can the hebrew be tranlsated as woman and not wife?

Genesis 30:4 (NIV)

So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her,

Genesis 35:22 (NIV)

While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father's concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.

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4 Answers 4


An answer based on definitions:

In Jewish tradition a "concubine" (Hebrew: פִּילֶגֶשׁ; "pilegesh") is a specific type of "wife." This is a different concept from oriental concubinage of the Japanese of Chinese variety where a concubine received few if any legal protections or respect. For the Israelites, she would not be the primary wife, but had equal standing with her for the most part. According the Jewish Encyclopedia

She enjoyed the same rights in the house as the legitimate wife... The concubine commanded the same respect and inviolability as the wife... The children of the concubine had equal rights with those of the legitimate wife... Jacob's sons by Bilhah and Zilpah were equal with his sons by Leah and Rachel.

In Patriarchal times, primary wives voluntarily shared their husband with a concubine because of the need to bear many children and thus fulfil the blessing to "be fruitful and multiply." In the time of the kings, however, this was no longer the case. Concubines were given to a husband by a wife anymore to increase the family's population, but became signs of luxury for wealthy and powerful men.

An answer based on Source Criticism:

Another explanation for the two terms, as applied to Bilhah, is suggested by source criticism. According to the Interpreter's Bible, iššâ is probably used by the E source, while pilegesh is used by the J source. The same thesis explains why one verse uses the name Jacob while the other calls the same person Israel. This is a simple solution to the question but will not satisfy readers who reject the documentary hypothesis of Genesis' sources.

Conclusion: There are two basic explanations: 1. A concubine is a type of wife, and the author (traditionally believed to be Moses) simply used iššâ in one verse and pilegesh in another. 2. Genesis is composed of several sources, one of which used the word for "wife" while another used "concubine."

  • my question is why translate it as wife and not woman when later on we see she is called Jacobs concubine unless its another Bilhah , could it be a miss translation of the term wife, why not say woman ? reason being in song of songs we see a distinction being made when it talks about concubines and wives and virgins , if a wife was a Concubine why would the text need to make the distinction by saying wives , concubines and virgins , should the text say wives and virgins ? people says a concubine is a secondary wife but where does it say that ? 2 days ago

The difficulty here is the VERY broad meaning of the Hebrew word translated, "wife" in Gen 30:4, viz, אִשָּׁה (ishshah) which is translated by the NASB with the following meanings:

adulteress* (2), any woman (1), childbearing* (1), each (3), each one (1), each woman (1), every (1), everyone (1), female (3), girls* (1), harem* (5), harlot's* (2), harlot* (3), marriage (9), married (3), married* (6), marry* (3), none* (1), one (8), widow (7), wife (274), wife and his wives (2), wife and the wives (1), wife or a woman (1), wife's (8), wives (100), woman (203), woman of the wives (1), woman's (6), women (104), women as wives (1).

That is, the word אִשָּׁה (ishshah) includes the meaning of "concubine".

  • 1
    @funchurchnation - I am not sure that I fully grasp your question. However, I list the words above as those used to translate the Hebrew word. The choice of translation depends heavily on context.
    – Dottard
    Sep 17 at 23:31
  • The two words are different. The fact one has a semantic range wide enough to include the other doesn’t really answer why she is described differently. Sep 18 at 0:09
  • my question why translate it as wife and not woman when later on we see she is called jacobs concubine unless its another bilhah Sep 18 at 1:51

Abram sets precedence in Genesis 16. Gen 16:2-3, "So Sarai said to Abram, "See now, the LORD has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her." And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Then Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan."

Sarai Abram's wife permitted her maid Hagar to be Abram's wife for the purpose of bearing children. Jacob just followed suit for the purpose of bearing children with his wife's permission (Genesis 30:3-4).

  • Doesn't answer my question..... my question why translate it as wife and not woman when later on we see she is called jacobs concubine unless its another bilhah 2 days ago

1 When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” 2 Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” 3 Then she said, “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” 4 So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. 5 And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. (Genesis 30 ESV)

In the first Rachel calls Bilhah wife. Since Rachel was wife to Jacob, she had the right to have her servant take her place.

19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), 20 and Jacob set up a pillar over her tomb. It is the pillar of Rachel's tomb, which is there to this day. 21 Israel journeyed on and pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder. 22 While Israel lived in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine. And Israel heard of it. (Genesis 35)

Jacob never married Bilhah, but she could be called “wife” at Rachel’s request. Once Rachel died Bilhah’s relationship with Jacob could no longer be as “wife.”

Calling her concubine describes her status after Rachel’s death.

  • "You say she could be called a wife at Rachel's request. That's just making a statement without proof. How do you know it should be translated as 'wife' and not 'woman,' since Bilhah was called Jacob's concubine later on? You also said, 'Jacob never married Bilhah,' so why would she be called a wife by the translators?" 2 days ago
  • @funchurchnation In Genesis 30, Rachel orders Bilhah to make a child with Jacob. Since she is a servant, her master has the authority to tell her what to do. Thus, it is Rachel who gives her to Jacob as "wife." IOW, it is not Jacob, or the narrator who calls her "wife." It is Rachel, her master who calls her as such. Effectively, Rachel is ordering Bilhah to act in her (Rachel's) place. After Rachel dies, Bilhah can no longer be identified as a "stand-in" for Rachel. At the same time she cannot be called "wife" because she did not marry Jacob. Hence she would be a concubine. yesterday

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