What is the difference between wives and concubines?

Q. What is the difference between wives and concubines in the Bible? I understand wives had higher status and that Abraham’s and Jacob’s concubines were their wives’ servants. Is concubine basically a technical term for servants that double as sex slaves? Or did they actually have rights within the family structure?

There is no question that concubinage was an exploitative practice. However, women who were concubines were not exploited primarily for sex. They were exploited for the children they could have. In the agricultural Old Testament culture, children were needed to work the land, and they were also needed to carry on the family name and preserve family rights to property. So most typically, men would marry concubines when their wives could not have children or when men felt they needed more children.

A concubine was legally married to the man whose concubine she was. We see this, for example, in the terminology of “father-in-law” and “son-in-law” that is used in one Old Testament account for the relationship between a man and the father of his concubine. But a concubine had a lower status than a wife.

The difference in status was not that the wife was free while the concubine was a slave. It is true that the Old Testament discusses cases in which a man might marry one of his female slaves, who would then become his concubine as well. It is also true, as you noted, that a man could marry one of his wife’s female slaves as a concubine. So there was a connection between concubinage and another very exploitative practice, slavery.

But the essential difference between a wife and a concubine was that the children of the wife were certain to have inheritance rights to the property of their father, while the children of the concubine did not necessarily have such  rights. I think it would probably be too much to say that children of concubines could not inherit from their father, but their situation was very tenuous.

For example. when Abraham’s wife Sarah could not have children, she had him marry her female slave Hagar so that she could adopt the son of Hagar. But when Sarah later had a son of her own, Isaac, she insisted that Abraham send Hagar and her son Ishmael away so that only Isaac would inherit. After Sarah died, Abraham married a woman named Keturah as a concubine, but he gave her sons gifts in lieu of inheritance and sent them away as well.

By contrast, when Jacob married Bilhah and Zilpah, the slaves of his two wives Rachel and Leah, in order to have more children, he gave the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah full inheritance rights along with the sons of Rachel and Leah.

But in general the position of concubines and their children within the family structure was very insecure. It seems that women who were already in a vulnerable position, for example, as slaves or foreigners or both, were further exploited as concubines for the children they could have. Later in Israelite history, kings would marry many concubines as a symbol of royal prestige and perhaps to pursue certain political ends. These women were not being exploited for their children, since such kings already had many wives and many children by them, but they were still being exploited for those other reasons.

So I think it would not be quite accurate to describe a concubine as a “secondary wife.” While she was legally married, her situation was so different from that of an actual wife that I think a separate term should be used to identify it. Marriage is meant to be a relationship characterized by mutuality and equality. The power differential in concubinage is so great that it is not true marriage. And so I believe we should work to eliminate the practice of concubinage in our world today, just as we should work to eliminate slavery. The fact that concubinage is depicted and described in the Bible does not indicate any sanction for it or approval on God’s part.

What does it mean to “cooperate with God when sufferings come”?

Q. I have just finished reading God Mingled With Us, an inspiring little book about a wife’s difficult journey caring for her terminally ill husband. It reminded me a lot of the extended blog your wrote about your own journey. (Sorry, I can’t recall the name, and I couldn’t find it on your home page. Is it still available?) At one point the author writes, “There is a transformation process that occurs, making us more like Him as we cooperate with His divine life in us. This is ultimately what God is after in the process. The question is, will we cooperate with Him when sufferings come?” My question is, if you agree with this statement, what do you think cooperating with Him when sufferings come looks like?

Thank you for your question. First, let me say that Endless Mercies is the name of the story I have told of God’s faithfulness to my late wife and me during the four years when she battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) with unfailing faith, joy, and courage. As you noted, I told this story in an extended blog format, and you can still read it here. (I have also added a link to this blog in the sidebar.)

I have not yet read the book God Mingled With Us, but it sounds very interesting. It does seem that the author and her late husband experienced God’s presence and help during his illness in many ways similar to the ones in which my late wife and I experienced those things. Let me share some thoughts in response to your specific question about what it means to cooperate with God when sufferings come.

My wife would often say to people about her illness, “This is something that God is trusting me to trust him with.” She felt that God was giving her the opportunity to believe by faith that her sufferings had meaning and purpose, even if she never found out in this life what the meaning and purpose were. She also felt that God was giving her the opportunity to rely on him for grace and strength for each day, no matter what challenges came. That does sound to me like cooperating with God.

My wife also talked about “peace through acceptance.” (That was a phrase she learned from Amy Carmichael, who became a historical mentor to her through her books.) If we do not question the wisdom, goodness, or love of God, but instead accept that God has allowed these sufferings for reasons that must be wise and good, even though beyond our understanding, we can experience peace and even joy in the midst of sufferings.

Someone once asked my wife, “Don’t you ever wonder, ‘Why me?'” She responded, “Why not me?” She explained that this is currently a broken world in which people experience sufferings, and we shouldn’t expect that just because we have faith in God, we will be exempt from them. Instead, she resolved to live each day of the illness as someone who loved and trusted God and who wanted to honor him by the way she conducted herself.

Those are some thoughts in response to your question. But I think the best thing I can do in reply is to invite you to read Endless Mercies. Having learned the phrase “cooperating with God in sufferings,” I do believe that you will see that modeled and illustrated throughout the story. Thanks again for your question.

Would being baptized with “tongues” help me experience God’s presence more?

Q. I gave my life to Jesus over 40 years ago and throughout those years, I have had times where my walk with Him has been blessed and I knew He was with me. However, many of these years have been done by will power. I know God is with me, but that is mostly an intellectual choice. I have been water baptized, but I have never been “baptized” with tongues, although I have prayed and prayed and prayed for it. I love God as best I can, but I feel like God has chosen my life with Him to be one of service by willpower with drops of his Spirit to keep me going. This can’t be what He wants for anyone who wants Him. Do you think it is because I haven’t been “baptized” in His Spirit by speaking in tongues? I know there are disputes about what baptism means, but if it is, why wouldn’t He want this for someone. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated. God Bless.

Thank you for your question. I do sympathize with what you are feeling and I understand what you are asking. Let me respond to your specific question about “speaking in tongues” first, and then let me respond to your general concern.

The phrase “speaking in tongues” refers to a spiritual gift that God gives that allows people to speak a language that they have not learned. (The word “tongues” in this phrase is being used in the older sense of “languages.” So “speaking in tongues” means “speaking in languages,” that is, languages that the speaker has not learned.)

I believe that the teaching of the Bible is quite clear that not every Christian receives this gift. Paul asks, rhetorically, in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Do all speak in tongues?” The expected answer is “no,” just as that answer is expected to his other questions, for example, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (I say this with no disrespect for the Christian traditions that teach that “tongues” in the form of a “prayer language” is a gift available to all believers. I do not find that the Bible teaches that, but as I said, I intend no disrespect for those who hold that it does.)

So while I do believe that this gift is still available today, I do not believe that every Christian should seek it or expect it. I certainly would not say that having it is the key to a life in which someone experiences the presence of God all the time. In fact, if you have prayed and prayed and prayed for it and God has not given it to you, then I would conclude that you are not one of the Christians who is going to get this gift. But this only means that God has another wonderful gift for you. It is probably already in your life and you just need to recognize it for what it is and develop it for God’s glory and for greater fulfillment in his service. Please see this post: Why haven’t I received a spiritual gift like tongues or prophecy? Please also see this post regarding the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”: Are people “filled with the Holy Spirit” once or multiple times?

Beyond this, to speak to your larger concern, I would encourage you to consider that perhaps you are someone who will experience God’s presence in your life not primarily through your emotions but through other means. Every person is different, and every person who knows God experiences God differently. Jesus said that we should love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Perhaps different people will love God more with some of these than with others. I actually hear in your question how you are already loving God with your mind (intellectually) and with your strength (willpower). Maybe the thing to do is to recognize these as genuine ways of loving God and to realize how much God values and appreciates receiving love from you in these ways.

If the feeling of God’s presence continues to come and go, please don’t be discouraged by that. That is the nature of feelings. They come and go. But I hope you can always experience satisfaction in your faithfulness to God. Our hope is not that when we stand before God in heaven, he will say, “It was so nice that you felt I was there all the time.” No, our hope is that he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” So let us seek to be good servants and faithful servants. If we are, we can be sure that God is pleased with our lives, no matter what we are or are not feeling at any given time.

Could remarriage after divorce not “amount to adultery” in some circumstances?

Q. My question is one seeking clarification. You wrote in this post: “It’s clear from Scripture that God does not like divorce, and so the Bible says many things to discourage divorce, such as the warning that marrying a divorced person can amount to adultery. (This is especially true if someone gets divorced in order to marry someone else.)” First, you’re one of the few people I’ve seen who mentions the “in order to” part. I believe that’s an important point of translation. What I want to know is, based on the phrase “can amount to adultery”: Is it your stance/belief that there is a situation of remarriage after divorce that might not “amount to adultery”?

I would say yes, I do believe that a person who is divorced and then remarries, or someone who marries someone who has been divorced, can have a marriage that is honoring to God and not under any condemnation from God as adultery. I say this after many years of pastoral experience and many years of studying and teaching the Bible.

I would stress once again that there is no biblical sanction to divorce a spouse in order to marry someone else. But consider the much different case of someone who, before they gave their life to Christ, married as a young and immature person and whose marriage broke down because of sin and immaturity on the part of both spouses. What if, many years later, once they had given their life to Christ, been transformed by the influence of the Holy Spirit, and learned the lessons of their first failed marriage, they met another believer and were truly convinced that the two of them could serve God more effectively together than apart? In such a case, after making very sure that all these things were true, I as a pastor would be prepared to perform the wedding (and I have done so in such cases).

My reasoning is that God is not so much against divorce as in favor of marriage. (The reason why God is so against divorce is that he is so in favor of marriage.) So I believe that if the two people I have just describe hypothetically could form a strong, healthy, God-honoring Christian marriage together, then the purposes of God in the world would be much better served by allowing them to live out that ideal as a model and example to others, and as a blessing in itself, than by continuing to penalize them for the rest of their lives for something that happened when they were young and immature and before they knew the Lord.

I recognize that some Christians would still disagree with this, and I acknowledge that they would do so wanting to honor what they understand to be the biblical teaching. But you asked what my understanding was, and so I have shared it with you. I hope this is helpful.

If Jesus didn’t sin because he didn’t have a sinful nature, why did Adam and Eve sin when they didn’t have a sinful nature?

Q. I once held the view that Jesus to be truly human had to have at least the option of sinning. I changed my view when I was taught that Jesus didn’t have a sin nature like us, thinking that without this fallen nature, it would have been impossible for Him to sin. But, the thought came to me that Adam and Eve didn’t have a sinful nature at first, yet they sinned. So, any thoughts?

Your question bears on the issue of whether Jesus on earth was “not able to sin” or instead “able not to sin.” Christians of good will with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of Scripture hold different views about this. I personally believe that it was not the case that Jesus was “not able to sin” while he was on earth. I believe he was instead “able not to sin” (your original view). But this was not because he did not have a fallen nature or sin nature.

Rather, to borrow the language of Augustine, once we come under the influence of original sin or a fallen nature or sin nature, we are “not able not to sin.” We may do some good and right things in life, but we will also sin, inevitably. We need to be born again, regenerated, so that we will have a new nature that is no longer under this constraint.

Without original sin or a fallen nature, we would then be in the same situation as humans before the fall. To quote Augustine further, in that situation, people were both “able to sin” and “able not to sin.” That is the radical nature of human freedom. So Adam and Eve sinned, even though they didn’t have a sinful nature at first, because they were “able to sin,” in addition to being “able not to sin.”

So what about Jesus on earth? I would describe him as “able not to sin,” and that was true of him because he was completely yielded and obedient to his heavenly Father and because he lived his life in the power of the Holy Spirit. This was true of him to such a degree that I would actually hesitate to describe him as “able to sin” while on earth, although technically that was a possibility, in my view. What I mean is that while it was a theoretical possibility, it was not an actual one, given how absolutely devoted he was to God.

In that way Jesus sets an example for us. We, too, are “able not to sin” when we yield our wills completely to God’s will and live in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did this consistently for a lifetime, which is far more than we can realistically hope for ourselves, but we can at least hope for more and more occasions on which we find that we are “able not to sin” as we are yielded to God, obedient, and Spirit-filled.

And we can also anticipate the wonderful time when, glorified in the presence of God after this life, we will be truly “not able to sin.”

What does the Hebrew word ‘olam mean in the Bible?

Q. What does the Hebrew word ‘olam mean in the Bible?

The Hebrew word ‘olam means “to indefinite futurity,” that is, “for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.” For example, when at the dedication of the ark in Jerusalem David tells the people to “remember [God’s] covenant for ever” and that it is an “everlasting covenant,” he is using the word in both cases. He wants the people to obey the covenant for as far into the future as anyone can imagine, and he is saying that God himself intends to keep the covenant for that long.

But the word can also indicate “from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine.” Wisdom says of herself in Proverbs, “I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth was.” In other words, “I was formed (or appointed) from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine.”

Sometimes the word is used in both senses at the same time. We see this usage in Psalm 90, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” In other words, “You have been God from from as long ago in the past as anyone can imagine, and you will continue to be God for as far into the future as anyone can imagine.”

In many English Bibles, ‘olam is thus understandably translated with adverbs such as “forever” and with adjectives such as “everlasting.” I certainly don’t see a sense in ‘olam that the time period is finite or expected ever to end.

What is the difference between verse, Scripture, gospel, and Bible?

Q. What is the difference between scripture and verse, between Scripture and gospel, and between Bible and Scripture?

Thank you for your questions. I think the answers will be helpful to many readers.

Let me start with the word Bible. That word describes the collection of books that people of faith believe that God inspired various authors to write at different times in history and that God then gave to the world as a guide to what people should believe and how they should live. The Christian Bible has two parts, the Old Testament (books about things that happened before Jesus) and the New Testament (books about things that happened when Jesus came and afterwards).

Over 1500 years after the Bible was completed (that is, after the last books in the Bible were written), the whole Bible was divided into small sections so that people could find things in it more easily. These small sections are called verses. About 300 years earlier, the Bible had been divided for the same purpose into somewhat larger sections called “chapters.” Using a system that relies on books, chapters, and verses for reference, people can find things in the Bible very quickly. For example, if someone said, “I want to talk about Romans 5:8,” everyone who knew the system and had a Bible or Bible app with them could go right to that small section and read together, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Sometimes people refer to a verse as a scripture. (Note that the word is not capitalized in this usage.) They might say, for example, “There’s a scripture that says that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This can be confusing, because the word Scripture (capitalized) can also mean the same thing as “Bible.” The word “Bible” comes from the word “books,” while the word “Scripture” comes from the word “writing,” and they both refer to the same thing. Sometimes the plural term Scriptures is used to refer to the writings in the Bible, since there are many different ones.

Finally, the word gospel means “good news,” and it refers to the story of Jesus. It includes his birth, life, teachings, and miracles, and it is especially concerned with his death for us on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. This story is told in four different books in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of these books presents the story from a slightly different perspective, and it is helpful to view it from all of these perspectives at once. When the term “gospel” is used as part of the title of one of these four books, it is capitalized, for example, the Gospel of Matthew. The term not capitalized can also be used to describe the message about Jesus itself, told in summary based on how it is told in these four books.

I hope these explanations are helpful, and I hope that as you read the Bible (that is, the Scriptures), you will hear more and more of the good news about Jesus (that is, the gospel).

Can you lose the Holy Spirit?

Q. Can you lose the Holy Spirit?

I believe personally that when people genuinely put their trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord, the Holy Spirit comes to live in them and does not depart. However, the Bible does warn us that we can “grieve” or “quench” the Spirit.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul describes the kind of behavior that grieves the Spirit: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

And in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes the kind of behavior whose absence or presence can quench the Spirit: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.”

So if a Christian is wondering whether they have lost the Spirit, it’s possible that they have grieved or quenched the Spirit in one of these ways. The Spirit has not left them, but the Spirit has withdrawn out of grief or been relegated to a marginal role in their life. I would say to all who might be wondering about this that they should examine themselves to see whether they have done this. They might be harboring bitterness towards another person, for example, or indulging in some activity that they know is wrong. They should recognize what they are doing, ask God’s forgiveness, and change their ways. Then, I believe, they will be able to pray confidently, in the words of William Cowper’s hymn:

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.

Should Christians pray the imprecatory psalms (the prayers for the destruction of enemies)?

Q. Should Christians pray the imprecatory psalms?

Let me say first that I think “praying the psalms” (that is, making the psalms in the Bible our own prayers) is a good practice. However, people who do this are often uncomfortable praying the so-called imprecatory psalms, in which the psalmists ask God to destroy their enemies.

I devote an entire lesson to the imprecatory psalms in my study guide to the Psalms. It is Lesson 10, on pages 59–63. You can read the study guide online or down load it at this link. I hope the lesson will give you a perspective on the imprecatory psalms that will help you decide whether to include them in your devotional practice of “praying the psalms.”

How do Christian people trace their heritage from Abraham?

Q. Hello, thanks for this blog, I am still confused about the genealogy in the Bible,
we know that Jewish people are linked with Judah (Yahuda)
and Israelis (the twelve sons) are linked with Israel (Jacob)
and Ishmaelites (the Arabs) linked with Ishmael (Ismail)
all those are the sons of Abraham biologically
How do Christian people link themselves with the Abrahamic heritage?

Thank you for your question. Christians do not trace their lineage from Abraham through physical descent, but rather through faith. As the New Testament says, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.'” Paul says a little bit later in that letter, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Paul says similarly in his letter to the Romans that Abraham is “the ancestor of all who … follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had.”

John the Baptist said similarly that what mattered was faith, expressed through repentance and confession. He told some people who thought they didn’t need to be baptized, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, it was not physical descent that mattered, but genuine faith.

So Christians understand from the New Testament that if they trust in God for forgiveness and new life, they are spiritual descendants of Abraham, who set the example of that kind of trust in God.