“Polygamous Bliss”? Thoughts about Biblical Concubinage and Online Polygamy
I love reading my offline newspaper, The New York Times, delivered to my doorsteps, every morning. I love it because I never know what I will read while drinking my Darjeeling tea.
The advantage of the offline issue is that editors prepared the sequence of articles for us offline readers whereas in the online edition it is entirely up to me to browse around and read whatever strikes my fancy. Online I usually stop reading after two or three articles. I get interrupted by emails or other online distractions from social media to sudden google search ideas.
Because of this more concentrated offline approach to my newspaper reading habits, I am pretty sure I would not have noticed a short piece in the online edition. But there, tucked away on the left-hand bottom of page A13, my eyes caught this intriguing title: “An Online Purveyor of Polygamous Bliss.” “Polygamous bliss”—what’s that supposed to mean?
It so happened that I had just completed a writing assignment on pilegesh in the Hebrew Bible. The noun pilegesh is usually translated as “concubine.” Suffice it to say that scholarly fantasies about polygamy and the harem—all of them soaked in heavy doses of sexism and orientalism—abound in the biblical interpretation history whenever a pilegesh appears in the text. Explicitly feminist studies on pilegesh do not (yet) exist.
The New York Times article mentions two very successful websites that offer matchmaking opportunities for “aspiring polygamists.” A young British entrepreneur, Azad Chaiwala, established both websites in 2014 and 2016, one targeting Muslim men and the other open to “anyone.” The interesting tidbit is that Chaiwala,”a 33-year-old British entrepreneur of Pakistani origin,” is probably a Muslim himself who perhaps unconsciously subscribes to the stereotype of all Muslims practicing polygamy.
Apparently, the websites are very popular. Not only do they have “tens of thousands of members,” most of whom registered in Britain and the USA, but Chaiwala also explains that he received more than 100 grateful letters from users who thank him for his matchmaking websites. Chaiwala is also quoted as stating that he considers polygamy a helpful “pro-family” strategy for avoiding promiscuity, prostitution, divorce, or one-night stands. He advises: “Marry two or three, and be loyal to them.”
This is where I was reminded of my biblical concubine work. After all, Abraham had more than one wife. The book of Genesis informs us that he marries Keturah as a pilegesh (Gen. 25:1-5; 1 Chron. 1:32).
Yet the translation of the Hebrew noun pilegesh as concubine obfuscates more than it discloses. In his exegetically substantive Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (vol. 6, published in 2007), David J.A. Clines proposes a different translation for pilegesh than the traditional “concubine.” He translates it as “secondary wife (rather than concubine).” Abraham and other biblical men, such as King David, emerge as definite polygamists.
Yet Clines’ terminological directness is also limiting, in contrast to the much older Hebrew-English lexicon, edited by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, Charles A Briggs. The lexicon editors acknowledge that the linguistic origin of pilegesh is uncertain but may be related to the Greek pallakh, and the Latin pellex. Both are usually translated as “concubine” but, so the lexicon editors, the Greek noun “probably” means “young girl.” If this possibility is taken seriously, the Hebrew noun pilegesh may, in fact, refer to a sexual relationship between an adult male and a young girl.
Various biblical texts allow for this meaning, but there is more. Besides the factor of age, another important element in the translation of pilegesh must be recognized. Several biblical texts indicate that a pilegesh grows up to become an enslaved woman with no other function than to sexually please and produce children to her master. An obvious example is the story about David’s ten pilageshim (2 Sam 15:16) who serve the king’s sexual and progeny needs.
In short, I argue that the translation of pilegesh as “concubine” or “secondary wife” obfuscates a complicated translation history flavored by orientalist and androcentric assumptions. It is better to translate pilegesh as “(mostly) a sexually trafficked girl in life-time sexual bondage to produce progeny to her master.”
So in this sense, then, a biblical woman called pilegesh does not partake in voluntary polygamy at all. This contrasts with the contemporary online interest in polygamy. Apparently, most profiles on Chaiwala’s websites are posted by women offering themselves to polygamous men. All participants also seem to be adults who do not seem to uphold the Bible in defense of their polygamous interests: “But the Bible says….”
Yet neither the Bible nor the online world seem to favor the other side of the coin, namely polyandry (i.e. one woman married to several men). Hence, Chaiwala explains that he does not intend to build a website for polyandrously inclined people because, in his view, “it is not a viable business proposition.”
In the Hebrew Bible the possibility for polyandry appears only once. In Ezek. 23:20 male pilageshim appear in an extraordinarily hateful poem against the city of Jerusalem presented as the wife of God, the husband. Importantly, in this verse Clines translates the noun as “male lovers” and older dictionaries suggest “male paramour,” but they never propose the meaning of “secondary husband.” Polyandry does not exist in the exegetical imagination of biblical scholarship.
The trouble is that the patriarchal nature of the imagined relationships remains intact both among Bible scholars dealing with the translation of pilegesh and within the online communities interested in polygamy. Both assume that the polygamous arrangements do not harm the woman who may even benefit from the sexual and financial support given to her by the polygynous man. That’s why the biblical translation of “concubine” and “secondary wife” seems to be so natural. And that’s why the fact of contemporary women voluntarily participating in polygamy seals the deal. Both approaches sanctify the patriarchal custom as “blissful” for all participants, female and male.