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Concubine as Paradigm

In considering the meaning of a simple word like concubine one finds an excellent example of the challenges that face modern attempts to represent many biblical terms. Sometimes we not only lack the words to properly translate, but we also lack the mental categories to emotionally understand.

Technical terms, like concubine, are terms whose true definition are dependent on cultural context. We, for instance, could not define the word litigation to an aborigine, without also explaining our entire system of law, police, courts, judges, lawyers and the like. Technical terms require paragraphs, extended commentary… translations are not commentaries… not real one’s anyway.  The chances are good that even after lengthy explanation the term would still lack any emotional meaning to the poor fellow whose native mental and emotional categories contain little by way of direct comparison. By comparison, other terms would not require context. Most cultures have ideas like via, lest, and because or run, big, and straight ready at hand.

Now, we are a monogamist culture. Indeed, I believe that monogamy is God’s best plan. Ancient myths of Lilith notwithstanding, God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Mellissa and Helen, and Gertrude and Eve. In fact, we feel so strongly about monogamy generally, especially in the church, that a term like concubine, which many falsely equate with sex slave or mistress, just about gives us apoplexy. I’m not exactly certain what apoplexy is, but I know we get it a lot, and that it has something to do with being asked to accept some cultural reality that does not appear in the best selling life guide, Good Baptist Girls’ Don’t. Sorry no subtitle… I guess they just don’t… anything.

Our modern American generation, while recognizing that other cultures have and had things like polygamy, cult prostitution, slaves, and indentured servants do not actually have appropriate emotional, and at times mental, categories for dealing with these realities in Scripture. Few would express it so, but we typically justify our own religious existence by casting beloved biblical characters in our own image, and any confrontation with cultural paradigms that resist this vision causes us great distress. Our hearts identify with girlfriend (though I imagine such a concept would freak out any biblical saint), and fiancée and wife, and even mistress (rarely a positive when defining male-female relationships). We even now have the category prenuptial agreement, which in the church is still viewed with more than a little suspicion… “You mean you are going into this planning for divorce?” What, however, is our heart supposed to do with arranged marriage, betrothal, marriage contracts, dowry, bride-price and concubines.

Our tendency is to associate these terms, however awkwardly, with existing categories in our experience, and the biblical terms cannot escape the emotional corruption of the process. We cannot bring ourselves to feel about these things the way biblical authors likely felt about them. Is any modern American, especially an African American, able to wrestle with the terms translated slave in the Old and New Testaments without tarring them with the ugly history of racism in America?  Slavery’s varying functions at different times as alternately defined economic classes, and both the Torah’s and the Apostle Paul’s seeming indifference to the status, leaves our hearts cold and puzzling. Don’t even get me started trying to depict what a freeman is to those who only have mental categories for slave and free… freeman as a category has no slot in our minds to insert itself naturally.

So, we turn to the term concubine, and the sound biblical teacher begs his students not to allow our own “cogno-emotive” categories to override our attempts to understand the biblical writers and biblical characters. Yes, I made the word up; if you don’t make up at least one new word a day, you just aren’t trying.

Concubines are not sex-slaves… that’s our modern feminist rage thinking. Concubines aren’t mistresses… that’s our rigid monogamist culture thinking. Concubines are a type of wife… unfortunately we don’t have a category in our hearts or minds for “type of wife,” so anything less than WIFE, or in addition to WIFE, provokes us… We purse our lips with our hands on our hips and say, even if only in our hearts, “This just can’t be right.”

But we’ll have to pick up here in my next blog.

[1] media pic is from sxc.hu

One thought on “Concubine as Paradigm

  1. John Gilkenson says:

    Very cool with the Gertrude reference.

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