1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar

Scripture to be studied: Gen. 16:1-4. Hagar was a handmaid to Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Critics claim that Abraham could have sex with Hagar whenever he wanted because she was a slave. (This post also looks into polygamy. It also includes a case of a slave woman named Lucy and her three children in 1827-1828, South Carolina, America, just for a comparison.)

This is a serious accusation. Is any of it true?

I write to learn. Let’s learn together.

If you would like to see many translations please go to biblegateway.com

Let’s see the Scripture, first.


Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. (Gen. 16:1-4, NIV)


Let’s first summarize the backstory and those verses. As usual, I like to number my points for clarity and conciseness.

(1) Abram and Sarai (later renamed Abraham and Sarah) could not conceive a child. Barrenness or childlessness was a catastrophe in the ancient Near East. There were  at least three options to solve the social disaster in ancient culture (John H. Walton, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, comment on v. 2, Zondervan, 2016):

(a) Divorce and remarriage to someone else, presumably a fertile bride, is allowed. However, this could result in serial monogamy, marriage-divorce-marriage-divorce (and so on). This option had a negative economic impact because the divorced bride took her dowry with her. That is, the assets she brought into the marriage went with her when she left her husband’s house.

(b) Polygyny is to take a wife of equal status. This is slightly better economically, because if the husband kept both wives, then the dowry she brought into the marriage would not go with her on his divorce from her. But does the Bible approve of this arrangement? See the special discussion, below.

(c) Polycoity, which means to take additional handmaids to the wife (in this case Sarai) or a secondary wife, also called a concubine (Hagar). This option is the one followed here in Gen. 16:1-4. Concubines bring no dowry with them. Note, however, that Hagar’s status has been elevated to a wife (v. 3), though she still had a secondary status to Sarai. Jewish commentator W. Gunther Plaut notes that the Code of Hammurabi warns that a slave girl must not be elevated by her mistress and could not claim equality. This explains why the biblical author of Genesis still calls Hagar (and Keturah) “concubines” (25:6) (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by W. Gunther Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p. 111).

(2) As for Abram and Sarai conforming to their ancient Near Eastern culture, John Walton writes:

A marriage contract from the town of Nuzi a few centuries after the patriarchal period illustrates the practice. “If Gilimninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife. But if Gilimninu fails to bear children, Gilimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from Lullu country (a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Gilimninu herself shall have authority over her offspring.” An old Assyrian marriage contract closer to the times of the patriarchs reflects a similar solution to infertility. It is therefore plausible that Sarai is simply invoking the terms of their marriage contract. (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, comment on v. 2, Zondervan, 2016)

(3) To be clear, let’s give the couple modern names: Joe and Jane get married and sign a contract (or more likely her father or his father sign it). If Jane has a child, Joe will not marry anyone else (no bigamy or polygamy). But if Jane does not have a child, then Jane will find another woman from Lullu country, presumably her home region. Let’s call her Joan. Joan is a slave woman who becomes a concubine who seems to be a secondary or lower status wife, because of her slave status. Then Jane will have authority over Joe’s and Joan’s child. This is a type of surrogacy.

(4) If the problem is infertility (if Jane does not bear children), steps had to be taken to resolve the disaster of barrenness. So Abram and Sarai were simply fitting into their own culture. She was likely invoking the terms to her marriage contract with Abram. Culturally: Abram and Sarai were fitting in. Therefore let’s not judge the Torah unfairly by putting unrealistic demands on it.

(5) Covenantally: Abram and Sarai stepped outside of God’s promise, however, with their unbelief, even though the covenant was established in the previous chapter, promising Abram a child by Sarai (15:4).

(6) So we have this list of textual facts:

  1. Hagar was Sarai’s personal handmaid.
  2. There is no evidence that Abram had sex with Hagar up to then.
  3. Culturally, infertility was a present disaster for Sarai.
  4. Sarai permitted Abram to take Hagar as a secondary wife (also called a concubine).
  5. She probably invoked a condition in her marriage contract to Abram.
  6. Only then did Abram have legal sex with Hagar to avert the catastrophe of barrenness.
  7. This practice was acceptable to the culture of their times, after negotiations were completed.

Special Discussion: Polygamy

Now what about polygamy? Does Gen. 16:1-4 approve of it?

(1) The Biblical Theology Study Bible, commenting on the word wife (v. 3), urges caution in misinterpreting polygamy as legitimate in Scripture:

Hagar’s status changes from servant to wife, although she still has a secondary position within the household in relation to Sarai (25:6). Abram’s taking a second wife does not indicate that God sanctions bigamy. This was not something God required in order to fulfill his promises. Scripture always portrays taking additional wives as problematic and less than ideal. (comment on Gen. 16:3)

The Study Bible make an important point. Polygamy always poses problems, even though men practiced it in the Bible. However, the Bible teaches by example not to do it. This is a word of caution to Christians who live in countries dominated by Islam. Don’t let Muslims tell you that the Bible allows it, so Muslims can do it too. No, the Bible describes it, but does not approve of it.

(2) Let’s see how the author of Genesis does not approve of Abram’s and Sarai’s extra-monogamous arrangement, here in Gen. 16:1-4.

John H. Sailhammer says that Sarai stepped outside of God’s plan, and the biblical author did not approve of her actions and Abram going along with it, for these textual reasons. (1) God had already extolled the virtue of monogamy in the Garden (2:24). (2) Sarai’s actions reflects those of Eve (Gen. 3). Eve circumvented God’s plans and wanted to be like God; likewise, Sarai circumvents God’s way by gaining a blessing on her own. (4) In the next chapter, household strife erupts (17:15-19). The biblical author seems to communicate that this was inevitable. (5) The biblical author had just finished telling of the establishment of the covenant which would result in a child (15:4). Yet here is Sarai, who does not seem to believe in the covenant. Human effort which bypasses and runs ahead of God is unacceptable (comment on vv. 1-6, in Genesis: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version, Zondervan, 1990, pp. 134-35).

(3) Further, here is a text, next, that says “if any man has two wives” […]. It could also be translated as “Suppose a man has two wives” (NLT, NET): that is, let’s consider a case that a judge may encounter. Note the problems that come up:

15 If a man has two wives, and he loves one but not the other, and both bear him sons but the firstborn is the son of the wife he does not love, 16 when he wills his property to his sons, he must not give the rights of the firstborn to the son of the wife he loves in preference to his actual firstborn, the son of the wife he does not love. 17 He must acknowledge the son of his unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him. (Deut. 21:15-17, NIV)

This passage does not say, “Thou shalt have two wives! Thou art commanded to do this!” No. Instead, the Torah assumes that this was a cultural fact in ancient Israel, as it was elsewhere around the ancient Near East. Now the Torah steps in and regulates it.

(4) From a New Testament perspective, Douglas K. Stuart is right:

This toleration comes within the context of toleration of human weakness in a considerable variety of areas. Jesus described the Mosaic covenant in these terms in Matt 19:8, as a covenant that included accommodation to sinfulness rather than a covenant that presumed only perfect behavior and motives. Without some means of accommodation to human frailty in any divine covenant, there can be no hope for humans to find acceptance with God, thus the importance of the forgiveness of sins in the preaching of the New Covenant. (Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, the New American Commentary, Holman, 2006, comment on Exod. 21:9, p. 483, note 116)

Wow. Perfectly said.

(5) Thus, Stuart reminds us that Jesus said that the Torah itself accommodated man’s sinfulness in divorce laws, but the ideal was one man and one woman, together, monogamously, for life (Gen. 2:24). And so in Exod. 21:7-11 (which we discussed in Part Three) and Deut. 21:15-17, we see problems with multiple marriages. Further, polygamy was done (but not commanded) in the Bible, but wherever it appears, there is trouble in the household. The Bible, in this case, is teaching us through stories to have only one wife. The Bible also elevates the model in Eden: one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24).

(6) The Torah says that the ideal was one man and one woman, together, monogamously, for life (Gen. 2:24). Jesus also endorsed this image of the original couple setting the standard for all of humanity in Matt. 19:4-6. But men are prone to wander from the ideal.

Comparative Case: Slave Woman and Her Children in the American Early Republic

In South Carolina, William Wilbourn (c. 1770s-1827) had a slave woman named Lucy, who bore him three (or four?) children. In his last will and testament, he bequeathed them to his wife Carrie Hudson.

March 3, 1827, Edgefield District, South Carolina. Will Book C, p. 362.

Transcription begins:

William Wilborn Will

In the name of God Amen.  I William Wilborn of the District of Edgefield and State of South Carolina being in a low state of health but not as yet lost my usual reason and understanding and knowing that it is appointed for all men to die do make this my last will and testament, viz.  My wish and desire is that my Beloved wife Cary Wilborn do have the plantation and tract of land where on I now live which is the whole of my land and one half of the Mill on Cufferton Creek also all my stock of horses cattle hogs, &c one negro boy by the name of Key [King?], a woman by the name of Lucy and her three children all this property I give my wife during her natural life or widowhood and increase of either. […]

Signed sealed & delivered in the presents

William (X) Wilborn [his mark] [….]

Further records show that Lucy was associated with four children: Ellen, Rachel, Iris, Silvy. Was she pregnant when Wilbourn died? We don’t know. So what happened to this family? Carrie kept them because at the estate sale they were never put up for sale. The will must have prevented this. They probably remained an adopted part of the Wilbourn family. Concubines were common back then, so taking them into the family was not a shocking policy.

But one thing is certain: Lucy was never elevated to secondary marital status, as the Torah says Hagar was. And William Wilbourn could have sex with his slave whenever he wanted. No contracts, no negotiations. In contrast, the Torah and the ancient Near Eastern culture say no to both. Contracts and negotiations had to be done and signed.

So the rules in the Torah were better than the customs in colonial America.

How does our knowledge of the Bible in its own context of the ancient Near East grow?

The Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us. We have to learn how to interpret it in its own culture, not ours. Abram and Sarai were fitting into their own culture, but morally and ideally they were wrong, from a biblical perspective. They lacked trust in God and his promises.

Abram did not have sex with Hagar whenever he wanted. Rules were in place. Negotiations were opened up when barrenness hit home. Gen. 16:1-4 is a shorthand, compressed account of what a reader in the ancient world would have already known about, namely, legally taking a servant woman as a secondary wife, to solve the disaster of infertility.

Further, polygamy was done (but not commanded) in the Bible, but wherever it appears, there is trouble in the household. The Bible, in this case, is teaching us through stories to have only one wife. The Bible also elevates the model in Eden: one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24).

One thing is certain: the custom of concubinage does not work today in modern society. Societies in various parts of the globe that practice it are going down the wrong path because of household strife and discord.

Jesus endorsed the Edenic model of one man and one woman, brought together by God (Matt. 19:4-6). For Christians, his teaching is decisive. It would work for everyone who is not Christian, too.

Also, the epistles clearly spell out the norm: one man and one woman: Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 3:2 (for eldership); Titus 1:6 (also for eldership).

Now that our customs today have advanced over concubinage, let’s not look back four thousand years and sneer at these patriarchs and matriarchs. They were not outlandish custom breakers. They fit in. No violations.

However, theologically and personally, let’s learn lessons from them.

Let’s not act on our own plans and ambitions that go outside God’s best. He does not need our help to accomplish his plans. He promised–with a covenant, no less–that Abram / Abraham was going to have a child by Sarai / Sarah. It is best to wait on God and trust him to accomplish his promises in our lives, in his timing.


1. Torah and Slavery: Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar

2. Torah and Slavery: Israelite Indentured Servants

3. Torah and Slavery: Impoverished Father Sells His Daughter to Be a ‘Secondary Wife’

4. Torah and Slavery: What Happened When Masters Punished Their Slaves?

5. Torah and Slavery: Protecting Slave Women from Injustice

6. Torah and Slavery: Foreign Slaves

7. Torah and Slavery: Marrying Captives of War


Slavery and Freedom in the Bible

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

How Christians Should Interpret the Old Testament

The Biblical Norm for Marriage

Brief Overview of Divorce and Remarriage in New Testament

5 Slavery in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

12 Polygamy in the Quran, Traditions, and Classical Sharia Law

As for the two links to Islam and the Quran, even though the Quran was written 600 years (or later) after Jesus, it still follows a misreading of the Old Testament and permits polygamy, if the husband is rich enough to afford it. In contrast, Jesus endorsed the couple in Eden: one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4-6). Let’s not go backwards.


Works Cited


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