Abraham, Hagar, and Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: The Mormon Use of Abraham as Precedent for Plural Marriage
Summary: Contrary to Joseph Smith’s teaching in LDS scripture (D&C 132), God did not command Abraham to take many wives, nor did God command Abraham specifically to take Hagar as a wife. A careful study of Genesis 16 shows that it was Sarai’s idea for Abram to have sexual relations with Hagar in order to produce a child. In their culture, this practice was akin to what we call surrogate motherhood. Abram’s child by his wife Sarai’s maid Hagar would be considered in that culture to be Sarai’s child. Some distinctive, close verbal parallels between Genesis 16:2-3 and statements in Genesis 3 (in which Eve, tempted by the serpent, gave the forbidden fruit to her husband) shows that the narrative in Genesis 16 is portraying Sarai and Abram as falling into sin. As far as the inspired narrative is concerned, Sarai remained Abram’s only true wife. The promise made to Abram of descendants that would inherit the land of Canaan was to be fulfilled by God’s power through Sarai herself, not a surrogate. In no way is Abram’s relationship with Hagar biblical precedent for Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage. The article concludes by presenting a series of striking contrasts between Abraham and Joseph Smith in this regard.
Mormons are taught that Abraham’s sexual union with women other than Sarah, most notably with Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, is biblical precedent for the LDS doctrine of plural marriage. The LDS Church claims that Abraham was an example of God not merely tolerating or permitting polygamy or plural marriage, but commanding or mandating it. This idea was written into LDS scripture as part of a revelation Joseph Smith claimed came from God:
God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises. Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it…. Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law…. (D&C 132:34-35, 37a)
Joseph’s interpretation of Hagar’s relationship with Abraham continues to be taught in the LDS Church right up to the present day. An article published in 2014 on LDS.org, the Mormons’ official website, repeats the claim that God commanded Abraham to take Hagar as a plural wife. It asserts, “In biblical times, the Lord commanded some to practice plural marriage—the marriage of one man and more than one woman.” In a footnote to this statement, the article cites the passage quoted above (D&C 132:34-38) as well as Genesis 16, the biblical passage about Hagar conceiving and giving birth to Ishmael.1 Brian Hales, in his three-volume study of Joseph Smith’s polygamy, states without elaboration or argument that “Abraham (Gen. 16) and Jacob (Gen. 29:30) were pluralists,” by which he means practitioners of plural marriage.2
In claiming biblical precedent for Joseph Smith’s institution of plural marriage, the LDS Church invites us to look at what the Bible says to see if the claim stands up (cf. Acts 17:11). This article will do this specifically with regard to Abraham and Hagar, the prime example given by Joseph Smith of an Old Testament figure whose polygamy Joseph claimed to be “restoring” in his practice of taking plural wives (132:1, 29-37, 49-51, 57, 65).
Did God Command Abraham to Marry Hagar?
There is absolutely no support in the Bible for Joseph Smith’s assertion that God commanded Abraham to take Hagar as his wife. According to Genesis 16, it was Sarah’s idea for Abraham to have sexual relations with her Egyptian servant Hagar in order to produce a child. The fact that it was Sarah’s idea is strongly emphasized, since it is stated five times in the first six verses of the passage (which uses the names Sarai and Abram, the couple’s names until later in Genesis):
Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong3 be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee. But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face. (Gen. 16:1-6 KJV)4
Mormons might wish to take note of the fact that the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) makes only picayune verbal changes5 to Genesis 16:1-5. This is just what one would expect since Joseph Smith produced his revision of Genesis in 1830-1831, before he had shown any possible interest in plural marriage.
Sarai is the principal actor in this first scene in the narrative about the birth of Ishmael. As Gordon Wenham points out, “Sarai takes the initiative…. She gives the orders, and Abram and Hagar merely carry out her wishes.”6 The only references to the Lord in these verses are in two comments by Sarai, and in neither instance does she in any way suggest that the Lord had directed or prompted the decision (vv. 2, 5). No one consults the Lord, hears from him, or expresses any interest in obeying him in this part of the narrative.
It was because she had borne Abram no children that Sarai gave Hagar to him as a wife (Gen. 16:1). Genesis reports that Sarai in effect blamed God for her lack of a child: “the Lord hath restrained me from bearing” (16:2). Genesis does assert that in some cases God actively withheld the blessing of children from some women or actively granted that blessing to other women (Gen. 20:17-18; 25:21; 29:31; 30:2, 22-23; 49:25). Childlessness or “barrenness” was commonly viewed in the ancient world (and even by many people today) as a dishonor or disgrace to the woman. “There was no greater sorrow for an Israelite or Oriental woman than childlessness. Even today among the Arabs the barren woman is exposed to disgrace and even grievous wrongs. These views, which derive from the human code of honor, and the customs to which they give birth also play a role in the patriarchal stories.”7 Sarai’s statement therefore likely expressed some bitterness or resentment.
Abram and Sarai: Adam and Eve All Over Again
Abram’s sexual union with Hagar was not only something God had not commanded, it was something that God did not approve. The text indicates this in the way Sarai and Abram’s actions are described that parallel the actions of Eve and Adam in the temptation narrative:
And when the woman [îššāh] saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took [wattiqqah] of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave [wattitēn] also unto her husband [lə’îšāh] with her; and he did eat…. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of [šāma‘tā ləqôl] thy wife (Gen 3:6, 17 KJV).
And Abram hearkened to the voice of [wayyišma‘ tā ləqôl] Sarai. And Sarai Abram's wife [’ēšet] took [wattiqqah] Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave [wattitēn] her to her husband [lə…’îšāh] Abram to be his wife. (Gen 16:2-3 KJV).
In both passages, the woman (Eve; Sarai) initiated the series of events. She “took” something (the fruit; Hagar) and “gave” it “to her husband” (Adam; Abram), who “hearkened to the voice of” his wife and did what she proposed (ate the fruit; had sex with Hagar). As noted in brackets in the two quotations above, the two passages share key Hebrew wording in common.
In both passages, a man “hearkened to the voice of” his wife,8 and in both passages the wife gave the man something that he accepted. The complexity of the parallel shows that it is intentional and significant. The reader is meant to understand that Abram erred in allowing his wife to persuade him to have sexual relations with Hagar, just as Adam erred in allowing his wife to persuade him to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.9
The point is easily missed by modern readers, not only because they fail to see the connection between the two passages but also because they see nothing amiss with the husband “listening to the voice of” his wife. In modern Western culture these words express a quite proper willingness on the part of a husband to consider his wife’s viewpoint, literally to listen to what she has to say, and to show respect for her opinion. However, in ancient Hebrew usage it is evident that the specific expression “to listen to the voice of” actually is an idiom that usually means to accede to someone else’s request or instruction or command.10 Adam and Abram are not faulted for literally listening to their wives, but for giving into their wishes in these specific instances.
The parallels between Genesis 3 and 16 go further. Just as Adam had tried to shift the blame for his eating of the forbidden fruit to his wife (Gen. 3:12), Sarai tried to shift the blame for Hagar’s contempt to Abram (Gen. 16:5). Neither Abram not Sarai handled the situation responsibly.
Second Wife or Surrogate Mother?
Modern categories of social relationships do not always correspond neatly with ancient ones, so caution is in order in asking a question such as whether Hagar became Abram’s wife. Still, the question is legitimate and turns out to lead to some illuminating information when the account in Genesis is studied carefully in the light of ancient culture.
In polygamy, the usual or culturally normal pattern was that the man took additional wives from outside his household. Such a woman left the family in which she was born and became the wife of the man to whom she was united, becoming a member of his household under his direct authority in that patriarchal culture. Either the woman consented to the marriage herself or, far more commonly, her father or other responsible male family member gave consent. The man could also bring women into his household as concubines, essentially slaves available to him for sexual relations but typically lacking at least some of the legal rights and protections of a wife.
On the other hand, “wealthier wives preferred the practice of surrogate motherhood” by allowing their maids to have sex with their husbands. “The mistress could then feel that her maid’s child was her own and exert some control over it in a way that she could not if her husband simply took a second wife.”11 This maid was “a personal servant owned by a rich woman, not a slave girl answerable to the master.”12 In effect, “the child born of the maid was considered the wife’s child.”13 This is exactly what Sarai said was the reason for her giving Hagar to Abram: “it may be that I may obtain children by her” (Gen. 16:2). Neither the maid nor her father had any say in the matter. Thus, as Sarai’s servant girl, Hagar “possesses no choice and has no voice in becoming a surrogate mother”; Sarai simply takes Hagar and gives her to Abram.14 The initiative comes from Sarai because Hagar, as her maid, belongs to her. Hence the text refers to Hagar as Sarai’s maid five times in six verses, with Abram even saying to Sarai, “thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee” (v. 6). As Sarai’s maid, Hagar is accurately described in modern parlance as a surrogate mother.15 Such surrogate mothers were a type of concubine,16 though standing in a somewhat different relationship to the man because of her status as the wife’s maid servant.
There is only one reference to Hagar as Abram’s “wife,” and it is quite clearly qualified in context: “Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (Gen. 16:3). This statement does not indicate any approval or sanction by God of the decision to have Hagar become a second wife to Abram. Indeed, this is the only reference to Hagar as his wife in the Bible. Genesis introduces her as Sarah’s “maid” (Gen. 16:1, 3), and continues to refer to her as such even after she was given to Abraham (Gen. 16:6, 8; 25:12). Both Sarah and God in Genesis 21, when speaking to Abraham about Hagar, refer to her as Sarah’s “bondwoman” (KJV) or “female slave” (’āmāh), even after Hagar’s son Ishmael was born (21:12, 13). Sarai or Sarah, on the other hand, is called Abraham’s wife 26 times throughout the Abraham narrative (Gen. 11:29, 31; 12:5, 11, 12, 17-20; 13:1; 16:1, 3a; 17:15, 19; 18:9, 10; 20:2, 7, 11, 12, 14, 17, 18; 23:19; 24:36; 25:10). The implication is clear: Sarah was Abraham’s real, proper wife; Hagar was not.17
The only woman recognized in the Genesis narrative as Abraham’s “wife” besides Sarah is Keturah. It is sometimes thought that Abraham took Keturah as his wife after Sarah had died, based on the fact that his taking Keturah as a wife is mentioned in the narrative after Sarah had died (Gen. 25:1; cf. 23:19). Even Keturah, however, is called Abraham’s “concubine” (pîlegesh, Gen. 25:6; 1 Chron. 1:32), which may imply that she actually attained this status while Sarah was still alive. Moreover, since Sarah died about 37 years after Isaac’s death (Gen. 17:17; 24:1), it seems unlikely that Abraham married and sired six children in the years following Sarah’s death, when Abraham would have been 140 and older.18 It therefore seems most likely that Keturah became Abraham’s concubine sometime after Isaac was born but before Sarah passed away. Perhaps the reference to Keturah as Abraham’s wife reflects a perspective from after Sarah’s death but while Keturah was still alive, so that in effect his concubine became his wife when his first wife had died. On the other hand, it is possible that “took as wife” was simply an idiom meaning that Abraham had sexual relations with her, as he had with Hagar (cf. Gen. 16:2), and that she was simply his concubine. The reference to Abraham’s “concubines” in Genesis 25:6 in any case most likely refers simply to both Keturah and Hagar.19 It is unlikely that the statement acknowledges any other concubines besides those two, since the point of the passage (Gen. 25:1-6), which is essentially a genealogy, is to identify other descendants of Abraham who were not through either the line of Ishmael or the line of Isaac, the son of the promise.20 In context, then, this reference reinforces the point that only his relationship with Sarah is recognized by the narrator as a regular or proper marriage.
Ishmael: Not the Son of the Promise
Ishmael was not the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham of a son whose descendants would inherit the land. God did graciously promise to make a great nation of Ishmael, but the covenant promise that God made to Abraham was realized through Sarah’s son Isaac (Genesis 17:18-21; 21:12-13). As the apostle Paul put it, Ishmael “was born after the flesh” whereas Isaac “was by promise” (Galatians 4:23; see also Romans 9:6-9). Thus, Sarai’s action of seeking a son through her maid Hagar was at best a wrongheaded attempt to fulfill God’s promise in a way other than God’s plan. It may even have been worse, as will be explained shortly.
A review of the narrative about Abram and Sarai preceding the Hagar incident shows that Abram, at least, had enough experience with the Lord to know that having sexual relations with Hagar was the wrong thing to do. The Lord had promised to Abram when he was already 75 years old that through him all of the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3) and that his “seed” would be given the land and would be extremely numerous (12:4, 7; 13:14-16). When Abram expressed concern that he would die childless and that his servant Eliezer of Damascus would become his heir, God assured Abram that his own biological son would be his heir (15:2-4). The Lord then reiterated and solemnly pledged that Abram’s seed would inherit the whole land (15:5-8, 18). Abram’s faith in this promise of blessing to him, his descendants, and all of the families of the earth through the promised “seed” was accounted by God to Abram as righteousness (15:6). As Bruce Waltke points out, Abram’s approaching God with his idea of designating Eliezar as his heir contrasts with Sarai’s pushing Abram into taking Hagar without first consulting the Lord. Waltke’s conclusion seems well founded: had Sarah asked God first as Abram had done in the earlier case, “he would have ruled out surrogate motherhood for her as he had ruled out adoption for Abraham.”21
Thus, even though “Sarai has not been named as the mother” up to this point,22 the narrative leads the reader to recognize that such was God’s plan and that at the least she should have consulted the Lord—or asked Abraham to do so—before proceeding with her plan. That God intended to fulfill this promise through her had also already been suggested by his divine protection and deliverance when, through Abram’s cowardice, she temporarily became part of the Pharaoh’s harem (12:9-20).
It is true that Sarai’s action was common in her culture, so that within that cultural context her giving Hagar to Abram as a wife would not have merited any disapproval or social criticism. It is also true that in Genesis, and in the rest of the Bible, “God often works in and through humans to carry out the divine purposes.”23 On this basis, Fretheim takes exception to the common observation that Sarai was wrongly trying to “help God” fulfill his promise. In fact, it may be even worse than that. Sarai herself explained that her action was prompted by the belief that God was preventing her from conceiving Abram a child (Gen. 16:3). Her stated reason for pushing Hagar into Abram’s arms was evidently to circumvent what she saw as God’s imposition of barrenness on her. Far from trying to help God, Sarai appears to have been trying to defeat God. Thus, even though her action would have occasioned no criticism from other people, it was an act of unbelief, of mistrust in the Lord. This interpretation explains why Genesis narrates her interaction with Abram in the matter in a way recalling Eve’s interaction with Adam in the account of their temptation.
A close reading of the narrative in Genesis 16 in the context of the rest of the book, then, supports the conclusion that Sarai was acting in a manner inconsistent with faith in God’s promise to Abram. Of course, she did not act alone. Abram, despite his faith in God’s promise, chose to go along with Sarai’s plan, and in doing so brought strife into his home. Arguably, he was even more to blame, since he certainly had the authority, especially in his patriarchal culture, to reject Sarai’s suggestion. In any case, the evidence shows that in the Genesis narrative, Abram’s sexual union with Hagar was not commanded by God or even approved by him. Instead, it was an act inconsistent with Abram’s faith in God to fulfill his promise.
Abraham: Precedent for Joseph Smith?
Joseph’s argument about Abraham and Hagar is part of his theological justification for the practice of polygamy, or plural marriage, in which he had already been secretly engaged for at least two years. This practice is the main topic of Doctrine & Covenants 132, one of the longer and more controversial “revelations” in that collection of LDS scripture. The revelation begins with the following claim attributed to the Lord:
“…I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines” (D&C 132:1).
Joseph goes on to claim that the practice of polygamy is part of “a new and everlasting covenant” that the Latter-day Saints were to embrace or face damnation, “for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory” (132:4, 6). In this covenant, marriages were to be performed “for eternity” and a man could and should enter into more than one such marriage for the future exaltation of himself and his family (132:7-28). In this context, Joseph Smith cites Abraham as his primary example of this principle (132:29-37, 49-51, 57, 65), along with Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, and Moses (132:37-39; see also 132:1). Joseph cites Abraham taking Hagar as his wife as an example to his own wife Emma Smith, who was clearly unhappy about Joseph’s other wives (132:51-54, 65).
Joseph’s understanding of Old Testament polygamy is demonstrably in conflict with the Old Testament itself. There is no mention of Isaac or Moses having more than one wife, and neither Abraham nor Jacob had “many” wives and concubines. At any given time Abraham evidently had no more than one wife and one concubine (Sarah and Hagar, and later apparently Sarah and Keturah, Gen. 25:1, 6; 1 Chron. 1:32). Jacob had two wives and two concubines (Gen. 29-30). David may be fairly said to have had many wives, since it is clear that he had at least ten and possibly many more (1 Chron. 3:1-3; 14:3), and Solomon definitely had many—he had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). Moses had explicitly warned Israel, however, that its kings should not have many wives, “lest his heart turn away” from the Lord (Deut. 17:17), which happened with Solomon (1 Kings 11:3). Thus, the Old Testament flatly contradicts Joseph Smith’s claim that God justified and even commanded people in that era to have many wives. As this article has shown, the Lord certainly did not command Abraham to take Hagar as his wife, as Joseph Smith taught.
There are other ways in which Joseph’s appeal to the example of Abram and Hagar turns the Old Testament upside down. For example, it is worth recalling that even though it was originally Sarai’s idea, after Hagar became pregnant she looked down on Sarai, resulting in a crisis in Abram’s household (Genesis 16:3-6). This is the lesson that Joseph Smith should have learned from Abram and Hagar, not that God commands men to enter into multiple marriages in order to pursue exaltation!
Joseph even claimed, “Abraham received concubines, and they bore him children; and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, because they were given unto him, and he abode in my law” (132:37). When we compare this statement with Genesis 15:6, it is difficult not to be shocked at Joseph’s audacity. As explained above, God declared Abram righteous because of his faith that God would bless him with posterity. Abram’s act of taking Hagar was not an act of righteousness, but an act of moral weakness showing that he needed righteousness as a gift of God’s grace (cf. Romans 4:1-5).
There is one interesting parallel between Abraham’s sexual union with Hagar and Joseph Smith’s plural marriages.24 In at least some instances, Joseph’s plural wives were maids living in his house and working for his legal wife Emma, notably Emily and Eliza Partridge, two young sisters whom Emma had taken into the house in 1843. His plural wives also included Sarah and Maria Lawrence, two teenagers living in the house of Joseph, who had been appointed their legal guardian. In addition, Joseph had a sexual relationship with Fanny Alger, a teenage maid living in his house in the 1830s. Although Mormons generally now count her among Joseph’s plural wives, the evidence strongly supports the view that Joseph did not begin practicing plural marriage as such until the late 1830s or even 1841, and that his relationship with Fanny was simply adulterous.25
In more important ways, Joseph Smith’s polygamy stands in stark contrast to the facts pertaining to Abraham’s relationship with Hagar, whether one calls it polygamy or not, as the following table shows:
Had at most two or three wives at one time (probably one wife and one concubine)
Had over thirty plural wives at the same time in addition to his legal wife Emma
Taking concubines or additional wives was legally and socially acceptable in his pagan culture
Taking even a second wife was illegal and widely (and rightly) recognized as immoral in his largely Christian culture
Did not try to hide or deny his relationships with Hagar or (later) Keturah
Explicitly denied having more than one wife despite secretly marrying over thirty
Was persuaded by his wife to have sex with one other woman, Hagar
Had sex with at least a dozen other women, generally without his wife even knowing
Had sex with Hagar in order to give his barren wife a child she could call her own
Had at least four living children by his wife Emma before taking plural wives
Never claimed that taking a concubine or second wife was God’s idea
Claimed that he would not have taken plural wives except that God commanded him
Had no Scripture or special revelation teaching that polygamy was wrong
Had the New Testament, which teaches that polygamy is wrong (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6)
Did not have sexual relations with a woman related to anyone else he claimed as a wife
His plural wives included a mother and her daughter (see Leviticus 18:17) as well as three pairs of sisters (see Leviticus 18:18)
Did not have sexual relations with any woman who was already married
Made at least a dozen women his plural wives and had at least one child by such a married woman (by Sylvia Sessions Lyon), all relationships that were clearly adulterous (Romans 7:2-3)
On a superficial understanding of the subject, the claim that Joseph Smith’s polygamy had biblical precedent in the example of Abraham may seem plausible. However, on closer examination the comparison is devastating, as it reveals sharp, painful contrasts between the two individuals. Abraham was not sinless in his marital and sexual relationships, since even if he thought polygamy was permissible his accepting Hagar as a concubine showed a lack of faith in God’s promise. Yet his sins in this regard were mild, particularly in his religious and cultural context. Joseph Smith, in the face of nearly two millennia of Christian tradition and culture, used his status as the Prophet to manipulate dozens of women, including impressionable teenagers and older women who were already married, into becoming his plural wives. No wonder many Mormons, upon discovering the facts about Joseph’s polygamy, have been shocked into questioning their faith and doubting Joseph’s claim to be a prophet of God.
If there is some good news here, it is that such sensitive Mormons who realize they can no longer put stock in Joseph Smith need not lose faith in God’s revelations in the Bible. The biblical prophets were sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption, just as we are, but they were honorable men of sincere faith. While our faith is in God, not in Abraham or any other mere man, God by his grace made the sometimes spineless Abraham into the father of all who have faith in God’s divine Son Jesus Christ (see Romans 4).
For more information and analysis concerning polygamy and Mormonism, please see also the following articles:
LDS Church Addresses Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (an overview article)
And see further our main page on Polygamy, from which you can find still other articles.
1. “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” LDS.org, Oct. 22, 2014 (n. 1).
2. Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 3:33.
3. Some might wonder if Sarai’s words “my wrong” in Genesis 16:5 are an admission that she was wrong to give Hagar to Abram. This is not the case; the word translated “my wrong” in the KJV (hamāsî) is better translated in contemporary English as “the wrong done to me” (as in the ESV, NRSV; “the wrong done me,” NASB; other modern versions are similar).
4. Unless otherwise noted, quotations from the Bible are taken from the King James Version (KJV), since this is the standard version published by the LDS Church.
5. Specifically, replacing unto with to (Gen. 16:1) and is with be (v. 2).
6. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary 2 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 4, 6.
7. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John H. Marks, Old Testament Library, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), 191. Von Rad used the term Oriental to refer to people in what is now more commonly called the ancient Near East. Sarai, of course, was not an Israelite, since Israel (Jacob) was her grandson.
8. It is not accurate to say that this is the only place (in Genesis) where the expression occurs, as asserted in Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 7; Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 252. In two places Genesis says that God listened to the voice of a human being (Gen. 21:17 [twice]; 30:6). In these contexts, of course, the meaning is that God acceded to the human’s request or expression of need. In Genesis 21:12, God told Abraham to "hearken unto the voice of" Sarah when she demanded that he cast out Hagar from their home, which Abraham was initially reluctant to do.
9. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 7-8; Waltke, Genesis, 252.
10. The idiom occurs about 39 times in the OT (Gen. 3:17; 16:2; 21:17 [bis]; 30:6; Exod. 3:18; 4:1, 9; 15:26; 18:24; Num. 20:16; Deut. 1:45; 26:7; 33:7; Judg. 13:9; 20:13; 1 Sam. 19:6; 2 Sam. 22:7; 1 Kings 17:22; 20:25; 2 Chron. 30:27; Job 9:16; Ps. 5:3; 18:6; 28:2, 6; 31:22; 55:17; 64:1; 81:11; 116:1; 119:149; Prov. 5:13; Isa. 28:23; 58:4; Jer. 4:11; 18:10; Jonah 2:2; Zeph. 3:2). There are, it should be noted, places in which the expression has a more literal meaning (e.g., Deut. 4:33, 36; 5:23-26; Job 4:16; 37:4; Song of Sol. 2:12, 14; 8:13; Isa. 6:8; Jer. 18:19).
11. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 7. For a helpful discussion of some of the relevant background legal texts, see E. A. Speiser, Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible 1 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 120-21.
12. Waltke, Genesis, 251.
13. Von Rad, Genesis, 191.
14. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 1:454 (319-674); and again in Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 104.
15. This description is a common one applied by commentators of otherwise widely varying perspectives. In addition to the statements by Wenham and Fretheim already cited, see, e.g., Waltke, Genesis, 251; Susan Niditch, “Genesis,” in The Woman’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 20; David J. Zucker, “Sarah: The View of the Classical Rabbis,” in Perspectives on Our Father Abraham: Essays in Honor of Marvin R. Wilson, ed. Steven A. Hunt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 224.
16. Speiser has even argued that îššāh in Genesis 16:3 should be translated “concubine” rather than “wife,” Genesis, 116, 117. This translation suggestion has generally not been followed, though it is found in the 1985 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. In any case, the point that in context the relationship in fact is a form of concubinage stands.
17. For a similar argument see Waltke, Genesis, 249.
18. Cf. Waltke, Genesis, 335.
19. Ibid., 338.
20. Hence, there is no warrant for the claim made by FAIRMormon that Genesis 25:6 indicates that Abraham had “other unnamed concubines” besides Hagar and Keturah: “Joseph Smith/Polygamy/Not Biblical,” FAIRMormon, last modified Sept. 20, 2014.
21. Waltke, Genesis, 251.
22. Fretheim, Abraham, 95.
23. Fretheim, “Book of Genesis,” 1:454; likewise, Abraham, 103.