Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
THE ROYAL HOUSEHOLD

1. The harem

IN a society which tolerated polygamy, the possession of a large harem was a mark of wealth and power. It was also a luxury which few could afford, and it became the privilege of kings. Saul had at least one concubine ( 2 S 3:7), and elsewhere there is mention of his 'wives' ( 2 S 12:8). Even when David was reigning only in Hebron, he already had six wives ( 2 S 3: 2-5), and in Jerusalem he took more concubines and wives ( 2 S 5: 13; cf. 2 S 19: 6), including Bathsheba ( 2 S 11: 27). When he fled from Absalom he left ten concubines in Jerusalem ( 2 S 15: 16; 16: 21-22; 20: 3). According to 2 Ch 11: 21, Roboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines. Abiyyah had fourteen wives according to 2 Ch 13: 21. According to 2 Ch 24: 3 Joas had at least two wives and so had Josias (cf. 2 K 23: 31, 34, 36). Ben-hadad called on Achab to surrender his wives ( 1 K 20: 3-7), and Nabuchodonosor deported Joaikin and his wives ( 2 K 24: 15). The same fate befell the wives of Joram ( 2 Ch 21: 14, 17) and of Sedecias ( Jr 38: 23). Sennacherib, according to his Annals, accepted the women of Ezechias' harem as tribute. The 'king' in the Song of Songs has sixty queens and eighty concubines ( Ct 6: 8). But all these are eclipsed by the fabulous harem of Solomon, who had, according to 1 K 11: 3, seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Whatever we may think of these last figures, Dt 17: 17 had good cause to warn the king against possessing too large a harem.

Things were probably much the same in the small states bordering on Israel, though we are poorly informed about them. In the Amarna period we learn, incidentally, that the king of Byblos had at least two wives, and the king of Alasia ( Cyprus) speaks of his 'wives'. In the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., however, the Assyrian Annals attribute to the kings of Ascalon, Sidon and Ashdod only one wife each, who may have been the queen consort; this would still leave room for other wives and concubines.

We are better informed about the great empires. Among the Hittites there was only one queen consort, but the king had a harem of wives (free women) and of slave concubines also. Similarly, in Assyria, the king had other wives besides the queen, the 'Lady of the Palace'; often they were princesses from vassal countries. In Egypt the Pharaoh had only one 'great royal spouse'. Five persons, no doubt in succession, held this title in the very long reign of

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