Were a third of Jacob’s sons illegitimate?

Deuteronomy 23:3 says that a bastard is not part of the assembly unto the 10th generation.  How can that be when half of Jacob’s sons were born to his concubines and became the heads of tribes?


Dear Peggy,

If you are not a lawyer you may not know the difference between manslaughter, 1st degree murder and 2nd degree murder. If you aren’t a gourmet chef you may not distinguish between Hungarian paprika and Spanish paprika. Yet, in the courtroom or a five-star kitchen a great deal may hinge on those distinctions.

The Hebrew word used in Deuteronomy 23:3 is mamzer. It is generally mistranslated as ‘bastard’.  This is not what the term means. Mamzer is a technical term that refers to the very rare case of a child of a man and a woman who are not allowed to marry, such as siblings or a married woman and someone other than her husband. So, for example, while the Torah much prefers children to be created within marriage rather than outside of that holy covenant, the child of an unmarried couple who are legally able to get married but did not do so, is not a mamzer.

In the Bible, there is no ritual stigma attached to innocent children of a couple who failed to formally marry.

In Biblical days, there was a category of spouse that gets translated as concubine. This was a formal relationship where the woman was on a slightly lower level than a wife. However, the man was just as financially and emotionally responsible for her and her children as he would be for a wife and society fully acknowledged that relationship. While that type of semi-marriage is no longer officially practiced, it was an honorable option and the ensuing children had full legal status. Four of Jacob’s sons were in this category.

Hope this helps,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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29 thoughts on “Were a third of Jacob’s sons illegitimate?”

  1. Here is a case where diligent study is necessary to understanding the Scripture. Often times someone of modern age will apply modern standards to another time and culture. They do not mix. To call Jefferson, Washington, Madison, et al racist because they owned slaves is absolutely off base. The culture of their time was different. These men wrestled greatly with slavery. They were not racist or anything of the kind. Their time and culture was not ours. The culture and time of the patriarchs. They cannot be understood by applying our current culture. In 100 short years from now, the culture of that time will undoubtedly look at us as strange and maybe unethical. That would not necessarily be the case. How will be understood or viewed in time? Likely not the way we view ourselves from here and now.

  2. If a concubine was just a woman on a slightly lower level than a wife, then why is sleeping with a mans concubine shown as making a grab for his power?
    Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines which were foreign and political marriages. If you look at biblical weddings, this would have been impossible for one man to physically do, let alone have any time to rule as king.
    It looks like Solomon was building his own tower of Babel and trying to rule the whole world, not just the 12 tribes of Israel.
    For instance, why is the temple called “Solomon’s Temple” (whose name is glorified)? Why was Solomon allowed to break all the rules while David was held accountable for his sins (during his own lifetime)? Did Solomon used forced labor to build the temple or over tax the Israelite’s as some verses suggest?

  3. I cannot tell you, Susan and Rabbi Lapin how valuable your your instruction in your daily teaching. I, too always learn from your television and your email instruction. Your wisdom enriches and answer questions that I have or have had. Would it be possible to have your “Ask The Rabbi” on TBN or Daystar? Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    1. Lucy, we’d love it if you contacted TBN and Daystar and requested that they host us!


    Miss Susan, I look at it as if we are all Jewish, just with some differences. Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, Christian Jews. Nothing in the Christian Bible takes away the relevance of the Torah and other books of Jewish worship. We are of one Rite and you are of another. But like the Sons of Ishmael and the Koran, there is wisdom where you find it.
    Bill Brower

    1. Bill, I appreciate your thoughts and agree that there is wisdom where you can find it. However, I hope you will respect my disagreement about “we’re all Jews.” I don’t think you can be a Christian Jew any more than you can be a Moslem Christian. All these theologies have inherent conflicts. You can respect them, but your identity has to be one or the other. We like to focus on shared values and roots rather than on what separates us, but we respect both Judaism and Christianity too much to think they can form one religion. I know many Christians who value their Jewish roots and appreciate that, but they are unquestionably Christians.


    Miss. Susan, The explanation of mamzer goes a long way to explaining the relationship between Joseph and Mary, and why even though she was carrying the child of the Holy Spirit, Joseph was able to put aside the stigma that would attach to woman who was expecting a child conceived other than in the marriage of one man to his spouse , and the child who was conceived out of wedlock. (at least it does to me in my biblically uneducated mind. I have learned more about the New Testament from following the essays and lectures of the you and Rabbi Lapin. I wonder why Ancient Jewish wisdom is not a part of the Christian doctrine. It certainly helps to make sense of the more obscure meanings in both Holy Books. Thank you again for you all’s good work!
    Bill Brower

    1. Glad if we give you some guidance, William, though as you know we don’t begin to suggest that we have anything to say outside of the Jewish sphere.

    2. Bill, I completely agree. As someone who was raised Catholic, we were taught the same stories yet after reading a number of the Rabbi’s books those same stories took on much more meaning and depth. There were multiple lessons in those same stories that were not taught, but they are very much needed. Lessons that are layered in lessons the journey the Rabbi takes you on is wonderful. If you have not read their works you will not be disappointed!
      Since signing up to this email feed I have learned so much more about my God that I never knew.
      Thank you!

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear William,
      In answer to your question, ancient Jewish wisdom USED to be very much a part of the Christian worldview. In early America, great Christian leaders like Increase Mather, Cotton. Mather, Ezra Styles and many others were deeply steeped in ancient Jewish wisdom. What is more the great philosophers and jurists who were responsible indirectly for America’s constitution and legal system, men like John Seldon, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbs and others were enormously knowledgeable in ancient Jewish wisdom. In fact it provided much of the foundational ideas of what government should look like until the so-called enlightenment brought us socialism.

  6. Madeline Rissech Brazell

    I understand that my convictions about monogamy are based on present day allowable practices in marriage. Our present culture shames the practice of a man having multiple wives. As a woman, I struggle with not seeing God as a bit of a misogonist for allowing polygamy in ancient times (whether you call them wives or concubines matters not to me!). Looking at the lives of Jacob, David, and others gives the impression that God condones this practice. Please bring some clarity to my thinking!

    1. Madeline, this is a huge topic that can’t possibly be responded to in a quick comment, but I would suggest that your approach might benefit from another direction. As I see it, God created the world and human beings. He is also the definition of good. I start from the position that He desires us to live fulfilled lives and part of that includes creating men and women as different and complementary. Our society certainly hasn’t attained happiness by insisting that we are the same or that gender is irrelevant and changeable. So, the allowance of men having more wives gives an insight into one of the ways men and women are different. If we understand it instead of instinctively rebelling against it, we get wiser. It was certainly not preferred and we need to understand that as well, but yes, it was allowed. Just suggesting a chain of thought to follow.

    2. Present day culture shames marriage itself. They feel themselves above the need for G-d.

    3. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Madeline,
      Susan answered very well in my view. I add only this: What do you think is worse for women as well as worse for society: Men who marry several women simultaneously (polygamy) or men who regularly divorce wives and marry new ones? In one case, a man and his several wives voluntarily live in an unusual family structure but each wife’s needs whether emotional or physical are attended to. All children are properly supported and educated and the ‘family’s’ communal obligations are fulfilled. However, in what happens all to often today, a man marries a woman then divorces her leaving her to raise children alone and usually in financial stress. This ‘family’ imposes numerous costs on society. Then the man repeats, and often repeats again. We can say, “both are bad”. But are they both equally bad? I think not. How about you?

  7. Great post sir,

    Its like you read my mind, this was on my mind last week. God’s mercy is clearly evident because Avraham and Yitzch’ak hadnt recieved the Law yet and both they were either in an undeuteronimacal relationship or the result of one. And Moshe was the child of a relationship between a man and i think his dad’s aunt. I wonder what went through his mind when he recieved God’s laws. That man was so humble he probably only thought of how great God’s mercy is. Kind regards, H-

    1. H – you are bringing up a great point that we have discussed at times of Moses’ parents. So much to discuss and so little time in which to discuss it.

  8. I guess this goes to show that I need a lawyer, a chef, and a rabbi!

    Great answer, keep up the great work. Always pick up something amazing from all of your teachings!

  9. God said to Noah and his sons, “Be fruitful and multiply!” I can only assume that in the beginning and then again after the flood that it was imperative for the survival of the tribes that they took that plan very seriously with God’s will in mind. Nowadays having more than one wife with all that is entailed would drive a man insane and though I’m just guessing, I get the impression that the experiences of Solomon which led to his great wisdom, left many to reconsider the potential bliss in being the husband of one wife. Rabbi, thanks for clarifying the differences in play during Jacob’s time!

    1. Mark, having more than one wife always leads to trouble in the Bible (unless I’m missing an example). At the time, it wasn’t recommended behavior but it was permissible, which it is not today.

    2. I think it would have been easier if God had let the unrighteous off with a warning. Killing everyone on earth, save for Noah and his family? A bit extreme even by genocidal standards.

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