Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The Disturbing Story of David’s Ten Concubines

Introduction

There are several passages in the Hebrew Bible that I struggle with. The story of the ten concubines in 2 Samuel 16:15-23, especially when combined with God’s words in 2 Samuel 12:11, is without doubt the Bible passage I struggle with the most.[1]

The ideal that we see in Eden, of a man and a woman living together in mutuality and unity, is nowhere to be seen in this story. Neither are the usual concerns, expressed elsewhere in the Bible, of mercy and justice for the vulnerable.

Someone asked me about the ten concubines yesterday, so I’ve jotted down a few thoughts.  There is no joy or consolation here, and I post the following with some trepidation.

Warning: Mentions sexual violence against women.

The Story: Absalom’s Repulsive Actions

Absalom had revolted against his father David and made himself king. When he saw his son gaining power, David fled from Jerusalem with his entire household except for ten concubines.[2] These women were to run the palace in David’s absence. Absalom then arrived in the capital with his men, and asked for advice from Ahithophel on how to strengthen his position.[3]

Now Absalom and all the Israelites came to Jerusalem. Ahithophel was also with him. …
Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give me your advice. What should we do?”
Ahithophel replied to Absalom, “Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. When all Israel hears that you have become repulsive to your father, everyone with you will be encouraged.”
So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.
Now the advice Ahithophel gave in those days was like someone asking about a word from God—such was the regard that both David and Absalom had for Ahithophel’s advice.
2 Samuel 16:15, 20-23 CSB.

This story is bad enough. What makes it much worse are the words previously recorded in 2 Samuel 12 and attributed to God.

This is what the LORD says, “I am going to bring disaster on you from your own family: I will take your wives and give them to another before your very eyes, and he will sleep with them in broad daylight.”
2 Samuel 12:11 CSB (See 2 Samuel 12:7-12 for context.)

It seems that God handed the women over to Absalom. This is deeply troubling.[4] The women seem to be nothing more than pawns being used―abused―for political reasons. Didn’t God care about them?

Background: Politics and Power Plays

I can’t find a way to make this story palatable, but here’s a bit of background and context that perhaps helps to explain, but not explain away, what happened.

We need to go back to the story of David and Bathsheba. David had taken Bathsheba and had sex with her. She became pregnant and David had her husband Uriah killed so that David’s actions wouldn’t be discovered. The prophet Nathan then went to David to convince him of his guilt and warn him that his actions will have tragic repercussions within his family (2 Sam. 12:10-12).

During this conversation Nathan speaks for God and explains, “I gave your master’s house to you and your master’s wives into your arms …” (2 Sam. 12:8). Nathan is here referring to Saul’s house and Saul’s wives. Implicit in 12:8 is the idea that royal marriages were not primarily personal relationships but had national and political significance, and also that royal wives were inherited by the king’s successor.[5]

Since royal marriages were a reflection of the power of a monarch and represented political and economic alliances made in the name of the state, it would have been necessary, at the succession, for the harem of the former king to become the responsibility of the new monarch. In this way there was continuity of treaty obligations. After the death of Ishbosheth (2 Sam. 4:5-7) and David’s rise to kingship, it would have been expected that he would extend his protection Saul’s family, including his harem.[6]

Inheriting the wives does not mean that David necessarily slept with them. They were his by inheritance; he did not need to “demonstrate” they were his.

There is a law, repeated several times in the Bible, forbidding sons from having sex with their father’s wife/ wives (Lev. 18:8; Deut. 27:20; etc). This law didn’t apply to David and his inherited wives because he was not Saul’s son, but it did apply to Absalom. Absalom was David’s son, his flesh and blood, so sleeping with David’s concubines was illegal. Calvin describes Absalom as “incestuously defiling his father’s bed” (Institutes 1.18.1, p.202).

Apparently, Absalom was not worried about the law or about being repulsive. He was a lawless usurper, and to establish his reign and humiliate his father, he had sex with the ten powerless concubines while David was still alive.

Because a king’s chief wives and secondary wives [concubines] were such a symbol of his political connections and authority, a usurper could manifest his displacing of a reigning king by sleeping with members of the king’s harem. … it is obvious that to claim a king’s harem was tantamount to claiming his throne.[7]

A bitter twist in this whole story is that David’s rooftop, where his abuse of Bathsheba began (2 Sam. 11:2), is also where Absalom abused the concubines (2 Sam. 16:22).

What about the Women?

In the narrative, Absalom is presented as a scoundrel, but there is no hint of concern for the concubines who had no say in what was happening to them. They may also have had no say in joining David’s harem, and no say at many other times in their lives. Such was life for countless women in the ancient world.[8]

Some commentators suggest that Absalom’s actions, which looks like rape to us, were effectively weddings. The tent may have functioned as a chuppah (חֻפֶּה), a bridal tent which a newlywed couple used to consummate their marriage (2 Sam. 16:22; cf. Psalm 19:4-5; Joel 2:16).[9] The tent offered some privacy to Absalom’s public display, but framing his actions as weddings doesn’t soften the severity of what Absalom did. His intentions were to claim power and shame David which he did by abusing the women.[10]

Furthermore, “If Absalom’s public sexual usurpation of David’s consorts is understood as an act of war, this gesture becomes strikingly reminiscent of sexual violence against women in a military context.”[11] Rape has frequently been used as a weapon of war, and this kind of violence was used by enemies of Israel (Judg. 5:30; Lam. 5:11; Isa. 13:16; Zech. 14:2). The Israelites, however, were forbidden from using rape in war (Deut. 21:10-14). My friend Dr Jill Firth (Lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament at Ridley College) told me that Absalom was behaving like a foreign enemy.

The ten women were exploited and abused―casualties of war. Yet, the storyteller shows no concern for them and tells us nothing about their distress.[12] The only hint of care is when the conflict between Absalom and David is over. After Absalom’s death, David returned to power in Jerusalem, and he protected and cared for the concubines as widows. He did not have sex with them again (2 Sam. 20:3). He protects them but also marginalises them.[13]

Conclusion

Life was very different in David’s day. Women would have had different hopes and expectations of life, as well as less freedom, than what many women, and men, enjoy today. I acknowledge this, but I feel for David’s concubines. I am deeply troubled and grieved by what Absalom did to them on the rooftop of the palace.

And I really don’t know what to do with the idea that God was somehow behind Absalom’s actions. It is possible, however, that focus on men in the biblical text is a reflection of the author’s concern more than a reflection of God’s heart. (See also footnote 4.)

The author of 2 Samuel presents his narrative with men at the forefront. His concern is the political turmoil and war between David and Absalom, not with the concubines who suffered because of David’s transgression against Bathsheba and Uriah.

I continue to believe that God cares for the vulnerable, and he wants us to care for them too, but there are no easy answers when it comes to the disturbing story of David’s ten concubines.


Footnotes

[1] To me, this story is worse even than the story of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. All Israel was outraged by the heartless and despicable treatment of the concubine (Judg. 19:30-20:48), but there is no heart or outrage in the story in 2 Samuel 16.

[2] Concubines in Israelite society were secondary wives who sometimes had fewer legal rights than chief wives.

[3] Ahithophel is described as Absalom’s trusted advisor. He may have been Bathsheba’s grandfather. (More in footnote 6 here.) Is his defection from David to Absalom due, at least in part, to David’s wicked actions towards his granddaughter? Ahithophel later commits suicide (2 Sam. 17:23).

[4] Andrew Hill notes one way of dealing with 2 Samuel 12:11.

The account is problematic because it appears contrived, a necessary insertion foreshadowing the episode of the violation of David’s concubines by Absalom (2 Sam 16:21-22). All this was to fulfill Nathan’s prophetic curse of David’s dynasty (2 Sam 12:11-12). Hence, some biblical commentators simply reject all or part of 2 Sam 15:16 as the work of a glossator.
Andrew E. Hill, “On David’s ‘Taking’ and ‘Leaving’ Concubines (2 Samuel 5:13; 15:16),” Journal of Biblical Literature 125.1 (Spring, 2006): 129-139, 129.

[5] Royal marriages were often made to form and cement political alliances. This is one reason Solomon objected to his brother Adonijah taking Abishag, David’s companion and nurse, as a wife. This action could have been understood as signifying that Adonijah, not Solomon, was David’s legitimate royal heir. (See 1 King 2:13-25.)

[6] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, Note on 2 Samuel 12:8 in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 339. (Google Books)

[7] Jo Ann Hackett, “1 and 2 Samuel” in Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition, Carol Newsom, Sharon Ringe, with Jacqueline Lapsley (eds) (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 150-163, 161.

[8] Men also could be controlled and exploited by men and by women who were more powerful than them (e.g., Naboth in 1 Kings 21).

[9] Much later, in early Judaism, the room where a marriage was consummated was called a chuppah.

[10] By having sex with his father’s women he effectively “upstaged David in his masculine prowess, which is a major qualification for a king.” Hackett, “1 and 2 Samuel,” 161.

[11] Erin E. Fleming, The Politics of Sexuality in the Story of King David (Dissertation: John Hopkins University, 2013), 225. https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/37051/FLEMING-DISSERTATION-2013.pdf
Dr Fleming also notes that “prophetic literature contains personifications of cities as women that imagine the military defeat of the city as the physical abuse and sexual violation of a woman (Isa 47:1-3; Jer 13:22; Ezek 16:35-41; 23:9-10, 22-29; Nah 3:5).”

[12] Similarly, the narrator gives us no hint of Bathsheba’s distress in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12. The focus is solely on David.

[13] David Tombs is critical of King David’s care of the concubines, both before and after they were abused by Absalom. In an interesting essay that is well worth a read, Tombs compares the plight of the concubines with Hannah Baker in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017). His essay is on The Shiloh Project website here.

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Image Credit

The Wives of David by James Tissot (1896-1902) (Tissot Drawing 310, slightly edited: Source)


Related Article

A Sympathetic Look at Bathsheba
Two Brave Women in 2 Samuel 17
Abigail: A Bible Woman with Beauty and Brains
The Propriety of Bible Women with Authority
Wealthy Women in the Roman World and in the First-Century Church

Further Reading

Erin E. Fleming, The Politics of Sexuality in the Story of King David, especially pp. 217-232. (Online Source)

58 thoughts on “The Disturbing Story of David’s Ten Concubines

  1. First Samuel 13:14 bothers me even more. With David’s penchant for using and abusing women, I don’t understand how he could ever be called a “man after God’s own heart.” I have read that the meaning may be that David was God’s choice to be king and not have anything to David’s character. I still can’t get my mind around the idea of David pleasing God so much.

    Ahithophel supposedly means foolish. We know that he turned against David. He was considered to be a prophet, but perhaps he was just a fake. We know that what he said was considered to be “like someone asking about a word from God.” Is it possible that God didn’t cause it, but let it happen to punish David even more? It doesn’t make what happened to the concubines any better, but at least it lets God off the hook. Perhaps Ahithopel knew of Nathan’s prophecy and wanted to push the agenda to make David look washed up.

    Just letting my mind wander a bit. I am n o doubt way off but it is an interesting possibility.

    1. There are plenty of men, and a few women, doing despicable things in the Bible. David is one of them. There are several things that bother me about David, but I particularly hate the genocidal raids he went on, and his bald-faced lies, while he was being protected by Achish, King of Gath (1 Samuel 27:1-11).

      But tragic and violent things done by humans, as horrendous as they are, aren’t my main concern. What I can’t reconcile is Nathan’s prophecy where he claims to quote God as saying, “I will take your wives and give them to another before your very eyes, and he will sleep with them in broad daylight” (2 Samuel 12:11). Did God actually say and do that? That’s my problem. This is my biggest dilemma in the whole of the Bible.

      1. Hi Marg, Greg Boyd’s work on violence in the Bible (Cross-Vision, Crucifixion of the Warrior God) is really helpful on this. It has helped me to reconcile all these issues in the OT. Worth a read

        1. Thanks, Tania. It’s not the violence, as such, that I have difficulty with. Raids, wars, political turmoil, and treating human life without compassion, all seem to have been features of life in the ancient and medieval world. And still are in some parts of the world. 🙁

      2. Good article. Since I am not a Calvinist, I don’t have to believe God wanted or caused this. (One of the many reasons I loathe calvinism.) You have made it clear this kind of behavior wasn’t even that unusual, so God wouldn’t even have to tap into knowledge of the future to predict this was going to happen once David lost the moral high ground. Indeed he ended up having 2 sons usurp him. I don’t see any of it even as direct punishment by God so much as natural consequences of David’s actions. Maybe it was a warning and David could have done something to prevent it by being a better father. (The Nineveh people repented and were spared in spite of Jonah’s definitive prediction.) Unfortunately people’s sins always causes suffering for innocent bystanders. I had an abusive husband and my kids and I suffered many things we didn’t deserve. Women and children are generally the losers in a fallen world. Praise the Lord that Jesus is setting things right.

        I have a high view of scripture, but it was still written by humans (mostly men!). It didn’t descend from heaven on golden plates. So it is colored by their emphases. A book focused on the kings of Israel is going to focus on the kings and not much else. Also even if a book was edited later that doesn’t mean it wasn’t inspired or allowed into scripture by God. If we start picking and choosing on that basis, we might as well throw out the whole concept of scripture. It’s pretty clear the Jews did some editing over the years, but Jesus and the apostles still considered the OT as scripture. It’s more comforting to me that scripture tells it like it is, warts and all, than it is sanitized.
        One of the stories that REALLY bothers me is God calling His Divine Council and asking for a lying spirit to cause the death of Ahab.

        1. I take Micaiah’s vision to be just that, a vision (2 Chron. 18:18ff). However, Micaiah interprets the vision as meaning that “the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of these prophets of yours …” (2 Chron 18:22).

          Many of the statements in the Hebrew Bible where God is recorded as saying he will do something “bad” may simply be the narrator’s way of explaining and emphasising events that later come to pass, a rhetorical device perhaps.

          I’m a bit thrown by your comment about Calvinism. I interpret the words on the page, and if they record God as saying “I will do xyz” I take that as being the meaning and starting point of interpretation, regardless of theological persuasions.

    2. I think it’s important to remember that the statement that David was a man after God’s heart was made when he was a teenaged shepherd. The actions he takes later are in no way after God’s heart and God was quite clear with him that that was true.

    3. It seems to me that all the bible heroes were ordinary people who had some great moments and some terrible moments during which they were shown to be perpetrators, because they could be with impunity. Every single bible hero is shown up in this way. Our preachers’ determination to make people like Abraham, Moses, David, etc. heroes, is because they gloss over the wrongs they have done.

      1. Yeah, but David did something much more horrible than any of the others. Telling a lie, or even killing an Egyptian who was attacking one of your relatives is nothing compared to what David did. There is literally no comparison, which it is why these kinds of platitudes are so frustrating and maddening to those struggling with David.

        However you are correct that we shouldn’t put any of these guys on the kind of pedestals some do. Also Peter, Paul, and other NT leaders who had glaring faults AFTER becoming believers.

    4. I thought I was the only woman who had a problem with David being called “a man after God’s heart”! It really makes me wonder exactly what God’s heart is toward women. I cant reconcile Jesus’beaviour towards them with the OT God.

      1. The positive interactions with women far outweigh the negative ones. But life in a fallen world sucks for everyone. I don’t see any difference at all. I see God’s heart for women constantly in the OT. The prophets are always helping widows and yelling at people for taking advantage of widows.

        1. I appreciate your comment but I dont see it that way. Several quotes by God calling women weak (when deriding the men for being afraid) or using metaphorical imagery of brutalizing and ultimately assaulting a woman to chastise Israel just desnt sit well with me. Plus God still choosing to create such a big physical power differential between men and women KNOWING how the world was going to turn out and what that would mean for them, plus allowing all of this evil in the first place and sometimes in his name . . . I dont have a faith left to defend. I just come here sometimes to see others’ viewpoints but I can no longer pretend to believe that God cares about women, at the very least not to the same extent as he cares about men. Their place in his heart has never had to be questioned.

          1. Hi Courtney, where does God call women weak? I don’t know these verses. I know other ancient authors who use the trope of fearful cowardly women in their rhetoric. Isn’t it simply a figure of speech? Anyway, I really would like to know what these verses are.

            God uses imagery that Israel, which is often personified as a woman, could relate to. This imagery reflected real life. 🙁

            Women, and humanity as a whole, have been abused by masculine muscular strength and helped by it. I’m grateful that I’ve been helped by it but I’m very aware this is not, and has not been, the experience of many people.

            I’m really sorry you feel that way about God. I respect what you’re saying. You’re right that the place of man in the heart of God never has to be questioned. I believe that this has everything to do with people (their faulty views, attitudes, and words) and nothing whatsoever to do with who God really is.

    5. I think it’s important to remember God is not endorsing David’s behaviour when He calls him a man after his own heart. When God looks at people he views them from a unique perspective. God is outside of time, when He looks at us he sees not just who we are now but also the person we were ultimately created to be. God speaks to people from this perspective, calling them up to becoming the person they were created to be. This is what Jesus was doing with Peter. God views us all through a lens of grace and is totally committed to our transformation into the likeness of Christ.

  2. Just a thought, but I see Nathan’s prophesy as more of a glimpse into the future of what was going to happen as a result of David’s crimes against both Bathsheba, Uriah, and God Himself. God knew what was going to happen and that it was an “eye-for-an-eye” style punishment for David. That doesn’t mean that God was giving permission for these crimes against the women. The fact that God mentions something that will happen doesn’t mean that it pleases Him. “I will take your wives and give them to another before your very eyes,” this part seems to indicate God’s action in the matter as a necessary consequence for David’s sin. “And he will sleep with them in broad daylight,” seems to be God indicating what Ahithophel would do to further the crime of his own accord separate from what God was allowing.

    1. Thanks Jennifer. That’s a good way of putting it. The first person “I will …” in Genesis 3:16 is also giving a glimpse into the future.

      It just bothers me, a lot, that what happened to the women is David’s punishment, and that we get no insight whatsoever into the situation from their perspective. But this is how some cultures have been operating for millennia.

      At least the woman in Genesis 3 did something to deserve what was coming. Thankfully, the idea that children (and presumably concubines) are punished for the sins of fathers and mothers and kings is gradually done away with in the Bible.

      1. Palace harems are generally full of intrigue. We get a glimpse of this later when Bathsheba pulls strings to get Solomon the throne. The idea that these 10 are pure innocents is not in the text. They may have been willing to marry the new king Absolom and continue their status influence behind the throne (if they had any.) They may have just been looking to survive in a man’s world.
        In rethinking the story from a female point of view, we don’t necessarily have to catastrophize it into the worst possible scenario for the women, based on our modern sensibilities. We can only speculate on their feelings and loyalties. And remember God told the Israelites not to get a king in the first place, that this type of thing was going to happen if they did. He set up a much more “democratic” constitutional government.

        1. And specifically forbid kings from having many wives.

        2. One thing I’m reasonably sure of is that, like Bathsheba, the concubines had no say in being left behind and no say in Ahithophel and Absalom’s scheme. These things were decided for them. In that way they were innocent. (I didn’t say they were pure.)

          What is the much more “democratic” constitutional government you are referring to? I can’t see that the patriarchs or the judges governed in anything approaching a democratic way. Far from it.

      2. Sorry for responding to an unrelated comment Marg, but I cant seem to reply to the original response. I cant remember the main scripture where God asks the men if they’re women when they refuse to fight but I know several pastors and men in general were using that verse to bully women out of the military by stating that God himself describes women as weak and cowardly. Expression or not, it’s an unfounded insult that ignores many courageous women both in history and everyday life who are bold in protecting and providing for their families, both within and without the Western Christian bubble. There’s also Isaiah 19:16: “In that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts shakes over them.” Thank you for not discounting my thoughts about God. I think him using patriarchal imagery would not hurt as much if there were more direct perspectives from women in their relationship with him. All we get are scraps, glimpses into how God might have loved women. We have to dig to find these stories and I genuinely believed if God cared for women as he did for men, he would’ve made a greater effort to show it. Either way, that’s just my beliefs. I understand others have found comfort and answers in God even if I dont.

        1. Thanks for this, Courtney. Your citation of Isaiah 19:16 (about the downfall of Egypt) helped me to find Nahum 3:13 (about the downfall of Ninevah): “Look, your troops are like women among you.” I’m surprised these verses have escaped my attention until now. If you happen to think of the other one, please let me know.

          A slight technicality: God (YHWH) speaks at the beginning of Isaiah 19, but he is not speaking in 19:16. Nahum, however, does have God speaking in 3:13.

          Using the trope of fearful women and directing it towards men was a common insult in the ancient world. (Unfortunately, it is still regarded as an insult to call men and boys “women” or “girls.”) However, this trope was probably based on reality. Women were not trained and equipped to fight in battle. If fighting men were approaching, most women may well have been terrified. No doubt, plenty of men would have been scared too, but they may have been socialised not to show it as much.

          Another example of this insult is given by the historian Herodotus where he records Xerxes, king of Persia, as saying: “My men have become women, and my women men.” (Histories 8.88.3) Xerxes’ words here are about his own men who floundered and about Queen Artemisia I of Caria. He had tremendous regard for Artemisia who was his ally and who had personally and valiantly led her navy in the battle at Salamis (480 BC). Thus Xerxes refers to her as a “man.”

          I honestly think the andro-centricity of many texts in the Bible is a reflection of the times they were written in. Because of patriarchy, most leaders and influential people were men. Still, I don’t see scraps in the Gospels or in Paul’s letters. But I do get what you’re saying. In some ways women do have to work harder to dig into the stories. Most of the hard work is clearing away the misguided, misogynistic preconceptions of the past that are still leaving their mark on popular interpretations of various Bible passages.

          There are more witnesses of God’s love than the Bible. Many people have experienced it for themselves. This is what I rely on, as well as the biblical record (especially the New Testament) and also the testimonies of others who have experienced God’s love throughout church history.

      3. I agree with Jennifer on this. God didn’t punish the women for David’s sin. The harem was part of being king. It represented David’s authority. When God says he will take David’s wives from him and give them to another he isn’t authorising their mistreatment. He is warning David he will lose his place because of his sin. Because his sin was taking someone else’s wife it is put in those terms. This is a direct consequence of his mistreatment of uriah and Bathsheba. Absalom’s sin against the concubines was his own doing and one God will hold him to account for.

    2. I was going to make a similar point Jennifer. God would never want these women to be harmed, but humans make choices. Often really poor choices.

      1. Thanks, Shirley. I’m sure God is grieved and angered every time someone deliberately harms a fellow human being instead of helping them.

  3. Marg,

    I think you should rewrite this sentence:
    ” David had taken Bathsheba and had sex with her” to ” David had taken Bathsheba and raped her”, because it was not consensual sex either some kind of royal marriage.

    1. Hi Eliane, I agree that it wasn’t consensual sex. The way I’ve written it in the article (to echo the wording in the Bible) doesn’t sound like consensual sex, at least, not to me.

      I’ve taken a closer look at Bathsheba, and at what happened to her, here.
      https://margmowczko.com/a-sympathetic-look-at-bathsheba/

  4. This story has always been very disturbing to me as well, and I have thought through it many times. I greatly appreciate the details and context provided by this article and others’ comments as well.

    Some thoughts on this could be similar to multiple Christian beliefs throughout history on the variations of “God causing something”, “God allowing something”, “God ordering something to happen”, and “God’s spiritual laws” being carried out in the physical and spiritual realms. While God certainly sometimes has and does bring specific judgements and consequences, many of the “judgements” we see throughout history and in our world today can be events of cause and effect of sin, people’s good or evil actions, and spiritual battles we mostly do not see.

    That said, it could be that when the Bible says that God was speaking what He was going to bring about on David and his household, it wasn’t that God orchestrated the abuse against the concubines, nor sanctioned it, but that it was going to be a direct effect or result of David’s choice to commit adultery, to lie and to commit murder. With doing all of that, he not only sinned in multiple ways against God, his family and all of Israel (since he was supposed to live righteously before God as king), but those choices of sin removed God’s protection over his family, his wives, his kingdom and his children to some extent.

    This spiritual principle is seen over and over again with God and Israel’s relationship when they worshipped other gods. (Deuteronomy 28, and other passages of blessings and curses) The result was them being destroyed, being taken captive, being exiled and taken into slavery – God did not cause this directly, but their actions and their rebellion against God’s protection and guidance bought it about since they chose to turn away from Him. In the same manner there were many in Israel who suffered in exile, even though maybe they were seeking God, but they suffered the “effects” so to speak of their fellow Israelites who worshipped false gods.

    1. Thanks for this, Marlis.

      1. Thanks for the pointer to this chapter and the thoughtful discussion on consequences and the implied character of God/YHVH. The Book of Job is a direct answer to Deuteronomy 28. We are stuck with some implications in the texts that I cannot press to hard without losing the thread of God’s fundamental character as noted in Exodus 34:6 a verse commented on several times in Tanach. The literal will rule with violence in their hands and say they are doing God’s will. We really have been introduced to the knowledge of good and evil.

        1. Thanks for this, Bob. I’ll take a close look at these passages.

  5. There are so many things to wonder about what God causes vs. what he allows in the Bible. I’m just now starting to really wonder and study about these things and am glad to have found your blog.

    I haven’t done any study of Ancient Hebrew, so I don’t know the answer to this question, but if I was a Hebrew scholar, I would try to figure out what 2 Samuel 12:11 says. It may have been mistranslated into “I will cause this to happen” rather than “I will let this happen,” as others have mentioned similarly. This would need to be looked at not only in the Hebrew translation into Greek, but then also from Greek to English (or whatever methods are used for translation). Just a thought.

    1. Here is my close and concordant translation of the verse:
      Thus says Yahweh, Note me well raising up against you evil from your own house. And I will take your wives in your sight and I will give to your friend,
      and he will lie with your wives in the sight of this sun.
      I will take is (in SimHebrew – Hebrew consonants in consistent Latin character read left-to-right) vlqkti – v/lqt\ti – ‘and I will take’, you can see every use of lqk in the Bible here: https://qonqordnxih-ltnk.blogspot.com/2021/01/lq.html#lqk
      It is very well used – nearly 1000 times in Scripture and has some synonyms like ‘jaws’ – the body part.

      1. Thanks for this. I’m a bit lost on the idea that “jaws” is a synonym.

  6. I really appreciate your work in considering women’s part in the Bible, Margaret. I find it helpful to think of society in those biblical times as something a bit like the traditional societies sought by the Taliban or Isis, with the Old Testament simply describing the way things worked then, as well as their gradual evolution towards something a bit better for us all. Then Jesus brought something new – still into a patriarchal society – a huge leap forward which still has to be actualised fully. What I find hardest to understand is why you feel that you need to be loyal to the Old Testament, or indeed to a Christian theology which continues to sideline and denigrate women. I bet the God of traditional societies of the Middle East still justifies having women as chattels and as less than men. Is Christianity so very different?

    1. I appreciate that the values, culture, and society of early Iron-Age Israel were extremely different from modern western values, culture, and society. However, the Israelites had laws that were more humane than what we see with the Taliban and Isis. So I’m uncomfortable with the comparison.

      I love Christian theology, and so did numerous early Christian women who found they were treated with much more respect within Christian communities. I don’t hold to a Christian theology that denigrates women.

      I’m not a Bronze-Age Israelite, so I don’t understand what you mean by being loyal to the Old Testament. But I do want to understand it. More importantly, I want to be loyal to God.

  7. “Some commentators suggest that Absalom’s actions, which looks like rape to us, were effectively weddings. ”

    In the Bible there was such a prevalent patriarchal society where woman basically had no rights, so this to me reflects those times. This disturbs me because this is present day and modern times. But some church leaders patriarchal viewpoints influence in today’s world shows as some still try to spin rape into wedding.

    1. Hi Connie, Human rights is a fairly new idea in the history of humanity. In past cultures, men generally had more freedoms than women, but men could be exploited and abused by those with more power too. However, my biggest problem with the ten concubines story isn’t the actions of people.

  8. I don’t think we can ever fully answer questions like this and if we try we can often sound insensitive. Clearly, the question you raised, as regards the nature of God, was not one the biblical authors were asking at that time. The overarching story is of how Solomon be a king and not Absalom. It’s also very difficult to know how to frame agency for God “causing” events when it is undoubtedly true that the wrongdoers like Absalom will be called to account. I often think of prophecy as a way of God demonstrating his faithfulness to us in that they go some way towards helping us prepare for the unpreparable. Eg Simeon to Mary re: Jesus’s suffering. Potentially that was the case here with David. In any event, Absalom’s actions have sealed away any doubt for future generations that what David did was wrong. And for myself, I think this is no bad thing.

    1. Hi Christine, I was hoping you would comment. I agree that Absalom’s actions emphasise David’s guilt with Bathsheba.

      Thankfully, Simeon doesn’t say to Mary, “God will cause Jesus to suffer,” or “God will pierce your very soul.” But I take your point about “preparing.”

      And I appreciate your point that my concern with 2 Samuel 12:11 simply wasn’t the author’s concern. It’s been my observation a few times that we (a generic “we”) often make the biblical text, especially the Old Testament, work much harder than the original authors intended.

      Thanks

  9. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but the idea of multiple wives let alone concubines goes against Biblical belief, doesn’t it? I mean, alliances or not, if it’s wrong it’s wrong. Why are kings exonerated from laws about polyamory and murder that would be punished in non-royals? I, too, have a difficult time wrapping my brain around how David could be called a man after God’s own heart with the magnitude of sin that today most unsaved people never commit.

    1. It seems clear to me that the biblical ideal is monogamy, but polygamy starts early in the Bible. Genesis 4:19 says that Lamech married two women.

      Between the fall and redemption in Jesus, God made allowances for all kinds of less-than-ideal behaviour. As well as polygamy, he made allowances for patriarchy, slavery, warfare, etc, and made laws to curb the worst excesses these things can cause.

      God did not exonerate the many murders David committed. David was punished for what he did to David and Bathsheba. And because he was a man of blood, a murderer, he was not permitted to make God’s temple (1 Chron. 22:8).

    2. Yes! Exactly my thoughts. Honestly, theres so much about the Bible that I find disturbing and downright horrible. I only struggle with it and dont give up out of fear, which I’m not sure is a very good reason.

      1. I think it’s fair enough to struggle with some passages, and leave interpretations and ideas up in the air, and then move on to the easier to understand passages.

  10. My heart has grieved for these women too, and for possible offspring that may have come through that tragic time. They weren’t even able to ‘go back home’ but instead were forced to live within their own, guarded, community . I do trust that God blessed them in ways to bring healing to their beings .
    I too think that God was ‘announcing’ what would happen to David, for the purpose of putting the pressure on David. He had to live with knowing something like this was going to happen, and though forgiven, this bearing the burden of guilt before, during and after the fact may have part of David’s punishment. Seeming no big deal, but I imagine it ate away at David’s insides.
    I also see these 10 women as martyr-like, and in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven, these women laid down their lives. Similar to event of the 2 year old and under baby boys slaughtered by Herod. They lost their infant lives and their parents were left dealing with hearts torn asunder.
    These things may be part of why the Proverbs tell us to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and not to lean on our own understanding. We lack true understanding on some issues.
    Thank you Marg for speaking to this with your insights, keeping these issues in our sights and hearts.

    1. Thanks, Linda. <3

  11. The Hebrew language uses idioms that are at times not understood when translated to another language. One the idioms is “the idiom of permission “. This article below sheds light on this idiom
    https://overcomersharvest.wordpress.com/tag/idiom-of-permission-in-the-bible/

    1. Hi Sonia. I hadn’t heard of the “idiom of permission” so I had a little look for myself.

      This short article has a bit more information.
      https://www.revisedenglishversion.com/Rom/9/18

      R.A. Torrey in his Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, originally published in 1830, believes that God’s statement in 2 Samuel 12:11 actually means, “… In the course of my providence I will permit this to be done.” Torrey goes on to say, “Such phrases in Scripture do not mean that God neither does or can do evil himself, but only that he permits such evil to be done as he foresaw would be done, and which, had he pleased, he might have prevented.” (Source: StudyLight)

      E.W. Bullinger refers to an idiom of permission in his book Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, published in 1898. See point 4 under the headings: I. Verbs in General, i. Idiomatic usages of Verbs. (Source: StudyLight)

      Among the examples given by Bullinger, only Exodus 4:21 has a similarity with 2 Samuel 12:11. Still, it’s hard to compare what happened to the powerful Pharoah and his already hard heart with what happened to the powerless concubines.

      The idea of permission or allowance is presented in this work published back in 1701, and it comments on the ten concubines: Charles Le Cène, An essay for a new translation of the Bible, Part 1, translated into English by H. Ross (London 1701), 165. (Source: Google Books)

      I’m keeping my mind open, but these ideas seem a bit too convenient. I think the biblical statements where God is attributed to saying or doing something violent and unpleasant may well say more about the authors’ understanding of God, than God’s actual character.

  12. Any chance the women were nephilim or part nephilim? That may give more of an insight into why God was less concerned about their welfare?

    1. I can’t see there’s any chance of that.

      Also, I’m not saying, straight out, that God wasn’t concerned for the welfare of the concubines. Rather, the author of 2 Samuel does not present God as being in any way concerned for them.

      1. and also, regardless of the nephilim thought… God so loved ‘the world’ … that, to me, would encompass whomever, regardless of their heritage. I realise it’s OT not NT, but it’s the same God.

  13. Mam
    i liked you sensitivity, and your approach, its also true Davids time were different , the politics also was so different ..however, whenever i read the story in the bible, i always think my first impressions are always insufficient because first impressions are mine, human, did i really hear what the Bible is saying? because there is always more to the story. first thought, first impression, first sympathy to me is usually a tip of the ice burg. So also in this story, i usually do not come to conclusion neither i agree to others conclusions…because they are human… so i thank you for your insight… praise God for this… i take it as ask the Lord to teach me and speak to me

    1. Bless you, Vilbert.

  14. I just want to add that the story of David over all is super comforting to me. I’ve never murdered someone, but I have committed a couple of big sins I’m very ashamed of — since being a Christian. The idea that I can be forgiven and cleansed, and still become a woman after God’s heart by pursuing a vibrant relationship is incredible mercy. Jesus accepted Peter and Paul, the thief/terrorist on the cross, Jonah, Lot, Jacob, Judah and his brothers, Rahab, Manasseh, and countless murderers down thru history, why not David? And if David, then there is hope for a lesser sinner like me. Also I like how David immediately repented when confronted and publicly humbled himself. There are plenty of Christian leaders today who should follow his example.

  15. 2 Sam. 5: 13 says King David took wives and concubines out of Jerusalem. Earlier, David went to Jerusalem and was in conflict with the Jebusites, natives of Jerusalem, over his Kingship. I think it is possible the ten concubines came from this Jebusites families where marriage was used as political and peace treaties. The ten concubines may have been local women which is why David may have left them in Jerusalem. Some of the Jebusites may have been in favor of Absalom becoming King and taking the concubines because these women were their own daughters and sisters. It was the custom for a new King to take over the harem of the old king. The concubines themselves may not have any say, but they may have been in favor of their family political alliances. Because of these alliances, the concubines survived David’s return to power. There was a book called”The Harem Conspiracy: The Murder of Rameses III” that came out a few years ago. The author describes the political intrigue and harem system of a ancient middle eastern harem. Sometimes the Kings enemies were within his own harem. The author also wrote about palaces where harem women were retired when they were too old or were not in service to the King. Once in the harem, the women could not marry anyone other than the King so they were “retired”. The women still lived productive lives as harems were usually economic units where cloth was manufactured or other goods. Based on this information, David may simply have retired his concubines from the active harem. The story of the ten concubines always bothered me, but these facts and that book sort of put this in perspective of the historical situation for me. Makes it more understandable.

    1. Thanks for this Shoshana.

      A few thoughts:

      ~ Some scholars speculate that the women were Jebusites. This is possible, and may explain why they were the ten left behind.

      ~ Palaces, including harems, were notorious for political intrigues. However, in 2 Samuel 16 Absalom is acting on the advice of Ahithophel. There is no reason to think the concubines or others had a part in influencing Ahithophel to give his advice or that they had a part in influencing Absalom to accept the advice. The story gives no hint of Jebsute interference. The women may have been as innocent and helpless as Bathsheba.

      ~ Yes, David effectively retired the concubines.

      1. The story may not give a hint of jebusite interference, but as David’s former advisor, Ahisthophel may have been politically savvy enough to advize Absalom to sleep with the concubines (if Jebusite) to show he will keep David’s former political alliances those marriages may represent as was the right of a new King over a former King’s harem. Maybe that is why David treated these women as widows- his son’s widows. He could keep political alliances, not have to engage in sexual intercourse with his former concubines, and the concubines survival of David’s return to power may signal they didn’t have a choice. Most women didn’t have a choice who they married as most marriages were arranged in that culture anyway. If your father could marry you to the next warrior who could bring home a thousand Philistines foreskins without your consent or you now belonged to the next King as a member of the harem-Didn’t make it right that these women had to be politcal pawns, but that was the reality in that culture.

        1. Hi Shoshana, Yes, in Bible times, most women, and many men, didn’t have much choice over who they married. That was the reality, and still is in some cultures.

          The point about treating the women as widows is that David retired them (didn’t have sex with them) but also continued to provide for them. They were no longer active in David’s harem. (For David to have sex with them again, after Absalom did, was too problematic, too weird.)

          I strongly doubt that treating the women as widows was in any way an acknowledgement that they were Absalom’s widows. That would hint at Absalom’s rule being somewhat legitimate. Such a hint would have been very unwise considering the precarious state of palace politics.

          What happened to the concubines in 2 Samuel 20:3 reminds me of what happened to Absalom’s sister Tamar: “So Tamar lived as a desolate (devastated or ruined) woman in the house of her brother Absalom” (2 Sam. 13:22d). The fact that her name is included in a genealogy without a husband or son indicates that Tamar never married (neither did Dinah) (1 Chron. 3:1-9; cf. Gen. 46:8-15).

          The author of 2 Samuel 16 has Ahithophel explaining the reason for his advice to Absalom, and he doesn’t mention the Jebusites: “Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. When all Israel hears that you have become repulsive to your father, everyone with you will be encouraged.”

  16. Some have mentioned above that they see Christianity as being no different than other religions that have oppressed women through the ages. Let us not forget that Christianity is unique in that God’s plan of salvation for His children would NOT come from the seed of a man, but from the SEED OF A WOMAN. Men may have denigrated and been dismissive of women through the ages, but God has forever uplifted the gender of womankind by using HER Seed – Christ – to be the agency of Salvation for the fallen human race. No male contribution at all was involved in this conception and virgin birth of the Savior, since that would have corrupted the entire process of producing the sinless, incarnate Son of God.

    Another illustration of God’s favor for girls in the OT law is the period of separation an Israelite mother went through for her newborn children. For infant daughters, the time of separation was DOUBLE that of the time of separation for newborn sons. This doesn’t mean that a baby daughter made her mother twice as unclean. It meant that God gave that precious baby daughter TWICE as much undisturbed time with her mother before the new mom resumed relations with her husband again, with another possible pregnancy that could stop the mother being able to nurse her little baby girl. God wanted to assure that all those baby girls had the best chance for a leisurely, healthy , nutritious start in life.

    I also find it a bit humorous when God stated that the originally-created male of the species – Adam – really needed help badly. He didn’t say that about Eve, did He?

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