There are several passages in the Hebrew Bible that I struggle with. The story of the ten concubines in 2 Samuel 16:15-23 when combined with God’s words in 2 Samuel 12:11 is the Bible passage I struggle with the most.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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). 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.
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.” 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 Concubines in Israelite society were secondary wives who sometimes had fewer legal rights than chief wives.
 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).
 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.
 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.)
 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.
 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).
 Much later, in early Judaism, the room where a marriage was consummated was called a chuppah.
 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.
 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).”
 Similarly, the narrator gives us no hint of Bathsheba’s distress in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12. The focus is solely on David.
 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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The Wives of David by James Tissot (1896-1902) (Tissot Drawing 310, slightly edited: Source)
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
Erin E. Fleming, The Politics of Sexuality in the Story of King David, especially pp. 217-232. (Online Source)