Good question...did God treat women's bodies as property, in the "rape" of David's concubines by Absalom?
Date: May 9/2001

This was part of a stream of questions from a dear, but agonized, soul who was/is convinced that God hates women...

What about when God gives 10 women to be raped to punish David for sleeping with Bathsheba? I understand about the culture but for God to treat an individual womans' body as a man's possession speaks volumes, about how he hates/devalues women?

I think I have some good news for you about this passage, friend--it has nothing at all to do with "rape"...nor does it remotely teach that a woman's body is a man's possession...and, although there are some cultural issues associated with this passage, even when those are taken into account we still won't be able to conclude fairly that God committed some atrocity here...

Let's look at the passage and the dynamics in it, and hopefully you will agree...

After David committed the treachery with Uriah and Bathsheba, God spoke to David through Nathan thus:

Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. 9 Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'...11 "This is what the LORD says: 'Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.'" (2 Sam 12.7ff)
The FIRST thing to notice in this text is that David had been given Saul's wives (verse 8)--but what does THAT mean?

Here we have to go into the ANE cultural and historical background some, to see the significance of this statement.

a. Most royal marriages and concubinage (for both princes and princesses) were national affairs, not personal affairs of the king:
"Marriage was a tool of diplomacy throughout the ancient Near East. Towns, city-states, tribes or nations who wished to ally themselves with a rule or come under his protection sealed the treaty with a marriage of a daughter of their chief family to the suzerain or his son. This was an act of loyalty on the part of the vassal, who would then have a personal stake in preserving the dynasty. For instance, Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari during the eighteenth century B.C., successfully placed his daughters in the harems of nearby kingdoms and married several foreign wives himself to increase his power and the stability of his realm. Similarly Pharaoh Thutmose IV (1425-1412 B.C.) arranged a marriage with a daughter of the Mitannian king to demonstrate good relations and end a series of wars with that middle Euphrates kingdom." [BBCOT: at 2 Sam 5.13]

b. Royal succession was normally occasioned by a king's death (making his family widows and orphans), and care and protection of the royal 'harem' would be a responsibly of the new ruler.

"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." [BBCOT:in loc.]

c. For example, in this case--in which David 'inherited' Saul's wives--it was an act of kindness toward the family of the deceased king:

"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. Thus it is possible that the brief reference to David's marriage to Ahinoam in 1 Samuel 25:43 is a reference to his taking Saul's wife Ahinoam (1 Sam 14:50)" [BBCOT: in loc.]

So, upon the death (or abdication or overthrow) of a king, the successor bore responsibility for continuing the all-important political marriages and care of the royal harem.

Now, the fulfillment of this judgment on David is in chapter 16:

"Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, "Give us your counsel; what shall we do?" 21 Ahithophel said to Absalom, "Go in to your father's concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened." 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel.' [NRSV]

Let's look at various aspects of the text/context:

a. The concubines left behind by David might have been from leading Jerusalemite families (likely volunteers), and therefore 'safe' with Absalom (who was in league with those families):
"It is possible that the concubines left behind were those that David had taken into his harem from the leading Jebusite families of Jerusalem (see 5.13) or from some of the families that were supporting Absalom in Hebron." [BBCOT: at 2 Sam 15.16]
b. The actual event itself was equivalent to a royal wedding, and not a 'rape' by any means:
"The tent was, most likely, the bridal tent (cf. Ps 19:5[4]; Joel 2:16), and the whole proceedings were, more or less, equivalent to a royal wedding (so Stolz, 262) but with wider implications." [WBC, in.loc...note also that David wed Saul's widow Ahinoam]

"Gunn (King David, 116) has pointed out that Absalom's take-over of David's concubines may have been a formal act, while von Rad (The Problem of the Hexateuch, 184) calls it "a symbolic action intended to gain the confidence of the people for Absalom." [WBC, in. loc.]

c. Since marrying a father's wife was forbidden in Israelite law, the whole incident may well have been staged as a 'statement' that David was dead (instead of some outrageously offensive crime in front of his new citizenry!):
"This cohabitation in our context may have served as an indication that as far as Absalom was concerned--David was dead. Was it a deliberate deception to give the impression to the people in general that David was actually dead (cf. Budde, 278)? According to Lev 18:8; 20:11; Deut 22:30 [MT 23:1]; 27:20 it was forbidden for a son to take his father's wife, at least while the father was alive (cf. also Gen 35:22; 49:3-4). If so, the deception (?) may have strengthened the resolve of Absalom's supporters since this final humiliation of David was a deliberately public act, at least according to the narrator."
d. Members of the royal harem were all upper-class figures, representing important political alliances, both foreign and domestic. These women often had important duties in the administration, in most of the surrounding cultures of the ANE. For example, in Ebla a couple of millennia earlier:
"The royal harem was structured like its equivalents in Old Babylonian Mari. It included DAM EN, "women of the king', who lived in their own building and who were assisted by a group of officials...These women were sometimes placed in charge of important sectors of palace work, especially the manufacture of textiles.' [OT:CANE:1224, note that the ten concubines were left "in charge of the palace", an administrative task--not "just" housekeeping!]

For a new ruler, BEFORE Israel actually 'came to power', to publicly and violently rape "high-brow" daughters of leading families of his constituency and of his international allies would be unthinkable and diplomatic suicide! Absalom was not 'politically naïve'-his rise to power as described in chapter 15 shows an exceptionally crafty and smooth individual.

e. The whole point of the action was to 'enter the harem' (hence the tent) in front of the citizenry. The harem (in all the ANE) was off-limits to anyone except the king (and pre-pubescent princes). By visually entering the tent (in which the mini-harem was), the damage was done: the throne usurped, the predecessor declared 'dead and gone', claims to any of the posterity that might have resulted from any sexual activity (assuming there was any-there need not have been any for this event to be totally effective in the historical situation and context) with the new wives/concubines clearly established, and the responsibilities of care for the national alliances (represented by the newly assumed royal marriages) undertaken.

f. That this event was understood as a marriage--instead of a rape--is also supported by David's actions upon his return and after the death of Absalom: the women were placed in a separate harem-house, provided for, and treated as royal widows:

"David went to his palace in Jerusalem, and the king took the ten concubines he had left to mind the palace and put them in a guarded place; he provided for them, but he did not cohabit with them. They remained in seclusion until the day they died, in living widowhood. (2 Sam 20.3, JPS)
This does NOT mean they were placed or confined in a prison of sorts. Rather, the 'seclusion' was from the "active/living harem" and the 'confinement' was into "living widowhood". Keil & Delitzsch comment on this verse:
"As soon as David returned to his palace at Jerusalem, he brought the ten concubines whom he had left behind, and with whom Absalom had lain, into a place of safety, and took care of them, without going in unto them anymore...Thus they were shut up into living widowhood" (in loc.)
What this nets out to is this:
1. The event being described looks like a royal wedding (and not like a rape)

2. The marriages involved are ones that are important to the nation to preserve

3. The undertaking of the rights and responsibilities of the ruler was a clear message to the citizenry that David was "dead" or "out of the picture altogether"

4. There is no hint of rape, and the entire context of who these women were argues against there being ANY brutality, ANY violation, and ANY disgrace

5. These marriages (and wives) were not David's "possession" in any sense of the word-they were more like 'national assets' (like a king would be). Their status was high, their importance was significant, and the king had to treat them with diplomacy and care.

In other words, the historical data would argue that this incident was not, in fact, a case of public rape of ten women.

I hope this helps some...on to the next question of yours, friend...glenn

The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)