There's a small story of ten concubines spread across Samuel:

And a messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.” Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, “Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.” And the king's servants said to the king, “Behold, your servants are ready to do whatever my lord the king decides.” So the king went out, and all his household after him. And the king left ten concubines to keep the house. And the king went out, and all the people after him. And they halted at the last house.—2nd Samuel 15:13-17 (ESV)

Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give your counsel. What shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father's concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel.—2nd Samuel 16:20-22 (ESV)

And David came to his house at Jerusalem. And the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house and put them in a house under guard and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood.—2nd Samuel 20:3 (ESV)

From a modern perspective, this seems like an unjust punishment of rape victims. But I wonder if from the ancient perspective the king's actions were actually seen as merciful. How ought we to read this vignette?


7 Answers 7


Because Absalom had intercourse with them, it would be detestable for David to do so:

But if the second husband also turns against her and divorces her, or if he dies, the first husband may not marry her again, for she has been defiled. That would be detestable to the Lord.— Deuteronomy 24:3-4

I would argue that in the context of the rest of the Mosaic marital/sexual laws, David correctly applied this law to the situation. (As I understand it, this was one of the purity laws, which was to mark Israel off as a holy people.)

His actions would have been seen as merciful because he continued to provide for them. Providing for your wife was a big deal (e.g. Isaiah 4:1).

  • I'm arguing that as it was a case law, an example situation, it should be applied here, even though it was not a divorce case, particularly since this was a form of incest.
    – Kazark
    Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 21:41
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    @Monica: When reading the resolution of the story, it sounded to me like David was divorcing them. Since they were concubines, not wives, I'm not sure divorce was really possible. Actually, I'm not at all sure what their legal status was either before or after Absalom raped them. (But the whole story is very sad.) Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 22:15
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    What would have been their status if David has released them? As divorced concubines of the king, would they have been able to find other husbands? Would the rape make them less likely to be able to remarry? If either is so, it makes this a merciful outcome.
    – Frank Luke
    Commented Apr 3, 2012 at 13:52
  • @jon-ericson In 2 Samuel 17:20-23 , there is No mention of sexual rape and/or Sexual violation, so how could anyone read said passage, and assume rape? Maybe David's concubines were just really promiscuous women who just gave into sexual advances and temptations? Commented Jan 8, 2022 at 3:11

If memory serves, in just about every part of the ancient world, a woman who had previously been married to a king (either in full, with the status of wife, or de facto in the lesser status of concubine) could not be remarried to anyone except another king. Remember also that legal rights of a woman were reckoned through her husband, and that divorced women faced a difficult life.

In that context, given that his son had violated these concubines, David could not take them back as his own. However, had he divorced them and released them, they could not have been remarried either; meaning that these women would therefore have lacked many legal rights and protections. Therefore, he took the third option - he maintained them in the Harem, but granted them the premature status of royal widows. This was important not only because of their intrinsic value as people, but because of their positions - concubines of the King would almost certainly be nobles either from within Israel or the countries around about, and to mistreat one of them could have led to internal struggles within the Kingdom, or possibly even an international incident.

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    Welcome to BH.SE Johnathan! If you could follow up with an edit verifying this information it would be much appreciated. That way other users can verify your claims. Thanks!
    – Dan
    Commented Jul 30, 2013 at 14:30

It's important to first understand that it was prophesied that King David's wives would be violated in such a manner.

2 Samuel chapter 12 (NLT)

The LORD sent Nathan the prophet to tell David ...

... The LORD, the God of Israel, says, 'I anointed you king of Israel and saved you from the power of Saul. I gave you his house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more. Why, then, have you despised the word of the LORD and done this horrible deed? For you have murdered Uriah and stolen his wife. From this time on, the sword will be a constant threat to your family, because you have despised me by taking Uriah's wife to be your own.

"'Because of what you have done, I, the LORD, will cause your own household to rebel against you. I will give your wives to another man, and he will go to bed with them in public view. You did it secretly, but I will do this to you openly in the sight of all Israel.'" Then David confessed to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD."

David understood then that his wives were violated because of his past sins. So he knew he had to care for them even though they'd been with another man. But the stigma of the culture of the day was such that he could never lay in bed with them again.

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    This is an interesting connection, but I'm not sure it answers the question except the final sentence. Can you expand on the cultural stigma aspect? Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 15:11
  • And would it be "cultural" or "religious"? Thanks.
    – user10231
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 15:49
  • Culture and religion are often times interconnected. And this is certainly the case in ancient Israel. So it would be both a cultural and religious thing. While scripture cites many methods and rituals to wash or make clean something that has been made unclean, there is nothing taught that can make clean a woman who has been made unclean by way of rape, fornication, or adultery. There was then no means David had available to him to make the women clean enough for him to be able to sleep with once again.
    – TrustinJC
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 16:50
  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. I think it would be good if you could edit your answer to include the information from your comment, so as to make a more comprehensive Answer to the OP's question.
    – Steve can help
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 8:13

God's verdict on David was that he was "a man after His own heart". He saw the man's greivous sins, mistakes and the struggles as recorded ... but he also saw into the heart of the man who could love like no other King before him. David knew that it was better that the women "kept house" than be condemned to hardship in exile. He had no idea when or if he would ever return, but he did know that the life he was going to lead was no place for a woman in her forties or fifties. If he had known what was coming he might have reconsidered the situation but all he knew was that he would be living on the edge of the desert and fighting a guerrilla war, like he had nearly thirty years previously. David would have felt that his usurping son would respect and provide for his women better than he could in exile. He had to leave hurriedly and could take little of value. His women would have been respected but would be kept; they were economically completely dependentt on the King. David certainly did not anticipate the shockingly public sexual humiliation by his son. This was at Ahithophel's instigation ... a means of telling the nation that "what was David's is now completely Absalom's as certainly as David will never be back." The public nature of this act would be nearly as revolting to the nation as the bodily dissection of the Levi's concubine in the Book of Judges, but it would also send a ruthless message to potential waverers.

David's decision to keep the women in comfort at his expense on his return from exile was typical of the man. They could no longer be his concubines as a woman that was intimate with the King could never be shared with another person. However, it is a modern misnomer to describe the concubines as "raped" by Absalom. Concubines enjoyed a status and an arrangement which could be described as "intimacy in exchange for security" and it is unlikely that they considered sexual relations with Absalom as being anything other than a new King's exercising of his rights over his property. However, the public nature of this act would have shocked and saddened them as it did the nation. This was not a mass rape or a pornographic orgy complete with lots of open air nudity! It was an act of power under covers but in the sight of the people. The nation needed to know what was going on as an expression of the potency and determination of its new ruler. That is not to say that sexual activity in public was anything other than abhorent but it needs to be understand that there were very different attitude to providing for the needs of the King; be they sexual or personal than we have in the twenty first century. There is no sense that Abishag the Shunamite or her family were humiliated by her service; if anything, her role made her more of a matrimonial prize than she had been as a virgin from the country. The attitudes we have in the West, the individuality and equality of men and women were simply not in place 3000 years ago in the East. The concubines would have been expecting coition but would not have expected it to be public. David's care of them on his return was the western equivalent of goving them an index linked pension for the rest of their lives.


David had no qualms about breaking Mosaic law: Deut 17:15-17 "You shall surely set a king over you whom the LORD your God chooses... Neither shall he multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply silver and gold for himself."

But this is nothing new as all of the kings that "God chose" acted in this same fashion. They were all immoral over the entire duration of their reigns amassing both riches and women and being praised for doing so.

Absalom, like his father David, was trying to usurp the throne. Raping his father's concubines was a political act saying that he was the rightful inheritor of his father's wives and concubines, just as David inherited King Saul's wives and concubines when he took the throne. David had no problem violating Mosaic law. (See 2 Samuel 11-12 where he steals Uriah's wife) Thus, his act of locking away his own concubines was merely a statement to Absalom and the kingdom about who was still in charge. It would now be beneath him to have sex with these violated women. This was not an act of mercy, it was a show of power.

  • 1
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    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 20:22

Just a thought. When David's own daughter Tamar was raped by Amnon his son, she became a desolate woman. She was disgraced and lived in her brother Absalom's house. David was furious about what had happened to Tamar, but there appears to be no further consequences for Amnon. Absalom later kills Amnon (because of what he had done to beautiful Tamar). And David mourned greatly for him. (2 Samuel 13).

  • Welcome to the forum, Lynn. Since this post doesn't answer the question posed (which is why I am giving it a down vote), can you please delete it and enter it as a comment instead? Thanks.
    – user10231
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 3:09
  • @WoundedEgo: I don't believe she has enough rep to make a comment at this point.
    – user862
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 7:52

The perspective that David was correctly following ToRaH is problematic; David's life was an endless, ignorant violation of ToRaH: murder, theft, deceit, adultery, failed parent, failed king. But he ardently pursued the "great commandment", and for YaHoVeH ELoHIM that was enough.

Without further biblical reference, its just as likely David committed yet one more thoughtless abuse against these ten, already maligned women.

Through 2000 years of scripture, the FATHER, SON and SPIRIT reveal their tender heart and ways - to a vicious, malevolent, corrupt world.

David's action was cruel and without compassion; it in no way is what JESUS would have done. Reducing women to sex slaves and collecting them was, from the beginning, never congruent with GOD's ways. David was a filthy pig who found the tender mercy of GOD.

  • 1
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    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 23:52

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