Was Ahithophel speaking for God?

Q. How should we understand the passage where King David’s former counselor Ahithophel advises David’s son Absalom, who has rebelled and seized the throne, to sleep with ten of David’s concubines to make a permanent break with his father so that his followers will fight desperately? The Bible says, “Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.” So was Ahithophel actually speaking for God? If so, how can we justify his advice? Wouldn’t God have wanted to protect these concubines? And wasn’t this advice  explicitly contrary to the Law of Moses, which says, “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.” What is going on here?

First, the statement that kings who consulted Ahithophel treated his advice like advice they would have gotten by inquiring of God does not mean that Ahithophel spoke for God. Rather, this expression means that kings had such confidence in his advice that they accepted it unquestioningly, as they would do if it came from God. The narrator, seemingly expecting that readers would find it hard to believe that Absalom actually did what Ahithophel advised on this occasion, apparently felt a need to add this explanation. That is, the narrator anticipated that readers would have the same questions about it and problems with it that you do, for the good reasons that you do.

So what is going on here? It seems that Ahithophel had a further motive besides giving Absalom what he thought would be the best advice for this situation. If we read more widely in the book of 2 Samuel, we learn that Ahithophel had a son named Eliam, and that a man named Eliam was the father of Bathsheba. Bathsheba was the married woman whom David had sexual relations with and, when he got her pregnant, whose husband he arranged to have killed to cover up his actions. If the two Eliams are the same person, which many interpreters agree is the case, then Ahithophel apparently wanted to get revenge against David for what he did to his granddaughter and her husband. This was his further motive.

In fact, as the story continues, the next thing Ahithophel says to Absalom is, “Let me choose 12,000 men to start out after David tonight. I will catch up with him while he is weary and discouraged. He and his troops will panic, and everyone will run away. Then I will kill only the king, and I will bring all the people back to you.” So it does appear that Ahithophel had been waiting for a chance to take revenge against David, and he saw his opportunity here. His advice was not the counsel of God. It was the manipulative plan of a vengeful man who saw a way to get an inexperienced young would-be king to carry out some of his revenge.

David does bear some of the responsibility for what happened to his concubines, because it was his own actions that led Ahithophel to seek revenge against him. But David had every reason to believe that his concubines would be safe in Jerusalem when he left them there to look after the palace. They would have been protected by law, custom, and decency. And the concubines would indeed have been safe from Absalom if Ahithophel had not given this advice and if Absalom had not followed it unquestioningly. What Absalom did was an outrage. Ahithophel’s whole argument was that Absalom should commit such an outrage so that it would create a permanent break with David. So while David does bear some of the responsibility for the way these concubines were victimized, Ahithophel, in his desire for revenge, is the one who is primarily responsible. He was certainly not speaking for God.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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