Did God cause or permit Absalom to have sexual relations with David’s concubines?

Q. Your answer to “Was Ahithophel speaking for God?” was very helpful. In relation to this, I wanted to ask how should we interpret 2 Samuel 12:11-12, where we read:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

Should this be interpreted as God causing this to happen, or should this be interpreted as God permitting to happen? How can we know which way to interpret it? The wording seems to lean towards God causing this to happen. However, if it is interpreted as God causing this to happen, it seems to lead to several problems, such as God causing something immoral to happen, as well as going against Leviticus 18:8 ,where we read “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife; that would dishonor your father.”

I am inclined to interpret it as God permitting to happen (not causing this to happen), which would avoid the above problems, but based on the wording in 2 Samuel 12:11-12, it seems harder to justify. How can we justify this interpretation?

I think the passage you are referring to is one in which God tells David what the consequences of his actions are going to be, rather than one in which God describes something that he is going to do actively in response to those actions. Throughout the Old Testament we see people experiencing what are often called “ironic judgments,” in which what they have done to others, or tried to do to others, happens to them.

There is another example of this in the Absalom story. One thing that Absalom did initially to try to win the hearts of the people so that he could eventually take the throne away from his father David was to cultivate a handsome popular image. This included growing his hair long. The Bible says, “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him. Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard.”

But the long hair that was such a prominent feature of Absalom’s campaign to become king ultimately cost him the kingship. The Bible tells us that in the battle between his followers and David’s loyalists, “Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.” So Absalom was trapped there, David’s men killed him, and that was the end of his palace coup. The long hair that was meant to take the throne away from his father took it away from him.

The Bible describes this principle of ironic judgment more generally in Proverbs: “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them.” And since God set up the world in this way, so that people often get a “taste of their own medicine” when they plot evil, we could say in one sense that God is responsible for the consequences that people experience. But these “I will” divine pronouncements  of judgment can indicate that a person or nation is going to experience the consequences of their own actions, according to the way that God has set up the world.

For example, God says to the nation of Edom through the prophet Ezekiel, “Because you rejoiced when the inheritance of Israel became desolate, that is how I will treat you. You will be desolate, Mount Seir, you and all of Edom.” And these words did come true; Edom was destroyed and became desolate. But that happened when the Babylonians, an empire that the Edomites had tried to cultivate as an ally against the Israelites, turned against them and destroyed them. So an “I will” pronouncement of judgment actually forecast the ironic consequences of the Edomites trying to play the “power game.”

I think this is the proper way to understand the passage you are asking about. Otherwise, as you say, God would be the direct cause for the victimization of David’s concubines. I do not believe that was the case. I believe that God grieved deeply with those women when they suffered this abuse. Scheming and wicked men were actually responsible for it, as I explained in my previous post. I also do not believe, as you also pointed out, that God would cause or command anything that would violate his own law. Instead, I think it was with a very heavy heart that God announced to David what the consequences of his own wrong actions would be.

And I’m convinced that one of the most painful and heart-wrenching things for David himself about this announcement of consequences was the suffering that his own actions would cause for his innocent loved ones. But this world is such a tightly knit web of relationships that we cannot expect that our actions will not affect other people. Those actions will have the greatest effect on those who are closest to us. We can’t say to God, “I was the one who did this; why did you allow those others to suffer for it?” Our actions will inevitably involve others, especially our closest loved ones. So we should take responsibility for what we do, and be very careful not to do wrong, knowing how that may cause the ones we love most to suffer.

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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