Did God use David's wives as pawns?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: Hi, I'm troubled about a particular verse, and I was wondering if you could help me:

“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.” (2 Samuel 12:11 NIV).

Unlike other verses where God says others will suffer as a result of another's sin, this has God saying specifically that He will give other people away to be humiliated (and the wives possibly to be raped) because David sinned. I know that God loves women and demonstrates great care toward their safety — and that God is clear that even captive women are not to be hurt and must be cared for. But this passage makes it sound as if God saw David's wives as pawns to use to punish David… and I can't understand that.

Yes, the culture of David's time saw wives as property, and this action was humiliating to David (which was the point), but this punishment suggests that David's wives’ feelings and trauma didn't matter to God, who is supposed to be higher and more just than men. So, how can we say that God cares deeply about people like David's wives when some are hurt in the process?

Answer: I will be happy to address your concerns about David's wives today… although I doubt I will make you feel any better when I’m done… so, sorry in advance. But before I proceed, let me commend you for the way you hang in with God while you are wrestling with an issue. This is Christian maturity at its best! Now, on to your question.

Until God brings in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1) every person will be hurt by every other person’s sin — although the severity tends to vary with proximity. Take David’s wives. They were in his household, and they suffered acutely because of it. But what David’s wives experienced is within the design parameters for a sinful world — particularly one undergoing redemption… the one in which we all groan together (Romans 8:23).

Now, I’m not supporting David in his sin, nor am I minimizing the suffering of his wives. But since women and children have historically relied on the male in the household for support (today, such people are called “dependents” in tax-speak), they are in a position to be collateral damage. This is why a responsible head of the household might purchase insurance to buffer these effects… but the effects stand. Since God set up the world to respond to sin in this way — where real people (like wives!) suffer in real-time — this should be our expectation for life.

Again… I wish I had better news… but I don’t. God is showing his justice by addressing sin in this story. It’s just that David’s wives were in the blast zone. But so wasn’t David and Bathsheba’s newborn baby… which was (definitively) more innocent than David’s wives. Yet God let the baby die anyway. Real justice is really messy because our lives are forged from the crucibles of choice and consequence.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NIV)

So, if we focus on all the damage evil has done on God’s watch, then we will be sad… and this is why we should not dwell on it. Instead, we should be thankful for the good things we have… and unless people have endured Jobian trials all their lives, much more good than bad has happened to them.

The take-home here is that we should not rob ourselves of joy because evil exists in the world. We should just understand its lessons… and I think this is what you are trying to do. Your question is honest, well stated and well taken. But it includes a false premise — and I think this premise might be exacerbating your issue’s emotional impact.

You see, David’s wives were not pawns. That’s the false premise. Now, I’ll agree that they had no immediate control over their circumstances, but that alone does not make them pawns. David’s wives made the choice to marry him — a man with a well-documented wandering eye who kept multiple wives and whose family would be under constant threat of overthrow. Those were the choices of maidens, not the actions of pawns… because pawns don’t choose; they are moved… and God didn’t do that.

Now, it is also true that if they had seen the future that perhaps they wouldn’t have signed on as wives — and once they were in the cattle chute of history, their choices were limited. But God doesn’t stop bad things from happening — even to “good” people. Instead, he lets sin work itself out in this world, knowing that it will manifest its evil. And since collateral damage is a natural expectation of real life, the fact that innocents may suffer does not deter him.

If the wives were pawns, then God moved them into a position of sacrifice. But that’s not what happened. God set up the playing field — and these women made their choices… but any pawns in your scenario would have to have been moved by a Master Puppeteer — an idea that threatens creation itself.

Here’s the thing: if God were to intervene in the lives of these women so they would not have married David, that would be God taking away their free will — and God doesn’t do that! If we humans do not experience the full cause-and-effect of our lives, then we are mere puppets and not volitional creatures at all… and how could God get any glory out of that?

He does occasionally interfere with free will, though… through the agency of miracles. But these are not the norm; they are discrete in moment and target. God saved the Israelites by parting the Red Sea — that true… yet many individual Israelites have since drowned as a result of the evil that is in the world.

Why didn’t God save them? Because life is hard, and evil will occur in any world that is being redeemed. That’s how he set things up. It’s tough but it works… and this is why he usually doesn’t mess with life’s flow… and particularly the flow of David’s wives’ lives.

Do you remember Achan from the Book of Joshua? His story parallels yours, but it’s a clearer example of God dealing with sin. So, let’s check it out, and let’s start by looking at God’s instructions concerning Jericho… and Achan’s disobedience.

“The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”” (Joshua 6:16–19, NIV, emphasis mine)

“But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.” (Joshua 7:1, NIV)

So, note two things in 7:1. The entire nation of Israel was named as unfaithful even though only one person sinned. Furthermore, and God punished the nation in their battle against Ai, not just Achan. They were dishonored by a humiliating defeat, and 36 Israelites were killed in that battle (v5). What this means is upwards of 36 families’ worth of women and children lost the supporting member of their households because of the sin of a man that they probably didn’t even know! … and God didn’t lift a finger to prevent this!

Note in verses 10 and 11 (following) who God put the blame on. Not Achan, but Israel… and note the continuing pronoun “they” and not “he” … even though “they” did not take the spoils. Only Achan did.

“The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions.” (Joshua 7:10–11, NIV, emphasis mine)

Now note the punishment. All of Israel stoned Achan… along with his sons and daughters, his livestock and all his possessions… and then they burned him.

“Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.” Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them.” (Joshua 7:24–25, NIV)

Was Achan’s family complicit in the crime? We don’t know… but it doesn’t matter. To show you why it probably doesn’t matter, let’s look at one more of these.

Do you remember Korah of Korah’s rebellion? (Numbers 16). God personally opened up the ground and swallowed him. But the punishment didn’t end there. God also swallowed up his wife, his children, his people and his belongings! … and if you can make emotional sense of those children being swallowed up by the earth, then you are a more well-adjusted Christian than I am.

But I can make sense of its necessity in this sad world of sin. It’s the price of sin… and we all pay it. But when we focus on the individuals affected, we can feel profoundly sad, confused — and disappointed in God! But their stories are in the Bible for good reason… even though they are uncomfortable.

To answer your question, God does indeed care about everyone… but he cares about preserving their free will as a priority… and if we have true free will, then there is nothing stopping us from murdering someone — other than the fact that we know that is wrong and we don’t want to do it.

You see, we choose goodness every moment (or at the least we choose restraint). But God would not stay my hand if I went over the edge and killed someone. Instead, he was proactive in creation; he gave us all consciences (Romans 2:14-15) and free will… and bad things happen when people misuse their free will by choosing to do evil, choosing not to restrain themselves — and God won’t touch that… except to point it out as sin through the agency of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8).

Just look at recent history. There are plenty of people whom God (famously) did not restrain — like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and David Berkowitz — who have caused over 100 million deaths in the 20th century alone! Think of the quantity of that human misery… and think of it with omnipotent God looking on. This should cause us to wince! But it demonstrates how important our free will is to him.

Life — although tough — is working within the parameters God established for it in this age. The unrepentant among these doers of evil will pay for their actions in eternity… if that makes you feel any better. But in the new heaven and new earth, we will not have any of these issues — and that’s a great comfort to me!

In the meantime, we (along with God) must bear with the processes necessary for the redemption of the earth and its people — and these processes feel draconian — and they are indeed harsh… but they are no more harsh than what is necessary to bring God glory at the end of the day.

I pray this discussion helped more than it hurt. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article about David's wives — consider doing so at the following link: 20191216 Did God use David’s wives as pawns? Does God hate women?).

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