Throughout my life, I have heard this charge leveled against the Holy Book: “God winks at the Old Testament guys He liked, like Abraham and David, when they took multiple wives, Exhibit A of the Bible’s patriarchal misogyny.”
A Womanist Reading
The latest place I got this was in a book by Wilda C. Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to Women of the Torah and the Throne (2017). Womanism is a hermeneutic that attends to marginalized characters, especially black women and enslaved people. Dr. Gafney is not without insight, although she tends to read Biblical texts in a way to paint men’s behavior to be as damnable as possible. Women, however, are pretty good. So, in her “sanctified imagination,” the murderous Athaliah in 2Kings 11 reigns for “seven prosperous years,” while faithful Moses never gave the daughters of Zelophehad the land God said they deserved in Numbers 27. Ignoring clues and trajectory that the Biblical narrator supplies, she misreads stories like these. As she sees the oppression of women everywhere, at times she even implicates that narrator and his (though it sometimes could be a her) authoritative voice.
For example, the professor makes much of how certain women are not named, which is supposed to show the Biblical authors’ devaluing of women. Yet the daughters of Zelophehad are named over and over, all five of them. When their husbands go unnamed, she shows no indignation. And David’s sister, Zeruiah, is christened more than two dozen times in the Bible, but we never once find out who her husband was. Are we to take this as evidence of the Biblical author’s misandry?
The feminist’s error plays out in the—sadly, once again—midrash misreading of Samuel’s portrayal of David. The next time someone tells you that the Bible treats the covenant king’s multiplying of wives to be neutral, or good, or—God forbid—as Dr. Gafney’s sanctified imagination does: to be showing David’s masculine prowess, simply go back with her to the text and see what the author actually does.
A Fuller Reading
Two sections of the book of Samuel focus on David’s victories as the long-awaited king after God’s own heart. God now prospers the man as ruler wherever he turns. The summary passages are found in 2Samuel 5 and 2Samuel 8. The narrator ends both with a small statement about what David did in the midst of God’s enormous blessings: 1) “David took more concubines and wives” (2Sa 5:13) and 2) “David’s sons were priests” (2Sa 8:18). These are so understated that we might gloss over them, but the original audience would not. The Hebrew is arranged to catch our attention, placing concubines first, out of the normal order, and using the same word for priests as the Levitical class just mentioned in the verses before.
We should be shocked at these sins. But, in case we are not, the author goes on to recount the repercussions of each in the rest of 2Samuel. The two very things that doom David and his kingship are these two failings of his heart: defiling the marriage covenant and favoring his sons. These destroy the man. To read and get out of this that the Bible or the author winked or somehow condoned the king’s polygamy is not only to not read well, it is to not read the account at all. And it severely misrepresents God.
Reading for the King
What should bring our hands to our mouths—and this is certainly the Author’s intent—is how God continues to bless David even as these moral cracks start to show. God continues to give this king victory knowing his failures and seeing what is coming. How can God do this? What kind of God is this?
We get the answer in between these two victory-with-moral-failings passages. There God makes His covenant of dynasty with David (2Sa 7). He promises the king that He will establish the throne for God’s people forever, that they “be disturbed no more.” And it is clear that He is going to do it by a son of David. Another King will come and allow blessing to flow by His righteousness in spite of the lack of our own.