Women and War 4

War: it can happen anywhere, sneaking across what seem like safe borders, often on a moment’s notice. Whether domestic or international, its effects shock us. We are never the same, for women often bear terrible side effects of war, bruises that last a lifetime.

Some 2000 years ago, such pain and suffering came to ten women in Jerusalem. Their story—one of rape—is followed by the story of a simple housewife, out doing chores in her yard—and, coincidentally, saving lives at the same time.

Both stories (2 Samuel 16:15-23) and (2 Samuel 17:15-20) occur in the early years of King David’s reign, whose throne was far from secure. David’s son Absalom had revolted, challenging his father openly for the crown. Perhaps because youth was on his side and he seemed the best bet for the future, Absalom’s army was larger than David’s. When it appeared that Absalom might indeed purge his father from Jerusalem, David and his household fled, leaving behind ten concubines to “watch the palace.”

“Watch the palace?” Really? Concubines were, for lack of a better term, “secondary” wives, not security guards.

“First wives” were usually chosen for political gain; concubines provided a strong base of children and sometimes, love. Women who served as concubines were most often from poor families, who could not afford to marry their daughters into wealthier situations. Seen as property? Tragically, yes.

With the palace devoid of security, Absalom marched the women up to the roof and raped them, “in full view of Israel.” Imagine the terror of that moment. They have no cover, no protection, no sympathy.

They had “belonged” to David; no doubt, some had children by him. Perhaps their children were cowering in the palace, watching the horror unfold. By virtue of that one action, rape, now they were Absalom’s. “Property” had been taken.

Nearby, a woman, known by two names, “The woman of Bahurim” and “the wench of En-rogel,” was tending her garden. Or so it seemed. No doubt she has heard the terrible news from the palace, only a few short miles away.

She is on David’s side, for in the countryside surrounding Jerusalem, he is beloved. He is them, one of the people: a country boy and shepherd. And he is hiding there, no doubt taking shelter in a different home, under a different tree, every night.

She is not surprised, then, when two men race onto her property, spot her well and quietly slip down. They are on their way to warn David that Absalom, through the rapes and other events, has laid claim to the crown and is coming to get him. Recognizing them as David’s people, she quickly walks to the well and spreads a cloth over the top, as if preparing to dry grain in the hot sun.

Absalom’s soldiers arrive within minutes.

“We heard David’s men went this way!” “Where are they? Tell us!”

The woman nods, as if listening carefully, then turns around and points to a small creek, saying, “They went that way; they crossed over that water!” In full pursuit, the men run the way she has directed.

In time, she signals David’s men to climb out of the well. Later she would learn that they were carrying vital information for the king—telling him his location had become discovered and that Absalom was planning on killing him that very night.

Like almost all the locals, the woman knew David’s hiding place—but because of her quick thinking, he would be safe.

Absalom eventually lost the war, killed in battle by David’s general, Joab. David regained the crown and the palace. What about the women, the concubines? Here’s what we know*:

“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.” (2 Samuel 20:3)
While David did not sleep with the concubines again, he took care of them as widows: providing a home, protection, and provision. We hope that they found some measure of healing as the years passed, although their grief and isolation must have been wrenching.

Consider this

The woman of Bahurim used the tools she had within reach—a cloth, grain and wits—to act, successfully turning away what could have been a deadly confrontation.

Without her quick thinking, God’s story may have turned out very differently. David could have been murdered, along with his troops. The king of Israel might well have been Absalom: a murderer, disloyal son, and rapist. The woman and her family could have been slain in cold blood. There would have been no Jesus, for David was one of the central historical figures in Jesus’ genealogical tree.

Unfortunately, the unnamed concubines were not so fortunate. Perhaps women such as these, unnamed and poor and barely remembered in history, are the real victims of war and violence.

God, today we lift up to you those women and all who suffer or who are killed in war, be it conflict on our streets or battles  across the world. Embrace them, heal them, hold them close, in this life and the next. All this we say in your name. Amen.


Thank you to Jean Peacock for her assistance in thinking through this issue.