When There Are No Words
Or satisfiable answers
My journaling this week was taken up with grieving and wrestling over David’s ten unnamed concubines. 2 Samuel is just straight up hard for me to read, with the rapes of Bathsheba, Tamar, and the ten concubines. The rapes themselves are horrific. But the responses. They demand something from the reader. I’m sitting with these ten unnamed concubines this week, groaning to God.
First, that there are even concubines at all. Unnamed at that. Treated as nothing. Pawns for power. Which means they represent so much. Now. Still.
Second. David leaves these concubines as sitting ducks. He knows his son Absalom is coming to “heap disaster” on him and the city, so he gathers his entire household to flee quickly—except the ten (what a symbolic number: complete) concubines (2 Sam. 15:14-16). They are left behind to take care of the palace. Whatever in the hell that means. Everyone knows they will be taken care of.
Especially David. Which leads me to the most difficult part of this all. Just three chapters back in our narrative, Nathan confronts David with the word of the Lord regarding his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. God tells him that he is going to bring disaster on his family as David brought disaster to Uriah’s. He says through Nathan, “I will take your wives and give them to another before your very eyes, and he will sleep with them in broad daylight. You acted in secret, but I will do this before all Israel and in broad daylight” (2 Sam. 12:11-12). Given the fact that this has got to be a pretty heavy weight on David’s mind all the time, is he just leaving these concubines for the taking?! Is he just like, “Well this must be it; I’ll make it easy”?! I mean, there is NO WAY he forgot about these words from God.
And that’s the hardest part: these words from God. They are so distressing. Am I going to argue with God here? Lord, help me to understand. To reconcile who you are with your words here. To reconcile your love for your bride with these “secondary wives.” Secondary. Second class. In the number ten. How does this turn our hearts towards Bathsheba and Uriah? Even toward you? Toward your bride? And your Son?
So it happens. As Absalom is trying to usurp his father’s throne, he is advised (professionally!) to sleep with David’s concubines. This is the way it goes. Still in so many places. Women as victims and pawns to power. This is Absalom’s power move. Violate the women. Claim them. Have sex with them on the roof for all Israel to see. Another damning roof scene. (2 Sam. 16:20-22 and don’t talk to me about the dang tent. Or possible marriage. None of these possibilities makes it better. Let’s stick to the point.)
Ten concubines treated as one entity. Do they have faces? Voices? Names? Distinction? No. Did they make a sound as they were made a spectacle for all of Israel to behold? Ten bodies reduced to the charade of the power of one man’s penis? To pacify his daddy issues?
That is all we read.
Until David returns to his palace as king. And the matter of the raped unnamed concubines is addressed. He “placed them under guard. He provided for them, but he was not intimate with them. They were confined until the day of their death, living as widows” (2 Sam. 20:3).
Look, I know that I cannot read today’s women’s rights and sexual abuse awareness into the passage. But is this supposed to be benevolent? I don’t think so. The palace in which they were first sitting ducks in is now their tomb. The text said they lived as widows but it’s as if they are already dead. And it smells of David’s resignation.
Tamar’s Voice Resounds
Phyllis Trible writes on the horror of the rape of Tamar in her Texts of Terror. But she also gives us a seed. Unlike Bathsheba and the ten concubines’ rape narratives, we get to hear from Tamar. Amnon refuses to listen, but she says it. No. She speaks wisdom to him. Trible reveals that Tamar is a personification of “sister wisdom” that we see in Proverbs. Her words are not heeded, but they are now recorded. She is left desolate, to live out the rest of her days in the house of her brother Absalom. Not only that, he names his beautiful daughter after her. We do not get his sons’ names, only his daughter’s. Wisdom lives on.
Before he goes and rapes his dad’s ten unnamed concubines.
How do I hold all this? Are Tamar’s words enough? Even the princess is not safe, cannot stop her rape, or the neglect of her father. But her words do get recorded in the Book of Life. Do her words resound to the ten unnamed concubines? “‘Don’t, my brother!’ She cried. ‘Don’t disgrace me, for such a thing should never be done in Israel. Don’t commit this outrage! Where could I ever go with my humiliation? And you—you would be like one of the outrageous fools in Israel!’” (2 Sam. 13:12-13). She tore her garment—what the king’s virgin daughters wore—put ashes on her head, and went crying out. Her brother, Absalom’s, house, another tomb of confinement.
This is the lump in my throat right now. Who can swallow it? These women have no hope. They are weighed down with the men’s shame. And cast away.
And the narrator moves onto the rest of the story of the men. Outrageous fools in Israel!
But I cannot move on. And I don’t think we are supposed to. These are women, not pawns. They aren’t mere casualties (despite the idiotic commentaries I’ve been reading sweeping it away with a moral lesson about the consequences of sin). They are Holy Saturday. Look at the tomb. Bewildered. Disillusioned. Heaving with sorrow.
And I thought maybe this is all I can do. Because I am not going to sentimentalize and spiritualize this by merely slapping the gospel on it. Yes and amen to Jesus taking on our suffering. Yes and amen and I cannot wait for resurrection. But we cannot skip over Saturday. The long day of not knowing what in the world is happening in the underground.
In my own groaning, I remembered. Romans 8:26: “In the same way the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.” God groans with me. God groans. Inexpressibly. He doesn’t answer all my questions about his words, his ways. I’m still unsettled. Disturbed. Angry and sad. But God groans. For us, even. Way before us. With us. And on our behalf. Where there are no words, there is holy groaning. Of God. With God.
For the unnamed concubines. For the genocide. For the racism. For the classism. The constant wars. For sickness and death. And abandonment. Betrayal. For the sexual abuse and cover up in church. He sees. With inexpressible groaning.
Faith resides amidst the groaning. Jesus meets us in the tombs. Until Sunday.
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