Jonathan & David: David's Women
Key Passages: 1 Samuel 18-31, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-2
By Bruce L. Gerig

David’s wives before he was crowned king over Judah – David took 10 wives1 and 1 concubine2 who are known by name in the Bible, before and after he became king, along with “more concubines and wives” (2 Sam 5:13) whose names and number are not given. Three of these wives were taken during Saul’s reign: Michal, the first Ahinoam, and Abigail. Michal, Saul’s younger daughter and David’s first wife, was earned by his slaying a hundred-plus Philistines (1 Sam 18:20-27). However, after his marriage, David was often away with his soldiers fighting (18:30) and so may have had little or no opportunity to sleep with his wife. At least, Michal never becomes pregnant. More to the point, David rejects his marital relationship with Michal in favor of his relationship with Jonathan,3 who counsels, comforts and cares for him until he has to flee Saul’s capital for good (20:42). Saul then marries Michal off to Palti/Paltiel (25:44), a resident of nearby Gallim in his own tribe of Benjamin,4 thus erasing David’s family tie and claim to the throne.5 However, Michal resurfaces later when David retrieves her in a political deal made with Abner, commander of the opposing camp (2 Sam 3:12-16). Michal is wrenched away from her second husband, who truly loves her, to be led off to David – Paltiel “weeping as he walked behind her” (v. 16) – and stuffed into his harem. The third and last time we hear about Michal is when David accompanies the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and she creates a public scene by criticizing David for exposing his genitals in the celebration (2 Sam 6:12-23). Michal was probably less distressed about David’s naked dancing, which her father King Saul had also done in public (1 Sam 19:23-24), than the cold, non-functioning marriage into which she had been forced6 and her realization that David will never give her an heir to unite the two royal houses.7 She could not subjugate her dynastic claims, as Jonathan had done,8 to the Lord’s call on David’s life. Because of her outburst, David forces Michal to live the rest of her life apart from his presence, childless and in a more-or-less divorced state.9

As a fugitive in the wilderness, David took two other wives, Ahinoam from Jezreel and Abigail from Carmel (1 Sam 25:42-43,2-3). Both towns were located in central Judah,10 Jezreel ca. 12 miles SW of Hebron (and ca. 50 miles SW of Jerusalem) and Carmel ca. 17 miles S of Hebron. We know little about Ahinoam, David’s second wife,11 except that she gave David his first-born son, Amnon (2 Sam 3:2), who grew up to be a rash, unprincipled youth. However, nearly a whole chapter (1 Samuel 25:2-42) is devoted to Abigail, describing how through her tact and charm she saved her household from calamity12 and David from taking matters into his own hands (and committing a needless slaughter) instead of waiting on the Lord for guidance.13 David is living as a kind of outlaw on the fringe of settled community life in central Judah, trying to keep one step ahead of Saul and also facing the difficult logistical problems of feeding all of those dependent upon him.14 When David’s messengers seek help and provisions from Nabal, Abigail’s very rich landowner-rancher husband (v. 2), he only treats them with contempt (v. 9-11). So David angrily organizes 400 of his men to go punish Nabal (v. 13). When Abigail learns about this, she sets out on her own with a generous supply of food15 (v. 14-19). Meeting David, she dismounts and bows to the ground before him, addresses him repeatedly as “my lord” (12 times in v. 23-31), calls herself “your servant” (6 times), and takes on herself the blame for her husband’s foolishness, begging for David’s forgiveness. David blesses Abigail for her “good sense” (v. 32-35). Jonathan Kirsch believes that Abigail had already heard of David’s reputation as a handsome and fit war hero and she found this “dashing young outlaw more intriguing than her rich but stingy and ill-tempered husband.” Probably David sensed her romantic interest, since he was used to “flirtatious women, and he knew how to flirt back…”16 After Nabal’s unexpected death, probably due to a paralyzing stroke and then ten days later a second, fatal stroke,17 David sends servants to collect Abigail as his wife (v. 39-42). Moreover, David obtained a wealthy wife who could presumably finance his army and increase his power base in Judah.18 Abigail, David’s third wife, gives David his second-born son. He is named “Chileab” in 2 Sam 3:3 and “Daniel” in 1 Chron 3:1. However, since he is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible (even though he was second in line for the throne), he probably died at a young age.19

David’s wives and sons born in Hebron – Two genealogies of David’s family are given in 2 Sam 3:2-5 and 5:13-16, taken from a state archive; and the two halves are united in 1 Chron 3:1-9.20 Here we are told that by the end of the 7-1/2 year period during which David ruled as king in Hebron over the tribe of Judah (2:11) he had 6 wives and 6 sons, although Ahinoam and Abigail probably gave birth a bit earlier.21 The wives (underlined, following) and sons (italicized) listed in 2 Sam 3:2-5 included: Ahinoam (Amnon), Abigail (Chileab), Maacah (Absalom), Haggith (Adonijah), Abital (Shephatiah), and Eglah (Ithream). Another wife, however, was Michal, whom David retrieved in a political deal (3:12-16), although she never bore him any children. Little is known of Haggith, Abital and Eglah, except for their sons born. However, Maacah was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur, a small Aramean (Syrian) kingdom22 located NE of the Sea of Chinnereth (later Sea of Galilee), which remained independent until absorbed into Israel by King Solomon.23 With Princess Maacah, David established a political alliance through marriage,24 gaining an important ally beyond the territory that was held by Ishbaal, his opponent for the rule of all Israel.25 Maacah gives David his third-born son, Absalom, who grew up to be as self-willed and vindictive as he was handsome and winning.26 Although Hertzberg proposed that only the first-born son of each wife was mentioned here,27 other scholars have not taken up this idea. Could it rather have been that David bedded each wife until she bore him a son, and then he moved on to another sexual partner? Only Bathsheba bears him more than one son. Of course, in ancient times, adding wives and concubines (slave-girls or prisoners who were taken as sexual partners28) increased the prestige of an Oriental ruler.29

David’s wives and sons born in Jerusalem – After he was anointed king over the whole of Israel and was settled in Jerusalem as his capital (2 Sam 5:1-12), “David took more concubines and wives: and more sons and daughters were born to David” (v. 13, NRSV). Of the three lists in the OT that relate to David’s wives and sons born in Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:13-16, 1 Chron 3:5-9, 1 Chron 14:3-7), probably 1 Chron 14 provides the fullest, most accurate list; and one will note that name spellings sometimes differ in these lists.30 First are given the four sons of Bathsheba who survived infancy: Shammua (Shimea), Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon. Then are named nine other sons who were born: Ibhar, Elishua, Elpelet, Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Beeliada (Eliada), and Eliphelet. In this Jerusalem list, it should be noted that although David already had many wives (3:2-4), he now begins adding concubines, without apology.31 The mention of “concubines” before “wives” in 2 Sam 5:13 is unique in Scripture,32 and perhaps is meant to indicate that David now added more concubines even than wives. The omission of the names of David’s new wives (except for Bathsheba) probably indicates that they were of less importance than his earlier wives, whose sons had some chance of ascending to the throne. It also should be noted that only the names of the sons of his wives are given in 5:14-15, not of the sons of his concubines (cf. 1 Chron 3:5-9).33 Nevertheless, these countless sons were meant to demonstrate how great and powerful King David had been blessed in this way.34 If David continued to bear one son per wife, then the last 9 sons named above suggest that they came from 9 different mothers – making a total of at least 19 wives altogether.

Surely the most well-known of David’s wives is Bathsheba, and her story is told in 2 Sam 11-12. Late one afternoon on a spring day, David was walking along the parapet of the palace roof when he looked down and saw a young woman move toward a large basin of water, loosen her hair, and begin washing her feet and limbs. Later she was startled by a royal summons to the palace, which she would never have dared spurn, although she was also flattered by it. At the palace, David called for food and wine, and then drew her to his couch for a night of lovemaking.35 Perhaps David had risen from his afternoon nap in a state of sexual arousal and so, seeing a beautiful, naked woman at her bath on a nearby rooftop,36 it was lust at first sight.37 Perhaps, also, now at middle-age (in his fifties), he still wanted to prove he could win the heart of a beautiful, young woman.38 The powerful verbs tell everything (2 Sam 11:2-4).39 As Kirsch notes, “The scene is the biblical equivalent of ‘wham bam, thank you, ma’am’: he sent, he took, she came, he lay, she returned.”40 Yet, when Bathsheba becomes pregnant and sends David word (v. 5), he is horrified at the complications that a child would bring.41 So Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, is recalled from the front and told by David to go “wash your feet [‘genitals’]” and go “to your house [have sex with your wife]” (v. 6-8). However, Uriah the Hittite, a member of David’s military elite (“The Thirty,” cf. 2 Sam 23:13-39 42) does not oblige.43 With all of the troops out in the field, at risk, along with the Ark, attacking the Ammonites, he feels that he should be there with them and not at home, lying at ease (v. 1,11).44 Also, a soldier engaged in a campaign may have been bound by a vow of sexual abstinence, since war was viewed as a holy function.45 David even gets Uriah drunk, but he will not bend (v. 12-13). So finally David sends the warrior back to the field with a sealed letter to General Joab, instructing him to place Uriah at the battle front where he will be killed; and so he is (v. 14-17). Then, after a week of mourning (by Bathsheba), David brings the widow to the palace (v. 27), no doubt feeling that he’s gotten away with his cover-up.46 Yet Yahweh has seen all, and before the year’s end Nathan appears to condemn David and declare the Lord’s punishment. This is no love story here, writes Cheryl Exum, since David wanted Uriah to assume the paternity of the child and he only marries Bathsheba after all of his plots to get Uriah to go have sex his wife fail.47 Even later, when David lies with Bathsheba (and Solomon is born), he did this to “console” her (12:24). Peter Miscall thinks that this consolation was more a sign of David’s desire for another son than affection for Bathsheba.48

Saul’s harem and one final wife – After the Bathsheba affair, Nathan brings to David a word from the Lord (2 Sam 11:27b–12:15). He begins with a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only, beloved lamb (v. 1-6); then he points the finger at David, declaring, “You are the man!” (v. 7a). He reminds David of how much the Lord has given him: anointing him king, rescuing him earlier from Saul, giving him Saul’s property, then “your master’s wives into your bosom, and also the whole of Israel and of Judah…” (12:7b-8). The prophet then names David’s sin: murder and adultery (v. 9). Therefore, the Lord declares, “the sword shall never depart from your house” and “I will take your wives … and give them to your neighbor…” (v. 10-11). Fortunately, David still has the moral courage and sensitivity to repent49 and he casts himself upon Yahweh’s mercy; and the Lord forgives him (v. 13, cf. 24:14). Yet, David is informed that the child of adultery will die (v. 14). What is especially noteworthy here is that it was Yahweh who gave David “your master’s wives into your bosom” (12:8) – referring to Saul’s wife, Queen Ahinoam (1 Sam 14:50), and his one concubine, Rizpah (2 Sam 3:7a, 21:8-14). By ancient practice, a dead monarch’s harem belonged to his successor;50 but here God declares that he is the one who has given David his court and harem, and Israel and Judah.51

At the end of David’s life, when he was old and his body was cold, his servants brought in a young, beautiful virgin named Abishag, to “lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm” (1 Kings 1:2, NRSV). Recruited for the harem, it was hoped that “her young flesh against the king’s chest would revive his flagging spirits.” As it turned out, however, she served as a nurse more than a lover52 and as a blanket for the aged king, since David “did not know her sexually” (v. 4). Some interpreters have viewed Abishag as a concubine,53 although there is not the slightest hint in the text that she was so.54 Nowhere is she referred to as a slave, handmaid or concubine. Rather, the wording “they searched for a beautiful girl throughout all the territory of Israel” (v. 3) recalls the contest that was used to select Esther (Esth 2:1-4ff), although David’s officials made the choice.55 Jerome Walsh thinks that the intent was for Abishag to replace Bathsheba, with her beauty invigorating the king.56 After David’s death, Adonijah requests to take Abishag as his “wife” (1 Kings 2:17), not his concubine.

So what might be said in summary? David clearly takes numerous wives for political gain. Such was the case with Michal (Saul’s daughter, taken twice), Abigail (widow of the rich Nabal), and Maacah (princess of Geshur) – and probably also with Ahinoam (to strengthen his legitimate base in southern Judah57). David Payne writes that apart from Bathsheba “most of the other [of David’s] marriages had been political moves”58 and Walter Brueggemann believes that David continued “the process of sexual politics” in Jerusalem.59 Tied to this, of course, was the view that collecting a large harem added to a ruler’s honor. So David took 19 wives, at least, along with many concubines. Still, there is evidence that he felt strong sexual attraction toward some of the women he took, especially Abigail and Bathsheba,60 who are described as “clever and beautiful” (1 Sam 25:3) and “very beautiful” (2 Sam 11:2) respectively. Yet at the same time, he “sent” for and “took/brought” both of them61 like property, in a patriarchal society.62 How much he ‘stooped’ to seek advice from women may be questioned; and apart from impregnating them, there is little evidence that he devoted much time to any of them. Most strikingly, the Lord condemns David for murder and adultery but not for having sex with all of his sexual partners, who were Yahweh’s good gifts given to him (2 Sam 12:8).

Although David had sex with many women, nowhere does the text say that he “loved” any of them. That word is reserved for his feelings for men. David says of Jonathan, “greatly beloved were you to me; your love was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26, italics added) – the latter referring to Michal, Ahinoam and Abigail. Later we read that David “loved” Amnon, his first-born son (13:21). Another passage relates (although the word “love” does not appear here) how David “mourned … day after day … yearning for [the absent] Absalom” (13:37-38), his third-born son, who was praised throughout Israel for his outstanding “beauty” from head to toe and his gorgeous, full head of hair (14:25-26).63 J.P. Fokkelman writes of “David’s (not too) secret admiration and delight in the fairest in the land [Absalom]” and his viewing him as “his darling son.”64 David expresses no grief when his ten concubines were taken and abused (16:20-22);65 but when Absalom was slain (18:9-15), David mourned and cried uncontrollably for him (18:32–19:4). The only other place where David displays such emotion is over his loss of Jonathan (1:26). All of this can only suggest that David was sensitive to male beauty, that he found bonding with men more satisfying than with women, and that deep in his heart he still missed Jonathan (9:1ff) and all that they had shared together. That David took multiple female partners does not preclude, of course, the fact that he also had a homosexual relationship earlier in his life, during his soldiering days and in a military context.66 In fact, David seems unable to find anyone to take Jonathan’s place, as he moves restlessly from one female to the next. He has heterosexual sex, to be sure, but seems unable to fill the deepest need in his heart. He may be momentarily attracted to a woman or beds her to cement a political alliance; but after a son is born, he loses interest. Too bad Jonathan did not survive, to continue giving David the nurture, comradeship and love that had sustained him through the dark years in Saul’s court.


FOOTNOTES: 1. Michal, Ahinoam from Jezreel, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, Ahinoam former queen of Saul, Bathsheba and Abishag.    2. Rizpah.    3. Ackerman, p. 178.    4. Anonymous, “Palti,” ISBE III(1986), p. 650.    5. Cartledge, p. 298.    6. Fokkelman III 1990, p. 204.    7. Exum 1993, p. 26.    8. Ackerman, p. 229.    9. Lockyer, Herbert, “Michal,” 1965, in Clines & Eskenazi, p. 227-33, esp. 232.    10. This Jezreel should not be confused with the town of Jezreel near Mount Gilboa in the north, where Saul and Jonathan were killed, or this Carmel with Mount Carmel in the north on the Mediterranean coast.    11. Note that the pluperfect verb (NRSV: “married”) in 1 Sam 25:43 is translated as “had married” in the NIV, NJB and elsewhere and this probably indicates that David married Ahinoam before Abigail.    12. Gordon, p. 183.    13. Hertzberg, p. 204.    14. Gordon, p. 181-82.    15.Youngblood, p. 760.    16. Kirsch, p. 92-94.    17. Smith, H., p. 228; cf. Cartledge, p. 296.    18. Ibid., p. 297.    19. Hoerth, p. 270; Landay, p. 120.    20. Hertzberg, p. 253.    21. Noth, p. 200.    22. Cf. 2 Sam 15:8.    23. Hughes, P.C., “Geshur,” ISBE II(1982), p. 449.    24. Ackroyd 1977, p. 40.    25. McKane, p. 189.    26. McCarter II 1984, p. 327.    27. Hertzberg, p. 253-54.    28. Myers, A.C., “Concubine,” ISBE, I(1979), p. 758.    29. Smith, H., p. 289.    30. Youngblood, p. 859-60.    31. Brueggemann 1990, p. 246.    32. Youngblood, p. 859.    33. Cartledge, p. 417.    34. Hertzberg, p. 272.    35. Landay, p. 111-14.    36. Kirsch, p. 186.    37. Cartledge, p. 506.    38. Ibid., p. 507.    39. Brueggemann 2002, p. 50.    40. Kirsch, p. 201.    41. Landay, p. 114.    42. Although this army council was called “The Thirty,” it seems at this point to have included 37 brave military leaders (2 Sam 23:39); cf. Youngblood, p. 1091.    43. Kirsch, p. 186.    44. Brueggemann 1990, p. 275.    45. Smith, R., p. 455; Halpern, p. 35-36.    46. Cartledge, p. 504.    47. Exum 1993, p. 175.    48. Miscall, Peter, “Michal and Her Sisters,” 1988, in Clines & Eskenazi, p. 246-60, esp. 257.    49. Brueggemann 1990, p. 282.    50. Mauchline, p. 253.    51. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 84.    52. Kirsch, p. 271.    53. Gray, p. 77; Patterson, p. 25.    54. Cogan, p. 156.    55. Devries, p. 12.    56. Walsh, p. 5-6.    57. Brueggemann 1990, p. 181.    58. Payne, D.F., “David,” ISBE I(1979), p. 874.    59. Brueggemann 1990, p. 246.    60. Youngblood, p. 956.    61. Ibid., p. 764.    62. Cf. Countryman, ch. 8.    63. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 148.    64. Ibid., p. 263, 210.    65. Kirsch, p. 202-03.    66. Horner, p. 38.

Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Brueggemann, Walter, David’s Truth: in Israel’s Imagination and Memory, 2nd ed. 2002.
Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, 1990.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Clines, David, and Tamara Eskenazi, eds., Telling Queen Michal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation, 1991.
Cogan, Mordechai, 1 Kings (Anchor Bible), 2001.
Countryman, William, Dirt, Greed and Sex, 1988.
Devries, Simon, 1 Kings (Word Book Commentary), 1985.
Exum, Cheryl, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 1993.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. I: King David (II Sam. 9-20 & I Kings 1-2), 1981.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. III: Throne and City (II Sam. 2-8 & 21-24), 1990.
Gordon, Robert, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary, 1986.
Gray, John, I & II Kings (International Critical Commentary), 2nd ed. 1970.
Halpern, Baruch, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, 2001
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
Hoerth, Alfred, Archaeology and the Old Testament, 1998.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
Landay, Jerry, David: Power, Lust and Betrayal in Biblical Times, 1998.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., II Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1984.
McKane, William, I & II Samuel: Introduction and Commentary, 1963.
Mauchline, John, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1971.
Noth, Martin, The History of Israel, rev. ed. 1960.
Patterson, Richard and Hermann Austel, “1, 2 Kings,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. IV, 1988, p. 1-300.
Smith, Henry Preserved, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1899.
Smith, W. Robertson, The Religion of the Semites, 2nd ed. 1894.
Walsh, Jerome, I Kings (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 1996.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, 1992, p. 551-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: New International Version, 1978.    New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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