We are in the last chapter of the body of ספר שמואל (the rest is a series of appendices), and it deals with the rebellion of שבע בן בכרי. But before David deals with the rebellion, he does something that seems irrelevant. We passed over this pasuk last time, but I think we have to deal with it now.
What was the story of these ten concubines? The story starts in the last rebellion, as David is running away from his son Avshalom:
And Avshalom uses them to make a point:
What exactly is a פלגש?
A כתובה is a prenup, specifiying the payment to the wife if the marriage ends in divorce or death. תנאי כתובה are the obligations of a husband to his wife, מזונותיה וכסותה ועונתה (see ערוך השולחן אבו העזר כו:ז). But for our purposes, the real difference is that the פלגש does not become part of the husband’s family; there is no ongoing connection between them.
It appears children of a פלגש do not inherit the status of their father (I’m pretty sure they still inherit the financial estate; that’s implied by יבמות כג,א).
So the sons of David’s פילגשים cannot inherit the מלכות. I will be מלמד זכות on David here; I assume David had no idea that Avshalom would do anything to the concubines. He took his wives and their children because Avshalom would likely kill them all when he became king. However, the children of the concubines would never be a threat to the throne. So if he is going to leave anyone behind to cover his tracks, it would be the פילגשים.
And why ten? Because that’s how many he had. He had 6 wives when he was in Chevron:
And then he married more פלגשים ונשים:
How many consorts did he have in total?
The Mishna concludes that כהנה וכהנה means three times what he had then, so לא ירבה לו נשים means a total of 18. The minimum of נשים is two, so he had at least 8 wives, and so ten
So he left all his non-wifely consorts in Jerusalem.
And back in our story, when he returns, he declares that they are all צררות עד יום מתן אלמנות חיות; what we nowadays call עגונות. The language of עגון, ”chained“ is from מגילת רות:
But the idea is the same: they cannot remarry, ever. The problem with understanding this point, though, is that this is true of all of David’s wives and concubines, independent of what happened with Avshalom:
And the פלגשים are not forbidden to him; they were אנוסות, not willingly unfaithful. He could have relations with them, but does not.
So the “חידוש” here seems to be this public declaration of אליהם לא בא; not that they will not be able to marry after his death, but that he is separating himself from them now. But even this is hard to understand, since at this time David is 66 or so, only a few years before his death, and is quite frail. The next narrative about David’s life emphasizes this:
However, there is a very strange aggadah that David was still capable of being intimate with his wives:
Abarbanel concludes that in the last years of his life, David did not have relations with any of his consorts (with the possible exception of the episode with Bat Sheva above):
[Abarbanel’s third reason is not relevant to our discussion.]
So then, why the public declaration about the עשר נשים פלגשים? The Yerushalmi suggests that David wanted to make a point about how he was denying his own desires as part of his תשובה for the sin of Bat Sheva:
David felt that this particular יצר הרע was the root of his sin:
And he feels he needs to do this now, in preparation for the fight against שבע בן בכרי. The last rebellion, of Avshalom, was an inevitable consequence of his sin with Bat Sheva, and he needed to get that behind him.
But I would argue that David is wrong here. His תשובה is already complete; he has paid the price for his sin with Bat Sheva and Uriah. As we quoted in Where the Penitent Stand:
There is no need for David to keep torturing himself over his sin. He needs to look forward, not back.
He’s looking at this rebellion as a continuation of Avshalom’s, part of the consequences of Bat Sheva, but this is different; it’s not about David at all. It’s about the conflict between the centralized control of religion and state, and the populism that would make all of כלל ישראל participants in their own country and עבודת ה׳. It’s the battle between בית המקדש and עגל הזהב.
Returning to the impending civil war with שבע בן בכרי, I want to look at a פרק תהילים that expresses David’s frustration with his enemies, how they attribute the worst possible motivation for his actions. All he wants to do is unite the country and build the בית המקדש. I feel a little guilty here, since I am part of the problem. I have been reading ספר שמואל in a way that makes David look like the villian in almost every story. I think it’s the right way to read נ״ך, since נביאים only have a message when we’re doing things wrong, but it adds up to a very negative picture. We need to spend more time in ספר תהילים to balance it out.
After summing up his complaints, that his enemies are speaking לשון שקר by וישימו עלי רעה תחת טובה. I want only the best for all of them.
And then he apparently starts praying for his enemies to be punished, for 14 straight psukim. It is very out of character for David, who usually prays for the redemption of his enemies rather than their destruction. Hirsch notes that the subject of the phrases turns from plural (וישימו עלי רעה) to singular (הפקד עליו רשע). These are not the curses that David wishes on his enemies; these are the curses that his enemies wish on him. He is quoting them.
The response to ואני תפלה is that his so-called blessing is actually a curse; since David is guilty (in the terms of the פי רשע ופי מרמה) his תפלה is really a חטאה. And then they go on:
Wanting his children to be orphans and his wives widows is more than wishing for his death:
The text turns plural again (זכרם), but this is referring to אבתיו and אמו: may all of David’s family suffer.
And, proving Hirsch’s point that the preceding calumnies are the words of his enemies, the psalmist summarizes what he has quoted:
And his response is simply to pray to ה׳. He doesn’t have the energy to defend himself:
לבי חלל בקרבי at the פשט level means “I have lost all strength” but חז״ל interpret it as a reference to David’s attempts to quell his יצר הרע, as we mentioned above:
And his prayer is only that his enemies learn the truth, that he has only been serving הקב״ה. Everything David does (even when he falters) is meant for the best:
They will curse but You will bless me, and their punishment is to be shamed when their curses have no effect (that is what בושה means in תהילים: to have one’s prayers rejected):
And we end on a happy note, as David returns to his תהילים, secure in his faith that ה׳ has saved him: