2 Samuel 17: A tale of two counselors

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With the addition of Hushai, Absalom now has two counsellors. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that only one of them is on his side.

Needing to deal with his father, Absalom first turns to Ahithophel. Ahithophel suggests that Absalom give him 12,000 men to pursue David, taking advantage of the fact that David is on the run and hasn’t had a chance to organize. Besides, he’s been on the run, so he’ll be exhausted.

Ahithophel assumes that David’s retinue will scatter once they see the 12,000 men coming, leaving David behind to be killed. The operation would therefore be a precision strike, getting rid of David without giving his retinue a reason to resent Absalom.

This advice pleased Absalom, as well as “all the elders of Israel” (2 Sam. 17:4). Either the Israelites are seriously fickle, or David’s really gone too far. Or perhaps Absalom put all his stat points into Charisma.

2 Samuel 17Absalom may have liked Ahithophel’s advice, but he still wants a second opinion. Hushai’s advice is just about the opposite of Ahithophel’s. He argues first that Ahithophel’s plan is a bad one because David and his men are both very mighty and very mad. Further, David is an expert at war; he wouldn’t be somewhere obvious to be found and assassinated. No, David has surely buried himself in a pit! If he proceeds with this plan, Absalom will lose people, and it will shake the people’s confidence in him.

Rather, says Hushai, Absalom should take his time and gather all of Israel, then lead them himself when they go after David. When they catch up, they will kill David and slaughter his entire retinue. They’ll raze David so hard that, if he hides in a city, they’ll just rope up the whole city and drag it out into the valley until its completely destroyed.

Ahithophel’s plan is to capitalize on the disorganization of David’s fleeing retinue, attacking them fast before they have a chance to entrench and prepare. Hushai’s plan, on the other hand, depends on superior might. His plan is to just throw everything at David and roll right over him.

Absalom chooses Hushai’s advice. There are a few possible reasons for this: Ahithophel proposes to take care of the problem for Absalom, while Hushai’s plan has Absalom emerge as the hero. Hushai’s plan also involves the total slaughter of everyone who sided against Absalom. Or perhaps the text’s explanation is the correct one: God made him choose Hushai because he’s setting Absalom up for failure (though this note is, according to my study Bible, an addition by a later editor.

Down the well

It appears that Absalom doesn’t tell his counsellors whose advice he will follow. Perhaps he suspects that one of them (or someone else around him) is a spy. Which, of course, one of them is.

Hushai wastes no time before he reports to the priests, Zadok and Abiathar. According to what he tells them, it seems that he believes that Absalom has chosen Ahithophel’s plan.

The priests get a message out to their sons, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, via a maidservant. It might have aroused suspicion if they were coming in and out of the city, so they were waiting outside for instructions. Despite their precautions, however, a boy sees them and reports to Absalom, who comes out after them.

Jonathan and Ahimaaz hide in a well, and a woman puts a cover over them and sends Absalom in the wrong direction. After searching for a while, Absalom gives up and heads back home.

Now free of danger, Jonathan and Ahimaaz meet with David and tell him that Ahithophel is on his way. David and his retinue carry onward and cross the Jordan, losing Absalom his advantage. It seems like it didn’t matter which advice Absalom chose, whatever the editorial insert tells us.

Back in Jerusalem, Ahithophel finds out that Absalom has chosen not to follow his advice. Perhaps he now knows that Absalom will ultimately lose and fears the disgrace of having chosen the losing side. Perhaps he feels shamed by having had his advice disregarded. Either way, he goes home and hangs himself.

Back out in the field, Absalom has chosen Amasa to lead his army rather than Joab – implying that Joab was a possibility and therefore had sided with Absalom instead of David (EDIT: In light of 2 Sam. 18, this reading is incorrect. It seems, rather, that Joab had to be replaced as the leader of Israel’s army because he has defected to David’s side). Amasa is the son of Ithra, an Ishmaelite whose wife was Zeruiah’s niece. This would make him Joab’s cousin once removed? The family relationships are getting complicated. In the genealogy, it gives Amasa’s grandfather as Nahash, though it should be Jesse – unless Jesse’s wife remarried at some point. It could also be a transcription error because someone else is the son of a man named Nahash later in the same paragraph.

David reaches Mahanaim, and he’s met by Shobi (son of Nahash the Ammonite), Machine (son of Ammiel from Lodebar), and Barzillai the Gileadite. The three men bring him supplies. This is precisely what Ahithophel’s plan for swift action was trying to avoid.

One thing I noticed in this chapter is just how many of the characters are not Israelites. Israel is looking like a very diverse place!

Jesus is OP

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Jesus is OP

(h/t: Cheezburger)

2 Samuel 16: Taking Possession

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David and his retinue are still on the run. On the way, they are met by Ziba, the servant David assigned to Mephibosheth (Jonathan’s disabled son) in 2 Samuel 9. He’s come bearing gifts – several donkeys for David and his retinue to ride, plus food and wine to carry with them on their journey.

David is suspicious, and he asks Ziba where is Mephibosheth – though a strenuous flight into the wilderness may not exactly be in the cards for someone with two crippled feet, even if he does have an ass to ride.

Ziba answers that Mephibosheth has stayed behind in Jerusalem. He believes, for some strange reason, that the current upheaval is part of God’s plan to restore him as Saul’s successor. This is rather difficult to believe, even if Mephibosheth is extraordinarily naive. If Absalom is challenging David, he’s clearly doing it for his own benefit, not for Mephibosheth’s. Unless the two of them have a relationship that hasn’t been mentioned in the text. Or perhaps Mephibosheth has been mistreated by David and hopes that Absalom will treat him better.

Perhaps without giving the story very much thought, David is furious. Despite the fact that the goods Ziba is giving him were almost certainly stolen from his master, David rewards him by granting him all of Mephibosheth’s possessions.

Wilbur Mercer

David and his retinue carry on until they meet Shimei, son of Gera – a relative of Saul. Shimei chases after the fleeing party, shouting curses and hurling stones at them. He calls out for revenge for the blood of Saul’s house.

2 Samuel 16 - ShimeiAbishai, David’s nephew through his sister Zeruiah, asks for permission to kill Shimei. Abishai, along with his brother Joab, seem to have rather a strong hot streak. You’ll remember that they are the ones who murdered Abner in 2 Samuel 3.

David, finally showing a little more sense than he has been so far, refuses Abishai. He seems rattled, and appears to believe that Shimei is being used by God to punish him. Besides, he says, his own son wants to kill him. How much more must a Benjaminite want to do it? Finally, he concludes that God might be pleased with him if he bears Shimei’s curses with poise.

It all seems rather introspective and theological. At the very least, even if he doesn’t seem to do a very good job of changing, David seems to realize that he’s kind of terrible. Of course, it’s for all the wrong reasons, but I’ll take it.

The concubines

Back in Jerusalem, Absalom has finally entered the city. He is approached by Hushai, who pledges his fealty. To explain why he is with Absalom rather than David, Hushai says that he follows the will of the God and of the people. From Absalom’s perspective, the easy taking of Jerusalem must surely have looked like God was on his side and had abandoned David just as he had abandoned Saul.

There is another implication in Hushai’s words – that David’s absence counts as a de facto concession, and Absalom, as the presumed heir, is the natural choice for a new king. Notice that Absalom takes over without protest from any of his brothers once David has fled.

To seal Absalom’s position, Ahithophel recommends that he rape the ten concubines David had conveniently left behind. Because absolutely no one could have possibly seen that coming.

Absalom does this, setting up a tent on a rooftop so that everyone can see that he’s raping the women.

My study Bible offers this explanation: “The concubines were royal property; hence taking them over publicly was a sensational way of showing the people that Absalom had assumed the office and prerogatives of kingship” (p.397). In other words, only the king gets to sleep with the king’s concubines; if Absalom is sleeping with the king’s concubines, Absalom must be the king.

It’s quite possible that David did the same thing after his own ascension. In 2 Samuel 12:8, God says that he gave David his “master’s wives.”

It could also be another case of mirroring. I mentioned in the last chapter that Absalom’s choice of Hebron as his base of rebellion could be a literary device to force the reader to compare David to Absalom. Here, it may be important that Absalom rapes the concubines on a roof, which is precisely where David was lying about when he first saw Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11.

The incident also, of course, serves to fulfil Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Sam. 12:11-12. David stole Uriah’s wife, now Absalom shall steal David’s concubines.

In any case, I think we can at least be certain of one thing: David is a complete jerk when it comes to women.

2 Samuel 15: Of spies and conspiracies

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Last chapter ended on a bit of a high note – Absalom and David reconciled, and it seemed to be an end to the troubles. But Nathan’s curse said: “I will raise up evil against you out of your own house” (2 Sam. 12:11). The troubles are far from over.

The kisses have hardly cooled before Absalom gets himself a chariot and horses, plus fifty men to run in front of him. This could be a personal body guard in case someone figures out what he’s up to, the start of a personal army, or perhaps a bit of glitter to help convince people that he’s a real contender.

He also got into the habit of rising early to stand by the gate, stopping the petitioners coming to see David for judgements. Like any good canvasser, he complains to them that David still hasn’t appointed underlings to hear petitions. I suppose the idea is that David has just exported the local judge model to the national monarchy without putting anything in place to accommodate the larger scale. I guess that the king who’d rather lazy about on his rooftop than lead a war campaign is similarly motivated to take care of administrative minutiae.

If only he were in charge, argues Absalom, everyone would have access to justice!

The complaint seems to have a good deal of traction because he manages to steal “the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 15:6) on this strategy alone.

He carries on that way for four years (or perhaps forty, which is what most translations say but makes little sense in context – it’s more likely that the “four” recorded in the Syriac translation and Josephus was the original intention). Absalom is clearly a very patient person when setting fields on fire is off the table. He did wait two years to kill Amnon in 2 Sam. 12:23!

Having finally gathered enough support, Absalom asks David for permission to go to Hebron. He claims that he had made a vow while in Geshur that, should he and David ever be reconciled, he would go to Hebron to worship God. David might have wondered why Absalom decided to wait four (or forty!) years to fulfil his vow, but apparently it doesn’t occur to him.

Paul Davidson notes that the phrasing Absalom uses in Hebrew is “Yahweh of Hebron” (2 Sam. 15:7), implying a local deity, or perhaps a local variant of YHWH. This, and other passages, implies that “the worship of Yahweh was geographically restricted.” That would explain why it’s plausible for Absalom to claim that he promised the Hebron YHWH a worship, and therefore couldn’t fulfil the vow at home in Jerusalem.

David gives his permission and Absalom goes, taking with him two hundred guests who knew nothing of his plans. He also sent out secret messages to the tribes of Israel, telling them to shout “Absalom is now king in the North! (or, at least, Hebron!)” when they hear the sound of trumpets.

While offering his sacrifice in Hebron, Absalom sent for Ahithophel, David’s counsellor. Interestingly, it seems that he may have been Bathsheba’s grandfather (my study Bible finds the connection by comparing 2 Sam. 11:3 and 2 Sam. 23:34).

Being David’s counsellor and father-in-law, it seems strange that he would so readily defect. Unless, of course, David had raped Bathsheba. In that case, he may have been willing to join just about anyone who stood a chance of punishing David. Or, if we want a more patriarchy-friendly explanation, he could feel that David’s relationship with Bathsheba tarnished her relationship.

Absalom’s choice of Hebron is an interesting one, since it’s the city from which David challenged the remnant of Saul’s dynasty. One theory is that Hebron is resentful that they supported David when he needed an Israelite foothold, but were passed by when it came to choosing a capitol. It could also be a literary fabrication, having Absalom’s career mirror David’s. We’ll see more examples of this as we read on.

While in Hebron, Absalom’s conspiracy gains strength.

The flight

A messenger lets David know that Israel is siding with Absalom. For some reason, Absalom was able to gather nation-wide support over a period of four years, but at least David finds out now. Better late than never. He flees from Jerusalem.

It’s unclear why David chooses to leave Jerusalem. It could be that he felt he had a better chance fighting in the open field, or perhaps he was hoping to avoid fighting his son, or perhaps he wanted to spare the city a siege, or maybe he feared that the city could contain spies, or perhaps it’s just plot critical that he be out of the city and the author took a couple shortcuts to make it happen.

Absalom and Tamar, by Guercino

Absalom and Tamar, by Guercino

He takes the royal household along with him, all but ten concubines. These, he leaves behind because he’s a complete jerk who has demonstrated again and again that he doesn’t care much for the safety of the women around him – at least not since taking the crown. I mean, really, to “keep the house” (2 Sam. 15:16)? As if he didn’t know what would happen to them.

He brings along Cherethites, Pelethies, and all six hundred Gittites who had come with him from Gath. I found it rather surprising just how many Philistines David has kept around. It’s also interesting that, in 1 Sam. 28, the Philistine king Achish had an Israelite bodyguard, and now that that same Israelite is himself a king, he has a Philistine guard.

As his retinue leaves the city, David hangs back, presumably to see who is coming along or perhaps as some heroic “last man in” sort of thing. Ittai the Gittite comes marching by and David asks him he would come along rather than “stay with the king” (2 Sam. 15:19). Already, he seems to be acknowledging his son’s claim! Perhaps displaying his intention not to fight, or his concession that he deserves what’s coming to him.

Ittai is a foreigner, and he only arrived in Jerusalem the day before. David protests that he doesn’t want to drag him right back out again, especially since he doesn’t know where they will be going or what the conditions might be like. But Ittai refuses to stay, he will stand by David. Notice that, once again, David finds loyalty with the Philistines.

Abiathar and Zadok come out with all the Levites and the ark, but David sends them back into Jerusalem. This seems to be an expression of his remorse, since he says that he will return to the ark (and, therefore, to Jerusalem) if God favours him. In other words, he is showing himself willing to accept the punishment he has deserved. Or he’s being cocky, certain that he will win the conflict.

But there’s another motive. The priests each have a son (Jonathan is Abiathar’s, Ahimaaz is Zadok’s). Between the two priests and their sons, David sets up an impromptu spy network that keep him updated on Absalom’s doings.

The Mount of Olives

David and his retinue make their way up the Mount of Olives, weeping and barefoot, their heads covered. David finds out that Ahithophel has defected, and he prays that his counsel will become terrible. This is in contrast to the hints that he has resigned himself to Absalom’s rule (such as his calling Absalom “king” above).

When he reaches the summit, where there is apparently a shrine, Hushai the Archite meets up with David. His clothes are rent and there’s dirt on his head, symbols of mourning, and he asks to come along.

David sends him back, however, telling him that he would be a burden if he came along. Presumably, Hushai is meant to be very old, or perhaps disabled in some way. David has found a use for him, however. Hushai is to pretend to defect, and to volunteer his services as counsellor to Absalom. By giving bad advice, he will counteract Ahithophel’s good advice, evening the playing field. Plus, once he has wormed his way into Absalom’s inner circle, he’ll be able to play the spy and report information to Zadok and Abiathar.

Hushai agrees, and he returns to Jerusalem just as Absalom arrives.

Thus Bloggeth the Lord

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Blog-of-the-Lord

(h/t: Exploring Our Matrix)

2 Samuel 14: Anger management issues

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When we last left our favourite dysfunctional family, Absalom had murdered his brother, Amnon, for the rape of their sister, Tamar, then fled to his grandfather in Geshur.

Joab makes a reappearance, this time perceiving that David is pining for Absalom. He devises a plan to trick David into realizing that it’s time to bring his son home, out of exile.

He finds a woman in Tekoa and has her pretend to be in mourning. Under his instruction, she comes to David with a sob story about being a widow. In her story, her two sons fought each other and one killed the other. Because of the traditions of blood redeemers, the extended family has demanded that the “widow” give up her remaining son for execution. Since he is all she has left, the heir to her husband’s name, she wants David to intervene and protect him.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a thinly veiled retelling of Absalom’s murder of Amnon from 2 Sam. 13.

The reconciliation of David and Absalom, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

The reconciliation of David and Absalom, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

He pledges to protect the widow’s son, and tells her to send anyone who tries nasty business straight to him for a reprimand. As in 2 Sam. 12, there’s the sudden reveal: Surprise! The story was about David all along!

There’s an interesting note here about blood feuds, and how that kind of tribe-based justice undermines monarchic efforts to establish a common law. David, here, is very much a king when he sides with a murderer against those who would seek vengeance.

The widow’s emphasis on her fictitious murderous son being an heir could lend weight to the argument that Absalom was, now that his older brothers were all out of the picture, David’s presumed heir. It leaves open the possibility that his actions were not, or perhaps not entirely, motivated by vengeance for Tamar.

We aren’t told how, but David figures out that Joab was behind the ruse. He sends his nephew to Geshur to fetch Absalom and bring him home, though he is still to live in his own house and not to come into David’s presence.

Father and son lived like this – in the same city but never meeting – for two years. Finally, Absalom has had enough, so he summons Joab to help him orchestrate a reunion.

Except that Joab ignores his summons. He tries again, but again Joab doesn’t respond.

So Absalom, being an entirely reasonable fellow, does what any reasonable fellow would do in such a situation. He sets Joab’s barley field on fire.

Say what you will about Absalom’s methods, he gets the job done. Joab comes right quick, asking why his lovely barley field is now a flame field. Absalom says that he just wanted Joab to get him an audience with David, and the burned field business is dropped. Apparently, it’s the equivalent of a door knock for this family.

Absalom sends Joab with a message, in which he says that David can kill him if there is any guilt in him. It’s a rather silly thing to say because, of course, Absalom is guilty. The word is clearly not being used in a recognizable way. Perhaps he means that he may be executed if he murdered his brother for bad reasons rather than to avenge Tamar. Or maybe he’s using guilt to mean some kind of tarnish, something that can fade away over time.

Joab passes the message on, and father and son finally reconcile.

Absalom’s hot bod

In the middle of all this, the narrator pauses to tell us about how beautiful Absalom was, not to mention how blemish-free! Not only that, but he had just the most gorgeous hair you’ve ever seen. It was so long and luxurious that the clippings from Absalom’s annual hair cut weighed 200 shekels by the king’s weight. Various sources give me different translates for this, but we’re looking at at least 3lbs, and probably something closer to 5lbs. That’s the weight of a small newborn baby right there, just in hair cuttings.

We’re also given a little genealogical information. In a startling break from tradition, we’re told that Absalom had a daughter, who was named Tamar (presumably after her aunt), as well as three unnamed sons. I’d like to say that it’s refreshing to see a little reversal in which gender gets to have names, but I suspect that the lack of names for the boys implies that they died young. In any case, Tamar, like her father and namesake, was also very beautiful.

2 Samuel 13: The rape of Tamar

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The following chapter is a rather horrible story of the royal family, and comes with a major content note for rape and incest.

Since familial relationships are important, here’s a refreshment from 2 Sam. 3:2-3: David’s eldest son is Amnon, born of his wife Ahinoam. We aren’t given any information about Ahinoam, except that she is from Jezreel. His next son is Chileab, born to Abigail. Since he doesn’t come up again, it seems likely that he died at some point prior to the events in this chapter (perhaps as an infant). His third son is Absalom, born to Maacah. Maacah is the daughter of Talmai, the king of Geshur. Tamar, who was not listed in 2 Sam. 3 but features prominently in this chapter, is also the daughter of Maacah.

Assuming that Ahinoam, Abigail, and Maacah are all full legal wives (as opposed to concubines), the assumed succession would place Amnon first in line, followed by Chileab, then Absalom. Since Chileab is never mentioned and presumed deceased, that leaves Amnon and Absalom poised to take Israel’s crown if David dies. There’s a little more information on what might have been the inheritance practice in Deut. 21:15-17, though that doesn’t seem directed at the monarchy.

According to a somewhat plausible timeline ( I say “somewhat plausible” because I can see at least one spot where two years magically disappear), Amnon and Absalom are somewhere on the short side of 20 years old during the events of this chapter. Tamar is presumably around the same age, though she could be older since only the births of David’s sons are recorded. It’s possible that she was born while David was still or the lam or during his time with the Philistines, whereas her brothers weren’t born until David’s stay in Hebron. Of course, she could also be younger.

The sham illness

The text tells us that Amnon falls in love with his half-sister, Tamar. “Love,” I assume, is being used euphemistically. But he laments that, because she is a virgin, “it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her” (2 Sam. 13:2). Note that he wants to do something “to” her. That’s not love.

It’s possible that, when he says that it is “impossible” to do anything to his sister, he is referencing prohibitions like Lev. 18:11 or Deut. 27:22. Of course, little seems to have been made of Sarah’s marriage to her half-brother, Abraham, in Genesis, so it could be that the prohibition came later, or that it was an acknowledged practice that certain religious authorities were trying to curb.

But that assumes that his feeling really is love, and that his intention is marriage. I don’t think that’s the case. Rather, I suspect that he is referring to how secluded or protected David’s virgin daughters are. They may be kept away from men, and perhaps are rarely alone. In other words, I think his complaint has more to do with his lack of access, rather than social mores standing in the way between him and the object of his “love.”

He complains about this to his cousin, Jonadab (who is the son of David’s brother, Shimeah, named in 1 Sam. 17:13). Jonadab has a reputation for being a “very crafty man” (2 Sam. 13:3), and he comes up with a plan: Amnon is to take to his bed and feign sickness, then request that he be cared for by Tamar.

As per Jonadab’s instructions, Amnon takes to his bed. When David comes to check in on him, he asks that Tamar be sent to cook for him and feed him. Tamar is sent, and Amnon watches her make cakes. He then sends all of his servants out, and tells Tamar to come close to hand feed him. When she does, he grabs her.

There are two injustices at play in the story. The first is, of course, that Amnon clearly intends to rape Tamar. The second is that Tamar is well aware of the fact that she will lose all status and social support if she attacked by Amnon. In Tamar’s mind, at least, the second is the greater injustice. When she begs for Amnon to stop, she implores him to ask David for permission to marry (a rapist with a wedding band is still a rapist, but at least he would not be taking everything else from her as well). As above, it’s unclear whether marriage to half-siblings was permitted at this time, or if she was trying to convince Amnon that David would grant a special dispensation.

Whether Amnon is uninterested in marriage or doesn’t believe that David would allow the union, he ignores her. “Being stronger than she, he forced her, and lay with her” (2 Sam. 13:14).

Depiction of the rape, by Eustache Le Sueur, c.1640

Depiction of the rape, by Eustache Le Sueur, c.1640

The text tells us that when Amnon is done, his love turns into an even greater hate. It could be that he is projecting his own self-hate for his actions or, I think more likely, his previous “love” was just a form of hate. He hated Tamar for being simultaneously desirable and unavailable. This king of love/hate is a social problem we are still very much dealing with today.

Having taken from her what he wanted, Amnon orders Tamar to leave. She begs him to at least mitigate the damage of his actions, because “this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other which you did to me” (2 Sam. 13:16). Once again, we see here the interplay between the two injustices – the personal and the social. By sending her away, Amnon is refusing to marry her (which would be required as per Deut. 22:28-29). He is using social morality to further victimize her – not just humiliating and violating her, but crushing her entirely as a person of worth in her society. And it is his society that gave him this power by diminishing/removing her value for his actions.

Rather than hear her protests, Amnon has his servants throw her out of his house and bolt the door behind her.

Tamar rends her clothes and puts ashes on her head, symbols of mourning. I’ve read some describe this seen as a mourning for her virginity, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Since Tamar is now considered “damaged goods” and, unless Amnon changes is mind, is now ineligible for marriage, she is effectively dead in a social way. She cannot marry, she cannot have children, she has been cut off from normal social participation. It is that life, and the lives of the family she will never have and that will never be born, that she is mourning. Take away all the loss implied by her lack of virginity and she would have nothing to mourn. She could focus on healing from her attack and then, in time, resume her life. But it is her society, its fetishizing of virginity, and its lack of recognition of women as people worthy of respect in their own right that gives her a tangible construct to mourn. I really can’t harp on this enough – evil as Amnon is, how much more evil is the social context that has given him so much power to destroy Tamar!

Tamar doesn’t go to David, and no reason is given for this. Perhaps she knew what his reaction would be, or perhaps she was too ashamed. Instead, she goes to her brother Absalom’s house. When he hears what happened, Absalom tells his sister, “Now hold your peace, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart” (2 Sam. 13:20). To me, this response just sounds incredibly callous. In light of his later actions, some apparently take his words as comfort and reassurance that something will be done, but that’s not how it struck me. In fact, Absalom’s response is eerily similar to what friends have heard in the aftermath of their rapes – men, relatives and friends, telling them not to make sure a big deal of it. After all, it was “only” their boyfriend, husband, doctor, and it was “only” sex/touching.

David’s reaction appears to be even worse. In my version, the text merely tells us that he was angry, nothing else. It doesn’t seem that he actually does anything, either to protect Tamar or to punish Amnon. The Hebrew Masoretic text leaves it there, but the LXX and Dead Sea Scrolls tell us explicitly that David decided not to punish Amnon “because he loved him, for he was his firstborn” (2 Sam. 13:21). In other words, he is choosing to shelter a rapist because of his own personal feelings for him – another behaviour for which we have plenty of modern examples (and, as an atheist, I’d say this is a pretty good parallel to what has been happening regarding Michael Shermer’s rape of a drunk woman and his subsequent protection by many of the most powerful and influential men in the atheist movement, including James Randi and Richard Dawkins). At no point does David express his love or sympathy for his daughter, Tamar. In fact, at no point is she referred to as David’s daughter, merely Absalom and Amnon’s sister.

It’s notable how similar Amnon’s crime is to David’s. Amnon’s attack on Tamar was unambiguously rape, but I think that there’s a fairly strong case to be made that David’s relationship with Bathsheba began as rape as well (including the sending her away so that she had to contact him by messenger to notify him of her pregnancy). This makes David’s refusal to punish Amnon and protect Tamar even more pointed.

For his own part, Absalom is outraged, but he bides his time.

Revenge

Two years pass.

Absalom’s sheepshearers are apparently having a festival, presumably something like Nabal’s sheepshearing festival in 1 Sam. 25:4-8. He invites David and all of his brothers to come, but David refuses, expressing concern that it would be “burdensome” to have so many of them there. He could suspect what Absalom has in mind, or perhaps he is nervous at the idea of having so much of the royal family in one place that is not as well fortified as Jerusalem. If David won’t come, says Absalom, couldn’t Amnon at least make it? David agrees.

At the festival, Absalom gets Amnon nice and drunk, then commands his servants to kill him, finally avenging Tamar. Though I am sure the fact that Amnon’s death puts Absalom first in line for Israel’s crown didn’t escape him.

David’s other sons mount their mules and flee, though they apparently do so quite slowly. Word reaches David that Absalom has started killing his brothers before any of those brothers make it home, so David believes that Absalom has murdered them all. He rends his clothes and lies on the ground, but Jonadab, clever as always, seems to guess at what is really going on. He explains to David that only Amnon has been murdered, killed for his rape of Tamar. He is proven right when David’s other sons come riding home.

Absalom flees to his maternal grandfather, Talmai, the king of Geshur, and remains there for three years. The final verse is a little confusing, but the meaning I drew from it is that David grieved for Amnon (or perhaps for his rift with Absalom), but eventually longed to be reunited with his son. David, once again, is inhumanely practical – quickly forgetting about his dead children (and ignoring the female children entirely).

I mentioned that Tamar’s rape could have been seen by Absalom as an excuse to move against his older brother. There could also be a class issue at play: Absalom and Tamar’s mother was a princess, so they are royalty through both parents. Amnon’s mother, by contrast, was merely from Jezreel. It could be that the recourse of murder was motivated not just by Amnon’s crime, but also Absalom’s own feelings that Amnon was heir to the throne and had forced himself on a woman who would, almost certainly, have otherwise been married to a king.

Icons of the Bible

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Photographer James C. Lewis recently exhibited his new collection: ICONS OF THE BIBLE.

Icons of the Bible

These are gorgeous images, of course, but I love these even more for abandoning the nausea-inducing trend of white-washing the Bible. Even cooler, the models span a variety of ages and body shapes. Make sure to click through and see the rest of them!

2 Samuel 12: I shall go to him, but he will not return to me

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David is the king and, with Uriah disposed of, he may believe that no one can hold him accountable for his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah. Enter the prophet Nathan.

You may remember Nathan from 2 Samuel 7, where he mysteriously replaced Abiathar. This time, he’s come with a story:

There are two men- a rich one and a poor one. The right one has many herds, but the poor man has only a single ewe, who seems to be kept more as a pet or as part of the family than as livestock. One day, a traveler goes to the rich man, but the rich man isn’t willing to kill a lamb to feed him (as would be the requirement by hospitality customs). Instead, he takes the poor man’s ewe and slaughter’s it.

David is outraged by the parable. He believes that the rich man should repay the poor man four fold – which would be in keeping with Exodus 22:1 – though he adds that the death penalty should be added as well. This is not just for the crime itself, but because the rich man “had no pity” (2 Sam. 12:6). In other words, the greater crime is the injustice, the exploitation of the vulnerable by those with social power. Sound familiar?

Then Nathan reveals the great twist: “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). He continues, God gave David so much, including “your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom” (2 Sam. 12:8), and he would have given even more if it hadn’t been enough. Yet still David was not satisfied, and he murdered Uriah using the Ammonites as his sword (the imagery is beautiful, if sad). Now, as punishment, the sword will never leave David’s family. David’s wives will be taken from him and given to others. This will be done openly, in contrast with David’s cloak and dagger methods.

There’s a couple interesting things going on here. The first is the idea that God provided David with his many wives. As Joel Watts at Unsettled Christianity explains, this runs rather counter to the claim that there is no part of scripture that affirms polygamy.

Another is Nathan’s approach. Rather than come right out and condemn David, he prods David into condemning himself. This doesn’t look like judgement from on high, but rather an appeal to David’s own sense of justice, urging him to use that moral compass he has been neglecting lately.

This could be a testament to David’s sense of justice, and to Nathan’s trust that David would perceive and judge his own flaws if they are pointed out to him. Of course, it could also be a testament to how far David has fallen, that Nathan may be afraid to come right out and judge him without testing the waters first. I suspect the former, as it reads more like an attempt to show that David, while clearly in the wrong, has not lost his humanity.

When David admits that he has done wrong, Nathan reassures him that he will not have to lose his life, though that is the punishment prescribed for both Uriah’s murder (Lev. 24:19-21) and for the adultery (Lev. 20:10). Instead, God will allow him to live, but kill Bathsheba’s baby instead.

It’s unclear what the death is supposed to mean. It could be a substitutionary death, where David’s sins (and, therefore, his punishment) are transferred to the baby, so it is the baby who must die guilty (though this would directly contradict Deut. 24:16). Or, it could be that David’s punishment is the loss of a son. Either way, it’s absolutely terrible. It really only makes a difference from a white tower theological perspective. Now I need to go give my baby a quick hug before going on.

The illness

My baby has now been hugged and gone back to laying railroad tracks.

Back in 2 Samuel, Bathsheba’s baby has fallen ill. David fasts and lies on the ground all night, and the elders of his house worry about him. They try to make him rise and to eat, but he refuses. This apparently goes on for seven days before the baby dies.

Thou shalt not commit adultery, by Baron Henri de Triqueti, 1837 (Bronze bas-relief panel on the door of the Place de La Madeleine, Paris)

Thou shalt not commit adultery, by Baron Henri de Triqueti, 1837 (Bronze bas-relief panel on the door of the Place de La Madeleine, Paris)

Having seen David’s apparent grief during the child’s illness, his servants are reluctant to tell him of the baby’s death, they fear that David might harm himself. Yet David hears them whispering and guesses the cause, and he surprises everyone by getting up, having a bath, then going out for some nosh.

The servants are surprised by David’s behaviour, and they ask him why he performed his grief while the child is alive, but appears perfectly fine now that the child is dead. David explains: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:22-23).

I suspect – I hope – that this is an editorial insert to make some theological point. Otherwise, the callousness of David’s speech is just heart-rending. Yes, it’s true that his grief now wouldn’t solve anything, but that’s not the purpose of grief! It is not generally a performance ritual designed to achieve some end!

Perhaps even worse is what is hinted about his treatment of Bathsheba. She has recently lost her husband, has possibly been raped, and has just lost her baby. So “David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son” (2 Sam. 12:24). It’s possible, of course, that she really did feel comforted and that the sex was consensual, but I have a hard time imagining that to be the case. At the very least, it seems to me that Bathsheba would be having some very complicated feelings about why her baby had just died – even if her initial sexual encounter with David really was adultery and not rape.

I’ll note, too, that Bathsheba is mentioned twice in the chapter, once as David’s wife and once as Uriah’s. It struck me that perhaps one editor wanted to emphasize her relationship to Uriah (his wife, present tense, not his widow as is used for Abigail), pointing to the illegitimacy of David’s marriage to her.

Bathsheba’s second child is named Solomon, and Nathan tells David that God is a great fan. In fact, he’s so pleased with the baby that he decides to name Solomon Jedidiah, or “Beloved of the Lord.”

Bathsheba and the baby are both entirely absent from this chapter, despite figuring prominently. Only once is Bathsheba named, and her son never is. Her seven days of sitting by her ill child, hoping and despairing, raging at her impotence to save her baby while her husband lies around in the dirt instead of being at her side… None of that is mentioned. Her grief when her child finally dies is never mentioned, except to reassure us that David consoled her before he knocked her up again.

It could have been such a human story. David could have wailed beside his wife, perhaps fell at her feet in remorse for his part in the child’s death. Instead, he washes himself and has a bite to eat while she is surely in another room crying over her still baby.

It’s horrible. And it’s horrible that Bathsheba’s experience of the story is so much as hinted at.

The capture of Rabbah

Perhaps to reassure us that the punishment is done (at least so far) and that God is still on David/Israel’s side – because, surely, that’s our primary concern – the narrative veers off to the battlefield to tell us that Joab has taken “the city of waters” at Rabbah (2 Sam. 12:27). This apparently refers to some defensive structure protecting the city’s water supply. With it now in Israelite hands, the siege won’t last much longer.

Joab sends a message to David with the news, and encourages him to come quickly to finish the job. If he doesn’t, Joab will take the city himself and give it his own name. Here as elsewhere, Joab strikes me as a really sarcastic, hostile guy. I feel like he knows that David is cavorting about in Jerusalem when he should be leading his army. Perhaps because he literally got away with murder in 2 Sam. 3, he thinks that he can get away with his open disrespect of the king.

David either doesn’t pick up on Joab’s tone or still feels like he can’t challenge him. Instead, he picks up his army and heads up to Rabbah to join Joab’s forces. They take the city.

David takes the crown from the Ammonite king, or perhaps from their god, and puts it on his own head. The New Bible Companion offers this explanation for the confusion: “Their king (Heb. malkām) was evidently understood by LXX as the name of the Ammonite deity Milcom” (p.307). It could be, then, than David removed the crown from an idol. Given its weight – a talent (or about 65 pounds) of gold, set with a precious stone – seems to favour that interpretation. Its hard to imagine a king using such a crown as part of his every day wear. Though, of course, it could also be a ceremonial crown, or perhaps the weight is exaggerated.

The Israelites took a lot of spoil from Rabbah, and enslaved the inhabitants. The army then continued on and did the same to the rest of the Ammonite cities before returning to Jerusalem.

2 Samuel 11: The Golden Boy falls

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I never learned about David and Bathsheba in Sunday School (inappropriate for young ears and all that, better to focus on family-friendly material such as the crucifixion of Christ), but it’s hard to grow to adulthood as a “cultural Christian” without having at least heard the names. What I didn’t know until I started studying the Bible, though, was the context of the story and its aftermath.

It’s clear from the outset that David will not look good in this story: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle” (2 Sam. 11:1), David stays behind in Jerusalem. Instead, he sends Joab out to fight the Ammonites and besiege Rabbah (the Ammonite capital) in his place. No reason is given for the neglect of his duties, but the image of him arising from his couch late one afternoon (2 Sam. 11:2) makes it seem like he’s just lounging around. How far the mighty have fallen!

Bathsheba, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Bathsheba, by Artemisia Gentileschi

So he finally gets up off his couch and takes a walk on his roof. While there, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. We are only told that she is bathing, but there is a note later on that she “was purifying herself from her uncleanness” (2 Sam. 11:4). While the detail is provided later on, it seems that the consensus assumes that it explains her reason for bathing – she would be following laws like the one outlined in Lev. 15:19-24, washing herself after menstruation.

Whatever her reasons for bathing, the reading that she was doing it to seduce men while her husband was away at war requires an awful lot of reading into the story. A woman bathing is bathing, not trying to seduce men. A woman wearing a tanktop in summer is trying to keep cool, not trying to seduce men. This is an idea that my culture seems to have quite a bit of trouble with.

When he sees her, David falls in lust and asks for her identity. Finally, she is revealed to be Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite. Despite behind a Hittite, Uriah is currently off with Joab fighting the Ammonites on David’s behalf.

David sends messengers to Bathsheba and “took her,” but also “she came to him” (2 Sam. 11:4). I’m not sure what to make of the fact that David’s taking of Bathsheba (clearly a euphemism) occurs first, before Bathsheba comes to him. But even if she did come to him, he is the king and he has made a demand of her. Given what happens later on in the story, it’s easy to see how Bathsheba (again, assuming that she responded to David’s invitation) might have felt like she had little choice.

It is here that we get the note about her purifying herself from her uncleanness, which gives us the possibility that her uncleanness was adultery, which raises the question of why David is not required to perform any similar purification.

After the encounter, Bathsheba learns that she has become pregnant so she sends word to David.

The problem of Uriah

Bathsheba’s pregnancy poses quite the problem for David. With Uriah away, it will be obvious that he did not father his wife’s child, and suspicion might be cast toward Israel’s loafing king whether Bathsheba speaks or not.

David’s first plan to hide his doings is to create another plausible scenario by which Bethsheba may have become pregnant – so he calls Uriah back from battle. His cover story is that he wants Uriah to give a battle report (though it seems a little strange why he thought that asking for Uriah specifically would go unnoticed).

David then instructs Uriah to head home and wash his feet, which I took to mean that David was encouraging Uriah to relax after a long journey (which could include having sex with his wife), but my pervy New Bible Companion goes straight for the most explicit interpretation, calling it an “idiom of the time” (p.307).

There’s also a mention of a present, which I assume was meant to mean that David had sent a gift to Uriah’s home to reward him for the news he brought, but could be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bathsheba.

Uriah obeys his king and leaves, but doesn’t go farther than David’s front doorstep. Rather, he spends that night at David’s door.

The next morning, David asks Uriah why he hadn’t gone home. Uriah asks David how he can go to his own home and eat, drink, and sleep with his wife while his brothers-in-arms camp in the open field (interestingly using the phrase “Israel and Judah” – 2 Sam. 11:11). The criticism seems rather pointed since, of course, David got himself into trouble doing precisely that.

Uriah also references the ark and people in booths, which may suggest that enough time has passed for it to be the Feast of Tabernacles, and perhaps this provides another reason for Uriah’s abstinence.

A third possibility comes from Exodus 19:15, where soldiers are asked to abstain from sex before battle. It’s possible that Uriah is mindful of this, since he intends to return to the battlefield once David excuses him.

David tries to salvage his plan by making Uriah stay one more day in Jerusalem, channelling Lot’s daughters (Gen. 19:30-38) and trying to get Uriah as drunk as possible. But Uriah is steadfast in his refusal of conjugal visits.

Plan B

Realizing that his first plan isn’t going to work, David goes a little more extreme in his efforts to cover up his infidelity/rape. When he sends Uriah back to the field, he sends him with a letter to Joab. The letter Uriah carries, unbeknownst to him, instructs Joab to send Uriah to the front lines and abandon him there.

Joab proved his willingness to kill for David in 2 Sam. 3, and David’s willingness to use him for the same purpose here casts a suspicious light on the spin in 2 Sam. 3. As Tim Bulkley puts it: “Up to now, David the Death Machine has been a death machine in the service of God. This is his first killing for his own benefit, and it marks a turning point in his story.”

But Joab apparently realizes how obvious David’s plan would be, and he improves on it. Instead of abandoning Uriah at the front lines, he instead assigns Uriah to a group that he knows to be especially “valiant” (2 Sam. 11:16) – read “foolhardy.” As he had planned, the “valiant” men face sallying Ammonites, pushing the enemy back to the city walls but dying to archer fire in the process.

Joab sends a messenger back to report on the battle to David, but anticipates that David may be angry that he had allowed the Israelite army to get so near the city walls. He anticipates that David will cite historical precedent – when Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth got too close to a wall and was killed by a woman dropping a millstone onto his head, from Judges 9:53. If David raises this objection, the messenger is to drop the ultimate bomb – sure, we lost some guys, but Uriah was among them.

As a side note, it is interesting that Jerubbaal’s (Jg.7:1) name is here given as Jerubbesheth. It seems that the author(s) of 1-2 Samuel are fairly consistently erasing Baal from people’s names, replacing it with “bosheth,” which means “shame.” Given that it suggests that these characters (or, at least, their parents) were not the YHWHist monotheists the narrative would like, the motivation seems rather obvious.

Joab’s concerns are misplaced, however. David seems quite happy with Joab’s aggressive attack on the city, and asks the messenger to encourage him on.

My New Bible Companion raises (but does not agree with) the possibility that Joab’s anticipation of David’s reaction may have actually been David’s reaction, misplaced. This, apparently, has “some LXX support” (p.307).

The widowed

There’s no murder of a married man without leaving a widow. When Bathsheba hears of Uriah’s death, she goes into mourning – as was proper. As soon as the required mourning period was over, however, David swoops in and “brought her to his house” (2 Sam. 11:27). He marries her and she bears a son, but this is no happy ending. The chapter closes by telling us that David’s actions have angered God.

Throughout most of this chapter, Bathsheba is passive. David sends for her, David marries her, David takes her. Nowhere do we hear Bathsheba’s perspective on the relationship. Did she want to sleep with David in the first place? Did she want to marry her husband’s murderer? We never know, because the record doesn’t seem to care. David’s crime is not rape, but rather having sex with another man’s wife and then murdering him.

Certainly, it’s obvious that their relationship is no love affair. When Bathsheba realises that she is pregnant, she sends a messenger to let David know. They are not pursuing a relationship, she needed messengers to communicate with her “lover.” Or, as Tim Bulkley puts it:

This is no great love affair. This is not a case of two lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other. In ancient epics or modern films, somehow or other that kind of love affair would excuse infidelity, somehow, but not here. There’s no love lost here.

Reading between the lines, the impression I get is that David saw Bathsheba, raped her, then hoped to go on as though nothing had happened. Unfortunately, the pregnancy became evidence of his actions, so he went about trying to cover it up. This even explains why he only waited the minimum time required before marrying Bathsheba – her pregnancy imposed a time limit.

If David’s willingness to use Joab to murder his enemies cast suspicion on the spin of 2 Sam. 3, then his behaviour regarding Bathsheba casts suspicion on the circumstances of his marriage to Abigail in 1 Sam. 25.

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