2 Samuel 3: An embarrassing situation

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Despite the resolution in the last chapter, we’re told that the house of David and the house of Saul are caught up in a lengthy war. As time wears on, David’s side gains strength while Ishbosheth weakens.

During this time, Abner’s power and influence grows. It seems that in the process, he grew a little big for his britches and may (or may not) have had a dalliance with one of Saul’s concubines, Rizpah daughter of Aiah. Notice that she is named (as is her parentage!) when so many side characters are not.

Ishbosheth confronts Abner about this. After all, since Rizpah was Saul’s concubine, having sex with her would be something like a servant “just trying on” the king’s crown. It implies ambitions that are utterly unsuitable – especially from the perspective of a king with such a tenuous grasp of his crown as Ishbosheth.

Abner is absolutely indignant. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that Abner is a liar here, or if we’re supposed to see Ishbosheth as going a little paranoid.

Either way, it’s the only time we see Ishbosheth nay-saying Abner, and it’s clear how Abner feels about this. He reminds Ishbosheth that it is Abner who brought him to Mahanaim instead of simply delivering him into David’s hands. If Ishbosheth has a crown at all now, it is only through Abner’s benevolence.

He is saying this, I remind you, to a 40 year old man (2 Sam. 2:11).

To avenge the insult to his honour, Abner promises to be the hand by which God makes David king of Israel. Ishbosheth is too afraid to respond to this.

In his speech, Abner asks Ishbosheth, “am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Dogs are unclean animals, so that’s insult enough. Adding “of Judah” seems to imply that his defection has already occurred, even though in the narrative, it is this incident that prompts it. That said, “of Judah” does not appear in the Septuagint, suggesting that it may have been an editorial addition.

Defection

Upset with his king, Abner decides to try another. He goes to David and pledges loyalty in exchange for covenant (which I assume means that he is trying to ensure his personal safety and, possibly, his position). David agrees, but only if Abner brings him his first wife, Michal, who had been remarried to Paltiel (or Palti) son of Laish in 1 Sam. 25:44, and whom David claims to have paid a hundred Philistine foreskins for (though he’s shortchanging himself since the figure in 1 Sam. 18:20-27 was two hundred).

Abner agrees and runs off to collect her. Meanwhile, David sends a messenger to Ishbosheth asking for Michal to be returned to him. Since he has already commanded Abner to bring her, it’s unclear what his reasoning was, though it ends up working out as Ishbosheth agrees and charges Abner with delivering her. (Though why he would entrust Abner with anything after his stated plan to defect is also unclear. In fact, why he would agree to release Michal knowing that it would greatly solidify David’s claim on his throne is also rather unclear.)

We are told that Michal’s husband, Paltiel, followed her weeping all the way to Bahurim. Finally, Abner tells him to buzz off and, afraid to challenge someone so powerful, he does. Though Michal’s feelings are never revealed, Paltiel’s actions suggest that David has just broken up a happy marriage for his own political gain. (Being Saul’s son-in-law lends his claim to the Israelite crown far more legitimacy, as it becomes arguably a hereditary succession rather than a straight up usurpation.)

On his way, Abner rouses the elders of Israel and Benjamin against Ishbosheth, so he goes to David with their support. The separate mention of Benjamin here is particularly significant because that is Saul’s own tribe turning away from Saul’s son. They are the most likely to support Ishbosheth’s claim, yet they are supporting David. It could be that with Ishbosheth trapped on the east side of the Jordan, they figure that David is their best chance for protection against the Philistines.

Abner arrives with Michal and twenty soldiers, and David throws them a feast (though his reunion with Michal is conspicuously absent). The feasting done, Abner heads out to gather the Israelites for a covenant ceremony to swear David in as the new king of Israel.

2 Samuel 3But just then, Joab (and apparently his brother Abishai as well, though his name isn’t added to the story until 2 Sam. 3:30) returns from a raid (despite being the king of Judah, David is still, apparently, a bandit leader) and finds out that Abner, his mortal enemy, had been there. To avenge Asahel’s death, he sends out some men to capture Abner and bring him back, then murders him.

This is technically a legal killing since Joab is a relative of the killed Asahel and Abner is not currently in one of the cities of refuge (as stipulated in Deut. 19 and Num. 35). Even so, it’s not exactly politically convenient for David, since it makes it look an awful lot like he’s murdering his way to the crown.

To distance himself from the murder, David curses Joab, makes a big public show of mourning Abner, writes a lament (which he is apparently doing for all of his Totally Not Murdered Nemeses), and fasts for a day despite being begged not to. He even announces publicly that he and his kingdom are innocent in the matter. The people are apparently convinced by David’s fervent campaigning and all is forgiven, though you’ll note that all talk of crowning him king of Israel is dropped for the time being.

It seems that he cannot simply execute Joab and Abishai as he did the Amalekite in 2 Sam. 1 because they have too much political clout. Instead, he asks that God to the punishing for him, cursing Joab and his descendants: “may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who is slain by the sword, or who lacks bread” (2 Sam. 3:29). Spindles, by the way, are women’s tools. Strictly speaking, I’d say that few houses go for very many generations without at least one daughter, but in this context I think he is merely cursing Joab with effeminate children.

This whole episode stinks of propaganda. As with David being sent home at the last minute so that he is conveniently not on the battlefield where Saul gets killed (1 Sam. 29), this story exonerates him from Abner’s murder. But here, the cover story is far more clumsy.

A possible alternative story would simply have Joab murdering Abner, either on David’s direct command or in the hopes that David would be pleased by it after-the-fact. The backstory of a blood feud provides a little cover for Joab, making his actions legal (and reducing the classicism in David’s lack of punishment). Having Abner defect to David’s side first eliminates David’s gain from his death – after all, Abner had sworn to deliver the crown of Israel into David’s hands, and that process is delayed by his death.

Yet the fact remains that David’s competition keeps dying, and that’s more than a little suspicious.

David’s family life

In the middle of all this, we got a little insert about the sons born to David during his stay in Hebron. While ostensibly about his sons, it also provides an updated list of his wives as well.

As we learned in 2 Sam. 2:11, David was only in Hebron for seven and a half years. That means that he was having an average of almost one son per year during his stay (and that’s only sons, since daughters are not listed!), albeit all from different women. In order of birth, those sons are:

  1. Amnon of Ahinoam
  2. Chileab of Abigail
  3. Absalom of Maacah, the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur
  4. Adonijah of Haggith
  5. Shephatiah of Abital
  6. Ithream of Elgah

Notice Maacah’s parentage. The fact that David is marrying princesses at this early stage suggests that he’s already amassed a good deal of political clout. It also suggests that he has forged an alliance with Geshur, which would be located to Ishbosheth’s north. With David and the Philistines to his west, poor Ishbosheth’s position is looking rather dire.

Actually…

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Unless you’ve been completely buried in books for the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard about GamerGate. This has spawned a rather hilarious meme, “Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.” I figured it was about time I add my own contribution!

Ethics in Games(As for the controversy itself, I’ve been a gamer since my first DOS box and I’m also a woman. Any man who tries to claim that video games somehow belong to men and uppity women need to stop trying to break in needs a rather serious reality check. Now if you don’t mind, it’s date night tonight, so my husband and I will be staying up until the wee hours playing Sanctum 2 and eating nachos. #HowWeRoll)

 

2 Samuel 2: It’s all fun and games…

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With Saul dead, it’s presumably safe for David to return to Israel. Still, given all the emphasis on David as the heaven-anointed successor to Saul, having him just waltz back into the country after his competitor was conveniently killed might seem a little too forward. So instead of telling us simply that David returned, we have to go through the ol’ “he asked of God” bit again. God sends him to Hebron, in the territory belonging to Judah.

When David arrives, he is anointed as the king of Judah.

I’ve guessed before that the competition between David and Saul could well have been once between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the two tribes struggle for supremacy in the Israelite confederacy.

It could also be that Judah’s inclusion in the emerging Israel was by no means a given at this stage. We can see in Judges 5:13-18, for example, that Judah was not always listed among the tribes.

The third option is that the word “king” is used here in the same way that it’s used to refer to the city state leaders (just like Achish is the Philistine king of Gath, the other cities of the Philistine pentapolis each having their own king with no king of Philistia itself). I doubt that this is the case, however, since the bible has so far preferred “elders” to refer to local governments.

David’s (or God’s) choice of Hebron may be significant, as it is associated with several patriarchs.

Once established, David sends his blessings to Jabesh-gilead for their role in recovering Saul’s body. Once again, the point that David absolutely did not participate in Saul’s killing and absolutely grudges the unquestionable benefits he gains through it is reinforced.

The king beyond the river

Meanwhile, despite the insistent repetition that Saul and his sons were killed in 1 Sam. 31, one appears to have survived – Ishbosheth. I’m seeing the argument made that Ishbosheth appears, named Ishvi, in the list of Saul’s sons in 1 Sam. 14:49. However, three names are given in that list and the phrasing implies that it is complete, but 1 Sam. 31:6 tells us that Saul died in battle with his three sons.

So whose hand was I holding?

It’s probably that Ishbosheth is not the person’s real name anyway. According to my study Bible, the name can be translated as “man of shame” (p. 376). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a reference in 1 Chronicles 8:33 suggests that his real name might have been Ishbaal, or “man of Baal” (implying that Saul was not quite the monotheist 1 Samuel paints him to be). It seems possible that an industrious editor, either keen to erase evidence of polytheistic worship from the record or perhaps simply poking fun at this character, altered the kid’s name.

Ishbosheth, whom we are told is 40 years old at this time, is taken to Mahanaim by Abner, Saul’s old commander. Despite Ishbosheth’s age, he seems to be a passive agent in this and through most of the rest of his story, with Abner filling a sort of regent role. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what it means.

In Mahanaim, Ishbosheth is crowned king of Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel. There are a few notes to make about this list. The first and most obvious is that Israel is mentioned separately from the individual tribes and territories. This suggests that Ishbosheth’s rule over Israel as a whole is more theoretical, a claim he clings to though in reality he has no actual authority. Think of Daenerys Targaryen claiming herself to be the monarch of Westeros despite her exile.

The mention of the Ashurites is an impossibility. According to my New Bible Companion, Ashurite is normally used to refer to the Assyrians, and it’s clearly impossible for Ishbosheth to be king of the Assyrians.

The Hebrew text has probably resulted from a scribal confusion of two names, the men of Geshur (an Aramaean state, N of Gilead) and the men of Asher. The Targum reads ‘men of Asher’, probably correctly, while the Syriac and Vulgate have Geshurites. (p.303)

Having his capitol be in Mahanaim, to the east of the Jordan river, represents a retreat. That area has so far always been a sort of borderlands, a dubious inclusion in the territory assigned to Israel. But with the Philistines pushing from the west, it may have been the only viable location for a capitol.

It seems likely that Ishbosheth is only really ruling Gilead, that Israel belongs to him only in theory, and that the other groups mentioned merely swore fealty to him but likely retain most, if not all, of their own sovereignty.

We are told that Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for only two years, and that David ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years. This complicates the timeline a little. Since we know that David will be king of Israel after Ishbosheth, it leaves five years unaccounted for (either before or after Ishbosheth’s reign). One possible explanation is that David ruled Judah from Hebron for two years, then maintained it as his capitol after being crowned king of Israel for a further five and a half before moving to Jerusalem.

Play gone wrong

For reasons that are never explained, Abner (as Ishbosheth’s representative) meets Joab son of Zeruiah (as David’s representative) at the pool of Gibeon, yelling at each other from either side of the water. They have each brought 12 champions, which they set on each other in a kind of mock battle.

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

Unfortunately, all 24 champions kill each other, leading to the place of their fighting being renamed Helkath-hazzurim, or “the field of the sword edges.”

It could be that this mock battle was intended as a representative battle, like the one that Goliath proposed in 1 Samuel 17:10. Unfortunately, with all the champions dead, it results in a tie. It seems that with no resolution to decide the issue, David and Ishbosheth’s armies all fall on each other.

This is all guesswork because the narrative really isn’t clear about what’s going on, and it’s never indicated what they are even fighting over. Though, I suppose the easiest conclusion we can draw is the house of David and the house of Saul are engaging in open conflict over the Israelite crown (which gives the lie to the idea that David is passively given the crown by God and country).

According to Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic, it could be that the use of 12 men on each side could be a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes engaged in a civil war.

Once the conflict devolves into a large-scale battle, the followers of David are victorious and Abner flees. Joab’s brother, Asahel, takes off in pursuit.

Abner first tries to tempt Asahel into letting him escape, telling him to go scavenge some bodies for spoils instead. Asahel is not dissuaded and the chase continues. Next comes the scare tactic, with Abner saying that he has no desire to kill Asahel (and thereby become the enemy of Asahel’s brother), but Asahel doesn’t listen.

Finally, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, piercing Asahel through and killing him. Abner’s intent isn’t clear, and the Hebrew noun translated “butt” is apparently uncertain. It seems, however, that there’s at least a possibility that Abner merely meant to hit Asahel, perhaps to make him fall or at least stagger him long enough for Abner to get away, and that Asahel’s death was accidental.

Asahel’s brother, Joab, continues the pursuit along with their other brother, Abishai. You remember Abishai as David’s companion when he sneaks into the Israelite camp to steal Saul’s spear in 1 Sam. 26:6-9. In that story, Abishai tried to convince David to kill Saul while he had the chance, but David magnanimously refused. It seems that this bloodlust runs in the family.

So Joab and Abishai are pursuing Abner, intending to kill him and avenge their brother. Finally, Abner is joined by a Benjaminite army and, perhaps feeling a little more confident with the backing, turns to face the two brothers. He calls them out with a fantastic verse that just gives my chills:

Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren? (2 Sam. 2:26)

Joab insists that they were only planning to chase him a little longer anyway, but he backs down.

Now free from his pursuers, Abner travels without rest back to Mahanaim. Joab returns to the scene of the battle and does a body count, finding a total of 20 dead on David’s side and 360 dead on Abner’s side. After stopping to bury Asahel at Bethlehem, Joab and Abishai head back to Hebron right quick.

2 Samuel 1: A poor play

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Once cobbled together from multiple sources, 1-2 Samuel was presented as a single, continuous narrative, only to be separated when translated into Greek. This is rather clear given that 2 Samuel 1 follows seamlessly from where we left off in the last book.

Three days after David has returned to Ziklag with his rescued wives, an Amalekite with torn clothes and dirt in his hair – signs of mourning. He claims to have just escaped from the Israelite camp and brings word that Saul and his sons are dead.

When David asks the Amalekite knows that Saul is dead, he answers that he found Saul leaning on his spear (presumably injured), and that Saul asked him to kill him. He agreed, then removed Saul’s armlet and crown, which he has brought for David.

David and his men rend their clothes, then weep and fast until evening. When they are done, David asks the Amalekite to give him his identity – he is, he says, the son of an Amalekite sojourner (which, as we see in places like Ex. 20:10 or Deut. 14:29, implies a long term resident rather than someone just passing through).

You’ll notice a few things about this. First, that this does not match the description of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 (where Saul kills himself after his armour-bearer refuses). Second, the fact that the Amalekite just happened to stumble on Saul and that he then took Saul’s stuff suggests that he may not have been a combatant, but rather a battlefield scavenger (it’s perfectly plausible that the Philistines did not find Saul right away, and while it is said that they removed his armour, his crown and armlet are not mentioned in 1 Samuel 31). Thirdly, it’s clear that the Amalekite considers David to be Saul’s successor, and presumably hopes to win favour by being the one to bring him the symbols of kingship.

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems that the Amalekite stumbled on Saul’s body, looted it, then invented the story of killing Saul in the hopes of ingratiating himself with Saul’s enemy and competitor for the crown of Israel.

(Another amusing theory is that Saul is being portrayed as so utterly incompetent that he couldn’t even get his suicide right and had to ask a second person after his armour-bearer had already tried to follow his king to the grave.)

You may also notice that the Amalekite is an Amalekite, not an Israelite. So when David asks him, “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) and has him killed, he is – once again – spared from ever having to do violence against an Israelite. He may be a bandit raider, but at least he’s our bandit raider.

On having the Amalekite killed,David either believes the man’s story, or wants to make sure that he sets an example early on. As for why punish him for essentially doing him a favour, I think that there are two things going on.

The first is that David is portrayed fairly consistently through our narrative as Totally Not A Traitor. He is driven out, sure. He even defects to the Philistine side, but that’s only because Saul gives him no choice and he’s got to provide some form of stability for his family. But at no point is he shown to be the antagonist in his relationship with Saul (and, in fact, explicitly refuses to move against Saul on two separate occasions – 1 Sam. 24 and 1 Sam. 26). So we can take his execution of the Amalekite as an extension of his Totally Not A Traitor persona.

The second reason may have something to do with the “we do not kill princes” policy. If we imagine this story to be taking place in a time of flux and social upheaval, in the nascent years of a monarchy in a land that is accustomed to tribal rule, David’s reign stands a fair chance of ending in the same way as Saul’s. The killing of one’s predecessors as a means of gaining the throne is probably the last precedent David would want to set for his budding monarchy. (There’s a really cool parallel in the rule of Elizabeth I, where she refused to kill her would-be successor to avoid reinforcing the precedent of killing princes. In the end, her followers had to stage an elaborate sham plot to trick Mary into semi-open treason – maybe, or just gave up and forged it – to force Elizabeth’s hand. It’s called the Babington Plot, and it is a surreal and fascinatingly convoluted story of court intrigue.)

David’s question – “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) – helps to illustrate the rationale Saul’s armour-bearer might have been using when he refused to follow Saul’s direct command to kill him.

The lament

David has a reputation as a musician. Like most musicians I know, he turns to song to express the pain of his loss, composing a piece that fills up the second half of the chapter. David commands that his lament be written down in the Book of Jashar, and that it be taught to the people of Judah (presumably only Judah because they are David’s people). The Book of Jashar is a now-lost book that seems to have been a source for at least some of 1-2 Samuel, as well as Joshua. In Joshua 10:13, we are told that the episode of the sun stopping in the sky was described in the Book of Jashar. Given that Jashar contains both stories, we can assume that it was composed – at the very earliest – during the reign of David. Since the Book of Joshua cites it, we can therefore assume that Joshua was written sometime even later.

In his lament, David writes glowingly of Saul, calling him “mighty” several times. He wishes that the Philistines not be told of his death lest they rejoice at it. He asks that the mountains of Gilboa (the site of the battle) become barren for having had Saul die upon it. Then he praises Saul and Jonathan’s military prowess in the battle prior to their deaths, and states that they were not divided in life – a strange thing to say given that Jonathan most certainly had sided with David and Saul tried to kill him for it (1 Sam. 20:32-34). Only in the strictest sense that we say that they were not divided, in that Jonathan had remained at Saul’s side rather than going to Ziklag with David.

In the penultimate verse, David writes of Jonathan: “very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). The phrasing resonates with that of Leviticus 18:22, and certainly seems to suggest that their relationship was of a sexual nature. The other possibility is sexism – equating women with the bedroom and reserving friendship for between men. If that’s the case, then David is essentially saying that he valued his friendship with Jonathan even more highly than he values getting laid. Or, to put it into more modern parlance, it could be his way of saying “bros before hoes.”

I got 99 problems, but a sheep ain’t one

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1 Samuel 31: The king is dead, long live the king!

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With David safely back at home with his family and far, far away from the battle (lest anything be said about his ambitions), we return to the battlefield where, as we know, Saul is soon to die. Given the locations, it seems probable that the scene with the witch of Endor should have been placed just before this chapter, and not all the way back in 1 Samuel 28 (it’s current location requires some geographical skipping).

the narrative jumps right in, telling us that the Philistines win the day. Saul’s sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) are killed and Saul is badly wounded by archers. Unwilling to be slain by those “uncircumcised” Philistines who might make sport of him (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him instead. The armour-bearer refuses.

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

It’s unclear why the armour-bearer refused. It could be that killing his king – even if commanded to do so – is just too great a sin for him, or it could be a final dig at Saul, a reminder that he really has no control over his subjects (as we saw in 1 Sam. 22:17, where his followers refused his command to kill the the priests at Nob).

Saul takes matters into his own hands and falls on his sword. The armour-bearer follows suite and kills himself as well. When the Israelites in the area hear that the royal family is dead, they flee the cities, leaving them empty for the Philistines to occupy.

The next morning, the Philistines return to the battlefield to scavenge the dead. They find Saul and his sons, strip Saul of his armour, and cut off his head. The armour they send to the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his corpse to the wall of Beth-shan (and, apparently, the corpses of his sons, too, though they aren’t mentioned here).

The mention of a temple of Ashtaroth here is a little confusing. So far, the term has been used as the plural of the shrines/idols/poles used in the worship of Asherah (maybe?), not as the name of the goddess herself (though a variation of the old semitic mother-goddess, Ashtoreth, is very similar sounding). So it could be that the temple of Ashtaroth is a typo, or perhaps we’re to understand that the temple contains several idols to the goddess.

Another possibility, though I don’t know how plausible it is, is that the name of the temple refers to its location. We saw in, for example, Deut. 1:4 and Jos. 9:10 that King Og of the Amorites ruled from a town called Ashtaroth. Either way, it seems that the phrasing causes some confusion.

When the people of Jabesh-gilead hear that Saul’s body has been fastened to a wall, they sneak out at night to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. Note the identity of the corpse-rescuers here – one of Saul’s first acts as leader/king was to rescue Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite raiders.

The people of Jabesh-gilead burn the bodies of Saul and his sons, then bury their bones under a tree. They finish up by fasting for seven days. It’s not clear why they choose to burn the bodies rather than simply bury them. It could be that the fire is intended as a sort of purification after the bodies were left hanging too long (if they rescue the bodies on the night of the same day that they were hung, this would still violate Deut. 21:23). It could also be that there was some variation in burial practices at this time.

With Saul’s death, 1 Samuel comes to a close.

 

1 Samuel 29-30: The Great Rescue

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Before we got sidetracked by Saul’s adventures in Endor, we learned that David was going out to fight with the Philistines against the Israelites. So far, David has managed to avoid the conflict of interest by lying about the victims of his raids (1 Samuel 27), but now his betrayal seems inevitable.

At no point are we given insight into David’s feelings about all of this. He seems perfectly willing to follow Achish into battle in 1 Samuel 28, and he expresses no reservations here. Rather, it is the other Philistines who complain about his presence – worried that David might turn on them during the battle, seeing this as a great strategy if David wants to reconcile himself with Saul.

After all, they say, isn’t this the David from the song?

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 29:5)

Achish defends David’s presence, arguing that David has shown himself to be nothing if not loyal. But, in the end, he gives in to the will of the people (and interesting parallel to Saul who, in 1 Sam. 15:22, 24, claimed that he only disobeyed God because he was afraid to go against the popular opinion – just as, here, Achish goes against his conscience for the same reason).

David protests using much the same language as he used when defending himself to Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26, but ultimately gives in and heads back to Ziklag, conveniently spared the faux pas of having to fight against his own people (over whom he will son be king, no less!).

The common argument about this story is that it gives David an out. He was apparently known to have defected to the Philistines, and trying to erase that historical detail would have proved impossible. What was possible, however, was at least keeping him away from the battle in which his chief nemesis dies, exonerating David from any intentional power play.

David versus the Amalekites

When David gets back to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by Amalekites and burned, the women (including David’s two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail) taken captive.

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

This apparently has a rather profound effect on morale, because David’s followers start talking about stoning him. Which seems a little extreme, but perhaps the rationale is that they wouldn’t have left their families undefended if David had not taken them out to fight with the Philistines. To defend himself, we are told that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). It’s not really clear what this means, but perhaps he invoked their belief in God (and his position as God’s chosen) to dissuade the people from mutiny.

As he’s been doing a lot before making major decisions (even when they seem as clear cut as “shall I rescue my wives?”), David calls for Abiathar to consult God. Should he pursue the bandits, he asks? Of course, God says yes, so David marches out with his 600 fighting men.

Some of them appear to be getting a little on in years, because 200 of them simply can’t go on after they reach Besor. David carries on with his remaining 400 men. This will be important later.

On their way, they encounter a starving Egyptian. They feed him – apparently quite well – and find out that he is the servant of one of the Amalekites, left behind after he had fallen sick. According to the Egyptian, Ziklag was not the only place hit, the Amalekites had also raided the Negeb of the Cherethites, areas belonging to Judah, and the Negeb of Caleb. He agrees to lead David to the raiders.

He does so and David smites all except for 400 who manage to flee.

Everything and everyone taken is recovered from the Amalekites, plus a good deal of spoil. Not a bad run, all told.

When David’s army rejoins with the 200 men they had left behind at Besor, the 400 who had gone on start grumbling that they shouldn’t have to share the spoils with people who didn’t even fight. Heck, they don’t even want to return their property (except for women and children, which is a concession I’m glad they made).

David argues that those who fight in the battle and those who stay behind to guard the baggage are both important, and both deserve a share of the spoils. He makes this an ordinance that is to apply to all Israel henceforth, though it isn’t clear on what authority he does this.

Once he returns to Ziklag, David sends part of the spoils out to various elders of Judah, smoothing any concerns over his allegiance and presumably paving the way for their support when it comes time to select a new king of Israel.

How many times can an Amalekite die?

It’s been pointed out that the Amalekites are utterly killed on several occasions. There are a couple possible explanations for this.

Reconciling Samuel’s slaughter of the Amalekites with Saul’s is rather easy, as it could be that Samuel’s list is not of his personal achievements in battle, but rather of the achievements of Israel/God while under his spiritual leadership.

For Saul and David, it could be that we’re dealing with hyperbole. It’s not like the authors of the Bible are totally unfamiliar with the technique.

It could also be that we’re dealing with a subset of Amalekites, not the entire people. We’ve seen this before, particularly in censuses, where the term “people” is used when only the adult men are meant. So in 1 Samuel 15: 7-8, it could well be that the “all the people” Saul kills refers only to the men currently on that battlefield. This might well exclude the raiding party for David.

Jesus That’s Probably Full of GMO’s, Too

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1 Samuel 28: The Witch of Endor

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When last we left our heroes, David was working as a sort of raider-in-chief for the Philistine king Achish while Saul remains (for the time being) the king of the Israelites. This poses an obvious problem for David, as the Philistines and Israelites have long been enemies. So far, David has managed to avoid conflict by only raiding non-Israelites and lying about it. The ruse couldn’t last forever, however, and King Achish summons David to join his army as he marches out to meet the Israelites. David accepts the summons.

As a reward for his loyalty, Achish makes David his bodyguard for life.

So with David about to fight against his own people (if he felt any hesitation, the narrative doesn’t tell us about it). Leaving a rather major cliffhanger, the narrative veers off into a digression.

Meeting the witch

In accordance with Exodus 22:18, Saul has rather thoroughly been going after witches (or mediums, wizards, necromancers, seers – whatever term the translator decides to use).

Unfortunately, when God stops speaking to Saul by any sanctioned means – through dreams, the Urim, or through prophets – he gets a little desperate and heads off to Endor to meet with one of the few remaining witches.

The Witch of Endor, by Nikolay Ge, 1857

The Witch of Endor, by Nikolay Ge, 1857

Saul hides his identity when he goes to her, and his reasoning is obvious when she baulks at his request. She is afraid that Saul will find out and she will be danger. Saul presses her and she finally agrees.

When he requests that she raise Samuel, however, she figures out who he is. Even so, she raises Samuel (apparently the real Samuel, as he retains his ability to prophesy).

Saul explains his problem to the Samuel-shade: The Philistines are moving against Israel but God is silent. My New Bible Commentary explains the possible issue a little more thoroughly: “His problem was that the Philistine armies were resorting to a new strategy; hitherto they had fought in the hills, where their more sophisticated weapons gave them little advantage, and where the Israelites were on familiar terrain. But now they marched into the plain of Jezreel, keeping to level ground, and threatened to cut off Saul from the northern group of tribes” (p.301).

Predictably, Samuel is as acrimonious as ever. It’s unclear why Saul expected death to improve his relationship with the prophet! So, of course, Samuel goes on about how God is giving Saul the silent treatment because he’s mad at him – apparently specifically for his failure to deploy his full wrath contingent against the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Samuel then tells Saul what he already knows – that David has been chosen as his successor. Then he finishes up by predicting that Saul and his sons will die the next day (when David is slated to fight against him!).

Saul, exhausted from fasting (perhaps part of the summoning ritual?), collapses. The witch forces him to eat (insisting after Saul’s initial refusal), then Saul and his companions leave.

The complicated witch

Despite how frequently the text has forbidden people from consulting mediums (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10-12) and even the prohibition from allowing mediums to live (Ex. 22:18), the actual depiction of the witch of Endor is very sympathetic.

She is cast almost as one of Saul’s victims. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the text here, but when we read about Saul’s campaign to exterminate the mediums and the witch’s fear of him, it certainly seemed that Saul is the one playing bogeyman.

Even in the end, when Saul collapses, the witch shows great compassion in feeding him before sending him off.

Cultic confusion

I also noted the mention of the Urim in 1 Sam. 28:6 (one of the methods by which God is refusing to talk to Saul). Does this mean that Saul has his own Urim/Thummim? Up until this point, I had been under the impression that they were unique objects that were kept and used by the current high priest (which would be Abiathar).

So this detail suggests that perhaps the objects were, if not common, at least not unique. Perhaps it also suggests that David and Saul each had their own high priest at this time.

Or perhaps the Urim is only mentioned as being silent to Saul because he currently has no access to it (it being with David). This is always a possibility.

1 Samuel 27: Playing two sides

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Thinking – justifiably – that he may die at Saul’s hand (despite their two reconciliation), David escapes to Gath, to the court of Achish, son of Maoch. The last time he did this was in 1 Sam. 21. At that time, he was still reasonably in Saul’s good graces and feared that Achish might nab him for the political expediency. To get back out of Achish’s court, David lathered up his beard and pretended to be mad.

The move was predicted in 1 Sam. 26:19, where David’s complaint that he is driven out of the assembly of God indicates that he knew that he would be moving to Philistia.

king_davidThis time, he approaches Achish directly. It’s perhaps not surprising that Achish doesn’t remember him, as he didn’t seem to know that David was anything other than just a madman.

David offers himself – and his 600 followers – up as a sort of pirate army. In exchange, he asks for a country town. The text mentions that he brings along Ahinoam and Abigail, so it seems likely that David is trying to settle his (and his soldiers’) family. Living in caves and in wilderness, always having to move as they pursued by their king, can’t have been a very comfortable existence.

Achish agrees and gives David Ziklag. The town had been given to the tribe of Simeon in Joshua 19:5, but had since apparently fallen under Philistine control. Now that it’s given to David, we are told that “Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day” (1 Sam. 27:6). David and his followers live there for one year and four months.

During that time, they go on raids for Achish. Sort of.

While they tell Achish that they are raiding Israelites and friends of Israelites (Judah, Jerahmeelites, and Kenites), they are actually raiding Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites. To keep his subterfuge under wraps, David has all the people he raids murdered, keeping only the livestock and stuff to bring back to Achish. This way, no survivors can reveal that David isn’t raiding the people he claims to be raiding.

Achish, believing that David is making himself an enemy among the Israelites, thinks that his loyalty is assured. After all, he’d have nowhere else to go.

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