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.

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.

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.

2 Samuel 10: By half measures

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This chapter appears to be an expansion of the summary given in 2 Sam. 8, with far more details.

To start with, we find out how the war started. Nahash, the Ammonite kind, has died and been succeeded by his son, Hanun. Hearing of his fellow king’s loss, David sends some consolers up to help console him.

David, you see, wishes to be nice to Hanun, “as his father dealt loyally with me” (2 Sam. 10:2). Whatever the story of this loyalty, it’s clearly been lost. The only story we have involving Nahash takes place in 1 Sam. 11, where he was harassing Jabesh-gilead and gave Saul the opportunity to achieve his first military victory.

Ammonite kings can be rather scary.

Ammonite kings can be rather scary.

So unless by “dealt loyally with me,” David means that they opposed Saul, we must assume that the verse references a lost story. Or, perhaps, the explanation was added to explain David’s actions.

Either way, the explanation fails to convince the Ammonite princes, who suspect that the consolers are actually spies, sent to suss out information behind enemy lines. Hanun is swayed by their concerns and, when the consolers arrive, he shaves off half their beards (that is, half a beard from each man) and cuts their clothes in half so that they are naked below the hips. It is like this that he tosses them back toward Israel.

Symbolically, the consolers have been “unmanned” (beards being a symbol of manliness through much of the Middle East even today). The consolers are too ashamed to return home, so David tells them to wait in Jericho until their beards have grown back in – Jericho being “on the road between Ammon and Jerusalem, and was a frontier city before David’s conquest of Ammon” (New Bible Commentary, p.306).

It’s unclear what the consolers really were, or what their function might have been. I got a kick out of imagining David sending a squad of therapists up to Ammon, though I suspect that they were really just messengers meant to convey David’s condolences and perhaps bring gifts of some sort. It could also be that they were professional mourners, though this seems less likely.

War, war never changes

Whether or not David’s motives were as pure as the narrative tells us, there’s no question that Hanun has delivered a fairly major insult. It would be extremely difficult for David not to respond and still save face. The Ammonites seem to realize that they’ve made a mistake right quick, because they call out to the Syrians (or Arameans) for help (the word “hire” is used – 2 Sam. 10:6 – so it could be a mercenary situation rather than an ally one).

You’ll remember that the Syrians were the other major enemy in 2 Sam. 8, though that summary hadn’t explained that they were brought into conflict with David through the Ammonites.

The Syrians of Bethrehob and Zobah sent 20,000 footsoldiers (presumably the same 20,000 footsoldiers who joined David’s side in 2 Sam. 8:3-4, though the cavalry and charioteers aren’t mentioned here), the king of Maacah sent 1,000 men, and the city of Tob sent 12,000 men.

The narrative places David in a retaliatory position. The Ammonites amass their army because they know that “they had become odious to David” (2 Sam. 10:6), yet David does not act against them until he hears that they have been amassing an army (2 Sam. 10:7). It’s a little confused and, once again, has the feel of pro-David propaganda.

For unstated reasons, David does not go himself. Rather, he sends Joab to command the army in his place.

The Ammonites take a defensive position at their city gates (even though the narrative tells us that they are the aggressors), while the Syrians are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. This means that when Joab and the Israelite army arrive, they are surrounded – the Ammonites ahead of them, the Syrians behind.

Joab’s brilliant tactic is to split his army in two, commanding his own portion against the Syrians while the second half, led by his brother Abishai, focuses on the Ammonites. If either side struggles, he says, the other is to come to its aid.

This turns out to be unnecessary because the Syrians flee as soon as Joab advances. Seeing their allies/mercenaries leave, the Ammonites also flee, hiding inside their city. With that, Joab returns to Jerusalem.

Sore losers

Upset by their defeat at the hands of Joab, the Syrians re-muster. Their king, Hadadezer, sends for the Syrians on the other side of the Euphrates to help him (whereas in 2 Sam. 8, the impression was that he was trying to consolidate power by uniting the two banks of the Syrian culture group).The Far Shore Syrians are led by Shobach, Hadadezer’s commander.

This time, it seems that David heads out to take care of business personally, and he meets Hadadezer’s army at Helam. The Syrians are once again routed, and David kills 700 chariots and 40,000 horsemen (if this is meant to be the same campaign as the one in 2 Sam. 8:3-6, the numbers are quite different), and Shobach is mortally wounded.

In the aftermath, it seems that the Syrian vassals abandoned Hadadezer and pledged their allegiance to David instead, and the Syrians decided to stop helping the Ammonites.

It’s clear that there are similarities to the battles of 2 Sam. 8, and many of the same players are apparently involved, though the details are sufficiently different to allow for the possibility that different campaigns are being described.

2 Samuel 9: So that I too may go and worship him

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Apparently, from here until the end of 2 Samuel (with just a smidge of 1 Kings), we should be getting a continue and largely unedited section of Early Source. According to Collins, this section is “often identified as the ‘Court History of David’ or the ‘Succession Narrative'” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.123). The former is rather self-explanatory, and the latter because it tells of David’s eventual fall and the rise of Solomon.

To start us off, David asks a very suspicious-sounding question: “Is there still any one left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake? (2 Sam. 9:1).

Yikes!

Given the unfortunate fates met by Saul’s other family members, it sounds an awful lot like David wants to make sure that no one else might be brought up to challenge him. Or, as my New Bible Companion puts it: “In the ancient world kings were accustomed to exterminate all members of a previous dynasty” (p.306). If you’ve been reading ahead, you might also notice how similar David’s words here sound to Herod’s in Matthew 2:8.

The stated purpose of the search, however, is to honour David’s loyalty pledges to Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:1-4; 1 Sam. 20:14-17; 1 Sam. 20:42).

2 Samuel 9 - MephiboshethThe search turns up Ziba, one of Saul’s former servants, who knows of one remaining descendant: Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, the boy with the crippled legs from 2 Sam. 4:4. His nurse had fled with him around the time that Saul’s dynasty officially crumbled and David took over. Since then, they had been hiding in the house of Machir, son of Ammiel, at Lodebar. David sends for him.

When Mephibosheth arrives, he is understandably terrified. He falls on his face before David and “did obeisance” (2 Sam. 9:6). But David reassures him that he has no evil intentions, and only wants to care for him. He promises to give Mephibosheth title to all of Saul’s land (presumably his personal demesne in Benjamin), and to give him a permanent place at the royal table.

Mephibosheth appears appropriately humble, asking who he is that David should be so kind, calling himself a dead dog, all that usual convention.

It’s worth noting that even if David hasn’t (not) sent assassins after Mephibosheth, having him at his table doesn’t necessarily indicate that his motives are pure. As Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic puts it: “Reading between the lines, this kindness also keeps a legitimate claimant to Saul’s throne in check.” Bringing Mephibosheth into the palace makes it easy to keep an eye on him, and to limit his ability to be in contact with any unsavoury sorts who might like to form a rebellion around him.

It’s an interesting window into courtly life that David appoints Ziba and his family to care for the land he’s given to Mephibosheth (indicating either that courtiers were not in the habit of looking after their own lands, or that Mephibosheth’s movements were being restricted).

Ziba’s job is to “bring in the produce, that your master’s son may have bread to eat” (2 Sam. 9:10), indicating that the (perhaps compulsory) place at the table didn’t come free. My New Bible Commentary explains this by saying: “Presence at court would rather increase tan diminish his expenditure” (p.306). This may mean that courtiers were expected to contribute to their upkeep – which may not be unreasonable depending on the size of the court.

Despite possibly being a sort of gilded cage, Mephibosheth’s position at David’s table apparently increased his social status, making him “like one of the king’s sons” (2 Sam. 9:11).

To close off the chapter, we are told that Mephibosheth had one son: Mica.

Priestly Matters

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In 2 Sam. 8:18, we learn that David’s sons are serving as priests. Previously, we’ve read that only the descendants of Levi could serve as priests (as, for example, in Numbers 18). As David is, in fact, from the tribe of Judah, this poses a rather serious continuity problem.

I’ve seen some apologetics claim that this is a translation error, and that it should rather say that David appointed his sons to oversee the priests. Of course, that doesn’t address the other breadcrumbs.

Genesis and Judges seem, to me, to be the most folk books we’ve read so far, showing us glimpses of the popular religious expression. What we see in both books, but that is largely lacking in the more urban/establishment books, is the presence of individuals setting up their own personal shrines. In Genesis, the characters are semi-nomadic, and seem to be dotting the landscape with altars. In Judges, we see the beginning of more settled, permanent installations, such as Micah’s shrine in Judges 17.

High PriestIf we assume a nomadic/semi-nomadic origin for Israel, we could be seeing the process of settlement and the evolution of belief. This is further illustrated when Micah replaces his own sons as priests with a dedicated professional, giving us the term “levite.” This could be a story illustrating the beginnings of the priesthood as a dedicated vocation in Israelite society.

In a nomadic culture, it’s rare to fine specialization. When camp needs moving, everyone needs to help. When sheep need tending, everyone needs to pick up a crook. It’s only as societies settle that agriculture can support a class of people providing services that are not directly related to the acquisition of food.

If we make further assumptions, it could be that, as the priest cast came to hold more power, they consolidated by making the position hereditary. Perhaps even to prevent precisely what David does – rulers setting their own sons in the priesthood, which could lead to the same family controlling both the secular and religious life of the nation. It’s quite possible, then, that the tribe of Levi was formed sometime after David, taking over what had been a more generic term for priest, and constructing a tribal identity that fit with the cultural and cosmological milieu.

It could also be that there was a nomadic tribe of Levi that, when it finally came down to settle, found it more expedient to serve as priests than to fight established communities for patches of land.

There’s also an evolution from regional worship to a more centralized cult, giving us the possibility that the term “levite” (and the definition of the levite’s role) may have originally had more pronounced regional variations, hints of which remain in the stories collected in the Bible. We may see a hint of this in the different uses of the word “ephod” – which is used variously to mean an item of clothing, an object made of metal, or a divination tool. It’s possible that the term had cultic significance, but that what it referred to differed by region. Or perhaps it referred to a whole class of objects and garments associated with ritual.

Certainly, it’s clear from 1-2 Samuel that tribal heredity was not a requirement at the time of the events being described, but we also see that this was a concern for later contributors. For example, Samuel’s father is explicitly an Ephraimite in 1 Sam. 1:1. Given Samuel’s later role, however, it seems that a group of contributors were uncomfortable with him having so much religious authority without being a Levite. So the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-27 makes him a descendant of Kohath, turning him into a proper Levite.

This may have been the case with Eleazar, as well. In 1 Sam. 7, Abinadab appoints his son, Eleazar, as a priest and caretaker of the ark. In 2 Sam. 6:3-4, however, Eleazar is not listed as one of Abinadab’s sons (who are given as Uzzah and Ahio). It’s quite possible that multiple people have been named Eleazar, and that perhaps he’d died prior to or been absent from the events described in that chapter. Or, it could be that Eleazar was known as an early priest of the ark, and was written into Aaron’s family at a later date.

There’s frustratingly little evidence from which to draw conclusions, and it doesn’t help that the texts have been periodically edited so that clear chronologies are difficult to tease out. I think, however, that it’s reasonably clear that the priesthood evolved over time – from a role assigned to a member of the family, to a mostly hereditary profession.

2 Samuel 8: Israel’s Board of Directors

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In this chapter, we get what appears to be a summary of David’s reign, focusing mostly on his military exploits. We find out, for example, that he captured Methegammah after finally defeating the Philistines. If you’re anything like me, you probably sighed with relief, glad that the intense suspense over the fate of Methegammah is finally over.

Or perhaps you looked online and found that the correlating passage in 1 Chronicles 18:1 replaces Methegammah with “Gath and its villages.” Depending on chronological order, this may help to explain how a Githite – someone from Gath – like Obededom came to be trusted with the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6.

David them defeated Moab. As I learned in reading World War Z by Max Brooks, to decimate means to kill one in every ten, usually as a punishment for the group. If that sounds terrible, gird your loins. David has the Moabites lie on the ground in three lines. He then kills two of the lines and makes the third his vassals.

This strays quite far from the prescribed rule in Deut. 2:9 – “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” It’s also a little odd given David’s own apparent connection to the Moabite Ruth, as given in Ruth 4:17, and his trust in the Moabites to keep his family safe in 1 Sam. 22:3-4.

Of course, it’s not too far off from Judges 3:28-30, and Saul’s own enmity in 1 Sam. 14:47.

King David In Prayer, by Pieter de Grebber, c.1635-1640

King David In Prayer, by Pieter de Grebber, c.1635-1640

Next, David defeats Hadadezer, son of Rehob and king of Zobah, the only named individual enemy in this chapter. We are told that he had attempted to restore his power at the Euphrates (though we don’t know how or why or when he lost it). David met him there and took 1700 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers, who apparently willingly join the Israelites.

He also keeps enough horses for 100 chariots, but hamstrings the rest. The Israelite antipathy toward chariots from Joshua 11:6 is clearly still live and well. I’ve read but not confirmed that much of ancient Palestine’s terrain, being rather hilly, was unsuitable for chariots. This would also have meant that the Israelites would not necessarily know how to use them effectively. Ultimately, it clearly wouldn’t have made sense for David to keep the chariot horses, and leaving them would have place them back into the hands of his enemies, so I understand the logic behind disposing of the horses in some way, though hamstringing seems a little cruel.

After David defeats Hadadezer, the Syrians of Damascus come to his defense. Of course, David beats them as well, slaying 22,000 Syrians.He then puts garrisons in Aram (where the Syrians were from), making the Syrians his vassals.

We also find out that David took several golden shields from Hadadezer and brought them to Jerusalem, which immediately made me think of Pontius Pilate’s golden shields, though I suppose the tone of the event was likely quite different. David also pillaged a lot of bronze from Hadadezer’s cities, Betah and Berothai.

But it wasn’t all conquering and bloodshed! When King Toi of Hamath heard about David’s exploits, he sent his son, Joram, to David as an emissary. Joram greets and congratulates David, because Toi and Hadadezer had been at war, and the enemy of my enemy is apparently my friend. Joram brought with him gifts of silver, gold, and bronze, which David dedicated to God along with all gold and silver he’d pillaged from the subdued nations, listed here as Edom, Moab, the Ammonites, the Philistines, Amalek, and Hadadezer (who continues to be, inexplicably, a personal enemy).

According to my New Bible Commentary, the mention of Edom here may be in error, as the Hebrew reads “Aram”/Syria (p.305).

We find out that David is making a name for himself, that he slew 18,000 Edomites, and that he put garrisons in Edom and made them his vassals.

David’s Cabinet

To close off the chapter, we find out about some of the key players in David’s administration:

  • Joab so of Zerniah was in charge of David’s army.
  • Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was David’s recorder.
  • Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were his high priests.
  • Seraiah was secretary.
  • Benaiah son of Jehoiada was in charge of the Cherethites and Pelethites (possibly a foreign mercenary contingent).
  • David’s sons served as priests.

The mention of Ahimelech here may be an error, since paternity is reversed in all previous mentions. This isn’t definitive, though, since it’s always possible that Abiathar had a son, named after the child’s grandfather, who succeeded him.

Zadok’s paternity is interesting, since Ahitub is named in 1 Sam. 22:20 as the father of Ahimelech. While it’s completely plausible that this is just a coincidence, it may indicate that Zadok and Ahimelech are related to each other in some way, possibly brothers or cousins. Or it could be that records were kept well enough that names were remembered, but not so well that anyone could recall who was supposed to fit where, so that multiple authors arranged them in different combinations to construct conflicting genealogies.

The mention of David’s sons serving as priests is an interesting one, since David is so explicitly not a Levite. In combination with David taking a central role in the cultic procession of 2 Samuel 6, Abinadab’s charge of the ark and the naming of his son, Eleazar, as its caretaker in 1 Samuel 7, we can see clear evidence of how the priesthood evolved over time in ancient Palestine. Assuming, of course, that David’s sons were priests of YHWH.

As for Zadok and why there should be two high priests, my New Bible Companion presents the following theories:

It has been widely conjectured, however, that Zadok was not even a Levite; he may in that case have been priest in Jerusalem to ‘God Most High’ (Gn. 14:18) before David’s capture of the city (as H. H. Rowley suggested). But an equally attractive possibility, which accepts the biblical genealogies, is that Saul had made Zadok high priest after the Nob slaughter. It seems considerably more likely that David should have tried to placate the followers of Saul, by uniting Saul’s high priest with his own, that that he should have accepted the pre-Israelite (?Jebusite) priest of Jerusalem. One might add that since David himself seems to have become in some sense a priest-king, ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ (Ps. 110:4), there will scarcely have been any place in the hierarchy for an existing Jerusalem priest. (p.305-306)

2 Samuel 7: A tale of houses

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In this chapter, we have a brief interlude in which David frets that he hasn’t done enough for God. Ever the humble (or, perhaps, cautious) king, David is concerned that his cedar house (I assume this is the one built for him by King Hiram of Tyre in 2 Sam. 5:11) might upstage God’s little tent.

He decides to check in with God, this time using a prophet named Nathan instead of his normal liaison, Abiathar. Nathan agrees with David, or at least seems to recognize that David can apparently do not wrong (SPOILERS: So far!) in God’s eyes. “Go, do all that is in your heart; for the Lord is with you” (2 Sam. 7:3).

Nathan advises King David, by Matthias Scheits, 1671

Nathan advises King David, by Matthias Scheits, 1671

Either God changes his mind, or Nathan spoke in his name without actually consulting him. Since Nathan is never really rebuked for advising David falsely, either he is as unimpeachable as David, or God changed his mind. Either explanation is troubling, and there’s no discernible reason to have included Nathan’s bad advice in the first place.

The first night after Nathan tells David to go ahead and build a temple, God speaks to him (probably through a dream) saying that no, he doesn’t actually want a temple, thank you very much. He has always lived in a tent, he says, and never has he wanted more. Rather, he has a plan: when David is dead, an offspring of his will be raised up to build God a house (SPOILERS: He’s talking about Solomon).

Even though God claims here that he’s always lived in a tent, that was not the impression I got of the ark’s digs in Shiloh, where Eli is able to sit “by the doorposts of the Lord’s house” (1 Sam. 1:9) and where Samuel is able to “[lie] down in the temple of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:3).

God goes on a bit about covenants and establishing thrones and all that usual stuff, which Nathan dutifully reports back to David.

David then fills up the rest of the chapter with a speech of his own about all the wonderful stuff God is doing for him and how wonderful he is for condescending to reveal part of his Plan. There’s loads of “forevers,” which is rather ironic as I read this over two thousand years after the “forever” monarchy was destroyed.

A land of many houses

The word “house” is used over and over again throughout the chapter, and it’s obviously intentional, a play on words. David is concerned that his house (palace) is too shower, but God tells him to focus on building his house (dynasty) rather than God’s house (temple), but David is humble and asks “what is my house” (family status) in 2 Sam. 8:18.

What’s going on?

So what is this chapter doing here?

It could be an attempt to explain history. In the last chapter, I wondered if the stories about Michal were meant to defend David against the charge that his marriage had been an act of political manoeuvring. Here, it could be that the exchange with Nathan is meant to explain why David – who is portrayed as being so devout – never got around to building God a temple.

There also seems to be some speculation that the Deuteronomist editor has had a hand in this chapter. According to Collins:

But 7:13a, “He shall build a house for my name,” is widely recognized as a secondary addition. That the house will be build “for my name” is a trademark of Deuteronomistic theology. Presumably, then, the reference to Solomon was added by a Deuteronomistic editor, and the basic oracle was older.

[…]

In Deuteronomistic theology, covenants are conditional. The fortunes of the king depend on his observance of the law. The idea that God had promised David an everlasting dynasty by the oracle of Nathan was probably an established tradition in Jerusalem. The present formulation of the promise has been edited by the Deuteronomists, to emphasized that the king was still subject to punishment. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.125)

As Collins points out, however, much of the oracle has a more unconditional feel to it, more Genesis 15 than Deuteronomy. Still, the evidence for a Deuteronomist edit is, apparently, controversial.

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