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.