2 Chronicles 11-12: The Life and Times of Rehoboam

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In 1 Kings 12, Jeroboam split the nation of Israel in two, and Rehoboam rushed immediately to Jerusalem to assemble his armies and try to subdue the seceding northern kingdom. n 2 Chron. 10:18, however, Rehoboam first fled from Jerusalem, and only then did he return to muster soldiers from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

From then on, 2 Chron. 11:1-4 largely matches the account found in 1 Kgs 12:21-24. In both cases, he manages to gather 180,000 warriors, but is stopped when God, speaking through the prophet Shemaiah, commands him to turn back rather than fight against his own brethren.

The Chronicler does change one detail. While Shemaiah addresses “King Rehoboam of Judah, son of Solomon, and to all the house of Judah and Benjamin, and to the rest of the people” in 1 Kgs 12:23, the address is to “King Rehoboam of Judah, son of Solomon, and to all Israel in Judah and Benjamin” in 2 Chron. 11:3. We see that the Chronicler refuses to allow the name of Israel to belong exclusively to the northern kingdom, instead emphasizing that it is the southern kingdom that remains the true kingdom, the true Israel.

The Bubastite Portal at Karnak, depicting a list of city states conquered by Shoshenq I

The Bubastite Portal at Karnak, depicting a list of city states conquered by Shoshenq I

Though this passages implies that the two kingdoms were able to amicably split, or at least to split without bloodshed, this doesn’t seem to have been the case. We have to wait until 2 Chron. 12:15 to hear of it, but it seems that there was near-constant conflict between the two kingdoms.

Of his reign, we learn that Rehoboam built up Judah’s defenses, particularly in the cities of Bethlehem, Etam, Tekoa, Bethzur, Soco, Adullam, Gath, Mareshah, Ziph, Adoraim, Lachish, Azekah, Zorah, Aijalon, and Hebron. He also made sure that the fortresses were strong and well supplied (likely in event of a siege). We are told that this allowed him to keep hold of Judah and Benjamin, even if he wasn’t able to retake Israel.

Complicating matters a little, the New Bible Commentary notes that all the cities mentioned are in the south, and proposes that the Chronicler was mistaken – that the fortifications were not defenses against northern Israel, but rather either in anticipation of Shishak’s invasion (which we will discuss shortly) or rebuilding after it (p.386). The details of Rehoboam’s fortifications are absent in Kings, so it could be that the Chronicler was using a different source and simply guessed at Rehoboam’s motivations.

The Chronicler isn’t particularly interested in the goings on of the northern kingdom, but we do learn of Jeroboam’s idolatry. It seems that he cast out all the priests and Levites from his territory, so they and other faithful came as refugees to Rehoboam (enough refugees to strengthen Judah and secure Rehoboam’s hold over the remnant of his country for three years). Meanwhile, Jeroboam appointed priests of his own (which we see him doing in 1 Kgs 12:31 and 1 Kgs 13:33) to tend to the high places and idols.

Of the idols, we earn that there were calves and satyrs (or goats, or goat-demons, depending on the translation).We already knew of Jeroboam’s calves, of course, from 1 Kgs 12:25-33, but the satyrs are new. James Bradford Pate notes that “there is no evidence in Syro-Palestine that Israelites worshiped deities who had the form of animals”. Rather, the calves were seen as seats on which god might sit, not worshiped as gods themselves. So how do the goats fit in? Pate proposes that Jeroboam may have been introducing a new faith of an Egyptian flavour, having spent some time there. But I can’t help but wonder if it might be a reference to the same folk religion that gave us the scapegoat ritual from Leviticus 16:8.

Family Life

Of his family life, we learn that Rehoboam married Mahalath, who was the daughter of Jerimoth, who was the son of David and Abihail. This Abihail was the daughter of Eliab, who was the son of Jesse. Confused? That’s understandable, because we’re getting into “I’m my own grandpa” territory. Using 1 Chron. 2:13-16, I made this to illustrate:

Rehoboam's Genealogy

With Mahalath, Rehoboam had three sons: Jeush, Shemariah, and Zaham.

Rehoboam also married Maacah, daughter of Absalom (so, another cousin). 2 Sam. 14:27 says that Absalom had only one daughter, named Tamar, though it’s possible that Tamara was the only one that the author of Samuel felt was worth mentioning (due to her name being significant). In any case, they had the following sons” Abijah, Attai, Ziza, and Shelomith.

Of all his wives and concubines (of which he had 18 and 60, respectively), Rehoboam loved Maacah the most.

Altogether, Rehoboam had 28 sons and 60 daughters. Likely due to his affection for Maacah, he placed her eldest son Abijah, as his chief prince and heir. We’ve seen this circumventing of primogeniture for the sake of a favoured wife before. On example is with Bathsheba, and the conspiracy between herself and Nathan to have Solomon crowned, versus Abiathar in the pro-Adonijah faction.

We are told that Rehoboam dealt wisely, and that he distributed his sons through all the districts of Judah and Benjamin, and provided them with wives. The idea could have been to give them each a little power, keep them content, so that they don’t rise up like David’s sons. Or perhaps the idea was to maintain his hold on what little nation was left to him by making local rulers of his own dynasty.

A Stumble

Returning to Kings as a source material (specifically, 1 Kgs 14:21-31), we learn that, once Rehoboam felt like his rule was firmly established, he forsook God, and “all Israel with him” (2 Chron. 12:1). It doesn’t seem that he left the YHWH cult so much as that he wasn’t seen to be paying as much attention to it as he should, having grown complacent.

The mention of “all Israel” here is interesting. It could be that the Chronicler is using the term, as above, to underline that Judah and Benjamin are the true Israel. I think that’s much more likely than the idea that Rehoboam had managed to maintain so much influence in the northern kingdom.

In any case, the description of Rehoboam’s indiscretion lacks much of the detail from 1 Kgs 14:22-24.

In the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign, King Shishak of Egypt (almost certainly the pharaoh Shoshenq I) invaded Judah. He came with 1,200 chariots, 60,000 horsemen, and countless others. He swept through Rehoboam’s fortified cities, and made it as far as the walls of Jerusalem.

Judah’s leadership fled to the city. While they are gathered, God addresses them through the prophet Shemaiah, saying that this has all happened because they have strayed from God. The princes humble themselves and, as a result, God decides not to obliterate them. Instead, he will merely make them serve Shishak (likely as vassals), “that they may know my service and the service of the kingdoms of the countries” (2 Chron. 12:8). I think the idea is that they found the worship of God too onerous to bother with, so he will show them the alternative.

Shishak plundered Jerusalem, taking the Temple and palace treasures back to Egypt. Specifically, he took Solomon’s golden shields, which Rehoboam had to replace with shields of bronze. Rehoboam gave these ersatz shields to his officers of the guard, and had them bear the shields whenever they accompanied him to the Temple.

I’m not sure why the shields are mentioned, out of all the treasures that must have been take, but I quite like the Artscroll’s explanation, as given by James Bradford Pate: That Rehoboam’s sin had been not to take God’s worship seriously enough. So now he has this visual reminder of his failing every time he goes to the Temple to keep him in line.

Conclusion

With the end of 2 Chron. 12, we learn that Rehoboam was 41 years old at his coronation, and that he ruled for 17 years. Throughout that time, he was in conflict with Jeroboam.

His mother’s ame was Naamah the Ammonite, and he was succeeded by his son, Abijah. For more information, the Chronicler directs us to the Chronicles of Shemaiah the prophet and of Iddo the seer.

1 Chronicles 3: The House of David

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The importance of this chapter should be obvious. At the time of the Babylonian exile, Judah had seen only two dynasties: Saul’s, which lasted for a mere two kings, one of whom was so politically weak that he’s barely considered in the public imagination, and the dynasty of David, which takes a good deal of the credit for shaping the culture and identity of the people who were then taken into exile.

For over four hundred years, David’s dynasty had been churning out propaganda in support of itself. That the kingdom of Judah could exist again without a ‘son of David’ on the throne must have been unthinkable.

This chapter, like the closing verses of 2 Kings (2 Kgs: 25:27-30), offers the hope that restoration is possible – that a true kingdom of Judah, complete with its Davidic king, can exist once again.

The Sons of David

The first section deals with David’s children. This seems to be largely lifted from 2 Sam. 3:2-5 and 2 Sam. 5:13-16. The kids are divided into two groups: those born in Hebron, while David still mostly ruled only over Judah, and those born after his conquest of Jerusalem, when he ostensibly had control of all the Israelite tribes.

The sons born in Hebron, while he ruled there for seven and a half years:

  1. Amnon, born to Ahinoam the Jezreelite
  2. Daniel, born to Abigail the Carmelite
  3. Absalom, born to Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur
  4. Adonijah, born to Haggith
  5. Shephatiah, born to Abital
  6. Ithream, born to Eglah

The Daniel mentioned here does not appear in the Samuel account. Rather, Abigail’s son is named Chileab in 2 Sam. 3:3. It’s possible that in this, and the other instances we will see, that the discrepancy is due to individuals being known by multiple names, including pet names. In this case, my New Bible Commentary indicates that ‘Chileab’ means “all the father,” so it may be a term of endearment.

James Pate points out an oddity: of all the mothers listed in this section, only Eglah is referred to as David’s “wife” (1 Chron. 3:3). The same thing occurs in 2 Sam. 3:5. Here, of course, it’s likely that the Chronicler just copied the reference from Samuel, but that doesn’t explain why she is the only one named “wife” originally.

To figure this out, Pate looks to her name: “Eglah” is the Hebrew word for “heifer.” In Judges 14:18, Samson refers to his bride as his “heifer,” suggesting that it might be a term of endearment (perhaps used sarcastically by Samson). In other words, Eglah might not have been the woman’s name at all (and Pate finds from Rashi that Eglah was understood to be Michal), but the pet name of a beloved. Hence, a woman who might be honoured in the record by having her wifely status emphasized.

The sons born in Jerusalem, while he ruled there for 33 years:

  1. Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, born to Bathshua, daughter of Ammiel
  2. Ibhar
  3. Elishama (mentioned twice)
  4. Eliphelet (mentioned twice)
  5. Nogah
  6. Nepheg
  7. Japhia
  8. Eliada

These were the sons “besides the sons of the concubines” (1 Chron. 3:9). In addition, Tamar (who features in 2 Sam. 13) is the one daughter mentioned.

Statue of King David, outside the Tomb of King David, Jerusalem

Statue of King David, outside the Tomb of King David, Jerusalem

The first discrepancy that jumped out was Bathsheba’s name, here listed as Bathshua. According to Wikipedia, the name ‘Bathsheba’ is constructed from ‘bat’ (daughter) and ‘sheba’ (oath). Replacing ‘sheba’ with ‘shua’ (wealth) may mean as little as a reflection of her change in status, or an emphasizing of a different trait that her loved ones might have wanted for her.

In that same line, we have some other minor discrepancies: Shimea appears as Shammua in 2 Sam. 5:14, and Ammiel is Eliam in 2 Sam. 11:3.

The greater difficulty is with the way the names are presented. The implication (which I reflected in the above list) is that Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon were all Bathsheba’s sons. However, the text elsewhere lists sons according to their birth order, and Solomon is explicitly David and Bathsheba’s second son in 2 Sam. 12:24 (where he is the “comfort baby” following the death of their first, unnamed, son).

It seems likely, then, that Shimea, Shobab, and Nathan are not Bathsheba’s sons. Rather, that the Chronicler (or perhaps a later editor) added Bathsheba as Solomon’s mother in his spot in the list of sons whose mothers are otherwise unnamed.

This brings up a secondary point regarding which sons are being identified with their mothers. The mothers in Hebron are all named, yet only Bathsheba is named after coming to Jerusalem. It makes me think of the way the kings of Judah all have their mothers identified in Kings. Perhaps, the purposes of these two sections are different. For whatever reason, which son was born to which wife was important to the Hebron stage of David’s political career. But after coming to Jerusalem, the focus starts to shift off of David and onto a naming of the queen mothers. In this context, Bathsheba is the only mother worth mentioning in this list. It’s worth noting that, when the same lists appears in 2 Sam. 5:13-16 (which the Chronicler was likely copying), Bathsheba is not mentioned.

The next nine names give us some problems as well. The most obvious being that Elishama and Eliphelet both appear twice on the list.

The first name after Ibhar is Elishua in 2 Sam. 5:15, but is the first instance of an Elishama in 1 Chron. 3:6. To me, this suggest a simple error, perhaps due to a tired scribe working too late at night.

The first instance of Eliphelet, in 1 Chron. 3:6, is just as easy to explain, since the name appears later on in the 2 Sam. 5:13-16 passage. A tired scribe may have just begun on the wrong line and carried on, oblivious.

The presence of Nogah in 1 Chron. 3:7 is more difficult to explain. It could be that a corruption dropped the name from Samuel after the Chronicler had already copied from it, or perhaps the Chronicler knew of a tradition in which David had a son named Nogah, so he fit him into his own history.

Even more troubling is the conclusion in 1 Chron. 3:8, which explicitly states that there were nine sons. This count only works if we separate Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon from the rest of the list, and then keep all of the Chronicler’s variants. This counting up is absent from 2 Samuel 5:13-16.

The Reigning Sons

This list corresponds to the account in 1-2 Kings. I charted these figures during my reading of Kings.

  1. Rehoboam
  2. Abijah
  3. Asa
  4. Jehoshaphat
  5. Joram
  6. Ahaziah
  7. Joash
  8. Amaziah
  9. Azariah
  10. Jotham
  11. Ahaz
  12. Hezekiah
  13. Manasseh
  14. Amon
  15. Josiah

Up to this point, the records match pretty well with 1-2 Kings. There are a few variations. Abijah appears as Abijam in 1 Kgs 14:31 and 1 Kgs 15, for example, and Azariah is occasionally named Uzziah (such as in 2 Kgs 15:13).

The most obvious difference between this record and the chronology of the kings of Judah is the omission of Athaliah, who was of course a usurper and a break in the Davidic dynastic line.

The sons of Josiah:

  1. Johanan
  2. Jehoiakim
  3. Zedekiah
  4. Shallum

According to my New Bible Commentary mentions that the Johanan listed here is “not otherwise known” (p.372).

We know from 2 Kgs 23:30 that Josiah was succeeded by a son named Jehoahaz who was swiftly deposed by Pharaoh Neco, and who died in Egypt. Neco then installed Jehoahaz’s brother, Jehoiakim, as king.

It’s stranger that Jehoahaz is not on this list of Josiah’s sons. One possibility is that he is one of the other named sons on the list, and that either the name in 2 Kings 23 or the name here is a throne name. Since the sons are usually listed in birth order, and since we learn in 2 Kgs 23 that Jehoahaz was younger than Jehoiakim, we can assume that he is not the same person as Johanan (unless a dating error has snuck in somewhere). Branching out, we can deduce from Jeremiah 22:11 that he is the same person as the Shallum listed here.

The sons of Jehoiakim:

  1. Jeconiah
  2. Zedekiah

This Zedekiah is not the Zedekiah who had a turn under the crown (that one was named above as a son of Josiah).

The Jeconiah here is apparently the same as the Jehoiachin from from 2 Kgs 24:6, who was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar and taken captive to Babylon. Though his uncle, Zedekiah, was the final king of Judah, 2 Kings ends with Jehoiachin, as the bearer of the Davidic line in exile.

The Remnant

The final section is new for us, charting the deposed dynasty in Babylon, presumably in the hopes that this would enable the Hebrews to install a proper king once they return to Jerusalem. While he is known as Jehoiachin in 2 Kings, he is known as Jeconiah here.

Jeconiah had seven sons: Jeconiah: Shealtiel, Malchiram, Pedaiah, Shenazzar, Jekamiah, Hoshama, and Nadabiah.

In the next generation, Pedaiah had two sons: Zerubbabel and Shimei.

The, the sons of Zerubbabel are: Meshullam and Hananiah (plus a daughter, Shelumith). Listed separately, perhaps because they were born to different wife, we get Hashubah, Ohel, Berechiah, Hasadiah, and Jushabhesed.

Through Hananiah, we get: Pelatiah, Jeshaiah, Rephaiah, Arnan, Obadiah, and Shecaniah. Though the wording here is very odd, allowing for the possibility that this is a lineage (Pelatiah was the father of Jeshaiah, who was the father of Rephaiah, etc). Given the amount of time between the reign of Jeconiah and the return from exile, this seems unlikely.

Shecaniah had one son, Shemaiah.

Through Shemaiah, we get Hattush, Igal, Bariah, Neariah, and Shaphat. Though 1 Chron. 3:22 tells us that these are six names, my advanced mathematical skills allow me to understand that there are, in fact, only five names listed.

Through Neariah, we get Elioenai, Hiskiah, and Azrikam.

Through Elioenai, we get Hodaviah, Eliashib, Pelaiah, Akkub, Johanan, Delaiah, and Anani.

Frustratingly, given the importance of this lineage (both to us and to the people of the exile), the writing is very odd (even in translation) and has likely suffered corruption (or, perhaps, the Chronicler tried to fudge over his lack of knowledge by confusing the language).

Because of this problem, the list is practically useless in trying to date Chronicles. James Pate mentions one possible clue in the form of Anani:

He appears to be the last descendant of David who is mentioned in the genealogy.  According to Roddy Braun in his Word Bible Commentary about I Chronicles, there was an Aramaic letter dated to 407 B.C.E. that mentions an Anani, and Braun believes it is plausible that this is the same Anani as the one mentioned in I Chronicles 3:24.  That may give us an indication as to the date of I Chronicles.

The remainder of his post discusses Anani as a messianic figure, and how that might work if he is a historical figure.

With the important lineage of David established, the Chronicler will spend the next five chapters looking at each tribe in more detail, then finish up with a discussion of the families in Jerusalem after the exile. Only after that will the narrative begin again.

 

1 Kings 2: Cleaning the slate

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In this chapter, we see a very different David. With death approaching, he decides to impart some kingly advice to Solomon, starting with a reminder to obey the “law of Moses” (1 Kgs 2:3), a clear Deuteronomist concern.

And that’s all well and good, but the rest of his “advice” is far more personal – or at least is spun as such. He blames Joab’s murders of Abner (in 2 Sam. 3:27) and Amasa (in 2 Sam. 20:8-10) for “putting innocent blood upon the girdle about my loins” (1 Kgs 2:5). As if Uriah’s murder didn’t do that quite sufficiently on its own. The crime in these murders, according to David, was that Joab was “avenging in time of peace blood which had been shed in war” (1 Kgs 2:5), suggesting that he would have been quite happy to see both Abner and Amasa dead so long as it had happened on a battlefield (contradicting Solomon’s later words that the crime was that Joab had killed men who were better than him – 1 Kgs 2:32).

According to Victor Matthews, David’s concern over the cleanliness of his girdle is important because:

The girdle, which was used to tie the kethoneth and simlah, also functioned as a weapons belt and a sign of rank. In 2 Sam 20:8, Joab wears a “soldier’s garment” tied with a girdle (hagor) through which he has sheathed his sword. David uses the same term in describing Joab’s crimes to Solomon in 1 Kgs 2:5. In this case, however, the hagor, and thus the authority, has been symbolically soiled with the blood of Joab’s murder victims. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.111)

David asks Solomon to execute Joab. Same for Shimei, who had cursed David in 2 Sam. 16. David’s request, here, changes the tone of Shimei’s curses, and his subsequent forgivingness (2 Sam. 19). While David was fleeing Jerusalem, he argued against rebuking Shimei, considering that he may be speaking God’s own condemnations. When he returns to Jerusalem, he prevents Abishai from killing Shimei, arguing that the man’s curses had clearly meant nothing since David was now returning. At the time, he had promised not to kill Shimei (2 Sam. 19:23). Not only do we now see that David has been harbouring his resentment all this time, but also he is willing to use Solomon as a loophole to get the revenge he had promised not to seek.

My study Bible proposes that, when Joab and Shimei had angered David, his political position was was too precarious to dare act against two men with a fair bit of status and power (when Shimei appears before David in 2 Sam. 19, he is accompanied by a thousand soldiers – the implication clearly being that anything short of official pardon would have resulted in bloodshed).

That’s all assuming, of course, that this scene played out as recorded. Having played a great deal of Crusader Kings II, I know how unstable a nation is with a new king. There’s considerable upheaval inherent in a change of leadership, and factions will frequently use the opportunity to press their interests in the hopes that the new king’s lack of experience might make him weak enough to be cowed (such has been the downfall of many of my dynasties). It wouldn’t have been unlikely for a new king – especially one as young as Solomon seems to have been, placed on the throne by the manoeuvrings of his mother while his brothers acted on their own behalf – to pre-emptively squash any possible dissent.

Joab, having supported Adonijah over Solomon, would have been an obvious candidate for the axeman’s block. Shimei, who clearly had a lot of support in Benjamin (over which the united monarchy clearly had an unstable hold) and had demonstrated how quickly he could turn against a Judahite king, would be another.

It’s plausible, then, that Solomon might have used “my pa’s last wish” as a covering rhetoric for what he had decided to do for himself.

But David’s last words to Solomon aren’t all terrible. He also asks that Solomon deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai, since they had been good to David.

The requests made, David died and was buried, and we’re told that he ruled over Israel for a total of 40 years, 7 of them in Hebron and 37 in Jerusalem. This sounds like a mathematical error, but remember that he was only king over Judah for 4 of his Hebron years. If we don’t count all the years he spent on the run from his sons or under Solomon’s regency, 40 would be the correct number.

Adonijah’s fate

With much trepidation and fear for his safety, Adonijah approaches Bathsheba, asking her to ask Solomon for Abishag (David’s breast-powered radiator) for a wife. He guilts her into accepting his request, saying: “You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord” (1 Kgs 2:15). His words make it clear that there was an expectation of primogeniture.

He is certain that Solomon will listen if Bathsheba is the one making the request.

Joab dying at the altar

Joab dying at the altar

As she promised, she brings his request to Solomon. Solomon, however, is disinclined to accept. As we’ve seen, taking the old king’s wives was a way of declaring one’s self the legitimate successor. Absalom did it in 2 Sam. 16:22, and it seems likely that David himself did this with Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Given that Adonijah is the elder, and that he has considerable support in the court, allowing him to marry one of David’s concubines would be greatly increasing the legitimacy of his claim to the crown.

It seems that this is where the detail about David not having sex with Abishag (1 Kgs 1:4) comes into play. Her status as a concubine may have been subject to interpretation. It’s possible, then, that Adonijah was counting on Solomon not considering Abishag to have been one of David’s official female retinue, so that he might unthinkingly accept the proposal. Abishag in the bag, Adonijah would then be free to argue her case and, in so doing, argue his own. It seems to me that this is meant to be a story about Solomon sussing out Adonijah’s scheme – particularly since it seems unthinkable that Bathsheba would have relayed the request in such a straightforward manner if she had known what Adonijah was up to.

Speaking of Bathsheba, it’s interesting to me how diminished her role is. In the last chapter, the scheme to get Solomon on the throne is made out to be all Nathan’s doing, even thought Bathsheba is the principle actor. Here, she seems to fall for Adonijah’s trick. Yet despite all this, it seems that she had a reputation as an advisor to Solomon (given Adonijah’s assumption that the request would be accepted if it came from her). On top of that, when she enters Solomon’s presence, he bows to her and she takes a seat at his right hand. It could be that she was a woman who adroitly navigated the intrigue of the court, and that her role in the events of Solomon’s succession were minimized due to sexism (not exactly an uncommon thing through history). Or it could just all be an attempt to show that Solomon is young (and therefore assumed to still be under the influence of his mother) and that he is respectful of his parents.

Complicating the issue further is how the text is presented in translations. According to Joel M. Hoffman over at God Didn’t Say That, there’s some discussion over whether Solomon should sit on a chair or a throne. In the Hebrew, the word is the same for both Solomon and Bathsheba’s seats. However, several translators have chosen to give Solomon a throne, but Bathsheba merely receives a seat. As Hoffman puts it: “The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.”

It’s possible that Solomon had hoped that his brother, once beaten, would accept Solomon’s reign. Once it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, Solomon quickly has Adonijah. In his defence, keeping an aggressive competitor with stronger claims to the crown around would have almost certainly been a terrible idea. After all, in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

Another possibility is that Solomon may have hesitated to kill his brother, displaying the same reticence as David in similar situations. So Bathsheba, knowing that the son she put on the throne wouldn’t keep it long with Adonijah poking about, made up the request to prod Solomon into action. Given that no one is said to have witnessed Adonijah’s request save for Bathsheba, it’s as good an explanation as any, and it has oodles of narrative potential.

The supporters

Next, David turns his eye toward the men who supported Adonijah’s bid for power: Joab and Abiathar. Because Abiathar was a priest and had carried the ark of the covenant, he was too sacred to simply execute. Instead, Solomon gets rid of him by exiling him from court. This, we are told, completes the prophecy that had been made about the house of Eli (by “a man of God” in 1 Sam. 2:31-24, and by Samuel in 1 Sam. 3:13-14).

Having heard what happened to Adonijah and Abiathar, Joab figured that he was next. He tries the same trick as Abiathar in 1 Kgs 1, running to the tent of God and grabbing hold of the altar thorns, and Solomon sends Benaiah after him. When Benaiah tries to get Joab to come out of the tent and face his fate, Joab refuses, saying: “No, I will die here” (1 Kgs 2:30). Benaiah returns to Solomon, who tells him to grant Joab’s “request.” In so doing, Solomon says that Benaiah will “take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood which Joab shed without cause.”

So Benaiah goes back to the tent of God and slays Joab at the alter – which, it would seem to me, would be a major ritual no-no and likely to bring a great deal more guilt down on Solomon than Joab’s actions ever did (especially since at no time prior to this chapter are Joab’s murders said to curse David’s house, whereas David’s own actions toward Uriah and Bathsheba are said by Nathan to mark the start of their troubles).

With that Solomon gets rid of everyone in court who opposed his succession. To fill the vacuum he’s created, he appoints Benaiah as commander of the army, and has Zadok take Abiathar’s place as high priest.

Shimmy-Shimei

The last person on Solomon’s First Days’ Hit List is Shimei, who had cursed David during his escape from Jerusalem in 2 Sam. 16. In one tradition, at least, cursing a ruler warranted the death penalty (Exodus 22:28), though it’s unclear whether it would have applied in this case since, by David’s own admission, Absalom was the king at that time. This could be why Solomon decides not to execute Shimei.

Or it could be a nod to David’s promise not to harm Shimei, plus the fact that Shimei had never moved against Solomon himself – making a capital retaliation rather difficult to defend. Whatever the reason, he opts instead to make Shimei build a house in Jerusalem (where he can be close enough to keep an eye on) and places him under house arrest.

After three years, however, Shimei leaves his house to reclaim two escaped slaves. Perhaps he thought it was no big deal, since he returns as soon as he’s done. Solomon, however, is quite happy to use the excuse to have Benaiah execute him.

In his rebuke to Shimei, Solomon says: “King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the Lord for ever” (1 Kgs 2:45), which seems to be a direct reference to Shimei’s curse in 2 Sam. 16:7-8.

1 Kings 1: Unruly Sons

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1 Kings opens with a greatly aged King David, who is no longer able to keep his own body warm. As a solution, his court decides to find a beautiful maiden (because of course she has to be beautiful) upon whose bosom David might be warmed. They choose a woman named Abishag the Shunammite, and we are assured that she passed muster as far as beauty is concerned (no comment on her breast temperature, though, which I would have thought the more salient information). Perhaps in an attempt to make this sound a little less skeevy, the text assures us that, while Abishag tended to David, “the king knew her not” (1 Kgs 1:4), in the biblical sense, as it were. I’m not sure whether the comment is meant to provide additional evidence of David’s frailty (as Brant Clements of Both Saint And Cynic puts it, the verse could be implying that “the king’s sexual prowess has abated”), or to clarify that Abishag was brought in solely as a fleshy radiator and did not have any official status as royal wife/concubine.

Adonijah’s Succession

With David so weakened, it’s time for another one of his sons to make a play for the crown. This time, it’s Adonijah. If you will remember from way back in 2 Samuel 3, David’s sons are, in order of birth:

  1. Amnon, son of Ahinoam of Jezreel: Murdered by his brother, Absalom, for having raped their sister, Tamar.
  2. Chileab, son of Abigail: Never mentioned again after 2 Sam. 3:3. Presumably dead in infancy.
  3. Absalom, son of Maacah and grandson of Talmai, king of Geshur: Took the crown by force, then killed in the ensuing battle.
  4. Adonijah, son of Haggith.
  5. Shephatiah, son of Abital.
  6. Ithream, son of Eglah.
  7. Solomon, son of Bathsheba.

Based on the actions of Absalom and Adonijah, there seems to have been an assumption of primogeniture (and I’ve already mentioned my suspicion that Absalom’s murder of Amnon had more to do with his later power play than with Tamar). Given that the people wanted a warrior king who would defend the Hebrew nation against Philistines and other external threats, its perfectly conceivable that Adonijah honestly did believe that it was time for his father to retire and leave the ruling of the country to his eldest son.

And Adonijah wouldn’t have been alone in thinking that, as the text tells us that he had the support of Joab and Abiathar, the priest. He may even have had implicit approval from David, since we’re told that he gathered together chariots, horsemen, and fifty infantrymen as part of his retinue, and David never said a word in rebuke.

Either way, the whole succession narrative sounds positively Welsh in its messiness.

Adonijah’s ascent didn’t go uncontested, however. He was unable to get the support of Zadok, Benaiah, Nathan, Shimei, Rei (the only novel name in the list, my New Bible Commentary suggests that it may be “‘Shimei the friend’ following Josephus, since each of the other persons in the verse has a descriptive title,” p.325), and David’s “might men,” leaving most of David’s inner court against him.

We’re told that Adonijah made a sacrifice at the Serpent’s Stone, inviting all his brothers (except Solomon) and all the royal officials of Judah (except Nathan, Benaiah, or the “mighty men” – most of the people who refuse to support him). Interestingly, though not explicitly excluded, no mention is made of Israelite royal officials, suggesting that perhaps the confederation that had united the two halves of the Hebrew nation was, at least at this time, dissolved. The fact that he explicitly did not invite Solomon suggests that perhaps he had already identified him as a threat (or perhaps Solomon was invited, but he eventually became king and uninvited himself to place the brotherly rift firmly on Adonijah’s side).

Adonijah’s sacrifice appears to be a coronation ceremony, or else he was ordering it with the authority of a king, because his kingship seems to have been viewed as a fait accompli at this point.

Behind the scenes

Nathan turns to Bathsheba, convincing her that Adonijah’s succession puts her and her son, Solomon, in danger. Given Adonijah’s lack of support and the general violence with which succession has so far been taking place in this infant nation, his expression of concern seems quite legitimate. While primogeniture seems to be assumed, Israel/Judah is now on its fifth king and the other two eldest sons who were crowns were rather violently – and fatally – deposed. Getting rid of any other serious contenders would certainly be appealing to someone in Adonijah’s position.

Coronation of Pharamond, from Grandes Chroniques de France

Coronation of Pharamond, from Grandes Chroniques de France

What’s really interesting about the scene, if we accept Nathan’s sentiment as genuine, is that Nathan is the one who originally condemned David for his relationship with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12. Yet here he is, on Bathsheba’s side. However much guilt and punishment is heaped onto David for his lechery, none of the blame seems to be placed on Bathsheba (except the loss of her first child, though that is framed as a punishment for David – not for her, however much grief is splash damaged onto her by it). To me, this suggests that the author(s) did not understand Bathsheba’s participation in the affair to be consensual.

Nathan tells Bathsheba that Adonijah has become the king without David’s knowing, strongly suggesting that he as all but retired and is no longer paying any attention to the affairs of state. This inattentiveness could be why the names of inner circle are repeated so frequently – they were known because they were the ones doing all the work.

Nathan’s plan is to have Bathsheba approach David and remind him that he had promised her that Solomon would succeed him (which, if true, would explain the gaps in the courtier support for Adonijah, as well as any urgency Adonijah might feel in disposing of his little half-brother). Why then, she is to ask, is Adonijah the king? Then, while she is still speaking with David, Nathan will burst in and confirm the news.

When Bathsheba enters David’s chamber, we’re told that Abishag was in the middle of “ministering” to him (1 Kgs 1:15), which could not have been a particularly comfortable situation for Bathsheba. The scene reminds me of Lord Robert Arryn breastfeeding on his throne in Game of Thrones. Still, no mention is made of her reaction and she follows the plan. She seems to imply that the whole situation is caused by David’s failure to tell his subjects who will rule after him – a very legitimate accusation.

Finishing up, she tells David that she and Solomon will be “counted offenders” (1 Kgs. 1:22) when David is dead. It’s unclear whether she means that Adonijah will want to have them put well away from anywhere where they might cause harm, or because she intends to press for Solomon’s succession, which would make him a rebel if primogeniture is assumed without the old’s king direction. It is not explained why, if David hasn’t publicly declared Solomon his successor, Nathan knew of his apparent promise to Bathsheba.

When she is done, Nathan asks for an audience and tells David of Adonijah’s sacrificial ceremony and the support he has already gathered. He plays innocent, asking this is all part of a plan David has failed to mention to his servants (an accusation, since if this were truly what had happened, it would mean that David had put his followers in the position of having to choose between supporting a claimant against David, or failing to support David’s chosen heir).

As in Genesis 27, when Rebekah similarly secured a younger son’s inheritance, the plan works and David is moved into action.

Getting the right man for the job

David sends for Zadok, Nathan, and Benaiah, instructing them to bring Solomon to Gihon (on David’s own mule, no less!), so that Zadok and Nathan might anoint him as king. Certainly, crowning Solomon now, while David is still alive, would eliminate any confusion as to whom David supports. It would also force Adonijah to actually rebel against an anointed king if he intends to press the issue, rather than simply positioning himself as the heir apparent (as he seems to be doing, whatever Nathan and Bathsheba say). He intends to formally retire and have Solomon “be king in my stead” (1 Kgs. 1:35 – noting that he would rule over both Israel and Judah, while Adonijah only seems to have Judahite support).

My study Bible notes that Gihon would have been chosen because, while not visible from Enrogel – where Adonijah is having his festivities – is “well within earshot” (p.415). That means that when Solomon is anointed and they do the whole shtick of blowing the trumpet and proclaiming him king, it will be heard by Adonijah and all of his supporters.

They follow David’s instructions, accompanied by the Cherethites and Pelethites (who appear to be the royal guard – together with David’s mule, they are clear symbols of Solomon’s legitimacy).

As planned, Joab hears the uproar of Solomon’s coronation and asks about the noise. While he is still speaking, Jonathan, the son of Abiathar, approaches, and Adonijah assumes that he must be bringing good news. Jonathan disappoints, however, and informs Adonijah that his little brother beat him to the punch.

Adonijah’s guests, clearly realizing their mistake and the danger in which picking the losing side has placed him, tremble and scatter. Of course, whatever danger the guests are in would have been greatly multiplied for Adonijah, and he knows it. So he grasps at straws – or, rather, at the horns of the altar (my study Bible describes them as “projections resembling horns at the four corners of an altar” (p.415-426) in what appears to be a form of claiming sanctuary (a tradition that had clearly fallen out of favour by the time Exodus 21:14 was written). He refuses to release the altar until Solomon swears that he will not kill Adonijah with a sword – which seems absurdly specific, and gives Solomon a really obvious means to get away with killing Adonijah on a technicality.

Solomon agrees, but only if Adonijah is a “worthy man” (1 Kgs. 1:52). The meaning is unclear, but my New Bible Commentary says that “the term suggests a man of wealth, not one living on the king” (p.325). Whatever it means, Adonijah apparently passes the test, and he is sent home (suggesting, perhaps, that his remaining there would be compulsory).

2 Samuel 20: Joab is just not having it

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Now that he’s back in Jerusalem, David’s first order of business is to deal with those pesky ten concubines who’ve been raped (2 Sam. 16:22) because he abandoned them (2 Sam. 15:16). Obviously, they can’t be comforted and then welcomed back into the household! No, instead David shuts them away in a house, under guard, until the day they die.

The fact that anyone would see David as good man or good king when he shows himself, again and again, to be so casual and cruel toward the women subject to his power (and even those under his protection in a patriarchal society) is absolutely sickening. Whether it’s locking away these concubines because of their rape (which only happened because he abandoned them in the first place), or his indifference to the rape of his daughter Tamar, or his questionable behaviour toward both Bathsheba and Abigail, his treatment of Michal, David is outrageous in the way he treats women.

Sheba’s Rebellion

Meanwhile, the unrest continues. The Benjaminites, still clearly put out by the loss of the crowd, produce Sheba, son of Bichri. When he rejects David’s kingship, we’re told that “all the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 20:2) joined him, while Judah remained loyal to David.

David tasks his new general, Amasa, with gathering up all Judah’s soldiers within three days so that they can deal with the rebellion. For reasons unstated, Amasa fails to do this in time – was the task impossible? Did he try to sabotage David’s efforts by dallying because his loyalty remains with Absalom? Did he just fail due to incompetence? The text never tells us, even though the reason behind Amasa’s failure utterly changes how we can interpret this chapter.

Realizing that Amasa does not have this situation under control, David asks Abishai to handle it. Why Abishai, rather than his brother Joab? Some of the commentaries I’ve read say that David is trying to push Joab out because he is still angry about Abner’s murder in 2 Samuel 3:27 (the idea being that Joab had too much power to simply be dismissed, so David is trying to slowly exclude him from the clique, Queen Bee style). Other commentaries claim that David may have been too proud, after dismissing Joab in favour of Amasa, to admit that he’d made a bad call and bring Joab back.

It could also be that, after setting Joab aside for political reasons (bringing in Amasa, who had been Absalom’s general, may have been a move to bring the rebels back on his side), he may have wondered if he could still trust him. Would Joab still be on his side after being so cruelly treated?

Abishai heads out with the Cherethites and Pelethites. Whether or not with David’s blessing, Joab tagged along too. Or, perhaps, did more than just tag along, since he quickly took charge and Abishai falls into the background.

Met along the way

Amasa, still afield, meets up with the rebel-hunters in Gibeon. Joab, in a move that would have Harlequin readers quivering, “took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him” (2 Samuel 20:9), then, during their embrace, stabbed him in the stomach so hard that Amasa’s entrails spilled out.

Joab, it seems, did not like being replaced.

Still, his anger seems focused on Amasa, rather than on David. In fact, the text gives us the possibility that he killed Amasa not because he was replaced by him, but because he failed to rouse the army quickly enough. In other words, this could be yet another example of Joab getting rid of someone who has made themselves a liability to David. And, of course, it also gives us the possibility that David was behind this murder as well – Amasa fought against, David, after all. It could be that David made him a general to assuage those who had gone to Absalom, but had no intention of letting him go unpunished.

Joab leaves Amasa’s body in the middle of the road. He posts a man over it to tell people who remain faithful to David to join Joab – presumably the men in Amasa’s band. Eventually, we’re told, someone decides to drag Amasa’s corpse off the road and into a field, covering it with a cloth.

Joab & co. carry on after Sheba.

The end of a rebellion

Joab chases Sheba all the way to Abel of Bethmaacah, where his retinue has apparently dwindled down to his own clan (the Bichrites). It seems that the claim that Sheba was joined by all of Israel was hyperbolic. It could be that the verse only meant that Sheba had followers from several different clans (indicating that this was not a single clan’s rebellion), or it could have been intended as anti-Israel propaganda.

Joab at Abel, from the Morgan Bible, c.1240-1250

Joab at Abel, from the Morgan Bible, c.1240-1250

When Joab arrives, his retinue knocks the city walls down. Before they can do any more damage, however, a local wise woman calls out to Joab. It seems from her words that Abel had a reputation for wisdom, and was perhaps a place that people would go to for conflict resolution. Given this, would Joab truly destroy the city?

Joab is swayed without any fuss, and offers the wise woman a deal: He will spare the city, so long as they hand over Amasa. The wise woman agrees and, soon, Amasa’s severed head is tossed over the city walls to Joab.

His task done, Joab returns to Jerusalem – apparently never considering that David might be angry with him for killing Amasa, or that he might not be getting his old job back just because Amasa is dead. The fact that he is, in fact, restored lends credence to the idea that David, for whatever reason, implicitly (or perhaps explicitly) condoned Amasa’s murder.

It’s worth noting that, once again, Joab has been used to put down a rebellion. In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins notes: “As in several previous incidents, however, Joab and his brother are the ones who shed the blood. If there is guilt because of violence, it can be imputed to them rather than to David” (p.129).

David’s cabinet

To close off the chapter, an editor put in a note about the composition of David’s cabinet. It’s mostly a repeat of 2 Samuel 8:15-18, though with a few notable differences.

Joab, once again, is listed as having command of Israel’s army (note the name “Israel,” which once again seems to refer to the whole nation including Judah, suggesting a different author/editor from the last few chapters). In fact, this may be the reason for the inclusion of this note – to explicitly show that Joab has returned to his former position.

Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, is still in control of the Cherethites and Pelethites. Jehoshaphat is still recorder. Zadok and Ahimelek are still priests.

Adoram is a new addition, having been appointed as overseer of forced labour. Seraiah the secretary, however, has been removed from the list.

Finally, we are told that David’s personal priest is Ira the Jairite, replacing David’s sons. This may be a reference to the fact that David’s sons have, for the most part, met their ends recently.

2 Samuel 19: The Return

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The victory of Absalom’s defeat is marred by David’s anguish over the loss of his son, so the soldiers return home in the same shame as they would have in defeat. Joab, probably correctly, reprimands David for focusing so much on the personal. While he is focused on his own personal pain, the soldiers who fought (and several, presumably, died) to save David and his household are covered in shame for their efforts. Worse yet, argues Joab, the whole situation only arose because “you love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Further, continues Joab, David’s extreme mourning over his son/enemy (sonemy?) sends the message to his followers that they are worthless to him, since he might well have preferred that they all had been killed and Absalom won the day.

In closing, Joab tells David to speak kindly to his followers, or they will desert him. In response to Joab’s plea, David “took his seat in the gate” (2 Sam. 19:8). The gate, as we’ve already learned, is where governance happens. So while we don’t get to see David’s praise and thanks to his people, we do see him at least putting the personal aside enough to return to his duties as a leader.

Recovering the nation

Of course, there’s still a kingdom to regain. Absalom had deposed David, so if David wishes to return, he must rebuild the federation of tribes.

The text tells us that the Israelites (which, in context, excludes Judah and David’s retinue) had fled back to their homes after the battle. They summarize the situation by saying that David, as king, had subdued their external enemies, but then fled before Absalom. With Absalom now dead, there’s a question of what should happen next. The passage is rather unclear, but the gist seems to be that a not-insubstantial portion of the Israelite population questioned whether a unified king is still needed, now that the external threats are gone. Why not return to the pre-monarchy tribal system? Why should they bring David back?

2 Samuel 19But it seems that Israel wasn’t David’s only problem. He relays a message to the elders of Judah – via the priests Zadok and Abiathar – asking why they haven’t called him back as their leader since the lay Judahites apparently want him. He also a note to Amasa – who was the commander of Absalom’s army (2 Sam. 17:25) – promising to make him his commander instead of Joab. Clearly, he is trying to woo back those who had sided with Absalom.

The predominant explanation for why Joab should be replaced is that David was still sore over the murder of Abner in 2 Samuel 3:27. That assumes, of course, that David wasn’t behind it, or that he didn’t appreciate – privately – the benefits of Abner’s death. Certainly, he seemed to have been in no particular hurry to punish or demote Joab, and was quite happy to use his services more explicitly when he wanted to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11. If anything, the text shows us a completely loyal Joab whose only fault is to be willing to do rather horrid things on behalf of David (whether at David’s explicit command, or simply because it’s something that needs to be done before David can achieve some goal). As we saw both in 2 Samuel 11 and earlier in this chapter, Joab is more than just brute force, too. He disobeys David’s exact command in the killing of Uriah so that it can be done more subtly, in a way that will minimize – or even eliminate – the repercussions for David. In this chapter, he called David out, giving him a much needed reminder that he needed to act the king if he ever wanted to regain the crown.

It’s possible, then, that David decided to replace Joab simply because he knew, or believed, that Joab was too loyal to be sore about it. He might have believed Joab to be so firmly in Camp David that he wouldn’t mind being replaced by Amasa if it meant regaining support for David. Which leads us back to Joab’s own words: “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Whatever the future repercussions, David’s plan works and the Judahites are swayed. But that still leaves the rest of Israel.

The meeting at Gilgal

Judah heads across the river to Gilgal to meet with David and accompany him back to Jerusalem.

Shimei – who had thrown rocks at the fleeing David in 2 Sam. 16:5-14 – showed up with one thousand Benjaminites, begging forgiveness. It’s hard to think that he suddenly changed his mind that David was the cause of the fall of the house of Saul. Presumably, he simply realized that David was about to be king again and was a little concerned that the rock-throwing incident might be held against him.

Abishai, like Joab, has long been David’s follower, and is the very caricature of bloodthirst. Where Joab always seems quite happy to murder David’s enemies, Abishai argues in favour of it. He tried to convince David to murder Saul in 1 Sam. 26:5-12, and he pushed for the immediate killing of the rock-hurling Shimei in 2 Sam. 16:8-9. Now, once again, he advises David to kill Shimei.

David refuses a second time, however, saying that Shimei’s curses meant nothing since David is returning to Jerusalem and the crown.

Ziba – the servant David had assigned to Mephibosheth who had been granted all of Mephibosheth’s lands after claiming in 2 Sam. 16 that Mephibosheth was refusing to follow David out of Jerusalem – arrives with his fifteen sons and twenty servants. It seems that they help David and his retinue ford the Jordan.

Unfortunately, Mephibosheth comes too, displaying all the signs of mourning and having done so since David fled from Jerusalem. He claims that he had asked Ziba to prepare a donkey for him to ride, needing one due to his disabilities, but that Ziba had simply left instead.

(As a side note, the text introduces Mephibosheth here as the “son of Saul” (2 Sam. 19:24). In context, this presumably means that he is from the house of Saul, rather than being in error.)

Given two contradictory accounts, David takes the easy way out and simply tells the two men to go halfsies on the land. Mephibosheth refuses his half, however, since having David back safely is good enough for him.

The final petitioner is Barzillai, who had fed the fleeing David. David asks him to come along to Jerusalem, but Barzillai refuses. He argues that, at 80, he is too old for the pleasures of court and would rather stay close to home so that he can die near his family tombs. He does, however, give someone named Chimham for David to bring along – presumably his son or some other close relative.

Israel suddenly becomes very angry that Judah “stole” David from them, claiming that they should have ten shares of him. The ten shares reference seems to be about the tribes – each having a share of the king. Of course, if Israel has ten, who has the other two? Judah has, of course, one, but that leaves the twelfth.

Looking at a map of the divided monarchy, it seems that Simeon may have been culturally linked with Judah, or at least separate from Israel. Another possibility is Benjamin, since between Shimei and Ziba, David’s procession would have included a large number of them, perhaps leading the Israelites to refer to them together.

In the end, “the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 19:43), suggesting that they won the argument but that the matter was certainly not settled.

2 Samuel 18: The macabre pinata

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Thanks to the delay caused by following Hushai’s poisoned advice, Absalom has now given David time to properly muster his army and entrench behind city walls. There, David, organizes his troops into groups of 1,000s and 100s, then divides the whole into thirds: One third is under the direction of Joab, one third under Abishai, and one third under Ittai the Gittite (who had insisted in remaining with David in 2 Sam. 15:19-22).

When Absalom has chosen Amasa over his army in 2 Sam. 17:25 instead of Joab, I had assumed this meant that he was setting Joab aside. It seems, however, that I had interpreted this incorrectly. Rather, Joab had to be replaced as the commander of Israel’s army because he has defected to David’s side.

It’s an interesting detail because, as we shall find in this chapter, it’s made very clear that Absalom is now the king of Israel, and that David is once again an enemy of the state on the lam. In fact, David is here described explicitly as fighting against Israel (2 Sam. 18:6), not for Israel. Even when he was fighting Saul, the narration conveniently contrived to ensure that he never actually participated in any conflict against Israel. This is even more interesting because David’s army seems to be largely comprised of Philistines and other non-Israelites (2 Sam. 15:18).

David wants to fight with his men, but they refuse. They know that the civil war will only end if either Absalom or David die, so if they are routed, Absalom’s forces won’t scatter to chase the fleeing men. Rather, they will focus exclusively on chasing down David. This is, if you’ll remember, precisely what Ahithophel predicted in 2 Sam. 17:2. While it makes literary sense to show David’s forces deliberately foiling Ahithophel’s plans, it seems rather odd to have soldiers telling their king that there’s a very strong possibility that they will just run away from the upcoming battle.

Rather, the followers argue, David should stay safely behind walls and “send us help from the city” (2 Sam. 18:3). Its unclear just what sort of help David is supposed to provide them with, except maybe by sending positive vibes their way. Perhaps he’s supposed to keep his hands in the air like Moses in Exodus 17:11. Or, more likely, he’s to stay behind with a reserve force to bring a support of fresh troops if the battle starts to go sour.

As the army marches out to meet Absalom, David stands by the gates to watch them go. He stops his commanders – Joab, Abishai, and Ittai – as they pass to ask them to deal gently with Absalom – a request that the common soldiers overhear. Obviously, this shows that David still loves his son and doesn’t want to have to kill him. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, this conflict is between two individuals, with a whole lot of bystanders about to get killed. It won’t end until at least one of them is dead. By asking that his son be spared, David is asking for the conflict to go on, and for many other people’s sons to die.

That’s assuming that “spare him” is what David means by “deal gently.” He could also mean that the death should be swift, the body not mistreated, and so forth. David is clearly not in the best emotional state, but it’s hard to tell just how affected he is.

The Battle

The battle itself takes place in the forest of Ephraim. It seems that David’s commanders are able to use the terrain to their advantage – after all, many of David’s loyal followers were with him in his bandit days and must be more accustomed to guerrilla-style fighting over rough landscapes than Absalom’s less experienced forces. All told, the text has 20,000 people die, and Israel’s forces are defeated. There is chaos, and “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword” (2 Sam. 18:8).

Biblical SceneAbsalom’s fate helps to illustrate just how treacherous forest fighting can be. As he is riding his mule, presumably at a rather high speed, his head gets stuck in the branches of an oak tree. The mule continues to ride and goes galloping off, leaving Absalom dangling.

Tradition has it that Absalom’s hair became tangled in the branches, so that he is hanging by his mighty locks. This is apparently an attempt to find literary meaning in the description of Absalom’s hair in 2 Sam. 14:26. Of course, the Bible doesn’t seem to care too much about obeying Chekhov’s Gun, and the implication here is quite clearly that his head – the whole thing – became stuck. While it’s possible that his hair was involved in some way, that interpretation is not supported by the text.

One of Joab’s men happened to find the dangling Absalom and rushed to tell Joab. Joab is angry that the man didn’t kill Absalom when he had the chance, that he would have rewarded him, but the man is emphatic – no reward would have been enough to go against David’s request that they deal gentle with Absalom. Especially since he knows that Joab would not have defended him if David had found out that he’d been the one to kill Absalom (he must surely know of David’s treatment of the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1:15-16, or of the men who killed Ishbosheth in 2 Samuel 4:12). Joab, it seems, has a reputation for only looking after his own interests.

Frustrated, Joab (sort of) takes matters into his own hands and thrusts three darts into Absalom’s heart. Absalom is a tough bugger, though, so Joab calls on ten of his men to fall in and kill him. Which all seems rather absurd, and makes Absalom out to have Rasputin-level death aversion. Unless we assume that the word “heart” is used to mean “core” – a dual meaning that exists in English as well. In this case, it looks more like a frustrated Joab uses Absalom’s hanging body for target practice then, out of darts, waves his hand for the suffering Absalom to be finished.

Absalom’s Monument

Joab blows a trumpet to recall his troops from the pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. Absalom is dead, the battle over, and killing Israelites now would just mean killing David’s soon-to-be-once-again subjects.

Absalom’s corpse is brought down from the oak tree and buried in a great pit, covered with stones.

We’re also given a little tourist’s note that there is a pillar, presumably near Jerusalem, known as “Absalom’s monument.” It had been built by Absalom, presumably to keep alive his memory because “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance” (2 Sam. 18:18). I’ve seen a few sources crying contradiction because 2 Sam. 14:27 gives Absalom three sons. Yet I noted there that the sons are not named, which would be rather unusual unless they had died too young to matter for the historical record. This would provide a satisfactory explanation for both of these passages, both individually and in relation to each other.

The text tells us that this Absalom’s monument can still be seen at the time of writing. There is, actually, a monument called the Tomb of Absalom that still stands today, though it’s style and decorations place its construction in the first century CE, far too late to be the monument mentioned here.

The Runners

With the battle over and Absalom dead, only one thing remains: Telling David about it. Ahimaaz, son of the priest Zadok, asks Joab for permission to be the messenger. Joab refuses. For a reason, he says only: “because the king’s son is dead” (2 Sam. 18:20). It could be that he fears for Ahimaaz, that David may lash out at the bearer of such news and Ahimaaz is too valuable to lose in this way. It could also be that he knows Ahimaaz, and has accurately predicted his later failure.

Either way, he decides to send a Cushite instead. But after the Cushite leaves, Ahimaaz won’t leave off. Joab expresses his confusion at Ahimaaz’s insistence – after all, there’ll be no reward! So why bother? Is that not just so Joab?

Yet he relents and finally allows Ahimaaz to go. With permission finally in hand, Ahimaaz flies like the wind, quickly passing the Cushite.

Back in the city, David is waiting at the gate for word. There’s a little bit of back and forth there between David and a lookout, and David concludes that a single runner means good news. The logic, I presume, is that a single runner means news, whereas a group is more likely to be the routed remnants of his army.

Yet this explanation has its problems. I had mentioned earlier that the only realistic way in which David could “send us help from the city” (2 Sam. 18:3) is if he waits with fresh troops in case the battle goes badly. Yet that makes little sense here – a single runner might mean victory, or it might mean send help, now! Of course, this is easily explained by David being a little up the wall, emotionally speaking. After all, there is no such thing as good news for him – either he’s lost the battle, or his son is dead.

When Ahimaaz arrives, he tells David that they’ve won the battle, but won’t tell him about Absalom. When David explicitly asks, Ahimaaz says that he saw some commotion, but had no way to tell if it was Absalom or not.

This is plainly false, since Joab told him explicitly in 2 Sam. 18:20 that “the king’s son is dead.” It could be an editorial error, of course. It could also be that Ahimaaz chickened out at the last minute, perhaps just as Joab had predicted (and why Joab hadn’t wanted to send him). It’s also possible that he was trying to ease David into the knowledge – telling him about a commotion, an obvious hint that Absalom was probably caught, and then letting the Cushite tell him the rest of the story when he arrives. It doesn’t seem like it would actually work, but maybe Ahimaaz thought it would.

Eventually, however, the Cushite arrives and breaks the news, and David wails and wishes, as any human parent would, that “I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33)

2 Samuel 17: A tale of two counselors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 16: Taking Possession

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

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

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

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

Wilbur Mercer

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

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

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

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

The concubines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 15: Of spies and conspiracies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While in Hebron, Absalom’s conspiracy gains strength.

The flight

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

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

Absalom and Tamar, by Guercino

Absalom and Tamar, by Guercino

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mount of Olives

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

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

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

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

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