1 Chronicles 6: The Levitical Line

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We next turn our attentions to the tribe of Levi. It’s worth noting both how detailed a treatment they get compared to the other tribes, and the fact that they are placed in the very middle of the genealogies, just as they were physically placed in the middle of the camp in Numbers 2. It’s hard to ignore the symbolism.

Roughly speaking, the narrative begins with the priestly genealogies, then discusses the temple musicians, and ends by looking at the territories under direct Levitical control.

The genealogy portion seems to be based on Exodus 6:16-25, but with some variations.

The sons of Levi are: Gershom, Kohath, and Merari. There’s some duplication of information as each section serves a different purpose that sometimes requires the same information. However, since my purpose is different than the Chronicler’s, I’ll be condensing a little.

The sons of Kohath are: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel. From Amram came Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. From Aaron, we get Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. From this point, we follow Eleazar down in a direct line:

  1. Phinehas
  2. Abishua
  3. Bukki
  4. Uzzi
  5. Zerahiah
  6. Meraioth
  7. Amariah
  8. Ahitub
  9. Zadok
  10. Ahimaaz
  11. Azariah: According to 1 Kgs 4:2, Azariah was Zadok’s son, not his grandson. However, this wouldn’t be the first time that “son” might have been used simply to mean “a descendant of.”
  12. Johanan
  13. Azariah: The text specifies that he was priest when Solomon built the temple.
  14. Amariah
  15. Ahitub
  16. Zadok
  17. Shallum
  18. Hilkiah
  19. Azariah
  20. Seraiah
  21. Jehozadak: The text indicates that he was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem.
Aaron, from the Frauenkirche, Dresden

Aaron, from the Frauenkirche, Dresden

There is apparently some discussion as to whether or not Zadok (#9 on this list) was really of Levitical descent. Apparently, the Jebusite Hypothesis argues that Zadok was a priest in Jerusalem, serving the Jebusite god El Elyon, when it was conquered by David. Further, it argues that David may have appointed him as high priest as an appeasement to the conquered residents of the city (not only offering some continuity of leadership, but also bridging David’s god and their own).

In support of this, the similarity between Zadok’s name and the names of pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem is pointed out (for example, Melchizedek in Gen. 14:18 and Adonizedek in Jos. 10:1).

Some apparently also cite his role in Nathan and Bathsheba’s conspiracy to place Solomon on the throne, instead of Adonijah (1 Kgs 2). The argument goes that Solomon, born in Jerusalem, would have been preferred over Adonijah, who was born in Hebron.

The second lineage of Kohath: We also get a secondary list of the sons of Kohath, which is clearly not the same as above, beginning with Amminadab, and tracing down:

  1. Korah
  2. Assir
  3. Elkanah
  4. Ebiasaph (appearing as Abiasaph in Ex. 6:24)
  5. Assir
  6. Tahath
  7. Uriel
  8. Uzziah
  9. Shaul

A few sources I looked at suggested that Amminadab might be an error here (albeit a strange one). Drawing from Exodus 6:21, they argue that Izhar may have been meant instead, which would certainly make a lot more sense.

We then get a list of descendants of someone named Elkanah, who is clearly not the Elkanah who was a descendant of Kohath. The grammar is a little fudgy, but it looks like he had two sons: Amasai and Ahimoth. Then, through Ahimoth, we get:

  1. Elkanah
  2. Zophai
  3. Nahath
  4. Eliab
  5. Jeroham
  6. Elkanah

The sons of Samuel: In 1 Chron. 6:28, switch briefly over to a Samuel, who is presumably the Samuel of 1-2 Samuel, and meant to be related to the just-named Elkanah. This works for a little while, since 1 Samuel 1:1 names Samuel’s father Elkanah, and his grandfather Jeroham. It breaks down after that, however, as Jeroham is the son of Elihu, who is the son of Tohu, who is the son of Zuph. (A genealogy that matches better occurs below, in the discussion of musicians.)

Further, since Zuph is specifically named as an Ephraimite, we have to do a bit of juggling to make him also a Levite. It’s not impossible, since we could imagine a Levitical line living in Ephraim’s territory being identified by their geographical location rather than tribal descent. It’s worth noting that there were Kohathite territories within Ephraim (listed later in 1 Chron. 6:66-69).

In this case, however, there are too many pieces that don’t fit. It seems that, the Chronicler (who at least one of his sources) wished to shoe-horn Samuel into the Levitical line to excuse the fact that he was performing cultic duties. The problem with that, though, is that Samuel is seen making burnt offerings (for example, 1 Sam. 7:10), so why not place him directly in the Aaronic line? And why not mention in 1 Samuel that he was of Levitical descent?

In any case, the sons of Samuel are listed, in order, as Joel and Abijah.

The sons of Gershom are: Libni and Shimei. Gershom, by the way, is sometimes spelled Gershon. Given the phonetic similarity, I’m assuming this is just an error, and I will use the two forms interchangeably. Gershom traces the line down through Libni:

  1. Jahath
  2. Zimmah
  3. Joah
  4. Iddo
  5. Zerah
  6. Jeatherai

The sons of Merari are:  Mahli and Mushi. Going down through Mahli, we get:

  1. Libni
  2. Shimei
  3. Uzzah
  4. Shimei
  5. Uzzah
  6. Shimea
  7. Haggiah
  8. Asaiah

Musicians

David is credited with founding the musical portion of the tabernacle service (or, at least, with reforming the system). When he initially brought the ark to Jerusalem, he appointed to “[minister] with son before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (1 Chron. 6:32). When Solomon built the temple, they moved with the ark.

The lineages are presented in reverse order. I’ll re-arrange them as a descent just to make the lineages more comparable to the ones we had above. Keeping in mind that it is the final member of the line who was appointed by David. I’ve bolded the appointees.

From the Kohathites:

  1. Israel
  2. Levi
  3. Kohath
  4. Izhar
  5. Korah
  6. Ebiasaph
  7. Assir
  8. Tahath
  9. Zephaniah
  10. Azariah
  11. Joel
  12. Elkanah
  13. Amasai
  14. Mahath
  15. Elkanah
  16. Zuph
  17. Toah
  18. Eliel
  19. Jeroham
  20. Elkanah
  21. Samuel
  22. Joel
  23. Heman the singer

If the Samuel listed as Heman’s grandfather is meant to be the Samuel who went around anointing Israel’s first few kings, the lineage matches much better than the one we got in 1 Chron. 6:25-28. The only differences are easily attributable to phonetic variations or scribal sloppiness (Eliel is listed as Elihu in 1 Samuel 1:1, and Toah as Tohu).

A second musician, Asaph, is identified as Heman’s brother in 1 Chron. 6:39. However, given the differences in the lineage, it seems probable that the term is meant to mean “brother in craft,” rather than as a description of a blood tie. His lineage is as follows:

  1. Levi
  2. Gershom
  3. Jahath
  4. Shimei
  5. Zimmah
  6. Ethan
  7. Adaiah
  8. Zerah
  9. Ethni
  10. Malchijah
  11. Baaseiah
  12. Michael
  13. Shimea
  14. Berechiah
  15. Asaph

The obvious problem here is that generations are skipped. Gershom’s sons are Libni and Shimei in 1 Chron. 6:17. Jahath isn’t listed until 1 Chron. 6:20, as the son of Libni (Gershom’s grandson). Shimei is missing from the 1 Chron. 6:20 version. After that, the comparison breaks down entirely, as the 1 Chron. 6:21 version continues with Joah, while this list continues through Ethan.

The first two errors can be fairly easily explained either as accidental errors, or as the Chronicler finding himself with a list containing a lovely symbolically resonant fourteen generations between Levi and Asaph, yet finding that it does not quite match his other source. He may have sacrificed Libni in order to include Shimei while still preserving the desired number of generations.

The final error also isn’t too difficult to explain, as there is nothing to say that Zimmah had only one son. His eldest might well have been Joah, while Asaph was descended from a secondary branch.

From the Merarites: The Merarites put forward one appointee, Ethan. His lineage goes:

  1. Levi
  2. Merari
  3. Mushi
  4. Mahli
  5. Shemer
  6. Bani
  7. Amzi
  8. Hilkiah
  9. Amaziah
  10. Hashabiah
  11. Malluch
  12. Abdi
  13. Kishi
  14. Ethan

The sons of Aaron: But only descendants of Aaron were allowed to make offerings, at least in the Chronicler’s time. His lineage is repeated down to Ahimaaz, and is identical to the one in 1 Chron. 6:4-8.

Levitical Territories

In 1 Chron. 6:54, the narrative moves into a discussion of the territories controlled by the tribe of Levi. This list corresponds largely to the one in Joshua 21, even presenting them in the same order (first to the Kohathites, then the Gershonites, then the Merarites).

Kohathite Cities: To the Kohathites, specifically the descendants of Aaron, Judah provided the following cities of refuge: Hebron, Libnah, Jattir, Eshtemoa, Hilen, Debir, Ashan, and Beth-shemesh. An added detail is given about Hebron: While the Levites get the town’s surrounding pasture lands, the fields and villages belong to Caleb son of Jephunneh.

Simeon won’t be listed here as a contributing tribe, but Ashan is allotted to them in Jos. 19:7. This suggests that Simeon had already been absorbed by Judah by the time the Chronicler’s source was written.

From Benjamin, the Kohathites received: Geba, Alameth, and Anathoth.

At this point, the text tells us that the Kohathites control 13 towns (1 Chron. 6:60), but the actual count reveals only 11. By comparing the list to Jos. 21:13-19, we can assume that Juttah and Gibeon were accidentally dropped by the Chronicler (or a subsequent scribe).

There appears to be a corruption of the text in 1 Chron. 6:61. The corresponding spot in Joshua is Jos. 21:5, where we learn that the Kohathites receive ten further towns from Ephraim, Dan, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The towns are not named in either location.

From Ephraim, they received Shechem, Gezer, Jokmeam, Beth-horon, Aijalon, and Gathrimmon.

The cities contributed by Dan aren’t listed, but  Jos. 21:23-24 names both Aijalon and Gathrimmon as coming from Dan. This seems to be another scribal error.

From the half-tribe of Manasseh, they received Aner and Bileam.

Gershomite Cities: Gershom received thirteen cities from Issachar, Asher, Naphtali, and Manasseh.

From the half-tribe of Manasseh, they received: Golan in Bashan, and Ashtaroth. From Issachar, they received Kedesh, Daberath, Ramoth, and Anem. From Asher, they received Mashal, Abdon, Hukok, and Rehob. And from Naphtali, they received Kedesh in Galilee, Hammon, and Kiriathaim.

Merarite Cities: Merari received twelve cities from Reuben, Gad, and Zebulun.

From Zebulun, they received Rimmono and Tabor. In the Transjordan, they received from Reuben: Bezer, Jahzah, Kedemoth, and Mephaath. From Gad, they received Ramoth in Gilead, Mahanaim, Heshbon, and Jazer.

I only get a count of ten cities, rather than the twelve claimed, but there is some grammatical weirdness around 1 Chron. 6:78 that could account for the discrepancy.

1 Kings 3-4: Solomon tries to cut a baby in half

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The court cleared of dissent, Solomon starts working on external politics – marrying the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh. He brought her to the city of David, pending the completion of his own house (presumably here meaning “palace” rather than “dynasty”) and the wall around Jerusalem.

The Deuteronomist editor slips in a bit about how “the people were sacrificing at high place,” though this is excusable for the time being because “no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord” (1 Kgs 3:2). We know by content that this is the Deuteronomist talking, but we know to look because it makes no sense in context. This location for the verse seems to have been chosen only because of the mention of construction preceding it, and the mention of Solomon worshipping at high places following.

In fact, the source material seems to approve quite plainly of Solomon’s worship at the high places, saying that he did it because he “loved the Lord” (1 Kgs 3:3). Solomon, we are told, was quite a fan of these high places (and of God!), and sacrificed a hyperbolic amount. In particular, he made a huge sacrifice at Gibeon, which occasioned God’s appearance in his dreams.

Like some sort of magical fish, God offers to grant one wish. Solomon chooses wisdom, and God is so pleased with the choice that he just grants riches, honour, and long life, too – so long as Solomon always obeys God, of course. Then again, the bar is set rather low, since God only requires that Solomon walk on God’s road “as your father David walked” (1 Kgs 3:14) – has he been reading the same book I’ve been reading?

Solomon is so pleased with how that dream, went (and who wouldn’t be!) that he rushes back to Jerusalem to make another offering before the ark.

Practical Wisdom

The next seems to have been included to show us an example of Solomon’s new-found wisdom in action. It takes place while he sites in judgement, apparently bridging the gap between local chieftain and king, since it seems unlikely that a king would have the time to see more than a symbolic handful of petitioners – a lesson Moses learned way back in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 16.

Victor Matthews says that Solomon may have taken up the task for political reasons:

These shifts [introduction of monarchy and movement of population to urban centres] contributed to significant changes in legal customs and the administration of justice in ancient Israel. Naturally the Israelite kings, like their ancient Near Eastern counterparts (see the preface to Hammurabi’s code in ANET, 164), wished to exercise as much control over the law and its enforcement as possible in order to increase their own authority. This meant the king had to be identified with dispensing of justice to all segments of society, especially the weak. The ideal, perhaps best exemplified by Solomon’s judging of the two prostitutes (1 Kgs 3:16-28), was to create the perception that he was a “just king.” With this accomplished, it would be more likely that people would look to him first for justice. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.119)

The scene is very similar to David’s dealings with Ziba and Mephibosheth back in 2 Samuel 19. In that case, David had granted Mephibosheth’s lands to Ziba after the latter claims that the former failed to support David when he fled Jerusalem. When David returns, Mephibosheth claims that Ziba had lied. In this case, two prostitutes come before Solomon, claiming that they had given birth within three days of each other and, while alone in the house one night, one of them had lain on her baby, suffocating it by accidentally. Now, each are claiming that the mother of the dead child secretly switched it for the other woman’s living child.

The Judgement of Solomon, by Peter Paul Rubens, c,1617

The Judgement of Solomon, by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1617

When David had dealt with Ziba and Mephibosheth, he tried to resolve the argument by splitting the lands in half, so that each would get a share. Solomon claims that he will do the same here, fetching a sword to cut the baby in half so that each woman could have a share.

When the solution was given, both Mephibosheth and the (presumably) true mother gave up their claim (the other woman demanding the child’s death so that “it shall be neither mine nor yours” – 1 Kgs 3:26), preferring that the land/baby be whole and out of their possession, rather than divided/dead and only half theirs. David shrugged and accepted Mephibosheth’s relinquishing of his claim to the lands. Solomon, by contrast, declares her to be the true mother and gives her the baby, whole.

This story only really works in contrast to David’s, so that we can see Solomon’s wisdom boost in contrast to how David dealt with a similar issue. But neither story works except in contrast to the other. David dealt horribly with Ziba and Mephibosheth, rewarding a man who seems to have been opportunistic and perfectly willing to betray his master (not something a king should particularly be encouraging – though the fact that David does certainly goes a way toward explaining how his reign came to be so troubled), while screwing over a cripple whose livelihood was probably put into question by the ruling.

In Solomon’s case, there was really only one way to resolve the issue, and it depended entirely on one woman (and only the one) relinquishing her claim. Any other outcome would have required Solomon to either reveal his bluff or murder a baby – neither which, I imagine, would have particularly endeared him to his people.

The second woman had recently lost her baby and resorted to kidnapping a replacement. While it’s certainly possible that she might have been so bitter that she would rather see a second baby die rather than live in a house with a healthy baby who wasn’t her own, that seems far from the only way she could have responded. So unless Solomon’s wisdom included clairvoyance, I think his gambit was far more of a long shot than the narrative implies – unless, of course, he really was perfectly willing to murder the baby.

Incidentally, Tim Bulkeley points out that neither woman is called “mother” by the narrative, only by Solomon and only at the very end when he renders his judgement. He also mentions that when the one who is determined to be the true mother is moved by “compassion” (1 Kgs 3:26) to relinquish her claim, the word used is etymologically related to the word for “womb.”

Solomon’s Administration

Chapter 4 begins with Solomon’s cabinet. From the very first, there’s some confusion as we are told that Azariah, the son of Zadok was the priest, while a few verses later has both Zadok and Abiathar as priests (Abiathar, of course, having been deposed earlier). Explaining Abiathar’s presence requires that we assume that some time-hopping is going on, but Azariah is more complicated. I can only guess, but it’s possible that Azariah’s role is as a family priest, perhaps tending exclusively to Solomon and his household, while Zadok and Abiathar are meant to be the co-high priests, in charge of all the other priests. Sort of like the difference between a family chaplain and a pope.

We also get another Azariah, this time the son of Nathan, who is in charge of the officers. Zabud, also the son of Nathan, is another priest and king’s friend. My first thought was that both of these Nathans were Nathan the Prophet, though it seems more probable given the lack of honorific that he was David’s son, mentioned in 2 Sam. 5:14.

  • Elihoreph and Ahijah, the sons of Shisha, served as secretaries;
  • Jehoshaphat, son of Ahilud, was recorder;
  • Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, was commander of the army;
  • Ahishar was in charge of the palace;
  • Adoniram, son of Abda, was in charge of the forced labor.

We’re also told that Solomon appointed twelve officers, overseers of the various territories in the nation. Interestingly, these territories do not “conform to the old tribal boundaries,” as my study Bible puts it. These officers seem to be in charge of collecting taxes, providing food for the king and his household (apparently each being responsible for one month of the court’s needs per year). These officers were:

  1. Ben-hur over the hill country of Ephraim
  2. Ben-decker over Makaz, Shaal’bim, Bethshemesh, and Elonbeth-hanan
  3. Ben-hesed over Arubboth
  4. Ben-abinadab over Naphathdor (and he was married to Taphath, Solomon’s daughter)
  5. Baana, son of Ahilud, over Taanach, Megiddo, and Bethshean
  6. Ben-geber over Ramoth-gilead
  7. Ahinadab, son of Iddo, over Mahanaim
  8. Ahimaaz over Naphtali (and he was married to Basemath, Solomon’s daughter)
  9. Baana, son of Hushai, over Asher and Bealoth
  10. Jehoshaphat, son of Paruah, over Issachar
  11. Shimei, son of Ela, over Benjamin
  12. Geber, son of Uri, over Gilead
  13. An unknown officer over Judah

The count is more than twelve, perhaps indicating that the unknown officer over Judah was separate from the others, perhaps meaning that Judah was exempt from the taxes Solomon required of the other regions. If so, this looks more like a primary tribe collecting tribute from vassal tribes than a real unified nation.

I also find it interesting that Solomon has married two of his daughters to these regional leaders, particularly when he’s clearly dabbling in external politics. There’s probably nothing to it, but it makes me wonder if perhaps Solomon was still working to settle a turbulent court. He either executed or exiled all the major threats, and I wonder if this is evidence of him trying to secure internal allies through marriage. (Though Crusader Kings II has taught me that these internal unions can be quite a double-edged sword, since they give the descendants of those courtiers hereditary claims to the crown that may cause problems for your successors.)

Despite the mention of taxes and forced labour, we’re assured that everyone in Judah and Israel was happy, and that Solomon’s kingdom was very large. We’re given a list of the provisions he went through in one day, which I assume indicates the size of his court rather than the size of his belly. It seems a bit much even if it’s for his entire family.

We get some gushing about the awesome number of horses, chariots, and horsemen, not to mention the stables required to house such numbers. This detail – clearly presented here in a positive light – obviously comes from a different source than Deut. 17:16.

The boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom are rather unlikely. The fact that they fit with the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15 suggests that they are likely a romanticized fantasy of the nations “glory days,” rather than an accurate description of a small, new nation just beginning to emerge from its origins as a tribal confederacy.

Solomon’s Wisdom

To close off the chapter, we get another reminder that Solomon was so terribly wise. In fact, he was so wise that he “surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kgs 4:30) – though the only demonstration we’ve seen so far leaves me rather unconvinced. Unless he is meant to only seem wise by comparison.

Solomon is mentioned to be wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, as well as the sons of Mahol: Heman, Calcol, and Darda. Clearly, this is a reference the reader is supposed to get.

We’re told that he composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs, and that he seems to have had a fair bit of knowledge of the natural sciences (or liked nature themes in his songs and proverbs, I suppose). People came from “all the kings of the earth” to seek out his wisdom, clearly implying that – at least as far as threatening to cut babies in half was concerned – Solomon was better than any other king.

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 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.

1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).