2 Samuel 10: By half measures

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

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

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

Ammonite kings can be rather scary.

Ammonite kings can be rather scary.

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

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

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

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

War, war never changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sore losers

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

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

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

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

Judges 17-18: Of opportunistic priests and silver idols

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So there’s this guy, Micah, living in the hill country of Ephraim. This Micah is not such a cool guy. He also has a very strange, meandering story.

You see, he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. Not knowing who had stolen it, his mother cursed the thief. Micah, presumably getting a little hot under the collar, confesses and returns the money. To withdraw her curse, his mother dedicates 200 of the pieces of silver to God, melting it down into an idol.

The amount of silver stolen is familiar – it is the same amount that each Philistine elder promised to pay Delilah in exchange for the secret of Samson’s strength (Judges 16:5). I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if the stories are supposed to be related somehow, or if 1,100 was just a way of saying “a large amount.”

Micah’s mother disappears from the story at this point, and it is Micah’s turn to make idols. He builds a shrine, and he makes “an ephod and teraphim” (Judges 17:5) to go in it. But what’s a shrine without a priest? To fill the void, Micah installs one of his own sons as the priest to his household shrine.

Unfortunately, Micah’s son apparently disappears because there’s another young man, called a Levite despite being from the tribe of Judah, who leaves his home town of Bethlehem to find himself some employment. When he comes upon Micah’s house, Micah offers him a job as his personal household priest, in exchange for ten pieces of silver a year, room and board, and clothes.

When the Levite accepts, Micah is overjoyed, thinking to himself: “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest” (Judges 17:13).

The key portions of this story are (1) There was a man named Micah, (2) He was from the hill country of Ephraim, (3) He had a shrine, (4) He was directly involved in the shrine’s construction, and (5) He had a priest. It seems that various storytellers embellished these key points in different ways, and our poor editor just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

It seems important, too, that Micah is not seen as a particularly good guy, but more on that later.

Dan’s “migration”

The text doesn’t give a reason for it except that “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 18:1) – and therefore no real order to society – but Dan is on the march to find a place to call home.

Judges 17 - Micah's IdolAccording to Collins, they had to find a new home after they “lost their original territory to the Philistines” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114). Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how this is known, so I have no idea if it’s just extrapolation or if there’s some sort of material archeological evidence to suggest this explanation.

My study Bible does agree, though, citing Joshua 19:40-46 and Judges 1:34 to put Dan’s original territory in the southwest, close to Philistine territory. This also helps to explain Samson’s focus on the Philistines, as Samson was a Danite (Judges 13:2).

So the Danites are looking for land, and, like Moses, they send out five scouts to find them a nice spot to settle. These spies set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, where the Danite people are located, which was listed among their inheritance in Joshua 19:40-46, and between which Samson was buried in Judges 16:31.

In their travels, the Danite spies lodge with Micah. While there, they recognize the Levite’s voice (Judges 18:3), asking him what he’s doing there. There’s no reason given for why/where/how they might have encountered the Levite before. It’s a very strange detail.

When the Levite explains that he’s been hired as Micah’s household priest, they ask him to consult with God on their behalf and tell them whether or not they will succeed. It’s implied that the Levite does so (presumably using the ephod and teraphim, which seem to be related to divination in some way), and he gives the Danites God’s blessing, saying that “the journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord” (Judges 18:6).

Eventually, the spies make it to Laish, where they find the land fertile and the people weak (they are allied with Sidon, but too far away for the Sidonians to protect them). So they return to the Danites and tell them to go after Laish.

Which they do, with an army of 600 soldiers.

When the army passes Micah’s house, the spies mention the lovely shrine there. So the army stops to steal it. They are caught by Micah’s Levite, who asks them what they are doing. The Danites, in response, invite him to come and be their priest instead. After all, they argue, wouldn’t it be better to be the priest of an entire tribe rather than just one man? The Levite is so enthusiastic about the deal that he grabs Micah’s sacred objects and follows the Danites.

Micah gives chase, but realizes that he is outmatched and gives up.

When Dan takes Laish, they rebuild the city and name it Dan, in honour of their founding patriarch. It’s interesting to note that there was already a place named Dan in Genesis 14:14.

In closing, we’re told of a priest named Jonathan, son of Gerson, son of Moses (or Manasseh, my Bible doesn’t seem sure), who served the Danites as priest and was followed in the office by his sons “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30) – presumably the Assyrian conquest. They set up Micah’s idols, suggesting that this Jonathan is the same as the unnamed Levite we’ve been hearing about. Except that our Levite was from the tribe of Judah, not Moses (nor Manasseh). Unless that’s just the name of his grandfather, recycled from the patriarch, and not a tribal designation at all.

The moral of the story

There are a few possible morals that I can see. There’s the repetition that this all happened while there was no monarchy in Israel (Judges 17:6, Judges 18:1), which makes these chapters (and the ones to follow) seem to be a set up to explain just why having a king is such a fantastic idea.

Another possibility is that the story was included to explain the origins of a shrine in Dan. According to Collins, “during the monarchy, Dan was the site of one of the temples set up by King Jeroboam I of the northern kingdom of Israel, in opposition to Jerusalem” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114).

Certainly, it’s true that no one in the story is presented in a particularly flattering light. From Micah the thief, to the mercenary/thieving Levite, to the aggressive and thieving Danites, all of the characters are, to put it kindly, morally questionable.

It could also be an accurate snapshot of the popular/folk religion, as opposed to the high religion of Jerusalem. As Victor Matthews puts it:

Why did a Levite, a man charged with teaching and maintaining the law, consent to serve a group of sacred images? Why did Micah set them up in the first place, and why did the Danites jump at the chance to steal them for themselves? The answer almost certainly is that popular religion, the religion of the local villages, was not the pure monotheism required by the law at Sinai. Recent excavations at Tell Qiri, a settlement dating to the period of the judges, revealed a similar household shrine with incense burners and a large number of animal bones. A substantial percentage of the bones proved to be the right foreleg of goats. This is reminiscent of the law in Exod 29:22, which calls for the sacrifice of the “right thigh” of the ram. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.76)

You’ve also probably noticed that characters are getting called “Levite” without actually being from the tribe of Levi. It seems that the term originally just meant a priest, and either the office was taken over by one particular line or perhaps they simply unionized, forming a new tribe.