Amos 9: Shaking Things Up

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Amos 9 begins with Amos’s fifth vision, in which he sees God standing beside the altar. Which altar is not specified, but the the implies that Amos had a specific altar in mind (accepting the limitations of finding linguistic clues in a translation, obviously). Given the focus of Amos’s prophecies, it seems reasonable that he means Bethel.

There, God issues a command: Smash the capitals (the uppermost part of a column – these are load-bearing structures) until the thresholds shake; shatter them on the heads of the people. If anyone survives, God will clean them up with the sword. No one will escape.

The fact that God is standing by his own altar is significant – Amos has been clear that God’s beef is with Israel’s crappy social justice record, and that it is for this reason that they will be destroyed (we saw this just recently, in Amos 8:5-6).

When we talk about the religion of God as Amos saw it, passages like Amos 5:21-24 make it clear that he wasn’t talking about showing up to church at the correct times and diligently paying tithes. For Amos, social justice is a core feature of the religion, and any version that does not include it (or views it as some nice but optional extra) is loathed by God.

Amos driven from Israel, by Doré

Amos driven from Israel, by Doré

According to Amos’s God, the people deserve to be destroyed because they have marginalized the role of social justice in their faith. It is their religion that condemns them, and so it is their temple collapsing down upon their heads that will kill them.

We can also tie this back to the idea that God will no longer speak to the people, as expressed in Amos 8:11-12. The altar will be destroyed because the people have lost the privilege of access to it.

The image also lends an immediacy to the vision. When Amos’s audience hear his words, they know the capitals he’s talking about, they know what they look like, they can visualize them falling. It contextualizes and personalizes the vision, so that the destruction is not merely something that will happen, but something that will happen right here.

The last thing I wanted to touch on with this verse is that God is speaking a command: “Smite the capitals” (Amos 9:1), he says. Who is this command being issued to? Is it Amos himself? Is the point that Amos will destroy the people (psychologically? or condemn them because now they have no “they know not what they do” excuse?) by revealing the Truth of his visions to them?

Is the command issued to the Israelites? Is it even a command, or merely a rhetorical way of describing what the people are already doing to themselves?

In the RSV, the word “command” appears a number of other times in Amos, such as when God commands “the sword” (Amos 9:4) to slay the Israelites (he does not command the wielders of the swords, but the concept of swords – or violence – more generally). So perhaps God is commanding the capitals themselves to shake.

And with that, I think we can conclude our discussion of the first verse.

Next, God explains that there can be no escape for Israel:

  • Though they dig into Sheol, God will pull them up. Sheol being the place of the dead (as we saw in places like Gen. 37:35), typically imagined under the ground. I interpreted this to mean that the people will find no rest in death.
  • Though they climb to heaven, God will knock them down.
  • Though they hide themselves on the top of Mount Carmel (apparently a sacred site, and seems to have been associated with the prophet Elijah, as in 1 Kgs 18), God will find and take them.
  • Though they “hide from my sight” (Amos 9:3) at the bottom of the sea, God will command the serpent to bite them. On the kind of serpent meant, my study Bible refers me to the Leviathan in Job 41.
  • Though they go into captivity, God will still command the sword to slay them.

God has set his eyes on them with evil intent.

Jim Linville sees a progression as we move through these five visions, and the way in which Amos seems to fade as a presence: “The mediating role of the locusts and fire, and the ensnaring ambiguity of the אנך and the fruit basket are replaced with the direct order that the temple is to be destroyed” (“Visions and Voices”, Biblical Studies on the Web, vol.80, p.39).

Doxologies

My study Bible refers to Amos 9:5-6 as the “third doxology” – a doxology being a liturgical formula of praise to a deity. The other two are Amos 4:13 and Amos 5:8-9.

In it, God is described as the one who touches the earth and causes it to melt. This is a cause for mourning, but we also seem to have some hint of hope. As in Amos 8:8, we are told that the land, under God’s touch, rises and sinks like the Nile. As I noted in my post about Amos 8, the rising and sinking is a reference to the annual flooding of the Nile, and may be meant to evoke “the symbolic expectation of subsequent renewal, as the Nile’s flooding brings silt that makes the river’s watershed fertile.” This will be especially relevant soon.

God is described as having built his upper chambers in the heavens, and his vaults on the earth. Typically, the upper chambers are where the family lives in two-story architecture, since they have the benefit of being both the coolest in hot climates (being aired out more easily, being more removed from the dust of the street, etc) and warmest in cold climates (benefiting from the body heat rising from any cattle kept below). Essentially, this makes the whole (known) universe into God’s personal home.

As in Amos 5:8-9, God is described almost as a nature deity. Here, he is the one who calls waters up from the sea and pours them down over the earth.

Moral Superiority

In much of our readings, there has been a sense that the Israelite people are special – chosen and nurtured and guided by God, entitled (through their specialness, if not their worthiness) to his unique focus. In Amos 9:7-10, however, Amos sets the record straight.

God begins by asking, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” (Amos 9:7). I’m not sure Ethiopians are important here, except that they are an example of a fairly distant group of people. We have a very similar conception here in North America, and “Are people in Africa not at least as important to me as you?” would work just effectively for us today.

God admits that he did bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but then adds that he did the same for the Philistines (out of Caphtor) and Syrians (out of Kir). On this passage, Collins writes:

The significance of the exodus was that it marked Israel as a special people YHWH. Amos does not deny that God brought Israel out of Egypt, but he radically questions its significance. It was the same God who brought the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete) and the Arameans from Kir (location unknown, but cf. Amos 1:5; 2 Kgs 16:9). For Amos, YHWH is the God of all peoples and responsible for everything that happens, good and bad. The movements of the Arameans and Philistines were just as providential as those of the Israelites. In the eyes of God, Israel is no different than the Ethiopians. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158)

Regarding Caphtor, Claude Mariottini describes it as “a possible reference to Crete.” In the same post, he writes: “The origin of the Philistines is debated. Egyptian records include them as one of the groups of people known as the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples invaded Egypt during the reign of Ramses III. Archaeologists believe that the Sea Peoples originated in the Aegean area.”

As for Kir, it is elsewhere associated not with the place the Syrians are from, but as the place to which they are exiled (Amos 1:5 and 2 Kgs 16:9).

God tells the speaker to “behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom” (Amos 9:8). The sudden switch to the third person when he has, up until this point, been speaking directly to the audience, is rather jarring. But I suspect that “Lord God” is being used in a way similar to the royal “we” – emphasizing importance (though with very different implications), and perhaps even using “Lord God” as if it were a title. He then switches back into the first person to say that “I” will destroy that sinful kingdom, but not completely.

What is meant by this is illustrated in the next passage. When God shakes up Israel (echoing the shaking of the capitals in Amos 9:1), he will do so “as one shakes with a sieve” (Amos 9:9) – in other words, to sift out impurities. In this case, the impurities are pebbles, and none of them will pass through.

In addition to the idea of culling, the image also invokes a scattering. Instead of having a single clump of – say – ground wheat, the individual particles will be separated from each other, and scattered “among all the nations.”

And now for something completely different

After all of that, Amos 9:11-15 sounds downright hopeful. Instead of focusing on all the destruction, we are suddenly given a vision of restoration, and even of comfort!

So it’s not surprising that many argue against the authenticity of this section. And there certainly are aspects of this section that seem difficult to interpret in a way that would allow for authenticity. The easiest example is the reference to the return of a Davidic dynasty – a dynasty that had not, in Amos’s time, fallen.

As I was reading through my notes in preparation for this chapter, it seemed like a fairly obvious conclusion. Now, though, I’m not so sure. The greatest argument against authenticity is that hope seems to be absent throughout the rest of Amos, so this sudden twist is out of character. But as I’ve already pointed out, there are two instances where the destruction of Israel is compared to the flooding of the Nile (Amos 8:8 and Amos 9:5) – a predictable flooding that recedes, leaving behind silt that makes the Nile watershed renowned for its fertility. So without looking any further, we already have two instances in which Amos’s vision of Israel’s destruction promises an After (and, perhaps just as importantly, an After that is particularly fertile).

That doesn’t mean that the section isn’t a later addition, but I’m not seeing it as nearly so obvious as many commentaries make it seem.

Amos has frequently referred to a day, a day in which judgement and destruction will come. But that day is two-sided. In that day, God will also raise up the “booth” (Amos 9:11) of David that had fallen. He will repair its branches and rebuild it as in the old days.

This is, obviously, the most difficult verse to explain away if we want to argue for the section’s authenticity. I’m not sure it’s impossible, though. While the dynasty of David was still in power at this time (and wouldn’t fall for a fair while), it was not ruling over Israel. In that sense, it had indeed fallen from its old status, and controlled a much smaller portion of the Israelite population. Perhaps the point isn’t that it would be restored from nothing, but that it would be rebuilt from what was left.

I was intrigued by the reference to a “booth” of David, while all our other readings have called it the “house” of David. A booth part of a nomadic tent structure. It feels meaningful that David is associated with tents (which evokes imagery of nomadic life) while God talks about destroying the capitals (which are part of settled architecture).

It evokes an image of raising all that has been built and starting over from scratching, coming in to Israel in booths as in the time of the exodus.

In addition to being rebuilt, Israel will come to possess what is left of Edom, as well as all the nations “who are called by my name” (Amos 9:12).

In these coming days, says God:

  • The plowman will overtake the reaper;
  • The trader of grapes will overtake the one who sows the seed;
  • The mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with it.

These promised blessings may be a reference to Lev. 26:5: “And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the time of sowing; and you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely.”

God will restore Israel’s fortunes, and the Israelites will rebuilt their ruined cities. They will be replanted in the land (as the banks of the Nile must be replanted after every flood), and they will never again be plucked up.

And with that, we come to the end of Amos.

Amos 1-2: Finger Pointing

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Amos opens with a thesis statement in the third person: “The words of Amos […] which he saw concerning Israel” (Amos 1:1).

This statement is mixed in with some biographical information, telling us that Amos was among the shepherds of Tekoa, and that he saw the words when Uzziah was king in Judah and Jeroboam son of Joash was king in Israel, two years before an earthquake.

With regards to his profession as a shepherd, the particular word used is only used in one other place: 2 Kgs 3:4, in reference to the king of Moab. The king of Moab, of course, would hardly be some lowly peasant. Given that Amos was apparently literate, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to see him as the same category of shepherd – the owner of a large flock that was tended by employees.

Claude Mariottini discusses Amos’s occupation in more detail in a blog post.

God Roared

The section proper begins with a verse that reads almost like an incantation:

The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers.

If the verse is original to Amos, the fact that the geographical markers are all from the southern kingdom seems rather odd. There’s something just so Deuteronomistic about Jerusalem as the place from which God is roaring. According to Collins, that’s one reason why this verse is considered by many to be an addition from after the Babylonian exile (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.159).

The use of the term “Zion” is interesting as well, since it’s not a word that’s come up a whole lot in our readings so far. We saw it a fair bit in Lamentations, which is dated to the Babylonian exile. Other than that, we’ve only seen it used a sprinkling of times in Kings and Chronicles, and once in 2 Sam. 5:7, which Wikipedia gives as the earliest use of the word. This seems to be fairly compelling evidence in support of Collins’s assertion.

The Condemnations

The condemnations themselves follow a pattern:

  1. It begins with the phrase: “Thus says the Lord.” According to Claude Mariottini, this phrase is frequently found in prophetic books, and would have been used by royal messengers speaking on behalf of a king to a designated individual (as in the case with Rabshakeh, envoy from King Sennacherib of Assyria to King Hezekiah of Judah in 2 Kgs 18:19).
  2. “For three transgressions of [transgressor], and for four, I will not revoke punishment.” The phrase likely means something along the lines of “three transgressions would have been bad enough, but you’ve gone and had four of them!” (Except, of course, with the specific numbers being literally figurative.)
  3. This is followed by a surprisingly brief explanation of their crimes…
  4. And a surprisingly brief explanation of the punishment that awaits them. This largely involves a fire that will consume their walls and strongholds (except in the case of Israel).
  5. Closing each condemnation (except for those of Tyre and Edom), Amos concludes with: “says the Lord God.”

Amos 1:3-5
Target: Damascus, Syria
Transgressions: They threshed Gilead, which we read about in 2 Kgs 10:32-33.
Punishment: God will send fire down on the house of Hazael, and it will devour the strongholds of Benhadad (both Hazael and Behadad were kings of Syria). The people of Syria will be forced into exile to Kir. This will indeed happen when the Assyrians take Damascus in 2 Kgs 16:9. Also of interest is that Amos himself seems to believe that the Syrians originated from Kir (Amos 9:7).

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Russian icon of the prophet Amos, from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, in Karelia, Russia, 18th cent.

Amos 1:6-8
Target: Gaza, Philistia
Transgressions: For carrying a whole people into exile, and for selling them to Edom.
Punishment: God will send fire onto the wall of Gaza, destroying her strongholds. The inhabitants will be cut off from Ashdod and the one who holds the scepter of Ashkelon. God will turn his hand against Ekron and the last of the Philistines will die. This all happened when Assyria took over in a series of campaigns (Gaza fell to Tiglath-Pileser in 734BCE, Ashdod to Sargon in 711BCE, and Ashkelon and Ekron to Sennacherib in 701BCE).

Amos 1:9-10
Target: Tyre
Transgressions: For selling people to Edom, and for forgetting the covenant of brotherhood (this latter likely a reference to the close relationship between Tyre and Israel during the reigns of David and Solomon, as per 2 Sam. 5:11 and 1 Kgs 5:1).
Punishment: God will set fire to the wall of Tyre and devour its strongholds. This prophecy also came true, this time when Tyre became a tributary to Assyria and then fell to Nebuchadnezzar 585BCE, after a lengthy siege. It was then destroyed by Alexander the Great in 332BCE.

Amos 1:11-12
Target: Edom
Transgressions: For having pursued his brother with the sword, without pity. Edom was perpetually torn by anger and wrath.
Punishment: God will send fire down on Teman, and it will devour the strongholds of Bozrah. This prophecy also came true, as Edom was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE.

Amos 1:13-15
Target: The Ammonites
Transgressions: For having ripped up pregnant women in Gilead to enlarge their borders. This war against Gilead doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere else.
Punishment: God will send fire down to the wall of Rabbah, devouring its strongholds. This will happen with great shouting in the day of battle, and with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind. The Ammonite king and princes will be taken into exile.

Amos 2:1-3
Target: Moab
Transgressions: For having burned to lime the bones of the Edomite king. This is an interesting complaint. While the crimes of the other foreign nations can be read as offenses against Israel (the big Israel, the one that includes Judah), this is a crime against another foreign nation. As Collins puts it, “this is a crime of one Gentile against another and can only be viewed as a crime against humanity. Amos operates with a concept of universal justice, such as we often find in the wisdom literature” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).
Punishment: Fire will rain down upon Moab (though not, at least, it’s walls) and devour the strongholds of Kerioth. Moab will die amid uproar, shouting, and the sound of the trumpet. Its ruler and its princes will be slain.

Amos 2:4-5
Target: Judah
Transgressions: For rejecting the law of God and failing to keep his statutes. For having been led astray by their lies, in the way their fathers walked. This passage is sometimes considered to have been added by a later editor, in large part because of how closely the writing resembles that of the Deuteronomical books.
Punishment: God will bring fire down on Judah devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Of course, this came to pass in 2 Kgs 24-25.

Turning to Israel

While the authenticity of certain passages is in question, the rhetorical flow works quite well. First, Amos lures his readers/listeners in by raging at the other guy. Then he moves a little closer with the next batch, raging at nations considered ‘cousins’: Edom is mythically descended from Jacob’s brother (Gen. 25:19-34), while the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot (Gen. 19:36-38). Circling ever closer, Amos turns to Judah.

And then Amos pounces, throwing the sins of Israel into their faces.

The sins of Israel are many:

  • They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes. This is likely a reference to bribery in the justice system, rather than a real buyer’s market in the slave trade.
  • They trampled the heads of the poor into the dust. This seemed fairly self-evident to me, but the New Bible Commentary made it all about real estate, saying that they were begrudging the poor even the small amount of dust that they put on their heads when mourning (p.731). This could be a translation issue, or perhaps I’m just not getting it, but it’s certainly a powerful image.
  • A man and his father have sex with the same woman, thus profaning God’s holy name. This is generally prohibited in Lev. 20:11, but it seems that many commentaries read this as a condemnation of cultic prostitution (which would explain the reference to God’s holy name). The man and the father would therefore not necessarily be literal, but an indication that the whole of the community is involved in this sin. Of course, once interpretation does not exclude the other, and a double meaning may have been intended.
  • They lay down beside every altar (clearly, Israel wasn’t quite monotheistic enough), upon garments taken in pledge (likely a reference to the same string of laws that gave us Deut. 24:17, prohibiting the taking of a widow’s clothing in pledge).
  • They drink the wine of those who have been fined in the house of their God. The idea that enforcement agencies might profit from greater fines for smaller infractions is certainly still a problem.

Amos breaks the pattern by reminding his audience that God destroyed the Amorites for them – even though the Amorites were as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks. God brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness, then gave them the Amorite lands to call their own. He raised prophets and Nazirites (a person who voluntarily makes a vow, as discussed in Num. 6) from among them, and yet… And yet they have made the Nazirites drink wine and commanded the prophets not to prophecy (a sore point for Amos, I’m sure).

Apparently, the authenticity of this passage about prophets and Nazirites (Amos 2:11-12) is in question, and it’s not hard to see why. It does break the pattern of the condemnations.

In punishment for all of this, God will press them down. Flight will perish from the swift, strength will vanish from the strong, even the mightiest won’t be able to save themselves from the coming punishment. It will be so bad that even the stout of heart will flee naked. Harsh times, indeed.

So, did Amos’s prophecies come true? Well, yes, but given a large enough time frame, foreseeing the doom of just about any nation is a sure bet. One possibility I’m seeing is that of a late authorship – if the book was written during the Deuteronomic reforms or into the exile, the events Amos is predicting would already have been known, and perhaps setting them in the mouth of Amos, or setting Amos in the time of Jeroboam, served a different purpose. Sifting through the arguments for either side is well above my pay grade, but the commentaries I tend to trust the most seem unanimous in the idea that Amos is largely authentic with some possible late additions.

1 Chronicles 11: David’s uncomplicated rise

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Skipping straight from Saul’s death in the last chapter to David’s ascension as king, the Chronicler leaps right over the succession conflicts of 2 Samuel 2-4. In this narrative, David’s rise was effortless and conflict-less.

Right from the start, we see all of Israel congregating in Hebron to declare David as their new king. Repeating their speech almost verbatim from 2 Sam. 5:1-3, they reinforce David’s claim by saying that he had truly been the one leading them from the start, even while Saul was king in name. They make a covenant with David, and Samuel anoints him.

1 Chronicles 11 - Samuel anointing DavidWith all of Israel on his side, David turned toward Jerusalem. The Jebusites taunt David, saying that he will never enter his city. But then, wooops, he conquers it anyway. Parts of the story are copied word-for-word from 2 Sam. 5:6-10, except that all references to David’s hatred for people with physical disabilities are replaced by his vow to promote the first person to kill Jebusites (or perhaps to rush forward at the Jebusites) to the rank of chief and commander. This seems like a fairly awful way to pick leaders, given that leadership skills aren’t terribly correlated with “rush into battle and kill stuff” skills. I get that the point is to reward bravery, but this seems like the Peter Principle in action. The point is only more clearly made when we find out that it is Joab who goes first, earning his place as chief. And we all know how well that turned out (1 Kgs. 2:5-6).

My New Bible Commentary notes that Joab’s promotion here would seem to conflict with 2 Samuel, where Joab is already functioning as commander prior to the taking of Jerusalem. Yet, “the commander-in-chief of the king of Judah would not automatically have become commander-in-chief of the king of all Israel” (p.375). In other words, it’s possible that Joab was already commander, but had to re-earn his position in the new national government. Assuming historicity for a moment, this doesn’t seem unreasonable.

James Pate notes a problematic difference between this chapter and 2 Sam. 5:6-10: Whereas in 2 Samuel, David seems to have chosen Jerusalem as his capitol because it was centrally located and because it did not belong to any particular tribe (therefore avoiding the argument of favouritism), the Chronicler gives David complete support from all Israel before he turns to Jerusalem, and in fact shows a pan-tribal attacking army. So why, then, would David have needed to take Jerusalem? Pate discusses the issue in his post.

Once David took Jerusalem, it began to be known as the city of David. He and Joab then set to work repairing the city (and presumably building it up), and thus did David become ever greater.

The Mighty Men

The rest of the chapter lists the men of David’s elite army. It is nearly identical to the list found in 2 Sam. 23:8-39, though with additional names added to the end. One theory is that the 2 Samuel version ended with Uriah to rhetorically underscore the evil that David had done to him in 2 Sam. 11, whereas the Chronicler may have been working with a more complete list.

We begin with the elite of the elite, known as the Three. The group’s leader was Jachobeam, a Hachmonite, who once killed 300 enemies with his spear at one time (the number is 800 in 2 Sam. 23:8, but the difference could be caused by confusion with another warrior, Abishai, who killed 300 in 2 Sam. 23:18 and 1 Chron. 11:20).

The other two members of the Three are mashed together here, apparently due to a scribal error. In 2 Sam. 23:9-12, we learn of two members of the group: Eleazar son of Dodo the Ahohite and Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. In the 2 Samuel version, Eleazar was with David when they defied the Philistines. The Israelite army was routed, but Eleazar kept fighting until his arm grew weary – long enough to win the battle. When the Israelites returned, it was only to strip the dead. As for Shammah, the Israelite army was again routed, but Shammah stood in a plot of lentils, defending it until the Philistines were defeated.

The Chronicler’s version, however, tells us only of Eleazar, and how he was with David at Pasdammim when the Philistines gathered against them. Even though the Israelites were routed, he stood his ground in a field of barley and defeated the Philistines. It’s rather easy to see how a scribe’s eye might skip in two such similar stories.

Before getting into the Thirty, we learn of three men from the band of Thirty (there’s no indication that they are the Three) who came to David while he was in hiding in the cave of Adullam (his stay is narrated in 1 Sam. 22:1-5) while the Philistines occupied Bethlehem.

David seems to have been feeling rather sorry for himself, and said (with much sighing, I imagine) that he wished he could have some water to drink from one of the wells of Bethlehem. These three members of the Thirty heard him (or perhaps overheard him, depending on the interpretation) and took it upon themselves to go fetch that water for David. So they snuck through the Philistine guards, into Bethlehem, and drew the water.

When they returned, however, David refused to drink it. Instead, he poured it onto the ground, saying: “Shall I drink the lifeblood of these men?” (1 Chron. 11:19). How David looks in this story depends entirely on the reader’s interpretation. If he had asked his men who fetch him the water, then his actions are just awful. But if he was just moping about, feeling sorry for himself, and they happened to overhear him and did something foolish that he hadn’t wanted them to do, then he is some degree of less awful. At least no Beckets were killed this time.

The chief of the Thirty was Abishai, Joab’s brother. Like Jachobeam, he too killed 300 enemies at one go with a spear. The other member of the Thirty whose deeds are worth mentioning is Benaiah son of Jehoiada, of Kabzeel, the captain of David’s bodyguards. He killed two whole ariels of Moab, which I’m sure is very impressive whatever an ariel is. He also killed a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen, the significant of which is lost on me, but I’m sure that too is very impressive. He also duelled a very large Egyptian who wielded a spear like a weaver’s beam. Benaiah lunged in with his staff and, snatching the oversized spear from the Egyptian’s hands, killed him with his own weapon.

The rest of the Thirty are given as a simple list:

  1. Asahel brother of Joab
  2. Elhanan son of Dodo of Bethlehem
  3. Shammoth of Harod
  4. Helez the Pelonite
  5. Ira son of Ikkesh of Tekoa
  6. Abiezer of Anathoth
  7. Sibbecai the Hushathite
  8. Ilai the Ahohite
  9. Maharai of Netophah
  10. Heled son of Baanah of Netophah
  11. Ithai son of Ribai of Gibeah, of the Benjaminites
  12. Benaiah of Pirathon
  13. Hurai of the brooks of Gaash
  14. Abiel the Arbathite
  15. Azmaveth of Baharum
  16. Eliahba of Shaalbon
  17. Hashem the Gizonite
  18. Jonathan son of Shagee the Hararite
  19. Ahiam son of Sachar the Hararite
  20. Eliphal son of Ur
  21. Hepher the Mecherathite
  22. Ahijah the Pelonite
  23. Hezro of Carmel
  24. Naarai the son of Ezbai
  25. Joel the brother of Nathan
  26. Mibhar son of Hagri
  27. Zelek the Ammonite
  28. Naharai of Beeroth, the armor-bearer of Joab and son of Zeruiah
  29. Ira the Ithrite
  30. Gareb the Ithrite
  31. Uriah the Hittite
  32. Zabad son of Ahlai
  33. Adina son of Shiza, the Reubenite, who was a leader among the Reubenites and was accompanied by 30 of his brethren
  34. Hanan son of Maacah
  35. Joshaphat the Mithnite
  36. Uzzia the Ashterathite
  37. Shama son of Hotham the Aroerite
  38. Jeiel, Shama’s brother
  39. Jediael son of Shimri
  40. Joha, brother of Jediael, a Tizite
  41. Eliel the Mahavite
  42. Jeribai son of Elnaam
  43. Joshaviah, also a son of Elnaam
  44. Ithmah the Moabite
  45. Eliel
  46. Obed
  47. Jaasiel the Mezobaite

These are, of course, way more than thirty men. It seems that the name of David’s elite company was chosen for its neat roundedness (or perhaps its accuracy at some earlier date).

2 Samuel 22-23: Of champions and praise

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The following chapters contain two poems (one in each), followed by a list of David’s champions. The first poem, found in 2 Samuel 22, is nearly identical to Psalm 18. There are also several similarities to the poems of Moses from Deut. 32 and Deut. 33, such as the references to rain and the comparison between God and a rock.

The first poem

The first poem is a song of thanksgiving to God for delivering David from his enemies. Given the specific mention of Saul as one of them, my impression is that the poem was meant to have been written shortly after Saul’s death.

"[God] rode on a cherub" (2 Sam. 22:11)

“[God] rode on a cherub” (2 Sam. 22:11)

God is variously described as a rock, a shield, and the agent of David’s delivery. He also seems to be described as a sort of storm god, which may be an insight into early conceptions of Yahweh.

It’s all well and good until we get to the bit about why God did all these things and it becomes rather clear that David is either delusional, or he wrote this very early on:

He delivered me, because he delighted in me. The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. (2 Sam. 22:20-22).

You know, except that bit where God cursed him to be endlessly troubled after he stole another man’s wife and then had him killed.

Whether or not it was actually written by David, however, is highly questionable. There is, for example, a reference to the Temple in 2 Sam. 22:7, which won’t be built until after David’s death. That makes the insistence that David’s enemies were smashed because of David’s perfect righteousness all the more headscratchy, since the business with Uriah must have taken place already. It seems that the propaganda machine was well underway in Ancient Israel.

The second poem

The second poem claims to have been composed by David as his last words (like Jacob’s words in Genesis 48, or Moses’s final blessing in Deuteronomy 33). In this poem, he claims to be channeling God directly – something that David has otherwise been unable to do, relying instead on priests and prophets. In this poem, it seems that David is claiming to actually be a prophet.

My study Bible notes that this poem appears to have been corrupted and may be only a fragment. It describes the benefits of a worthy ruler, reiterates the “everlasting covenant” (2 Sam. 23:5) that God has made with David, and condemns “godless men” (2 Sam. 23:6) that must only be dealt with using violence.

It’s rather ironic, and perhaps intentional on some editor’s part, that the poem describes a just ruler as being “like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Sam. 23:4), given the story we just had in 2 Sam. 21 about a famine that may have been caused by a drought. Since it was determined to be Saul’s fault, the placement of this poem appears to be a little dig at Saul’s expense.

David’s champions

The second half of 2 Sam. 23 lists David’s various champions, organized into two groups: an elite force called The Thirty, and a super elite force called The Three.

The Three:

  1. Joshebbasshebeth the Tahchemonite has the honour of being both the chief of The Three, as well as the member of David’s entourage with the most unpronounceable name. He killed eight hundred men at the same time using only a spear.
  2. Eleazar, son of Dodo, son of Ahohi, stayed at David’s side when the Philistines attacked and the other Israelites fled. Together (though presumably with a bit of help), they managed to defeat the Philistines and win the day.
  3. Shammah, son of Agee the Hararite, also stayed at David’s side in a similar encounter against the Philistines (or perhaps the same one). Once again, they won despite the odds.

Before we launch in to the names of The Thirty, we’re first told a story in which there was a Philistine garrison in Bethlehem, David’s home town. This may refer to the same conflict we read about in 2 Samuel 5:17-26.

Around harvest time, David wished out loud for some water from the Bethlehem well. He was overheard by the top three of The Thirty, here unnamed, who then sneaked into Bethlehem, drew water from the well, and brought it back to David. In a bit of a jerk move, David poured it on the ground instead of drinking it, saying that he was offering it to God rather than drinking “the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives” (2 Samuel 23:17).

After that story, we get a list of The Thirty:

  1. Abishai, Joab’s brother, is the chief of the band. Though he was able to kill three hundred people with a spear, this was not enough to make the cut for The Three.
  2. Joab’s other brother, Asahel, is named as one of The Thirty, suggesting that either David’s champion order began really early (since Asahel was killed in 2 Sam. 2:23, before David became king of Israel), or, according to my study Bible, he may have been included “on an honorary basis” (p.410).
  3. Benaiah, son of Jehoiada of Kabzeel, killed two “ariels” of Moab. My study Bible merely notes that the word’s meaning is unknown, though my New Bible Commentary says that the literal meaning is “lion of God” – guessing that Benaiah either fought literal lions, or else there was a kind of Moabite warrior that was “referred to metaphorically as lions” (p.314). He also fought a lion that was definitely literal, in the snow no less! Then topped it all off by killing a handsome Egyptian. The Egyptian had a spear while Benaiah had only staff, but he managed to wrestle the spear away from the Egyptian and kill him with it. This is presumably the same Benaiah who had charge of the Cherethites and Pelethites in 2 Sam. 8:18 and 2 Sam. 20:23.
  4. Next is Elhanan, son of Dodo of Bethlehem – who is either the brother of Eleazar or there were two guys named Dodo running around.
  5. Shammah of Harod.
  6. Elika of Harod.
  7. Helez the Paltite.
  8. Ira, son of Ikkesh of Tekoa.
  9. Abiexer of anathoth.
  10. Mebunnai the Hushathite.
  11. Zalmon the Ahohite.
  12. Maharai of Netophah.
  13. Heleb, son of Baanah of Netophah.
  14. Ittai, son of Ribai of Gibeah, of the Benjaminites.
  15. Benaiah of Pirathon.
  16. Hiddai of the brooks of Gaash.
  17. Abialbon the Arbathite.
  18. Azmaveth of Bahurim.
  19. Eliahba of Shaalbon.
  20. The sons of Jashen.
  21. Jonathan.
  22. Shammah the Hararite.
  23. Ahiam, son of Sharar the Hararite.
  24. Eliphelet, son of Ahasbai of Maacah.
  25. Eliam, son of Ahithophel of Gilo. This may be the same Eliam who is named as Bathsheba’s father in 2 Sam. 11:3.
  26. Hezro of Carmel.
  27. Paarai the Arbite.
  28. Igal, son of Nathan of Zobah.
  29. Bani the Gadite.
  30. Zelek the Ammonite.
  31. Naharai of Beeroth.
  32. Joab’s armour-bearer.
  33. Ira the Ithrite.
  34. Gareb the Ithrite.
  35. Uriah the Hittite. I wonder if a clever author/editor placed Uriah last on the list to draw attention to him, given the story we have involving him.

The text closes off by telling us that there were thirty-seven in all. This appears to have been an editor’s insert, perhaps attempting to explain that the name, The Thirty, was a rounding. Even so, arriving at that number involves a bit of guesswork. For example, it could be that Joab, as the commander of all David’s forces (2 Sam. 20:23), was implicitly included. With him and the assumption that Jashen had two sons, we arrive at thirty-seven.

According to my New Bible Commentary, Jonathan (#21) should be the son of Shammah, which would remove Shammah from the list. The book also suggests that The Three should be included in the number. It’s all very muddled.

2 Samuel 3: An embarrassing situation

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Despite the resolution in the last chapter, we’re told that the house of David and the house of Saul are caught up in a lengthy war. As time wears on, David’s side gains strength while Ishbosheth weakens.

During this time, Abner’s power and influence grows. It seems that in the process, he grew a little big for his britches and may (or may not) have had a dalliance with one of Saul’s concubines, Rizpah daughter of Aiah. Notice that she is named (as is her parentage!) when so many side characters are not.

Ishbosheth confronts Abner about this. After all, since Rizpah was Saul’s concubine, having sex with her would be something like a servant “just trying on” the king’s crown. It implies ambitions that are utterly unsuitable – especially from the perspective of a king with such a tenuous grasp of his crown as Ishbosheth.

Abner is absolutely indignant. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that Abner is a liar here, or if we’re supposed to see Ishbosheth as going a little paranoid.

Either way, it’s the only time we see Ishbosheth nay-saying Abner, and it’s clear how Abner feels about this. He reminds Ishbosheth that it is Abner who brought him to Mahanaim instead of simply delivering him into David’s hands. If Ishbosheth has a crown at all now, it is only through Abner’s benevolence.

He is saying this, I remind you, to a 40 year old man (2 Sam. 2:11).

To avenge the insult to his honour, Abner promises to be the hand by which God makes David king of Israel. Ishbosheth is too afraid to respond to this.

In his speech, Abner asks Ishbosheth, “am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Dogs are unclean animals, so that’s insult enough. Adding “of Judah” seems to imply that his defection has already occurred, even though in the narrative, it is this incident that prompts it. That said, “of Judah” does not appear in the Septuagint, suggesting that it may have been an editorial addition.

Defection

Upset with his king, Abner decides to try another. He goes to David and pledges loyalty in exchange for covenant (which I assume means that he is trying to ensure his personal safety and, possibly, his position). David agrees, but only if Abner brings him his first wife, Michal, who had been remarried to Paltiel (or Palti) son of Laish in 1 Sam. 25:44, and whom David claims to have paid a hundred Philistine foreskins for (though he’s shortchanging himself since the figure in 1 Sam. 18:20-27 was two hundred).

Abner agrees and runs off to collect her. Meanwhile, David sends a messenger to Ishbosheth asking for Michal to be returned to him. Since he has already commanded Abner to bring her, it’s unclear what his reasoning was, though it ends up working out as Ishbosheth agrees and charges Abner with delivering her. (Though why he would entrust Abner with anything after his stated plan to defect is also unclear. In fact, why he would agree to release Michal knowing that it would greatly solidify David’s claim on his throne is also rather unclear.)

We are told that Michal’s husband, Paltiel, followed her weeping all the way to Bahurim. Finally, Abner tells him to buzz off and, afraid to challenge someone so powerful, he does. Though Michal’s feelings are never revealed, Paltiel’s actions suggest that David has just broken up a happy marriage for his own political gain. (Being Saul’s son-in-law lends his claim to the Israelite crown far more legitimacy, as it becomes arguably a hereditary succession rather than a straight up usurpation.)

On his way, Abner rouses the elders of Israel and Benjamin against Ishbosheth, so he goes to David with their support. The separate mention of Benjamin here is particularly significant because that is Saul’s own tribe turning away from Saul’s son. They are the most likely to support Ishbosheth’s claim, yet they are supporting David. It could be that with Ishbosheth trapped on the east side of the Jordan, they figure that David is their best chance for protection against the Philistines.

Abner arrives with Michal and twenty soldiers, and David throws them a feast (though his reunion with Michal is conspicuously absent). The feasting done, Abner heads out to gather the Israelites for a covenant ceremony to swear David in as the new king of Israel.

2 Samuel 3But just then, Joab (and apparently his brother Abishai as well, though his name isn’t added to the story until 2 Sam. 3:30) returns from a raid (despite being the king of Judah, David is still, apparently, a bandit leader) and finds out that Abner, his mortal enemy, had been there. To avenge Asahel’s death, he sends out some men to capture Abner and bring him back, then murders him.

This is technically a legal killing since Joab is a relative of the killed Asahel and Abner is not currently in one of the cities of refuge (as stipulated in Deut. 19 and Num. 35). Even so, it’s not exactly politically convenient for David, since it makes it look an awful lot like he’s murdering his way to the crown.

To distance himself from the murder, David curses Joab, makes a big public show of mourning Abner, writes a lament (which he is apparently doing for all of his Totally Not Murdered Nemeses), and fasts for a day despite being begged not to. He even announces publicly that he and his kingdom are innocent in the matter. The people are apparently convinced by David’s fervent campaigning and all is forgiven, though you’ll note that all talk of crowning him king of Israel is dropped for the time being.

It seems that he cannot simply execute Joab and Abishai as he did the Amalekite in 2 Sam. 1 because they have too much political clout. Instead, he asks that God to the punishing for him, cursing Joab and his descendants: “may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who is slain by the sword, or who lacks bread” (2 Sam. 3:29). Spindles, by the way, are women’s tools. Strictly speaking, I’d say that few houses go for very many generations without at least one daughter, but in this context I think he is merely cursing Joab with effeminate children.

This whole episode stinks of propaganda. As with David being sent home at the last minute so that he is conveniently not on the battlefield where Saul gets killed (1 Sam. 29), this story exonerates him from Abner’s murder. But here, the cover story is far more clumsy.

A possible alternative story would simply have Joab murdering Abner, either on David’s direct command or in the hopes that David would be pleased by it after-the-fact. The backstory of a blood feud provides a little cover for Joab, making his actions legal (and reducing the classicism in David’s lack of punishment). Having Abner defect to David’s side first eliminates David’s gain from his death – after all, Abner had sworn to deliver the crown of Israel into David’s hands, and that process is delayed by his death.

Yet the fact remains that David’s competition keeps dying, and that’s more than a little suspicious.

David’s family life

In the middle of all this, we got a little insert about the sons born to David during his stay in Hebron. While ostensibly about his sons, it also provides an updated list of his wives as well.

As we learned in 2 Sam. 2:11, David was only in Hebron for seven and a half years. That means that he was having an average of almost one son per year during his stay (and that’s only sons, since daughters are not listed!), albeit all from different women. In order of birth, those sons are:

  1. Amnon of Ahinoam
  2. Chileab of Abigail
  3. Absalom of Maacah, the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur
  4. Adonijah of Haggith
  5. Shephatiah of Abital
  6. Ithream of Elgah

Notice Maacah’s parentage. The fact that David is marrying princesses at this early stage suggests that he’s already amassed a good deal of political clout. It also suggests that he has forged an alliance with Geshur, which would be located to Ishbosheth’s north. With David and the Philistines to his west, poor Ishbosheth’s position is looking rather dire.

2 Samuel 2: It’s all fun and games…

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With Saul dead, it’s presumably safe for David to return to Israel. Still, given all the emphasis on David as the heaven-anointed successor to Saul, having him just waltz back into the country after his competitor was conveniently killed might seem a little too forward. So instead of telling us simply that David returned, we have to go through the ol’ “he asked of God” bit again. God sends him to Hebron, in the territory belonging to Judah.

When David arrives, he is anointed as the king of Judah.

I’ve guessed before that the competition between David and Saul could well have been once between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the two tribes struggle for supremacy in the Israelite confederacy.

It could also be that Judah’s inclusion in the emerging Israel was by no means a given at this stage. We can see in Judges 5:13-18, for example, that Judah was not always listed among the tribes.

The third option is that the word “king” is used here in the same way that it’s used to refer to the city state leaders (just like Achish is the Philistine king of Gath, the other cities of the Philistine pentapolis each having their own king with no king of Philistia itself). I doubt that this is the case, however, since the bible has so far preferred “elders” to refer to local governments.

David’s (or God’s) choice of Hebron may be significant, as it is associated with several patriarchs.

Once established, David sends his blessings to Jabesh-gilead for their role in recovering Saul’s body. Once again, the point that David absolutely did not participate in Saul’s killing and absolutely grudges the unquestionable benefits he gains through it is reinforced.

The king beyond the river

Meanwhile, despite the insistent repetition that Saul and his sons were killed in 1 Sam. 31, one appears to have survived – Ishbosheth. I’m seeing the argument made that Ishbosheth appears, named Ishvi, in the list of Saul’s sons in 1 Sam. 14:49. However, three names are given in that list and the phrasing implies that it is complete, but 1 Sam. 31:6 tells us that Saul died in battle with his three sons.

So whose hand was I holding?

It’s probably that Ishbosheth is not the person’s real name anyway. According to my study Bible, the name can be translated as “man of shame” (p. 376). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a reference in 1 Chronicles 8:33 suggests that his real name might have been Ishbaal, or “man of Baal” (implying that Saul was not quite the monotheist 1 Samuel paints him to be). It seems possible that an industrious editor, either keen to erase evidence of polytheistic worship from the record or perhaps simply poking fun at this character, altered the kid’s name.

Ishbosheth, whom we are told is 40 years old at this time, is taken to Mahanaim by Abner, Saul’s old commander. Despite Ishbosheth’s age, he seems to be a passive agent in this and through most of the rest of his story, with Abner filling a sort of regent role. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what it means.

In Mahanaim, Ishbosheth is crowned king of Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel. There are a few notes to make about this list. The first and most obvious is that Israel is mentioned separately from the individual tribes and territories. This suggests that Ishbosheth’s rule over Israel as a whole is more theoretical, a claim he clings to though in reality he has no actual authority. Think of Daenerys Targaryen claiming herself to be the monarch of Westeros despite her exile.

The mention of the Ashurites is an impossibility. According to my New Bible Companion, Ashurite is normally used to refer to the Assyrians, and it’s clearly impossible for Ishbosheth to be king of the Assyrians.

The Hebrew text has probably resulted from a scribal confusion of two names, the men of Geshur (an Aramaean state, N of Gilead) and the men of Asher. The Targum reads ‘men of Asher’, probably correctly, while the Syriac and Vulgate have Geshurites. (p.303)

Having his capitol be in Mahanaim, to the east of the Jordan river, represents a retreat. That area has so far always been a sort of borderlands, a dubious inclusion in the territory assigned to Israel. But with the Philistines pushing from the west, it may have been the only viable location for a capitol.

It seems likely that Ishbosheth is only really ruling Gilead, that Israel belongs to him only in theory, and that the other groups mentioned merely swore fealty to him but likely retain most, if not all, of their own sovereignty.

We are told that Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for only two years, and that David ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years. This complicates the timeline a little. Since we know that David will be king of Israel after Ishbosheth, it leaves five years unaccounted for (either before or after Ishbosheth’s reign). One possible explanation is that David ruled Judah from Hebron for two years, then maintained it as his capitol after being crowned king of Israel for a further five and a half before moving to Jerusalem.

Play gone wrong

For reasons that are never explained, Abner (as Ishbosheth’s representative) meets Joab son of Zeruiah (as David’s representative) at the pool of Gibeon, yelling at each other from either side of the water. They have each brought 12 champions, which they set on each other in a kind of mock battle.

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

Unfortunately, all 24 champions kill each other, leading to the place of their fighting being renamed Helkath-hazzurim, or “the field of the sword edges.”

It could be that this mock battle was intended as a representative battle, like the one that Goliath proposed in 1 Samuel 17:10. Unfortunately, with all the champions dead, it results in a tie. It seems that with no resolution to decide the issue, David and Ishbosheth’s armies all fall on each other.

This is all guesswork because the narrative really isn’t clear about what’s going on, and it’s never indicated what they are even fighting over. Though, I suppose the easiest conclusion we can draw is the house of David and the house of Saul are engaging in open conflict over the Israelite crown (which gives the lie to the idea that David is passively given the crown by God and country).

According to Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic, it could be that the use of 12 men on each side could be a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes engaged in a civil war.

Once the conflict devolves into a large-scale battle, the followers of David are victorious and Abner flees. Joab’s brother, Asahel, takes off in pursuit.

Abner first tries to tempt Asahel into letting him escape, telling him to go scavenge some bodies for spoils instead. Asahel is not dissuaded and the chase continues. Next comes the scare tactic, with Abner saying that he has no desire to kill Asahel (and thereby become the enemy of Asahel’s brother), but Asahel doesn’t listen.

Finally, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, piercing Asahel through and killing him. Abner’s intent isn’t clear, and the Hebrew noun translated “butt” is apparently uncertain. It seems, however, that there’s at least a possibility that Abner merely meant to hit Asahel, perhaps to make him fall or at least stagger him long enough for Abner to get away, and that Asahel’s death was accidental.

Asahel’s brother, Joab, continues the pursuit along with their other brother, Abishai. You remember Abishai as David’s companion when he sneaks into the Israelite camp to steal Saul’s spear in 1 Sam. 26:6-9. In that story, Abishai tried to convince David to kill Saul while he had the chance, but David magnanimously refused. It seems that this bloodlust runs in the family.

So Joab and Abishai are pursuing Abner, intending to kill him and avenge their brother. Finally, Abner is joined by a Benjaminite army and, perhaps feeling a little more confident with the backing, turns to face the two brothers. He calls them out with a fantastic verse that just gives my chills:

Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren? (2 Sam. 2:26)

Joab insists that they were only planning to chase him a little longer anyway, but he backs down.

Now free from his pursuers, Abner travels without rest back to Mahanaim. Joab returns to the scene of the battle and does a body count, finding a total of 20 dead on David’s side and 360 dead on Abner’s side. After stopping to bury Asahel at Bethlehem, Joab and Abishai head back to Hebron right quick.

1 Samuel 29-30: The Great Rescue

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Before we got sidetracked by Saul’s adventures in Endor, we learned that David was going out to fight with the Philistines against the Israelites. So far, David has managed to avoid the conflict of interest by lying about the victims of his raids (1 Samuel 27), but now his betrayal seems inevitable.

At no point are we given insight into David’s feelings about all of this. He seems perfectly willing to follow Achish into battle in 1 Samuel 28, and he expresses no reservations here. Rather, it is the other Philistines who complain about his presence – worried that David might turn on them during the battle, seeing this as a great strategy if David wants to reconcile himself with Saul.

After all, they say, isn’t this the David from the song?

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 29:5)

Achish defends David’s presence, arguing that David has shown himself to be nothing if not loyal. But, in the end, he gives in to the will of the people (and interesting parallel to Saul who, in 1 Sam. 15:22, 24, claimed that he only disobeyed God because he was afraid to go against the popular opinion – just as, here, Achish goes against his conscience for the same reason).

David protests using much the same language as he used when defending himself to Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26, but ultimately gives in and heads back to Ziklag, conveniently spared the faux pas of having to fight against his own people (over whom he will son be king, no less!).

The common argument about this story is that it gives David an out. He was apparently known to have defected to the Philistines, and trying to erase that historical detail would have proved impossible. What was possible, however, was at least keeping him away from the battle in which his chief nemesis dies, exonerating David from any intentional power play.

David versus the Amalekites

When David gets back to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by Amalekites and burned, the women (including David’s two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail) taken captive.

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

This apparently has a rather profound effect on morale, because David’s followers start talking about stoning him. Which seems a little extreme, but perhaps the rationale is that they wouldn’t have left their families undefended if David had not taken them out to fight with the Philistines. To defend himself, we are told that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). It’s not really clear what this means, but perhaps he invoked their belief in God (and his position as God’s chosen) to dissuade the people from mutiny.

As he’s been doing a lot before making major decisions (even when they seem as clear cut as “shall I rescue my wives?”), David calls for Abiathar to consult God. Should he pursue the bandits, he asks? Of course, God says yes, so David marches out with his 600 fighting men.

Some of them appear to be getting a little on in years, because 200 of them simply can’t go on after they reach Besor. David carries on with his remaining 400 men. This will be important later.

On their way, they encounter a starving Egyptian. They feed him – apparently quite well – and find out that he is the servant of one of the Amalekites, left behind after he had fallen sick. According to the Egyptian, Ziklag was not the only place hit, the Amalekites had also raided the Negeb of the Cherethites, areas belonging to Judah, and the Negeb of Caleb. He agrees to lead David to the raiders.

He does so and David smites all except for 400 who manage to flee.

Everything and everyone taken is recovered from the Amalekites, plus a good deal of spoil. Not a bad run, all told.

When David’s army rejoins with the 200 men they had left behind at Besor, the 400 who had gone on start grumbling that they shouldn’t have to share the spoils with people who didn’t even fight. Heck, they don’t even want to return their property (except for women and children, which is a concession I’m glad they made).

David argues that those who fight in the battle and those who stay behind to guard the baggage are both important, and both deserve a share of the spoils. He makes this an ordinance that is to apply to all Israel henceforth, though it isn’t clear on what authority he does this.

Once he returns to Ziklag, David sends part of the spoils out to various elders of Judah, smoothing any concerns over his allegiance and presumably paving the way for their support when it comes time to select a new king of Israel.

How many times can an Amalekite die?

It’s been pointed out that the Amalekites are utterly killed on several occasions. There are a couple possible explanations for this.

Reconciling Samuel’s slaughter of the Amalekites with Saul’s is rather easy, as it could be that Samuel’s list is not of his personal achievements in battle, but rather of the achievements of Israel/God while under his spiritual leadership.

For Saul and David, it could be that we’re dealing with hyperbole. It’s not like the authors of the Bible are totally unfamiliar with the technique.

It could also be that we’re dealing with a subset of Amalekites, not the entire people. We’ve seen this before, particularly in censuses, where the term “people” is used when only the adult men are meant. So in 1 Samuel 15: 7-8, it could well be that the “all the people” Saul kills refers only to the men currently on that battlefield. This might well exclude the raiding party for David.

1 Samuel 27: Playing two sides

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Thinking – justifiably – that he may die at Saul’s hand (despite their two reconciliation), David escapes to Gath, to the court of Achish, son of Maoch. The last time he did this was in 1 Sam. 21. At that time, he was still reasonably in Saul’s good graces and feared that Achish might nab him for the political expediency. To get back out of Achish’s court, David lathered up his beard and pretended to be mad.

The move was predicted in 1 Sam. 26:19, where David’s complaint that he is driven out of the assembly of God indicates that he knew that he would be moving to Philistia.

king_davidThis time, he approaches Achish directly. It’s perhaps not surprising that Achish doesn’t remember him, as he didn’t seem to know that David was anything other than just a madman.

David offers himself – and his 600 followers – up as a sort of pirate army. In exchange, he asks for a country town. The text mentions that he brings along Ahinoam and Abigail, so it seems likely that David is trying to settle his (and his soldiers’) family. Living in caves and in wilderness, always having to move as they pursued by their king, can’t have been a very comfortable existence.

Achish agrees and gives David Ziklag. The town had been given to the tribe of Simeon in Joshua 19:5, but had since apparently fallen under Philistine control. Now that it’s given to David, we are told that “Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day” (1 Sam. 27:6). David and his followers live there for one year and four months.

During that time, they go on raids for Achish. Sort of.

While they tell Achish that they are raiding Israelites and friends of Israelites (Judah, Jerahmeelites, and Kenites), they are actually raiding Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites. To keep his subterfuge under wraps, David has all the people he raids murdered, keeping only the livestock and stuff to bring back to Achish. This way, no survivors can reveal that David isn’t raiding the people he claims to be raiding.

Achish, believing that David is making himself an enemy among the Israelites, thinks that his loyalty is assured. After all, he’d have nowhere else to go.

1 Samuel 25: Uppity women

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Before getting into the main story, we find out that Samuel is dead. The delivery is every bit as brutal in the text, too, though I apologize to anyone who had gotten attached.

Of his death, we are told only that it happened, that the people grieved, and that he was buried in his house at Ramah. My study Bible notes simply, “the brevity of the obituary is surprising” (p. 365). No kidding.

My New Bible Commentary wonders if the note might not have been added to make a theological point, noting that it occurs right after Saul acknowledges that David will succeed him as king of Israel. From this perspective, Samuel’s death serves to punctuate that story, declaring Samuel’s mission to find a proper king for Israel officially over.

David in the wilderness

For the rest of the chapter, we return to David’s adventures in the wilderness. He is now holed up in the wilderness of Paran or, perhaps, the wilderness of Maon (the Septuagint reading). My study Bible notes that the latter is more plausible, as Paran would put David too far south.

How David manages to keep his 600 followers fed is something of a mystery. My study Bible emphasises that the area would have been quite arid, though 600 is a lot of mouths to feed even for lush ground. It helps to explain why he has been moving so much. It’s also worth keeping in mind as we try to understand the story of his interaction with Nabal.

David and Abigail, by Joseph Schonmann

David and Abigail, by Joseph Schonmann

So David is hanging out in the wilderness with his 600 followers, and he’s doing something. He and some other people in the story claim that he’s a sort of Robin Hood figure, just hanging out and protecting shepherds from wannabe bandits. Take the fancy speeches out, however, and a rather different picture is painted.

David sends ten messengers out to a wealthy shepherd by the name of Nabal. It’s in the middle of sheep shearing, apparently a festival time, and David wants his followers fed. Nabal, whose name means something like “fool”, refuses. He asks who is this David who makes such a claim of him – “There are many servants nowadays who are breaking away from their masters” (1 Sam. 25:10). Why should he feed David’s followers when he has his own to feed?

When the messengers report back to David, he is furious. One interpretation has him angry because the laws of hospitality have been violated – a tremendous insult. Another suggests that perhaps David is a bandit leader and this is how he’s keeping his followers fed. Either way, he orders 400 of his followers to arm up, leaving the remaining 200 to guard their stuff, and marches out. His intention is to kill every male under Nabal’s authority (presumably meaning both livestock and people). Hilariously, the King James Version has the euphemism “any that pisseth against the wall” (1 Sam. 25:22) in place of “male.” Apparently, this is a defining characteristic of masculinity!

Meanwhile, Nabal’s wife, Abigail, hears about the messengers. Unlike her foolish husband, she is “of good understanding and beautiful” (1 Sam. 25:3). Without telling her husband, she quickly pulls together a feast and rushes out to meet David.

When she reaches him, she throws herself at his feet and brown noses for 8 verses straight. She assumes the guilt in the incident because her husband is a total nincompoop and she failed to hear of David’s messengers sooner – an interesting argument, to be sure. During her speech, she references God appointing David “prince over Israel” (1 Sam. 25:30) in the future, suggesting (perhaps an unintentional anachronism) that David’s bid for the crown was broadly known.

David thanks her for staying his hand and preventing him from taking on the bloodguilt of murdering all the wall pissers.

When Abigail returns home, she finds Nabal partying and drunk, and she decides not to tell him about what she’s done (and the danger he was so recently in). The next morning, once he’s sobered up a little, Abigail tells him and his “heart died within him, and he became as a stone” (1 Sam. 25:37) – suggesting some kind of stroke – and he conveniently dies ten days later. David gives thanks to God for getting the foolish Nabal out of the way and sends in a petition for Abigail’s hand in marriage. She accepts.

Overshadowed by such a great “first meeting” story, David also marries a woman from Jezreel named Ahinoam. We are told that he technically has only two wives at this point because Saul has married Michal off to Palti, son of Laish (much as he did Michal’s sister in 1 Sam. 18:19).

1 Samuel 15: The Sundering

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The relationship between Samuel and Saul is an interesting one, because it looks an awful lot like a power struggle between the secular and cultic leadership structures.

So we see, for example, Samuel directing political decisions by being God’s mouthpiece: he tells Saul to go after the Amalekites, to punish them for “opposing them [the Israelites] on the way, when they came up out of Egypt” (1 Sam. 15:2). In a sense, he is trying to direct the military aspect of governorship by proxy.

There is, however, a condition; the Israelites must kill all the Amalekites, even women and infants, even their livestock. Samuel is invoking the rules of holy war outlined in Deut. 20.

Interestingly, the incident Samuel is referencing (also outlined in Deut. 25:17-19) is narrated in Exodus 17:8-16. There, Joshua battled the Amalekites while Moses lead the cheers from the sidelines. Though the Israelites won, God promised to destroy them all later. Now he’s going to give it a go.

Saul musters 200,000 soldiers. That number either includes or is in addition to 10,000 soldiers from the tribe of Judah. This is the second time the soldiers of Judah are counted separately (the other time was in 1 Sam. 11:8), and I don’t know why that is. It could be that the source came from Judah, so they recorded their own numbers in the stories as a matter of interest.

When they reach the city of Amalek (probably not an actual city since it seems that the Amalekites were at least partially nomadic – I imagine that this is more likely a fortified base/trading centre), Saul reaches out to the Kenites who are living among the Amalekites, telling them to get out lest they be killed as well. According to the Deuteronomist histories, the Kenites are associated with Moses’ father-in-law (whatever his nom du jour happens to be – Judges 1:16; 4:11). Clearly, they were a group viewed favourably by the Israelites. The Kenites obey.

Saul defeats the Amalekites and (mostly) follows Samuel’s instructions. However, as we saw in the narrative of the battle of Ai, mostly doesn’t cut it. Saul keeps alive the Amalekite king Agag and a selection of the very best livestock, claiming that he wished to sacrifice these at a proper altar. He doesn’t seem to understand that this is disobeying Samuel’s commands, however, presumably figuring that he is going to kill them all anyway, wouldn’t it be better to do it in a ritualistic way rather than just slaughtering everything right away in the field?

When Samuel finds out, he is furious, and God “repents” of his choice of king. Samuel tries to confront Saul about it, but Saul has already left (after building himself a monument at Carmel) for Gilgal. Samuel heads after him.

The Confrontation

When Samuel catches up to Saul, Saul is just beaming like a puppy super proud of himself for defending his owner from the danger of a pair of slippers. He boasts, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:13). Samuel gets snarky, answering: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” (1 Sam. 15:14)

Since Saul did, by all indication, intend to follow out the command and to do so in a pro-God way, his error is not really heresy or disobeying God’s orders. Rather, the issue is that he did not perfectly follow Samuel’s orders – he tried to retain agency and to make his own decisions in the worship of YHWH. So what we are seeing is a prophet who is trying to direct secular matters, and a king who is trying to direct cultic matters.

Of course, since the authors knew that Saul did not establish a dynasty, it would have been easy for them to read in (or even write in) a defense of religious meddling in secular governance.

1 Samuel 15Or, as Samuel puts it, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).

Saul’s defense is that, “I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). If true, it makes him a weak king. If a lie, then he is failing to take ownership of his own actions. This is not a flattering portrait of the king. He begs for a second chance.

Samuel turns to leave and Saul grabs after him, accidentally tearing Samuel’s robe (apparently, some translations are less clear – seeming to indicate that it is Samuel who tears his robe, presumably for dramatic effect). To this, Samuel says: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you” (1 Sam. 15:28).

The obvious interpretation is that this is a second version of Saul’s fall from grace. It’s possible, however, that this is an escalation. It could be that the punishment in 1 Sam. 13:13-14 is the loss of a dynasty only, whereas here God is withdrawing support from Saul’s own rule. It’s the difference between “we won’t be renewing your contract” and “please pack up your stuff.”

Samuel then calls for King Agag to be brought to him and, with a witty one-liner (or two-liner, I suppose, depending on your formatting), hacks the enemy king to pieces. This is yet another example of the secular vs religious authority battle, as it gives Samuel the final deciding military victory. It is the prophet who, in the end, is the one who literally defeats the baddies.

In the end, Samuel and Saul part ways, the former going back to Ramah while the latter goes to Gibeah. The narrative tells us that they will not see each other again until one of them (the language is ambiguous as to which) dies.

Even so, Samuel is said to grieve over Saul. I think that this is meant to show that it isn’t personal, or perhaps to highlight that the butting of heads is between God and Saul, not Samuel and Saul. It is the religious authority throwing their hands up and saying “Oh I‘m not the one who wants power, this is just about what God wants!” Or, more charitably, it points to a complex relationship in which Samuel is bound by the law regardless of his personal feelings, as in the story of Jephthah where he must kill his beloved daughter.

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