The remaining chapters of 2 Samuel are considered a sort of Appendix, relaying various bits and bobs that fit, thematically and chronologically, with the preceding book before the narrative continues in 1 Kings 1.
This chapter in particular appears to take place prior to 2 Sam. 9. The theory goes that Samuel initially ended with 2 Sam. 8, with the material of chapters 9-20 “having been suppressed for a time, though finally restored,” according to my study Bible (p.385). Thus, when 2 Sam. 21 was added, it came from different sources and did not fit chronologically with the rest of the book. We’ll notice, for example, that at least one story is a repeat (albeit with a surprising change), and a few details seem to come from a different source than what we’ve been mostly been reading so far.
While the last four chapters of 2 Samuel clearly come from different sources, they do seem to have been arranged with care. My New Bible Commentary notes that “the six sections contained in these four chapters are arranged chiastically: natural disaster, military exploits, poem, poem, military exploits, natural disaster” (p.312).
There was a famine in Israel for three years in a row. The people are suffering and, finally, David calls on God. One might wonder why he let the famine get into its third year before doing this, but I suppose it just takes that long before a palace starts to feel the pinch.
Of course, God shows a bit of his own weird sense of time, because he claims to have sent the famine as punishment for Saul killing the Gibeonites (a story not recorded in our text). Israel had sworn not to kill them (Jos. 9:3-27, albeit through trickery), but Saul had done so anyway “in his zeal” (2 Sam. 21:2). We’ve had hints of this zeal in, for example, the story of the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:9). This paints a picture of a Saul who was very concerned with establishing a Yawehist Israelite homogeneity, compared to David’s liberal use of Philistines and other non-Israelites in his personal guard.
Why Israel should be punished now for Saul’s actions is left unexplained. A cynic might wonder if perhaps David wanted to find a reason for the famine that he could bring back to his people, but didn’t want it to be anything that was his fault (particularly if we’re placing this story fairly early on in his rule). In fact, isn’t it convenient that the famine is a punishment against his deposed predecessor? Doesn’t that just every so nicely discourage any lingering support for Saul?
David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what can be done to appease them. It seems that God’s retributive justice was not initiated by himself, but rather by a Gibeonite curse that either took this long to come into effect, or they’ve been biding their time until the responsible party is dead and his dynasty collapsed.
The Gibeonites claim that they do not want to be repaid in blood or gold, except that they do actually want seven of Saul’s sons to be hanged on the mountain of God at Gibeon – which sounds an awful lot like the blood vengeance they claimed not to be asking for. This only avoids being a contradiction if a) the number seven is a symbolic one, replacing the one-to-one killing of a blood vengeance, or b) the nature of the killing is ritually/legally different from a blood vengeance. In other words, if this is meant to be a human sacrifice to God rather than a tribal justice matter.
David agrees to their terms, though we get a clunky, clearly added later note that he spares Mephibosheth because of his oath to Jonathan. Instead of Mephibosheth, he chooses Armoni and Mephibosheth (a case of name recycling, at one end or another) – the sons of Saul and his concubine Rizpah. It seems that some of Saul’s survived him, though 1 Sam. 31 implied that they all died with him at the battle of Gilboa.
For the other five, he got the five sons of Michal, Saul’s daughter, and Adriel, son of Barzillai the Meholathite. Obviously an issue because it is Merab who married Adriel in 1 Sam. 18:19. Also a problem because we were told in 2 Sam. 6:23 that Michal died childless.
Some theories have been proposed to fix the discrepancy; for example, that Merab’s sons were given to Michal to bring up. Others, such as my RSV, simply change the name to Michal to “fix” the error. According to Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible?, there are some problems with this bandaid:
(1) We have already shown that the mention of Merab marrying Adriel in 1Sam 18 is a separate tradition and a later addition to 1 Samuel. It is difficult to assume “Merab” is the correct reading once we realize that the earlier reference to Merab’s marriage – the very passage scholars would like to harmonize 2Sam 21 with – is a later insertion. (2) The LXX confirms the reading of “Michal” in 2Sam 21:8, which means that if there was such an error, it was very widespread, and it happened before the LXX was produced. (3) Josephus, Pseudo-Jerome, and rabbinic sources confirm the reading of “Michal” and propose harmonizations. (4) Targum Jonathan appears to have been based on a vorlage that reads “Michal”, and it solves the problem by asserting that Michal simply raised the children on behalf of Merab.
The record is clearly a bit dodgy, however you cut it.
These seven sons and grandsons of Saul are hanged and God is appeased (despite the excuse that God is appeased because the Gibeonites withdraw their curse, this still smells rather strongly of human sacrifice).
So the Gibeonites are happy, but poor Rizpah isn’t. She camps out at the spot where her two sons are left hanging and keeps all the carrion eaters away until the rain comes (it being the sign that the drought-induced famine would soon be over). From context cues, it seems that the bodies were left hanging the entire summer, from late April or May until the Autumn.
When David hears of Rizpah’s vigil, we’re told that he fetched Saul and Jonathan’s bones from Jabesh Gilead and buries them along with the bones of the men sacrificed by the Gibeonites in Zela, the tomb of Saul’s father. It is after the funeral that God finally relented and the famine was over.
The text seems to want to tell us that Rizpah’s grief convinced David to bury Saul and Jonathan’s bones, yet he expressed more than enough grief himself to do it way back in 2 Sam. 1. It makes it rather difficult to believe that it had never occurred to David before now to give them a proper burial – particularly Jonathan, whom he claimed to love so much.
It’s difficult not to see the political motivations behind David’s decision to bury them now. It could be that he needed this big show of love for Saul and Saul’s dynasty to avoid repercussions from Saul’s remaining supporters. Or perhaps it was an attempt to show that he didn’t give in to the Gibeonites’ demands too readily.
It could also be to smooth over the fact that David had allowed the men’s bodies to hang, exposed to the elements, for what could be as long as six months – a huge insult, as well as a clear violation of the law (Deut. 21:23).
In fact, the entire Gibeonite desire for revenge (particularly its timing) looks awfully suspicious. A cynic might wonder if David used a natural disaster as an excuse to get rid of a bunch of Saul’s descendents and thereby solidify his own hold to power.
The Philistines are at it again! In this chapter, we hear of four Philistine champions, all descended from giants, and the Israelite heroes who defeated them.
There’s Ishbibenob, whose spear weighed as much as three hundred shekels of bronze. With a new sword in hand, he comes after David, but Abishai steps in (again) and kills the threat. After this, David’s men forbid him from coming out to fight with them, “lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam. 21:17). If I were to venture a guess, I’d say it was known that David did not participate in his own military campaigns. Some people, like the author of this passage, tried to excuse his absence. Others, like the author of 2 Samuel 11, clearly did not approve.
The next champion is Saph, dispatched by Sibbecai the Hushathite.
The third might be a little familiar: Goliath the Gittite, once again armed with a spear like a weaver’s beam (2 Sam. 21:19; 1 Sam. 17:7). This time, however, he is defeated by Elhanan, son of Jaareoregim. According to Kenneth C. Davis, “the King James translators of 1611 tried to cover up the discrepancy by inserting the words “brother of” before the second mention of Goliath, but older texts don’t bear that version out” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.177).
Paul Davidson has a discussion of the episode on Is That In The Bible? that I recommend, but here’s an excerpt:
It is commonly thought by scholars that this was the original Goliath legend, for various reasons. In the earliest folktales, it was the champion Elhanan who slew Goliath when Israel was threatened by an ancient race of giants. Elhanan, Abishai, and Jonathan were all members of the Shalishim (the “Thirty”), a group of elite warriors who are listed in 2Sam 23. (Sibbecai is also included in the parallel list in 1 Chr 11:10–47.) Later on, as the figure of David the warrior king became more important to Jews and the other characters more obscure, the story of Goliath was retold with David as the hero instead.
The last Philistine champion is unnamed, but we’re told that he had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and was slain by Jonathan, the son of Shimei and David’s nephew.