1 Chronicles 19-20: The Case of the Missing Wife

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Chapter 19 parallels 2 Samuel 10, skipping the story of David finding Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. The author of Samuel seemed to be trying to lessen the perception of David as a usurper by emphasizing his positive relationship with Saul’s heir, his rival. And so the love David and Jonathan shared is emphasized, and David is shown to extend great kindness to Jonathan’s son (even though Mephibosheth, and his descendants, could easily become David’s rivals – whether or not Mephibosheth was being kept in David’s court as a prisoner/hostage is a different discussion).

The Chronicler, however, simply is not interested in Saul’s failed dynasty. As far as he is concerned, it was a false start, lacking in the legitimacy of David’s true dynasty. Given this, portraying David’s relationships with his rival Saulides becomes unimportant, and the Chronicler merely skips over those details.

At War Again

King Nahash of the Ammonites has died, and is succeeded by his son, Hanun. As in 2 Sam. 10, the text tells us that Nahash had been good to David, so David wishes to be good to his son in return. Though both versions of the story mention this, Nahash’s actual faithful dealings are not recorded. All we hear about him prior to this episode is that he was harassing the citizens of Jabesh-gilead in 1 Sam. 11. This provides an opportunity for Saul to achieve his first military victory.

In any case, David decides to send messengers to console Hanun in his mourning. At least, that’s what the text tells us. Hanun and his court immediately suspect that the messengers are actually spies, scouting out their lands in preparation for an invasion. This isn’t an unreasonable assumption, given all the aggressive wars David has been fighting in the last few chapters. And since we have no record of Nahash’s faithful dealings with David, only his history of antagonism toward Israel under Saul, it’s hard not to side with the new king.

Hanun mistreats David's messengers, from 'Speculum humanae salvationis', c.1450

Hanun mistreats David’s messengers, from ‘Speculum humanae salvationis’, c.1450

There is a further strike against David’s story: Deut. 23:3-6 forbids such kindnesses toward the Ammonites (and Moabites). James Pate discusses some possible loopholes, and of course we can always argue that this story comes from a different tradition than the prohibition in Deuteronomy and therefore cannot legitimately be applied. Still, I’m siding with Hanun’s suspicion on this one.

Unfortunately, Hanun’s retaliation seems rather ill-considered, as he shaves and partially disrobes the messengers before sending them back to David. The men are so humiliated that David tells them to stay in Jericho until their bears have grown back in (in many cultures, particularly around the middle east, facial hair is seen as a sign of adulthood – often not allowed to grow in until a man is married; in shaving the messengers’ beards, Hanun was emasculating them, symbolically removing their status as the patriarchs of their families).

The text tells us that the Ammonites quickly realize their mistake, that they’ve made an enemy out of a potential friend, and that it is for this reason that they gather up an army. It seems more likely, however, than the shaving of the messengers was, in itself, a declaration of war. I realize that Hanun was new to his crown, and that new kings can sometimes be a little overzealous in trying to establish their power (and with good reason, since factions often use the occasion of a new and inexperienced king to reshuffle power structures), yet the act seems far too pointed and hostile to be explained as a simple miscalculation.

In any case, they spend 1,000 talents of silver on mercenary chariots (32,000 of them) and horsemen from Mesopotamia, Aramaacah, and Zobah. For comparison, Amaziah will later hire 100,000 men for a mere 100 talents in 2 Chron. 25:6. The numbers are a little different in 2 Sam. 10:6, however, where the Ammonites hire 20,000 infantry, plus 1,000 men with the king of Maacah, and 12,000 men of Tob (suggesting that the figure for the number of chariots in this chapter is the sum of the total number of men – charioteers or no – listed in 2 Sam. 10; the king of Maacah, and presumably his 1,000 men, are listed separately in 1 Chron. 19:7).

When David learns that the Ammonites are mustering, he sends Joab out to deal with them.

The battle doesn’t go well for Joab, however, and he is surrounded. Thankfully, Joab comes up with the amazing, clever, and totally realistically likely to win strategy of splitting his army in half so he can focus on each front separately. He keeps command of the half fighting the Syrians, while he puts his brother Abishai in charge of fighting the Ammonites. The idea is that they will divide and conquer, helping each other out if either half becomes overwhelmed.

When Joab advances on the Syrians, they flee before him. When the Ammonites see that their allies are fleeing, they, too, flee, and Joab returns to Jerusalem victorious.

Having been defeated, the Syrians send out messengers to the other half of the Syrian army, led by Shophach, which was located on the other side of the Euphrates.

Realizing that the Syrian forces are about to return in force, David gathers up a large army and crosses the Jordan to meet them. The Syrians are routed, and the commander, Shophach, is killed. The Israelites also kill 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 infantry (1 Chron. 19:18), whereas 2 Sam. 10:18 has them kill 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen.

In the Spring…

Chapter 20 begins as 2 Samuel 11 did, in the springtime, when kings are wont to make war. As in the case of 2 Samuel 11, it is Joab who leads the army out to harass Ammonites and besiege Rabbah, while David remains in Jerusalem.

The Chronicler keeps the verse, though it reflects poorly on David (kings are meant to go to war in the spring, so what is David doing staying behind?). He does not, however, keep the story that follows. In fact, Bathsheba is mentioned only once in all of Chronicles, and that is as the mother of Solomon in 1 Chron. 3:5, where she is referred to as Bathshua.

And so instead of using the opportunity of his staying behind to rape the wife of Uriah (a loyal member of David’s inner circle) and then cover up the crime by arranging for Uriah to be killed in battle, the Chronicler’s David is merely staying behind in Jerusalem until Joab is victorious.

Skipping forward to 2 Sam. 12:30-21, once Joab takes the city of Rabbah, David comes up to collect its king’s crown – a huge honking thing weighing a whole talent of gold (I am assured that this is a lot, and James Pate discusses some of the theories that have been proposed to allow David to wear such a heavy thing).

In addition to the crown, David returns from the war in which he did not participate with quite a lot of booty, including an enslaved population. It seems that they didn’t stop at Rabbah – though it is the only city mentioned – but instead went on to take the rest of the Ammonite cities before returning to Jerusalem.

Skipping over many of the less utopic episodes of David’s career – including the incestuous rape of his daughter, his son’s rebellion, David’s flight from Jerusalem, the execution of more of Saul’s descendants, and the general disgruntlement of the northern tribes – the Chronicler takes us all the way to 2 Sam. 21:18-22, when the Israelites are again at war with the Philistines.

This time, they are to fight at Gezer (which is God in 2 Sam. 21:18). It is here that Sibbecai the Hushathite slew Sippai (called Saph in 2 Sam. 21:18), who was descended from giants. After that, the Philistines were subdued for a while.

But not a long while. In another war, Elhanan son of Jair slew Lahmi, who was the brother of Goliath. Yes, that Goliath. In the corresponding passage, Elhanan slew Goliath himself, and no mention is made of Lahmi (2 Sam. 21:19 – which the KJV alters to bring into alignment with 1 Chron. 20:5 and to avoid contradiction with 1 Sam. 17:49-51).

In yet another war, there was a tall, six-fingered, six-toed man who was also descended from giants, and who was defeated by Jonathan, David’s nephew through Shimea.

Regarding Goliath, Paul Davidson has a really great deconstruction of the “so who actually killed Goliath?” problem on his blog, Is That In The Bible? Over at Remnants of Giants, Dr. Deane Galbraith looks at efforts to diagnose Goliath’s gigantism and why that may or may not (mostly not) be supportable by the text.

1 Chronicles 13-14: Bringing Home The Ark… Almost

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These two chapters follow 2 Sam. 5:11-25 and 2 Sam. 6:1-13 rather closely, though reversing their order.

David gets the idea to fetch the ark from Kiriath-jearim, where it’s been sitting in Abinadab’s house. It’s not mentioned here, but the ark had been captured by the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4, and was returned to the Israelites in 1 Samuel 6 after it had caused an idol of Dagon to fall and break, and caused an epidemic of some kind to spread through the cities of Philistia. Since then, it had been held by Abinadab.

But before David goes for the ark, he first asks the leaders of Israel for their agreement. It seems odd that David should ask permission like this, and I wonder if it’s an indication of how precarious his hold on Israel still was at that time. I see some commenters arguing that the ark was a sort of glue to bind all the tribes, and that bringing it to Jerusalem symbolically joined the Hebrew people in faith as well as politics. Yet the fact that no one seems to have bothered with it in years (as evidenced by David’s statement that the ark had been neglected in the time of Saul – 1 Chron. 13:3 – used by the Chronicler here as a subtle-ish indictment of Saul) adds to the evidence that the ark was part of a local, perhaps Shilonite, cult that David (assuming his historicity) made a part of the state religion. We might compare this to Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion in an effort to unite a disparate empire.

In any case, they fetch the ark and load it onto a new cart, with Uzzah and Ahio driving it while David and the other Israelites sing and play music in a procession ahead of it.

Unfortunately, the oxen stumble when the ark reaches the threshing floor of Chidon, causing the ark to wobble. When Uzzah puts out his hand to steady it, God kills him. (Incidentally, this happens at the threshing floor of Nacon in 2 Sam. 6:6, not Chidon.)

This freaked David out, and he decided not to bring the ark back to Jerusalem as he had originally intended. Instead, he takes it to the house of Obededom the Gittite, and leaves it there for three months. This worked out nicely for Obededom, however, since his household was blessed while the ark resided there.

The narrative ends here, leaving out (at least for now) the remainder of the ark’s journey to Jerusalem, during which David danced naked in the procession, angering his wife Michal (2 Sam. 6).

Settling In

The next portion, taken from 2 Sam. 5:11-16, is rather out of place in the Chronicler’s organization. Whereas in 2 Samuel, we have a summary of David’s life in Jerusalem placed after his conquest of the city, the narrative here is interrupted by the moving of the ark, disrupting the narrative flow.

First, David needs a house. For this, we have King Hiram of Tyre, who sends messengers to David along with cedar trees, masons, and carpenters to build him a palace. It is at this point that it apparently dawns on David that he really is, truly, king of Israel (1 Chron. 14:2, 2 Sam. 5:12).

We then learn of the children born to David in Jerusalem, which, oddly, corresponds better to 2 Sam. 5 than it does to the same list in 1 Chron. 3 (though isn’t identical to either version). The children are:

  • Shammua (which matches 2 Sam. 5:14, but he appears as Shimea in 1 Chron. 3:5);
  • Shobab;
  • Nathan;
  • Solomon;
  • Ibhar;
  • Elishua (which matches 2 Sam. 5:15, but he appears as Elishama in 1 Chron. 3:6);
  • Elpelet (who is missing from 2 Sam. 5:14-16, but could correspond to the first instance of Eliphelet in 1 Chron. 3:6);
  • Nogah (who is missing from 2 Sam. 5:14-16, but present in 1 Chron. 3:7);
  • Nepheg;
  • Japhia;
  • Elishama;
  • Beeliada (who appears as Eliada in both 2 Sam. 5:16 and 1 Chron. 3:8;
  • And Eliphelet.

James Pate notes that the Chronicler, generally, tries to make David abide by the Torah (we’ll see an example of this later one when he burns some idols). This may be evidence of the cult’s evolution: “The Torah as a book probably existed more fully when I Chronicles was written than when II Samuel was written, and so the Chronicler conformed David’s actions to what was commonly believed to be God’s will in the Chronicler’s time: the Torah.”

Yet, here, David is said to take multiple wives, in direct contradiction to Deut. 17:17. The rule appears to be directly addressing Solomon, who, according to 1 Kings 11, was led into idolatry by his many wives. So why was David’s breaking of this rule allowed to slip by?

One obvious answer is that David’s multiple wives were known (certainly, we’ve seen separate stories for a few of his wives, namely Abigail, Bathsheba, and Michal), and erasing that common knowledge would have been impossible for the Chronicler. So the Chronicler simply lets the many wives slip through without commentary, perhaps hoping that no one will notice what it says about David’s relationship to the covenantal laws.

Another possibility is that the prohibition on many wives for a king wasn’t added until later on, or perhaps was added at around the same time as the Chronicler was writing and hadn’t achieved enough status to warrant addressing yet.

Fighting Philistines

Continuing the story from 2 Sam. 5:17-25, the Philistines hear that Israel has a new king and, worse yet, it’s David (who had so recently been in the employ of the Philistine king Achish). They decide to come after him (perhaps hoping to take advantage of the instability of a new king, particularly a new king of a new dynasty). But David finds out that they are coming, and he leads his army out to meet them.

Portrait of a captured Peleste (Philistine), relief from Medinet Habu, Thebes, photographed by Erich Lessing

Portrait of a captured Peleste (Philistine), relief from Medinet Habu, Thebes, photographed by Erich Lessing

The Philistines were raiding in the valley of Rephaim when David asked God if he should attack, if God will grant him victory. God responds in the affirmative to both questions, and David defeats the Philistines at Baal-perazim.

As the Philistines flee, they leave behind their religious idols. In the 2 Sam. 5:21 version, David and his men carry the idols away, implying that they will either put them to use (as the Danites carried off Micah’s idol in Judges 18), or perhaps melt them down for their valuable metals.

The implications appear to unsettle the Chronicler, who adds that David commanded the abandoned idols to be burned (which would be in accordance with Deut. 7:25). We can see, here, the Chronicler taking the opportunity of an ambiguity (it’s possible to accept that the Israelites of 2 Sam. 5 carried off the idols in order to burn them, if we squint and turn our heads to the side a bit) to clean David up, and bring him more in line with later theology.

Not quite sufficiently beaten, the Philistines come back to raid the valley. Again, David asks God what he should do. This time, however, God tells him not to attack right away. Instead, David should stow himself on the other side of some balsam trees, and only go out to fight when he hears the sound of marching over the tops of the trees, “for God has gone out before you to smite the army of the Philistines” (1 Chron. 14:15).

There are a couple of ways to interpret this. One is that the sound of marching over the tops of the trees is the sound of God’s heavenly army closing in to lead the charge.

Another is that this describes an ambush situation, where David is to hide behind some trees until he can hear the enemy’s marching – meaning that they are in the right position – before revealing his own position by attacking.

James Pate presents a third possibility: That the sound is actually the wind going through the trees, and that it would then mask the sound of David’s attack. This, again, would give David’s army the advantage of surprise.

In any case, David obeys and defeats the Philistines. After that, his fame spread, and all nations feared him.

2 Samuel 21: The Giants of Gath

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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).

Famine

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?

Revenge

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).

Funerals

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.

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

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.

Philistine Aggression

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.

2 Samuel 18: The macabre pinata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

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

Absalom’s Monument

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

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

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

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

The Runners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 15: Of spies and conspiracies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While in Hebron, Absalom’s conspiracy gains strength.

The flight

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

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

Absalom and Tamar, by Guercino

Absalom and Tamar, by Guercino

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mount of Olives

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 6: Dirty dancing

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David’s political enemies have rather conveniently met their ends, and David’s power base is now fairly well established in Jerusalem. His next step is to consolidate his power even more strongly by taking control over Israel’s religion.

David brings 30,000 soldiers with him when he goes to reclaim the ark. Since there’s no mention of fighting and no apparent reason to worry about an attack, it seems probably that the soldiers are more of an honour guard for the ark, and the number is meant to show the extent of David/Israel’s devotion.

He goes with the people who were with him from Baalejudah, a place name we haven’t encountered before. My Study Bible suggests that the name is “either an error or another name for Kiriathjearim” (p.382).

If you’ll remember from 1 Samuel 7 that the ark is being kept by Abinadab and his son Eleazar, who are apparently acting as impromptu priests. It’s still there when David comes for it, and Abinadab’s sons – Uzzah and Ahio (perhaps Eleazar was sick that day) – are in charge of driving the cart bearing the ark. Like the Philistines in 1 Samuel 6, the Israelites use a new/virgin cart for the job. Perhaps the Philistines had attempted to mimic an Israelite practice, perhaps the Israelites adopted it from the Philistines, perhaps both were using a tradition that was floating around in the area, perhaps the later authors/editors projected the practice back onto both… I think it’s clear that there are many possibilities, even without the mention here of dairy cows. The idea that a new cart should be used is fairly basic symbolic stuff, so it’s entirely plausible that the same tradition would arise independently in more than one culture or cult. God stuff is too special to just re-use that old cart with the chip in the wheel that you have lying around.

The ark’s procession was apparently a pretty significant event. Not only did it have a 30,000 strong honour guard, it also had the entire “house of Israel […] making merry” (2 Sam. 6:5) with music and shouting.

The accident

Unfortunately, the ark cart (arkart?) starts to tip when the oxen stumble at Nacon. Presumably hoping to prevent disaster, Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the ark and is stricken dead. When this happens, the area is renamed Perezuzzah, or “breaking forth upon Uzzah.”

The obvious objection to this story goes something like this: “Would God have rathered Uzzah simply let the ark fall to the ground?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that. We’ve seen enough to know that good things don’t come to the people who let the ark fall off a cart. So why was Uzzah punished for surely preventing some massive plague?

I’ve used the analogy of radioactive material before. In the context of many of these stories, God is power; pure, raw, wild power. When someone is tasked with transporting radioactive materials, they need to have the proper training, the proper equipment, and the proper containment procedures. Similarly, God needs his trained handlers all wearing regulation safety clothes, his lead-lined box, his property procedures.

It’s like the ending of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the end (spoilers don’t count on 30 year old movies that you should have seen a hundred times already anyway), when the ark is opened, Indy knows that the power contained in the ark doesn’t discriminate between goodies and Nazis. A breach of protocol – in that case, seeing the power – means melty-face, no matter who you are.

That’s the ark.

David, understandably, is pretty freaked out by the incident and decides that maybe having the ark under his control isn’t worth all the risk. Instead of bringing the ark all the way to Jerusalem, he dumps it on Obededom the Gittite. He’s a “no nukes is good nukes” kind of guy.

At least until he finds out that Obededom’s household has been blessed and is prospering in the three months the ark has been kicking around. Suddenly, David is interested again.

No information is given about this Obededom other than his identity as a Gittite, and that his name apparently means “worshipper of Edom” (New Bible Commentary, p.305), presumably the name of a deity. Gittites are from Gath, though, which suggests that he might have been a Philistine (Gath is one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis). So why was the ark of the covenant left in the hands of someone who was a Philistine and possibly not a YHWHist?

It could be that David was so freaked out by the ark that he decided to dump it back into Philistine hands, hoping to give them another good dose of tumours or haemorrhoids or whatever happened in 1 Samuel 5. It could be that this is an alternative “how we got the ark from the Philistines” origin story. It could be that Obededom was a friend of David’s from his Philistia days. My Study Bible brings up another possibility: “Gath means ‘wine press,’ and there were several towns by that name in Israelite territory” (p.382).

The second leg

After three months and no disaster, David returns to Obededom to collect the ark. It’s unclear how Obededom felt about having the instrument of his prosperity taken away from him so soon, though I’d like to think that he was well compensated for the danger of housing the ark.

David Dancing Before the Ark, by C Malcolm Powers

David Dancing Before the Ark, by C Malcolm Powers

Once again, the ark sets out accompanied by much fanfare. This time, it makes it only six paces before David starts making sacrifices. Instead of the whole band, this time they have only horns and loads of shouting. The centrepiece of the parade, though, is David himself, who dances ahead of the ark wearing a “linen ephod” (2 Sam. 6:14). “Ephod” clearly has multiple meanings, since it’s hard to imagine David dancing around while wearing the box that houses the divination stones. Rather, it’s likely something akin to the apron-like garment described in Exodus 28:6-14.

Which segues nicely into a tangent. The ephod tends to be something worn by priests, and David is making sacrifices (something that landed Saul in a great deal of hot water in 1 Sam. 13:10-13). By participating in this way, David seems to acting in the role of priest. The evidence of changing rules regarding the priesthood is something I’d like to come back to in a later post.

There’s a tradition that has David doing his ark dance wearing his ephod and only his ephod. This is because when the ark approaches Jerusalem, David’s wife Michal looks out the window and “saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart” (2 Sam. 6:16).

The ark is housed in a tent – a nomadic symbol appropriated by city dwellers. David make some more offerings, then distributes all the food. Finally, he goes home to bless his household, but Michal intercepts him.

She reprimands him for “uncovering himself” (2 Sam. 6:20), suggesting that he really was wearing nothing more than an apron. She seems particularly piqued that he did this before the eyes of servant girls, acting like a vulgar fellow rather than a king. David retort that he was not uncovered before servant girls, but rather before God, “who chose me above your father” (2 Sam. 6:21). In the marital biz, we call that the “point of no return.”

So was David naked?

I think that there’s some wordplay here. It’s hard, of course, to read the text in this way because of the language barrier, but I think it’s possible that we aren’t meant to read “uncovering” literally. Rather, it could mean that David is appearing stripped of his regal accoutrements, like “one of the vulgar fellows” (2 Sam. 6:20). He’s also stripped off his regal dignity, perhaps taking up a position in the crowd, among the servant girls.

This interpretation makes sense given David’s reply, that he was not uncovered before the servant girls, but rather before God. In other words, it isn’t debasing himself before the people, but rather taking up his appropriate status before God.

I suspect that there’s also meant to be something of a joke here about jealous wives, given that only the servant girls are mentioned.

With a final comment about how the servant girls appreciate his actions even if his wife doesn’t, the fight appears to be over and we’re told that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Sam. 6:23). Though, again, pieces are missing from the story. Did God support David’s actions and rebuke Michal for complaints by cursing her with bareness? Or are we to understand that this fight severed their relations permanently? In other words, is Michal’s apparent barrenness God’s doing, or David’s?

Why was Michal angry?

We might ask ourselves why Michal was angry at David. A literal reading of the passage has Michal seeing her husband prancing about near-naked, upset that he’s revealing himself to other women. In this reading, Michal is the jealous wife.

If David’s “uncovering” has to do with a failure to act/dress in a manner befitting a king, Michal’s concern becomes far more understandable. After all, the monarchy is still young, and the first two kings – Michal’s father and brother – didn’t fare too well. Given that her fortunes are tied to David’s, it makes sense for her to get antsy at any display of weakness or un-kingly behaviour.

Her complained may also be religious. Ishbosheth, her brother, is elsewhere called Ishbaal, and her nephew, Mephibosheth, is elsewhere called Mephibbaal. This suggests the possibility that Saul’s God was not YHWH, at least not exclusively. Michal’s anger therefore might be due to her husband’s blasphemy.

A final possibility is that the whole episode is propagandistic. David’s rise to power, even sanitized as it is in the text, suggests an awful lot of opportunism. His enemies just happen to be assassinated, he just happen to be forced to fight as a mercenary for the enemies of his country, etc. It might be said that he only married Michal so that he would have some claim to Israel’s crown.

This possibility gets refuted in 1 Sam. 18:20, where the author is very careful to point out that it is Michal who initiates the affair between them. David didn’t marry her for political expediency! She married him for love!

Here, the story of her complaint could have been invented (or reinterpreted) to explain her being set aside. It’s conceivable that David, now secure with his crown, had no more use for her, so he essentially abandoned her. It could even be that she (and her family) had supporters who complained about it and accused David of political manoeuvring.