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.

2 Samuel 10: By half measures

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

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

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

Ammonite kings can be rather scary.

Ammonite kings can be rather scary.

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

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

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

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

War, war never changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sore losers

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

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

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

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