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 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.