2 Samuel 24: David conducts a sinsus

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This chapter is very confusing in a number of ways: The narrative seems to skip around a bit chronologically, and the underlying theological assumptions are something of a mystery.

The story begins with God angry at Israel and Judah again. Because he’s so angry, he decides to incite David against Israel and Judah by making David take a census. The reason for God’s anger is never stated, the reason for wanting to create a divide between David and the Israelites/Judahites is never stated, the rationale that has a census create that divide is never stated. We’re still on our very first sentence and I’m already totally lost. It’s just that kind of story.

For whatever reason, conducting a census is a Very Bad Thing. The rationale is never explained, though all the guesses I’ve seen run along the same lines as the Got Questions? article: “in those times, a man only had the right to count or number what belonged to him. Israel did not belong to David; Israel belonged to God.”

Of course, that answer isn’t without problems, since God is the one who compelled David to take the census, as he did in Exodus 30 and Numbers 26, where doing so was not a sin.

The only way out would be for us to interpret the idea that God compelled David to conduct a census in the same way that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus – that the statement is one of belief in God’s absolute power, that all things happen under his control, rather than that he directly commanded David to hold a census.The purposes seem to be the same as well – directing the leader so that he would have an excuse to kill lots of people. Yet he is quoted as speaking directly to David, which gives a different impression.

My New Bible Companion suggests that the plan was to punish the Israelites and Judahites for “the sin of rebellion (against David)” (p.314). This would explain why it is the people who will be punished and why God’s stated desire is to “incite David against them” (2 Sam. 24:1), but is contradicted by the entire device of making David call for a sinful census to accomplish it.

Still, the taking of a census is apparently so inherently and obviously wrong that Joab – when he and the other army commanders are asked to count up all the battle-worthy men of Israel of Judah – protests. He asks David why he would ask for such a thing, to which David replies something to the effect of “because I said so.”

It’s interesting to note that Joab is again shown to be advising David, trying to steer him toward a better course of action, as he did when David’s plan to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 was too hamfisted.

In the end, though, David is king and the king’s word is law, so his commanders conduct a census all through Israel and Judah, including Kadesh, Sidon, and Tyre, which “were not truly in Israel or Judah, even when under the control of David” (RSV, p.411). In all, they find 800,000 men in Israel and 500,000 in Judah, a far greater number than is at all likely.

Attack of conscience

The census in, David suddenly has the eerie feeling that he’s made a terrible mistake.

By morning, Gad the prophet arrives with news – there will be a punishment for the census, however David will be allowed to choose which he would prefer:

  1. Three years of famine;
  2. Three months of fleeing from his enemies;
  3. Or three days of plague.

As a side note, we’ve met Gad before, way back in 1 Samuel 22:5, where he warned David not to stay put. Though he is identified here as David’s seer, these are the only two mentions we get of him.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1866

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1866

David chooses the third option, claiming that he would rather be in God’s hands than in the hands of a human foe. This does not, however, explain why he did not choose the first option.

The choices themselves are interesting. The first, of course, happened just a few chapters ago, in 2 Samuel 21. The second has happened twice, when David was fleeing from Saul beginning in 1 Samuel 20, and when he was fleeing from Absalom in 2 Samuel 15. That leaves the third option as the only one David hasn’t tried yet.

Seventy thousand people die of the plague, though the text reassures us that God stops his rampage before reaching Jerusalem. He does get quite close, though, stopping at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (which will apparently become the site of the future temple Solomon will build).

The phrasing seems to suggest that God decided to stop, then David begged him to stop, then he actually stopped. However, it makes more sense to take the bit about God stopping at Araunah’s threshing floor as a sort of introduction to the portion of the story that tells us how he was compelled to stop. Or perhaps the muddling of the chronology was an editor/author’s way of letting the audience know that God don’t take no instructions from nobody, by giving his decision to stop primacy in the narrative.

Seeing the mass destruction caused by the plague, David appeals to God. He is upset that God is killing so many innocent people just because he sinned. David is speaking directly to God when he calls him out. It’s a scene very reminiscent of Abraham’s appeal in Genesis 18.

Although his plea is still rather distasteful by modern standards. Rather than kill all these innocent civilians, argues David, why not kill all my innocent family members instead?

To end the plague, Gad instructs David to build an altar at Araunah’s threshing floor – implying that it is David’s action that will end the plague, and not that God had already decided to end it (or that the three days are up).

Araunah offers David the location, some animals to sacrifice, and some stuff to burn, but David refuses. He will not sacrifice what he has not paid for. Instead, he pays fifty shekels of silver for the location and animals, builds the altar, makes the sacrifice, and everyone gets to go home happy.

My study Bible notes that “fifty shekels of silver would be worth about twenty dollars” (p.412). Unfortunately, the note does not elaborate, but that seems like a very small sum to pay for so much. It seems that while David was too proud to pay nothing, paying next to nothing suited his conscience just fine. Perhaps it was an honour thing – allowing David to say that he paid for the location while also allowing Araunah to say that it was a gift.

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 20: Joab is just not having it

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Now that he’s back in Jerusalem, David’s first order of business is to deal with those pesky ten concubines who’ve been raped (2 Sam. 16:22) because he abandoned them (2 Sam. 15:16). Obviously, they can’t be comforted and then welcomed back into the household! No, instead David shuts them away in a house, under guard, until the day they die.

The fact that anyone would see David as good man or good king when he shows himself, again and again, to be so casual and cruel toward the women subject to his power (and even those under his protection in a patriarchal society) is absolutely sickening. Whether it’s locking away these concubines because of their rape (which only happened because he abandoned them in the first place), or his indifference to the rape of his daughter Tamar, or his questionable behaviour toward both Bathsheba and Abigail, his treatment of Michal, David is outrageous in the way he treats women.

Sheba’s Rebellion

Meanwhile, the unrest continues. The Benjaminites, still clearly put out by the loss of the crowd, produce Sheba, son of Bichri. When he rejects David’s kingship, we’re told that “all the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 20:2) joined him, while Judah remained loyal to David.

David tasks his new general, Amasa, with gathering up all Judah’s soldiers within three days so that they can deal with the rebellion. For reasons unstated, Amasa fails to do this in time – was the task impossible? Did he try to sabotage David’s efforts by dallying because his loyalty remains with Absalom? Did he just fail due to incompetence? The text never tells us, even though the reason behind Amasa’s failure utterly changes how we can interpret this chapter.

Realizing that Amasa does not have this situation under control, David asks Abishai to handle it. Why Abishai, rather than his brother Joab? Some of the commentaries I’ve read say that David is trying to push Joab out because he is still angry about Abner’s murder in 2 Samuel 3:27 (the idea being that Joab had too much power to simply be dismissed, so David is trying to slowly exclude him from the clique, Queen Bee style). Other commentaries claim that David may have been too proud, after dismissing Joab in favour of Amasa, to admit that he’d made a bad call and bring Joab back.

It could also be that, after setting Joab aside for political reasons (bringing in Amasa, who had been Absalom’s general, may have been a move to bring the rebels back on his side), he may have wondered if he could still trust him. Would Joab still be on his side after being so cruelly treated?

Abishai heads out with the Cherethites and Pelethites. Whether or not with David’s blessing, Joab tagged along too. Or, perhaps, did more than just tag along, since he quickly took charge and Abishai falls into the background.

Met along the way

Amasa, still afield, meets up with the rebel-hunters in Gibeon. Joab, in a move that would have Harlequin readers quivering, “took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him” (2 Samuel 20:9), then, during their embrace, stabbed him in the stomach so hard that Amasa’s entrails spilled out.

Joab, it seems, did not like being replaced.

Still, his anger seems focused on Amasa, rather than on David. In fact, the text gives us the possibility that he killed Amasa not because he was replaced by him, but because he failed to rouse the army quickly enough. In other words, this could be yet another example of Joab getting rid of someone who has made themselves a liability to David. And, of course, it also gives us the possibility that David was behind this murder as well – Amasa fought against, David, after all. It could be that David made him a general to assuage those who had gone to Absalom, but had no intention of letting him go unpunished.

Joab leaves Amasa’s body in the middle of the road. He posts a man over it to tell people who remain faithful to David to join Joab – presumably the men in Amasa’s band. Eventually, we’re told, someone decides to drag Amasa’s corpse off the road and into a field, covering it with a cloth.

Joab & co. carry on after Sheba.

The end of a rebellion

Joab chases Sheba all the way to Abel of Bethmaacah, where his retinue has apparently dwindled down to his own clan (the Bichrites). It seems that the claim that Sheba was joined by all of Israel was hyperbolic. It could be that the verse only meant that Sheba had followers from several different clans (indicating that this was not a single clan’s rebellion), or it could have been intended as anti-Israel propaganda.

Joab at Abel, from the Morgan Bible, c.1240-1250

Joab at Abel, from the Morgan Bible, c.1240-1250

When Joab arrives, his retinue knocks the city walls down. Before they can do any more damage, however, a local wise woman calls out to Joab. It seems from her words that Abel had a reputation for wisdom, and was perhaps a place that people would go to for conflict resolution. Given this, would Joab truly destroy the city?

Joab is swayed without any fuss, and offers the wise woman a deal: He will spare the city, so long as they hand over Amasa. The wise woman agrees and, soon, Amasa’s severed head is tossed over the city walls to Joab.

His task done, Joab returns to Jerusalem – apparently never considering that David might be angry with him for killing Amasa, or that he might not be getting his old job back just because Amasa is dead. The fact that he is, in fact, restored lends credence to the idea that David, for whatever reason, implicitly (or perhaps explicitly) condoned Amasa’s murder.

It’s worth noting that, once again, Joab has been used to put down a rebellion. In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins notes: “As in several previous incidents, however, Joab and his brother are the ones who shed the blood. If there is guilt because of violence, it can be imputed to them rather than to David” (p.129).

David’s cabinet

To close off the chapter, an editor put in a note about the composition of David’s cabinet. It’s mostly a repeat of 2 Samuel 8:15-18, though with a few notable differences.

Joab, once again, is listed as having command of Israel’s army (note the name “Israel,” which once again seems to refer to the whole nation including Judah, suggesting a different author/editor from the last few chapters). In fact, this may be the reason for the inclusion of this note – to explicitly show that Joab has returned to his former position.

Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, is still in control of the Cherethites and Pelethites. Jehoshaphat is still recorder. Zadok and Ahimelek are still priests.

Adoram is a new addition, having been appointed as overseer of forced labour. Seraiah the secretary, however, has been removed from the list.

Finally, we are told that David’s personal priest is Ira the Jairite, replacing David’s sons. This may be a reference to the fact that David’s sons have, for the most part, met their ends recently.

2 Samuel 19: The Return

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The victory of Absalom’s defeat is marred by David’s anguish over the loss of his son, so the soldiers return home in the same shame as they would have in defeat. Joab, probably correctly, reprimands David for focusing so much on the personal. While he is focused on his own personal pain, the soldiers who fought (and several, presumably, died) to save David and his household are covered in shame for their efforts. Worse yet, argues Joab, the whole situation only arose because “you love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Further, continues Joab, David’s extreme mourning over his son/enemy (sonemy?) sends the message to his followers that they are worthless to him, since he might well have preferred that they all had been killed and Absalom won the day.

In closing, Joab tells David to speak kindly to his followers, or they will desert him. In response to Joab’s plea, David “took his seat in the gate” (2 Sam. 19:8). The gate, as we’ve already learned, is where governance happens. So while we don’t get to see David’s praise and thanks to his people, we do see him at least putting the personal aside enough to return to his duties as a leader.

Recovering the nation

Of course, there’s still a kingdom to regain. Absalom had deposed David, so if David wishes to return, he must rebuild the federation of tribes.

The text tells us that the Israelites (which, in context, excludes Judah and David’s retinue) had fled back to their homes after the battle. They summarize the situation by saying that David, as king, had subdued their external enemies, but then fled before Absalom. With Absalom now dead, there’s a question of what should happen next. The passage is rather unclear, but the gist seems to be that a not-insubstantial portion of the Israelite population questioned whether a unified king is still needed, now that the external threats are gone. Why not return to the pre-monarchy tribal system? Why should they bring David back?

2 Samuel 19But it seems that Israel wasn’t David’s only problem. He relays a message to the elders of Judah – via the priests Zadok and Abiathar – asking why they haven’t called him back as their leader since the lay Judahites apparently want him. He also a note to Amasa – who was the commander of Absalom’s army (2 Sam. 17:25) – promising to make him his commander instead of Joab. Clearly, he is trying to woo back those who had sided with Absalom.

The predominant explanation for why Joab should be replaced is that David was still sore over the murder of Abner in 2 Samuel 3:27. That assumes, of course, that David wasn’t behind it, or that he didn’t appreciate – privately – the benefits of Abner’s death. Certainly, he seemed to have been in no particular hurry to punish or demote Joab, and was quite happy to use his services more explicitly when he wanted to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11. If anything, the text shows us a completely loyal Joab whose only fault is to be willing to do rather horrid things on behalf of David (whether at David’s explicit command, or simply because it’s something that needs to be done before David can achieve some goal). As we saw both in 2 Samuel 11 and earlier in this chapter, Joab is more than just brute force, too. He disobeys David’s exact command in the killing of Uriah so that it can be done more subtly, in a way that will minimize – or even eliminate – the repercussions for David. In this chapter, he called David out, giving him a much needed reminder that he needed to act the king if he ever wanted to regain the crown.

It’s possible, then, that David decided to replace Joab simply because he knew, or believed, that Joab was too loyal to be sore about it. He might have believed Joab to be so firmly in Camp David that he wouldn’t mind being replaced by Amasa if it meant regaining support for David. Which leads us back to Joab’s own words: “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Whatever the future repercussions, David’s plan works and the Judahites are swayed. But that still leaves the rest of Israel.

The meeting at Gilgal

Judah heads across the river to Gilgal to meet with David and accompany him back to Jerusalem.

Shimei – who had thrown rocks at the fleeing David in 2 Sam. 16:5-14 – showed up with one thousand Benjaminites, begging forgiveness. It’s hard to think that he suddenly changed his mind that David was the cause of the fall of the house of Saul. Presumably, he simply realized that David was about to be king again and was a little concerned that the rock-throwing incident might be held against him.

Abishai, like Joab, has long been David’s follower, and is the very caricature of bloodthirst. Where Joab always seems quite happy to murder David’s enemies, Abishai argues in favour of it. He tried to convince David to murder Saul in 1 Sam. 26:5-12, and he pushed for the immediate killing of the rock-hurling Shimei in 2 Sam. 16:8-9. Now, once again, he advises David to kill Shimei.

David refuses a second time, however, saying that Shimei’s curses meant nothing since David is returning to Jerusalem and the crown.

Ziba – the servant David had assigned to Mephibosheth who had been granted all of Mephibosheth’s lands after claiming in 2 Sam. 16 that Mephibosheth was refusing to follow David out of Jerusalem – arrives with his fifteen sons and twenty servants. It seems that they help David and his retinue ford the Jordan.

Unfortunately, Mephibosheth comes too, displaying all the signs of mourning and having done so since David fled from Jerusalem. He claims that he had asked Ziba to prepare a donkey for him to ride, needing one due to his disabilities, but that Ziba had simply left instead.

(As a side note, the text introduces Mephibosheth here as the “son of Saul” (2 Sam. 19:24). In context, this presumably means that he is from the house of Saul, rather than being in error.)

Given two contradictory accounts, David takes the easy way out and simply tells the two men to go halfsies on the land. Mephibosheth refuses his half, however, since having David back safely is good enough for him.

The final petitioner is Barzillai, who had fed the fleeing David. David asks him to come along to Jerusalem, but Barzillai refuses. He argues that, at 80, he is too old for the pleasures of court and would rather stay close to home so that he can die near his family tombs. He does, however, give someone named Chimham for David to bring along – presumably his son or some other close relative.

Israel suddenly becomes very angry that Judah “stole” David from them, claiming that they should have ten shares of him. The ten shares reference seems to be about the tribes – each having a share of the king. Of course, if Israel has ten, who has the other two? Judah has, of course, one, but that leaves the twelfth.

Looking at a map of the divided monarchy, it seems that Simeon may have been culturally linked with Judah, or at least separate from Israel. Another possibility is Benjamin, since between Shimei and Ziba, David’s procession would have included a large number of them, perhaps leading the Israelites to refer to them together.

In the end, “the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 19:43), suggesting that they won the argument but that the matter was certainly not settled.

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 17: A tale of two counselors

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With the addition of Hushai, Absalom now has two counsellors. Of course, what he doesn’t know is that only one of them is on his side.

Needing to deal with his father, Absalom first turns to Ahithophel. Ahithophel suggests that Absalom give him 12,000 men to pursue David, taking advantage of the fact that David is on the run and hasn’t had a chance to organize. Besides, he’s been on the run, so he’ll be exhausted.

Ahithophel assumes that David’s retinue will scatter once they see the 12,000 men coming, leaving David behind to be killed. The operation would therefore be a precision strike, getting rid of David without giving his retinue a reason to resent Absalom.

This advice pleased Absalom, as well as “all the elders of Israel” (2 Sam. 17:4). Either the Israelites are seriously fickle, or David’s really gone too far. Or perhaps Absalom put all his stat points into Charisma.

2 Samuel 17Absalom may have liked Ahithophel’s advice, but he still wants a second opinion. Hushai’s advice is just about the opposite of Ahithophel’s. He argues first that Ahithophel’s plan is a bad one because David and his men are both very mighty and very mad. Further, David is an expert at war; he wouldn’t be somewhere obvious to be found and assassinated. No, David has surely buried himself in a pit! If he proceeds with this plan, Absalom will lose people, and it will shake the people’s confidence in him.

Rather, says Hushai, Absalom should take his time and gather all of Israel, then lead them himself when they go after David. When they catch up, they will kill David and slaughter his entire retinue. They’ll raze David so hard that, if he hides in a city, they’ll just rope up the whole city and drag it out into the valley until its completely destroyed.

Ahithophel’s plan is to capitalize on the disorganization of David’s fleeing retinue, attacking them fast before they have a chance to entrench and prepare. Hushai’s plan, on the other hand, depends on superior might. His plan is to just throw everything at David and roll right over him.

Absalom chooses Hushai’s advice. There are a few possible reasons for this: Ahithophel proposes to take care of the problem for Absalom, while Hushai’s plan has Absalom emerge as the hero. Hushai’s plan also involves the total slaughter of everyone who sided against Absalom. Or perhaps the text’s explanation is the correct one: God made him choose Hushai because he’s setting Absalom up for failure (though this note is, according to my study Bible, an addition by a later editor.

Down the well

It appears that Absalom doesn’t tell his counsellors whose advice he will follow. Perhaps he suspects that one of them (or someone else around him) is a spy. Which, of course, one of them is.

Hushai wastes no time before he reports to the priests, Zadok and Abiathar. According to what he tells them, it seems that he believes that Absalom has chosen Ahithophel’s plan.

The priests get a message out to their sons, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, via a maidservant. It might have aroused suspicion if they were coming in and out of the city, so they were waiting outside for instructions. Despite their precautions, however, a boy sees them and reports to Absalom, who comes out after them.

Jonathan and Ahimaaz hide in a well, and a woman puts a cover over them and sends Absalom in the wrong direction. After searching for a while, Absalom gives up and heads back home.

Now free of danger, Jonathan and Ahimaaz meet with David and tell him that Ahithophel is on his way. David and his retinue carry onward and cross the Jordan, losing Absalom his advantage. It seems like it didn’t matter which advice Absalom chose, whatever the editorial insert tells us.

Back in Jerusalem, Ahithophel finds out that Absalom has chosen not to follow his advice. Perhaps he now knows that Absalom will ultimately lose and fears the disgrace of having chosen the losing side. Perhaps he feels shamed by having had his advice disregarded. Either way, he goes home and hangs himself.

Back out in the field, Absalom has chosen Amasa to lead his army rather than Joab – implying that Joab was a possibility and therefore had sided with Absalom instead of David (EDIT: In light of 2 Sam. 18, this reading is incorrect. It seems, rather, that Joab had to be replaced as the leader of Israel’s army because he has defected to David’s side). Amasa is the son of Ithra, an Ishmaelite whose wife was Zeruiah’s niece. This would make him Joab’s cousin once removed? The family relationships are getting complicated. In the genealogy, it gives Amasa’s grandfather as Nahash, though it should be Jesse – unless Jesse’s wife remarried at some point. It could also be a transcription error because someone else is the son of a man named Nahash later in the same paragraph.

David reaches Mahanaim, and he’s met by Shobi (son of Nahash the Ammonite), Machine (son of Ammiel from Lodebar), and Barzillai the Gileadite. The three men bring him supplies. This is precisely what Ahithophel’s plan for swift action was trying to avoid.

One thing I noticed in this chapter is just how many of the characters are not Israelites. Israel is looking like a very diverse place!

2 Samuel 14: Anger management issues

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When we last left our favourite dysfunctional family, Absalom had murdered his brother, Amnon, for the rape of their sister, Tamar, then fled to his grandfather in Geshur.

Joab makes a reappearance, this time perceiving that David is pining for Absalom. He devises a plan to trick David into realizing that it’s time to bring his son home, out of exile.

He finds a woman in Tekoa and has her pretend to be in mourning. Under his instruction, she comes to David with a sob story about being a widow. In her story, her two sons fought each other and one killed the other. Because of the traditions of blood redeemers, the extended family has demanded that the “widow” give up her remaining son for execution. Since he is all she has left, the heir to her husband’s name, she wants David to intervene and protect him.

If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a thinly veiled retelling of Absalom’s murder of Amnon from 2 Sam. 13.

The reconciliation of David and Absalom, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

The reconciliation of David and Absalom, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642

He pledges to protect the widow’s son, and tells her to send anyone who tries nasty business straight to him for a reprimand. As in 2 Sam. 12, there’s the sudden reveal: Surprise! The story was about David all along!

There’s an interesting note here about blood feuds, and how that kind of tribe-based justice undermines monarchic efforts to establish a common law. David, here, is very much a king when he sides with a murderer against those who would seek vengeance.

The widow’s emphasis on her fictitious murderous son being an heir could lend weight to the argument that Absalom was, now that his older brothers were all out of the picture, David’s presumed heir. It leaves open the possibility that his actions were not, or perhaps not entirely, motivated by vengeance for Tamar.

We aren’t told how, but David figures out that Joab was behind the ruse. He sends his nephew to Geshur to fetch Absalom and bring him home, though he is still to live in his own house and not to come into David’s presence.

Father and son lived like this – in the same city but never meeting – for two years. Finally, Absalom has had enough, so he summons Joab to help him orchestrate a reunion.

Except that Joab ignores his summons. He tries again, but again Joab doesn’t respond.

So Absalom, being an entirely reasonable fellow, does what any reasonable fellow would do in such a situation. He sets Joab’s barley field on fire.

Say what you will about Absalom’s methods, he gets the job done. Joab comes right quick, asking why his lovely barley field is now a flame field. Absalom says that he just wanted Joab to get him an audience with David, and the burned field business is dropped. Apparently, it’s the equivalent of a door knock for this family.

Absalom sends Joab with a message, in which he says that David can kill him if there is any guilt in him. It’s a rather silly thing to say because, of course, Absalom is guilty. The word is clearly not being used in a recognizable way. Perhaps he means that he may be executed if he murdered his brother for bad reasons rather than to avenge Tamar. Or maybe he’s using guilt to mean some kind of tarnish, something that can fade away over time.

Joab passes the message on, and father and son finally reconcile.

Absalom’s hot bod

In the middle of all this, the narrator pauses to tell us about how beautiful Absalom was, not to mention how blemish-free! Not only that, but he had just the most gorgeous hair you’ve ever seen. It was so long and luxurious that the clippings from Absalom’s annual hair cut weighed 200 shekels by the king’s weight. Various sources give me different translates for this, but we’re looking at at least 3lbs, and probably something closer to 5lbs. That’s the weight of a small newborn baby right there, just in hair cuttings.

We’re also given a little genealogical information. In a startling break from tradition, we’re told that Absalom had a daughter, who was named Tamar (presumably after her aunt), as well as three unnamed sons. I’d like to say that it’s refreshing to see a little reversal in which gender gets to have names, but I suspect that the lack of names for the boys implies that they died young. In any case, Tamar, like her father and namesake, was also very beautiful.

2 Samuel 12: I shall go to him, but he will not return to me

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David is the king and, with Uriah disposed of, he may believe that no one can hold him accountable for his crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah. Enter the prophet Nathan.

You may remember Nathan from 2 Samuel 7, where he mysteriously replaced Abiathar. This time, he’s come with a story:

There are two men- a rich one and a poor one. The right one has many herds, but the poor man has only a single ewe, who seems to be kept more as a pet or as part of the family than as livestock. One day, a traveler goes to the rich man, but the rich man isn’t willing to kill a lamb to feed him (as would be the requirement by hospitality customs). Instead, he takes the poor man’s ewe and slaughter’s it.

David is outraged by the parable. He believes that the rich man should repay the poor man four fold – which would be in keeping with Exodus 22:1 – though he adds that the death penalty should be added as well. This is not just for the crime itself, but because the rich man “had no pity” (2 Sam. 12:6). In other words, the greater crime is the injustice, the exploitation of the vulnerable by those with social power. Sound familiar?

Then Nathan reveals the great twist: “You are the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). He continues, God gave David so much, including “your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom” (2 Sam. 12:8), and he would have given even more if it hadn’t been enough. Yet still David was not satisfied, and he murdered Uriah using the Ammonites as his sword (the imagery is beautiful, if sad). Now, as punishment, the sword will never leave David’s family. David’s wives will be taken from him and given to others. This will be done openly, in contrast with David’s cloak and dagger methods.

There’s a couple interesting things going on here. The first is the idea that God provided David with his many wives. As Joel Watts at Unsettled Christianity explains, this runs rather counter to the claim that there is no part of scripture that affirms polygamy.

Another is Nathan’s approach. Rather than come right out and condemn David, he prods David into condemning himself. This doesn’t look like judgement from on high, but rather an appeal to David’s own sense of justice, urging him to use that moral compass he has been neglecting lately.

This could be a testament to David’s sense of justice, and to Nathan’s trust that David would perceive and judge his own flaws if they are pointed out to him. Of course, it could also be a testament to how far David has fallen, that Nathan may be afraid to come right out and judge him without testing the waters first. I suspect the former, as it reads more like an attempt to show that David, while clearly in the wrong, has not lost his humanity.

When David admits that he has done wrong, Nathan reassures him that he will not have to lose his life, though that is the punishment prescribed for both Uriah’s murder (Lev. 24:19-21) and for the adultery (Lev. 20:10). Instead, God will allow him to live, but kill Bathsheba’s baby instead.

It’s unclear what the death is supposed to mean. It could be a substitutionary death, where David’s sins (and, therefore, his punishment) are transferred to the baby, so it is the baby who must die guilty (though this would directly contradict Deut. 24:16). Or, it could be that David’s punishment is the loss of a son. Either way, it’s absolutely terrible. It really only makes a difference from a white tower theological perspective. Now I need to go give my baby a quick hug before going on.

The illness

My baby has now been hugged and gone back to laying railroad tracks.

Back in 2 Samuel, Bathsheba’s baby has fallen ill. David fasts and lies on the ground all night, and the elders of his house worry about him. They try to make him rise and to eat, but he refuses. This apparently goes on for seven days before the baby dies.

Thou shalt not commit adultery, by Baron Henri de Triqueti, 1837 (Bronze bas-relief panel on the door of the Place de La Madeleine, Paris)

Thou shalt not commit adultery, by Baron Henri de Triqueti, 1837 (Bronze bas-relief panel on the door of the Place de La Madeleine, Paris)

Having seen David’s apparent grief during the child’s illness, his servants are reluctant to tell him of the baby’s death, they fear that David might harm himself. Yet David hears them whispering and guesses the cause, and he surprises everyone by getting up, having a bath, then going out for some nosh.

The servants are surprised by David’s behaviour, and they ask him why he performed his grief while the child is alive, but appears perfectly fine now that the child is dead. David explains: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:22-23).

I suspect – I hope – that this is an editorial insert to make some theological point. Otherwise, the callousness of David’s speech is just heart-rending. Yes, it’s true that his grief now wouldn’t solve anything, but that’s not the purpose of grief! It is not generally a performance ritual designed to achieve some end!

Perhaps even worse is what is hinted about his treatment of Bathsheba. She has recently lost her husband, has possibly been raped, and has just lost her baby. So “David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son” (2 Sam. 12:24). It’s possible, of course, that she really did feel comforted and that the sex was consensual, but I have a hard time imagining that to be the case. At the very least, it seems to me that Bathsheba would be having some very complicated feelings about why her baby had just died – even if her initial sexual encounter with David really was adultery and not rape.

I’ll note, too, that Bathsheba is mentioned twice in the chapter, once as David’s wife and once as Uriah’s. It struck me that perhaps one editor wanted to emphasize her relationship to Uriah (his wife, present tense, not his widow as is used for Abigail), pointing to the illegitimacy of David’s marriage to her.

Bathsheba’s second child is named Solomon, and Nathan tells David that God is a great fan. In fact, he’s so pleased with the baby that he decides to name Solomon Jedidiah, or “Beloved of the Lord.”

Bathsheba and the baby are both entirely absent from this chapter, despite figuring prominently. Only once is Bathsheba named, and her son never is. Her seven days of sitting by her ill child, hoping and despairing, raging at her impotence to save her baby while her husband lies around in the dirt instead of being at her side… None of that is mentioned. Her grief when her child finally dies is never mentioned, except to reassure us that David consoled her before he knocked her up again.

It could have been such a human story. David could have wailed beside his wife, perhaps fell at her feet in remorse for his part in the child’s death. Instead, he washes himself and has a bite to eat while she is surely in another room crying over her still baby.

It’s horrible. And it’s horrible that Bathsheba’s experience of the story is so much as hinted at.

The capture of Rabbah

Perhaps to reassure us that the punishment is done (at least so far) and that God is still on David/Israel’s side – because, surely, that’s our primary concern – the narrative veers off to the battlefield to tell us that Joab has taken “the city of waters” at Rabbah (2 Sam. 12:27). This apparently refers to some defensive structure protecting the city’s water supply. With it now in Israelite hands, the siege won’t last much longer.

Joab sends a message to David with the news, and encourages him to come quickly to finish the job. If he doesn’t, Joab will take the city himself and give it his own name. Here as elsewhere, Joab strikes me as a really sarcastic, hostile guy. I feel like he knows that David is cavorting about in Jerusalem when he should be leading his army. Perhaps because he literally got away with murder in 2 Sam. 3, he thinks that he can get away with his open disrespect of the king.

David either doesn’t pick up on Joab’s tone or still feels like he can’t challenge him. Instead, he picks up his army and heads up to Rabbah to join Joab’s forces. They take the city.

David takes the crown from the Ammonite king, or perhaps from their god, and puts it on his own head. The New Bible Companion offers this explanation for the confusion: “Their king (Heb. malkām) was evidently understood by LXX as the name of the Ammonite deity Milcom” (p.307). It could be, then, than David removed the crown from an idol. Given its weight – a talent (or about 65 pounds) of gold, set with a precious stone – seems to favour that interpretation. Its hard to imagine a king using such a crown as part of his every day wear. Though, of course, it could also be a ceremonial crown, or perhaps the weight is exaggerated.

The Israelites took a lot of spoil from Rabbah, and enslaved the inhabitants. The army then continued on and did the same to the rest of the Ammonite cities before returning to Jerusalem.

2 Samuel 11: The Golden Boy falls

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I never learned about David and Bathsheba in Sunday School (inappropriate for young ears and all that, better to focus on family-friendly material such as the crucifixion of Christ), but it’s hard to grow to adulthood as a “cultural Christian” without having at least heard the names. What I didn’t know until I started studying the Bible, though, was the context of the story and its aftermath.

It’s clear from the outset that David will not look good in this story: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle” (2 Sam. 11:1), David stays behind in Jerusalem. Instead, he sends Joab out to fight the Ammonites and besiege Rabbah (the Ammonite capital) in his place. No reason is given for the neglect of his duties, but the image of him arising from his couch late one afternoon (2 Sam. 11:2) makes it seem like he’s just lounging around. How far the mighty have fallen!

Bathsheba, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Bathsheba, by Artemisia Gentileschi

So he finally gets up off his couch and takes a walk on his roof. While there, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. We are only told that she is bathing, but there is a note later on that she “was purifying herself from her uncleanness” (2 Sam. 11:4). While the detail is provided later on, it seems that the consensus assumes that it explains her reason for bathing – she would be following laws like the one outlined in Lev. 15:19-24, washing herself after menstruation.

Whatever her reasons for bathing, the reading that she was doing it to seduce men while her husband was away at war requires an awful lot of reading into the story. A woman bathing is bathing, not trying to seduce men. A woman wearing a tanktop in summer is trying to keep cool, not trying to seduce men. This is an idea that my culture seems to have quite a bit of trouble with.

When he sees her, David falls in lust and asks for her identity. Finally, she is revealed to be Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite. Despite behind a Hittite, Uriah is currently off with Joab fighting the Ammonites on David’s behalf.

David sends messengers to Bathsheba and “took her,” but also “she came to him” (2 Sam. 11:4). I’m not sure what to make of the fact that David’s taking of Bathsheba (clearly a euphemism) occurs first, before Bathsheba comes to him. But even if she did come to him, he is the king and he has made a demand of her. Given what happens later on in the story, it’s easy to see how Bathsheba (again, assuming that she responded to David’s invitation) might have felt like she had little choice.

It is here that we get the note about her purifying herself from her uncleanness, which gives us the possibility that her uncleanness was adultery, which raises the question of why David is not required to perform any similar purification.

After the encounter, Bathsheba learns that she has become pregnant so she sends word to David.

The problem of Uriah

Bathsheba’s pregnancy poses quite the problem for David. With Uriah away, it will be obvious that he did not father his wife’s child, and suspicion might be cast toward Israel’s loafing king whether Bathsheba speaks or not.

David’s first plan to hide his doings is to create another plausible scenario by which Bethsheba may have become pregnant – so he calls Uriah back from battle. His cover story is that he wants Uriah to give a battle report (though it seems a little strange why he thought that asking for Uriah specifically would go unnoticed).

David then instructs Uriah to head home and wash his feet, which I took to mean that David was encouraging Uriah to relax after a long journey (which could include having sex with his wife), but my pervy New Bible Companion goes straight for the most explicit interpretation, calling it an “idiom of the time” (p.307).

There’s also a mention of a present, which I assume was meant to mean that David had sent a gift to Uriah’s home to reward him for the news he brought, but could be a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bathsheba.

Uriah obeys his king and leaves, but doesn’t go farther than David’s front doorstep. Rather, he spends that night at David’s door.

The next morning, David asks Uriah why he hadn’t gone home. Uriah asks David how he can go to his own home and eat, drink, and sleep with his wife while his brothers-in-arms camp in the open field (interestingly using the phrase “Israel and Judah” – 2 Sam. 11:11). The criticism seems rather pointed since, of course, David got himself into trouble doing precisely that.

Uriah also references the ark and people in booths, which may suggest that enough time has passed for it to be the Feast of Tabernacles, and perhaps this provides another reason for Uriah’s abstinence.

A third possibility comes from Exodus 19:15, where soldiers are asked to abstain from sex before battle. It’s possible that Uriah is mindful of this, since he intends to return to the battlefield once David excuses him.

David tries to salvage his plan by making Uriah stay one more day in Jerusalem, channelling Lot’s daughters (Gen. 19:30-38) and trying to get Uriah as drunk as possible. But Uriah is steadfast in his refusal of conjugal visits.

Plan B

Realizing that his first plan isn’t going to work, David goes a little more extreme in his efforts to cover up his infidelity/rape. When he sends Uriah back to the field, he sends him with a letter to Joab. The letter Uriah carries, unbeknownst to him, instructs Joab to send Uriah to the front lines and abandon him there.

Joab proved his willingness to kill for David in 2 Sam. 3, and David’s willingness to use him for the same purpose here casts a suspicious light on the spin in 2 Sam. 3. As Tim Bulkley puts it: “Up to now, David the Death Machine has been a death machine in the service of God. This is his first killing for his own benefit, and it marks a turning point in his story.”

But Joab apparently realizes how obvious David’s plan would be, and he improves on it. Instead of abandoning Uriah at the front lines, he instead assigns Uriah to a group that he knows to be especially “valiant” (2 Sam. 11:16) – read “foolhardy.” As he had planned, the “valiant” men face sallying Ammonites, pushing the enemy back to the city walls but dying to archer fire in the process.

Joab sends a messenger back to report on the battle to David, but anticipates that David may be angry that he had allowed the Israelite army to get so near the city walls. He anticipates that David will cite historical precedent – when Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth got too close to a wall and was killed by a woman dropping a millstone onto his head, from Judges 9:53. If David raises this objection, the messenger is to drop the ultimate bomb – sure, we lost some guys, but Uriah was among them.

As a side note, it is interesting that Jerubbaal’s (Jg.7:1) name is here given as Jerubbesheth. It seems that the author(s) of 1-2 Samuel are fairly consistently erasing Baal from people’s names, replacing it with “bosheth,” which means “shame.” Given that it suggests that these characters (or, at least, their parents) were not the YHWHist monotheists the narrative would like, the motivation seems rather obvious.

Joab’s concerns are misplaced, however. David seems quite happy with Joab’s aggressive attack on the city, and asks the messenger to encourage him on.

My New Bible Companion raises (but does not agree with) the possibility that Joab’s anticipation of David’s reaction may have actually been David’s reaction, misplaced. This, apparently, has “some LXX support” (p.307).

The widowed

There’s no murder of a married man without leaving a widow. When Bathsheba hears of Uriah’s death, she goes into mourning – as was proper. As soon as the required mourning period was over, however, David swoops in and “brought her to his house” (2 Sam. 11:27). He marries her and she bears a son, but this is no happy ending. The chapter closes by telling us that David’s actions have angered God.

Throughout most of this chapter, Bathsheba is passive. David sends for her, David marries her, David takes her. Nowhere do we hear Bathsheba’s perspective on the relationship. Did she want to sleep with David in the first place? Did she want to marry her husband’s murderer? We never know, because the record doesn’t seem to care. David’s crime is not rape, but rather having sex with another man’s wife and then murdering him.

Certainly, it’s obvious that their relationship is no love affair. When Bathsheba realises that she is pregnant, she sends a messenger to let David know. They are not pursuing a relationship, she needed messengers to communicate with her “lover.” Or, as Tim Bulkley puts it:

This is no great love affair. This is not a case of two lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other. In ancient epics or modern films, somehow or other that kind of love affair would excuse infidelity, somehow, but not here. There’s no love lost here.

Reading between the lines, the impression I get is that David saw Bathsheba, raped her, then hoped to go on as though nothing had happened. Unfortunately, the pregnancy became evidence of his actions, so he went about trying to cover it up. This even explains why he only waited the minimum time required before marrying Bathsheba – her pregnancy imposed a time limit.

If David’s willingness to use Joab to murder his enemies cast suspicion on the spin of 2 Sam. 3, then his behaviour regarding Bathsheba casts suspicion on the circumstances of his marriage to Abigail in 1 Sam. 25.

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.

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