2 Samuel 21: The Giants of Gath

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The remaining chapters of 2 Samuel are considered a sort of Appendix, relaying various bits and bobs that fit, thematically and chronologically, with the preceding book before the narrative continues in 1 Kings 1.

This chapter in particular appears to take place prior to 2 Sam. 9. The theory goes that Samuel initially ended with 2 Sam. 8, with the material of chapters 9-20 “having been suppressed for a time, though finally restored,” according to my study Bible (p.385). Thus, when 2 Sam. 21 was added, it came from different sources and did not fit chronologically with the rest of the book. We’ll notice, for example, that at least one story is a repeat (albeit with a surprising change), and a few details seem to come from a different source than what we’ve been mostly been reading so far.

While the last four chapters of 2 Samuel clearly come from different sources, they do seem to have been arranged with care. My New Bible Commentary notes that “the six sections contained in these four chapters are arranged chiastically: natural disaster, military exploits, poem, poem, military exploits, natural disaster” (p.312).


There was a famine in Israel for three years in a row. The people are suffering and, finally, David calls on God. One might wonder why he let the famine get into its third year before doing this, but I suppose it just takes that long before a palace starts to feel the pinch.

Of course, God shows a bit of his own weird sense of time, because he claims to have sent the famine as punishment for Saul killing the Gibeonites (a story not recorded in our text). Israel had sworn not to kill them (Jos. 9:3-27, albeit through trickery), but Saul had done so anyway “in his zeal” (2 Sam. 21:2). We’ve had hints of this zeal in, for example, the story of the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:9). This paints a picture of a Saul who was very concerned with establishing a Yawehist Israelite homogeneity, compared to David’s liberal use of Philistines and other non-Israelites in his personal guard.

Why Israel should be punished now for Saul’s actions is left unexplained. A cynic might wonder if perhaps David wanted to find a reason for the famine that he could bring back to his people, but didn’t want it to be anything that was his fault (particularly if we’re placing this story fairly early on in his rule). In fact, isn’t it convenient that the famine is a punishment against his deposed predecessor? Doesn’t that just every so nicely discourage any lingering support for Saul?


David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what can be done to appease them. It seems that God’s retributive justice was not initiated by himself, but rather by a Gibeonite curse that either took this long to come into effect, or they’ve been biding their time until the responsible party is dead and his dynasty collapsed.

The Gibeonites claim that they do not want to be repaid in blood or gold, except that they do actually want seven of Saul’s sons to be hanged on the mountain of God at Gibeon – which sounds an awful lot like the blood vengeance they claimed not to be asking for. This only avoids being a contradiction if a) the number seven is a symbolic one, replacing the one-to-one killing of a blood vengeance, or b) the nature of the killing is ritually/legally different from a blood vengeance. In other words, if this is meant to be a human sacrifice to God rather than a tribal justice matter.

David agrees to their terms, though we get a clunky, clearly added later note that he spares Mephibosheth because of his oath to Jonathan. Instead of Mephibosheth, he chooses Armoni and Mephibosheth (a case of name recycling, at one end or another) – the sons of Saul and his concubine Rizpah. It seems that some of Saul’s survived him, though 1 Sam. 31 implied that they all died with him at the battle of Gilboa.

For the other five, he got the five sons of Michal, Saul’s daughter, and Adriel, son of Barzillai the Meholathite. Obviously an issue because it is Merab who married Adriel in 1 Sam. 18:19. Also a problem because we were told in 2 Sam. 6:23 that Michal died childless.

Some theories have been proposed to fix the discrepancy; for example, that Merab’s sons were given to Michal to bring up. Others, such as my RSV, simply change the name to Michal to “fix” the error. According to Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible?, there are some problems with this bandaid:

(1) We have already shown that the mention of Merab marrying Adriel in 1Sam 18 is a separate tradition and a later addition to 1 Samuel. It is difficult to assume “Merab” is the correct reading once we realize that the earlier reference to Merab’s marriage – the very passage scholars would like to harmonize 2Sam 21 with – is a later insertion. (2) The LXX confirms the reading of “Michal” in 2Sam 21:8, which means that if there was such an error, it was very widespread, and it happened before the LXX was produced. (3) Josephus, Pseudo-Jerome, and rabbinic sources confirm the reading of “Michal” and propose harmonizations. (4) Targum Jonathan appears to have been based on a vorlage that reads “Michal”, and it solves the problem by asserting that Michal simply raised the children on behalf of Merab.

The record is clearly a bit dodgy, however you cut it.

These seven sons and grandsons of Saul are hanged and God is appeased (despite the excuse that God is appeased because the Gibeonites withdraw their curse, this still smells rather strongly of human sacrifice).


So the Gibeonites are happy, but poor Rizpah isn’t. She camps out at the spot where her two sons are left hanging and keeps all the carrion eaters away until the rain comes (it being the sign that the drought-induced famine would soon be over). From context cues, it seems that the bodies were left hanging the entire summer, from late April or May until the Autumn.

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

When David hears of Rizpah’s vigil, we’re told that he fetched Saul and Jonathan’s bones from Jabesh Gilead and buries them along with the bones of the men sacrificed by the Gibeonites in Zela, the tomb of Saul’s father. It is after the funeral that God finally relented and the famine was over.

The text seems to want to tell us that Rizpah’s grief convinced David to bury Saul and Jonathan’s bones, yet he expressed more than enough grief himself to do it way back in 2 Sam. 1. It makes it rather difficult to believe that it had never occurred to David before now to give them a proper burial – particularly Jonathan, whom he claimed to love so much.

It’s difficult not to see the political motivations behind David’s decision to bury them now. It could be that he needed this big show of love for Saul and Saul’s dynasty to avoid repercussions from Saul’s remaining supporters. Or perhaps it was an attempt to show that he didn’t give in to the Gibeonites’ demands too readily.

It could also be to smooth over the fact that David had allowed the men’s bodies to hang, exposed to the elements, for what could be as long as six months – a huge insult, as well as a clear violation of the law (Deut. 21:23).

In fact, the entire Gibeonite desire for revenge (particularly its timing) looks awfully suspicious. A cynic might wonder if David used a natural disaster as an excuse to get rid of a bunch of Saul’s descendents and thereby solidify his own hold to power.

Philistine Aggression

The Philistines are at it again! In this chapter, we hear of four Philistine champions, all descended from giants, and the Israelite heroes who defeated them.

There’s Ishbibenob, whose spear weighed as much as three hundred shekels of bronze. With a new sword in hand, he comes after David, but Abishai steps in (again) and kills the threat. After this, David’s men forbid him from coming out to fight with them, “lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam. 21:17). If I were to venture a guess, I’d say it was known that David did not participate in his own military campaigns. Some people, like the author of this passage, tried to excuse his absence. Others, like the author of 2 Samuel 11, clearly did not approve.

The next champion is Saph, dispatched by Sibbecai the Hushathite.

The third might be a little familiar: Goliath the Gittite, once again armed with a spear like a weaver’s beam (2 Sam. 21:19; 1 Sam. 17:7). This time, however, he is defeated by Elhanan, son of Jaareoregim. According to Kenneth C. Davis, “the King James translators of 1611 tried to cover up the discrepancy by inserting the words “brother of” before the second mention of Goliath, but older texts don’t bear that version out” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.177).

Paul Davidson has a discussion of the episode on Is That In The Bible? that I recommend, but here’s an excerpt:

It is commonly thought by scholars that this was the original Goliath legend, for various reasons. In the earliest folktales, it was the champion Elhanan who slew Goliath when Israel was threatened by an ancient race of giants. Elhanan, Abishai, and Jonathan were all members of the Shalishim (the “Thirty”), a group of elite warriors who are listed in 2Sam 23. (Sibbecai is also included in the parallel list in 1 Chr 11:10–47.) Later on, as the figure of David the warrior king became more important to Jews and the other characters more obscure, the story of Goliath was retold with David as the hero instead.

The last Philistine champion is unnamed, but we’re told that he had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and was slain by Jonathan, the son of Shimei and David’s nephew.

1 Samuel 18: Foreskin currency

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At the end of the last chapter, Saul and David have a meeting during which Saul establishes David’s identity. Here, we find out that while they spoke, David and Jonathan – Saul’s son – were falling in love (though whether this is love of a romantic sort is, as usual, up for debate). Precisely, their souls are “knit” together.

Abbie at Better Than Esdras points to the term as meaning “bound” or “tied,” and therefore a reference to the covenant formed between them in 1 Sam. 18:3. She gives the example of Deut. 11:18, where the words of the covenant are to be bound upon the hands of the Israelites.

Jonathan then strips off his robe, giving it David along with his armour and weapons. We are told then that David is successful in whatever tasks Saul sets him to, seeming to imply that Jonathan’s gifts aid him in this.

Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp, by Erasmus Quellinus II

Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp, by Erasmus Quellinus II

The idea that Jonathan is stripping is an interesting one, and I’ve seen a few theories that this would have been a part of lovemaking between the two men. Abbie provides an alternative by pointing to three other instances of this stripping that we’ve seen so far: In Genesis 37:23, Joseph is stripped of his coat. In Num. 20:26, Aaron is stripped of his garments, which are then given to Eleazar. And, finally, in 1 Sam. 17:38, Saul tries to give his armour to David and is refused.

At no point does the term occur in a sexual context. Rather, it is a conferring of honour (or an attempted taking of it). The connection to Saul’s similar attempt to dress David seems important. Wearing Saul’s armour, David fails so hard that he can’t even walk. In Jonathan’s armour, however, he “was successful wherever Saul sent him” (1 Sam. 18:5). It points, perhaps, to a taint surrounding Saul, and perhaps refers to a deep friendship between David and Jonathan from which David drew strength.

In there, there is a confusing line about how Saul prevents David from returning home. According to my New Bible Commentary, this “does not of course mean that visits to Bethlehem were forbidden to David; it is simply a mark of David’s advancement that he becomes a permanent officer at court” (p.297). This seems a plausible enough explanation, given what follows.

When Saul and David return from fighting the Philistines, they are met by dancing women who are playing timbrels and singing:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 18:7)

Here, again, we see the recounting of heroic deeds sung by women. An interesting detail.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this song doesn’t exactly sit well with Saul, who now perceives David as his enemy.

This first portion of the chapter seems to be a bit of a time skip, despite the references to it taking place the same day as the battle against Goliath. I got the impression that it was added as a poetic device to serve as a sort of introduction to what would follow – namely the relationship with Jonathan, the acclaim of David among the people, and the souring of his relationship with Saul.

David must die

The rest of the chapter is cut up into seemingly isolated stories. The next day (though this could be an editorial insert to situate the story), Saul is suddenly overtaken by the evil spirit sent by God and, while David plays his lyre (remember that he was hired in 1 Sam. 16:14-16 to play in just such situations), Saul throws two spears at him. David manages to duck in time. There’s no indication that this episode concerns David in any way. I had interpreted the “evil spirit” as referring to something like epilepsy, but it seems clear from this story that it’s something more like a violent rage, like perhaps some sort of manic episode.

Saul next tries to get rid of David by making him a commander, hoping that he will be killed in battle. The ruse fails, however, as David succeeds in every mission he is given – as we were told he did in 1 Sam. 18:5. Saul is in awe, a term that means both fear and reverence. More importantly, the people grow to love David, because “he went out and came in before them” (1 Sam. 18:16). I assume that this means that they see him leaving for his missions, then coming back successful – a sort of parade that serves as a visual reminder that he is totally awesome.

Saul offers his daughter, Merab, to David in exchange for his continued fighting on Saul’s behalf. If you’ll remember, the champion who defeats Goliath was promised her in 1 Sam. 17:25, so this is rather late in coming. Saul hopes that he will avoid sinning by having the Philistines kill David in battle rather than having to do it himself. David is humble, as usual, asking who he is that he should be considered for son-in-law to the king. It seems, however, that he eventually agrees, though Saul inexplicably changes his mind and marries Merab to Adriel the Meholathite when she should have been marrying David. According to my study Bible, this incident is “lacking in some Greek texts” (p.356).

Which makes sense, because it’s immediately followed by a very similar story involving Michal, Saul’s other daughter.

Like Ruth, Michal is the initiator of the union. Though rather than heading off to a threshing floor, she instead expresses her interest in David within earshot of people who report back to Saul. Saul decides to make this work for him, hoping that Michal “may be a snare for him” (1 Sam. 18:21). It seems that his plan is identical to the one he had with Merab – that dangling Michal before David will keep him going out on suicide missions.

David acts humble, because apparently he is incapable of responding in any other way, and highlights his poverty. He is presumably indicating that he lacks the funds to provide a bride price, so Saul makes a proposition: David can marry Michal for the price of 100 Philistine foreskins. It is unknown how he would be able to identify whether the foreskins were, indeed, of Philistine origin. His hope is that David will die in the effort to extract them.

The impossible task is not an uncommon one in stories. As Kenneth Davis writes:

The idea of giving a young hero an impossible task is a common one in legends. In Greek myth, Jason must deliver the golden fleece and Perseus must bring the head of the Medusa. Like these other ancient Near East warrior-heroes, David surprises Saul by delivering the goods. In some versions of the Hebrew text, David actually goes Saul one better and delivers two hundred foreskins. (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.178)

The demand for foreskins, while seriously weird from my perspective, may not actually be quite so far-fetched. We need only look to shockingly recent North American history for an example, as colonists offered bounties for the scalps of First Nations people. Different head, same concept.

Davis goes on to provide an even closer parallel. It seems that the Egyptians, who also practised circumcision, were known to take anatomical trophies from defeated enemies. In particular, the uncircumcised penises of Libyans were amputated to aid in counting the number of the defeated (or, perhaps, de-feeted).

According to my Bible, David does Saul one better and brings home double the required foreskins (which just shows lack of attention to detail, as far as I’m concerned), though apparently the Septuagint sticks with only 100 foreskins.

The bride price taken care of, David is able to marry Michal, and Saul is more afraid of David than ever.

According to Collins, there may have been a political motive behind the story of Michal. Not only does she get the ball rolling by expressing her interest in David, it is Saul who proposes the union. “David, then, cannot be accused of marrying for expediency” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.121).

1 Samuel 16-18

Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible? does an excellent job parsing out two distinct stories from the jumble we’ve seen in the preceding three chapters. The post first examples all the concerns that are raised if we read the early part of David’s story as a single, continuous narrative, then goes on to tease out the two probable source stories using discrepancies between the Massoretic Text and the Septuagint (as well as some brief mentions of other sources). Then there’s some other very interesting stuff specifically about Goliath, but that may be left for later to avoid spoilers as it deals with details from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.

1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).