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 21: The Giants of Gath

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

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

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

Famine

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

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

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

Revenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funerals

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

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

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

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

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

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

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

Philistine Aggression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 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 16: Taking Possession

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David and his retinue are still on the run. On the way, they are met by Ziba, the servant David assigned to Mephibosheth (Jonathan’s disabled son) in 2 Samuel 9. He’s come bearing gifts – several donkeys for David and his retinue to ride, plus food and wine to carry with them on their journey.

David is suspicious, and he asks Ziba where is Mephibosheth – though a strenuous flight into the wilderness may not exactly be in the cards for someone with two crippled feet, even if he does have an ass to ride.

Ziba answers that Mephibosheth has stayed behind in Jerusalem. He believes, for some strange reason, that the current upheaval is part of God’s plan to restore him as Saul’s successor. This is rather difficult to believe, even if Mephibosheth is extraordinarily naive. If Absalom is challenging David, he’s clearly doing it for his own benefit, not for Mephibosheth’s. Unless the two of them have a relationship that hasn’t been mentioned in the text. Or perhaps Mephibosheth has been mistreated by David and hopes that Absalom will treat him better.

Perhaps without giving the story very much thought, David is furious. Despite the fact that the goods Ziba is giving him were almost certainly stolen from his master, David rewards him by granting him all of Mephibosheth’s possessions.

Wilbur Mercer

David and his retinue carry on until they meet Shimei, son of Gera – a relative of Saul. Shimei chases after the fleeing party, shouting curses and hurling stones at them. He calls out for revenge for the blood of Saul’s house.

2 Samuel 16 - ShimeiAbishai, David’s nephew through his sister Zeruiah, asks for permission to kill Shimei. Abishai, along with his brother Joab, seem to have rather a strong hot streak. You’ll remember that they are the ones who murdered Abner in 2 Samuel 3.

David, finally showing a little more sense than he has been so far, refuses Abishai. He seems rattled, and appears to believe that Shimei is being used by God to punish him. Besides, he says, his own son wants to kill him. How much more must a Benjaminite want to do it? Finally, he concludes that God might be pleased with him if he bears Shimei’s curses with poise.

It all seems rather introspective and theological. At the very least, even if he doesn’t seem to do a very good job of changing, David seems to realize that he’s kind of terrible. Of course, it’s for all the wrong reasons, but I’ll take it.

The concubines

Back in Jerusalem, Absalom has finally entered the city. He is approached by Hushai, who pledges his fealty. To explain why he is with Absalom rather than David, Hushai says that he follows the will of the God and of the people. From Absalom’s perspective, the easy taking of Jerusalem must surely have looked like God was on his side and had abandoned David just as he had abandoned Saul.

There is another implication in Hushai’s words – that David’s absence counts as a de facto concession, and Absalom, as the presumed heir, is the natural choice for a new king. Notice that Absalom takes over without protest from any of his brothers once David has fled.

To seal Absalom’s position, Ahithophel recommends that he rape the ten concubines David had conveniently left behind. Because absolutely no one could have possibly seen that coming.

Absalom does this, setting up a tent on a rooftop so that everyone can see that he’s raping the women.

My study Bible offers this explanation: “The concubines were royal property; hence taking them over publicly was a sensational way of showing the people that Absalom had assumed the office and prerogatives of kingship” (p.397). In other words, only the king gets to sleep with the king’s concubines; if Absalom is sleeping with the king’s concubines, Absalom must be the king.

It’s quite possible that David did the same thing after his own ascension. In 2 Samuel 12:8, God says that he gave David his “master’s wives.”

It could also be another case of mirroring. I mentioned in the last chapter that Absalom’s choice of Hebron as his base of rebellion could be a literary device to force the reader to compare David to Absalom. Here, it may be important that Absalom rapes the concubines on a roof, which is precisely where David was lying about when he first saw Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11.

The incident also, of course, serves to fulfil Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Sam. 12:11-12. David stole Uriah’s wife, now Absalom shall steal David’s concubines.

In any case, I think we can at least be certain of one thing: David is a complete jerk when it comes to women.

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 9: So that I too may go and worship him

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Apparently, from here until the end of 2 Samuel (with just a smidge of 1 Kings), we should be getting a continue and largely unedited section of Early Source. According to Collins, this section is “often identified as the ‘Court History of David’ or the ‘Succession Narrative'” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.123). The former is rather self-explanatory, and the latter because it tells of David’s eventual fall and the rise of Solomon.

To start us off, David asks a very suspicious-sounding question: “Is there still any one left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake? (2 Sam. 9:1).

Yikes!

Given the unfortunate fates met by Saul’s other family members, it sounds an awful lot like David wants to make sure that no one else might be brought up to challenge him. Or, as my New Bible Companion puts it: “In the ancient world kings were accustomed to exterminate all members of a previous dynasty” (p.306). If you’ve been reading ahead, you might also notice how similar David’s words here sound to Herod’s in Matthew 2:8.

The stated purpose of the search, however, is to honour David’s loyalty pledges to Jonathan (1 Sam. 18:1-4; 1 Sam. 20:14-17; 1 Sam. 20:42).

2 Samuel 9 - MephiboshethThe search turns up Ziba, one of Saul’s former servants, who knows of one remaining descendant: Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth, the boy with the crippled legs from 2 Sam. 4:4. His nurse had fled with him around the time that Saul’s dynasty officially crumbled and David took over. Since then, they had been hiding in the house of Machir, son of Ammiel, at Lodebar. David sends for him.

When Mephibosheth arrives, he is understandably terrified. He falls on his face before David and “did obeisance” (2 Sam. 9:6). But David reassures him that he has no evil intentions, and only wants to care for him. He promises to give Mephibosheth title to all of Saul’s land (presumably his personal demesne in Benjamin), and to give him a permanent place at the royal table.

Mephibosheth appears appropriately humble, asking who he is that David should be so kind, calling himself a dead dog, all that usual convention.

It’s worth noting that even if David hasn’t (not) sent assassins after Mephibosheth, having him at his table doesn’t necessarily indicate that his motives are pure. As Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic puts it: “Reading between the lines, this kindness also keeps a legitimate claimant to Saul’s throne in check.” Bringing Mephibosheth into the palace makes it easy to keep an eye on him, and to limit his ability to be in contact with any unsavoury sorts who might like to form a rebellion around him.

It’s an interesting window into courtly life that David appoints Ziba and his family to care for the land he’s given to Mephibosheth (indicating either that courtiers were not in the habit of looking after their own lands, or that Mephibosheth’s movements were being restricted).

Ziba’s job is to “bring in the produce, that your master’s son may have bread to eat” (2 Sam. 9:10), indicating that the (perhaps compulsory) place at the table didn’t come free. My New Bible Commentary explains this by saying: “Presence at court would rather increase tan diminish his expenditure” (p.306). This may mean that courtiers were expected to contribute to their upkeep – which may not be unreasonable depending on the size of the court.

Despite possibly being a sort of gilded cage, Mephibosheth’s position at David’s table apparently increased his social status, making him “like one of the king’s sons” (2 Sam. 9:11).

To close off the chapter, we are told that Mephibosheth had one son: Mica.

2 Samuel 7: A tale of houses

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In this chapter, we have a brief interlude in which David frets that he hasn’t done enough for God. Ever the humble (or, perhaps, cautious) king, David is concerned that his cedar house (I assume this is the one built for him by King Hiram of Tyre in 2 Sam. 5:11) might upstage God’s little tent.

He decides to check in with God, this time using a prophet named Nathan instead of his normal liaison, Abiathar. Nathan agrees with David, or at least seems to recognize that David can apparently do not wrong (SPOILERS: So far!) in God’s eyes. “Go, do all that is in your heart; for the Lord is with you” (2 Sam. 7:3).

Nathan advises King David, by Matthias Scheits, 1671

Nathan advises King David, by Matthias Scheits, 1671

Either God changes his mind, or Nathan spoke in his name without actually consulting him. Since Nathan is never really rebuked for advising David falsely, either he is as unimpeachable as David, or God changed his mind. Either explanation is troubling, and there’s no discernible reason to have included Nathan’s bad advice in the first place.

The first night after Nathan tells David to go ahead and build a temple, God speaks to him (probably through a dream) saying that no, he doesn’t actually want a temple, thank you very much. He has always lived in a tent, he says, and never has he wanted more. Rather, he has a plan: when David is dead, an offspring of his will be raised up to build God a house (SPOILERS: He’s talking about Solomon).

Even though God claims here that he’s always lived in a tent, that was not the impression I got of the ark’s digs in Shiloh, where Eli is able to sit “by the doorposts of the Lord’s house” (1 Sam. 1:9) and where Samuel is able to “[lie] down in the temple of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:3).

God goes on a bit about covenants and establishing thrones and all that usual stuff, which Nathan dutifully reports back to David.

David then fills up the rest of the chapter with a speech of his own about all the wonderful stuff God is doing for him and how wonderful he is for condescending to reveal part of his Plan. There’s loads of “forevers,” which is rather ironic as I read this over two thousand years after the “forever” monarchy was destroyed.

A land of many houses

The word “house” is used over and over again throughout the chapter, and it’s obviously intentional, a play on words. David is concerned that his house (palace) is too shower, but God tells him to focus on building his house (dynasty) rather than God’s house (temple), but David is humble and asks “what is my house” (family status) in 2 Sam. 8:18.

What’s going on?

So what is this chapter doing here?

It could be an attempt to explain history. In the last chapter, I wondered if the stories about Michal were meant to defend David against the charge that his marriage had been an act of political manoeuvring. Here, it could be that the exchange with Nathan is meant to explain why David – who is portrayed as being so devout – never got around to building God a temple.

There also seems to be some speculation that the Deuteronomist editor has had a hand in this chapter. According to Collins:

But 7:13a, “He shall build a house for my name,” is widely recognized as a secondary addition. That the house will be build “for my name” is a trademark of Deuteronomistic theology. Presumably, then, the reference to Solomon was added by a Deuteronomistic editor, and the basic oracle was older.

[…]

In Deuteronomistic theology, covenants are conditional. The fortunes of the king depend on his observance of the law. The idea that God had promised David an everlasting dynasty by the oracle of Nathan was probably an established tradition in Jerusalem. The present formulation of the promise has been edited by the Deuteronomists, to emphasized that the king was still subject to punishment. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.125)

As Collins points out, however, much of the oracle has a more unconditional feel to it, more Genesis 15 than Deuteronomy. Still, the evidence for a Deuteronomist edit is, apparently, controversial.

2 Samuel 5: Up the water shaft

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With all of Saul’s heirs either dead or crippled, the way is cleared for David to finally fulfil the promise God made way back in 1 Sam. 16. All the tribes of Israel gather at Hebron, saying that David was always the real military leader even while Saul was king. They also reiterate that God had said that David would become king of Israel. So David’s kingship is explained in two parts: the first being his personal actions (as a leader in the war against the Philistines), and the second being God’s will. It’s an interesting break from the Deuteronomist idea that leaders are leaders through God’s will only (though distanced a little by the claim being placed into the mouths of the Israelites, and therefore possibility made in ignorance).

Once the Israelites are done stroking David’s ego, he makes a covenant with them and the deal is sealed. Unless I’m mistaken, it is in this chapter that the narrator first refers to David as “the king” (2 Sam. 5:8).

The narrator then summarizes his reign, saying that he was 30 years old when he became king, and ruled 40 more (7.5 of them in Hebron ruling only over Judah, and 33 of them over all of Israel from Jerusalem).

Taking Jerusalem

Now that we know that David will spend most of his reign in Jerusalem, we must find out how he gets there.

The story is a little confusing, but what I get from it is that David first sets his eyes on Jerusalem and moves toward it. Believing themselves sufficiently safe behind their walls, the Jebusites living in Jerusalem taunt David, saying, “the blind and the lame will ward you off” (2 Sam. 5:6). The implication seems to be that they believe their defences to be so strong that they would hold even if manned only by the disabled.

In response, David takes the stronghold of Zion and commands his men to go “attack the lame and the blind, who are hated by David’s soul” (2 Sam. 5:8). Yikes.

His response could easily be seen simply as a one-liner response to the Jebusite taunt – they say they could hold him off with only disabled people, so David says “so let’s go kill the disabled.” Slightly less charitably, it could be that he’s turning their insult around to claim that all Jebusites are disabled (which makes sense in context, but is certainly not PC).

Water Shaft, from Friends and Heroes

Water Shaft, from Friends and Heroes

And if that were the end of it, it could be marked off as just some macho man posturing. Unfortunately, the narrator then says that David’s expressed hatred for the disabled is the reason why “the blind and the lame shall not come into the house” (2 Sam. 5:8), presumably meaning the Temple and referencing rules like those found in Leviticus 21-22. While coming from the pen of a narrator writing long after David’s death, this addition changes David’s statement from a mere (if ill-conceived) one-liner in response to a taunt, to an expression of actual hatred for the disabled. Major yeeesh.

While the account is somewhat glossed over, it seems that David’s men were able to get around Jerusalem’s defences and infiltrate the city by exploiting a weakness in the city’s water supply (he has them climb up the “water shaft,” which I can only imagine refers to either a well or a sewer).

Once David takes Zion, he calls it the City of David, which sounds just a tough egotistical. But at least he seems to treat it well, as we learn that he builds up the city around it.

We’re also told that he receives some wood, carpenters, and masons from King Hiram of Tyre (suggesting that David is being taken seriously by neighbouring rulers), and they build him a palace.

We also get another summary of his family’s growth. This time, the mothers of his children are not named. We learn only that he has increased his concubine store, and that he has several more sons and daughters (daughters are specifically mentioned this time), named Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet.

Why Jerusalem?

Jerusalem has a bit of a confusing history. We were told in Judges 1:8 that the city was conquered by Judah and burned, and it’s implied in 1 Sam. 17:54 that it’s in Israelite hands. Yet in Judges 1:21, we’re told that Benjamin failed to take the city, and it is clearly in the hands of the Jebusites in Judges 19:11 and 2 Samuel 5.

Despite the discrepancy, we see a hint at why David may have chosen Jerusalem – it was clearly claimed by both Judah in Judges 1:8 (his tribe) and Benjamin in Judges 1:21 (Saul’s tribe).

Being Jebusite, the city was not currently owned by any Israelite tribe. As Victor Matthews points out in Manners & Customs of the Bible, the choice would perhaps “remove the hint of favoratism towards his own tribe” (p.84), while still being well-defensible (once that water shaft issue is addressed) and fairly centrally located.

Basically, Jerusalem was the Israelite version of Ottawa.

Philistines incoming

We’re not privy to the break between David and the Philistines, and here David’s former alliance goes entirely unmentioned. But it seems that the Philistines figured out that David was no longer on their side once he became king of the their enemies, because they move out against him.

The narrative is sparing in details, but it seems that David had some warning of the Philistine advance and had time to hide himself in a stronghold.

There are two battles between the Israelites and the Philistines narrated, both taking place in the valley of the Rephaim (remember the Rephaim?). In both cases, David first asks God if he should move against the Philistines.

In the first battle, God says yes and David defeats the Philistines, naming the place Baalperazim – meaning “the Lord of breaking through” and referring to the way that “the Lord has broken through my enemies before me, like a bursting flood” (2 Sam. 5:20). There’s no indication here that it’s anything other than a poetic expression giving God credit for the victory, rather than God literally taking an active part in the battle.

The second time, God tells David to sneak around the Philistines and hide among the balsam trees. They are then to wait until they hear the sound of marching in the tops of the trees (presumably the sound of the wind rustling the leaves), at which time they will know that God has gone ahead to kill the Philistines for them. This time, God’s role is seen to be literal.

It seems that both stories may simply be origin stories for the location’s name.

At the end of the first battle, we’re told that the routed Philistines leave behind their idols, and that David and his men carry them off. This could be seen as retribution for the Philistine theft of the ark in 1 Sam. 4, or as another example of the same concept – stealing gods as a way of decreasing the enemy’s morale.

In the beginning of the chapter, the Israelites credited David’s right to the crown in part to his leadership in battle. Here, the author(s) seems to be trying to reclaim the “God first, God only” view, having David very explicitly seeking out God’s counsel and following his instructions, and giving God a role (a very major role in the second case) in the military victory.

2 Samuel 4: Another one bites the dust

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Ishbosheth hears of Abner’s death, and we’re told that his courage (what courage?) fails him. In fact, all of Israel was dismayed right along with him.

We then move to Baanah and Rechab, who are not only captains of Ishbosheth’s own raiding bands, but fellow Benjaminites as well. They are brothers, the sons of Rimmon, who is in Beeroth. This would clearly have raised questions for the intended audience, so the narrator explains that Beeroth is considered part of Benjamin because the Beerothites fled to Gittaim and have been sojourners there to this day. Of course, this clarifies precisely nothing for me.

My study Bible speculates that the town was left empty when the original Beerothites fled, meaning it was free for Benjaminite opportunists like Rimmon to move in.

Rechab and Baanah go to Ishbosheth’s home. Unfortunately for the king of Israel, his doorkeeper fell asleep on the job just as he himself was tucking in for the nap, allowing Rechab and Baanah to slip in and kill him in his bed. They then decapitate his corpse and bring the head to Hebron.

Strangely, the King James Version specifies that they stabbed Ishbosheth “under the fifth rib” (the same phrase is used for the killings in 2 Sam. 2:23 and 2 Sam. 3:27, too). Other versions have them merely stabbing Ishbosheth in the “belly” or “stomach” (none that I can find use “tummy” or “tum-tum,” though). My RSV is even less specific, having the assassins merely slay Ishbosheth. None of my notes are showing any explanation for the difference, though.

Ishbosheth is slain, from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1240

Ishbosheth is slain, from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1240

Their motives are never made explicit. My New Bible Commentary suggests that their family might have some resentment toward Saul (and therefore the whole royal family), so it could be that their revenge was personal. It seems to me, though, that as army captains, they were pretty well situated in the established structure. A second explanation is that they either hoped for more or saw that Ishbosheth’s rule was coming to an end anyway and wanted to make sure they were aligned with the winning side.

Either way, they present David with Ishbosheth’s head, declaring that “the Lord has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring” (2 Sam. 4:8), making them the instruments of the divine.

David feels a little differently. He reminds the assassins of what he did to the man (here not identified as an Amalekite) who notified him that Saul had died (here did not claim to be the killer), a version of the events from 2 Samuel 1. If he killed a man for merely telling him about a king of Israel’s death, how much more should he do to men who were the actual agents of one?

And so Rechab and Baanah are killed, their hands and feet removed, and their bodies hung beside a pool at Hebron (which doesn’t sound like a great idea, hygienically, though presumably would ensure that the bodies would be seen by the greatest number of people – everyone needs water!).

David then buries Ishbosheth’s head in Abner’s tomb. It’s unclear why he made this choice rather than, for example, burying Ishbosheth with Saul, or perhaps making him a tomb of his own. The connection to Abner seems a little strange to me.

There’s an unflattering pattern emerging, where David’s enemies keep conveniently dying, often by assassination (even Saul was specifically said to have not been killed by the Philistines as part of the battle). Though David is punishing the assassins and emphasizing his own innocence, it still keeps happening, people keep thinking that they can profit by killing David’s enemies for him.

It almost comes a cross as a “she doth protest too much” sort of situation.

The surviving son

In the middle of the above, the narrative slides over what would appear to be the remaining person with a serious claim to the crown – Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth. The purpose of the passage is apparently to show why Mephibosheth’s, whose claim to the crown would have been much stronger than David’s, was passed by.

The boy was five years old when Jonathan died at Jezreel. Presumably in fear that the Philistines would come after the remaining royal family to secure their control over Israel, his nurse fled with him. Unfortunately, he fell during the flight and his feet were crippled.

The only reason I can think of to mention this story here – that I can think of, anyway – is to explain why Mephibosheth was not a legitimate threat to David’s upcoming kingship, presumably because the office still required something more of a battle leader than an administrator.

2 Samuel 3: An embarrassing situation

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Despite the resolution in the last chapter, we’re told that the house of David and the house of Saul are caught up in a lengthy war. As time wears on, David’s side gains strength while Ishbosheth weakens.

During this time, Abner’s power and influence grows. It seems that in the process, he grew a little big for his britches and may (or may not) have had a dalliance with one of Saul’s concubines, Rizpah daughter of Aiah. Notice that she is named (as is her parentage!) when so many side characters are not.

Ishbosheth confronts Abner about this. After all, since Rizpah was Saul’s concubine, having sex with her would be something like a servant “just trying on” the king’s crown. It implies ambitions that are utterly unsuitable – especially from the perspective of a king with such a tenuous grasp of his crown as Ishbosheth.

Abner is absolutely indignant. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that Abner is a liar here, or if we’re supposed to see Ishbosheth as going a little paranoid.

Either way, it’s the only time we see Ishbosheth nay-saying Abner, and it’s clear how Abner feels about this. He reminds Ishbosheth that it is Abner who brought him to Mahanaim instead of simply delivering him into David’s hands. If Ishbosheth has a crown at all now, it is only through Abner’s benevolence.

He is saying this, I remind you, to a 40 year old man (2 Sam. 2:11).

To avenge the insult to his honour, Abner promises to be the hand by which God makes David king of Israel. Ishbosheth is too afraid to respond to this.

In his speech, Abner asks Ishbosheth, “am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Dogs are unclean animals, so that’s insult enough. Adding “of Judah” seems to imply that his defection has already occurred, even though in the narrative, it is this incident that prompts it. That said, “of Judah” does not appear in the Septuagint, suggesting that it may have been an editorial addition.

Defection

Upset with his king, Abner decides to try another. He goes to David and pledges loyalty in exchange for covenant (which I assume means that he is trying to ensure his personal safety and, possibly, his position). David agrees, but only if Abner brings him his first wife, Michal, who had been remarried to Paltiel (or Palti) son of Laish in 1 Sam. 25:44, and whom David claims to have paid a hundred Philistine foreskins for (though he’s shortchanging himself since the figure in 1 Sam. 18:20-27 was two hundred).

Abner agrees and runs off to collect her. Meanwhile, David sends a messenger to Ishbosheth asking for Michal to be returned to him. Since he has already commanded Abner to bring her, it’s unclear what his reasoning was, though it ends up working out as Ishbosheth agrees and charges Abner with delivering her. (Though why he would entrust Abner with anything after his stated plan to defect is also unclear. In fact, why he would agree to release Michal knowing that it would greatly solidify David’s claim on his throne is also rather unclear.)

We are told that Michal’s husband, Paltiel, followed her weeping all the way to Bahurim. Finally, Abner tells him to buzz off and, afraid to challenge someone so powerful, he does. Though Michal’s feelings are never revealed, Paltiel’s actions suggest that David has just broken up a happy marriage for his own political gain. (Being Saul’s son-in-law lends his claim to the Israelite crown far more legitimacy, as it becomes arguably a hereditary succession rather than a straight up usurpation.)

On his way, Abner rouses the elders of Israel and Benjamin against Ishbosheth, so he goes to David with their support. The separate mention of Benjamin here is particularly significant because that is Saul’s own tribe turning away from Saul’s son. They are the most likely to support Ishbosheth’s claim, yet they are supporting David. It could be that with Ishbosheth trapped on the east side of the Jordan, they figure that David is their best chance for protection against the Philistines.

Abner arrives with Michal and twenty soldiers, and David throws them a feast (though his reunion with Michal is conspicuously absent). The feasting done, Abner heads out to gather the Israelites for a covenant ceremony to swear David in as the new king of Israel.

2 Samuel 3But just then, Joab (and apparently his brother Abishai as well, though his name isn’t added to the story until 2 Sam. 3:30) returns from a raid (despite being the king of Judah, David is still, apparently, a bandit leader) and finds out that Abner, his mortal enemy, had been there. To avenge Asahel’s death, he sends out some men to capture Abner and bring him back, then murders him.

This is technically a legal killing since Joab is a relative of the killed Asahel and Abner is not currently in one of the cities of refuge (as stipulated in Deut. 19 and Num. 35). Even so, it’s not exactly politically convenient for David, since it makes it look an awful lot like he’s murdering his way to the crown.

To distance himself from the murder, David curses Joab, makes a big public show of mourning Abner, writes a lament (which he is apparently doing for all of his Totally Not Murdered Nemeses), and fasts for a day despite being begged not to. He even announces publicly that he and his kingdom are innocent in the matter. The people are apparently convinced by David’s fervent campaigning and all is forgiven, though you’ll note that all talk of crowning him king of Israel is dropped for the time being.

It seems that he cannot simply execute Joab and Abishai as he did the Amalekite in 2 Sam. 1 because they have too much political clout. Instead, he asks that God to the punishing for him, cursing Joab and his descendants: “may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who is slain by the sword, or who lacks bread” (2 Sam. 3:29). Spindles, by the way, are women’s tools. Strictly speaking, I’d say that few houses go for very many generations without at least one daughter, but in this context I think he is merely cursing Joab with effeminate children.

This whole episode stinks of propaganda. As with David being sent home at the last minute so that he is conveniently not on the battlefield where Saul gets killed (1 Sam. 29), this story exonerates him from Abner’s murder. But here, the cover story is far more clumsy.

A possible alternative story would simply have Joab murdering Abner, either on David’s direct command or in the hopes that David would be pleased by it after-the-fact. The backstory of a blood feud provides a little cover for Joab, making his actions legal (and reducing the classicism in David’s lack of punishment). Having Abner defect to David’s side first eliminates David’s gain from his death – after all, Abner had sworn to deliver the crown of Israel into David’s hands, and that process is delayed by his death.

Yet the fact remains that David’s competition keeps dying, and that’s more than a little suspicious.

David’s family life

In the middle of all this, we got a little insert about the sons born to David during his stay in Hebron. While ostensibly about his sons, it also provides an updated list of his wives as well.

As we learned in 2 Sam. 2:11, David was only in Hebron for seven and a half years. That means that he was having an average of almost one son per year during his stay (and that’s only sons, since daughters are not listed!), albeit all from different women. In order of birth, those sons are:

  1. Amnon of Ahinoam
  2. Chileab of Abigail
  3. Absalom of Maacah, the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur
  4. Adonijah of Haggith
  5. Shephatiah of Abital
  6. Ithream of Elgah

Notice Maacah’s parentage. The fact that David is marrying princesses at this early stage suggests that he’s already amassed a good deal of political clout. It also suggests that he has forged an alliance with Geshur, which would be located to Ishbosheth’s north. With David and the Philistines to his west, poor Ishbosheth’s position is looking rather dire.

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