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.

Numbers 3: Numbering the Levites

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We jump straight in with some quick genealogizing.

We’re reminded that Aaron had four sons – Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar – but that the elder two died “when they offered unholy fire before the Lord” (v.4), and they left no children.

We’re also told that only Aaron and his sons are allowed to be near the tabernacle, and that anyone else who approaches “shall be put to death” (v.10) – which I imagine makes things rather awkward for Moses.

Caring for your tabernacle

In the next portion of the chapter, we see a repeat of the Levite portion of the Exodus 6 genealogy, with some specifications as to which branches of the family are responsible for what.

You’ll remember that Levi had three sons, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.

Gershonites:

  • Gershon had two sons: Libni and Shimei (called Shimi in Exodus 6).
  • There are 7,500 Gershonites, and their camp is on the west side of the tent of meeting.
  • They are led by Eliasaph, son of Lael.
  • They are in charge of the tabernacle, the tent and its covering, the screen for the door of the tent of meeting, the hangings of the court, the screen for the door of the court, and its cords. Plus any services pertaining to any of these.

Kohathites:

  • Kohath had four sons: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel.
  • There are 8,600 Kohathites, and their camp is on the south side of the tent of meeting.
  • They are led by Elizaphan, son of Uzziel.
  • They are in charge of the ark, the table, the lampstand, the alters, the vessels of the sanctuary, and the screen. And, of course, any services pertaining to these.

The family of Merari:

  • Merari had two sons: Mahli (called Mahali in Exodus 6) and Mushi.
  • There are 6,200 in the clan of Merari, and their camp is on the north side.
  • They are led by Zuriel, son of Abihail.
  • They are in charge of the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessors. Also, the pillars of the court, their bases, and their pegs. And, as usual, any services pertaining to these.

Aaron’s sons:

  • Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons camp on the east side – “toward the sunrise” (v.38).
  • Aaron’s eldest son, Eleazar (now that Nadab and Abihu are dead), is the overall chief of the Levites.
  • They are in charge of the rites within the sanctuary.

You can see what the camp locations look like in the handy map we used in our discussion of Numbers 1&2:

12TribesEncampment

If you’re wondering why we’re counting Levites after Numbers 1:28, 2:33 specifically said not to count Levites, it’s because this is actually a different census. The one we got in the last two chapters was to determine how many potential soldiers were available, whereas this one has a more religious focus – as we shall see in the next section:

Redemption

We’ve been hearing an awful lot about how all the first-borns belong to God. This is repeated in Numbers 3, with the explanation that God had claimed all of the first-born back in Egypt – Egyptian and Israelite alike. He had chosen to kill the Egyptian kids right away, but had saved the Israelite ones for later. He’s keeping them alive, but they were tagged as God’s on the night of the Passover.

Nadab and Abihu offer unholy fire and die, from the Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanaica), 15th cent.

Nadab and Abihu offer unholy fire and die, from the Nuremberg Bible (Biblia Sacra Germanaica), 15th cent.

In Leviticus 27, we saw that people could be given as offerings to God without killing them. Instead, they would be servants/slaves belonging to God, having to do servile work around the sanctuary. So in this chapter, God is saying that all the first-born Israelites should be committed in this way.

But, of course, that’s not very practical, and our friendly neighbourhood God knows this. So he offers a chance to “redeem” the children by offering a substitute in their place.

The default substitute is a Levite. Every time a first-born is born to an Israelite, they are matched up to a Levite child who will do the servile work in the sanctuary in the first-born’s place. But, of course, God hasn’t quite figured out a way to keep Levite reproduction rates at a pace that matches the first-born birth rates, so he offers up a contingency plan: If there’s no Levite to take your child’s place, you can offer 5 shekels instead (which goes straight to Aaron). Today, this practice is called Pidyon haBen. Since there’s no proper Levites these days, the money just goes straight to your local guy with the last name of Cohen.

(First-born among cattle are substituted for cattle belonging to the Levites, just in case you were concerned that domesticated animals were being left out.)

At which point the author of Numbers decides to dispel some stereotypes and does a little math – badly. It presents the total number of first-borns among the Israelites as 22,273, and the total of the Levite males as 22,000. The actual total, based on the numbers we’re given just a few short verses earlier, is actually 22,300. We might argue that they’re just rounding, but then they go on to calculate the difference – 273 too many first-borns at 5 shekels each means that Aaron and his sons get 1,365 shekels. If they’re rounding, this whole passage makes no sense.

There’s also no mention of what happens if the number disparity is reversed (as is actually the case). Do extra Levites get to go free? Or are they still tied to the sanctuary? And if they’re still tied to the sanctuary, does the redemption trade have any meaning?

As an added note, Moses is instructed only to count children who are over 1 month of age. While this likely has a practical purpose (given the possibility of infant mortality), it also provides an interesting perspective on the abortion debate – since our current laws consider humans to be persons starting at birth, whereas God is literally only counting them at one month after birth. To claim biblical justification for moving that line to a point prior to birth is clearly problematic.

(I think that it also speaks to gender issues. The Bible – at least what we’ve read of it so far – is very clearly a text written for men by men, mentioning women only infrequently and certainly not concerned with what we might call “women’s issues.” If I’m not mistaken, in the ancient Mediterranean world, abortion was very much considered a women’s issue – so even though it, and contraception, were common, they are not getting any page space. The only real exception to this is in the story of Onan, which is more a purity concern with the spilling of seed, rather than a concern with barrier contraceptive methods.)

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