2 Samuel 17: A tale of two counselors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Samuel 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 14: Anger management issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absalom’s hot bod

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

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

2 Samuel 8: Israel’s Board of Directors

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In this chapter, we get what appears to be a summary of David’s reign, focusing mostly on his military exploits. We find out, for example, that he captured Methegammah after finally defeating the Philistines. If you’re anything like me, you probably sighed with relief, glad that the intense suspense over the fate of Methegammah is finally over.

Or perhaps you looked online and found that the correlating passage in 1 Chronicles 18:1 replaces Methegammah with “Gath and its villages.” Depending on chronological order, this may help to explain how a Githite – someone from Gath – like Obededom came to be trusted with the ark of the covenant in 2 Samuel 6.

David them defeated Moab. As I learned in reading World War Z by Max Brooks, to decimate means to kill one in every ten, usually as a punishment for the group. If that sounds terrible, gird your loins. David has the Moabites lie on the ground in three lines. He then kills two of the lines and makes the third his vassals.

This strays quite far from the prescribed rule in Deut. 2:9 – “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” It’s also a little odd given David’s own apparent connection to the Moabite Ruth, as given in Ruth 4:17, and his trust in the Moabites to keep his family safe in 1 Sam. 22:3-4.

Of course, it’s not too far off from Judges 3:28-30, and Saul’s own enmity in 1 Sam. 14:47.

King David In Prayer, by Pieter de Grebber, c.1635-1640

King David In Prayer, by Pieter de Grebber, c.1635-1640

Next, David defeats Hadadezer, son of Rehob and king of Zobah, the only named individual enemy in this chapter. We are told that he had attempted to restore his power at the Euphrates (though we don’t know how or why or when he lost it). David met him there and took 1700 horsemen and 20,000 foot soldiers, who apparently willingly join the Israelites.

He also keeps enough horses for 100 chariots, but hamstrings the rest. The Israelite antipathy toward chariots from Joshua 11:6 is clearly still live and well. I’ve read but not confirmed that much of ancient Palestine’s terrain, being rather hilly, was unsuitable for chariots. This would also have meant that the Israelites would not necessarily know how to use them effectively. Ultimately, it clearly wouldn’t have made sense for David to keep the chariot horses, and leaving them would have place them back into the hands of his enemies, so I understand the logic behind disposing of the horses in some way, though hamstringing seems a little cruel.

After David defeats Hadadezer, the Syrians of Damascus come to his defense. Of course, David beats them as well, slaying 22,000 Syrians.He then puts garrisons in Aram (where the Syrians were from), making the Syrians his vassals.

We also find out that David took several golden shields from Hadadezer and brought them to Jerusalem, which immediately made me think of Pontius Pilate’s golden shields, though I suppose the tone of the event was likely quite different. David also pillaged a lot of bronze from Hadadezer’s cities, Betah and Berothai.

But it wasn’t all conquering and bloodshed! When King Toi of Hamath heard about David’s exploits, he sent his son, Joram, to David as an emissary. Joram greets and congratulates David, because Toi and Hadadezer had been at war, and the enemy of my enemy is apparently my friend. Joram brought with him gifts of silver, gold, and bronze, which David dedicated to God along with all gold and silver he’d pillaged from the subdued nations, listed here as Edom, Moab, the Ammonites, the Philistines, Amalek, and Hadadezer (who continues to be, inexplicably, a personal enemy).

According to my New Bible Commentary, the mention of Edom here may be in error, as the Hebrew reads “Aram”/Syria (p.305).

We find out that David is making a name for himself, that he slew 18,000 Edomites, and that he put garrisons in Edom and made them his vassals.

David’s Cabinet

To close off the chapter, we find out about some of the key players in David’s administration:

  • Joab so of Zerniah was in charge of David’s army.
  • Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was David’s recorder.
  • Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were his high priests.
  • Seraiah was secretary.
  • Benaiah son of Jehoiada was in charge of the Cherethites and Pelethites (possibly a foreign mercenary contingent).
  • David’s sons served as priests.

The mention of Ahimelech here may be an error, since paternity is reversed in all previous mentions. This isn’t definitive, though, since it’s always possible that Abiathar had a son, named after the child’s grandfather, who succeeded him.

Zadok’s paternity is interesting, since Ahitub is named in 1 Sam. 22:20 as the father of Ahimelech. While it’s completely plausible that this is just a coincidence, it may indicate that Zadok and Ahimelech are related to each other in some way, possibly brothers or cousins. Or it could be that records were kept well enough that names were remembered, but not so well that anyone could recall who was supposed to fit where, so that multiple authors arranged them in different combinations to construct conflicting genealogies.

The mention of David’s sons serving as priests is an interesting one, since David is so explicitly not a Levite. In combination with David taking a central role in the cultic procession of 2 Samuel 6, Abinadab’s charge of the ark and the naming of his son, Eleazar, as its caretaker in 1 Samuel 7, we can see clear evidence of how the priesthood evolved over time in ancient Palestine. Assuming, of course, that David’s sons were priests of YHWH.

As for Zadok and why there should be two high priests, my New Bible Companion presents the following theories:

It has been widely conjectured, however, that Zadok was not even a Levite; he may in that case have been priest in Jerusalem to ‘God Most High’ (Gn. 14:18) before David’s capture of the city (as H. H. Rowley suggested). But an equally attractive possibility, which accepts the biblical genealogies, is that Saul had made Zadok high priest after the Nob slaughter. It seems considerably more likely that David should have tried to placate the followers of Saul, by uniting Saul’s high priest with his own, that that he should have accepted the pre-Israelite (?Jebusite) priest of Jerusalem. One might add that since David himself seems to have become in some sense a priest-king, ‘after the order of Melchizedek’ (Ps. 110:4), there will scarcely have been any place in the hierarchy for an existing Jerusalem priest. (p.305-306)

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.

2 Samuel 2: It’s all fun and games…

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With Saul dead, it’s presumably safe for David to return to Israel. Still, given all the emphasis on David as the heaven-anointed successor to Saul, having him just waltz back into the country after his competitor was conveniently killed might seem a little too forward. So instead of telling us simply that David returned, we have to go through the ol’ “he asked of God” bit again. God sends him to Hebron, in the territory belonging to Judah.

When David arrives, he is anointed as the king of Judah.

I’ve guessed before that the competition between David and Saul could well have been once between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the two tribes struggle for supremacy in the Israelite confederacy.

It could also be that Judah’s inclusion in the emerging Israel was by no means a given at this stage. We can see in Judges 5:13-18, for example, that Judah was not always listed among the tribes.

The third option is that the word “king” is used here in the same way that it’s used to refer to the city state leaders (just like Achish is the Philistine king of Gath, the other cities of the Philistine pentapolis each having their own king with no king of Philistia itself). I doubt that this is the case, however, since the bible has so far preferred “elders” to refer to local governments.

David’s (or God’s) choice of Hebron may be significant, as it is associated with several patriarchs.

Once established, David sends his blessings to Jabesh-gilead for their role in recovering Saul’s body. Once again, the point that David absolutely did not participate in Saul’s killing and absolutely grudges the unquestionable benefits he gains through it is reinforced.

The king beyond the river

Meanwhile, despite the insistent repetition that Saul and his sons were killed in 1 Sam. 31, one appears to have survived – Ishbosheth. I’m seeing the argument made that Ishbosheth appears, named Ishvi, in the list of Saul’s sons in 1 Sam. 14:49. However, three names are given in that list and the phrasing implies that it is complete, but 1 Sam. 31:6 tells us that Saul died in battle with his three sons.

So whose hand was I holding?

It’s probably that Ishbosheth is not the person’s real name anyway. According to my study Bible, the name can be translated as “man of shame” (p. 376). Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, a reference in 1 Chronicles 8:33 suggests that his real name might have been Ishbaal, or “man of Baal” (implying that Saul was not quite the monotheist 1 Samuel paints him to be). It seems possible that an industrious editor, either keen to erase evidence of polytheistic worship from the record or perhaps simply poking fun at this character, altered the kid’s name.

Ishbosheth, whom we are told is 40 years old at this time, is taken to Mahanaim by Abner, Saul’s old commander. Despite Ishbosheth’s age, he seems to be a passive agent in this and through most of the rest of his story, with Abner filling a sort of regent role. It’s strange, and I’m not sure what it means.

In Mahanaim, Ishbosheth is crowned king of Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel. There are a few notes to make about this list. The first and most obvious is that Israel is mentioned separately from the individual tribes and territories. This suggests that Ishbosheth’s rule over Israel as a whole is more theoretical, a claim he clings to though in reality he has no actual authority. Think of Daenerys Targaryen claiming herself to be the monarch of Westeros despite her exile.

The mention of the Ashurites is an impossibility. According to my New Bible Companion, Ashurite is normally used to refer to the Assyrians, and it’s clearly impossible for Ishbosheth to be king of the Assyrians.

The Hebrew text has probably resulted from a scribal confusion of two names, the men of Geshur (an Aramaean state, N of Gilead) and the men of Asher. The Targum reads ‘men of Asher’, probably correctly, while the Syriac and Vulgate have Geshurites. (p.303)

Having his capitol be in Mahanaim, to the east of the Jordan river, represents a retreat. That area has so far always been a sort of borderlands, a dubious inclusion in the territory assigned to Israel. But with the Philistines pushing from the west, it may have been the only viable location for a capitol.

It seems likely that Ishbosheth is only really ruling Gilead, that Israel belongs to him only in theory, and that the other groups mentioned merely swore fealty to him but likely retain most, if not all, of their own sovereignty.

We are told that Ishbosheth ruled from Mahanaim for only two years, and that David ruled in Hebron for seven and a half years. This complicates the timeline a little. Since we know that David will be king of Israel after Ishbosheth, it leaves five years unaccounted for (either before or after Ishbosheth’s reign). One possible explanation is that David ruled Judah from Hebron for two years, then maintained it as his capitol after being crowned king of Israel for a further five and a half before moving to Jerusalem.

Play gone wrong

For reasons that are never explained, Abner (as Ishbosheth’s representative) meets Joab son of Zeruiah (as David’s representative) at the pool of Gibeon, yelling at each other from either side of the water. They have each brought 12 champions, which they set on each other in a kind of mock battle.

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

The Contest, by Barbara Griffiths

Unfortunately, all 24 champions kill each other, leading to the place of their fighting being renamed Helkath-hazzurim, or “the field of the sword edges.”

It could be that this mock battle was intended as a representative battle, like the one that Goliath proposed in 1 Samuel 17:10. Unfortunately, with all the champions dead, it results in a tie. It seems that with no resolution to decide the issue, David and Ishbosheth’s armies all fall on each other.

This is all guesswork because the narrative really isn’t clear about what’s going on, and it’s never indicated what they are even fighting over. Though, I suppose the easiest conclusion we can draw is the house of David and the house of Saul are engaging in open conflict over the Israelite crown (which gives the lie to the idea that David is passively given the crown by God and country).

According to Brant Clements of Both Saint and Cynic, it could be that the use of 12 men on each side could be a symbolic representation of the twelve tribes engaged in a civil war.

Once the conflict devolves into a large-scale battle, the followers of David are victorious and Abner flees. Joab’s brother, Asahel, takes off in pursuit.

Abner first tries to tempt Asahel into letting him escape, telling him to go scavenge some bodies for spoils instead. Asahel is not dissuaded and the chase continues. Next comes the scare tactic, with Abner saying that he has no desire to kill Asahel (and thereby become the enemy of Asahel’s brother), but Asahel doesn’t listen.

Finally, Abner hits him with the butt of his spear, piercing Asahel through and killing him. Abner’s intent isn’t clear, and the Hebrew noun translated “butt” is apparently uncertain. It seems, however, that there’s at least a possibility that Abner merely meant to hit Asahel, perhaps to make him fall or at least stagger him long enough for Abner to get away, and that Asahel’s death was accidental.

Asahel’s brother, Joab, continues the pursuit along with their other brother, Abishai. You remember Abishai as David’s companion when he sneaks into the Israelite camp to steal Saul’s spear in 1 Sam. 26:6-9. In that story, Abishai tried to convince David to kill Saul while he had the chance, but David magnanimously refused. It seems that this bloodlust runs in the family.

So Joab and Abishai are pursuing Abner, intending to kill him and avenge their brother. Finally, Abner is joined by a Benjaminite army and, perhaps feeling a little more confident with the backing, turns to face the two brothers. He calls them out with a fantastic verse that just gives my chills:

Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren? (2 Sam. 2:26)

Joab insists that they were only planning to chase him a little longer anyway, but he backs down.

Now free from his pursuers, Abner travels without rest back to Mahanaim. Joab returns to the scene of the battle and does a body count, finding a total of 20 dead on David’s side and 360 dead on Abner’s side. After stopping to bury Asahel at Bethlehem, Joab and Abishai head back to Hebron right quick.

1 Samuel 26: History repeating itself

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In this chapter, we get what is essentially a repeat of the story from 1 Sam. 24. A few details are different, but many are the same. In several places, the wording is even identical.

We begin once again with the Ziphites reporting on David’s whereabouts to Saul. When I read chapter 24, the wording had suggested to me that they were complaining to Saul and asking him to do something about David. When I got a different vibe from chapter 26, I read back again and realized that I’d brought my own assumptions into the chapter 24 narrative. It seems that the Ziphites are merely betraying David’s whereabouts to their king. This doesn’t preclude my original reading, but it makes it by far the less obvious one.

Saul heads into Ziph, again with his 3,000 soldiers, and David can apparently feel his approach. He sends out spies to confirm his intuition. When Saul makes camp for the night, David finds out that he is sleeping in the middle of the camp.

There’s a note here about some of David’s followers, which includes an Ahimelech the Hittite. I think it’s safe to assume that this is a different Ahimelech, not the priest. The characters are named as though they should be familiar to the reader – Abishai is named as “Joab’s brother” and “the son of Zeruiah” (1 Sam. 26:6). Of his companions, it is this Abishai that David decides to take along with him.

Together, they sneak into the camp and stand over Saul’s sleeping body. Abishai urges killing Saul, now that they have him so vulnerable. David, however, refuses – “who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless” (1 Sam. 26:9). Though he has lost God’s favour, Saul is still the anointed king. If God wants him gone, he’ll have to take care of it himself. Not to skip ahead in our narrative, but David displays quite a bit of prescience when he suggests that perhaps God will take care of the monarchy problem by having Saul die in battle (1 Sam. 26:10).

David Sparing Saul, by C.F. Vos

David Sparing Saul, by C.F. Vos

Instead of killing Saul, or perhaps cutting off a piece of his robe, this time David takes a spear and a jug of water that had been placed by Saul’s head. I can’t help but wonder if the taking of Saul’s spear might not be a nod to 1 Sam. 18:10-11, 1 Sam. 19:10, and 1 Sam. 20:33. Finally someone thinks to take Saul’s spear away from him!

More cautious this time than in chapter 24, David stands at a safe distance before he he calls out – this time to Abner, Saul’s general. He taunts Abner, showing him the jug and the spear, berating him for having failed to keep adequate guard over his king. “As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not kept watched over your lord, the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:16).

Saul overhears David’s yelling at Abner and recognizes his voice. In identical words to those used in 1 Sam. 24:16, he asks: “Is this your voice, my son David?” (1 Sam. 26:17).

As in chapter 24, David reproves Saul for being such a meanie, asking him what he’s done to deserve such treatment. This time, there’s an added detail: David argues that by driving him out, Saul is cutting him off from the assembly of God, sending him into the arms of foreign gods (1 Sam. 26:19).

If I understand correctly, David is talking about being cut off from the sanctuaries of YHWH – either because it’s too dangerous for him to show his face in such places (as the episode at Nob in 1 Sam. 22 amply illustrates), or it’s a reference to David’s later defection to Philistia. It’s a hint that perhaps David’s faith wasn’t quite as unwavering as the account otherwise portrays.

As before, Saul agrees that he has done wrong, and he promises that he will not try to harm David again. This seems rather silly following, as it does, so closely on the heals of a nearly identical reconciliation that clearly amounted to very little. Those who argue against the multi-source cobbling hypothesis use this as evidence of Saul’s mental instability, though that does not exactly explain David’s apparent memory problems.

With that, Saul and David part ways.

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