The Book of 2 Samuel
The long-simmering conflict between Judah and the other tribes explodes into civil war. The problem seems to be that David strongly favors the Judahites, and his patronage system rewards them with all the best jobs. (Think: Saddam’s Tikritis.) A resentful Benjaminite named Sheba rallies the rest of Israel against David and his Judah loyalists, splitting the kingdom.
David dispatches his army against Sheba. But before they march off to war, his top commander, Joab, takes care of some personal business. In the last entry, I grudgingly admired the blunt effectiveness of Joab and called him the original Israeli. He’s more like the original Donald Rumsfeld—an utterly ruthless bureaucratic infighter. Joab, you’ll recall, offed potential rival Abner a few chapters ago. Now Joab fears he’s being supplanted by rival general Amasa, so he assassinates him as well. (Just imagine Rumsfeld murdering Robert Gates and then getting his Pentagon job back. Come to think of it, that’s not so far-fetched, knowing what we now know about Rummy.) But give this to Joab: He is a darn fine general. He besieges Sheba at the town of Abel. An Abelian woman realizes she and all her townsfolk will be killed if Joab sacks the city. So, she asks Joab what he wants. When Joab tells her he’s just seeking Sheba, the woman persuades her self-preservation-minded neighbors to turn on the rebel. The Abelites cut off Sheba’s head and chuck it over the wall, ending the siege.
(Remember how Absalom slept with David’s 10 concubines? When David reclaims his city, he locks those unfortunate ladies in the palace, keeping them under house arrest till they die. The sexual taboos were rough, back in the day.)
Israel is suffering a famine. David asks God why. The Lord says the famine is Saul’s fault, for having “put the Gibeonites to death.” The Gibeonites, you may recall, were the ones who tricked Joshua into a peace treaty. As far as I remember, Saul killed no Gibeonites. Did I miss that slaughter, or did they leave it out of 1 Samuel? In any case, the Lord advises David to atone for that bloodguilt, so David asks the Gibeonites what would even the score. The Gibeonites demand that David hand over seven descendants of Saul so the Gibeonites can “impale them before the Lord.” David agrees and gives up seven grandsons of Saul, who are duly impaled on a mountain. The Lord then apparently ends the famine. Goodness gracious! What a horror show! This is troubling in so many ways. Why would the Lord appreciate the impaling of innocents—especially since Saul’s original crime had nothing to do with Him? (Think of how many other war crimes have been committed by the Israelites, and how rarely God has punished them.) Also, isn’t it bizarre that the Lord is siding with the Gibeonites—who are not Chosen People—against his own Israelites? The whole episode is kind of sickening and baffling.
Giants! Lots and lots and lots of giants! David is challenged by Philistine big fella Ishbibenob, but the king ducks combat and has someone else fight in his place.
And then we learn that maybe David didn’t even kill Goliath! According to verse 19, it’s someone named Elhanan who kills the Philistine giant Goliath. What are we supposed to make of this contradiction? And there’s yet another enemy giant. He’s my favorite one yet, because he has six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.
David sings a spectacular song to God, fulsome in its praise of the Lord, and nearly as fulsome in its praise of David himself. “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness. … I have kept the ways of the Lord. … I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt.” You were “blameless before him”? Excuse me—what about Bathsheba and Uriah? What about not punishing your own incestuous, rapist son Amnon? David is also way too pleased with his own power: “Foreigners came cringing to me; as soon as they heard of me, they obeyed me.” What a smug fellow he can be!
The language of the song is awfully familiar. For example, I know I have heard this before: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my deliverer … my shield, and the horn of my salvation.” This song, I presume, is a preview for David’s Psalms. Is it, in fact, a psalm? It sounds very like the hymns we used to sing in high-school chapel.
David is not done with the self-congratulation. His deathbed speech is a marvel of self-praise: He describes himself as “the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” (That’s a fantastic new name for God—”the Strong One of Israel”!) The chapter also catalogs David’s best warriors. This produces another entry for the Great Big Book of Funny Bible Names:“Elhanan son of Dodo.”
The Book of 2 Samuel finishes with a completely baffling story. It’s a flashback to earlier in David’s reign. The Lord orders David to take a census. David does so, but when he finishes, he feels heartsick and guilty for having done the count. The Bible doesn’t explain, doesn’t even hint at, why David feels bad about the census. Then it gets even harder to follow. The prophet Gad informs David that the Lord is furious about the census—which makes no sense since He ordered it!Gad tells David he can mollify God’s anger by choosing one of three punishments. It’s the divine retribution version of Let’s Make a Deal. Behind curtain No. 1: three years of famine for Israel. Behind Curtain No. 2: three months harried by enemies. Behind Curtain No. 3: three days of pestilence.
David, perhaps figuring that three days is a pretty short time, picks the pestilence. But he forgot the kind of God he is dealing with. This is no 72-hour flu. The Lord’s angel kills 70,000 Israelites in three days. David, seeing the carnage, begs the angel to lay off the Israelites and punish him instead. “I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done?” (I think “sheep” is meant as a compliment to his people, referring to their gentle, innocent spirit, not their stupidity.) David finally ends the plague by building an altar in the barn of a local farmer.
This is a confusing incident all the way around: The Lord exacts terrible revenge for no apparent sin. The only way the story would make sense is if the Lord didn’t order the census. In that case, the census might be David’s attempt to aggrandize himself at the Lord’s expense (a very early form of gerrymandering, perhaps). If that were the case, then David would feel guilty, the Lord would be rightly angry, and the punishment would be deserved. But if the Lord ordered the count, then David is being punished for obedience. And the Lord and His prophets have told us repeatedly that obedience to God is the highest good. Any theories? Explanations?
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)