Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bible in a Year: 2 Samuel 9-24

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I'm studying 2 Samuel 9-24. In biblical studies 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 are called the Succession Narrative, because the material is mostly concerned with the successor of David and the warfare among David and his sons. 2 Samuel 21-24 fills out the narrative with other events of David's reign. Next time, I'll do all of 1 Kings.

I thought back to Moses and wondered about their family; it's interesting that Moses' and Zipporah's children have little role in the Bible. They were the sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 18:3 and 1 Chronicles 23:15), and daughters, if any, aren't mentioned. David, on the other hand, had numerous sons and perhaps more daughters via several wives and concubines. (Although concubines did not have the privileges of full wives, children of concubines were equal in the family to children of the wives.) In 2 Samuel 2, we have the short list of David's sons, and later, 1 Chronicles 3:1-9 provides this longer list:

"These are the sons of David who were born to him in Hebron:
the firstborn Amnon, by Ahinoam the Jezreelite;
the second Daniel [Chileab], by Abigail the Carmelite;
the third Absalom, son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur;
the fourth Adonijah, son of Haggith;
the fifth Shephatiah, by Abital;
the sixth Ithream, by his wife Eglah;
six were born to him in Hebron, where he reigned for seven years and six months. And he reigned for thirty-three years in Jerusalem.
These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua [Bath-sheba], daughter of Ammiel;
then Ibhar, Elishama, Eliphelet, Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet, nine.
All these were David’s sons, besides the sons of the concubines; and Tamar was their sister [she was daughter of Maacah, full sister of Absalom].”

Chileab (aka Daniel) is not mentioned again in the Bible. The players for succession are Amnon and Absalom, and later Adonijah and Solomon.

David still has family members of Saul to contend with. Chapter 9 tells of David’s kindness to the lame Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan and grandson of Saul; David restored Saul’s land to Mephibosheth, who technically was heir to the throne. The story forms a connection with earlier stories of Saul and also the stories at the end of 2 Samuel, when David must condemn the sons of Saul.

David also tried to show kindness to Hanun, the new king of the Ammonites, because of his father Nahash’s earlier kindness to David. Hanun, however, did not accept David’s envoys, resulting in a combined force of Ammonites and Arameans against the Israelites. Joab cleverly divided his forces and defeated both—and the Arameans no longer assisted the Ammonites (chapter 10).

Hanun’s refusal to accept David’s offered peace was quite fateful for David (the story telling skill of the biblical authors!), because in the ongoing conflicts with the Ammonites, Uriah the Hittite was among the Israelite fighting forces and thus was absent from his wife, Bathsheba—-and we all know the chain of events that happened when David noticed Bathsheba bathing (chapter 11-12). My Harper’s Bible Commentary (p. 293) points out that one might assume that David’s greatest threats come from outside the kingdom, but the greatest threats are actually in his own life.

A pastor friend helpfully pointed out in one of her reflections that Bathsheba’s “voice” in the story (and in the famous Psalm 51) is virtually non-existent. She is raped and widowed, and loses the child she carries to term, but the story’s focus is almost wholly upon David. Even in Psalm 51, the injustice done to her is in the background of David’s sorrow vis-a-vis God.

Nathan’s parable and accusation is one of scriptures most dramatic and effecting moments (2 Samuel 12:1-14). David repents of his horrible crimes, but God responds with a promise that “the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Samuel 12:9). Family troubles begin after some years, when David’s son Amnon fell in love with his half-sister Tamar. Using the apparently trusting David, Amnon set up the situation for Tamar to visit him, where he raped her and then angrily sent her away. Tamar was further betrayed by her father, who would not punish Amnon, who was his firstborn. (Compare this story with that of Diana in Genesis 34.)

Another son, the handsome and longhaired Absalom, tricked David into allowing Amnon and other sons to accompany him on a task, giving Absalom the opportunity to kill Amnon in revenge for his sister’s rape (chap. 13). Absalom fled, was brought back to Jerusalem by Joab, but two years later Absalom, who had gained a following, began a revolt against David to take the throne for himself.  David, beseeching God to do as God willed in the situation (15:26), fled Jerusalem, which might have given Absalom the chance to kill him. But Absalom takes the advice of Hushai (who was actually David’s friend) to not do so, giving David a chance to gather his own forces (chapters 14-17). Interestingly, Ahitophel, who had deserted David in favor of Absalom, gave better advice.

Conflict ensued between David’s and Absalom’s forces, and although David wanted Absalom spared, Joab take the opportunity to kill Absalom--the famous story---when Absalom was caught in the branches of a tree (chap. 18). Consumed with grief, David had to be confronted by Joab, who scolded him for ignoring the loyalty of the royal troops (chapter 19). Here again, we see the dangerous Joab acting on his own initiative yet staying committed to the king. A subsequent revolt by a Benjaminite named Sheba was put down by Joab and his forces (chapter 20).

In the so-called appendix, chapters 21-24, David addressed what God identified as the bloodguilt on Saul and his house, because Saul had slain the Gideonites. No further explanation is given in the narrative. David spared Mephibosheth, as he had earlier vowed, but turned over seven of Son’s sons to the Gibeonites, who impaled them on the mountain. Saul’s concubine Rizpath, the mother of two of the men, kept the birds and animals away from the bodies until David gave them a decent burial (chapter 21).

We had met Rizpah back in 2 Samuel 3. The Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that, much like Saul’s daughter Michal (given in marriage to David), Rizpah functions in the story in a voiceless way, like properly exchanged. Later, Michal protests David’s shamelessness and is punished for her confrontation (2 Samuel 6). Here in 2 Samuel 21, Rizpah and her grief at least moves David to do the right thing. The Harper’s book notes: “Both [Michal and Rizpah] remind us that however much the Abners, Joabs, and Davids protest their loyalty, good faith, or piety, it is a soldier’s world in which they seek to wield power” (p. 291).

So often, we read these stories and take away lessons about the piety of David and other characters in this drama. They are good lessons---but we might thereby forget that David and his kingdom were brutal, and women were treated as property to be seized and exchanged.

2 Samuel 22:1-23:7 contain David’s songs of praise to God (virtually identical with Psalm 18), along with the names of David’s warriors (23:8-39), concluding with Uriah. The book ends with a strange story of a census: God was angry at the people for some unexplained reason and incited David to take a census. (In the corresponding story in Chronicles, Satan incited David.) A census would likely result in greater tax revenue for the kingdom. But God did not actually want such a census, and David failed to consult God about it first. A remorseful David accepted God’s punishment, which was a pestilence agains the people, averted finally when David made offerings to God on the altar constructed on the threshing floor of the Jerubite Araunah. One thinks of plagues that God sent to the Israelites in the Torah stories.

The song of David, though, provide an arc back to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, praising God for saving God’s people. Remember that Hannah’s song was not only an expression of her happiness at the birth of Samuel, but also introduces us to the stories of Samuel and Kings with its messianic themes.


I was rereading Brevard Childs’ book, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Fortress, 1979). In his chapter on Samuel, he reminds us of overlapping periods of biblical narrative: the period of the Judges is from Judges 2:6 to 1 Samuel 12; then we have the rise of the Israelite kingdom, 1 Sam. 7-15; the story of Saul, 1 Sam 13 to 2 Sam 2, overlapping with the rise of David, 1 Sam 15 to 2 Sam 8. David ascends to the throne, but he is not secure: the “succession narrative” of 2 Sam 9-20 with 1 Kings 1-2 are concerned with David’s sons contending to be king (p. 267).

Citing Gerhard von Rad, Childs also points out the connection of both Samuel and Kings to the prophets. The Jewish Bible calls Joshua through Kings “the former prophets” after all, and in the Jewish Bible, 2 Kings is followed by Isaiah and the rest of the prophets. But reading the Christian Old Testament, where the prophets are placed several books after Kings, it’s good to be reminded of the way prophets are a major aspect of Samuel and Kings alike. Prophecy announces the house of Eli (1 Sam. 2:27-36), and the prophecy of Nathan is vitally important in David’s kingdom. When we get to Kings, we have not only Nathan but Elijah, Elisha, Shemaiah, Micaiah, Jonah, Isaiah, Huldah, and other prophets. As Childs explains, "the prophetic element does not lie simply in the predictive nature of the oracle, but in its integral connection with the whole historical process in which divine judgment and salvation unfolds” (290). Thus, Samuel and Kings are called prophetic books, too.

Childs also points us ahead to the rediscovery of the book of the law in 2 Kings 22-23, and to the destruction of the kingdom and the beginning of the exile in 2 Kings 25. The discovery of the book of the law connects this material back to the Torah and the covenant (pp. 291-292), while the destruction of Jerusalem represents the end of the kingdom, and yet, but “because the writer of Kings does not restrict the presence of God to either the temple or the land, the possibility of renewed blessing is left open to the hope of future generations” (294). Remember that Deuteronomy leaves us on the outskirts of the land, which has the same effect.

In their book An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (2nd edition, WJK Press, 2012), Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt also write the end of 2 Kings is sufficiently positive that the Deuteronomistic writer aims to connect us back to Nathan’s prophecy of the salvation through the house of David is still open. That, in turn connects us to exilic texts like Isa. 55:3, Jer. 23:5-6, 33:14-16, Ez. 34:23-24, and others that are influenced by messianic hope—and of course, Jesus (p. 190). But all this makes for very unusual history of a royal dynasty, because David's life and legacy are aspects of God's sometimes strange plan of salvation. Brueggemann and Linafelt write:

“It is contended.. that the harsh divine judgment visited upon Jerusalem in 587 BCE is not the final word, though it is in context a decisive word. That word of judgment could not be otherwise, given the nonnegotiable requirements of the Torah, so clearly advocated by the historian, so vividly championed by Joshua, and so boldly enacted by Josiah. In this horizon, kings live in a world of Torah. That is attested by the historian; and when kings are weak on Torah, initiative for public leadership gravitates elsewhere, to such odd characters as Elijah, Elisha, and Micaiah ben Imlah, always an alternative in Israelite imagination to kings who negate the Torah. Readers should in the end notice by an odd royal history this is, intended to be precisely that odd!” (p. 190).


A while back I read an article that made an interesting point: we have a positive impression of David from Chronicles and the Psalms, but if we only look at David from the standpoint of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1-2, our impression might not be so favorable! He is a flawed hero, for sure. Walter Brueggemann has written a book about the contrasting narratives about David and his place in Israel's imagination. Here is an excerpt:

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