Saturday, May 17, 2008

2 Samuel 1-6: David, King

David Mourns Saul

The narrative of 1 Samuel continues unbroken into the Book of 2 Samuel. A messenger from the battle in which King Saul has just fallen runs exhausted into David’s camp. He tells how the battle went against the Israelites, and how Saul, surrounded by chariots, had attempted suicide. But he apparently botched it, and, impaled and helpless as the Philistines pressed closer, he asked the messenger to finish him off. Afterwards, the messenger manages to sneak the crown and royal armband off of the battlefield and, three days later, delivers them to David.

David and his men are distraught by the news, and fall to weeping. They pump the messenger for as much information as he can give. Then, they execute him for having killed the king. No doubt the messenger, who had followed the king’s orders, and then voluntarily fled three days across the desert at enormous personal risk in order to protect the emblems of royal power, dies with a look of considerable surprise on his face. And to put the situation into full context, let’s remember that David had intended to be part of the army that attacked Saul, and was mighty peeved when he wasn’t allowed to participate.

David himself seems to have forgotten the last several years of hostilities between himself and Saul, and breaks into a long sentimental song about the late king with the highly quotable line how the mighty have fallen! (1:19) There’s a stanza about Jonathan in there, too, which rings oddly on the modern ear:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
Civil War

So now Israel has lost its first king. As is often the case in such situations, there is a secession crisis. With God’s guidance, David goes to Hebron and sets himself up King of Judah. All of the other tribes fall in behind Saul’s son Ish-Bostheth. Things get a little hard to follow – ambiguous pronouns can be a bitch in the Bible – but there are some brawls, and battles, and plenty of tension between the two courts.

In general, David’s fortunes are on the rise, and Ish-Botheth’s on the wane. Although we aren’t given any real details, the general impression is that Saul’s son is pretty ineffectual as a ruler. A key moment comes when Ish-Bostheth pisses off his right-hand man, Abner, by accusing him of sleeping with the late king’s concubine. Abner goes over to David, bringing the support of most of the local leaders with him. All of this is about as riveting as most accounts of small town politics, when you don’t happen to live in the small town.

With Ish-Bostheth’s administration crumbling, two of his own military officers kill him and bring his head to David. “Here is the head of Ish-Bostheth son of Saul, your enemy,” they tell him, “who tried to take your life. This day the Lord has avenged my lord the king against Saul and his offspring.” (4: 8)

David does not receive this gesture of support as they expect, however. As with the messenger who finished off Saul, he has these two guys killed and their mutilated bodies hung by the local watering hole, where everyone will have to see them at least a couple times a day. If this seems a little ungrateful from a man who they have just made the undisputed king, it’s interesting to note that a consistent theme of all of these stories of young David – that you must never harm a king, because the king is anointed by God – is going to serve him awfully well, now that he is himself the king.

David in Charge

The King! David, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, marches on an impregnable fortress-town of the Jebusites called.... wait for it.... Jerusalem! Somehow, it’s not clear exactly how, they manage to take the place. As the prosperity of David’s reign expands, he builds up the town and has a royal palace built for himself. He defeats a few Philistine invasions. In a big national celebration, he has the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem, confirming the “City of David” as the Israelite national capital, both political and religious.

David takes place in the general partying down that accompanies the arrival of the Ark, and his first wife Michal takes him to task for acting so common. They have a big fight over it, which may also reflect some bottled up tension about how he had her dragged away from her second husband, whom she married while David was out in Philistine territory with his band of bloodthirsty brigands. It just goes to show that even powerful celebrities must sometimes deal with marital discord.

Next Week: What will David do next?


Jennifer said...

I'm still really enjoying these every week. Thanks for sticking with it!

Nichim said...

What happens next???