Friday, June 27, 2008

2 Samuel 19 - 24: David at Middle Age

Regular readers will have noticed that I’m a little underwhelmed with King David. As a first-time reader, I expected the famous Israelite king to be great, not only in the sense of militarily mighty, but also in the sense of moral upright. I expected him to set an example. Instead, we find a deeply flawed person. He is a charismatic and talented, but often sloppy, administrator. He is a religious man, but not one who seems to be able to resist getting it on with his neighbor's wife, or anything else in women's robes. Plus, he kills anyone who pisses him off. He's basically a thuggish Bill Clinton.

When we left the king, he was noisily mourning the death of Absalom, the son who had deposed him, sent him into exile, and attacked his armies. As I expected, this is not going down too well with the soldiers and the people, who feel gravely dishonored by his behavior. Joab -- the military commander who seems to be the brains of the administration, frankly -- gives David a memorable tongue-lashing, and the king pulls himself together just in time to exert a modicum of leadership and keep his fledgling state from dissolving into chaos. Most of 2 Samuel 19 recounts details of individuals reaffirming their loyalty to David, and David (acting sensibly, for a change) extending amnesty to people who picked the wrong horse during the uprising.

But things are still unstable, and David doesn't help things by appearing to favor the tribe of Judah over the other eleven clans of his people. In 2 Samuel 19, a "troublemaker" named Sheba becomes a focal point for the resentment of the other tribes, launching a new insurrection against David. David shilly-shallies a little. His first order of business is to deal with the ten concubines who were publically raped by Absalom after he left them behind to take care of his palace. (His solution is to confine them in house arrest for the rest of their lives; he provided for them, but did not lie with them. (3)) Then, he appoints Amasa, who had been Absalom's military commander, to raise an army against Sheba. Amasa, too, drags his feet, and after three days have gone by there's still no army to take on Sheba.

Joab, at this point, has had enough. Never soft on the Absalomist rebellion, he is no doubt galled to have had the enemy commander promoted over him. He jump-starts the situation by stabbing Amasa to death in the road, putting together an army, and immediately heading out after Sheba. He finds him hiding in the city of Abel, which he begins to put to siege. When a woman from the town asks him to not destroy their homes, however, he listens to reason. The folks of Abel catch and dispatch Sheba and toss his head down to Joab, and he leaves in peace. Everyone is more or less happy.

Other events from David's prime

There's a famine, and God explains to David that it is because Saul was excessive in his campaigns against the Giddeonites. This is something that happened quite a while ago, but never mind; David talks to the Giddeonites, who explain that they will feel much better if they can kill seven of Saul's grandchildren. This seems sensible enough, so David hands over the designated seven. The Giddeonites kill them and expose them out on the hillside. The famine lifts, and everyone is happy, except of course for Saul's daughter, who, in one of the most pathos-laden acts of all time, camps out all summer to keep the birds and beasts from eating the bodies of her children. At the end of the summer, David hears about this, is touched, and gives everybody a nice burial.

There's another war with the Philistines, and David goes down to personally lead his army again. Aging and presumably badly out of shape, he has to be rescued by his officers, who make him promise that he will direct future military operations from the capital.

Even in headquarters, he can be a liability. In yet another campaign against the Philistines, David is at a command center that is cut off by enemy troops, and starts getting a craving for Bethlehem water. Not just any water, mind you. Bethlehem water. It's all he'll talk about So, three of his best men hack and hew their way through enemy lines, hike to Bethlehem, hike back, hew their way back through enemy lines, and bring their CinC his precious water.

But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the Lord. "Far be it from me, O Lord, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it. (23:16-17)

I think that sound you are hearing is the grinding of Joab's teeth, echoing down the ages.

Then, in 2 Samuel 24, comes an odd chapter about how God inflicts a plague on the Israelites because David wants to know how many soldiers are in his army. It starts like this:

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah. (24:1)

So David tells Joab to count the soldiers, but Joab resists, saying that's an insane idea, but David overrules him. So the soldiers get counted (1.3 million!), but then David feels terribly guilty, and after that God offers him a choice of three terrible punishments, from which he chooses a short plague (indeed, a better choice than defeat in war or extended famine, in my view).

So, if you are like me, you are wondering what the hell is going on. I had to do some external research on this one. The first clue is that the "he" in verse 24:1 is thought to refer to Satan. Now, the Bible is terrible for pronouns with vague referents, but this one really takes the cake. We have not even heard of a character called Satan, or any other kind of devil for that matter, so that casual "he" is quite a stretch at this point in the Bible.

The second clue is that counting things was apparently considered by the Israelites to constitute claiming ownership of them. So God, to whom the Israelites belong, can command a census (as he did twice back in Moses' time). But for King David to do so means that he is claiming God's people, and therefore God's property, as his own. Phew! Truly, this is a story that has lost its cultural reference points over the years. In the end, anyway, David builds a new altar at a spot where God tells him to, and the plague stops. Everyone is happy, excepting only the 70,000 plague victims, their friends, family, and well-wishers.

Boring Bits

Intermixed with the above, there are several lists of the leading warriors in David's army. I'm sure this was a real thrill for them and their descendants -- "my grandpa's in the Bible!" excited children might have boasted, had the concept of "Bible" been in place -- but it isn't very interesting reading now. We do, however, get to read about how, in another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jaare-Oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver's rod. (19) "Goliath" must have been a common name. You always hear about "David and Goliath," but never about "Elhanan and Goliath."

Then, David bursts into song. The songs of David are often cited by people who think that the Bible has great literary merit. Who knows, in the original Hebrew perhaps they sparkle with wit and wordplay. In English, they sound like middle-of-the-rock Christian rock lyrics. Or a list of randomly strung-together pro-God utterances, which is to say much the same thing:

You are my lamp, O Lord;
the Lord turns my darkness into light
With your help I can advance against a troop;
with my God I can scale a wall
As for God, his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord is flawless.
He is a shield for all who take refuge in him.
For who is God besides the Lord?
And who is the Rock except our God?
(23: 29-32)

There is also a lot of righteous boasting, which is a real hoot coming from David:

All his laws are before me;
Ihave not turned away from his decrees.
I have been blameless before him
and have kept myself from sin.
(23: 23-24)

Suggested chorus: "Except for, among many other incidents, at least one but probably two times that I started screwing married women and then had their husbands killed so I could have them all to myself, I have kept myself from sin, oh yeah!"

So, as I was saying, regular readers will have noticed that I’m a little underwhelmed with King David.

That’s it for 2 Samuel!

Next Week: 1 Kings, baby!

1 comment:

gl. said...

"I think that sound you are hearing is the grinding of Joab's teeth, echoing down the ages."

geesh, david. fickle much?

"I have been blameless before him
and have kept myself from sin."

bwah ha ha ha ha ha! this is such a classic case of "believe what he does, not what he says."