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!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

2 Samuel 13 - 19: Absalom, Absalom – A Squalid Tale of Dynastic Dynamics

Amnon and Tamar

In the course of time, begins 2 Samuel 13, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David. (1) If you apply the transitive property to this phrase, you realize that Amnon has in fact fallen in love with his own sister, or at best his half-sister. Which is not cool.

The second sentence is perhaps even more memorable: Amnon became frustrated to the point of illness on account of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. This may be referring to the social segregation of the royal daughters, not to the physical evidence that would be left by “doing anything to her,” but still, it’s a remarkably crass sentiment. The "to" is a remarkably crass preposition.

Amnon solves his little dilemma by employing trickery to get his sister alone, and then – despite her pleas for him not to destroy both of their lives, and despite her offer to marry him so they can have a proper incestuous relationship – he rapes her. Having raped her, Amnon finds satisfaction elusive: Then Amnon hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. (15) He has the servant throw her out of the house. She goes to live in shame and disgrace, a desolate woman, at Absalom’s place, and Absalom and King David seethe silently.


You could structure a whole seminar in gender relations around this little family tale. I will just highlight a few of the more basic points here, as an exercise in fish-barrel shooting:

If you are frustrated to the point of illness because you have the hots for someone, it’s really your own damn fault. Go for a run or something.

If you are really “in love,” your consideration for the feelings of your intended ought to keep you from raping him or her.

Amnon may not hate his sister as much as he hates himself for what he has done.

Gratifying your desires at the cost of harming someone close to you is not likely to be very satisfying, really.

Silent anger about problematic family dynamics will only make things worse, in the end.


A few years later, Absalom holds a big sheep-shearing up in the hills. He invites all of his brothers. At a signal, he has his men kill Amnon, and then flees to a neighboring kingdom, Geshur.

The text never says anything about David putting Absalom in exile, but it is implied that Absalom can’t come back without his permission. David wants his favorite son to come home, but refuses to send for him until he is tricked into it a few years later by General Joab. Absalom comes home to Jerusalem, but is never allowed to see the king.

Chagall, 'David and Absalom'Things seem like they are going well for Absalom – he’s good looking, healthy, four kids, servants – but he is very sad that he can’t talk to his dad. He calls for Joab to discuss the situation, but Joab refuses to talk to him. He calls for Joab again, but he refuses again. Then he has his servants set Joab’s barley on fire, and now Joab comes to talk to him. Absalom knows how to get a guy’s attention.

So, Joab agrees to set up a meeting. Absalom goes and meets with his father the king, and they seem to kiss and make up. You would think that the storm is over, that everything is going to be fine. But you would be wrong!

Absalom in Rebellion

A thing about the Bible, it doesn’t always make clear what peoples’ motivations are. Absalom seems to have reconciled himself with his father, but before long he begins building his own connections with the Israelite movers and shakers and making innuendo about his father’s abilities. After a few years of this, he enacts a coup, and David and his followers are forced to flee Jerusalem. There is a lot of detail about who flees with him, and who stays behind to try to get in good with the new regime, and who stays behind to spy on Absalom and report back to David, and so on. Ten concubines are left behind, oddly, to take care of the palace. (16)

Absalom and his army takes the capital. Many Israelites seem to be on the fence, still hoping that there will be some kind of reconciliation between father and son. Wanting people to take sides, Absalom pitches a tent on top of the palace and lay with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. The theory seems to be that, once you’ve publically raped all of your dad’s girlfriends, it’s clear that things aren’t going to be patched up between you. Which seems pretty plausible, actually.

Eventually, Absalom marches against David with a vast army. David very publically tells his generals to take it easy on Absalom, to bring him back alive. It doesn’t seem like this would make a good pre-battle pep-talk, but in any event David’s forces win the day. Which brings us to the only detail from the Absalom story that I already knew.

Absalom Takes His Last Mule Ride

Fleeing from the rout of his army on a mule, Absalom gets caught in a tree. What I remember from Sunday School is that his head got wedged between branches, but the Wiki, which is always right, says he gets caught by his hair. The text doesn’t specify, saying only that the mule keeps going and leaves Absalom hanging there in the tree.

A soldier reports to Joab on Absalom’s predicament. “Why didn’t you kill him?” asks Joab. “No way,” says the soldier, “you heard what the king said.” But Joab – the same Joab who followed David’s dodgy orders (to make sure Uriah got killed) so unflinchingly a few years ago – is having none of it. He and his bodyguard go and kill Absalom where he hangs. This seems to reflect a certain contempt for David’s affection for his rebellious son, but I’m not sure.

If this really is an issue, David’s reaction to the news that his armies have won the day isn’t going to help anything. Does he give thanks to God? Does he praise his mighty generals? Does he join the exultant triumph of the common soldiers? Does he mourn the 20,000 who died on the field? No, he does not. Instead, he keeps asking what happened to his son -- you know, the enemy commander. And when told that Absalom is dead, he bursts into tears and loud public lamentations. If only I had died instead of you, he wails. (33) Perfectly understandable, but perhaps not the finest display of wartime leadership.

Next Week: It’s really hard to write these teasers anymore. I never have a clue what’s coming next week.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

2 Samuel 7-12: David Remains Problematic

Well, King David is who he is, and I suppose the problem in this relationship is me. Me and my expectations. Somehow, I just figured that being a big famous Biblical hero and all, he would have some sort of greater-than-usual moral stature. Instead he is, I suppose, refreshingly prone to human frailties. He's certainly prone to human frailties.

God, David, and Prophecy

Today's reading starts with a revelation to someone named Nathan, but it's not that guy Nathan who was in your dorm back in college, it's Nathan the Old Testament prophet. He is given a somewhat cryptic message, one that seems to imply that it would be a good idea for David to construct a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant -- still spoken of here as the physical embodiment of God. In return, God will render David's kingdom and dynasty permanent. Informed of this, David rushes to the Ark and makes an intimate, rambling prayer praising God and asking that the prophecy in the revelation come true.

Now here's an interesting thing. Some Protestant denominations technically believe that human beings can not really have free will. An all-knowing God, the reasoning goes, must by definition know everything that is ever going to happen. Since deviating from God's expectations is impossible, we all must be on a invariable track toward our final destiny.

Among other problems with this line of thinking -- it sure feels like free will, for instance -- it would seem from the Scriptural evidence in 2 Samuel 7 that God doesn't really know what's giong to happen in the future. His predictions, here as elsewhere, have simply not panned out. He tells David, for instance, that Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (16) He says that I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore.... (10) Mind, this is not a covenent, and there is no proviso for "as long as y'all are good." It's just stated that this is the way it's going to be. A literal interpretation of 2 Samuel would have to conclude that the Romans, the Dispora, and 20 centuries of pogram and persecution were things that God didn't see coming for his chosen people.

David in Love and War

Meanwhile, David leads the Israelites on a whirlwind of military adventures. We learn of horses hamstrung, quantities of bronze captured, thousands and tens of thousands cut down. We learn of how, after finally defeating the Moabites, David

made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. (8:2)
Some lucky peoples are merely enslaved, or even allowed to become subject nations, after their armies are defeated. The Ammonites are made slaves, for instance. The Bible goes into quite a bit of depth about the cause, tactics, and conclusion of the Ammonite War, weaving it in and around some stories of David's life. I won't go into all that; basically, this is a war where the Israelites keep their winning streak alive and continue their expansion and subjugation of the neighboring kingdoms.

Chapter 9 is an interesting interlude in all the action. Feeling nostalic about his late buddy Jonathan, David asks around until he locates Jonathan's son Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth is lame in both feet, as he was dropped in the panic when his father and grandfather, King Saul, were slain by the Philistines. David restores all of Saul's personal property and lands to Mephibosheth, and announces that he will henceforth always eat at the king's table. This is presented as a magnanimous gesture, but it is not hard to imagine an ulterior motive. Young Mephi is the legitimate heir to King Saul if you go by paternity, and therefore he's a potential rival to David's power and reign. By making him a perpetual guest in the court, David both coopts and undermines any claim Mephibosheth might make to the throne. Plus, he keeps him where he can keep an eye on him.

It is pretty obvious that David has, as they say, an "eye for the ladies," and his rise to high office hasn't changed this. He's walking on the roof of his palace one night, and he sees a smokin' hottie bathing nearby. Discrete inquiries reveal that this is Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah is out of town; in fact, he's on campaign with David's army. So, David sends for Bathsheba, and she comes on over to his place. She is ritually pure, so David decides -- how can I put this in a dignified way? -- to do the big freaky-freak with her. Commandments get broken.

Solimena Francesco, Bathing Bathsheba, c. 1725.Listen up, kids. That's how people get pregnant. Bathsheba sends word, in fact, that she is pregnant.

David, considering the outcomes of his actions, determines to do the right and moral thing. That's right: he calls Uriah back from the wars, hoping to give the hapless Hittite enough of a conjugal furlough so as to, shall we say, confuse the paternity issue. The baffled Uriah, more an infantryman than a messenger, is asked some perfunctary questions about how things are going back at the front, given a handsome royal gift, and told to go home to his wife. Unfortunately, Uriah is a dedicated patriot and soldier. "my master Joab [David's general] and my lord's men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife?"

Touched by Uriah's devotion to duty and principle, David knows what he must do. The next day, he gets Uriah really, really drunk, and tries again. But noble Uriah sleeps in the street once more, unwilling to enjoy comfort when his comrades are suffering.

Moved by the moral example of his heroic subject, David sees that he must step up and take responsibity for his actions. So, he sends Uriah back to the front lines with a note for General Joab. The note instructs Joab to make sure Uriah dies in battle. Joab, an obediant soldier, arranges a tactical error that results in the death of a number of his soldiers, including Uriah. After a decent period of mourning, Bathsheba marries David. Everybody's happy! So remember, kids, always do the right thing, and everything will turn out fine.

Wait, scratch that last part. Actually, God gets pretty angry with David over the whole Bathsheba affair. Nathan goes to David, and tells a little parable about rich men and poor men and sheep, the gist of which is, David has been very, very naughty. As a result, God makes David & Bathsheba's child sicken and, despite a week of praying, fasting, and prostration from David, die.

In the process of comforting Bathsheba for her loss, however, David gets her pregnant again, and this second child is born and lives. His name is Solomon.

Next Time: More Moral Reasoning with King David!