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SECTION 9. The Course Of The Civil Wars Resulting From Absalom’s Rebellion (15.13-20.22).
Absalom’s rebellion blossomed and the result was that David had to flee from Jerusalem. But he was soon to discover that he was not without friends as first Ittai the Gittite affirmed his loyalty along with his Philistine mercenaries, then the priests brought the Ark of God which ‘supervised’ the departure from Jerusalem as an indication that God was with him, and this was followed by the arrival of Hushai the Archite, who would counter the wisdom of Ahithophel, and Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth who provided provisions for the journey. On the darker side he was cursed and wished good riddance by Shimei the Benjaminite, but took even that as a good omen because the curse was based on false premises.
Following on this the course of the war is described, and it is made clear that in every way YHWH was acting on David’s behalf and confounding all the efforts of Absalom, with the final result that Absalom himself was killed and his forces suffered a humiliating defeat. Unfortunately, as a result of subsequent events, this would lead on to a second rebellion among the many disaffected people in Israel, a rebellion which would finally be crushed by Joab.
Analysis Of The Section.
e Conflicting advice on how to ensure that David’s power will be broken among the people (16.15-17.14).
Note that in ‘a’ Absalom rebels against David and is assisted by a wise man, and in the parallel Sheba rebels against David and is betrayed by a wise woman. In ‘b’ the ancient Hushai the Archite comes to David’s support, and in the parallel the ancient Barzillai conducts David back across the Jordan. In ‘c’ Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth traduces his master while bringing provisions to David in order to obtain favour, and in the parallel Mephibosheth exposes his servant’s villainy. In ‘d’ Shimei curses David and is threatened by Abishai, and in the parallel he begs forgiveness and is threatened by Abishai. In ‘e’ Absalom receives advice on how he can break the power of David, and in the parallel David calls on Judah to restore his power. In ‘f’ Hushai warns David to flee over the Jordan to escape the people, and in the parallel Joab warns David of the consequences of disaffecting his people. In ‘g’ the armies prepare for battle, and in the parallel David receives tidings about the result of the battle. Centrally in ‘h’ the final battle is described.
Absalom Attempts A Coup (15.7-11).
Once he felt that he had won over sufficient men of Israel and Judah to his side Absalom decided he would attempt a coup at Hebron. Hebron had been David’s previous capital city and was the capital city of Judah, and the inhabitants of Hebron may well have felt especially disaffected towards David because of his transfer of the status of capital city to Jerusalem. It may well be that at this time the Tabernacle was in Hebron, where a Tabernacle would have been set up by David when he was made king of Judah. If so, it would later be transferred to Gibeon (1 Kings 3.4), possibly as a result of what now happened. Being crowned at the Tabernacle (we are specifically informed that Absalom was anointed as king - 19.10) would add to his legality in Israel’s eyes.
Note that in ‘a’ Absalom wished to go to Hebron on a special occasion to pay his vow, and in the parallel he did so accompanied by two hundred men. In ‘b’ his pretence is that he is going to serve YHWH, and in the parallel his intended service of YHWH will turn out to be a very different one than David had thought. Centrally in ‘c’ David wishes him peace, and he goes off in order to rebel.
2.15.7 ‘And it came about at the end of forty years, that Absalom said to the king, “I pray you, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to YHWH, in Hebron.” ’
It is quite apparent from what follows that Absalom’s plotting continued, extending further and further through disaffected people until it had spread throughout large parts of Israel and Judah, especially in key cities, with the result that gradually he felt that his support had become wide enough for him to be able to act with a good chance of success. It is also apparent that one powerful group of such conspirators was in Hebron, a group which was sufficiently powerful to guarantee his acceptance there as king. Thus he appears to have had support in both Israel and Judah. This suggests that David’s popularity had, through the years, waned outside the capital away from the court. It may well be that once his military successes were behind him and the grateful country gradually began to accept its security as its right, it began to have greater expectations than David was fulfilling. It serves to bring out that David was perhaps not as good at local administration as he was at winning battles. Indeed much of his concentration would have been on the wider empire. As a consequence he had tended to overlook the need to keep his own people happy. All this must have been so for the rebellion to take hold so easily.
Hebron itself may also have become disillusioned because he had moved the centre of his government, and part of the emphasis on worship, away from that ancient sanctuary and from the Tabernacle, to Jerusalem with its sacred Tent containing the Ark. While Jerusalem was an equally ancient sanctuary with an ancient priesthood, it had until recently been a Canaanite sanctuary, and the enthusiasm of David had not necessarily been infectious outside the ranks of his own supporters.
‘‘And it came about at the end of forty years.’ The question that this raises is as to what the ‘end of forty years’ refers to. If we take the number literally then it produces a definite problem. There are a number of possibilities:
We can, for example, compare how in Genesis marriage consistently took place when someone was ‘forty years’ old, in other words was seen as mature enough for marriage (Genesis 25.20; 26.34). It is very unlikely that in either case they would literally have waited until they were forty years of age. But lager numbers were used in this general kind of way. See also Joshua 14.7, where Joshua said of himself that he was ‘forty years old’ when he was sent out as a spy into Canaan (which if taken literally would mean that he began the conquest when he was seventy eight years old), and compare the constant use of ‘forty years’ as indicating important periods in the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings, where it is unlikely that we should take them too literally (see 3.11; 5.31; 8.28; 13.1; 1 Samuel 4.18; 2 Samuel 2.10; 2 Samuel 5.4; 1 Kings 2.11; 11.42; 2 Kings 12.1). They may well in these cases signify ‘a generation’. This is not to say that the figure is ‘incorrect’. It is, in the terms of the time when it was written, fully correct. It was simply the Hebrew way of indicating a longish period which was complete in itself (compare the similar use of ‘forty days’), something not simply confined to the Hebrews. For we should remember that whereas we have been brought up to think numerically, the majority of ancients were innumerate and saw larger numbers as being used as adjectives in order to give an impression rather than as intended to be numerically accurate. This verse is thus probably saying that Absalom, having attained the age of maturity, wanted to go to Hebron to ‘pay his vow’. The age of maturity may actually have been twenty, the age at which he became eligible to fight for Israel (Numbers 1.3; etc), or twenty five, the age at which the Levite apprenticeship began (Numbers 8.24), or even thirty when the Levite (and presumably the priest) came to full maturity (Numbers 4.3; etc). Absalom was after all one of the king’s ‘priests’. This would also make sense as explaining why at this time he wished to fulfil his vow in order to be a true priest to YHWH, that is, to ‘serve YHWH’.
2.15.8 “For your servant vowed a vow while I abode at Geshur in Aram (Syria), saying, ‘If YHWH shall indeed bring me again to Jerusalem, then I will serve YHWH.”
Absalom then explained how when he was in Geshur he had made a solemn vow to YHWH that if He would restore him to his rightful position in Jerusalem, he would ‘serve Him’. The verb ‘to serve’ can have a general significance of obedience to YHWH (e.g. Deuteronomy 6.13) but it can also have the special significance of ‘serving’ in a levitical or priestly fashion (e.g. Numbers 3.7; 18.7). If the king’s sons were seen as ‘priests after the order of Melchizedek’, and as connected with the sanctuary as intercessory priests (see on 8.18), this would make good sense. Others see it as signifying his intention to offer freewill sacrifices of thanksgiving. In the end, however, it was only really an excuse to go to Hebron without arousing suspicion.
2.15.9 ‘And the king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he arose, and went to Hebron.’
Such a proposal that he should ‘serve YHWH’ would have gladdened the king’s heart for he would have wanted nothing more than that his sons properly fulfil their responsibilities towards YHWH. So totally unsuspectingly he bade him ‘go in peace’. This was a general farewell wish indicating a situation of wellbeing between the parties, but it gains special significance in this case because the reader and listener know that he is doing anything other than going in peace. And the consequence was that Absalom ‘went to Hebron’, to cause war.
2.15.10 ‘But Absalom sent scouts throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then you shall say, ‘Absalom is king in Hebron.’ ”
And it was from Hebron, where he was seemingly greeted as prospective king, (it is apparent that a number of negotiation must have been going on meanwhile), that he sent out messengers to selected groups with the news that when they heard the blowing of the ram’s horns then they were to declare that ‘Absalom is king in Hebron’. His coronation, when he would be anointed as king (19.10), was evidently imminent. This stress on ‘in Hebron’ might suggest that there was general disaffection among many throughout the whole of Israel over David’s selection of a Canaanite stronghold as his capital city, something which Absalom was taking advantage of. Hebron at least was an ancient sanctuary of YHWH, and the home of the Tabernacle, and ancient traditions die hard. Many would not have been pleased with the change of emphasis to Jerusalem. Absalom was again playing the people for all he was worth.
2.15.11 ‘And with Absalom went two hundred men out of Jerusalem, who were invited, and went in their simple innocence, and they knew nothing.’
Absalom took with him ‘two hundred men’ out of Jerusalem, men who were in simple innocence of what his motives were. Whether we take the two ‘hundreds’ as strictly numerical, or see it as indicating two family/clan or other groupings (Israelites and Geshurites?), such an invitation indicated that this was being seen as a very special occasion. And if it was so they were being taken in order to allay suspicions. They would, however, no doubt have been selected because they were known to be his ‘friends’.
David Learns Of The Rebellion And Flees Jerusalem While Absalom Enlists The Services of Ahithophel (15.12-31).
Once messengers had gone out throughout Israel, and preparations had begun in Hebron for Absalom’s coronation (he was anointed by the people as king in Hebron - 19.10), it was inevitable that David’s loyal supporters would bring him news of the fact, and on receiving that news David immediately determined to quit Jerusalem. He was aware of the unrest in the country and that being shut up in Jerusalem would have prevented him from gathering his own support around the country, and would also have cut him off from that support. It would also inevitably have brought destruction and desolation on Jerusalem itself. Thus he needed to find a safer haven in an area where he still had strong support, and from the intelligence that he had he clearly considered that to be in Transjordan. Furthermore the city that he had in mind, Mahanaim, was a recognised royal city in opposition to Hebron. (While David had reigned in Hebron, Ish-bosheth had reigned in Mahanaim). And they would be delighted to be recognised as such once more.
His immediate decision to leave Jerusalem and cross the Jordan into Transjordan meant that all those who were in Jerusalem also had to consider their own positions. The question was whether they should accompany David on his flight and subsequent fight back, or whether they should remain in Jerusalem and appear to be loyal to whoever ruled from Jerusalem. It would make David aware of who were truly his friends.
David was accompanied on his flight by the royal bodyguard, his loyal courtiers, his wives and concubines (apart from those left to tend his palace in Jerusalem), and many who also joined him as his loyal supporters. Absalom meanwhile hastily summoned Ahithophel to join him from his home city of Giloh, because he was aware that he needed his expert advice. The importance of Ahithophel, because of his wisdom, was clearly appreciated by both sides (verses 12, 31). Both sides knew that his wise advice might turn the tide in favour of the one whom he supported, and his being summoned, and the description of his wisdom, forms an inclusio for this passage.
Note that in ‘a’ Absalom sent for Ahithophel, and in the parallel David prayed that Ahithiophel’s advice might be seen by Absalom as foolishness. In ‘b’ all the people followed Absalom, and in the parallel all the people who followed David were weeping as they thought of what this was going to mean. In ‘c’ David and those who were with him in Jerusalem fled, and in the parallel, at David’s request, the Ark remained in Jerusalem and abode there. In ‘d’ all declared their willingness to do whatever David required, and in the parallel Zadok and his two sons were to return to Jerusalem before Absalom arrived there so as to attend to the Ark and act as seer in Jerusalem and also in order to keep David informed of what happened in Jerusalem. In ‘e’ David left his concubines to attend to his palace in Jerusalem and in the parallel he left Zadok, along with the Ark, to attend to YHWH’s habitation in Jerusalem. In ‘f’ David went forth and all the people after him, and tarried in Beth-merhak, and in the parallel Zadok and all the Levites came too him there bearing the Ark of God, along with Abiathar when all the people had finished passing out of the city. In ‘g’ all David’s courtiers and commanders passed on beside him, together with his bodyguard, and in the parallel all the people passed over, including the king himself. In ‘h’ David gives Ittai the Gittite and his ‘brothers’ permission to return because they are recently arrived foreigners and have no real duty owed to David, and in the parallel David gives Ittai permission to go over with him because he has declared his loyalty. Centrally in ‘i’ Ittai declares his loyalty to David ‘as YHWH lives’ demonstrating both his loyalty to YHWH and to David, thus symbolising the loyalty of all who were following David.
2.15.12 ‘And Absalom sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counsellor, from his city, even from Giloh, while he was offering the sacrifices. And the conspiracy was strong, for the people increased continually with Absalom.’
Even while Absalom was offering his sacrifices in Hebron in accordance with his proclaimed purpose for coming there, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counsellor, to come from his home city Giloh to act as his adviser. Ahithophel's home city was in the mountains of Judah, to the south or south-west of Hebron (see Joshua 15.51). Meanwhile support for Absalom was growing as the news of his coup began to spread around. There is in this confirmation that there was general disillusionment about David’s kingship, possibly because in his period of complacency and arrogance, he had become too overbearing and inaccessible to the common people. He was no longer the David of Ziklag.
The importance of Ahithophel in this situation clearly cannot be overstated, as even David realised (verse 31). He was a man of genius such that his counsel was ‘as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God’ (16.23), and it is in fact possible that had his advice been followed things might have turned out very differently (although not necessarily so, for while David might certainly have been at a disadvantage, there was no doubt that he was accompanied by an extremely efficient and militarily effective fighting force, and already had many friends gathering to him. He was never a man to be trifled with). But there is no doubt that following Ahithophel’s advice would certainly have given Absalom a better chance of succeeding. Indeed once Absalom refused his advice Ahithophel hung himself because he knew that with that refusal all hope of success had gone.
Ahithophel’s defection must be seen in the light of the fact that he was probably Bathsheba’s uncle. Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam and Ahithophel had a son named Eliam who was one of David’s mighty men (2 Samuel 23.34). This would serve to explain the depth of his bitterness against David because of what he had done to his family, and his disaffection is emphasised by his being at Giloh at this time, either because he was no longer acting as counsellor, or because he was in on the conspiracy and had gone there in readiness for it. David was once more reaping what he had sown with Bathsheba.
2.15.13 ‘And there came a messenger to David, saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel are after Absalom.” ’
Inevitably as the news of the growing tide in favour of Absalom spread around those who remained loyal to David sent messengers to David informing him of the revolt, and of the way in which people were flocking to Absalom’s banner.
2.15.14 ‘And David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, “Arise, and let us flee, for otherwise none of us will escape from Absalom. Make haste to depart, lest he overtake us quickly, and bring down evil on us, and smite the city with the edge of the sword.” ’
On receipt of this news David recognised that his wisest course would be to leave Jerusalem, where he could have become entrapped by the arrival of Absalom’s forces, and move immediately into an area over the Jordan which had not been so affected by Absalom’s propaganda. From there he could then begin to organise his own counter measures. Transjordan was regularly the place of refuge for those who fled the central part of Israel, for the Transjordanians were, to some extent at least, a unit in themselves and historically their loyalty was not so tied in with the tribes on the western side of the Jordan. To quite a large extent they saw themselves as having their own agenda. And they would have been delighted at the thought that Mahanaim was being recognised once more as a royal city. David’s departure would also save Jerusalem from being taken before the defences could be properly and efficiently organised, something which would be accompanied by great slaughter, or alternatively from suffering the effects of a prolonged siege, with all the consequences that would then follow if the siege was successful. He could also not be sure quite how many in Jerusalem might be supporting Absalom.
2.15.15 ‘And the king’s servants said to the king, “Look, your servants are ready to do whatever my lord the king shall choose.” ’
All his courtiers and commanders declared that they would acquiesce in whatever David decided was best. They clearly had full confidence in his ability to escape from the net that was drawing in around him, and were ready to trust his experience. He was after all the most outstanding general that Israel had ever had, and furthermore had under his command a fighting force which though small, was of massive experience and military efficiency.
2.15.16 ‘And the king went forth, and all his household after him. And the king left ten women, who were concubines, to keep the house.’
So the king departed with all his household, including his wives and children and most of his concubines, and all the palace officers and servants, leaving behind a handful of concubines (‘ten’ often means ‘a number of’) to look after the needs of the palace. His hope was that Absalom would see no need to ill-treat his concubines. He should perhaps have foreseen what Ahithophel would advise Absalom to do, make use of the concubines for propaganda purposes by making love to them, but he seemingly either did not think of it, or did not consider that it mattered. There is no suggestion, however, that they were treated cruelly. Having to lie with ‘the king’ would simply have been seen as a reasonable part of their duties.
2.15.17 ‘And the king went forth, and all the people after him, and they tarried in Beth-merhak.’
The king not only went forth with his household, but also with ‘all the people’, that means, of course, all his followers in Jerusalem, not stopping until they came to Beth-hermack (‘the house of the distances’) where they organised themselves and regrouped. Beth-hermack may have been the name given to the last house in the environs of greater Jerusalem which was seen as indicating its boundary. It would be the natural place to wait for all who wanted to join them in their flight as they arrived from different parts of the city and the countryside round about.
2.15.18 ‘And all his servants passed on beside him, and all the Cherethites, and all the Pelethites, and all the Gittites, six hundred men who came after him from Gath, passed on before the king.’
David was not only accompanied by his own large household, but also by all his loyal courtiers and by his equally loyal bodyguard (‘his men’). This bodyguard included the highly effective Cherethites and Pelethites (see on 8.18), possibly already under Benaiah’s command, who were both highly skilled and very experienced warriors. In view of the reference to ‘the six hundred’ (compare 1 Samuel 27.2 and often) ‘all the Gittites’ would appear simply to have been repeating the idea of the Cherethites and Pelethites (‘all the Cherethites and all the Pelethites, even all the Gittites’), called Gittites because they had been with David in Gath. These formed six military units. Whichever way we take the description they were not the kind of men you would wish to suddenly come up against in the mountains, something of which Absalom would be well aware. That was why he would choose the pathway of caution which guaranteed his downfall. Absalom may have had the numbers, but he knew perfectly well that David had the quality.
2.15.19 ‘Then the king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why do you also go with us? Return, and abide with the king, for you are a foreigner, and also an exile. Return to your own place.” ’
On top of David’s six hundred there was a mercenary force of Gittites under Ittai who were recent arrivals (the ‘six hundred’ might refer to them). David, however, did not see them as being under any obligation to stay with him in the circumstances. So when Ittai arrived in order to go with him he encouraged him to return and serve whoever was king in Jerusalem, pointing out that as a foreigner, and an exile from his own country, he only owed a duty to those who paid him. Alternately reference to ‘your own place’ may signify that the king in mind was Achish, the king of Gath, to whom he should return.
2.15.20 “Inasmuch as you came but yesterday, should I this day make you go up and down with us, seeing I go wherever I may? Return you, and take back your brothers. Mercy and truth be with you.”
After all Ittai had only come to Jerusalem recently (although ‘yesterday’ was probably not intended to be taken literally). How then could David expect him to share his flight down to the Jordan rift and then into Transjordan, going wherever he felt it necessary in order to avoid Absalom’s forces, not knowing what the outcome may be? He might even never have the means by which to pay them. So David suggested that he go back to Gath, and take with him his brother Philistines, and wished him ‘mercy and truth’.
2.15.21 ‘And Ittai answered the king, and said, “As YHWH lives, and as my lord the king lives, surely in what place my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, even there also will your servant be.” ’
But Ittai was made of sterner stuff. He would having nothing of it. He knew enough about David to have summed him up, and he liked what he had seen. So he swore his loyalty to David on the life of YHWH (compare how Achish had done the same - 29.6) and on the life of the king himself. He stressed that he was willing to follow David no matter whether such a path led to life or death, for he saw David as his true lord and king.
2.15.22 ‘And David said to Ittai, “Go and pass over.” And Ittai the Gittite passed over, and all his men, and all the little ones who were with him.’
Acknowledging his bravery and loyalty David acquiesced in his position and told him to go forward and pass over along with the others. And so Ittai the Gittite passed over, along with all his mercenaries, and all their children who were with them. They added great strength to David’s arm. We can in fact see why Ahithophel was so eager for Absalom to catch David and his forces while they were still disjointed and unorganised. It was his only chance of defeating them. David certainly had with him ‘a hundred’ (and more) who would be quite capable of ‘putting ten thousand to flight’ (Leviticus 26.8).
2.15.23 ‘And all the country wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over. The king also himself passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over, towards the way of the wilderness.’
Meanwhile the whole country was in mourning. We are not necessarily to see that they were weeping simply for David. They were indeed mainly weeping because civil war was coming and they did not like what they saw ahead. (To many it made little difference who was king as long as there was peace in the land). They knew that civil war was especially hard on everyone. Meanwhile all the people who were with David passed over the Wadi Kidron which was on the edge of Jerusalem towards the east before reaching the Mount of Olives. They were moving forward towards The Way of the Wilderness, the road which would lead them via Jericho into Transjordan. The Wadi Kidron was dry in summer but would flood with the winter rains.
2.15.24 ‘And, lo, Zadok also came, and all the Levites with him, bearing the ark of the covenant of God. And they set down the ark of God. And Abiathar went up, until all the people had done passing out of the city.’
Along with all the others came Zadok and the Levites, bearing the Ark of the Covenant of God (suitably covered) which they had carried from the Tent in Jerusalem. And once there they took the Ark of God up a hillside and set it down where all the people could see it as they passed by as an indication that YHWH was with David. Meanwhile Abiathar the Priest had arrived later, possibly from the Tabernacle at Hebron, and he also went up on the hillside before the Ark in front of all the people. Thus all knew by this that YHWH was with David. And this continued until all the people who were likely to come had arrived and had finished passing out of the city.
2.15.25-26 ‘And the king said to Zadok, “Carry back the ark of God into the city. If I shall find favour in the eyes of YHWH, he will bring me again, and show me both it, and his habitation, but if he say thus, ‘I have no delight in you’, behold, here am I, let him do to me as seems good to him.” ’
But David was not happy at the thought that the Ark of God should be required to join their wanderings. He had established it in a sacred Tent in Jerusalem, and in his view that was where it belonged. And he had no doubt that YHWH could help him from there. In his view to remove it would be an act of surrender and an indication that he was not expecting to return. So he informed Zadok that he should take it back to the city. As far as he was concerned all, including his own future, was in YHWH’s hands and YHWH would do whatever He would, no matter where His physical abode. Thus whether he himself was to find favour at YHWH’s hands did not depend on the whereabouts of the Ark, for YHWH was not limited and could work how and where He would. It simply depended on YHWH’s own will and purpose. And that was what mattered. If YHWH was intending to show favour to him then he would be brought safely back to the place where the Ark dwelt, but if YHWH was, on the other hand, now saying ‘I have no delight in you’, then he was willing to leave all in His hands. Let YHWH do to him what seemed good. Emergencies like this always brought out the best in David, and he was being reminded both of how dependent he was on YHWH, and how universal was His power.
2.15.27 ‘The king said also to Zadok the priest, “Are you not a seer? Return into the city in peace, and your two sons with you, Ahimaaz your son, and Jonathan the son of Abiathar.” ’
David then pointed out to Zadok that he was a seer. He was thus one who could see farther than others, could even see into men’s hearts, and could act as David’s eyes in Jerusalem. That was why he and Abiathar should return there with his son and Abiathar’s son. It was clear that he was confident that Zadok and Abiathar would be safe in Jerusalem because they would be expected to be where the Ark of God was whoever ruled there. Their loyalty was to YHWH.
“Are you not a seer? Return into the city --” could equally be translated as, ‘You seer. Return to the city,’ but it makes little difference. The emphasis is on the fact that Zadok could ‘see’ beyond the ordinary. Whether this was because he and Abiathar could make use of the Urim in order to discern YHWH’s will, or because Zadok actually had special prophetic gifts, is not made clear to us. What mattered was that David’s expectation was that Zadok would be aware of all that was happening and yet, as long as he arrived back there before the coming of Absalom, would not be under suspicion because as a priest and prophet his place was with the Ark of God.
2.15.28 “See, I will tarry at the fords of the wilderness, until there come word from you to certify me.”
Meanwhile David would go on and tarry at the fords of the Jordan on the Way of the Wilderness until he had received certification as to what the true situation was from Zadok and Abiathar.
2.15.29 ‘Zadok therefore and Abiathar carried the ark of God again to Jerusalem: and they abode there.’
Accordingly, in obedience to David’s wish, Zadok and Abiathar bore the Ark of God back to Jerusalem and continued their residence there. They were to be David’s eyes in Jerusalem.
2.15.30 ‘And David went up by the ascent of the mount of Olives, and wept as he went up, and he had his head covered, and went barefoot, and all the people who were with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.’
David and his attendants then went up over the Mount of Olives, and as he went he wept, had his hair covered, and went barefoot. These were all symbols of mourning and repentance before YHWH, and an indication of great distress (compare Esther 6.12; Ezekiel 24.17; Isaiah 20.2-3). David wanted YHWH to recognise that he recognised the sinfulness of his own heart and was aware that all this was a chastisement from YHWH because of his sins.
2.15.31 ‘And one told David, saying, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.” And David said, “O YHWH, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” ’
And as he went up the Mount someone came to him with the worst news that he had received up to this point. It was that his famed and wise counsellor Ahithophel had joined the rebellion on Absalom’s side, and was advising Absalom. Recognising what that could mean for the success of the rebellion David turned to the only One Whom he felt could help him in such a situation and prayed, “O YHWH, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” David knew how much depended on that prayer. He knew that Ahithophel’s advice could make all the difference between success and failure.
YHWH Answers David’s Prayer In The Person Of Hushai The Archite (15.32-37).
Having prayed that YHWH would turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness in the eyes of Absalom, David made his way to the top of the Mount ‘where God was worshipped’ and there before his very eyes he saw the almost instant answer to his prayers in Hushai the Archite, his loyal and faithful counsellor who was known as ‘the King’s Friend’. Here if anywhere was the solution to his problem. For Hushai too had a reputation for wisdom, and if he was in the right place could hopefully counteract any counsel that Ahithophel gave. The appearance of Hushai at this very time would have been an encouraging sign to David that YHWH was still with him.
Note that in ‘a’ Hushai the Archite came out of the city to meet David, and in the parallel he returned to the city in time to meet Absalom. In ‘b’ he was to act to counter the wisdom of Ahithophel before Absalom, and in the parallel he was to act as the king’s eyes in the house of Absalom. Central in ‘c’ was the important fact of the presence of Zadok and Abiathar the priests in the city who would give him their support. So even before Absalom arrived in the city David had planted counter-conspirators to act on his behalf.
2.15.32 ‘And it came to about that, when David was come to the top of the ascent, where God was worshipped, behold, Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn, and earth on his head.’
As David reached the top of the Mount of Olives ‘where God was worshipped’ he saw Hushai the Archite hurrying to meet him, bearing in his person all the signs of grief over what was happening. Both the tearing of the coat and the earth on the head expressed his deep emotion. Hushai the Archite was one of David’s counsellors and was known as David’s Friend which was probably the title resulting from his official position as his chief personal adviser. He was almost certainly old, a wise man seen as having the extra wisdom that came with age. His being an Archite probably linked him with the family whose possessions were on the southern boundary of the tribe of Ephraim, between Bethel and Ataroth as described in Joshua 16.2.
That God ‘was worshipped’ at the top of the Mount of Olives is a reminder that in David’s day there were still high places where YHWH was worshipped. As we have seen previously, once the one sanctuary at Shiloh had ceased there were a number of places where YHWH worship was carried on. It was fitting that at such a place he would receive the answer to his prayers in such a specific way.
2.15.33-34 ‘And David said to him, “If you pass on with me, then you will be a burden to me, but if you return to the city, and say to Absalom, ‘I will be your servant, O king. As I have been your father’s servant in time past, so will I now be your servant.’ Then will you defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel.” ’
Recognising in this an almost instant answer to his prayer concerning Ahithophel, David pointed out to Hushai that if he went with them he would only delay them because of his age, but if on the other hand he returned to the city and pretended to submit to Absalom he would hopefully be able to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel.
2.15.35 “And have you not there with you Zadok and Abiathar the priests? Therefore it shall be, that whatever thing you shall hear out of the king’s house, you will tell it to Zadok and Abiathar the priests.”
Furthermore he was not to think that he would be alone there. For Zadok and Abiathar the priests would also be with him in Jerusalem. Thus whatever he learned in Absalom’s palace he could pass on to them.
2.15.36 “Behold, they have there with them their two sons, Ahimaaz, Zadok’s son, and Jonathan, Abiathar’s son, and by them you will send to me everything that you shall hear.”
Then Zadok and Abiathar would be able to send to the king their two sons, Ahimaaz and Jonathan, with any information that was gleaned, assuming that it was considered of sufficient importance to pass on.
2.15.37 ‘So Hushai, David’s friend, came into the city, and Absalom came into Jerusalem.’
So Hushai, David’s ‘Friend’ (his most prominent personal adviser), fell in with David’s suggestion and returned to the city, and he was only just in time, for with David’s fifth column now safely in position Absalom arrived soon afterwards in Jerusalem with his troops, unaware of the groundwork that David had laid. It was, of course, difficult for Absalom to know who could be trusted or who could not. That is one problem with a rebellion. How do you know which of those who have joined you are genuine rebels, and are ‘patriots’ who want to do their best for their country whoever is in charge, and which are actually spies and likely to be subversive? Even the most disaffected would have had to pretend to be loyal to David. Hushai then appeared no different from the others.
The Arrival Of Ziba, Servant Of Mephibosheth (16.1-4).
We must recognise that at the precise time when Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth, arrived with his provisions, David was not thinking straightly. Had he been he would have realised that the likelihood that Mephibosheth really thought that Absalom would establish him on the throne was nil. All knew that Absalom would not have gone to all the trouble that he had gone to in order to see someone else put on the throne. Rather he was himself claiming the throne as a son of David. Nor would it have been likely that Mephibosheth would seriously have expected that Israel would agree to a total cripple like himself taking the throne. They had never considered it before, even immediately after Ishbosheth’s death, why should they then consider it now, especially when they had available Absalom the darling of the people? And this was especially so as all knew that any king at this time would need to be a capable warrior.
But it is being made clear to us by this that Absalom’s rebellion had shaken David’s confidence to such an extent that he just did not know what to believe. He was beginning to feel that he could believe anything about anyone. Thus when Ziba told him that that was what Mephibosheth had said he actually appears to have believed it, with the result that he assured Ziba that from now on all that pertained to the traitor Mephibosheth would be his. Ziba obsequiously expressed his gratitude, but he above all must have known that if Mephibosheth survived he would have an account to give. Possibly he hoped that Mephibosheth would be slaughtered during the civil war, or by Absalom because he saw him as a threat. Then he would be in the clear. But it was undoubtedly the most unlikely of arguments. It only succeeded because David’s mind was in a whirl, and also on other things. (He did have rather a lot to think about).
Note that in ‘a’ Ziba meets David with asses and provisions and in the parallel he makes obeisance to David. In ‘b’ David learns that the provisions are a gift for him and in the parallel he gives Ziba all that pertains to Mephibosheth. Central in ‘c’ is the charge that Mephibosheth has behaved treacherously.
2.16.1 ‘And when David was a little past the top of the ascent, behold, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him, with a team of (or ‘a string of’) asses saddled, and on them two hundred loaves of bread, and a hundred clusters of raisins, and a hundred of summer fruits, and a skin of wine.’
As David’s caravan including his household continued forward down the other side of the Mount of Olives, they were met by Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth who had brought a team of asses laden with provisions suitable for wilderness travelling. These included bread, raisins and figs together with some wine (compare 1 Samuel 30.11-12).
‘A team of asses.’ This would normally indicate two, but here, considering their purpose, possibly indicates a string of asses tied together. The verbal stem signifies ‘tied or yoked together’.
2.16.2 ‘And the king said to Ziba, “What is your intention concerning these?” And Ziba said, “The asses are for the king’s household to ride on, and the bread and summer fruit for the young men to eat, and the wine is so that such as are faint in the wilderness may drink.” ’
While David’s party would hardly have been suffering from a scarcity of food at this initial stage of the flight, (they had just left a well stocked palace), it would be the thought behind the gift that moved David’s heart most. It came at a time when he was glad to have friends. But what puzzled him was the absence of Mephibosheth.
2.16.3 ‘And the king said, “And where is your master’s son?” And Ziba said to the king, “Look, he remains at Jerusalem; for he said, ‘Today will the house of Israel restore me the kingdom of my father.’ ” ’
So he asked Ziba where his master was. Ziba’s reply was that Mephibosheth had remained in Jerusalem on the grounds that he was expecting that Israel would now set him on the throne of his father. After all, as the son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth was theoretically the heir apparent to Saul.
At any other time David would undoubtedly have been deeply suspicious at such a claim, but at a time like this, when he was being betrayed by his own son, and his head was in a whirl with grief, nothing surprised him, and he appears to have taken Ziba’s words literally. He should in fact have realised that:
2.16.4 ‘Then the king said to Ziba, “Look, all that pertains to Mephibosheth is yours.” And Ziba said, “I do obeisance. Let me find favour in your sight, my lord, O king.” ’
But the king was not at this time himself, for he already felt himself to be a man betrayed by his own flesh and blood, and a man in that state sees betrayers everywhere. That explains why he was seemingly able to believe anything, and was grateful for any proof of friendship shown by anyone. He therefore believed Ziba’s words and granted to him all that he had previously put at Mephibosheth’s disposal. Understandably Ziba then made obeisance to David and expressed gratitude for his favour.
Ziba coming in this way loaded with provisions was especially welcome because just as the presence of the Ark of God (suitably covered) had confirmed to him that he had YHWH with Him, and that YHWH knew all that was happening, so did the coming of Ziba with earthly sustenance confirm to him that YHWH would provide food for him and his men in the wilderness.
Ziba did not, however, himself go with David. He returned back to his sons and presumably to Mephibosheth, no doubt making some excuse to him for his absence (19.17). He was playing both sides off against each other. By remaining with Mephibosheth he was ensuring that he was safe if Absalom succeeded, but meanwhile he had secured his future if David triumphed. When he knew, in fact, that David was returning in triumph he again forsook Mephibosheth and with his sons went, along with Shimei and a thousand Benjaminites, to welcome David back. He was so successful in this that it is clear that in the end David was not sure who was his friend, Ziba or Mephibosheth (he had after all just been betrayed by his own son. How could he be sure of Mephibosheth?), with the result that he shared their property between them.
There is an interesting irony in the fact that having just sent Hushai to deceive Absalom, David was now in his turn totally deceived by Ziba. Perhaps there is intended to be a warning here of the fact that what we do to others will be done to us. Furthermore by his deceit Ziba sought to turn David against Mephibosheth, a Saulide who was in fact loyal to him, while this will immediately be followed by the description of a further Saulide (Shimei) who was certainly not loyal to him. The whole affair was a hotch potch of deceit, betrayal and hatred typical of a civil war, a time when no one could be trusted as they all manoeuvred to ensure their own positions.
David Is Cursed By A Member Of The House Of Saul (16.5-14).
We will have noted that up to this point each person who had approached David had been evidence to him that YHWH was with him:
It is one of the signs of the true man of God that when tribulation comes on him he recognises it as being from the hand of the Lord to do him good, and that was what was happening to David. David had been asleep spiritually, but now he was once more wide awake, recognising the hand of God in all that was happening.
Note that in ‘a’ David comes to Bahurim, and in the parallel he refreshes himself there. In ‘b’ Shimei curses David and throws stones at him and his men, and in the parallel he does the same. In ‘c’ he is being cursed by a Saulide as a man of blood, and the Saulide rejoices over the fact that YHWH has delivered the kingdom into the hands of his son, and in the parallel David declares that in view of the fact that his own son seeks his life, it is hardly surprising that ‘this Benjaminite’ does the same. In ‘d’ Abishai asks why ‘this dead dog’ should be allowed to curse the king, and in the parallel David declares that it is because YHWH has told him curse him. Central in ‘e’ David distinguishes himself from the bloodlust of ‘the sons of Zeruiah’.
2.16.5 ‘And when king David came to Bahurim, behold, there came out from there a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera. He came out, and cursed still as he came.’
Bahurim was the place to which Paltiel had come weeping when his wife Michal was taken from him by Ishbosheth and returned to David, the place at which Abner had curtly commanded him to go back to his home (3.15-16). It was also the place where the spies who would leave Jerusalem would also hide (17.18). It was just beyond the Mount of Olives on the way to the wilderness. That there were many in Israel, especially among the Benjaminites, who also resented David comes out in this incident. In some ways Shimei must have been a very brave man, for he alone of all of them expressed their feelings about David to him personally, and that in the face of David’s bodyguard. As a member of the house of Saul and therefore in some way related to Saul he had come out in order to express the bitterness of the house of Saul against David, and he did it by cursing him. David must have thought, ‘first Mephibosheth and now this man’. It was a reminder to him that although YHWH had raised him up over the house of Saul, he himself had failed too. The sight of the man standing on the hillside was a reminder of his own failure to obey YHWH. It is probable that Shimei was on a ridge overlooking the road where he felt himself safe from David’s men.
2.16.6 ‘And he cast stones at David, and at all the servants of king David, and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left.’
The man then began to hurl stones towards the royal party. They were symbolic rather than intended to cause harm, a symbolic indication that David was dirt, and was not wanted in Israel. Indeed as David was surrounded on all sides by his most valiant warriors, they were unlikely to reach him. But the very fact that the man did it under those circumstances demonstrated how deeply he felt, for he had little protection against the swords of David’s men if they did try to reach him.
2.16.7-8 ‘And this is what Shimei said when he cursed, “Begone, begone, you man of blood, and base fellow, YHWH has returned on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead you have reigned; and YHWH has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son, and, behold, you are taken in your own mischief, because you are a man of blood.”
The words of his curse are now described for us. It was a call on David to be gone because he was a man of blood and a base fellow. This was one heart that he had certainly not won. His view was that David had come to the throne of Israel by trampling over the blood of the Saulides. They had given their lives for Israel, and then David had taken advantage of it in order to seize the throne, trampling them out of the way. It was, of course a caricature of what had happened, for David had gone out of his way not to harm the house of Saul, but to a member of the family grief stricken at what had happened to his family it did not seem that way. All he had seen was that Saul and his three eldest sons had died gloriously, shedding their blood on Mount Gilboa, that his fourth son Ishbosheth had been cruelly murdered in his own bed, and that Abner his cousin had been assassinated at Hebron. And that was the way in which ‘this man’ had become king. Well, now ‘he’ was himself learning what it was like, for it was clear that even his own son had no longer been able to stand his ways and had rebelled against him, and had taken over his kingdom (Absalom’s propagandists had done a good job). And it was furthermore clearly YHWH Himself Who had done it to him because of his sinful behaviour and especially because of his bloodthirsy and murderous methods. To Shimei, looking in from the outside and not knowing the true facts, David was a bloodthirsty tyrant who was getting what he deserved. It is often the lot of God’s servants to be misunderstood.
2.16.9 ‘Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over, I pray you, and take off his head.” ’
Shimei’s words understandably angered David’s men. To curse the king was treason. And Abishai, David’s nephew and one of his generals, turned to David and said, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over, I pray you, and take off his head.” To a man of Abishai’s experience climbing up to a ridge would have caused him little difficulty. What he did not realise was that he was in fact by this exemplifying the very attitude which had given David his bad reputation, and indeed that he was himself one of the two men (along with Joab) who were mostly responsible for that bad reputation (3.39).
The description ‘dead dog’ was a regular indication of someone who was powerless, unimportant and incapable of doing any harm (9.8; 1 Samuel 24.14). Dogs were seen as a nuisance and a scourge as they hovered around the edges of cities, but a dead dog had ceased even to be that. It no longer counted as it lay there in the dust until someone dragged away its carcase and cast it into the waste pit. And that would be David’s whole point, that Shimei was harmless and was to be pitied. He was just barking. He was not worthy of notice.
2.16.10 ‘And the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? Because he curses, and because YHWH has said to him, ‘Curse David’? Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’ ” ’
David then turned to Abishai and declared that he wanted nothing to do with the bloodthirsty attitudes of ‘you sons of Zeruiah’ (compare 3.39). He did not look kindly on the ways of the sons of Zeruiah who were only too ready to remove the opposition by killing them. And he pointed out that all that the man was doing was cursing because he thought that YHWH had told him to curse David. Who were they to question his reasons? Did he not, a least in his own eyes, have some justification? David was clearly not concerned about a curse that was not justified because the one who cursed had got his facts wrong. He was more concerned not to kill men for little adequate reason. It is a reminder here that although David could slaughter men in battle with the best of them, and could carry out any measures that were seen as necessary without cringing, he was not into killing helpless people just because they displeased him. Essentially he was a humane man.
‘What have I to do with you.’ Literally ‘what is there to you and to me?’ For this phrase compare 1 Kings 17.18; John 2.4; and see Joshua 22.24; Luke 9.52-56.
2.16.11-12 ‘And David said to Abishai, and to all his servants, “Consider the fact that my son, who came forth from my bowels, seeks my life, how much more may this Benjaminite now do it? Let him alone, and let him curse, for YHWH has bidden him. It may be that YHWH will look on the wrong done to me (or ‘on my iniquity’), and that YHWH will requite me good for his cursing of me this day.” ’
Then David revealed something of the grief that was tearing at his own soul, for he called on Abishai to consider what his own true born son was doing to him. Forgetting the ties of blood he was intent on seeking his life because he had been offended, and in order to further his own advantage. At least this man Shimei was demonstrating his loyalty to his own family. How much more right he had than Absalom to curse David, for he was a Benjaminite of the house of Saul. So let him be left alone, and let him curse. It was obvious that YHWH had bidden him to do it.
David was acknowledging by this the fact that it was coming home to him that he himself had displeased YHWH. But in view of the fact that the main charge was not true (even though it may have appeared to be true to a Saulide who had only heard rumours) it could not hurt him. Indeed his hope was that YHWH would look on the wrong accusations which resulted from a false view of the facts, and would, rather than cursing David, return good to him as a result of the cursing that he was receiving. In other words that He would give him blessing for cursing because the cursing had been unfair.
Alternately we may see David as recognising his own sin (‘it may be that YHWH will look on my iniquity’) and praying that as YHWH did look at his sin He might have pity because David was also being blamed and cursed for what he had not done, and as a result might ‘do good’ towards him, as a result of the fact that David was seen to have ‘paid sufficient price’ for his great sin.
2.16.13 ‘So David and his men went by the way, and Shimei went along on the hill-side over against him, and cursed as he went, and threw stones at him, and cast dust.’
So leaving Shimei to his own devices David and his men went on their way, while Shimei walked along on a ridge above them, cursing David, throwing stones, and casting dust. In this way all the pent up anger of years was being revealed, and there would have been many others who felt similarly. That Shimei was in fact a wealthy man and a man of influence among the Benjaminites able to do considerable harm comes out later in that he was able to bring ‘a thousand’ Benjaminites to David. See 19.16-23; 1 Kings 2.8-9, 36-46. He was thus a man who had to be regarded and watched.
2.16.14 ‘And the king, and all the people who were with him, became weary (or ‘came to ‘Ayephim’) , and he refreshed himself there.’
The hurried flight from Jerusalem with all the organisation and rushing around that it had involved had clearly taken its toll on them, and the king’s group therefore decided to take a rest break once they had passed Bahurim (or we may translate once ‘they came to ‘Ayephim’). They now felt safer and were beginning to feel the strain of the flight and were already weary. The fact that they did so indicated that David was keenly aware of Absalom’s movements and knew that as yet there was no danger. (Messengers were no doubt constantly arriving from loyal supporters). And there they refreshed themselves before proceeding on towards the fords of the Jordan.
Absalom Arrives In Jerusalem And Indicates To Israel His Complete Break From David By Making Love To His Concubines In The Eyes Of All Israel (On The Advice Of Ahithophel) (16.15-23).
Meanwhile Absalom and his revolutionary forces, together with Ahithophel, arrived in Jerusalem, where they were immediately met by Hushai the Archite, advancing towards Absalom crying, ‘Long live the king. Long live the king’ (he just forgot to mention which king). The emphasis throughout the passage on the presence and advice of Ahithophel (verses 15, 20, 21, 23) demonstrates what a great danger he was seen to be, but the reader and listener know that that is precisely the reason that Hushai was there, to combat the wisdom of Ahithophel. YHWH was thus already seen to be at work on upsetting Absalom’s plans on behalf of His servant David. It was further proof that YHWH was with him.
Note that in ‘a’ Absalom arrives with all his forces, ‘and Ahithophel with him’, and in the parallel it is Ahithophel who is seen to be the wisdom behind the throne. In ‘b’ Hushai meets Absalom and hails him with the coronation cry, ‘long live the king’, and in the parallel Absalom asserts his intention to live long as king by going in to his father’s concubines, an act proclaiming his own kingship. In ‘c’ Absalom asks Hushai, the Friend of David, concerning his position, and in the parallel he asks Ahithophel what he should do about his present situation. The two ‘wise men’ are thus seen to be in juxtaposition with each other. Central in ‘d’ is Hushai’s ambiguous assertion that he will continue to serve whoever is the true king chosen by YHWH and all the people of Israel.
2.16.15 ‘And Absalom, and all the people, the men of Israel, came to Jerusalem, and Ahithophel with him.’
The arrival in Jerusalem of Absalom, along with all the people, and with Ahithophel is now described. Absalom and Ahithophel together intend to see off David, Absalom because of what had happened to his sister at the hands of David’s firstborn, which David had done nothing about, and which had been an insult to his royal grandfather, the king of Geshur, and Ahithophel because of the distress that David had brought on his family by his behaviour with Bathsheba his granddaughter. It was a powerful combination, and both arose from David’s original sin with Bathsheba.
2.16.16 ‘And it came about that, when Hushai the Archite, David’s friend, was come to Absalom, Hushai said to Absalom, “Long live the king, Long live the king.”
For a moment, as we see them together, our hearts are filled with dread for the Anointed of YHWH, but then suddenly we observe advancing to meet Absalom YHWH’s answer to Ahithophel. For onto the scene comes ‘David’s Friend’ (his official title) crying out ‘Long live the king, long live the king’. This cry was a regular cry recognised as offering official recognition of the king spoken of, but Hushai failed to declare precisely which king he meant.
2.16.17 ‘And Absalom said to Hushai, “Is this your kindness to your friend? Why did you not go out with your friend?” ’
Absalom, the traitor, (and thus readily able to appreciate traitors), then made a joke at Hushai’s expense, for Hushai bore the official title of ‘the King’s Friend’, and he jocularly asked, ‘Is this how you behave towards your ‘friend’? Why did you not go off with your ‘friend’ into the wilderness?’ But it was clearly not a pressing question as is indicated by the ease with which he will accept Hushai as an adviser. He would not have done that if he had thought that there was a possibility that his heart was otherwise disposed. He rather saw him as ‘a chancer’ like himself. We must remember that this was in a day when king’s were often deposed by rivals, with retainers then on the whole generally changing sides to acknowledge the rival. They often had little option if they did not want to die, or lose all their possessions.
2.16.18 ‘And Hushai said to Absalom, “No, but whom YHWH, and this people, and all the men of Israel have chosen, his will I be, and with him will I abide.” ’
As befitted a wise man Hushai turned the conversation in a serious direction, by pointing out that his responsibility was to serve whoever YHWH, and the people who are standing around, and all Israel, have chosen. It was to him that he would be loyal, and it was with him that he would reside. Absalom, buoyant as a result of his success, naturally saw himself as intended by the description. Was it not proved by his presence unhindered in Jerusalem? But had he been more discerning he might have stopped and considered the fact that David was the chosen of YHWH. For David was YHWH’s Anointed, and had been chosen by all Israel, and he was still alive.
2.16.19 ‘And again, “Whom should I serve? Should I not serve in the presence of his son? As I have served in your father’s presence, so will I be in your presence.”
Hushai then pledged his loyalty to the reigning representative of the house of David in the terms that David had suggested. As he had served the in the presence of the father so would he serve in the presence of the son. He would serve whoever was regnant in Jerusalem. It will be noted that he had not refuted his loyalty to David. He had rather carefully aligned himself with the practical situation. But it was apparently sufficient to satisfy Absalom. Ahithophel apparently kept his own counsel (or it may be that he was not even present).
2.16.20 ‘Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give your counsel as to what we shall do.” ’
Having settled in Jerusalem Absalom then called on Ahithophel as leader of his advisers (the verb, and therefore the ‘your’, is plural) to advise him as to his next step. What should he do now?
2.16.21 ‘And Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you art abhorred of your father. Then will the hands of all who are with you be strong.” ’
Ahithophel, who was aware that all Israel would be watching, unsure as to which side they should support, then informed Absalom that he must make it apparent to all Israel that there could be no reconciliation between him and his father. It had to be made clear to them immediately that Absalom was totally committed in his determination to oust David. And he knew that the one way in which this could be done would be by Absalom appropriating for himself the royal harem and making love to David’s concubine wives. That would be an indication that he had taken over all that pertained to David, and would be an insult that David would be unable to forgive. It was the final statement as to who was now the permanent king.
We can compare with this how in a similar, but more minor, situation Abner had taken one of the dead Saul’s concubines, something which had resulted in Abner splitting up with Ishbosheth, because Ishbosheth recognised in Abner’s action a studied insult, and probably the commencement of a claim to the throne (3.6-9), and with how Adonijah will later be executed for attempting something similar, precisely because (whatever Adonijah’s intention) Solomon recognised in it an act intended to secure the kingship (1 Kings 2.13-25). Like Ahithophel, Solomon knew how the people would see it.
However, we must also recognise in this the fulfilment of the words of YHWH through Nathan the prophet, when he had declared to David after his sin with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of Uriah, that ‘I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he will lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun’ (12.11-12). David was thus to be seen as reaping the consequences of his grave sins. We should observe how YHWH’s severe chastening is going hand in hand with the revelations of His mercy. He will not spare David his chastening, but He will see him safely through it.
2.16.22 ‘So they spread Absalom a tent on the top of the house, and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.’
So in response to the advice of Ahithophel a tent was spread on the roof of the palace, and there ‘Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.’ Now there could be no doubt in the eyes of any that the breach between Absalom and David was permanent. The shame that he had brought on David could only be expunged by Absalom’s death.
Thus the man who had instigated rebellion as a result of Amnon’s breaking of the Law of YHWH by revealing the nakedness of his sister (Leviticus 20.17), now himself broke the Law of YHWH with a number of woman by revealing the nakedness of his father’s wives (Leviticus 20.11). It made apparent the fact that his concern had never been with the breach of the Law of YHWH, but had rather been with the dishonour brought to the house of Geshur, and with the fact that Tamar was his beloved sister. He was thus no better than his brother in the eyes of YHWH.
2.16.23 ‘And the counsel of Ahithophel, which he gave in those days, was as if a man enquired at the oracle of God, so was all the counsel of Ahithophel both with David and with Absalom.’
A sarcastic comment is then added to the effect that Ahithophel’s counsel was seen as being the equivalent of enquiring at the oracle of God to both David and Absalom. This was, of course, a gross exaggeration. It was simply expressing how greatly revered his wisdom was by men, if not by God. The truth is, however, that no one, and certainly not David, would actually have really considered his counsel to be the equivalent of God’s direct counsel, while Absalom will certainly immediately demonstrate that he did not see it in that way by later following the contrary advice of Hushai (which is why some sarcasm must be detected).
That in fact underlines the point. Ahithophel’s counsel was only treated like this by those who forbore seeking YHWH’s direct counsel, something in which David himself had been decidedly lacking in recent days, and something in which Absalom was continually lacking, otherwise he would not have sought to kill YHWH’s anointed. Ahithophel was thus their unsatisfactory substitute for YHWH, a substitute who even counselled direct disobedience of the Law of YHWH, and yet in the end was but a tool of YHWH. If anything could bring home that Absalom was not the chosen of YHWH (verse 18), it was this willingness to rely totally, but imperfectly, on Ahithophel.
We should also note the irony of these verses. All men saw Ahithophel as being ‘almost as wise as God’. But in fact the discerning reader or hearer sees Ahithophel as having just counselled the breaking of the Law of God (verse 21), and as having unwittingly ensured the fulfilment of the dictate of God about David’s punishment (12.11). Ahithophel is thus seen to be both disobedient to the covenant, and at the same time as the unwitting tool of YHWH. He was only a man after all (compare 17.14b).
Hushai The Archite Counters The Advice Of Ahithophel (17.1-14).
We are now to learn the wisdom of David, and of YHWH (verse 14), in sending Hushai the Archite to combat and counter the wisdom of Ahithophel. Ahithophel’s advice might be almost parallel to that of the oracle of God, but YHWH’s wisdom was seen to be even greater, with the result that He overturned the counsel of Ahithophel.
Ahithophel’s advice was that he himself should immediately gather a fairly small but effective army of men of his own choice, under his own command, which would outnumber David’s present forces, and would go out immediately and pursue David before he could get himself organised, with a view to seizing his person. By seizing and killing David himself they could ensure that there could be no come back, and the result would be that there would be peace in the land. Something of Ahithophel’s bitterness of soul comes out in this. Why otherwise should he have wanted to be personally involved?
He was aware, knowing David, that while this was certainly not guaranteed to work (David’s forces might be outnumbered but they were composed of exceedingly skilful warriors who would fight to the last man) it was in fact Absalom’s only real chance of success. He knew that once David, who would certainly have allies to call on, as well as loyal Israelites, had had time to organise a counter-movement, all hope of success would be gone. It was thus,, in his undoubtedly correct view, important to strike while the iron was hot.
Those who were listening to him thought that his plan was admirable. On the other hand they also saw it as a little mundane, and it did in fact fall short on a number of points:
Hushai’s advice, on the other hand, took all these things into account and that was why Hushai succeeded in his bid to defeat the advice of Ahithophel. It was because he knew how to play on men’s fears, and on their hunger for glory. Note also his clever use of pronouns. Following the gathering of Israel ‘to you’ and his commitment of Absalom to go in his own person (‘you’), he switches to ‘we’ so that Absalom will know that he Hushai, and all Israel, will be with him. Furthermore it will be noted that he ensured by his advice that Absalom would be out in the forests with his men, where he could be killed, whereas David’s wiser military heads would keep David away from the field of battle on the grounds that he was not expendable. Conclusion, Absalom was expendable.
What Hushai failed, of course, to point out was that his advice would make Absalom himself very vulnerable, while the huge army that he was advising would find it very tough going in the thick forests of Transjordan, especially when they would be in combat with men who knew how to use such forests to their own advantage. For in such circumstances it was not numbers but skill that mattered, and David’s men had fought in forests for years. As Ahithophel foresaw it was vital to get at them immediately, before they were prepared.
Note that in ‘a’ we have the good counsel of Ahithophel, and in the parallel we learn that YHWH had ordained to defeat it. In ‘b’ Hushai rejects the counsel of Ahithophel as ‘not good’ and in the parallel they consider Hushai’s advice better. In ‘c’ Hushai pictures David under Ahithophel’s plan as hidden in a hole and not lodging with the people, and his men as like animals at bay, and thus dangerous to attack, and in the parallel he pictures David under his plan as possibly being in a city, and therefore the ease with which they would be able to take him. In ‘d’ he stresses the toughness of the opposition if they follow Ahithophel’s plan, and in the parallel how easily they will defeat them if they follow his plan. Central in ‘e’ is his desire to gather all Israel together and for Absalom to personally lead them into battle at the head of a mighty army, a glorious prospect indeed!
2.17.1-3 ‘Moreover Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Let me now choose out twelve thousand men, and I will arise and pursue after David this night, and I will come upon him while he is weary and weak-handed, and will make him afraid, and all the people who are with him will flee, and I will smite the king only, and I will bring back all the people to you. The man whom you seek is as if all returned. So all the people will be in peace.’
Having given his advice in respect of the concubines of David Ahithophel then advised further (‘moreover’) that what was important was to set off after David as soon as possible (‘this night’). There can be little doubt that this was in fact Absalom’s best option. David was at present on the run with his loyal bodyguard and would unquestionably be disheartened and in some disarray because of the baggage train that he would have had to take with him for the benefit of his household. It is, of course, true that Absalom’s men may not have succeeded in making his redoubtable bodyguard actually flee, but they might well have outmanned and crushed them, and certainly their only chance was to act prior to David inevitably gathering further loyal forces (as both Ahithophel and Hushai recognised). But as Hushai had quickly spotted, one problem of it was that there was no glory in it for Absalom. All the credit would go to Ahithophel. Furthermore he knew that at the same time there would be a doubt at the back of Absalom’s mind, was a lingering fear of what David and his men might be able to accomplish if the force sent against him was not large enough. Absalom knew his father, and his famed skill in warfare.
2.17.4 ‘And the saying pleased Absalom well, and all the elders of Israel.
In general, however, the scheme met with approval from Absalom and Israel’s leadership. It sounded like a sound plan, even if it was a bit lacking in sparkle. And yet it was clearly not totally convincing to them because Absalom then sent for Hushai to ask for his view.
2.17.5 ‘ Then Absalom said, “Call now Hushai the Archite also, and let us hear in the same way what he says.”
The fact that Absalom then decided to hear what Hushai the Archite had to say demonstrated quite clearly that his approval to Ahithophel’s plan was not whole hearted, and that he certainly did not see Ahithophel as infallible. Something was causing Absalom to drew back from it in his heart. It may well have been because he was so aware of his father’s reputation and the efficiency of those who were with him.
2.17.6 ‘And when Hushai was come to Absalom, Absalom spoke to him, saying, “Ahithophel has spoken after this manner. Shall we do after his saying? If not, you speak.” ’
When Hushai came on the scene Absalom outlined to him Ahithophel’s plan. And his question then was, did he approve, or did he have something better to offer?
2.17.7 ‘And Hushai said to Absalom, “The counsel that Ahithophel has given this time is not good.”
Hushai recognised at once that in the plan that Absalom had outlined lay David’s real danger. He was undoubtedly at present in a tight corner, waiting at the fords of the Jordan for news, hampered by the baggage wagons, and accompanied by a force, which while it was seasoned and effective, could easily be hugely outnumbered. If Ahithophel moved quickly enough with the right men he might well succeed.
So he shook his wise, grey head and looked solemn. Then looking Absalom in the eye he declared gravely, “The counsel that Ahithophel has given this time is not good.” But inside, his heart must have been beating nineteen to the dozen as he spoke the words, for he was aware that Ahithophel was perfectly right, and that in what he had said lay any hope of success for Absalom. The only question was, could he convince them otherwise.
2.17.8 ‘Hushai said moreover, “You know your father and his men, that they are mighty men, and they are chafed in their minds, as a bear robbed of her whelps in the countryside, and your father is a man of war, and will not lodge with the people.”
Then he did his best to justify what he had said by playing on Absalom’s fears. As Absalom knew, his father and his men were seasoned warriors, and were at present chafing like bears whose cubs had been taken from them. They would be itching for a fight. Furthermore Absalom must remember that as an experienced soldier David would not be lodging among civilians, but would be lurking with his men in some hideaway where he would be difficult to reach.
2.17.9 “Behold, he is hid now in some pit, or in some other place, and it will come about that when some of them are fallen at the first, that whoever hears it will say, ‘There is a slaughter among the people who follow Absalom.’ ”
So when Absalom’s men went after him he might well be hidden in a trench, or some such place, and from it might launch a surprise attack on some of Absalom’s men, causing a number of deaths. This might then turn into a rumour which would spread around declaring that there was wholesale slaughter among the people who followed Absalom. That was something that could prove disastrous to the success of the revolution for all knew of the reputation of David and his men.
2.17.10 “And even he who is valiant, whose heart is as the heart of a lion, will utterly melt, for all Israel knows that your father is a mighty man, and those who are with him are valiant men.”
The result would be that even the most valiant, even those with hearts of lions, would melt with fear, because they were fully aware of the calibre of David and his mighty men. Hushai was playing the fear card as hard as he was worth, knowing full well that there must be some trepidation in Absalom’s heart when he considered previous exploits of his father and the expertise of his mighty men whose names were famed throughout Judah and Israel.
2.17.11 “But I counsel that all Israel be gathered together to you, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, as the sand that is by the sea for multitude, and that you go to battle in your own person.”
Hisahi’s solution, therefore, was to wait until the all the armies of Israel could be gathered ‘to YOU’, and then they could attack in invincible numbers. What he must therefore do was gather all Israel to him, and then, himself leading a huge army, go forward in person into battle with David’s forces. This magnificent picture of Absalom leading his huge army in triumph was enough to stir anyone’s blood, especially someone as vain as Absalom.
2.17.12 “So shall we come on him in some place where he shall be found, and we will light upon him as the dew falls on the ground, and of him and of all the men who are with him we will not leave so much as one.”
And as a result how simple the situation has suddenly all become. Instead of David lurking in a trench unable to be found and waiting to surprise them, he is now to be found with ease, and instead of the danger of facing his mighty men, Absalom’s men will fall on David like the dew on the ground. Indeed the whole of David’s mighty men who are with him will simply vanish before them, with not one left remaining. And all because they had listened to Hushai.
2.17.13 “Moreover, if he has entered into a city, then shall all Israel bring ropes to that city, and we will draw it into the river, until there be not one small stone found there.”
And what if David hides in a city? Simple. ‘We’ simply bring ropes and tear down its walls, dragging them into the river until there is no stone left standing. Surely it was obvious which was the best option.
2.17.14a “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.”
Certainly Absalom and his men thought so. We can see why the inexperienced Absalom, and his equally inexperienced followers, were by now hanging on to Hushai’s every word. The difficult task that they had been so apprehensive of had suddenly all become so simple. How could they even have considered anything else? And they looked at each other, and nodded, and declared that “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.” It had been a masterpiece of invention and psychology.
2.17.14b ‘For YHWH had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, to the intent that YHWH might bring evil on Absalom.”
And now we learn the secret of Hushai’s success. It was because ‘YHWH had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel.’ And why? “To the intent that YHWH might bring evil on Absalom.” Thus behind the scene YHWH was seen to be at work ensuring Absalom’s defeat. When David came out of the situation successfully, all would know that it was YHWH Who had accomplished it.
So even YHWH’s clear chastisement of David was under His control, in such a way that David would come out of it having learned a bitter lesson, but still intact. That is why the Christian can rejoice in the face of testing, because he knows that God is in control and will not let it get out of hand (James 1.2-12; Romans 5.1-5; Matthew 5.12).
But why should YHWH wish to bring such evil events on Absalom? It was because:
Hushai Sends David A Message Telling Him To Flee Over The Jordan While He May, In Case Absalom Changes His Mind And Follows The Wise Counsel Of Ahithophel (17.15-23).
The incident that follows, as Hushai raced to get a message through to David, is clear evidence that the information in this account was obtained from an eyewitness, for while it undoubtedly adds to the human interest, there is no reason at all for it to be invented. It adds nothing to the essentials of the account. What it does, however, bring out is the extent of the loyalty still commanded by David among the common folk. It indicated that he had not been totally deserted.
Note that in ‘a’ Hushai describes Ahithophel’s advice, and in the parallel we learn that when Ahithophel saw that that advice had not been followed he hung himself. In ‘b’ the message is for David to pass immediately over the Jordan, and in the parallel he does so. In ‘c’ Jonathan and Ahimaaz hide down a well, and in the parallel they come out from their hiding place in the well. In ‘d’ the well could not be found, and in the parallel the two men could not be found. Centrally in ‘e’ Absalom’s servants failed because they were misdirected by a mere woman who was loyal to David. So much for his resources.
2.17.15 ‘Then Hushai said to Zadok and to Abiathar the priests, “Thus and thus did Ahithophel counsel Absalom and the elders of Israel, and thus and thus have I counselled.” ’
Having left the presence of Absalom Hushai hurried to Abiathar and Zadok, his contacts in Jerusalem, and explained to them both what Ahithophel had advised, and what he had advised.
2.17.16 ‘Now therefore send quickly, and tell David, saying, “Do not lodge this night at the fords of the wilderness, but by all means pass over, lest the king be swallowed up, and all the people who are with him.” ’
The he urged them to send an urgent message to David directing him not to stop with his people at the fords of Jordan, but to pass over them as quickly as possible by any means that they could in case Ahithophel’s advice was followed and they be trapped there, and all of them be swallowed up.
2.17.17 ‘Now Jonathan and Ahimaaz were staying by En-rogel; and a maid-servant used to go and tell them, and they went and told king David, for they might not be seen to come into the city.’
This message was immediately taken by a maid servant, who had apparently constantly acted as a go-between, to Jonathan and Ahimaaz, who were staying by the spring of En-rogel at the south east corner of Jerusalem (see Joshua 15.7). This was lest they arouse suspicion by being observed sneaking in and out of the city in the direction which David might be assumed to have taken. Two messengers were necessary so as to ensure that at least one got through.
2.17.18 ‘But a lad saw them, and told Absalom, and they went both of them away quickly, and came to the house of a man in Bahurim, who had a well in his court; and they went down there.’
But all their precautions proved to be in vain, for a young lad spotted them and reported the fact back to Absalom. We can gather from the fact that he did this that Jonathan and Ahimaaz were already suspect, and that enquiries had already been made as to their whereabouts. Meanwhile the two men had hurried off with their message and had reached Bahurim just outside Jerusalem on the way to the fords of Jordan. It is clear that at that stage they suspected that they were being pursued and knew that they must find somewhere to hide. At Bahurim they knew of a man who was loyal to David and sought his help. This man had a well in his courtyard which could be covered up so that there was no obvious trace of it, and that was where the two hunted men took shelter.
2.17.19 ‘And the woman took and spread the covering over the well’s mouth, and strewed bruised grain on it, and nothing was observable.’
The woman of the house then put the covering on the well and strewed bruised grain (peeled barley - compare Proverbs 27.22) on it, the same kind of grain that was strewn around that area of the courtyard, with the result that nothing was visible. (Again the woman was the man for the job. Absalom’s pride would undoubtedly have been deeply injured at the thought of being outmanoeuvred by women (compare Judges 9.54), but in the Scriptures women are often YHWH’s means of deliverance and the point here is precisely in order to bring out that YHWH was outmanoeuvring Absalom by the means of ‘weak’ women. As ever He was using the weak things of the world to confound the mighty - 1 Corinthians 1.27).
2.17.20 ‘And Absalom’s servants came to the woman to the house, and they said, “Where are Ahimaaz and Jonathan?” And the woman said to them, “They are gone over the brook of water.” And when they had sought and could not find them, they returned to Jerusalem.’
When Absalom’s servants arrived at Bahurim they no doubt learned (by using their own methods) which house Jonathan and Ahimaaz had entered, and then they approached the woman of the house and asked her where the two men were. (Her husband had probably made himself scarce. Women were less vulnerable than men in such circumstances). She replied convincingly that they had gone over the nearby water-brook or ‘stream of water’. Accepting her word they searched diligently for the two men in the area that she had described, but on not finding them could only assume that they had escaped, and consequently returned to Jerusalem to report.
2.17.21 ‘And it came about, after they were departed, that they came up out of the well, and went and told king David; and they said to David, “Arise all of you, and pass quickly over the water, for thus has Ahithophel counselled against you.” ’
As soon as the two messengers were sure that Absalom’s men had gone, they came out of the well and hurried off with their message to King David. And once in his presence they told him that they must all arise and quickly cross the water (harder than it sounds when you have a load of baggage wagons), explaining the advice that Ahithophel had given to Absalom. For no one could be sure in the end whose advice Absalom might follow. He might after all have been suspicious of Hushai and have been deceiving him about his intentions.
2.17.22 ‘Then David arose, and all the people who were with him, and they passed over the Jordan. By the time of morning light there lacked not one of them who was not gone over the Jordan.’
So David and all who were with him worked hurriedly and urgently through the night so that by dawn all had crossed over. Had Ahithophel and his men in fact arrived that night it might well have been the end for many of them, hindered as David’s men were by having to protect the members of David’s household. But once over the fords, the fords themselves could be guarded by much smaller groups of mighty men, while the remainder could hopefully make their escape into the forests. They had therefore now at least been given a chance.
2.17.23 ‘And when Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass, and arose, and got himself home to his city, and set his house in order, and hung himself, and he died, and was buried in the sepulchre of his father.’
No one was more aware of this than Ahithophel, and observing that his shrewd advice had been ignored because of the subtlety of Hushai (and the hand of YHWH), and recognising with anguish what would now be the inevitable end of the rebellion, and what his own fate would consequently be, he saddled his ass and returned to his own city. His part in the rebellion was over, and his aim was to settle his affairs and then hang himself in the hope that this might prevent retribution on his family when the rebellion now inevitably failed. Note how the fact of his end is brought out in a sevenfold way emphasising its divine inevitability (seven is the number of divine perfection). ‘He saddled his ass -- arose -- got himself home to his city -- set his house in order - hung himself -- died -- and was buried.’ Such is the inevitable end of all who set themselves against the will of God.
There is, as will be observed, a remarkable parallel between this man who betrayed David, God’s Anointed one, and then as a consequence went away and committed suicide by hanging, and the one who would later betray our Lord Jesus Christ, the great Son of David, God’s greater Anointed One, who would also similarly commit suicide by hanging (Matthew 27.3-5), the first because he knew that he would face the judgment of David, the second because he knew that he would face the judgment of the risen Lord Himself.
The Two Opposing Armies Prepare For Battle (17.24-18.4a).
Just as Absalom had come to Jerusalem (16.15), so David came to Mahanaim. Mahanaim had been the royal city of Ish-bosheth. Now it would welcome David. It would seem clear that Transjordan had not sided with Absalom. Absalom consequently crossed the Jordan at the head of his army (just as Hushai had advised) ready to meet David whose men, however, would not allow him to expose himself at the head of his army. So the battle was set, but here it was David who was receiving assistance from all around, including from Ammon. The rebellion had not taken hold in Transjordan.
Note that in ‘a’ Absalom is at the head of his men and will venture into battle (as advised by Hushai), while in the parallel when David attempts to go forth with his people they will not allow him to do so. We already observe the difference between the war experience of the two opposing sides. In ‘b’ the leadership of the rebels is defined, and in the parallel the leadership of David’s forces is. In ‘c’ the rebels gather themselves together in their camp, and in the parallel David musters his own forces. Central in ‘d’ is the fact that help is flocking to David at Mahanaim from every quarter.
2.17.24 ‘Then David came to Mahanaim. And Absalom passed over the Jordan, he and all the men of Israel with him.’
Here the description of large events is described succintly. David and his party arrived in Mahanaim where his household could be protected, to which help was flooding in, and from which his own army could now issue forth, organised and without having to worry about guarding the wagons. Mahanaim was a fortified city to the east of the Jordan, and was not far not far from the ford of the Jabbok (see 2.8). It had been a refuge for Ishbosheth from the Philistines. It would now be a refuge for David from his son. Meanwhile Absalom, at the head of his army, crossed the Jordan in readiness to do battle, with the aim of doing it personally as advised by Hushai. The fact that Absalom was personally in charge is further emphasised by the parallel in the chiasmus. It was in complete contrast to David. In a civil war this factor could be important, for the whole purpose of the war was the death of the opposing royal claimant. That was why Hushai had fooled Absalom into taking a risk that he should not have taken.
2.17.25 ‘And Absalom set Amasa over the host instead of Joab. Now Amasa was the son of a man, whose name was Ithra the Israelite, who went in to Abigal the daughter of Nahash, sister to Zeruiah, Joab’s mother.’
Meanwhile the host of Israel (in so far as it had followed Absalom) was placed under a new commander who had necessarily replaced Joab, who had continued his support for David. His name was Amasa. The description of his genealogy indicates some of the complications that genealogies could produce in ancient societies. We should note first of all that he is stated to have been the son of Yithra ‘the Israelite’. This unusual designation of someone as ‘the Israelite’ is so rare from our viewpoint (we would normally expect the appellation connected with an Israelite to indicate a tribal or regional derivation, e.g. the Ephraimite, the Jezreelite), that it demands a special explanation, and the most probable explanation is that it was seen as conferring an honoured recognition on one who was not by normal appellation an Israelite. In 1 Chronicles 2.17 he is in fact called Yether the Ishmaelite. Thus ‘the Israelite’ may have been a title arising from Absalom’s aim (or the aim of someone earlier) to please and honour Amasa by officially re-designating his father as a true-born ‘Israelite’, (which he might well have been to a certain extent, even though an Ishmaelite, if his earlier forebears had been adopted sufficiently long before into Israel, just as the mixed multitude of Exodus 12.38 were adopted as Israelites at Sinai). In fact, of course, many who were naturalised Israelites also bore an appellation (like Ishmaelite) that suggested that they were otherwise. It is, for example, probable that the forebears of Uriah the Hittite had become naturalised Israelites, and we could cite many other examples. So rather than seeing this as a copying error (which is so often all too easily assumed) we should probably see it as an indication of the way in which a special honour could be conferred. A man could in fact be both an Ishmaelite (by derivation) and an Israelite (by adoption). Calling him ‘the Israelite’ might therefore have been seen as conferring on him special distinction. After all the overall term ‘the Israelites’ or ‘all Israel’ did undoubtedly include a miscellany of people from many backgrounds.
Then we note that ‘he went in to Abigal.’ The wording may suggest forcible entry and indicate the kind of case described in Deuteronomy 22.28-29, in which case he might have been discreetly adopted, as an Ishmaelite, into the family into which he then married, thus becoming ‘the Israelite’. (On the other hand, ‘went in to’ does indicate normal sexual intercourse in 1 Chronicles 2.21; 7.23, so that this might be reading in something that is not there). Abigal is then described as the daughter of Nahash. She is probably called Abigail in 1 Chronicles 2.17, where she appears to be the daughter of Jesse. Which then is correct? The answer is that both might be correct. Her true father may have been Nahash, and her father by adoption (when he married her widowed mother) Jesse. The same may also have been true of Zeruiah. (The fact that Nahash of Rabbah in verse 27 has to be distinguished by the addition of ‘of Rabbah’ serves as corroboration of the fact that the mention of a Nahash here is correct). It is a reminder that the derivations of women were not seen as having the same importance as those of men. We do not know the name of David’s mother, and Zeruiah and/or Abigail may well have been his adopted half-sisters. Further speculation is groundless and unnecessary as it can lead nowhere, being merely surmise. But it does serve to demonstrate that we should be wary before we start talking about ‘errors’ when the problem might simply be our lack of knowledge.
2.17.26 ‘And Israel and Absalom encamped in the land of Gilead.’
Having crossed the Jordan, Israel and Absalom encamped in ‘the land of Gilead’. The placing of Absalom’s name after Israel may have been in order to underline the fact that Absalom was with the Israelite army, just as Hushai (and therefore YHWH) had ‘advised’. Thus YHWH’s purpose was seen as going forward to its destined end.
The designation ‘Gilead’ was used in so many ways that it was a term of wide meaning. It could often be seen as covering a large part, or even the whole, of Israelite Transjordan. Here, however, the intention was probably to indicate a smaller region in the north, within relative striking distance of Mahanaim.
2.17.27 ‘And it came about when David was come to Mahanaim, that Shobi the son of Nahash of Rabbah of the children of Ammon, and Machir the son of Ammiel of Lodebar, and Barzillai the Gileadite of Rogelim, brought beds, and basins, and earthen vessels, and wheat, and barley, and meal, and parched grain, and beans, and lentils, and parched pulse, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of the herd, for David, and for the people who were with him, to eat, for they said, “The people are hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness.”
Meanwhile David’s cause was prospering. His support included that of the royal family of Ammon, and some of the wealthiest Israelites in Transjordan. Their support would undoubtedly include men whom they would put at David’s disposal. Thus Shobi, the son of Nahash of Rabbah, the capital of Ammon, brought provisions for him, almost certainly on behalf of the royal family of Ammon, while Machir, a clan leader from Lo-debar and firm Saulide (he had protected Mephibosheth), and Barzillai, another influential Israelite from Gilead, brought provisions from their respective areas. The impression intended to be given is that the whole of Transjordan were flocking to David’s side, and were expressing it in practical ways. To a certain extent David was now reaping his reward for the mercy that he had shown to the house of Saul, while Shobi may well have been made vassal king by David in the place of Hanun (12.26-31)
2.18.1 ‘And David numbered the people who were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them.’
This was the point at which David numbered and marshalled his forces, which were now seemingly considerably larger, no doubt supplemented by men from Transjordan, and loyal subjects flocking over the Jordan. Dividing them into units of ‘thousands’ and ‘hundreds’, he would set over them experienced commanders and sub-commanders who would prepare them for the battle ahead. These would all be officers experienced in fighting under all conditions. He was no longer on the run, and was now ready to fight back. The situation foreseen both by Ahithophel and Hushai had come to fruition.
2.18.2 ‘And David sent forth the people, a third part under the hand of Joab, and a third part under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and a third part under the hand of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, “I will surely go forth with you myself also.” ’
His forces were then divided up into three main sections, each commanded by an experienced general (something which Absalom could not match). The first was Joab, the second Abishai his brother, both of whom were totally committed to David and had been with him since his wilderness days, and the third was the noble Ittai the Gittite, the Philistine mercenary leader who had earlier committed himself to David (15.19-22). It was a fearsome combination.
2.18.3 ‘But the people said, “You shall not go forth, for if we flee away, they will not care for us; neither if half of us die, will they care for us; but you are worth ten thousand of us, therefore now it is better that you be ready to succour us out of the city.” ’
And crucially ‘the people’ would not allow David to risk his life in the fighting. In view of the fact that it was a civil war the preservation of his life was rightly seen as paramount. It was for him that they were fighting. Once he was dead there would be no point in continuing the fight, for it was not nation fighting nation, but one single nation warring over the kingship. Furthermore they knew that if David was not with them they would be able to fight a normal battle, knowing that if they had to flee they would not necessarily be relentlessly sought out by those who knew that David was with them and had to be found at any cost. It would thus relieve the intensity of the battle on all fronts. And that brings out the folly of Absalom in personally leading Israel (on Hushai’s, and YHWH’s, ‘advice’). He was making himself the target at which all efforts would be aimed, and on which the intensest focus would be directed, simply because once he was dead the rebellion would be at an end.
Besides, as they further pointed out, they wanted David to be in the city so that he could direct any necessary operations in support of any section of his forces that might seem to require it. They had full confidence in his overall generalship, and knew that he could be depended on to make the right decisions. Absalom might still have the advantage in numbers, but he was clearly going to be outmanoeuvred on all flanks by David and his experienced generals.
2.18.4a ‘And the king said to them, “What seems best to you I will do.”
Acknowledging his people’s love and concern, David bowed to their will. In accordance with their wish he would take his stance behind the battle area, ready to intervene if and where necessary.
The Final Battle (18.4b-17).
Some time would by now necessarily have passed since the rebellion began, even if only in order to give Absalom the time to gather together ‘all Israel’, and in fact, of course, many loyal men in Israel would have slipped away to join David. Not all were disaffected or dazzled. Meanwhile we have been told nothing of the initial skirmishing between the opposing forces, nor of the gathering of people in general to both sides. The concentration is now all to be on the final, decisive encounter, and Absalom’s defeat and death. Thus the whole process which began when David’s forces marched out of Mahanaim (18.2-5) and went out into the countryside against Israel (verse 6), will come to its conclusion in the forest of Ephraim. We are, as so often, told nothing of what happened in between.
The site of this final battle was the forest of Ephraim. If this was fought in Gilead, and not far from Mahanaim, the forest of Ephraim may have been so named after earlier activities in Gilead by the Ephraimites whose land was in the main on the west of the Jordan rift valley (the Arabah). It may, for example have been named ‘the forest of Ephraim’ because it was the place where the Ephraimites had been decisively defeated by Jephthah (Judges 12.1-5). Or it may have arisen as the result of a jibe whereby the Ephraimites looked on parts of Gilead as in a sense belonging to them. Note the close connection of Ephraim/Manasseh with Gilead as indicated by the very jibe ‘you fugitives of Ephraim’ in Judges 12.4, where they are then called ‘Gileadites in the midst of Ephraim and of Manasseh’. Thus Gilead had in different ways Ephraimitic associations in men’s minds, and names are regularly decided in men’s minds rather than by geographical association. Furthermore parts of Gilead were thickly forested.
Some have, however, argued for ‘the forest of Ephraim’ as being in the hill country of Ephraim on the west side of Jordan (where there were certainly thick forests - Joshua 17.17-18), and as simply being the place where the final action took place after earlier action had taken place in Gilead east of Jordan and then on the west side of Jordan. But in those days both sides of the Jordan were well forested, so that from that point of view either could be possible. In the end it is a question of little importance, apart from the geographical implications, for what is seen as mattering is what happened, and Who brought it about. Where it happened is considered to be secondary.
Note that in ‘a’, David’s forces went out to battle and David pleaded that during the battle his generals would ensure that Absalom was treated gently, and in the parallel, far from being treated gently, Absalom was hurled into a great pit in the forest which was covered with stones, while the rebels fled each to his home. In ‘b’ the great slaughter of the Israelites is described, and in the parallel Joab, once he was sure that Absalom was dead, called an end to that slaughter and held his men back from it. In ‘c’ Absalom’s head and hair were caught up in the branches of an oak tree so that, as his mule continued on, he was left there hanging by his head or hair, and in the parallel Joab and his men slew him while he was still entangled and alive in the oak. In ‘d’ a man brought to Joab the news of Absalom’s entanglement in the oak, and was asked why he had not slain him, and in the parallel he points out that had he done so he doubted whether Joab would have been very stout in defending him. Centrally in ‘e’ the man declared that in view of the king’s command he would not have slain the king’s son for even a thousand pieces of silver.
2.18.4b ‘And the king stood by the gate-side, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands.’
Having been advised by his people not to go with his troops because of his importance to them, the king stood by the gate in order to see them off to battle, and no doubt saluted them as they marched by in their units ready for what lay ahead. They would be a magnificent sight, and while possibly not as numerous as Absalom’s forces, were undoubtedly more experienced and skilled in the arts of war. They would be a fearsome sight, for David’s army included not only his own highly trained troops, ‘his men’ (experienced in forest warfare), and the unique band described as his ‘mighty men’ (23.8-39), but also the Gittite mercenaries who had come from Philistia with Ittai. These were all used to fighting in all conditions and circumstances. unlike Absalom’s troops who were mainly farmers called up for active service.
2.18.5 ‘And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom.’
As the army marched forth David made a plea to his generals. Absalom was his son, and in spite of what he had done he loved him still. So he begged them to treat him gently when and if they came across him, for his sake. This plea must have been openly shouted out to them, for we are specifically informed that all the people heard this charge which he gave to his commanders. We are told of this partly in order to explain why later in the passage a soldier was aware of the command. But as Joab knew well, if Absalom survived he would always be a danger to the stability of Israel/Judah.
2.18.6 ‘So the people went out into the countryside against Israel, and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim.’
The people then went out into the countryside to meet the host of Israel gathered by Absalom, and eventually the battle either commenced in or moved into the forest of Ephraim. Such a circumstance would favour David’s experienced soldiers, for they were used to coping with such conditions, whereas in the forest the Israelite farmers probably felt somewhat lost and out of their depth. It was one thing to make one’s way through a forest on recognised paths, and quite another to fight one’s way through one.
As mentioned above, the forest of Ephraim may have been in Gilead and have been so named because of its connection with some past event connected with Ephraim, or even with a sizeable group of Ephraimite foresters who had come to live there. This siting in Gilead could be seen as supported by the fact that:
On the other side of the argument considerations should be given to the fact that:
The important thing, however, arising from the narrative is that the forest, in which they were not used to fighting, proved a total handicap to Absalom’s forces precisely because it was the intention of YHWH. We do not know who chose the site of the battle. Indeed if Absalom and his men did not know Gilead very well they may well have advanced through the forest because that was what they found facing them on crossing the Jordan and climbing up the other side. Alternatively, of course, Mahanaim may have been surrounded by forests leaving little alternative. Or it is possible that he and his men may have withdrawn to the forest in order to hide themselves from David’s forces. Whatever the case it was a bad day and a bad choice for Absalom (and one that would probably not have been made by Ahimelech).
2.18.7-8 ‘And the people of Israel were smitten there before the servants of David, and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty units (thousands) of men. For the battle was there spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.’
The result of these conditions was that the disorganised people of Israel, struggling desperately to cope in unfamiliar conditions, were ‘smitten before the servants of David’. As a consequence there was a great slaughter which resulted in the loss of twenty military units in different parts of the battle line, as the battle spread all over the country. One major reason for this is then described as being because they were unable to cope with the forest which resulted in more deaths than the actual fighting. So much for their ‘coming on him in some place where he shall be found, and lighting upon him as the dew falls on the ground’, so that ‘of him and of all the men who are with him we will not leave so much as one’ (17.12). Hushai’s ‘advice’ was coming home to roost, as he had known it would.
‘The forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.’ The point is simply that more were killed because of the difficulties caused by the thick, untamed forest than by actual, face to face combat. In other words they were the victims of the Creator. This may have been as a result of:
In the last analysis it was because they were unable to cope with the conditions and were thus rendered helpless. But undoubtedly the writer wants us to see in this that YHWH had made even the forest itself fight against Absalom.
‘There was a great slaughter there that day of twenty units (thousands) of men.’ Twenty units of Absalom’s army were cut to pieces as they first fought and then fled.
2.18.9 ‘And Absalom chanced to meet the servants of David. And Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between heaven and earth, and the mule which was under him went on.’
Spurred on by Hushai’s ‘guidance’ Absalom had himself ventured into the forest with his troops, riding on his mule. He had wanted the glory of being with his men when they enjoyed their anticipated victory. But in their inexperience neither Absalom nor his troops had considered the folly of his doing so.
As a king he had clearly not felt that he could be expected to go on foot, struggling through the forest like a common soldier (he was no trained warrior, especially in these conditions which would have been meat and drink to his father). Thus he had chosen to ride on a royal mule. But the forest had undoubtedly made it difficult for him to maintain contact with all his troops, and the mule would not have made things any easier, both in enabling his men to stay with him, and because of the rough and unfriendly ground. The result was (as a more experienced warrior would have anticipated) that he had few if any men with him when he encountered the enemy. Moreover the presence of the mule also drew attention to who he was so that when he accidentally came face to face with a group of David’s veterans he would be recognised immediately. Presumably he then turned his mule and fled. But YHWH wanted it to be recognised that it was He, not David’s men, Who had brought down this one who had dared to raise his hand against YHWH’s Anointed, God’s chosen one (7.17-16; 12.7, compare 1 Samuel 2.10; 16.13). The consequence was that Absalom was trapped by God’s forest, and became caught up in the low branches of an oak, entangled in some way by his hair. Compare ‘the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’ (Judges 5.20). Here it was the trees and their branches that fought against Absalom. The scared mule, however, was not stopping for anything, and the result was that Absalom was left ignominiously hanging by his hair, or by his head, from the branches of the tree. (We are reminded again of the end of Judas).
2.18.10 ‘And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, “Look, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” ’
Inevitably he was soon spotted by Joab’s men and one reported back to Joab that Absalom had been found hanging from an oak by his head. He may well have thought that it was a great joke. Whether in fact Absalom was actually hanging from his hair which had become entangled in the branches, or whether his head had become caught in the branches in such a way that his entangled hair then held him fast, we are not told, but we are undoubtedly intended to see that the hair of which he was so proud and vain had contributed to his downfall. None of the men who found him did anything further to him because they remembered David’s words to his generals that Absalom should be handled gently. No doubt also the battle was still being waged so strongly that there was no time to find some way of climbing up in order to cut him down (even if it had been possible). It did not really matter, for he was YHWH’s prisoner.
2.18.11 ‘And Joab said to the man who told him, “And, behold, you saw it, and why did you not smite him there to the ground? And I would have given you ten pieces of silver, and a girdle.” ’
Joab immediately asked the soldier why he had not slain Absalom. Did he not realise that with Absalom dead the rebellion would to all intents and purposes have been over, whilst if he was still alive he could possibly be rescued? He thus informed him that had he smitten him to the ground he would have received from Joab ten pieces of silver and the equivalent of a medal, a girdle of merit.
2.18.12 ‘And the man said to Joab, “Though I should have weighed in my hand a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, yet would I not put forth my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king charged you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Beware that none touch the young man Absalom.’ ”
The man, however, declared stoutly that in view of the king’s command to his generals, overheard by all, that Absalom should not be hurt, he would not have smitten ‘the king’s son’, even had he had ‘a thousand pieces of silver’ to weigh in his hand. In his view it was more than his life was worth.
2.18.13 “Otherwise if I had dealt falsely against his life (and there is no matter hidden from the king), then you yourself would have set yourself against me.”
And he added that his view was that had he done so even Joab himself would not have stood by him when the matter was reported to the king (which may have been true). Nor did he consider it likely that David would not find out who had done it, because his spy system was such that he was reputed to know everything. David clearly had a reputation for having a good intelligence system.
2.18.14 ‘Then Joab said, “I may not dally thus with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak.’
Joab reaction was to dismiss the man from his presence and immediately seek Absalom out. And when he found him still alive, he thrust three javelins (or three spiked sticks) straight through his heart. Joab was no sentimentalist and he was fully aware that while Absalom was alive David’s throne could never be secure. We should recognise in this that in his own way Joab was being totally loyal to David. (We should also note that Absalom had not been officially taken prisoner, but rather, like many men in his army, could be seen as technically having been overtaken by the enemy while still in the battle, while being hindered by the obstacles in the forest. He was thus, by military rules, still fair game. He was after all probably still armed).
2.18.15 ‘And ten young men who bore Joab’s armour gathered round about and smote Absalom, and slew him.’
As Absalom’s body still showed signs of twitching in the tree after Joab’s treatment, Joab’s ten aide’s then joined with him in finishing Absalom off. This combination of a number of men was wise because when David learned that a number of men had been involved in Absalom’s death, and that in the midst of the battle, he would not feel able to target any single person, and in fact he was probably not made aware until much later of the full truth concerning everything that had happened. In this case it was probably not Joab’s intention that he should be. Note that the ten young men were all ‘armour-bearers’, that is, young men who attended to Joab’s needs (literally, they ‘carried his things’). The fact that he had ten such ‘armour-bearers’ demonstrates that they did not each personally bear his armour.
2.18.16 ‘And Joab blew the ram’s horn, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel, for Joab held back the people.’
Absalom being dead Joab blew his ram’s horn and called a cessation to the fighting. He knew that there was no point in further killing when the rebellion was virtually over with the death of Absalom. Thus he held back David’s army from further killing. He was not, in spite of his reputation, someone who delighted in blood being shed for its own sake, and he possibly remembered again the words of Abner in 2.26. He knew that it was best, for David’s sake, to incur as little bitterness as possible
2.18.17 ‘And they took Absalom, and cast him into the great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones, and all Israel fled every one to his tent.’
The battle over, Absalom’s body was taken and cast into a ravine or great pit in the forest. Then a great pile of stones were piled on his body as a monument to the death of a traitor. Compare the similar treatment of Achan in Joshua 7.26 and the king of Ai in Joshua 8.29. No name was to be preserved for him. He was to be seen as an outcast and accursed. (There may also have been in mind the punishment to be meted out to a rebellious son as contained in Deuteronomy 21.20-21). We can have little doubt that this was on Joab’s orders, although being a hot country it would always be necessary that any bodies be disposed of rapidly, and it at least prevented his body from being openly exposed to the scavengers who lived in the forest. But Joab wanted no mourning or lasting memorial for Absalom. Wisely he wanted him to be remembered as a traitor.
Meanwhile ‘all Israel fled every one to his tent.’ The rebellion was over and the defeated army dispersed rapidly as the men made their way to their homes hoping that vengeance would not overtake them. ‘To his tent’ was a popular way of describing returning home (besides they would not have had a settled camp), probably being a hangover from wilderness days (compare Deuteronomy 16.7; 33.18; Judges 7.8; 20.8; 1 Samuel 4.10; 13.2; 1 Kings 8.66; 12.16).
The Tidings Of Victory, And Of The Death Of Absalom, Reach David Who Falls Into A Fit Of Mourning (18.18-33).
This passage is placed within an inclusio which commences with Absalom having built a pillar for himself in order to preserve his name, and ends with David mourning the death of His son, and repeating his name three times (a complete number of time). He needed no pillar to remind him of his son.
The passage as a whole describes the sending off and arrival of two messengers, the first bringing the news of victory and the second the news of Absalom’s death. Ahimaaz was forbidden by Joab to mention the death of Absalom, and as he had seemingly not seen it himself it was only hearsay for him anyway. Thus he was justified in simply describing the victory and the general tumult that there had been around Absalom. The Cushite may well actually have witnessed Absalom’s death, but he was in no danger of death. We are not justified in assuming that all messengers who brought bad news to David were in danger of being killed. 1.15-16 and 4.10-11 were both very special cases, one where the messenger had falsely claimed to have slain YHWH’s anointed, and the other where the messengers had actually done so. The Cushite was simply carrying a message from Joab.
Note that in ‘a’ Absalom had built a monument so that his name would be remembered, and in the parallel the king remembered Absalom threefold. In ‘b’ Ahimaaz was forbidden to go because the king’s son was dead, and in the parallel the Cushite announces the death of the king’s son. In ‘c’ the Cushite is sent with tidings of victory and in the parallel he arrives with the tidings. In ‘d’ Ahimaaz insists on running after the Cushite with the good tidings, and in the parallel he announces to the king the good tidings. In ‘e’ Ahimaaz outran the Cushite, and in the parallel the watchman saw two men running, the foremost of whom was Ahimaaz. In ‘f’ the watchman announces that he had seen a man running alone, and in the parallel he announces that he has seen another man running alone. Centrally in ‘g’ the messenger draws near to the king with his tidings.
2.18.18 ‘Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself the pillar, which is in the king’s dale, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance,” and he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called ‘Absalom’s monument’ to this day.’
The thought in this verse was suggested by the pile of stones erected over Absalom’s body in the previous verse, with the thought that his inglorious end was far different from the glorious end that he had expected, but it undoubtedly also forms an inclusio with David’s threefold act of bewailing the death of his son in verse 33. For there the king three times commemorates the name of Absalom. He would certainly be remembered, but not honourably.
The raising of memorial pillars and obelisks was a regular custom with ancient kings, for they pandered to their vanity. They longed to be remembered. It is thus being made clear that, unlike David, but like Saul, Absalom had been a king ‘like all the nations’ (see 1 Samuel 9.5), and had died in the same way. The pillar was raised by Absalom in order to perpetuate his memory after his death, because sadly he had no sons to carry on his name. Clearly his three sons had died in infancy (a not uncommon occurrence in those days), which explains why 2 Samuel 14.27 names Absalom’s daughters but not his sons. Thus at this stage he was sonless.
The king’s dale, or valley, is probably the one mentioned in Genesis 14.17 which was not far from Jerusalem, (although it is not certain and others have suggested differed identifications). It has been identified with the Kidron Valley. The monument was still known in the writer’s day (‘to this day’). There is there today a monument called Absalom’s pillar but it is of Hellenistic construction from around 1st century and therefore not the genuine Absalom’s pillar.
2.18.19 ‘Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, “Let me now run, and bear the king tidings, how that YHWH has avenged him of his enemies.” ’
Along with his brother Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the high priest, had constantly been David’s messenger, running between Jerusalem and David with the news of what was happening, and nearly being caught in the process (15.36; 17.17-21). He may well have seen himself as ‘the king’s messenger’. So now he asked Joab’s permission to run to the king with the tidings of how YHWH had avenged him on his enemies. Very often a messenger who brought good news was rewarded for his efforts.
2.18.20 ‘And Joab said to him, “You will not be the bearer of tidings this day, but you will bear tidings another day. But this day you will bear no tidings, because the king’s son is dead.” ’
But Joab demurred, pointing out that the news that had to be taken was not all good, because the king’s son was dead. It would be better to leave it to someone else. No one quite knew how the king would respond.
2.18.21 ‘Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” And the Cushite bowed himself to Joab, and ran.” ’
So instead Joab called on a Cushite, of North African descent, to take the news to David. (There is no reason at all for thinking that Joab considered that his life might be in danger, otherwise he would no doubt have instructed the messenger on how he should present the news. He had presumably had no part in the killing of Absalom). The Cushite politely bowed, and then ran off to convey the news. It would appear that he took the direct route through the forest.
2.18.22 ‘Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said yet again to Joab, “But come what may, let me, I pray you, also run after the Cushite.” And Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, seeing that you will have no reward for the tidings?” ’
But Ahimaaz was persistent. He wanted to be the first to take the good news of the victory to David. So he asked permission to run after the Cushite. Joab, however, pointed out in a fatherly way that there would be no reward for the one who took to the king the tidings of his son’s death.
2.18.23 “But come what may,” he said, “I will run.” And he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the Plain, and outran the Cushite.’
Ahimaaz was still persistent in spite of Joab’s arguments, and in the end Joab gave his permission. He was probably confident that the Cushite, who was no doubt noted for being a swift messenger, would now arrive first. But what he had not reckoned on was that Ahimaaz knew his way around, and instead of attempting to make his way through the tangle of the forest, ran along the Jordan rift valley (the plain of Jordan) and then up the canyon of the River Jabbok which enabled him to make easier progress. The result was that he outran the Cushite.
2.18.24 ‘Now David was sitting between the two gates, and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate to the wall, and lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, a man running alone.’
David was meanwhile eagerly awaiting news of the outcome of the battle, and especially of the safety of his son, and was therefore sitting in the courtyard of the gate-tower to which any news would inevitably first come, and from there he sent a watchman to the wall on the roof of the gate-tower to report anything that he saw. The watchman stood there constantly surveying the horizon and after a while he spotted a man on his own, running towards the city.
2.18.25 ‘And the watchman cried, and told the king. And the king said, “If he is alone, there is tidings in his mouth.” And he came quickly, and drew near.’
So the watchman shouted the news down to the king about the running man, and the king declared, ‘If he is alone it must be because he brings news of what has happened’. The runner meanwhile continued to make speedy progress towards Mahanaim.
It should be noted that from here to 19.11 David is simply spoken of as ‘the king’ (over twenty times) without mention of his name. This was possibly in order to emphasise that it was David who was the true and sole king of Israel.
2.18.26 ‘And the watchman saw another man running; and the watchman called to the porter, and said, “Look, another man running alone.” And the king said, “He also brings tidings.” ’
The watchman then spotted another runner some way behind the first one. And he called to the gate-keeper, who informed the king. The king’s response was, ‘he must also be bringing tidings’.
2.18.27 ‘And the watchman said, “I think the running of the foremost is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.” And the king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good tidings.” ’
As the first runner drew closer the watchman recognised him from his method of running, and called down to the king that it looked as though it must be Ahimaaz. That gladdened David’s heart because he knew Ahimaaz for a good man, and he realised that a messenger like Ahimaaz would only have been sent by Joab with good news.
2.18.28 ‘And Ahimaaz called, and said to the king, “All is well.” And he bowed himself before the king with his face to the earth, and said, “Blessed be YHWH your God, who has delivered up the men who lifted up their hand against my lord the king.” ’
The king then presumably went to the outer gate in readiness to receive the messenger, and when Ahimaaz saw him he called out, “All is well”. And once he had reached the gate he bowed low to the king and informed him that YHWH had given him victory. Those who had rebelled against him had been suitably dealt with by YHWH his God.
2.18.29 ‘And the king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent the king’s servant, even me your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I knew not what it was.” ’
The king then put the question that was tearing at his heart. “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” Having been forbidden by Joab to inform the king of what had happened to Absalom, and not having seen it for himself, Ahimaaz prevaricated and declared that he had seen a great tumult but had not known what it was. We must remember that he was acting under military orders. His mission had only been to declare the victory, not to report on hearsay.
2.18.30 ‘And the king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” And he turned aside, and stood still.’
The king then told him to stand by him while the second messenger arrived, which he accordingly obediently did.
2.18.31 ‘And, behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “Tidings for my lord the king, for YHWH has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you.”’
The Cushite then ran up and cried out, “Tidings for my lord the king, for YHWH has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you.” He may well not have been aware that Ahimaaz had already brought the good news. They may well have come in different directions.
2.18.32 ‘And the king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the Cushite answered, “The enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you to do you hurt, be as that young man is.” ’
The king then asked the question that was eating at his heart. “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite replied discreetly, reminding the king that Absalom had been his enemy and had risen up to do him hurt. He had probably been well coached by Joab. Then indirectly he indicated that Absalom was indeed dead, along with his other enemies. It is presumably deliberate that the messenger of grief is identified by his origin rather than his name, as with the Amalekite who had brought the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Messengers who bring bad news concerning death in battle are always anonymous. (Some, however, consider that the word Cushi indicated the messenger’s name rather than his nationality).
2.18.33 ‘And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept, and as he went, he said thus, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” ’
The king was deeply upset by the news and went up to a room in the gate-tower, weeping as he went and crying out “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The heart-rending words were a reminder of a father’s love for his son. They were fairly similar in intent to his words when he heard of the death of Saul and Jonathan and issued his lament. There too he had mourned and wept (1.11-12, 17-27) and cried out in his distress. But it is worth noting that he published no lament here. That would have been too much of an insult to his people. The threefold mention of his son’s name emphasises the completeness and depth of his grief. It was a better memorial of Absalom than any monument could ever be.
We can probably, however, see in this depth of grief for a treacherous son David’s own stark awareness of why it had happened. He was being made to face up to the fact that it was because of his own great sins that Absalom was dead. Because of those sins YHWH had not allowed Absalom to live, any more than He had allowed the infant son born to Bathsheba, or Amnon, to live. Here was a further fulfilment of YHWH’s words through Nathan, ‘now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house’ (12.10). While already forgiven David was reaping the consequences of his own sins.
Joab Rebukes The King For Dwelling Overmuch On The Death of His Traitorous Son Rather Than On Showing His Gratitude To Those Who Had Won Him Back His Kingship And Warns Him Of The Consequences (19.1-8a).
David’s grief over the loss of his son was so great that it did in fact become an obsession, with the result that he began to behave very foolishly by ignoring the great victory won by his troops and shutting himself away from everyone in deep mourning, and this at the very time when they were expecting a victory celebration. His men had come back filled with elation at their triumph, only to discover that the king whom they had been fighting for could only shut himself away in grief over the richly deserved death of his treacherous son. The consequence was that those who had fought so hard for him were creeping around and filled with shame. In other words, as a leader of men he was failing those who looked up to him, and allowing his personal feelings to affect his behaviour towards those who relied on him. He was allowing his family relations to once again interfere with his duty. The worst side of David’s attitude towards his subordinates was coming out.
But fortunately for David he had a loyal supporter in Joab, who came to him and bluntly pointed out to him that he was giving the impression to his men that his traitorous son meant more to him than those who loved him and were loyal to him, and that if only his son had survived he would not have minded how many of his own men had died. Consequently, if he was not very careful, he would discover that they would desert him.
This brought David to his senses as he recognised the truth of Joab’s words and he consequently left his room of mourning and went and sat in the gate in order to make himself available to his men. The result was that when the news got around his people gladly gathered around him, delighted that he had overcome his grief.
Note that in ‘a’ Joab was informed that David was weeping and mourning for Absalom, and in the parallel the people were informed that at last his weeping and mourning was over. In ‘b’ the people were creeping in and out of the city and behaving in a shamefaced way because of David’s attitude, and in the parallel Joab warned David that if he continued like he was doing they would creep away permanently, and then he would be worse off than he had ever been before. In ‘c’ the king could think of no one other than Absalom, and in the parallel Joab warned him that that was the impression that he was giving to his followers. Centrally in ‘d’ Joab made clear to David the impression that he had made on all who loved him that he cared more for his rebellious son than for them.
2.19.1 ‘And it was told Joab, “See, the king weeps and mourns for Absalom.” ’
Presumably it was one of David’s close personal servants who reported David’s mourning and weeping to Joab, because he knew that people were being negatively affected by it. He clearly felt that as his commander-in-chief Joab was the man to deal with the situation.
2.19.2 ‘And the victory that day was turned into mourning to all the people, for the people heard say that day, “The king grieves for his son.” ’
For David’s grieving had become common knowledge with the result that those who had naturally wanted to celebrate the great victory did not do so lest they upset the king. Instead they themselves began to feel one with his grief. It was adversely affecting the whole of the army who had fought so expertly for David.
2.19.3 ‘And the people entered the city by stealth that day, as people who are ashamed steal away when they flee in battle.’
This was so much so that they were creeping in and out of the city stealthily, not wanting to draw attention to themselves, in the way that they would have done had they themselves had to flee from the battle. They must have felt very discouraged.
2.19.4 ‘And the king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” ’
Meanwhile the king was oblivious of everything else as he mourned his son. He sat above the gate-house with his face covered, and he cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” without any thought of how those who had fought for him, and especially those who had been wounded in the battle to save him from Absalom, might be feeling.
We have already had cause to see from the way that David had prayed about the child born to Bathsheba how emotional David could be. But it is quite clear that his love for Absalom was exceptionally deep. (Had it not been so he would probably have been aware much earlier of the danger that Absalom posed for his family).
2.19.5-6 ‘And Joab came into the house to the king, and said, “You have this day shamed the faces of all your servants, who this day have saved your life, and the lives of your sons and of your daughters, and the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, in that you love those who hate you, and hate those who love you. For you have declared this day, that princes and servants are nought to you. For this day I perceive, that if Absalom had lived, and all we had died this day, then it had pleased you well.”
Loyal Joab rightly decided that it was time that he faced David up with what he was doing. So he went in to him and pointed out that all he was doing was covering with shame those who had so bravely fought for him. They had saved his life, and the lives of his sons and daughters who might well have perished in the reprisals as presenting threats to Absalom’s position. And he was failing to show his gratitude. It is actually doubtful whether the wives and concubines would have been executed, but they would certainly have been put in ward. Joab was, however trying to make the strongest case possible.
As a result of his continual grieving David was demonstrating his love for the son who had hated him, but it was at the cost of those who loved him. He was ignoring their contribution and treating them as though they did not matter. Indeed he was giving the impression that it would not have mattered to him how many of them had died as long as Absalom had lived. And this despite the fact that one of the things that had always endeared David to his men was his concern for their welfare.
This was not denying that he had a right to grieve over his son. It was bringing out the responsibilities of a king. Those who take leading positions are responsible to keep their emotions in check and to treat those who are loyal to them suitably, even when they themselves have suffered loss.
2.19.7 “Now therefore arise, go forth, and speak comfortably to your servants, for I swear by YHWH, if you do not go forth, there will not tarry a man with you this night, and that will be worse to you than all the evil that has befallen you from your youth until now.”
So now David was urged by Joab to get up from his condition of mourning and speak words of comfort to his servants. And he warned him that if he did not do so the men might well desert him and leave him to his own devices. The consequence was that things would then be worse for him than they had ever been during the days of his worst troubles with Saul, days which Joab also had good cause to remember.
2.19.8a ‘Then the king arose, and sat in the gate. And they told all the people, saying, “Behold, the king is sitting in the gate,” and all the people came before the king.’
Recognising the rightness and fairness of Joab’s diagnosis David arose and went to sit in the gate where the people passed by. And when the news spread around that he was there they all took advantage of it by passing through the gate so as to greet the king. It made them feel that things were back to normal again.
David Calls On Judah For The Restoration Of His Power Among The People (19.8b-15).
The rebellion over, discussion began to break out all over Israel about yielding allegiance to David and hoping for forgiveness. They recognised now that they had made a treacherous, foolish and ungrateful choice. David meanwhile was ready to respond to their desires, but he was cautious of acting unless Judah was also involved. It was after all they who had first rebelled, and it was they over whom he had been king for the longest period. Furthermore he probably recognised that anger over the removal of precedence from Hebron in favour of Jerusalem had been at least partly responsible for the rebellion. He did not therefore wish to exacerbate matters further, by allowing Israel to be the ones who welcomed him back alone. So he sent dependable messengers to negotiate with the elders of Judah in order to get matters settled.
Note that in ‘a’ Israel fled to their tents, while in the parallel David returned to the Jordan on his way to his ‘tent’. In ‘b’ David had fled from the land because of Absalom and in the parallel Judah now called on him to return. In ‘c’ Israel are arguing their way to bringing back the king, and in the parallel David asks why Judah are the last to bring back the king. Centrally in ‘d’ David contacts the High Priests, calling on them to ask the elders of Judah why they are the last to bring back the king when Israel have already chosen to do so.
2.19.8b ‘Now Israel had fled every man to his tent.’
The rebellious Israelites had all returned to their homes after their defeat by David’s forces, and the question now was what they should do next.
2.19.9-10 ‘And all the people were arguing throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “The king delivered us out of the hand of our enemies, and he saved us out of the hand of the Philistines, and now he is fled out of the land from Absalom. And Absalom, whom we anointed over us, is dead in battle. Now therefore why do you not speak a word about bringing the king back?”
As a result there was disputation and discussion taking place throughout Israel as to the next step. They were beginning to realise how foolish and ungrateful they had been, recognising only too late that it was because of David that they no longer feared the Philistines. And now as a result of their anointing Absalom as their king, and as a result of Absalom’s consequent rebellion, this saviour-king had fled from the land from Absalom. But now Absalom was dead and they were without a king, and all the king’s sons were with him in Mahanaim, while the Philistines were no doubt waiting across the border considering the position and wondering whether to act. Thus the people of Israel were beginning to point out to each other that they would be wise to call for the king to return to rule them, which according to verse 11 they accordingly did.
2.19.11 ‘And king David sent to Zadok and to Abiathar the priests, saying, “Speak to the elders of Judah, saying, ‘Why are you the last to bring the king back to his house? Seeing that the spoken word of all Israel is come to the king, to bring him to his house.’ ”
David, however, was well aware that in returning to rule over Israel alone (notice the clear distinction between Israel and Judah even at this stage) he would be cutting himself off from Judah. After all, they had been the first to approve of him as their king, and they had also been the first to approve of the rebellion. But he wanted a united Israel-Judah. Thus he sent the two High Priests, Zadok and Abiathar, to parley with the elders of Judah, and to call on them to invite the king back as well. By that means he hoped (unavailingly) to avoid friction between the two parts of the nation. He pointed out that Israel had spoken the word which had invited him back. What then about Judah?
2.19.12 “You are my brothers, you are my bone and my flesh, why then are you the last to bring back the king?”
Indeed he pointed out to them that they were his own kinsfolk. Why then were they slower to call on the king to return? (But he no doubt also understood the fears of reprisal that might be at the back of their minds. Most kings in David’s position would have taken a heavy revenge).
2.19.13-14a “And say you to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? God do so to me, and more also, if you be not captain of the host before me continually in the room of Joab.” And he bowed the heart of all the men of Judah, even as one man, so that they sent to the king, saying, “Return you, and all your servants.”
So David offered them a sop, which was also a sign of his genuine forgiveness. Not only did he want them to invite him back, but he promised that he would actually put their own commander-in-chief Amasa, who was his own blood relative, over the army of ‘all Israel’. Thus they could be sure that there would be no reprisals. He was trying his best to give them an undeserved sense of security. It was an act of true forgiveness.
If this appointment of Amasa appears a little surprising we must recognise that it is probable that having found out the whole story of what had occurred during the battle he now recognised that Joab had been directly responsible for the death of Absalom. Thus in some ways this may well have been intended as a kind of punishment. On the other hand it was a convenient appointment in the circumstances, for Judah would undoubtedly have been unhappy for the army of occupation (as they would have seen it) to be under Joab, so while it might seem to have been very unfair to Joab who had always been faithful to him, we must remember that we do not know what he promised Joab in return. He was in fact made commander of David’s bodyguard as we discover from 20.7.
David does certainly give the appearance of having constantly wrestled with his conscience about Joab, for while Joab had certainly been a loyal supporter of his from the earliest days, and was also David’s nephew (or half-nephew), there was no question about the fact that he had the bad habit of ‘doing his own thing’ in the face of what he knew that David wanted, for example in the killing of Abner (3.26-27). Furthermore we must remember that Joab had also been responsible for the return of Absalom, and that through trickery (14.1-21). Such actions were evidence of a hardness and ambition in Joab that David deplored (3.39). It may also be that Joab’s co-operation with him in disposing of Uriah (11.14-21) was something that weighed on his conscience, even though it had been in response to his own request (a conscience stricken man is not always logical). He appears to have overlooked the fact that it was Joab who had only just recently brought him to his senses about his grief over Absalom (verses 5-7), although we must not judge too quickly for we do not know what alternative position he offered Joab on top of his being commander of David’s bodyguard. Certainly the appointment of Amasa as commander-in-chief made a lot of political sense in the circumstance. It would make the rebels feel a lot more comfortable, and more willing to welcome David back.
2.19.14b ‘So the king returned, and came to the Jordan.’
Having sent off his messengers to Judah, and having been invited back by Israel, the king returned from Mahanaim to the east side of the River Jordan and awaited events. He did not want anyone to feel that he was about to launch an invasion.
Judah Respond In A Positive Fashion By Coming To Gilgal In Order To Bring The King Ceremoniously Over The Jordan, And With Them Comes Shimei, Along With A Contingent Of Benjaminites, Seeking Forgiveness, And Ziba With His Fifteen Lusty Sons And His Twenty Servants, No Doubt Hoping To Further Ingratiate Himself With The King Before The Full Truth Was Known (19.15-23).
Judah responded promptly to David’s overtures and as a result came to Gilgal to meet the king. This promptness would prove to be very unfortunate for it would later be resented by the Israelites who suddenly found themselves pre-empted because they themselves had not moved quickly enough. While in the short term Judah’s response probably pleased David, it would bring out just how unhappy many in Israel were. We cannot thus hide from the fact that as a result of the complacent state that David had fallen into, he had not ruled his own people well. And even in this case he clearly failed to take into account what Israel’s attitude might be towards his behaviour. It is a reminder to all Christian leaders that they must ensure that they keep in touch with all parts of their flock, not just with their ‘favourites’.
Along with the men of Judah also came Shimei, the man who had cursed David when he was fleeing from Jerusalem (16.5-13). Now he wanted to make his peace with David, and had brought along a whole unit of Benjaminites in order to swear fealty to David. It therefore behoved David to forgive him. To do otherwise would have been to offend the Benjaminites at a time when he could least afford it. Ziba also came along with his fifteen sons and twenty servants, almost a military unit in themselves. He too was seeking to maintain David’s goodwill, no doubt being aware that Mephibosheth would shortly be accusing him of disloyalty.
As is evident from the chiasmus of the section (see above) this coming of Shimei, followed by David’s meeting with Mephibosheth and his dealings with the ancient Barzilai to welcome his return, is in deliberate parallel (and in reverse order) to his meetings with the ancient Hushai, Ziba and Shimei when he was fleeing Jerusalem previously (15.30-16.14) The latter had indicated to David God’s complete (threefold) concern for him as he fled, the former would now demonstrate the threefold completeness of his welcome and the confirmation of God’s presence with him.
Note that in ‘a’ Shimei comes to meet the king along with the people of Judah, and in the parallel David swears that Shimei will not be executed. In ‘b’ David is conducted over Jordan as the king and in the parallel he draws attention to the restoration of his kingship over Israel. In ‘c’ Shimei pleads for forgiveness for his sin in cursing David, and in the parallel Abishai calls for his execution for cursing YHWH’s anointed. Centrally in ‘d’ we have Shimei’s humble confession of his sin.
2.19.15 ‘And Judah came to Gilgal, to go to meet the king, to bring the king over the Jordan.’
In response to David’s overtures the men of Judah now came to Gilgal, on the west side of the Jordan rift valley, in order to meet the king and welcome him back. Gilgal had been the first stopping place when Joshua had originally come over the Jordan (Joshua 5.9-10), and it had probably at some stage been the site of the Tabernacle in the time of Saul (13.7-15). It would therefore be seen as a sacred site.
2.19.16 ‘And Shimei the son of Gera, the Benjamite, who was of Bahurim, made haste and came down with the men of Judah to meet king David.’
And along with the men of Judah came Shimei, the Benjaminite and Saulide, who at Bahurim had cursed David when he was fleeing from Absalom (16.5-13). He was now naturally fearful of what the king might do to him and had therefore come to throw himself on the king’s mercy. The alternative would have been for him to flee the country, but he was clearly a wealthy and influential man, and that was therefore the last thing that he would have wanted to have to do.
2.19.17 ‘And there were a thousand men of Benjamin with him, and Ziba the servant of the house of Saul, and his fifteen sons and his twenty servants with him, and they went through the Jordan in the presence of the king.’
Shimei’s power and influence comes out in that he had brought with him a whole military unit of Benjaminites. We have here in this separate action by the Benjaminites a sign of the distinction that there already was between Israel (the ten tribes) and Benjamin, (who would later side with Judah - 1 Kings 13.21). The coming of this military unit would, however, be a welcome assurance to David of the genuine submission of the tribe of Benjamin, and it was due to Shimei.
Also with Shimei came Ziba and his fifteen sons and twenty servants. He had by now possibly taken over control of the large lands that David had allotted to him (16.4), and would thus also be an influential figure, to say nothing of having his own small military unit of sons and servants. The support of all these people would have been welcome to David at this time, and would be a demonstration to him that God was with him.
‘And they went through the Jordan in the presence of the king.’ This presumably signifies that they crossed the Jordan by means of a ford in order to accompany David over the Jordan in ceremonial fashion. They were putting on a great show in order to obtain his favour.
2.19.18 ‘And there went over a ferry-boat to bring over the king’s household, and to do what he thought good. And Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king, when he was come over the Jordan.’
A large ferry-boat was also sent over in order to bring back the king’s household along with all their possessions. It was put wholly at the king’s disposal and left open to the king to use as he wished. And as soon as David had landed, Shimei, having accompanied the ferry by means of the ford, flung himself on his face before him and pleaded for mercy. He would know that his life hung by a hairsbreadth.
Alternately we could translate “when he (David) was about to cross over the Jordan,” which would signify that Shimei did this before David had entered the ferry.
2.19.19 ‘And he said to the king, “Do not let my lord impute iniquity to me, nor do you remember what your servant did perversely the day that my lord the king went out of Jerusalem, that the king should take it to his heart.’
Having humbled himself Shimei sought David’s forgiveness for cursing him on that previous occasion when he had been fleeing from Jerusalem. He expressed his hope that he had not taken it to heart. It was a desperate attempt on his part to remedy the disastrous position that he had landed himself in, as he must have realised.
2.19.20 “For your servant knows that I have sinned. Therefore, see, I am come this day the first of all the house of Joseph to go down to meet my lord the king.”
He humbly declared that he was aware of how deeply he had sinned, and that in order to indicate his repentance he had wanted to be the first of all the house of Joseph (i.e. Israel in contrast with Judah) to come down to meet the king. All it did prove, of course, was that he was trying everything that he knew in order to redeem the situation that he had brought on himself. His predicament is a reminder to us that we should always think carefully before we speak ill of someone, remembering among other things that it might one day rebound on us.
Reference to ‘the house of Joseph’ (compare Joshua 16.1, 4; 17.14; 1 Kings 11.28) indicated the whole of Israel, the two largest tribes standing for the whole (later Israel would regularly be called ‘Ephraim’ on the same grounds). It meant Israel as headed up by Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s sons).
2.19.21 ‘But Abishai the son of Zeruiah answered and said, “Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed YHWH’s anointed?” ’
At this stage Abishei, the son of David’s sister Zeruiah, intervened. He called for Shimei to be executed because he had cursed ‘YHWH’s Anointed’. He had asked a similar thing at the actual time of the curse (16.9), and David had then explained why he had not intended to do it. Possibly Abishai had in mind what David had said on a previous occasion, ‘who can stretch forth his hand against YHWH’s Anointed and be guiltless?’ (1 Samuel 26.9). But David was not now about to change his mind about Shimei. He would have known that it could indeed have rebounded on him with the remaining Benjaminites. Shimei had undoubtedly been very shrewd.
2.19.22 ‘And David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be adversaries to me? Shall there any man be put to death this day in Israel? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” ’
Instead of heeding Abishai David rebuked him for opposing him on a day when mercy was called for, pointing out how unsimilar Abishai and Joab were to him in that to him this was not a day for executions and revenge, because it was the day when his kingship over all Israel had been confirmed by YHWH. God had shown mercy to him, and therefore he considered that he should imitate that mercy. We can compare Saul’s similar reaction in 1 Samuel 11.13.
2.19.23 ‘And the king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” And the king swore to him.’
In consequence the king assured Shimei on oath that he would not die for what he had done. This was not a day for executions but for rejoicing. (He would later have cause to change his mind, probably because of subsequent attempts by Shimei to use his influence in order to undermine his kingship, but because of his oath he was then unable to do anything about it without any definite proof. He would, however, later advise Solomon that he should try to find some just reason to get rid of him, presumably because he saw him as representing a constant danger to the kingdom - 1 Kings 2.8-9).
David Discovers The Truth About Mephibosheth (19.24-30).
When we remember how shocked David must have been after his betrayal by his own beloved son we can understand why he now found it difficult to trust anyone who might do him hurt and undermine his position. And he was aware that any descendant of Saul was certainly in a position to do that. Thus when he met up with Mephibosheth, who had not accompanied him on his flight, and who had been charged by Ziba as having designs on the throne, we can appreciate why he was wary. On the one hand Mephibosheth’s excuse, when he heard it, appeared to be genuine, but on the other Ziba’s arrival with provisions had gladdened his heart at a time when he needed it, and he had furthermore also given him wholehearted support on his return. Who then was telling the truth? The writer clearly plumps for Mephibosheth, but we can see why it was difficult for David to decide. So he took what appeared to be the politically wise course, divide and rule. In other words he divided up the large inheritance of Saul so that neither of the two ended up by being too powerful. That way they could both be more easily contained, and could yet still be content. And as Mephibosheth presumably continued to live at court and eat at the king’s table it really made little difference to him personally how much land he had.
In ‘a’ Mephibosheth went to meet the king and greeted him, and in the parallel he rejoices that he has come home in peace. In ‘b’ Mephibosheth goes into detail about his affairs, and in the parallel David calls on him not to speak further about his affairs. Centrally in ‘c’ Mephibosheth expresses his perpetual gratitude towards the king for his goodness to him and his house.
2.19.24 ‘And Mephibosheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king, and he had neither dressed his feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came home in peace.’
Mephibosheth, heir of the house of Saul, also ‘came down’ to meet David. Since the day that David had departed from Jerusalem he had neither washed and dressed his feet, trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes. This had been in order to indicate deep mourning (compare Ezekiel 24.17), and would have rendered him ritually unclean (Exodus 19.10, 14). It was a brave attitude to have taken up, for had Absalom discovered what he was about he might well have been executed. It revealed therefore that his distress was genuine.
‘Until the day he came home in peace.’ We are probably to understand from this that once he had learned that David had arrived back in peace he did all that was necessary in order to prepare himself for meeting the king. He would not come before the king in his unkempt condition.
Some, however, consider that he did come down to the Jordan in that condition in order that David might be aware of his deep distress. They then translate verse 25 as ‘when Jerusalem (i.e. the people of Jerusalem) came to meet the king’.
2.19.25 ‘And it came about, when he came to Jerusalem (or ‘when Jerusalem came’) to meet the king, that the king said to him, “Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” ’
On Mephibosheth’s arrival before the king, David questioned him as to why he had not accompanied him on his flight. Before passing judgment on him he wanted his testimony from his own mouth.
Depending on whether we translate as ‘when he came to Jerusalem to meet the king’ (compare 10.14), or as ‘when Jerusalem (i.e. the people of Jerusalem) came to meet the king’ (both are possible), will depend whether we see Mephibosheth as meeting David at the Jordan or in Jerusalem. Ziba may well have sought to prevent him from coming to the Jordan, and with his lameness he was very much dependent of others. On the other hand the ‘came down’ of verse 24 might be seen as suggesting the descent to the Jordan. We do not, of course, know where Mephibosheth was living at this time. In his state of mourning he would not have wanted to be too near Absalom, and he may well not have wanted to depend on Ziba who had betrayed him. Thus he may have taken shelter with trustworthy friends on his own lands.
2.19.26 ‘And he answered, “My lord, O king, my servant deceived me, for your servant said, ‘I will saddle me an ass, that I may ride on it and go with the king,’ because your servant is lame.” ’
Mephibosheth then explained that he had in fact wanted to accompany the king, but that Ziba had deceived him. He had seemingly ordered him to saddle his ass for him to ride on, because being lame in both feet he could not walk. But it was apparent that Ziba had not only failed to do so but had also left without him, leaving him helpless to do anything. How Ziba had treated him once he had taken possession of the property (if Ziba did so immediately), we are not told. He had to some extent been at Ziba’s mercy, although he no doubt had his own servants who would have looked after his welfare (Ziba, however, may even have made that difficult). Knowing that Ziba had betrayed him he may well in fact have taken shelter with trustworthy friends. That may indeed have been part of the reason for Mephibosheth’s more physical expressions of regret.
On the other hand Ziba may have continued to act as his steward. He would not have wanted to make any great show of taking over the property while Absalom was still king, for it would have branded him as a traitor, and he would anyway probably have been unable to prove to anyone that David had given him the Saulide lands. Thus we cannot be sure what precisely the situation was. The writer simply does not tell us. The likelihood must be that he was ‘lying low’ and awaiting David’s return, while ensuring that the lands were maintained. Then he could claim his ‘rights’.
2.19.27 “And he has slandered your servant to my lord the king, but my lord the king is as an angel of God. Do therefore what is good in your eyes.”
Mephibosheth then explained that Ziba had simply been telling lies about him. He assured the king, however, that he was open for the king to do what he liked with him, for he knew that he was ‘as an angel of God’, knowing everything (compare 14.17).
2.19.28 “For all my father’s house were but dead men before my lord the king, yet you set your servant among those who ate at your own table. What right therefore have I yet that I should cry any more to the king?”
He humbly acknowledged that David had previously treated him better than he deserved (in terms of the thinking of those days) for as the direct heir of Saul he could only have expected to be executed. Instead David had not only spared him, but had given him a place at the king’s table as one of the honoured in the land. So, he asked, what right then had he to plead for any further favours?
2.19.29 ‘And the king said to him, “Why do you speak any more of your affairs? I say, You and Ziba divide the land.” ’
David’s reply suggested that he accepted Mephibosheth’s version of events. “Why do you speak any more of your affairs?” probably meant, ‘you have said enough, I believe you.’ (Some, however, see it as a curt refusal to listen to any more because David felt guilty). But he obviously found himself in a dilemma. Ziba had unquestionably risked his own life by supporting David at a difficult time (for had Absalom found out what he had done he would have been executed), and he had also been one of the first to greet David’s return, giving him the full support of his household. Furthermore David was very much aware that he himself had given his word, allotting the lands of Saul to him. A king’s word could not easily be broken. On the other hand he now recognised that he had been unfair to Mephibosheth who appeared to be innocent, and that he had originally promised Saul’s lands to Mephibosheth. So he took the course of appeasement. His decision was that they would share the lands. Neither would then dare to express disagreement lest they lose what they had gained. And both would still be well provided for, for Saul’s lands must have been extensive. David’s hope appears to have been to keep them both ‘on side’ and reasonably satisfied.
2.19.30 ‘And Mephibosheth said to the king, “Yes, let him take all, forasmuch as my lord the king is come in peace to his own house.” ’
Mephibosheth’s reply was in fact a polite acceptance of the king’s decision, made in true oriental fashion. We can compare how Ephron the Hittite had replied to Abraham ‘I will give you the land, -- the land is worth 400 shekels of silver, what is that between me and you?’, when what he really meant was, ‘400 hundred shekels of silver is the price that I want for the land’ (Genesis 23.11, 15). What Mephibosheth was really saying was, ‘I accept your decision, for what do the lands mean in comparison with the return of the king in peace to his own palace?’
Mephibosheth certainly comes best out of the incident, but it is probably unfair to criticise David too much. He had after all been caught in a dilemma through no fault of his own, and was now trying to be fair to all. We may feel that he should have seen through Ziba’s deception from the start, but we need to remember that it happened at a time when he was still reeling from the treachery of his own son. At such times common sense is often lacking.
Barzillai, Who Had Provisioned David In Mahanaim, Is Rewarded By His Son Becoming A Member Of David’s Court (19.31-40).
Accompanying David in order to escort him over the River Jordan was Barzillai the Gileadite, a wealthy Transjordanian Israelite who had loyally supported David and had played a large part in provisioning him and his men at Mahanaim (17.27-28), and would almost certainly have provided a number of warriors. Now he had the privilege of escorting David safely back across the Jordan. David out of gratitude then asked him to come and take up his place at court, but Barzillai excused himself on the grounds of age and requested that David would rather take Chimham. Most commentators believe that Chimham was Barzillai’s son on the basis of 1 Kings 2.7. David therefore agreed to his suggestion and promised that he would take Chimham to court and deal with him in a way that was pleasing to Barzillai.
Note that in ‘a’ Barzillai accompanied David over the Jordan, while in the parallel David ‘went over to Gilgal’, along with Chimham, Barzillai’s son. In ‘b’ we are told what David owed to Barzillai, and in the parallel we are told how he showed his gratitude to him. In ‘c’ he invited to Barzillai to take up a place in court, and in the parallel he promises that he will do it for his son instead. In ‘d’ Barzillai explains that he is an old man, and in the parallel he asks that he may be allowed to see out his days in his own city. Centrally in ‘e’ Barzillai humbly disclaims that he has done anything special.
2.19.31 ‘And Barzillai the Gileadite came down from Rogelim, and he went over the Jordan with the king, to conduct him over the Jordan.’
Barzillai the Gileadite, who lived at Rogelim in Gilead and had helped to provision David and his household and men while they were at Mahanaim, came down from his home to help escort David over the River Jordan. It was intended that the crossing should be a time of great ceremonial and celebration.
2.19.32 ‘Now Barzillai was a very old man, even fourscore years old, and he had provided the king with sustenance while he lay at Mahanaim, for he was a very great man.’
Barzillai was both a very great and wealthy man, and very old, for he was eighty years old, and he had helped to sustain David and his household, and his army.
2.19.33 ‘And the king said to Barzillai, “Come you over with me, and I will sustain you with me in Jerusalem.” ’
David thus wanted to reward Barzillai for his loyalty by taking him with him to Jerusalem and letting him enjoy luxurious sustenance at court as an honoured courtier. It was not strictly the food that was in question, however, for Barzillai no doubt lived as luxuriously at home. The point was rather that he might enjoy the honour of being at court.
2.19.34-35 ‘And Barzillai said to the king, “How many are the days of the years of my life, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am this day fourscore years old. Can I discern between good and bad? Can your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be yet a burden to my lord the king?”
In reply Barzillai pointed out that at his advanced age he would not be able to enjoy the luxuries at court. He admitted that his taste buds were no longer active, and that his deafness would prevent him from enjoying music. Thus he would gain little benefit from it. All he would do was be a burden on the king. He was in fact tactfully laying the foundation for turning down the king’s offer without causing offence, recognising how easily such an act could count against him. In those days such an invitation from the king was not seen as being optional. Unless the grounds were extremely good the refusal of it would normally be seen as an insult, or even as an indication of possible rebellion. But he was hoping that his great age would make it clear that this was not the case with him.
2.19.36 “Your servant would but just go over the Jordan with the king, and why should the king recompense it to me with such a reward?”
He then pointed out how little he was doing to deserve such a reward. All he was doing was going over the River Jordan with the king as part of the ceremonies welcoming him back as king. That hardly justified such a great reward. He modestly ignored the huge contribution that he had made to the king’s welfare. As a loyal subject he felt that it had been his privilege to do it. We are reminded of Jesus’ words about the loyal servant who declared, ‘I have only done what it was my duty to do’ (Luke 17.10).
2.19.37 “Let your servant, I pray you, turn back again, that I may die in my own city, by the grave of my father and my mother. But see, your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do to him what shall seem good to you.”
In view of all this Barzillai therefore requested that he might rather return home in order that he might die in his own city, where his father and mother were buried. Note the contrast with the death of Ahithophel. He too died in his own city, but by his own hand and in despair (17.23). Such was the end of the one who opposed YHWH’s Anointed in contrast with the one expected by the one who was loyal to YHWH’s Anointed.
So Barzillai pleaded, ‘Let the king, therefore, be pleased rather to take his son Chimham to court, and treat him as he saw best’. While the account nowhere describes Chimham as his son it is deducible from 1 Kings 2.7 where Solomon was called on to allow the sons of Barzillai to eat at the king’s table, presumably in continuation of the privilege being bestowed at this point. The other son or sons presumably entered David’s court when they came of age, as the sons of a loyal father. David never forgot those who had demonstrated their loyalty to him.
2.19.38 ‘And the king answered, “Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do to him what will seem good to you, and whatever you shall require of me, that will I do for you.”
David recognised the good sense of what Barzillai was saying and agreed that instead of Barzillai himself he would take his son Chimham, and do for him what he had intended to do for Barzillai himself. What is more, he would do anything further that Barzillai requested of him, whether for his sons or for himself.
Note how David had this custom of desiring to return like for like. Thus here in reply to Barzillai’s ‘do to him what seems good to you’ he replied ‘I will do to him what seems good to YOU’. Compare also verses 32-33 where his offer of sustenance to Barzillai (by which he meant an honoured place in court) was in return for the sustenance that he had himself had received from Barzillai.
2.19.39 ‘And all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over, and the king kissed Barzillai, and blessed him, and he returned to his own place.’
The ceremony of the king’s crossing of the Jordan to receive back the kingship was then observed, and all the people who were with the king went over the Jordan, most no doubt by fording it, although the most important would be with David on the royal ferry-boat. And once they had reached the other side David bestowed on Barzillai a royal kiss, presumably on the cheek or forehead, and then gave him his blessing as a priest after the order of Melchizedek. And with that Barzillai returned to his own home well satisfied.
2.19.40 ‘So the king went over to Gilgal, and Chimham went over with him, and all the people of Judah brought the king over, and also a portion of the people of Israel.’
Meanwhile the king went over to Gilgal, which was where the men of Judah had gathered in order to receive David back as king (19.15), and Chimham went over with him as Barzillai had requested. Also involved in the ceremonial of the crossing were the men of Judah, and a portion of the men of Israel. These included the Benjaminites, and presumably any Israelites who had come together in order to assist David in his battles against Absalom. But it meant that the ‘mainland’ Israelites were not there in order to participate, which would shortly be the cause of more trouble.
Israel React Against What They See As The Favouritism Shown To Judah, and Judah’s Unwise Reply Results In A Further Rebellion (19.41-20.2).
The failure of David to treat Judah and Israel equally exacerbated the problems within his kingdom, and the consequence was that when the elders of Judah replied to the elders of Israel with harsh words, it resulted in open rebellion. But we cannot hide from the fact that this revealed the underlying currents that were at work in a ‘nation’ which had on the surface appeared to be so united. It revealed that it had simply been held together by the fear of the surrounding nations and its need for a strong king, but that once those nations had been subdued and had become vassals, and the strong king had become complacent and somewhat negligent, its unity had come under strain. It would have constantly required great wisdom and understanding to hold it together, and that was something that David in his backslidden had not displayed.
In order to understand something of this strain we must look back at history. The previous circumstances of history had unquestionably resulted in a definite division between ‘Judah’ to the south and ‘northern’ Israel, partly because Judah and Ephraim as the two largest and most powerful tribes were fierce rivals, partly as a result of geographical division, and partly as a result of the events of history. This situation had built up initially from the earliest days of the conquest when, after coming over the Jordan, Judah had gone southwards, absorbing much of Simeon within it (Judges 1.3-21; compare Joshua 14.20-62; 19.1-9), and had become lords of the south, while the remaining tribes had settled in the central highlands and the north, with the two major tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh holding large swathes of the central ground and influencing all the smaller tribes to the north. Dan had meanwhile been fragmented by Philistine pressure, and almost obliterated as far as their allotted land was concerned, resulting in a large proportion of the Danites moving northwards to Laish (Judges 18), and leaving the remainder crushed by the Philistines, while little Benjamin, still gradually recovering from its near obliteration (Judges 20-21), was simply caught in the middle. The situation had also become further complicated in that from all appearances a large number of Simeonites who had not wanted to become absorbed by Judah, and had become unhappy with Judah’s influence and domination over them, had migrated northwards, thus becoming an identifiable part of the ‘ten tribes’ (19.43; 1 Kings 11.31-32; 1 Chronicles 4.41-43; 12.24-25), although with some inevitably remaining in the south (2 Chronicles 15.9).
The inevitable consequence of all this was that a distinct separation into two parts had developed between the northern tribes under the name of Israel, and the southern part that was identified as ‘Judah’, but which included smaller tribal groups, such as the Kenites, within it (Judges 1.16; compare 1 Samuel 27.10). This separation had no doubt been further exacerbated by the fact that Judah were for a long period wholly occupied with the task of defending themselves against the Philistines (as well as against periodic invaders from the south like the Amalekites) with the result that later they could not contribute to the call to arms which was sent out when some northern tribes were in trouble (see for example the tribes included in the defeat of Moab in Judges 3.27, and then in the song of Deborah in Judges 5.14-23, and in all that followed). It had not, of course, been true to begin with because it was Judah under Othniel who had led the tribes in the defeat of Cushan-Rishathaim, king of Aram Naharaim (Mesoptamia) in Judges 3.8-10, and they were also involved in the early dispute that decimated the tribe of Benjamin (Juges 20-21). But it was undoubtedly so later. So while the ‘twelve tribes’ certainly remained loosely bound by the covenant treaty, and acknowledged that they were ‘brothers’, there had grown up an undoubted north-south divide, a division which was made even worse when David became king over Judah as a separate kingdom, with the northern and Transjordanian tribes choosing Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul as their king, a point at which they had become two nations. The consequence was that once they became united under David after the death of Ish-bosheth in order to counter the menace of the widely expanding Philistine empire, it was very much as a nation divided up into two parts by custom and tradition, but meanwhile acting together in partnership.
That they still felt themselves as united by an invisible bond (the covenant of YHWH) comes out in the time that it would take before they finally reluctantly separated, (they sought to compromise to the last). But as hot-headed people living in a hot climate and with strong feelings about their ‘rights’ they were always likely to come to blows. It would have required a deeper tact than David showed to hold them together when Judah, instead of being judicious, reacted to Israel’s complaint of favouritism with harsh words.
Note that in ‘a’ there was a dispute between Israel and Judah, while in the parallel this resulted in Israel and Judah rallying under two leaders. In ‘b’ we have the grounds of Israel’s complaint, and in the parallel the consequence of Judah’s reply to that complaint. Centrally in ‘c’ it is emphasised that Judah’s reply had been totally unconciliatory, indeed brutal.
2.19.41 ‘And, behold, all the men of Israel came to the king, and said to the king, “Why have our brothers the men of Judah stolen you away, and brought the king, and his household, over the Jordan, and all David’s men with him?” ’
David having been ceremonially transported over the Jordan and brought to Gilgal, with Israel only partly involved in the celebrations, the part of Israel not so involved reacted strongly. They felt that the honour of their tribes had been slighted in that while they had been the first to invite David back they had been snubbed as regards his actual return by not being invited to participate in the ceremonial return. In their eyes all the honour had gone to Judah who had been the last to respond to David. Thus they came to the king in a solemn assembly of the tribes, probably held at Gilgal, in order for the matter to be looked into and for their wrong to be righted. At this stage they appear to have been open to being reconciled. It was thus a time for conciliation and cool heads.
Given tribal pride Israel undoubtedly had a cause of grievance. For while we can certainly understand why David wanted to be sure that Judah, who had been the original cause of the rebellion, had been brought on side, there is no doubt that he had not sufficiently taken into account the sensitivities and feelings of Israel. He had failed to recognise the strong tribal rivalry that existed between the two sides which, once he had become king of the joint nations, had initially been hidden by the parlous situation in which they were, threatened on every side. It only manifested itself, as such things will, once the whole country had become secure and they began to have time to think about their own rights and privileges. And the tribal system meant that the nation, divided into tribes which were ruled by their own elders, was, in comparison with other nations, almost ‘democratic’, as it operated through its appointed elders. But as a result of continual mutual assistance the northern tribes on the West of the Jordan had formed a united bond which did not take in Judah. Thus it was not wise for their sensitivities to be ignored. They had still not become reconciled to the idea that the king was sovereign in all final decisions and could override the tribal leaders. In their eyes that was not the way in which their traditions presented kingship. They rather saw the king as being the servant of YHWH, and they believed that YHWH always listened to His people (Deuteronomy 17.17-20).
It is in fact interesting that this viewpoint was tacitly supported by this coming together of ‘the assembly of Israel’, for the whole point of the assembly was in order to iron out difficulties between themselves and Judah, and be fair to all parties. It was here then that they had brought their grievance, ostensibly to David, but in fact to the whole assembly. It is noteworthy that David appears to have kept out of the argument.
2.19.42 ‘And all the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is near of kin to us. Why then are you angry over this matter? Have we eaten at all at the king’s cost? Or has he given us any gift?”’
Initially Judah’s response in the assembly was fairly tactful. They pointed out that while it was true that they had been prominent in the crossing of the river celebration (along with Benjamin and the Gileadites), it was because the king was near kin to them. And they stressed that they had not gained any material benefit from what had happened. They were unable therefore to understand why Israel were so concerned and angry. Indeed it appeared strange to them because in their view it had been a family affair and they had gained nothing out of it. Thus as far as they saw it, Israel had nothing to grumble about. In which case what was it that was eating at their hearts? (They did not stop and think how they would have felt if Judah had been left out of the celebrations, nor considered the fact that Israel had in fact been proud of its king, and had seen him as partly ‘theirs’).
2.19.43a ‘And the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, and said, “We have ten parts in the king, and we have also more right in David than you, why then did you despise us, that our advice should not be first had in bringing back our king?”
The bristling men of Israel soon told them. They were larger and more numerous than Judah and therefore considered that they had greater rights in the king who, in their view, ruled equally over the twelve tribes. They thus saw him as ten twelfths belonging to them. And furthermore they pointed out that they had been the first to invite David back as their king. Thus their not having been called to take part in the ceremonial of crossing the Jordan, or even be consulted about it, had been an almost unforgivable insult (even though at this stage they were probably open to being pacified). They considered that they should have been consulted about the crossing and that it should have awaited their coming so that they could play a full part in it.
We note here Israel’s view that they had ‘ten parts’ in the king. They thus saw themselves as representing ten tribes, as would become even more clear when the final split occurred (1 Kings 11.31). This was as much traditional as actual, for there had undoubtedly been considerable variations in the identity and make-up of the occupants of different parts of the land, and the areas contained many of other nationalities with whom they had inter-married and many of whom would have been adopted into the covenant and into the tribes. Furthermore there had undoubtedly been movements of sub-tribes (compare the movements of parts of Simeon and Dan mentioned earlier), as well as movements of individuals, due to various internal and external pressures, while many from all of these tribes would actually have moved to live in and around Jerusalem, both in order to be near the court and because it had become the centre of their worship of YHWH where the Ark of YHWH was to be found.
We should note here, for example, that Benjamin was considered as one of the ‘ten’, for Bishri, who led the revolt of the ten, was a Benjaminite. In 1 Kings 12.21, however, Benjamin was one of the ‘two’. This emphasises the fluidity of the situation.
2.19.43b ‘And the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel.’
Sadly the men of Judah did not consider what was said and reply with conciliatory words. They were fiercely proud of their relationship with David. So instead of answering tactfully they returned fierce and contemptuous answers which simply riled the men of Israel, and resulted in their leaving the assembly in fury. (The histories of the church and of other nations are full of similar examples. How important it is for Christians to seek to see all viewpoints which arise among themselves, and then to be conciliatory, and to treat one another with fairness and with love, only demanding adherence to what are the most basic and central truths. Thereby much division could have been, and would be, avoided).
2.20.1 ‘And there happened to be there a base fellow, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite, and he blew the ram’s horn, and said, “We have no portion in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse. Every man to his tents, O Israel.” ’
The final consequence of the bitter arguments that had taken place in the assembly was that the men of Israel eventually walked away from the assembly in an aggrieved state, with the result that when a ‘base fellow’ named Bichri, who was a Benjaminite, blew the ram’s horn to summon the northern tribes to desert David and return home in order to prepare to exert their independence, there was an immediate response. If David wanted Judah then he could have them, and Judah could have him. In their view he had demonstrated by what had happened that he did not see Israel as having a part in him. Well, all right, if that was so Israel was done with him. (That is, a part of Israel. Certainly not the tribes in Transjordan). Judah had thus not done David any favours by their arrogant behaviour, and he himself seems to have been unconscious of what was happening, no doubt assuming that it would all blow over. Indeed, what follows appears to have caught him by surprise. Bichri’s call to Israel unfortunately turned out to be only too successful, at least as far as the going home was concerned. Once again the hot-heads had won, as they often do when passions are roused and people do not stop to think.
2.20.2 ‘So all the men of Israel went up from following David, and followed Sheba the son of Bichri; but the men of Judah clung firmly to their king, from the Jordan even to Jerusalem.’
The result was that the men of Israel, so recently returned to David, seceded from the kingdom and ceased to follow him. Previously it had been the men of Judah who had been the source of rebellion. Now it was Israel. But it was certainly an indication of how little united the kingdom really was. On the other hand, in contrast to their previous attitude, the previously rebellious men of Judah stood firmly by their king and accompanied him to Jerusalem.
We must actually differentiate between the passive resistance of a large part of the northern tribes, and the active resistance aroused by Bichri in certain parts of the tribal lands. The former had responded to his call to go home, seeing themselves as no longer responsible to David. The latter actually took up arms with a view to armed secession.
On His Arrival In Jerusalem From Gilgal David Deals With The Problem Of The Concubine Wives With Whom Absalom Had Had Sexual Relations (20.3).
Meanwhile, while much of this was going on, David had moved on to Jerusalem, and once there he had to decide what to do about the concubine wives with whom Absalom had publicly had sexual relations. It was in fact a tricky problem because technically the concubines were now Absalom’s former wives. Thus for David to have had further relations with them would probably have been thought of as having sex within the forbidden degrees (something which, of course, Absalom had done - Leviticus 20.11), even though strictly speaking a father lying with his son’s wife was not included in the list. It was certainly not something which David felt like risking just because of a few concubines.
This event is included here because it was David’s final act of removing all trace of Absalom’s rebellion from Jerusalem, for these concubines had unwittingly become an important symbol of Absalom’s rule. They were, however, also dynamite, for as the former king’s widows they could not be available for remarriage. This was why, although they were well treated and looked after, they had to be kept under careful guard. It was recognised that anyone who married one of these concubine widows would be able, should they so wish, to claim direct connection with the throne.
Not that in ‘a’ David ‘put them in ward’, and in the parallel he shut them up to the day of their deaths. Centrally he provided them with ample sustenance.
20.3a ‘And David came to his house at Jerusalem, and the king took the ten women, his concubines, whom he had left to keep the house, and put them in ward.’
When David arrived back in his palace in Jerusalem, which he had left in the care of ten of his concubines, he put the ten in safe and sheltered accommodation. Due to what his son had done he could no longer see them as available to him because they had become his son’s wives, and therefore untouchable by him. But he nevertheless treated them with due honour. However, in view of their status they had also to be closely watched and guarded. Marrying someone who had been so closely connected with both the king, and then the rival king, could have given people ideas, and that could not be allowed (compare 1 Kings 2.22).
20.3b ‘And he provided them with sustenance, but did not go into them.’
In that sheltered accommodation he provided them with ample food and drink, and no doubt forms of entertainment, but abstained from having sexual relations with them because they were now his son’s widows, something which was almost certain to have put them in the eyes of many people within what would have been seen as the forbidden degrees (it was forbidden for a son to have sexual relations with his father’s wives, and probably the reverse therefore held true). It was not a matter of being unkind to them, but of political necessity.
20.3c ‘So they were shut up to the day of their death, living in widowhood.’
Thus as royal widows they were provided with all the comforts under the king’s protection, while at the same time being kept under close guard. This does not necessarily signify that they were not allowed out, veiled and suitably guarded. It only indicated that they had to be constantly watched. The necessity for this arose because, as we have already seen, to have allowed anyone else to have sexual relations with them could have endangered the throne and complicated the succession.
We must not necessarily feel that they had been hard done by. They had simply been unfortunate. And yet we must remember that they would have had every luxury, would been provided with amusements, and would probably have had as much freedom as most highbred women of the day. All that they had really lost was a place in the official harem, and an occasional night with David, and even that would not have been guaranteed, even if Absalom had not ‘defiled’ them. Indeed many probably envied them greatly. Their great loss would be in the fact that they could no longer have children.
The Failure And Death Of Amasa (20.4-10a).
Amasa, David’s close relative and new commander-in-chief, was now called on by David to gather together the men of Judah ‘within three days’ so as to deal rapidly with the threat being caused by Sheba, so that they would be able to act before he could become a real danger. Amasa was, however, clearly either inefficient or careless for he failed to achieve David’s target, or to report back at the proper time, possibly partly because men were reluctant to follow the general who led them to defeat when fighting for Absalom, but also partly because he did not treat his position seriously enough. There is no doubt that he unquestionably and completely failed in his duty. The result was that David then turned to the faithful Abishai, who had previously led one of David’s three units against Israel, and was standing by him, and called on him to gather David’s troops and pursue Sheba before he could establish himself. We must undoubtedly see his command to Abishai as arising because Abishai was close at hand, and immediately available, and therefore also as including his brother when he could be contacted. It was thus a request that he go with his brother (when he could make contact with him) so that they might both go and pursue Sheba. This is evident from what follows.
Accordingly Abishai swiftly gathered together Joab’s men (presumably the standing army always held at the ready), together with David’s bodyguard and mighty men, and set off in pursuit of Sheba, and was at some point joined by Joab. And when they reached the great stone at Gibeon they came across Amasa who, seemingly unconcernedly, came to meet them. This put them under a huge dilemma. Their mission was now extremely urgent and there was no time for negotiating with or arguing with the official commander-in-chief who had already proved so negligent and inefficient. Nor did they want to have to do battle with any men who were with him. So Joab made a swift decision, and presumably on the grounds of treason and failure to observe the king’s commands, summarily executed him. He would no doubt argue afterwards that it had been necessary because of the urgency of the situation. He had proved himself unfit to command and had actually been subordinate in that he had not reported back to David. Thus Joab and Abishai, entrusted with the king’s urgent command, had had no alternative.
Note that in ‘a’ Amasa carelessly ignored the injunction that had been urged on him by David, and in the parallel he carelessly ignored the sword that was in Joab’s hand. In ‘b’ David declares that Amasa’s lateness and carelessness might well be responsible for great harm which Sheba might cause, and calls on Abishai to prepare David’s servants to chase after Sheba, and in the parallel Amasa arrives too late, and meanwhile Joab, Abishai’s brother, has prepared himself for the chase. Centrally in ‘c’ Abishai leads out Joab’s men, and David’s bodyguard and mighty men.
2.20.4 ‘Then the king said to Amasa, “Call me the men of Judah together within three days, and be you present here.” ’
Having appointed Amasa as commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel/Judah ‘the king’ called on him to muster the men of Judah ‘within three days’ and to personally report back to him. (Three days may in fact have indicated ‘a few days’, as it so often does, but it was nevertheless specific. It did not justify delay). The point was that promptness and speed were essential, for David recognised that this was an emergency situation, and having been caught out by Absalom, he did not intend also to be caught out by Sheba.
2.20.5 ‘So Amasa went to call the men of Judah together, but he lingered longer than the set time which he had appointed him.’
So Amasa set about mustering the army of Judah. But he did not do it with sufficient urgency. Thus when the time limit arrived the forces were nowhere to be seen, and nor was Amasa, who was supposed to have reported back. He was seemingly not astute enough as a general to recognise, as David himself had, the need for all speed before the rebellion could be established. It must therefore be appreciated that his failure to report back by the time allotted was gross dereliction of duty. It was indeed to treat the king with unforgivable casualness. Amasa was thus gravely at fault and liable for severe punishment however we look at it.
2.20.6 ‘And David said to Abishai, “Now will Sheba the son of Bichri do us more harm than Absalom did. You take your lord’s servants, and pursue after him, lest he obtain for himself fortified cities, and tear out our eye.” ’
Having waited in vain for Amasa’s appearance with the army of Judah David was now extremely concerned. Consequently he turned to Abishai, who as we have seen from past incidents was constantly in attendance on him (e.g. 16.9; 21.17; 1 Samuel 26.6-9), and expressing that concern, pointed out that this delay could well prove disastrous for the kingdom. It could even result in Sheba doing more harm to the kingdom than Absalom had done. It was therefore necessary that something be done immediately in order to try to rectify the situation.
So he looked to the man who was immediately to hand, to Abishai, one of his chief generals, to do it. We may reasonably assume that Joab was temporarily absent from the court for some reason. However, while his command to Abishai was in the singular it must necessarily be seen as including Joab, once he could be contacted, for Joab was not in disgrace, and Abishai and Joab had always worked in collusion in maintaining David’s armed strength (10.9-10; 18.2). Furthermore Joab was seemingly still in command of the standing army now known as ‘Joab’s men’. Abishai would thus recognise that he was being expected to carry out the king’s command in the usual way, in conjunction with his brother when he could be contacted, and that David was looking to him to act personally with all speed with the forces that they had immediately available. The command was addressed to him because it would appear that Joab was simply not at present immediately to hand, and the task was urgent. The urgency of the situation demanded that Abishai take the matter in hand.
And that task was simple. To pursue and destroy Sheba before he had time to consolidate and establish fortified cities, thus putting himself in a position to tear out the kingdom’s very eye. To tear out the eye (the literal translation) was to render the opponent helpless, or at the least to make him severely handicapped.
2.20.7 ‘And there went out after him Joab’s men, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and all the mighty men, and they went out of Jerusalem, to pursue after Sheba the son of Bichri.’
So Abishai immediately left the king’s presence, summoned Joab’s men (the standing army), the king’s elite troops and bodyguard (the Cherethites and Pelethites), and David’s chief officers and mighty men, who would all be close by and could be immediately called on, and left Jerusalem in order to pursue Bichri, being joined at some stage by his brother whom he had no doubt urgently summoned by messenger. Unlike Amasa they were both experienced commanders and fully aware of the urgency of the situation.
The fact that it does not say ‘Joab and his men’ can be seen as confirming that for some reason Joab was temporarily absent, possibly on affairs of state, for it is quite unnecessary to assume that there had been a rift between him and David however unhappy Joab was at losing his position as commander of ‘All Israel’. David would undoubtedly have given him another comparably high position in his court.
2.20.8 ‘When they were at the great stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. And Joab was girded with his war clothing which he had put on, and on it was a girdle with a sword fastened on his loins in its sheath, and as he went forth it fell out.’
When, in carrying out their pursuit, they arrived at the great stone of Gibeon (which was in Benjamin and was some miles/kilometres north of Jerusalem), Amasa came to meet them. We are given no details of his situation and do not know whether he had the men of Judah with him. On the other hand he would arrive as the official commander-in-chief, and would undoubtedly have wished, in view of his superior rank, to take over the pursuit. We are not told anything about how far he had accomplished the task that David had set him of mustering the men of Judah, nor why he was at Gibeon, rather than in the south where the mustering of the men of Judah would have had to take place, nor why he had not reported back to David when he was supposed to. It is possible that he had learned of the pursuit being carried out by Joab and Abishai while still mustering the troops, and so had himself hastened to meet them with a view to exerting his command, leaving whatever troops he had mustered to follow behind, hoping thereby to preserve his status. But it is equally possible that his presence there indicated how far he was failing is his urgent task of mustering the men of Judah. After all, what was he doing in Benjamin?
By now Joab had joined up with Abishai, and was clad for war, wearing over his ‘war clothing’ a belt into which was tucked the scabbard which contained his sword. And as he went out to meet Amasa his scabbard fell out from his belt. Knowing Joab we may suspect that this was not in fact accidental. Joab could certainly not draw his sword as he approached Amasa, but to have in his hand a sword and scabbard which had fallen from his belt would not appear at all suspicious, just careless (unless you knew Joab really well).
2.20.9 ‘And Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him.’
Then Joab greeted Amasa, and asked him how he did, after which he took Amasa by the beard with his right hand, seemingly in order to greet him with a kiss of welcome. It would appear that in that society to take the beard in this way was, like a formal handshake, an act of friendship. Possibly it contained the same idea behind it as a handshake, in that it demonstrated that the sword hand was empty. This act of laying hold of the beard in order to give a kiss of friendship was, in fact, still customary among Arabs and Turks as a sign of friendly welcome even in more recent days.
As we are given nothing of the background, and as there were no repercussions on Joab later as a result of what followed, it seems reasonable to assume that Joab considered that he had some good reason for thinking that Amasa’s failure to muster the troops quickly enough, and to report back, was due either to an act of open treachery, or to an act of clear insubordination, or at the best to an act of gross negligence sufficient to endanger the kingdom. And, whichever it was, his failure to report back to the king within the time allotted was in itself almost treason. He was certainly to be seen as due for severe punishment, for the kingdom was at stake. This would no doubt explain why Joab felt himself justified in executing him, lest in his treachery, or gross negligence, or perverseness he in some way sought to hinder the pursuit, thus causing unnecessary delay. We must recognise that there was no time here for niceties, and they could not stop to argue, nor to do battle with him if he proved intransigent. Joab thus saw himself as executing someone while on active service because of his failure to obey the king’s commands. (Nevertheless we do not need to dismiss the suggestion that he almost certainly had a dual motive, for we have already come to recognise that anyone who sought to take over Joab’s position as commander of the armies of Israel was in grave danger of his life (compare Abner in 3.27). Even Joab, however, could not have murdered either of them out of hand without an ostensibly good reason).
2.20.10a ‘But Amasa paid no heed to the sword that was in Joab’s hand. So he smote him with it in the body, and shed out his bowels to the ground, and struck him not again, and he died.’
Amasa revealed his own military naivete by paying no heed to the sword that was in Joab’s left hand. He did not appear to have considered the fact that he had committed gross folly. It was probably the same lack of military astuteness that had caused him to delay in the mustering of the troops. Thus he was taken completely by surprise when Joab’s kiss of friendship ended up by being a sword in the body, which resulted in his bowels coming out and falling on the ground. We note that Joab did not need to strike twice. There was nothing inefficient about his military expertise. And in consequence Amasa died a traitor’s death.
It is made clear later that David did not approve of this execution (1 Kings 2.5), for when he could he preferred to exercise mercy, but there can be little doubt that he recognised that to quite some extent Joab had been justified in what he did the light of the urgency of a war situation. It was presumably that fact that prevented Joab from being punished. Considerable leeway had to be given to a successful general who had constant life and death decisions to make, even if it was stored up in the mind in order to affect future decisions.
The Pursuit And Death of Sheba And Establishment Of The Kingdom (20.10b-25).
The pursuit of Sheba now went on relentlessly as David’s elite troops, ably led by Joab and Abishai, came up to Abel where Sheba and his men had taken refuge, having no doubt learned of the approaching forces. Sheba was aware that he had not yet had time to gather sufficient forces to meet them head on. For the men of Israel may angrily have returned home in response to his call, but it was clear that on the whole they had not yet again joined up with him (and possibly did not intend to. A walk out was one thing, secession was quite another).
And there Joab laid siege to Abel, no doubt having firstly made an offer for them to surrender peaceably (Deuteronomy 20.10). This offer had clearly been rejected, presumably by Sheba’s men who were guarding the gate. (Sheba would know what the consequences would be to him of surrender). Joab’s men therefore began to follow the expected procedures for siege warfare. They built up a mound leading up to the city and began to batter at the city walls.
But a wise woman in the city, who had had no part in the rebellion, and did not want to see the city devastated, went to the walls and called on Joab to ask why he was so intent on destroying a city which was so well known as being a source of wisdom, and why he was so keen on slaughtering innocent Israelites. Joab’s reply was that he wished to do neither. Let them but hand over Sheba and his troops would immediately withdraw. At that the wise woman promised that Sheba’s head would shortly be thrown to them over the wall, and on returning to the city elders, persuaded them that that was the wise and only thing to do. It is clear that she was a woman greatly respected for her wisdom and influence, for they took notice of her advice and accordingly Sheba’s head was thrown over the wall, at which Joab and his men returned to Jerusalem and to their homes.
The message intended to ring out from this passage is quite clear. Those who are truly wise follow the anointed of YHWH.
Note that in ‘a’ Joab and Abishai set out (from Jerusalem) in pursuit of Sheba, and in the parallel Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king and became commander-in-chief over the whole of the armies of Israel, with all authority restored. In ‘b’ the man called for a loyal following of Joab, and in the parallel, having loyally followed him, Joab’s men returned home. In ‘c’ the traitor Amasa’s body lay wallowing in its blood, and in the parallel the bloody head of the traitor Sheba was thrown over the wall. In ‘d’ Sheba’s rebellion is described, and in the parallel Joab described Sheba’s rebellion to the wise woman. In ‘e’ the besiegers attempted to destroy the city, and in the parallel they were asked why they were attempting to destroy the city. In ‘f’ a ‘wise’ woman cried out from the city to Joab, and in the parallel she stressed that Abel was ‘the city of the wise’. Centrally in ‘g’ she managed to obtain the ear of Joab, something which was central to the successful conclusion of the siege.
20.10b ‘And Joab and Abishai his brother pursued after Sheba the son of Bichri.’
Any controversy with Amasa having been swiftly cut short, Joab and Abishai then urgently pursued after Sheba.
20.11 ‘And there stood by him (Amasa) one of Joab’s young men, and said, “He who favours Joab, and he who is for David, let him follow Joab.” ’
Meanwhile one of Joab’s young men stood by the body of Amasa hoping to prevent it from delaying the pursuit. And as he stood there he called on the pursuers to consider their loyalty to Joab and David. Let them not be delayed by the custom of paying respects to a fallen hero (compare 2.23). It would appear that when a recognised ‘hero’ had fallen during a pursuit, it was the custom for all who passed his body to stop and pay respects in a way that apparently caused considerable delay, probably involving some ritual. Part of the reason (but not the whole) may well have been in order to protect the body of the fallen ‘hero’ from scavenging birds and animals. The young man was afraid that in doing so, the men in question might cause an unacceptable delay.
Alternately it may be that he was speaking to the men of Judah who had come with Amasa who would naturally stop when they saw their leader lying dead in the highway, but in view of 2.23 it appears that there was more to it than that.
20.12 ‘And Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the midst of the highway. And when the man saw that all the people stood still, he carried Amasa out of the highway into the field, and cast a robe over him, when he saw that every one who came by him stood still.’
His efforts were, however, in vain, for as Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the midst of the highway all the people who passed stood still. Accordingly, recognising that he had no alternative if there was to be no delay in the pursuit, the young man lifted up the body of Amasa and carried it into the neighbouring field and covered it with a robe, precisely because all who came by stood still.
20.13-14 ‘When he was removed out of the highway, all the people went on after Joab, to pursue after Sheba the son of Bichri. And he went through all the tribes of Israel to Abel, and to Beth-maacah, and all the Berites, and they were gathered together, and went also after him (20.13-14).’
Once the body was removed from the highway there was no further delay, and all who passed that way continued on without hesitating, in order to pursue after Sheba. Sheba meanwhile went through ‘all the tribes of Israel’ mustering all who would follow him, from Abel, and from Beth-maacah (the region around Abel) and from ‘all the Berites’, and a goodly number followed him. ‘All’ regularly means ‘a portion of’ as it clearly does in this case, for his appeal appears to have been limited to three places, and in the end all who did follow him seemingly fitted within the walls of a city that was certainly not one of the largest in Israel.
‘Abel and Beth-maacah.’ The names appear in the name Abel-beth-hammaacah ("the meadow of the house of Maacah") in 1 Kings 15.20 and in 2 Kings 15.29. Here in verse 14 we have Beth-maacah and in verse 15 (in the Hebrew) it is Abel-beth-hammaacah (Maacah having the article ‘ha’ before it). ‘Beth-maacah was clearly a region far to the north which contained the city of Abel. In 2 Kings 15.9 Abel-beth-maacah is mentioned, along with Ijon and other places, as a city in Naphtali captured by Tiglathpileser, king of Assyria. This taking of the city also appeared in the records of Tiglath-pileser. In 1 Kings it is mentioned along with Ijon and Dan and "all the land of Naphtali" as being smitten by Benhadad of Damascus in the time of Baasha. In the account in 2 Chronicles 16.4, parallel to the one in 1 Kings 15, the cities mentioned are Ijon, Dan, and Abel-maim. Abel-maim may either be another name for Abel-beth-maacah, or the name of another similar place in the same vicinity. Abel is also mentioned in Egyptian records. There is therefore no doubting it to be historical. The prevailing identification of Abel-beth-maacah is with Abil, a city a few miles West of Dan, which is on a height overlooking the Jordan near its sources. The adjacent region is rich agriculturally, and the scenery and the water supply are especially fine. Abel-maim, "meadow of water," would thus not be an inapt designation for it. The Berites are otherwise unknown.
20.15 ‘And they came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah, and they cast up a mound against the city, and it stood against the rampart, and all the people who were with Joab battered the wall, to throw it down.’
On learning of the approach of Joab and Abishai, Sheba and his forces took refuge in the city of Abel in Beth-maacah. The inhabitants, while possibly sympathetic, would probably have had little choice in the matter, especially once Sheba’s forces had been allowed to enter the city as ‘locals’. And once David’s men had arrived they therefore set about trying to reduce the city by casting up a mound which enabled them to batter the walls. This was possibly necessary because the city stood on its own mound. Any appeal to surrender would have been addressed to those defending the gates, and those would have been Sheba’s men who were unlikely to surrender.
20.16 ‘Then a wise woman cried out of the city, “Listen, listen. Say, I pray you, to Joab, “Come near here, that I may speak with you.”
But there were others in the city who were not quite so pleased at what was going on. So a wise woman came to the wall of the city (away from the gate) and called down to the invaders to bring Joab to speak to her. (The wall would not have been very high). Note her repetition of ‘listen, listen’, and compare Joab’s later ‘far be it, far be it from me’ in verse 20. Wise women (women especially recognised for their wisdom) clearly had great influence in Israel.
20.17 ‘And he came near to her, and the woman said, “Are you Joab?” And he answered, “I am.” Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your handmaid.” And he answered, “I’m listening”.’
When Joab came to speak with her in respect of her call, the woman then checked that it was really him and that he was really paying attention to her, and in reply Joab confirmed that it was he and declared, ‘I’m listening’. The continual stress on this is clearly intended to fix our concentration on the words that follow.
20.18 ‘Then she spoke, saying, “It was their custom to speak in old time, saying, ‘They shall surely ask at Abel,’ and so they ended (the matter)”.’
The wise woman’s first emphasis was on the fact that by reputation Abel was a city renowned for its wisdom. In the past if anyone was seeking advice they would be told, ‘Ask at Abel,’ for there they could be certain they would find a wise man or wise woman who could solve their problem or dispute. And we already know that she was a wise woman. We are thus intended to recognise that whatever decision Abel comes to (which will be support for the Anointed of YHWH) will be a revelation of that wisdom.
20.19 “I am of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel. Do you seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel? Why will you swallow up the inheritance of YHWH?”
She then emphasised that she herself was not involved in any attempt at secession or rebellion. She was one of those who were peaceable and faithful in Israel, as were most in her city, for she was one among many. She wanted peace not war, and was loyal to the king. Thus Joab should ask himself whether it really was his desire to destroy such a city (i.e. the inhabitants of such a city), when it was like a mother in Israel, and was part of the inheritance of YHWH.
Alternatively some would see the ‘mother in Israel’ as referring to the wise woman. The description of Israel as the inheritance of YHWH could signify the people (Deuteronomy 9.26; 32.9) or the land and its cities (Deuteronomy 20.16; 21.23; 25.19; 1 Samuel 10.1; 26.19). But what Joab was to be aware of was that he was swallowing up what was YHWH’s. And as we shall now see, the emotional picture conjured up by the words ‘swallow up the inheritance of YHWH’ clearly spoke to Joab’s heart.
20.20-21 ‘And Joab answered and said, “Far be it, far be it from me, that I should swallow up or destroy. The matter is not so. But a man of the hill-country of Ephraim, Sheba the son of Bichri by name, has lifted up his hand against the king, even against David. Deliver him only, and I will depart from the city.” And the woman said to Joab, “Behold, his head will be thrown to you over the wall”.’
The repetition of ‘far be it, far be it’ brings out that Joab was moved by her words as he cried, ‘Far be it, far be it from me, that I should swallow or destroy --.’ And he insisted that it was not so. What did, however, concern him was that the city contained within it a man who had lifted up his hand against the king, even against David, a man whose name was Sheba the son of Bichri. Let him be delivered up to Joab and he would immediately withdraw his troops. It is a testimony to Joab’s reputation for honouring his word that he was immediately believed. He was a man in whom there was much good, a loyal servant to David, and if he was occasionally too quick to shed blood, he was also a man who knew how to refrain from shedding blood under other circumstances. We must remember in this regard how little time he had spent in princes’ palaces, and how much time he had been involved in the theatre of war, a place where to kill was often the only solution to a problem. Thus it is not surprising that he often sought bloody solutions.
The woman thought over what Joab was saying, and then promised him, ‘Behold his head will be thrown to you over the wall.’ Sheba had clearly not made too great an impression on at least one inhabitant of Abel.
20.22a ‘Then the woman went to all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab.’
Then the woman went away to discuss the matter with the elders of the city, and through them with the people, advising them through her wisdom. And the result was that they banded together and, in spite no doubt of the resistance of some of his men, cut off Sheba’s head and threw it over the wall as the wise woman had promised. It is clear from this that Sheba’s actual support in the city was not all that great. They had probably only opened the gate to him because many of their fellow-countrymen had gathered to him, and they had felt it only loyal to do so. But few felt that they owed him enough support to interfere. The planned secession had seemingly been a bit of a damp squib.
Note the continued emphasis on the woman’s wisdom. What the city folk did was to be seen as wise, because it came from a wise source.
20.22b ‘And he blew the ram’s horn, and they were dispersed from the city, every man to his tent, and Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king.’
As good as his word, once he had verified that the head was Sheba’s, Joab then blew the ram’s horn and mustered his troops and they returned to their own homes, whilst Joab returned to Jerusalem to report to the king, and to continue to serve him loyally. Here at least was one man who always kept the king in touch and submitted his report on time. But what he had done to Amasa, whilst it could be partially justified as necessary in an atmosphere of war, was not forgotten by David. One day he would be called to account.
2.20.23-26 ‘And Joab was over all the host of Israel, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and over the Pelethites, and Adoram was over the men subject to taskwork, and Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was the recorder, and Sheva was scribe, and Zadok and Abiathar were priests, and also Ira the Jairite was priest (chief minister) to David.’
The section closes with an indication that after the rebellion were quashed the land was once again at peace, and all was quiet. Joab was restored as commander-in-chief of ‘all the host of Israel, Benaiah was still over the royal bodyguard, Adoram was set over those who were subject to taskwork, probably mainly non-Israelites, part of whose responsibility would be the building of the royal palace and the strengthening of the fortifications in Jerusalem and other major cities, Jehoshaphat was still the recorder, and he would among other things be keeping the records of the events of David’s reign, Sheva was the Scribe, replacing Seraiah, who had possibly died, Zadok and Abiathar continued as Priests (High Priests), and Ira was David’s priest in the place of David’s son.
We can compare the list in 8.15-18. Joab, Benaiah, Jehoshaphat, Zadok and Abiathar have retained, or have, at least in Joab’s case, been restored to, their positions, Sheva has replaced Seraiah as Scribe, possibly because Seraiah has since died, David’s sons are no longer mentioned as priests, possibly because those still alive were not yet of age, while those who would have been of age have died. They are therefore replaced by Ira the Jairite of whom nothing further is known. Adoram being appointed as task-master is an indication of the increasing sophistication and growing wealth of the kingdom.
Adoram is called Adoniram in 1 Kings 4.6; 5.14, where he is overseer over the tributary service in the time of Solomon. He is called Adoram in 1 Kings 12.18 and Hadoram in 2 Chronicles 10.18. These are both merely contracted forms of Adoniram. The same man appears to have filled a similar office under three kings, David, Solomon and Rehoboam, but we must bear in mind that he did not enter into office until the close of David's reign, (he is not mentioned in 8.16) and that his name only occurs in connection with event taking place on Rehoboam's ascent of the throne, so that he need not have filled the office for any length of time under the latter. For the idea of tributary labourers compare 1 Kings 5.13.
The section thus ends on a note of optimism with normality restored and the future seen as fully under control.
Further free Bible articles and commentaries
Commentary on Samuel - Contents
1 Samuel 1.1-4.1a The Birth of Samuel And His Subsequent Career
1 Samuel 4.1b-8.22 The Movements of the Ark of God and the Judgeship of Samuel
1 Samuel 9.1-12.25 Saul Becomes King
1 Samuel 13-15 The Downfall Of Saul
1 Samuel 16.1-18.4 David Is Anointed And Slays Goliath
1 Samuel 18.5-20.42 The Rise Of David And Jealousy Of Saul
1 Samuel 21.1-22.23 The Murder of The Priests, David Builds a Private Army
1 Samuel 23.1-26.25 Saul Constantly Harasses David, David And Nabal, David Twice Spares Saul’s Life
1 Samuel 27.1-30.31 David Defeats The Amalekites Who Had Sacked Ziklag, Saul and Jonathan Die On Mount Gilboa
2 Samuel 1.1-5.5. David Is Anointed As King of Judah, Civil War In Israel, David Is Anointed As King Of Israel
2 Samuel 5.6-10.19. David Defeats The Philistines, Captures Jerusalem, Is Promised Everlasting Kingship, Is Triumphant Over all His Enemies, Shows Kindness To Mephibosheth
2 Samuel 11.1-15.6. David And Bathsheba, Uriah The Hittite, Nathan The Prophet Rebukes David, Solomon Is Born, Rabbah Is Captured, Amnon And Tamar, Absalom’s Revenge, Absalom Returns From Geshur And Wins The Hearts of The People
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