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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
SECTION 5 (Continued).
The present division of the book into two parts, simply because the Greek text (in contrast with the Hebrew text which did not contain consonants) of the Book of Samuel (the Septuagint - LXX) required two scrolls, to some extent hides the continuity of this subsection which highlights the death of Saul and Jonathan and David’s great distress and nobility with regard to them. While their deaths were to lead to the final establishment of his kingship they brought him no joy. Rather he wept over them both, and especially over that of Jonathan. We must never forget that David had known Saul extremely well personally and had clearly loved him, and had for a time had that feeling at least partly reciprocated, which was why he had undoubtedly been so puzzled by Saul’s later attitude towards him, and had indeed hoped for a time that he might be able to reverse the situation. It was only when that hope had finally gone that he moved to Philistia. Meanwhile with Jonathan he had shared that love and loyalty which can only be known by two comrades-in-arms. Thus he felt the loss of them both very deeply, especially Jonathan.
It is a sign of the deep spirituality of David that while he had known from his youth, through no choice of his own (see chapter 16), that he was destined for the kingship, and had been thrust by God, and by his own deep regard for God’s honour, into being the Champion of Israel (see chapter 17), he had made no push to hurry the situation along, even when Saul had played into his hands. Rather he had patiently waited for God’s time. He had been one of Israel’s most successful field commanders, acting only out of loyalty to both YHWH and Saul, and had later weathered all the misfortunes that had been thrust on him by a jealous and suspicious Saul, without once portraying any particular ambition to take over the kingship by force, although at the same time, in the latter stages, he undoubtedly did seek to prepare the way for that kingship, both through his marriages, and through his behaviour towards the people of Israel and the elders of Judah. But that can be seen as because everything pointed to it as being YHWH’s purpose for him. It was as someone who had had it made quite clear to him by then from every source (Samuel - 16.1, 13; Jonathan - 23.17; Saul - 24.20-21) that he was truly destined to be king.
This picture of him as unwilling to act before God’s time has been consistently drawn throughout the narrative, as was the fact that it arose from his great loyalty to YHWH as his God. That was why he would not act against the one whom God had anointed. The picture therefore of him as a clever and ruthless seeker after power is not one that is ever portrayed in the narrative, even though his undoubted later ambition is never hidden. This latter ambition was, however, consistent with the picture that we have of him as a man driven by YHWH who was aware of his call by YHWH to eventual kingship. Given that sense his subsequent restraint up to this point in time must be seen as quite remarkable.
The death of Saul and his three fighting sons, and the circumstances in which it occurred, was a tragedy for Israel. To many he had been a beloved, and often successful king, and the overwhelming defeat now to be described would leave a large part of Israel under Philistine control, and Saul’s remaining and rather inept son cowering in Mahanaim, reigning over what was left of Israel by permission of his uncle Abner, commander of the forces of Israel (such as they now were). It would, however, also open the way for David’s appointment as King of Judah, for the elders of Judah clearly recognised that with the Philistines in control of central Israel, and Eshbaal (Ishbosheth), Saul’s remaining son, being restricted to Mahanaim, only David and his small but powerful army could provide them with any kind of protection, a decision undoubtedly precipitated by David’s own arrival with his men. It had the additional advantage that his position as vassal to the king of Gath made him acceptable to the Philistines. They had no objection to him reigning as their vassal. (This is really the only explanation as to why they took no measures against him after his appointment). He was thus now vassal king over both Ziklag and Judah, Ziklag from this time on always being seen as a part of Judah.
SECTION 5 B). The Death Of Saul And Jonathan (1 Samuel 31.1-2 Samuel 1.27).
This subsection concentrates on the overwhelming victory of the Philistines over a depleted Saul, and his subsequent death, along with his three fighting sons, on Mount Gilboa, with the concentration undoubtedly on the latter fact. It commences with a very brief description of the battle, and a more detailed description of the deaths of Saul and his sons, and ends with a dirge written by David as he mourns their deaths. Yet even in the midst of the tragedy the writer focuses on two acts of nobility, the first the bravery and loyalty of the men of Jabesh Gilead in daringly rescuing the body of Saul from its ignominious situation of being displayed on the walls of Bethshan (31.11-13). Even in defeat the Israelites are seen as gaining a kind of victory over the Philistines, who would have no idea where the body had gone. And the second the genuine grief of David concerning the whole event. There is no reason for doubting the genuineness of this latter. He loved Jonathan like his own soul, and his love for Israel could also have resulted in nothing but grief in the light of all that had happened, while the fact that Saul was YHWH’s anointed would in itself have been sufficient to explain his grief over Saul’s death. Thus he would undoubtedly have shared in the grief of all Israel, even though he did recognise what it meant for him. He also appears to reveal himself as having a genuine appreciation of Saul, as in his dirge he calls to mind his nobler characteristics.
Because this subsection comes where it does we tend to see it as focusing on a tragic end as a kind of summary of the book. But that is to misunderstand the situation. The writer did not see it as coming at the end of anything. He saw this final disposal of Saul as bringing about the upward move of David from being petty king of Ziklag and victor over the Amalekites, to being king of Judah, and then of all Israel, and final victor over the Philistines. It was thus a further stepping stone in the onward triumph of YHWH. And even in this defeat YHWH would emphasise that He could not be overlooked (31.11-13)
Analysis Of The Section.
The centrality in the chiasmus of the deed of the men of Jabesh Gilead will be noted. It was not just added in as an afterthought. It was an indication that while Israel might be down, they were not out.
The Death Of Saul And Jonathan On Mount Gilboa (31.1-7).
It is noteworthy that in the description of the battle the emphasis is not on the defeat of Israel, even though that is briefly described, but on the death of Saul and its consequences. Nevertheless even in its brevity we do get a vivid picture of the last stages of the battle as it brings about the deaths of Saul and his heirs.
Note than in ‘a’ the Israelites fled before the Philistines, and in the parallel the remainder of Israel did the same. In ‘b’ the Philistines pressed hard on Saul and slew his three sons, and in the parallel Saul and his three sons are described as dead. In ‘c’ Saul calls on his armourbearer to thrust him through, and in the parallel the armourbearer thrusts himself through. Centrally in ‘d’ we have described the death of Saul.
31.1 ‘Now the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa.’
What must have been a fiercely fought battle between two totally unmatched armies is told briefly. We are not told where it actually took place, although the assumption must be that it was in the Valley of Jezreel. All that we are told is that the Philistines fought against Israel (for the description compare 28.1. This description is picking up the story from there), and that the men of Israel fled over Mount Gilboa where they were systematically slaughtered. The writer is not interested in the details of the battle, only in the consequences of it for Israel.
We are even left in some doubt as to whom ‘the men of Israel’ were. They would undoubtedly include Saul’s standing army, and it may well be that it was mainly these who suffered as they bravely bore the main brunt of the rearguard action, while what was left of the ‘volunteer’ army escaped over the Jordan under the leadership of Abner, the overall general of the army (verse 7; 2 Samuel 2.8-9). Saul’s supreme bravery comes out, both in his being an important part of the rearguard action, and in the fact that he fought at all, given the fact of what he had learned from Samuel through the medium of Endor.
Verse 7 would also suggest, either that the full muster of the tribes had not yet arrived. An alternative possibility is that they had been kept in reserve at the other side of the valley in order to intervene when called on. Either way the defeat of Israel’s main army was clearly so conclusive that they played no part in the battle, and then recognised that their only course, with Saul and his sons dead, was to disappear as quickly as possible, leaving the cities of Israel wide open to the Philistine invaders. They knew that further resistance would be useless and would only bring reprisals on those cities.
31.2 ‘And the Philistines followed hard on Saul and on his sons, and the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul.’
Playing a valiant part in the rearguard action Saul’s three warrior sons, fighting in the forefront, died bravely in action, while Saul also found himself hard pressed. he had not flinched from the battle.
31.3-4a ‘And the battle went sore against Saul, and the archers overtook him, and he was greatly distressed by reason of the archers. And Saul said to his armourbearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me.”
Saul was apparently behind the units commanded by his three sons, as a second line of defence, and he and his men now found themselves under heavy bombardment by the missiles of the archers who had been able to come up on them as a result of the destruction of the first line of defence. It was clear to Saul that the situation was lost and that he would be unable to evade capture. It must also be seen as almost certain that he had been wounded by arrows that had found their target. Thus the thought of being overtaken and abused by the uncircumcised Philistines, who would undoubtedly satisfy their blood lusts on him, and would at the same time humiliate him as the king of Israel, was too much for him, and he cried to his armourbearer to thrust him through, rather than allowing the Philistines to do it. He knew that death or worse was inevitable. He preferred therefore to die on a good Israelite blade rather than on a Philistine one. At least he would prevent their enjoying that triumph. YHWH’s anointed would thus not be sullied in his death.
Saul (and the writer) may well have had in mind at this point the example of Abimelech who asked the same of his armourbearer when a woman split his head open with a millstone flung from the walls of Thebez, because he did not want to be thought of as the king who had been slain by a woman (Judges 9.53-56). That story appears to have been a well known one to Israel’s warriors, and had also been the result of YHWH’s judgment on his previous behaviour (see 2 Samuel 11.21).
31.4b ‘But his armourbearer would not, for he was very much afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell on it.’
His armourbearer, however, refused to do it through fear. The fear was probably because he considered that to slay YHWH’s anointed would be a grievous sin. Alternately he may have been afraid of what might happen to him afterwards, for it was his duty to preserve YHWH’s anointed at all costs. Either way he would not do it. Saul therefore took his own sword and fell on it. It is probable that he saw it as a religious act, almost a kind of sacrifice, in defence of YHWH’s honour.
31.5 ‘And when his armourbearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell on his sword in similar fashion, and died with him.’
Once the armourbearer saw that Saul was dead by his own hand he followed his example, and thus died with him. This may have simply been out of a kind of loyalty to his master, although it could have included remorse because, as his personal bodyguard, he had failed, through no fault of his own, to preserve his master’s life. The shame may have been too much for him. He may even have feared the later consequences if he survived. The Philistines might have seen Saul’s armourbearer as a good substitute for Saul himself, thus bringing shame on Saul by proxy, while he may have felt that if he survived intact he might equally suffer shame at the hands of the Israelites for failing to keep Saul alive. People had strange ideas about honour.
31.6 ‘So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.’
The slaughter on the Mount was so complete that Saul, his three sons, his armourbearer and all ‘his men’ (his standing army) died there with him on that same day, thereby avenging all the misery that they had brought on David, and destroying any hopes of Israel’s survival as an independent nation. Without this central force Israel could put up little resistance against an enemy like the warlike Philistines. They had been Israel’s mainstay in all the wars with the Philistines through the years.
31.7 ‘And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel fled, and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities, and fled, and the Philistines came and dwelt in them.’
That this means that the forces of Israel, who had been mustered from the most northerly tribes and from Transjordan, in order to assist in the fight against the Philistines, but had not taken part in the battle, fled, must be seen as probable. It is not likely that all the inhabitants of the cities fled. They would simply have submitted to the approaching Philistines, thus hopefully avoiding reprisals by becoming voluntary vassals. (It was the normal for invaders only to take reprisals when cities resisted. Otherwise they simply demanded tribute. It was to their advantage. See Deuteronomy 20.10-14). The Philistines would then occupy them and take authority over them, as they had previously done with the Canaanites over whom they ruled. They would become a part of the Philistine empire. (This had apparently not just been a raid with the aim of obtaining tribute, as previously. It was seemingly an attempt to build an empire and occupy the cities permanently).
In view of the brevity of the statement, however, the position is not totally clear, something reinforced by the fact that we are not totally sure what Philistine attitudes were in such a situation. They may have had a policy of slaughtering a good number of men of fighting age when they took over a city. The writer’s main aim, in fact, was simply to explain that the main cities of central Israel were now to be under the rule of the Philistines.
Saul’s Body Is Humiliated And The Tidings Concerning Saul’s Death And Defeat Are Spread Among The Philistines (31.8-10).
As Saul had anticipated, the Philistines sought to humiliate what remained of him. They cut off his head and sent it throughout the land of the Philistines in triumph, prior to setting it up in the temple of their god Dagon (1 Chronicles 10.10). This was similar to the treatment meted out to the head of Goliath by David (17.54). (There was no thought of honouring a fallen foe. It was intended as an indication of the respective triumph of their deities). They stripped off his armour and set it up in the house of their goddess Ashtaroth, probably in Bethshan. And they displayed his body on the walls of Bethshan. This was the only way of ensuring that all knew that he really was dead. Verse 12 informs us that they did the same with the bodies of his sons for a similar reason. But there was no doubt that there was also in it an intention to gloat over their dead enemies. It was a display of their triumph, and a warning to all who opposed them.
We should note how the writer actually refrains from mentioning what happened to Saul’s head, except indirectly. This suggests that he was writing within a time span when reverence for YHWH’s anointed as king of Israel prevented him from wishing to do so. The thought of it being hung in a Philistine temple filled him with repugnance (just as he also shortly gleefully describes how Saul’s body was saved from humiliation in verses 11-13). The chronicler, who considered that Saul had shamed himself (1 Chronicles 10.13), had no such inhibition hundreds of years later.
Note that in ‘a’ they discovered his body, and in the parallel they fastened it to the wall of Bethshan. In ‘b’ they stripped off his armour, and in the parallel they put it in the house of Ashtaroth. Centrally in ‘c’ they sent the tidings of the victory into all the land of the Philistines, informing both their idols and their people of it. This included sending Saul’s head with the messengers, (which was the purpose of cutting it off - compare 17.54 where David took Goliath’s head to Judah’s sanctuary). 1 Chronicles 10.10 tells us that it was placed in the temple of Dagon, which was where they had previously first placed the captured Ark in the time of Eli (5.2). It was an act of worship to their god.
31.8 ‘And it came about on the next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on mount Gilboa.’
The day after the battle the Philistines returned to the battlefield to survey the dead and strip from them anything that might have value. This was the normal practise after a victorious encounter. And there, on Mount Gilboa, above the plain of Jezreel, they found the bodies of Saul and his three sons.
31.9 ‘And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to carry the news to the house of their idols, and to the people.’
Their main activity was aimed at Saul. For many years he had proved a thorn in their sides, and had prevented them from encroaching far into Israelite territory. Saul ‘had slain his thousands’, and many of them had been Philistines. But now at last they had thoroughly routed his forces and had killed him. So they cut off his head and bore it into their land to hang it in the Temple of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10.10), probably in Ashdod (5.1-2), but some consider it to have been one of the two temples revealed archaeologically in Bethshan. There would be a number of temples of Dagon. They also stripped him of his armour and put it in the house of Ashtaroth (a Canaanite goddess represented by many images). And they sent the news of his death and of their victory over the Israelites to the house of their idols and to their people.
For the cutting off of the head compare 17.51, 54, and see also 5.4. For the stripping of the armour compare 17.54. These were clearly seen as the normal things to do to a prominent foe who had been defeated and slain. Many would have been appalled that this could happen to the ‘Anointed of YHWH’. But we are already in on the secret that he was no longer the Anointed of YHWH in God’s eyes, for he had been rejected and replaced by David. This was but the final proof of that fact.
31.10 ‘And they put his armour in the house of the Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.’
1 Chronicles 10.10 says that ‘they put his armour in the house of their gods’. This may have been in Bethshan which was a Canaanite city with Philistine connections by the Valley of Jezreel, but others see it as having in mind the great house of Ashtaroth in Ashkelon. The former view is seen as supported by the fact that the site of the temple is unnamed and by the parallelism:
That Ashkelon is in mind might be seen as supported by the reference to Ashkelon in David’s lament (2 Samuel 1.20), and the fact that Ashkelon was in Philistia proper. That was not important to the writer, however. What he was concerned about was that Saul was being shamed and humiliated. Thus came to the end a reign which had begun gloriously and had descended into tragedy.
Ashtaroth is a plural word and may simply indicate the fact that the goddess Ashtoreth/Astarte had many images. Alternately it may be that we are to translate as ‘the houses of the Ashtaroth’ indicating that Saul’s weapons were widely distributed around different Philistine temples as tokens of victory, or borne triumphantly from one to the other.
One Small Victory For Israel (31.11-13).
It is a mistake to see this as a kind of appended note. In fact the subsection chiasmus demonstrates the centrality of what is being described here (a fact hidden by the division of the book into two parts simply on the basis of convenience). Saul may have reached rock bottom, even as David was triumphing in YHWH’s Name, but it is demonstrated here that YHWH did not forget Saul and his sons, and arranged for them to be rescued them from further ignominy and from being cursed. It was to be seen that YHWH Himself was not defeated.
This was in itself a minor victory, but it was a reminder that the Philistine triumph was not complete and that they were not in control of affairs. It would certainly leave the Philistines infuriated and embarrassed. But its similarity to the deliverance of the Ark which the Philistines had also tried to use to honour their gods should not be overlooked. There the Philistines had been unable to retain the Ark, which they had considered their trophy. Here they were unable to retain the bodies of Saul and his sons, including that of the godly Jonathan, which they had also seen as their trophies. YHWH was not going to allow them to think that He had been defeated.
We should also note that at the commencement of his reign Saul had travelled through the night (11.11) and through the Spirit of YHWH had saved the people of Jabesh-gilead from being dishonoured (11.2), now the men of Jabesh-gilead had travelled through the night and had similarly rescued Saul from being dishonoured. The Spirit of YHWH was still at work.
It is difficult to overemphasise the bravery of these truly valiant men of Jabesh-gilead. They made their way by night to a Philistine stronghold, no doubt well guarded and well watched (even though the city gates would have been barred and bolted for the night), and they stole the trophies of the Philistines from under their very noses. Had they been caught they would undoubtedly have been shown no mercy, for the very absence from the walls of these bodies would have been a body blow to the Philistines. It declared to all that they were unable to guard their own city, and would make them a laughingstock for miles around. It would mar the completeness of their victory. Indeed every Israelite around about who learned what had happened would have rejoiced at what some unknown Israelites had done, and would have smirked behind his hand, and would have squared his shoulders, and have felt that much better for what had occurred, while the Philistines would have been seething in uncontrolled anger.
Furthermore it is clear that these brave men were expecting the very real possibility of repercussions, for their unusual act of burning the bodies (but not the bones) suggests that they were protecting the corpses of Saul and his sons against the possibility of recapture and further mutilation. It is also clear that all who knew who was responsible for the action maintained their silence, possibly even in the face of some brutality, so that the Philistines had no idea who had done this dreadful thing. It was not to be until much later that the details came out, and by then it would be too late for the Philistines to do anything about it. Analysis.
Note that in ‘a’ we have described the rumours about what the Philistines had done to Saul, and in the parallel we have described what the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead did for Saul. Centrally in ‘b’ is emphasised this minor, but significant, victory against the Philistines.
31.11 ‘And when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard in respect of him what the Philistines had done to Saul,’
The news of what had happened to the bodies of Saul and his sons reached Jabesh-gilead in Transjordan. It would reach them very quickly for they were not more than twenty miles from Bethshan, which was four miles west of the Jordan. And they would learn the whole gory details about their fate. Nevertheless it must have been three days at least after the deaths of the four Israelite heroes before their bodies were rescued. (The Philistines stripped the bodies the day after the battle. The bodies would then have to be taken to Bethshan in no particular hurry and would need to be displayed. After that the news had to reach the men of Jabesh-gilead, who would have required time to make their decision and plan their operation. All this would have taken time). Thus the bodies would have been corrupting and would have had time to be picked at by scavengers. They would be smelling and disintegrating. (People of those days were, however, not as squeamish as we are).
31.12 ‘All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan; and they came to Jabesh, and burnt them there.’
The brave men of Jabesh-gilead then travelled through the night in order to rescue the bodies and take them down from the wall, no doubt arriving before dawn. Once there they had to find a means of reaching the bodies and taking them down, before once again disappearing into the night. It was a hazardous operation carried out in the utmost secrecy. The fewer who knew about it the better.
It is clear from all this how important they saw the act to be. The hanging of the bodies in the open would have made them accursed (Deuteronomy 21.22-23). And to this was added the shame both to YHWH’s Anointed, and to the people of Israel whom he represented of their being so openly displayed. Furthermore we know that these men of Jabesh-gilead had good cause to be grateful to Saul, for it was he who had rescued them and their fathers from a terrible fate at the hands of Nahash the Ammonite (see chapter 11), and it is quite possible that they were also related to Saul. All this had in their eyes rendered this action imperative. But when we remember how the Spirit of YHWH had come on Saul when he had delivered Jabesh-gilead, it is difficult not to see also that The Spirit of YHWH was active here. History was turning full circle.
Then the men hurriedly bore the bodies back to Jabesh in order to do them honour (this was clearly the reason for taking them back, otherwise they could easily have buried them not long after leaving Bethshan). Once at Jabesh they burned the bodies, although not the bones. This was unusual as Israelites preferred burial. But they clearly wanted there to be no danger of the bodies being retrieved by the Philistines. It was the bones, rather than the flesh, that were seen as the very centre of men’s beings and as thus representing the whole man (compare how the skull and crossbones symbol originally represented the whole man). This use is found regularly (see 1 Kings 13.31; 2 Kings 13.21; Job 4.14; 20.11; 30.17; Psalm 6.2; 31.10; 32.3; 35.10; 51.8; Proverbs 14.30; 16.24; 25.15; Isaiah 58.11; 66.14; Habakkuk 3.16). Thus the flesh was not looked on as being too important. For the importance and burial of bones compare Genesis 50.25; Ezekiel 39.15; Hebrews 11.22. Indeed deliberately burning the bones was seen as sinful (Amos 2.1).
31.13 ‘And they took their bones, and buried them under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh, and fasted seven days.’
And the bones they buried under the tamarisk-tree in Jabesh. This was probably a local landmark and seen as a kind of local sacred spot from of old (1 Chronicles has ‘under the terebinth’ - compare Hosea 4.13). Perhaps the evergreen nature of the tree was seen as symbolically life-imparting. It was an indication of the honour in which they held Saul and his sons that they buried them in such a prominent place. But no outsiders would have known where to look. And they then fasted for seven days, a further honouring of Saul’s name and also a sign of mourning. Even this was a very brave thing to do. They would have had to be careful, for too much ostentation could well have drawn attention to them, and that was the last thing that they wanted. No doubt rumours would gradually filter around as to what they had done, for to the Israelites it would seem like a taste of victory in the face of defeat. But by the time that they reached Philistine ears (if they ever did) it would be too late for them to do anything about it, especially without any kind of evidence. One bone looks little different from another. David would later arrange for the transfer of the bones to the family sepulchre at Zelah (2 Samuel 21.12-14).
The Tidings Concerning The Death Of Saul Are Brought To David (2 Samuel 1.1-16).
The theme of the death of Saul continues with a description of how the news was brought to David. It came by means of an Amalekite sojourner who was fighting on the Israelite side and may well have been a member of Saul’s bodyguard and have seen the way in which Saul died. Certainly he appears to have come across the dead corpse of Saul on the battlefield before the Philistines got to him. Thus he was able to seize his crown and jewellery. This gave him the idea that he could concoct a story based on how Saul had died with himself taking the place of the armourbearer, and go to David and benefit by his gratitude. In his eyes David could only be delighted to hear that Saul was dead, and would undoubtedly be grateful to the one who had killed him. That was how Amalekites thought, and he may well have been in the band that had constantly hunted David.
But his tale had too many flaws in it to convince David. David knew that Saul would never have called on a mere sojourner to kill him, and would certainly never have done so because he was in anguish over the battle. That would have been a mark of cowardice, and he knew that Saul was a brave man. Note the contrast with the facts in that Saul had called on his own loyal armourbearer, who would have been a true Yahwist and personal friend, to kill him in honour, and did so because there was no hope and in order to prevent himself, as YHWH’s anointed, from being shamed by the enemy. Such an attitude to Yahwism was typical of Saul. He was a man very taken up with the externals.
The result was that David saw through the man and had him slain for treachery and deceit, and because he had demonstrated his ungodliness in claiming to have committed sacrilege by slaying YHWH’s anointed. He saw him as having sullied the name of YHWH as the Amelekites had always done from the first, and therefore as deserving the same fate.
Note that in ‘a’ David had returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and in the parallel David slays the Amalekite. In ‘b’ the Amalekite arrives dressed in mourning as an escapee from the battle, and in the parallel David chides him with having slain YHWH’s anointed (instead of staying by his side to defend him). In ‘c’ David questions who he is, and in the parallel he questions where he is from. In ‘d’ David learns of the sad news of the battle, and in the parallel he and his men mourn over it. In ‘e’ David asks him how he knows that Saul and Jonathan are dead, and in the parallel he explains (falsely) that Saul died at his hand. In ‘f’ he explains that Saul spoke to him, hard pressed and leaning on his spear, and in the parallel he explains how Saul spoke to him again and asked him to kill him because he could take no more. Centrally in ‘g’ it is brought out that he is an Amalekite.
2.1.1 ‘And it came about after the death of Saul, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and David had abode two days in Ziklag,’
In preparing for the bad news about the death of Saul and the defeat of Israel the writer first draws attention to the triumph of David over the hosts of the Amalekites, and the fact that he had entered into rest as a result. He was relaxing in Ziklag. Like the success of the men of Jabesh-gilead it was an indication that YHWH was still active and working on behalf of His people even while the heart of Israel was being torn out. While Saul had been seeking to the dead and had consequently perished because of his sin with regard to the Amalekites, David was active through the living God, and had gloriously triumphed over the Amalekites. He was walking in the will of God, and preparing for the time when he would establish Israel securely in YHWH’s inheritance.
This reference to the Amalekites can also be seen as preparation for the arrival of the Amalekite in what follows. In spite of having become a sojourner in Israel the Amalekite reveals himself as little different from his fellows, and as a result suffers the same fate. It was not enough to live among God’s people. He needed to be like God’s people. Without genuine repentance there can only be judgment.
2.1.2 ‘It came about on the third day, that, behold, a man came out of the camp from Saul, with his clothes torn, and earth on his head, and so it was, when he came to David, that he fell to the earth, and did obeisance.’
For two days David and his men had been able to relax and enjoy the fruits of victory, but now on the third day something disturbing happened. A man arrived from the camp of Saul over sixty miles away, with his clothes ritually torn and with earth on his head. Both these were symbols of mourning and catastrophe. He clearly brought bad news. And when he was brought before David he fell to the earth and did obeisance. He gave the appearance of a man genuinely distressed. But inwardly he was not so, for he had come hoping for reward and was simply desirous of benefiting by Saul’s death.
2.1.3 ‘And David said to him, “From where are you come?” And he said to him, “Out of the camp of Israel am I escaped.”
David then questioned him as to where he had come from, and the man indicated that he had escaped from the camp of Israel. That very description was sufficient to indicate that he was the bearer of bad news.
2.1.4 ‘And David said to him, “How went the matter? I pray you, tell me.” And he answered, “The people are fled from the battle, and many of the people also are fallen and dead, and Saul and Jonathan his son are dead also.’
David then asked how the battle had gone, and learned that the men of Israel had fled from the battle and that the king and his heir, Saul and Jonathan, were dead.
2.1.5 ‘And David said to the young man who told him, “How do you know that Saul and Jonathan his son are dead?” ’
David was a wise man and had often heard rumours that had finally turned out to be untrue, and so he pressed the man further. How did he know that Saul and Jonathan were dead?
2.1.6 ‘And the young man who told him said, “As I happened by chance on mount Gilboa, behold, Saul was leaning on his spear; and, lo, the chariots and the horsemen followed hard after him.’
So the young man, who had clearly, from his seeming knowledge of what Saul had asked of his armourbearer, been nearby when Saul died, decided to embroider the story a little. We know from 31.3 that Saul had been beset by the Philistine archers who had wounded him severely, but the young man wanted the credit for his death and said nothing about that. Instead he invented a tale about his being alone and beset by chariots and horsemen, and thus in desperate straits, leaning on his spear in exhaustion because of his wounds. It never seems to have struck him that David would be sure that in such a situation Saul’s bodyguard would be gathered around him, not leaving him deserted on the battlefield, even if they would not kill him.
2.1.7-8 ‘And when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. And I answered, “Here I am.” And he said to me, Who are you?” And I answered him, “I am an Amalekite.” ’
He then explained how Saul had spotted him in the midst of battle and had asked who he was, to which he had replied that he was an Amalekite. He was innocently unaware by this that he was betraying his whole deceit to David who knew Saul as well as he knew himself, for David would know that the last thing that Saul would do was request death at the hands of an Amalekite. An Amalekite would, of course, never dream that it was anything but a privilege, but no Israelite would have seen it in that way. They would have considered it as being as bad if not worse than being slain by a Philistine, for to them the Amalekites were an accursed race (Exodus 17.14, 16; Deuteronomy 25.17-19).
2.1.9 ‘And he said to me, “Stand, I beg you, beside me, and slay me, for anguish has taken hold of me, because my life is yet whole in me.” ’
The young man then got himself into deeper trouble, for he claimed that Saul had asked for death because of his anguish, and because, while he was wounded, he was not yet dead. But David knew from experience Saul’s courage and grit, and that he would never have given up in this way while his men needed him. He knew that he would have fought bravely to the end. He would have seen it very differently had he been told the true story, for he would have known that the one thing that might have made Saul seek death was the desire to preserve the honour of YHWH by at the last moment avoiding death at the hand of the Philistines, but he would also know that he would have done it at the hands of a trusted Israelite, so that no ‘foreigner’ could slay the anointed of YHWH. Thus David would have seen the holes in the young man’s story.
2.1.10 “So I stood beside him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen, and I took the crown that was on his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them here to my lord.”
The young man then explained that he had done what Saul had bidden him, and had slain him because he knew that he was mortally wounded, thus compounding his error and deceit. To David his whole story would not have rung true. There was no mention in it of YHWH, and David would have known how, externally at least, one of Saul’s deepest concerns would have been the honour of YHWH. Compare his concern about the eating of blood during an earlier pursuit of the Philistines, which he had treated as so serious that it had halted the chase (14.33-35). And the honour of YHWH would not have been furthered by his being slain by a member of the accursed race.
The young man then produced Saul’s crown and bracelet, and informed David that he had brought them to him. His intention was clearly that David himself would take the crown and wear it. He was basically offering David the kingship of Israel. We do not know the significance of the bracelet but it was seemingly also a recognised symbol of royalty.
His intention in all this was to receive honour and reward for himself, but what he overlooked was that he was giving himself away, for while he himself thought like an Amalekite, David thought like an Israelite. The question would also immediately have arisen in David’s mind as to why the Amalekite had not at least done something to preserve the honour of the anointed of YHWH. Instead he had clearly been so keen to seize the symbols of royalty that he had given no thought either to helping Saul to escape, or to taking his body from the battlefield so that it would not be defiled by the ‘uncircumcised Philistines’. He was revealing that instead of being loyal and playing his full part in the battle, and honouring his dead king, he had thought only in terms of his own benefit and had failed in his solemn duty. That would not be something that David could easily forgive. The man was a renegade and a deserter.
2.1.11-12 ‘Then David took hold on his clothes, and tore them, and in a similar manner did all the men who were with him, and they mourned, and wept, and fasted until evening, for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of YHWH, and for the house of Israel, because they were fallen by the sword.’
However the crown and bracelet were sufficient evidence that Saul was dead, for David knew that he would never have relinquished them while he was still alive. The result was that he and his men went into instant mourning. At the dreadful news that they had heard they ritually tore their clothes as an indication of deep distress, and they began to weep loudly, which was the custom in Israel on receiving news of the death of one who was ‘near and dear’, so much so that professional mourners would often be called in to swell the cries. They also fasted until the evening, a further indication of respect and mourning for the dead (see 31.13). And it was not only for Saul. It was also mourning for the whole of Israel, and especially for their dead in battle, for it was for ‘Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of YHWH, and for the house of Israel, because they were fallen by the sword.’ Jonathan is presumably mentioned as the heir apparent, as well as because he was David’s particular friend.
The Judicial Enquiry.
What follows appears to be in the form of a judicial enquiry, for in it David formally requests information that he already knows, and the Amalekite gives an equally formal looking reply. What further was asked we are not told, but the Amalekite clearly stuck to his story that it was he who had slain Saul. And although he probably did not realise it he was signing his own death warrant.
2.1.13 ‘And David said to the young man who told him, “From where are you?” And he answered, “I am the son of a sojourner, an Amalekite.” ’
We are not told whether this was an immediate continuation of the previous conversation, or whether it occurred after some time interval once the mourning had ceased, but it is quite probably a subsequent conversation and enquiry which took place once David had had time to think over all the facts.
The young man had already made clear that he was an Amalekite (verse 8) so that the only reason for asking the question again would be because it was commencing an official judicial enquiry. Having been brought again before David, he was now being called on officially to identify himself before that enquiry. He was probably quite unaware of the seriousness of his position, and no doubt was even hoping for reward. We can compare this incident to that of Agag before Samuel. He too was brought before his ‘judge’ in a similar way as an Amalekite in 1 Samuel 15.32-33. And there too it was followed by summary execution. We should not therefore see this as a description of the whole of the conversation that took place. We may assume that the young man was given a fair hearing.
‘The son of a sojourner.’ This indicated that he had been brought up in Israel because his father had come to sojourn (live semi-permanently as a foreigner) among them. It did, however, demonstrate that he should have been aware of the awe and reverence in which the king was held as ‘YHWH’s anointed’. He was thus further condemning himself. The fact that he did not realise it confirms that he had never become a true convert to YHWH.
2.1.14 ‘And David said to him, “How were you not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy YHWH’s anointed?” ’
The enquiry being concluded David now prepared to pronounce sentence. He asked him how it was that he had not been afraid to lift up his hand against YHWH’s anointed. The man was being judged on his own words. He could have no complaint.
We know already how unwilling a true worshipper of YHWH would have been to slay someone who was ‘YHWH’s anointed’ and thus wholly sanctified to YHWH. David had constantly been unwilling to do it even when he was being hounded by Saul with a view to his death (1 Samuel 24.6, 10; 26.9, 11). The guards of Saul had equally been unwilling to do it to the anointed priests of Nob, even at the king’s command, and the king had equally acknowledged their right to do so by his response (1 Samuel 22.17). Even Saul’s own armourbearer had been unwilling to do it in the most extreme of circumstances when begged to do it by Saul himself (1 Samuel 31.4). To claim to have done such a thing was therefore seen as gross sacrilege, and while it may have been forgivable in the case of a complete foreigner, it was not so for a self-confessed long time sojourner.
David no doubt had in mind that the man was a deserter who had failed in his sacred duty and had only had his own interests in mind in the very midst of the battle, and that he had come with a lying story which he had concocted for his own ends (both of which would have been seen as deserving the death penalty in those days). He recognised therefore that he was an out and out rogue. But neither of these charges were fully provable. That did not matter, however, for legally the man was convicting himself out of his own mouth by claiming to have slain the anointed of YHWH. To the enquiry it provided sufficient evidence for the pronouncing of a just verdict. The sentence could only be death.
2.1.15 ‘And David called one of the young men, and said, “Go near, and fall on him.” And he smote him, so that he died.’
David then called on one of his young men to carry out the sentence, with the result that the young man smote the Amalekite so that he died. It was an official execution, similar to that of Agag by Samuel (1 Samuel 15.32-33).
2.1.16 ‘And David said to him, “Your blood be on your head, for your mouth has testified against you, saying, “I have slain YHWH’s anointed.” ’
David then pronounced over the dead man the official verdict which cleared the enquiry of all guilt in the matter. The man’s blood was on his own head because he had admitted to slaying YHWH’s anointed. There was a certain irony in that Saul had been found guilty by YHWH because he had refused to slay an Amalekite king who had been ‘devoted’ to YHWH under The Ban, and now an Amalekite was being found guilty because he claimed to have slain an anointed king of Israel. God took both matters very seriously indeed.
David’s Lamentation Over Saul And Jonathan (1.17-27).
In this lamentation the writer crowns the life of Saul and leads on into the life of David. As far as the whole book is concerned Saul was an unfortunate but necessary interlude between the lives of two successful YHWH inspired leaders, Samuel, with whom the book began, and David, who throughout the life of Saul has been trained up and prepared for this moment. This lamentation, in which David reveals how highly he valued both Saul and Jonathan, aptly closes off the life of Saul in readiness for David’s triumph. Except to the cynically minded there is really no doubt that David truly admired Saul and saw him as a great king and war-leader in spite of his faults, an assessment which is clearly reflected in the background to the narratives, narratives which have themselves tended to focus in on Saul’s failures through unbelief.
Furthermore humanly speaking David would never have been the king he was (in spite of his failures) without Saul. It was Saul who introduced him to court life. It was Saul who made him a company commander, and at first encouraged and nurtured his military prowess. It was Saul who then constantly persecuted him and hunted him down and threw him in God. And it was those experiences, together with his time as a shepherd, and as a petty king at Ziklag, that honed him for kingship, and firmly established his faith and trust in YHWH and his consideration towards men.
Analysis (which also gives the poem in full prior to looking at the detail).
Note how in ‘a’ the mighty have fallen, and the same occurs twice in the parallel. In ‘b’ the daughters of the Philistines are hopefully to be prevented from singing about the fall of Saul by keeping the knowledge from them, and in the parallel the daughters of Jerusalem are called on to weep over Saul because of what he had done for them. In ‘c’ there was to be mourning because the shield of the mighty had failed, and in the parallel we have the mighty jointly described both before and after their failure. Centrally in ‘d’ we have a eulogy to Saul and Jonathan.
2.1.17 ‘And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son,
The composing of a lamentation over a dead ‘hero’ was a regular practise of those days, for what happened at the time of death was seen as important and it ensured in a small way the ‘survival’ of those spoken of. Through the lamentation they lived on in the memory. It would thus be natural for David, ‘the sweet Psalmist of Israel’ (2 Samuel 23.1), to compose such a lamentation.
The cynical might see it as partly a political ploy in order to win over the hearts of the Israelites, but there really can be no doubt that there is a genuineness in the words that belies such a thought. It is remarkably free from any edge of bitterness, and from that point of view unnecessarily fulsome. It is indeed quite clear from the lamentation that David genuinely admired both Saul and Jonathan and saw them both as great leaders and warriors, and Saul as overall a great king. It reflects what we have seen previously that to David Saul was ‘the anointed of YHWH’ and that nothing that Saul did to him could dim that appreciation, even though to the writer of the book Saul was a fallen hero.
2.1.18 ‘And he bade them teach the children of Judah ‘The Bow’, behold, it is written in the book of Jashar,’
It is clear from this that the lamentation was included in the Book of Jashar (literally ‘the book of the upright one’, compare Joshua 10.13) under the title of ‘The Bow’. It would appear that this was a regularly maintained book containing tributes to famous heroes of Israel, in a similar way to that in which cities kept a special roll of those who had brought most honour to their city (compare Isaiah 4.3; Psalm 69.28; Malachi 3.16). That this particular lamentation was given the title of ‘The Bow’ was possibly partly because it was the title already given to it by David in honour of Jonathan the bowman (verse 22), and partly because to the Benjaminites, who were skilled bowmen, (and were the tribe from which Saul and Jonathan came), the bow represented the highest form of weaponry (1 Chronicles 12.2). It was thus a title of martial honour.
In a moving opening tribute David describes Saul and Jonathan as ‘the glory’ of Israel. They were the ones to whom the nation had looked and who had striven to maintain its glory, security and independence, and they had maintained that position honourably. But now ‘the glory of Israel’ was no more. It was slain on the heights of Israel, the mountains of Gilboa. Those who had once been mighty had fallen, and how they had fallen! It is being made clear that it was a national tragedy.
Note how the phrase ‘how are the mighty fallen’ is used as an inclusio. Compare verse 27. It also occurs in verse 25. It weighed heavily on the heart of David, made more poignant by the death of his beloved Jonathan.
David was now concerned lest the streets of the Philistine cities be filled with rejoicing women (in contrast with the lamenting women of Israel in verse 24), for it was then the custom for the womenfolk to unite in order to celebrate the victories of their nation by singing and dancing (compare 1 Samuel 18.6; Exodus 15.20-21). Thus he calls for a blanket on the news and the silencing of the criers in the streets of Gath and Ashkelon, the former the Philistine city with which he was most familiar, and the latter closely associated with it on the coast, possibly also as the city to which Saul’s armour had been taken, for it contained a famous Temple of Ashtoreth. The thought of ‘the daughters of the uncircumcised’ celebrating the death of the anointed of YHWH filled David with abhorrence. He saw it as an act of religious defilement. Note that although YHWH is not mentioned in the lamentation, (it is a eulogy, not a religious song), it nevertheless breathes His presence simply because of David’s love for Him.
He next calls on the mountains of Gilboa to bear the brunt of YHWH’s displeasure at what had happened. They had been the scene of the disaster, and had received the blood, and the cast off weapons, of the heroes. Let them therefore from henceforth not receive rain or dew from the heavens (the absence of which was a sign of God’s displeasure), and let them no longer enjoy the fruitfulness that would result in offerings to YHWH. Let them rather be places of perpetual mourning. For this was the place where the shields of Saul and Jonathan had been soiled with their blood at the height of battle, and unanointed because they were dead (it was a regular practise to oil shields after a battle, in order to remove the grime of battle and preserve the material). How then could such ‘guilty’ soil, produce anything that could be pleasing to YHWH?
‘Vilely soiled.’ That is, with the blood of the heroes. The verb means to cast away, to abhor, and in the niphal (as here) to defile so as to be fit only to be hated and cast away.
It need hardly be pointed out that this was poetic licence indicating David’s feelings. There was no intention that it actually happen to the literal mountains, although he may have felt like it at the time.
Centrally in the dirge David now recounts the glory of Saul and Jonathan. They had never returned from battle with their weaponry unused. Rather they would be covered with the blood of those whom they had slain, and with the flesh of the mighty warriors that they had defeated. They never turned back until it was so. They never came back ‘empty’. The description is simply intended to indicate what mighty and intrepid warriors they were.
The descriptions of bow and sword do not mean that Jonathan was essentially only a bowman, although as we know he regularly practised the art. It is simply taking the two principle sophisticated weapons of war and assigning one to each. He may, however, have been looked on as especially adept with the bow, as many Benjaminites were.
The thought now turns back to the deaths of the two heroes, paralleling verse 21. They had lived lovely and pleasant lives, especially towards each other (at such a time exceptions could be ignored), and as in life, so in death, they were in full accord and not separated. They, as it were, died together in full harmony. The eulogy then continues. They could be compared with advantage to the most voracious of hunters, the swift eagle and the powerful lion, for they were ‘swifter than eagles, stronger than lions’. The speed of an eagle’s strike was renowned, and the lion was seen as the most ferocious of beasts, but as hunters (of men) Saul and Jonathan outdid them both.
In contrast with the rejoicing daughters of the Philistines in verse 20 David calls on the daughters of Israel to weep over the loss of Saul, reminding them that it was due to his prowess and victories that they had been able to clothe themselves in finery, and be ornamented with gold. It was only the victors who could afford such things for all. They had much to be grateful to Saul for.
David then closes his dirge off with the same thought with which he had begun, the fall of the mighty (verses 25 and 27). He had previously singled out Saul to receive the lamentations of the daughters of Israel, now he singles out Jonathan to receive his own lamentations (an evidence of Davidic authorship). Previously it was ‘the glory of Israel’ who had been slain on the high places (verse 19), now it was specifically Jonathan. And David then goes on to emphasise his own personal distress over Jonathan’s death. It slightly disturbs the balance of the poem but it adequately expresses his own personal grief distress. For the death of his beloved comrade-in-arms had distressed him greatly, and he remembered what a good friend Jonathan had been to him, and especially the love that Jonathan had had for him, that noble love that exceeds that of a woman because it is pure and wholly altruistic. Jonathan had had absolutely nothing to gain by it. It had been freely given. (Again we are not to take it too literally. Some women do love like this as well).
The lamentation then closes with a repetition of the thought of the fall of the mighty already spoken of in verse 25, and it is paralleled with the idea of their weapons of war being destroyed because there is no further use for them. Those who would have used them have gone. Alternately we might see ‘the weapons of war’ as indicating Saul and Jonathan. The two ideas in fact go together. The whole poem is magnificent, and exalts Saul and Jonathan, as king and crown prince, to the heights. None could now doubt their glory and splendour, and the dreadfulness of what their deaths meant for Israel (although we can add, had not YHWH raised up David to take their place).
SECTION 6. David is Initially Crowned King Of Judah And Then Of All Israel (2.1-5.5).
By now the all-conquering Philistines had swept into central Israel and at least up to the Jordan, and possibly beyond it, and had in the process occupied the main cities of central Israel (1 Samuel 31.7). The statement in 1 Samuel 31.7 about ‘those on the side of the Jordan’ may have been intended to indicate troops stationed beyond the Jordan, or alternatively it may simply have intended to indicate troops who had been stationed near the Jordan on the west side but to the rear of the battle, possibly in the hills around Gilgal and Jericho as in the times of Saul (compare 1 Samuel 13.6-7, 11; 14.11, 22).
However, in view of the fact that it was not until five years later that Abner was able to set up Ish-bosheth as king over Israel in Mahanaim, (he reigned two years compared to David’s seven) it is probable that the Philistines certainly exercised some control in Transjordan, at least for a time. But the Philistines possibly came to recognise that in the end this was stretching their resources too far, for their major concern would no doubt have been to consolidate their empire west of Jordan, and they may thus have relaxed their grip on Transjordan, and even have allowed the appointment of Ish-bosheth as a vassal king. This may all be suggested by the extent of his rule.
This may also have been because the guerilla operations of the survivors of the Israelite army who had fled across the Jordan, and were now ably led by Abner, had been able to make life continually uncomfortable for them. The Philistines never liked hill fighting and guerilla warfare (compare the Syrians in 1 Kings 20.28), because in such circumstances they could not use their chariots, and they would also have recognised that they could not leave their own cities and farms unattended and unprotected for too long. They were simply not numerous enough to constantly occupy such a large area. Thus to appoint Ish-bosheth to rule for them might have been seen by them as a good way to ‘pacify the natives’, while at the same time allowing them to turn their attention elsewhere.
It is probable that their next move after defeating the Israelite army and occupying the Israelite cities would have been to occupy Judah to the south, but it would appear that this move was circumvented by David, who, after obtaining directions from YHWH, himself occupied Judah with his men (that would be how it appeared to the Philistines). The fact that the Philistines raised no objection to this suggests that they saw him as still their vassal and as having done this under the aegis of Achish, king of Gath. Indeed, they may well have admired the way in which, having been prevented from marching with the main army, he had demonstrated his initiative by himself ‘conquering’ that part of the land that they themselves had not invaded, for we must remember:
The defeated and demoralised Israelites who had survived the battle, and had fled to places out of reach of the Philistines, would gradually over the next few months filter back, and if so were probably soon mobilised by Abner, Saul’s cousin and general, along with the men who were still with him, into a guerilla army. This is what we might have anticipated, for so demoralising had been their defeat that we would expect it to take a few years for them to stage a recovery. This would then explain why it took around five years before Abner was able to set up Ish-bosheth, Saul’s remaining son, as king in Mahanaim, east of Jordan. And as that rule was stated to have been over areas including the plain of Jezreel (unless this was a town or area in Transjordan, for there was also a Jezreel in Judah - Joshua 15.56), Benjamin and Ephraim in the central hill country, it is not likely that he could have achieved it without the consent of the Philistines. (Unless, of course, the descriptions were only theoretical). We are, however, left to guess all this, because it was not of interest to the writer whose main interest was first in describing how David became king over Judah, and then king over all Israel, in accordance with YHWH’s purpose.
Approaching these next chapters we need to pause and remember the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes 5.2, ‘God is in Heaven and you are on the earth, therefore let your words be few’, for they reveal a picture of the sovereign God enabling David to surmount all the temptations that came his way, while around him all were trying to lead him astray. For from that triumphant moment when he was anointed king over Judah, to his next moment of triumph when he was anointed king over all Israel, he was constantly beset by the temptation to use irregular methods for achieving God’s purposes, only to be kept from them either by YHWH or because of his own spiritual awareness (thus continuing YHWH’s perpetual watch over him portrayed in 1 Samuel 21-30).
In chapter 2, when his victorious army had swept an invading Israel before them there must have been the temptation for Judah to carry on the chase and take over the territory occupied by Ish-bosheth, a temptation brought under control by Abner’s wise words to Joab (2.26), thus preventing a great deal of bitterness. In chapter 3 there was the temptation to enter into a league with Abner and stage a coup against Ish-bosheth, thus causing dissension in Israel, a temptation brought under control by the death of Abner at the hands of Joab, followed immediately by the temptation to take the way of Joab which his own spiritual morality protected him from. And in chapter 4 there was at least theoretically the temptation to accept the opportunity offered by the two commanders who had slain Ish-bosheth, by displaying the head of Ish-bosheth in order to demonstrate his own right to be king, from which he was again saved by his moral sensitivity. So in each case he was preserved, either by the activity of others whom YHWH used within His purposes (as with Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, and the Philistines in 1 Samuel 29.7), or more regularly because of his own innate spirituality and moral sensitivity (as so often in 1 Samuel). For in the end it was YHWH’s purpose that he receive the crown without arousing bitterness, by the public acclamation of all Israel. We can briefly sum up this section as follows:
Thus amidst all the battles, intrigues and murders that take place YHWH triumphantly bears David to the throne of Israel untainted by all that is going on.
David Is Anointed As King Over Judah And Ish-bosheth Receives The Crown Of Israel (2.1-11).
After consulting YHWH David moved his men into Judah while still retaining authority over Ziklag, and was anointed as king over Judah. His upward career was moving in accordance with YHWH’s promises and plan. Meanwhile Abner was conducting a campaign in Transjordanian Israel in order to ensure that the rule of the Saulides continued over what remained of Israel, a campaign which took five years and may have included harassing the Philistines who had moved into their cities (1 Samuel 31.7), and dealing with any internal opposition to Ish-bosheth taking direct rule over Gilead. It may well be that, if the description of the area of his rule is to be taken in any sense literally, he then agreed to Ish-bosheth becoming a vassal king of the Philistines so as to consolidate his throne. The Philistines would be well pleased with this situation. Israel was divided into two, and their vassal kings ruled each part separately.
While Judah had always maintained a certain level of independence within the confederacy of tribes, this further accentuated it. For the first time in their history, Judah, and all who saw themselves as united with Judah and lived in the South (e.g. many of the Simeonites (Judges 1.3, 17; 2 Chronicles 15.9), the Kenites (Judges 1.16; 1 Samuel 27.10), and the Jerahmeelites (1 Samuel 27.10)), now stood alone from the remainder of the tribes. They would never again really see themselves as part of Israel, and would later be joined by the Benjaminites (1 Kings 12.23) and some members of other tribes who would move into Judean territory (2 Chronicles 15.9). We must recognise in all this that tribal movements were fluid and not static, and that not all remained within their allotted boundaries (see e.g. 1 Chronicles 4.42; 2 Chronicles 15.9). The history of the tribes is very complicated and, for example, if we take ‘the ten tribes’ who made up Northern Israel to include Simeon (1 Kings 11.31; compare 2 Chronicles 34.6), many Simeonites clearly later moved to northern Israel. This would not be too surprising if they had found themselves being submerged by Judah and had resented it.
Note than in ‘a’ David is to go up to Hebron at the command of YHWH, and in the parallel David is reigning over Hebron in the midst of YHWH’s inheritance, in contrast with Ish-bosheth who is reigning in Mahanaim outside YHWH’s inheritance. In ‘b’ David dwells in Hebron and is anointed king over Judah and in the parallel Ish-bosheth is made king over Israel. In ‘c’ it is stressed by David that the men of Jabesh-gilead have buried Saul, and in the parallel David emphasises to them that their lord is now dead, and informs them that the men of Judah have anointed him as king over them. In ‘d’ and centrally David calls for YHWH’s blessing on the men of Jabesh-gilead because they have honoured Saul in his death, and assures them of his favour.
2.2.1 ‘ And it came about after this, that David enquired of YHWH, saying, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” And YHWH said to him, “Go up.” And David said, “Where shall I go up?” And he said, “To Hebron.” ’
News having reached David of the wholesale defeat of the Israelite army by the Philistines, and recognising that Judah would be next to feel their iron hand, he was naturally concerned for his fellow-tribesmen and decided that it was time that he provided them with some support. But it was a sign of his genuine determination to do YHWH’s will and not to act before YHWH’s time, that he would not do so without YHWH’s agreement. So he enquired of YHWH through the ephod as to whether he should go up into the hill country of Judah, into one of their cities. And when the answer was positive the next question was as to which one. The reply was unambiguous. It was ‘to Hebron’.
We need not doubt that he did have some expectation that they might well ask him to be their king, (the death of Saul had left them almost defenceless), but his method of approach counts against any suggestion that it was simply a cynical ploy. Whatever others might do David was not the kind of person who would have manipulated God’s method of revealing His will, for with all his ambition he constantly comes through as determined not to act before YHWH’s time. We must therefore accept his approach to YHWH as genuine.
Hebron was the natural capital of Judah. It was a very ancient city in the Judean highlands, previously named Kiriath-arba, and dating back to the time of Abraham who spent much time there (Genesis 23.2; 35.27).
2.2.2-3 ‘So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite. And his men who were with him did David bring up, every man with his household, and they dwelt in the cities of Hebron.’
Accordingly David took his two wives (a sign that he saw the move as at least semi-permanent) and along with his men and their households took up residence in the cities of Hebron. In view of his previous generosity to them, and the parlous situation in which the Philistine victory had left them, we need not doubt that they were doubly welcome.
2.2.4a ‘And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.’
As a result of his arrival the men of Judah came to him and asked him to be king over them, and there they anointed him as king over the house of Judah. Whether they had any choice in the matter or not, it can hardly be doubted that the appointment of David as king of Judah was almost automatic. Consider the circumstances.
So we will not find it surprising that they immediately anointed him as king over Judah. What would turn out to be a bonus was that this would then satisfy the Philistines, who would see him as taking possession of Judah as their vassal, so that any danger of invasion ceased.
To be anointed as king over the house of Judah would remind the writer of the promise of the coming of the powerful king Shiloh in Genesis 49.10, the king to whom all the people would gather and who would bring great prosperity. The crowning of this coming king would thus in his eyes be closely associated with the house of Judah.
2.2.4b ‘And they told David, saying, “The men of Jabesh-gilead were they who buried Saul.” ’
The reintroduction of the men of Jabesh-gilead confirms the writer’s deep interest in them. These men were the bright spot amidst Israel’s failure, and demonstrated the resilient spirit that would be Israel’s hope in the future. David recognised this and sought to fan the flame within them. Here were the men who by their brave action had restored some of Israel’s lost pride and had dented the reputation of the Philistines. It was clearly something being boasted about among those who could be trusted, for when a nation has almost reached rock bottom in its morale, even such a seemingly ‘small’ victory can have a far reaching effect. It had not altered the parlous situation in which they were, but it was the one peace of good news that they still had left for them to boast about. They had shown those Philistines a thing or two. It strengthened their feeling of national pride. And besides, David may well have been intrigued as to who had carried out the act that had so enraged the Philistines. Now he was given the answer.
It was, of course, more than a titbit of good news to David, for he was Saul’s son-in-law and had once been on very good terms with him, and he had looked to him as YHWH’s anointed. What had happened to his body was therefore something in which he had a great personal interest.
2.2.5-6 ‘And David sent messengers to the men of Jabesh–gilead, and said to them, “Blessed be you of YHWH, in that you have showed this kindness to your lord, even to Saul, and have buried him. And now YHWH show lovingkindness and truth to you, and I also will requite you this kindness, because you have done this thing.”
So David despatched messengers to the men of Jabesh-gilead bearing a message of goodwill and gratitude. He asked YHWH to bless them because they had ‘shown compassion to their lord’ and had ensured that he had a decent burial. And he prayed that in the same way YHWH would show compassion and truth towards them, and assured them that, as regards himself, he would requite them with kindness for what they had done. It would never be forgotten. From now on they could be sure of his goodwill.
2.2.7 “Now therefore let your hands be strong, and be you valiant, for Saul your lord is dead, and also the house of Judah have anointed me king over them.”
Then he called on them in the face of the death of Saul to be strong of hand and to be ‘valiant’, and brought to their attention the fact that he has been anointed as king over Judah. He was thus a good friend to have. It was hardly a call to them to make him their king as well, for they were probably not in a position to do so, but it was a call for them to continue to be strong and to look to him if they ever needed his help. It was an assurance that he would be there for them if ever they were in need. Just as he had previously prepared the elders of Judah in order that later they might find him acceptable, so he now wanted these Transjordanians to see him in the same way for when the possibility of his receiving the kingship of Israel might arise. But it is being over-cynical to suggest that that was his only motive. Genuine gratitude very much played its part, together with the desire to keep the spirit of Israel alive.
It is probably to be seen as significant that while David is described as being ‘anointed’ as king, the same is not said of Ish-bosheth (verse 9) even though he probably was anointed (compare Judges 9.8 which suggests that the idea of a king being anointed on appointment was normal). To the writer there was only one anointed king, the one whom YHWH had anointed.
2.2.8 ‘Now Abner the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s host, had taken Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim,’
We are now given a description of what was meanwhile happening in Israel. Here there is no mention of anointing, and the king is established outside YHWH’s inheritance in Transjordan. Furthermore he is not of the house of Judah.
It would be natural for a power seeking Abner to seek to establish a member of the Saulide house as king, especially one whom he was sure that he could control. For there seems little doubt that Ish-bosheth was in some ways somewhat lacking, although we do not know how. This comes out in that he was never mentioned along with his brothers as a warrior, even though he was of fighting age and five years or so older than David. We are given no details about him but something was clearly lacking in him. He may have been partly disabled, or mentally weak.
The name Ish-bosheth means ‘man of shame’. It is a play on his real name, Esh-baal (‘fire of Baal’)/Ish-baal (1 Chronicles 8.33; 9.39). With people who bore a name containing the name of Baal it was regularly later replaced by bosheth in order to bring out the shame of having such a name. (Compare Jerubbaal = Jerubesheth - Judges 9.1; 2 Samuel 11.21 and Meribaal = Mephibosheth - 2 Samuel 4.4; 9.6; 1 Chronicles 9.40). Originally in fact ‘Baal’ had meant ‘Lord’ and had been intended to indicate YHWH (compare Hosea 3.16), but its later connections with idolatry had brought it into disrepute.
2.2.9 ‘And he made him king at Gilead, and at Ha’ashuri (or ‘the Ashurites’), and at Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel.’
Abner made Ish-bosheth king at Gilead. Note the emphasis on the fact that it was what Abner did, not what Israel did. It is quite possible that there was a good deal of resistance in Israel which he had to quell, an that the position was obtained by force of arms.
The theoretical extent of Ish-bosheth’s kingdom is described here, but there is little doubt that it was to some extent wishful thinking, otherwise, if he really ruled over Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel, why would he remain in Mahanaim? It is, of course possible that some arrangement was made with the Philistines with them allowing him some kind of control as a vassal king
The first three names are introduced with the same preposition (el), and the last three are introduced with a slightly different preposition (‘al). This may suggest that the first three are administrative areas or administrative towns while the last three are tribal descriptions. In that case we should probably seek the first three in Transjordan. Gilead is unquestionably in Transjordan and could refer to a town or to a large administrative area (the name is very flexible), Jezreel may indicate the town/valley of Jezreel in the north, but the name means ‘God sows’ and may have been given to a number of towns, including one east of Jordan. Consider how there was also a Jezreel in Judah. It is in fact unlikely that the Philistines would have allowed him control over the important valley of Jezreel through which the trade routes ran, except possibly in a perfunctory way. ‘Ashurim’ is mentioned elsewhere in Genesis 25.3 as the name of a son of Dedan. While there is probably no direct connection Ha’ashuri could well therefore here indicate a town (now unknown) situated in Transjordan and connected with Arabs sojourners, (or even one west of the Jordan). The lack of mention of a major well known city probably indicates that the Philistines had control over all such cities.
King over ‘Benjamin and Ephraim and all Israel’ probably reflects the number of Benjaminites and Ephraimites at his court, and may also indicate that in fact the tribes did acknowledge him as their king, without necessarily being under his direct rule due to the controlling Philistines. In the same way Saul had only loosely ruled some of the more distant tribes in his day, the main rule in those tribes being with the elders of the tribes. Where his authority was expressed was when he called up the tribal levies in accordance with the covenant.
2.2.10 ‘Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David.
The details of Ish-bosheth’s reign are now given in terms of the kind of formula which will characterise future kings, presenting his age and the length of his reign. David himself will be introduced in this way later (see 5.4). The age of forty may be an approximate round number indicating maturity. It occurs far too often for it always to be seen as numerically specific (in those days numbers were regularly used adjectivally. People were not on the whole numerate). The reign of two years contrasts with the seven years, six months of David. It would appear that it had taken five years to establish Ish-bosheth’s position. This was not surprising given the drubbing that they had had from the Philistines, the fact that all Israel were not yet necessarily convinced about a dynastic kingship, and the fact that the Transjordanian Israelites might well not have been too happy about a king situated on their own doorstep, especially one whom they saw as having failed. Abner may well have had to gradually ‘persuade’ them that it was in their own interests, and on top of that there may have been other ‘pretenders’ to the throne of Gilead.
It is emphasised that the house of Judah followed David. We have already noted how the writer regularly contrasts Ish-bosheth with David, and does so in a poor light. For example Ish-bosheth was not stated to have been ‘anointed’, he was not in any way seen as connected with Judah and therefore with the related prophecy of the coming Shiloh (Genesis 49.10), he was ruling outside the land of YHWH’s inheritance with only a perfunctory control over the tribes, and he only had a short reign, possibly indicating that many had resisted his right to be king.
2.2.11 ‘And the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months.’
Meanwhile David had been king in Hebron over the house of Judah for seven years and six months and no one doubted his right. He was truly anointed, he had continued, in Hebron, his previous rule over Ziklag in the land of YHWH’s inheritance, he was wanted by the elders of Judah and he was from the ‘royal’ house of Judah (Genesis 49.10). There is no doubt therefore who was superior in the writer’s eyes. And the writer knew why it was. It was because the Spirit of YHWH had fallen on him (1 Samuel 16.13). He was YHWH’s designated true king.
Abner And Israel Seek To Win The Whole Kingdom For Ish-bosheth And Are Soundly Defeated (2.12-28).
Having finally established Ishbosheth as king over Israel Abner now turned his attention to bringing Judah back into the fold. In his view, as a Saulide and a Benjaminite, Ishbosheth was the rightful heir to the whole of the kingdom, i.e. to the throne of ‘all Israel’. Thus in his eyes David was a usurper, and especially so as he could still be looked on as a vassal of the Philistines.
It would appear that the Philistines took little notice of this situation. They were indeed no doubt delighted that what remained of Israel was divided up into two parts, and even moreso because one part was under one whom they saw as their own vassal king. They were probably quite satisfied in their own minds that David could look after things at his end, and such ‘border wars’ were after all happening all the time. Why then should they interfere? Especially as it simply meant that David and Israel were both weakening each other. (They would, of course, interfere later when David took over the whole kingdom and they felt that things were getting out of hand).
We might actually feel that Abner was very foolish in his decision. What real chance did a weakened Israel have against David’s superbly trained force? But we should remember that he did not see David and his men from our viewpoint. He saw him as a treacherous renegade, who had previously made him look small in the eyes of Saul (1 Samuel 26.13-16), and who had taken advantage of Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines to persuade a desperate Judah to appoint him as king. Thus now that he had satisfactorily instated Ish-bosheth as king, which had probably taken quite a bit of persuasion, he felt that the next step must be to bring Judah into submission. He had not had the opportunity to realise that this time he would in fact be coming up against an efficient fighting machine which had proved itself time and again. As far as he was concerned David had always been a renegade ‘on the run’. Thus in his ignorance he was confident that a weakened Israel, even though still recovering from their heavy losses at the hands of the Philistines, (and we should remember that they had then lost almost the whole of their own standing army), should nevertheless easily be able to cope with a rebellious Judah under a renegade king.
Note that in ‘a’ Abner brings Israel’s forces to Gibeon with the purpose of invading Judah, and is met by the forces of David under his general Joab, while in the parallel Israel’s forces are on the run and it is Joab who is in control of affairs. In ‘b’ it is Abner’s words which commence hostilities, and in the parallel Joab points out that none of it would have started unless Abner had spoken as he did. In ‘c’ the sword devours men on both sides, and in the parallel Abner asks if the sword is to be allowed to devour for ever. In ‘d’ Abner and his men were beaten before David’s men, and in the parallel Abner and his men rally on top of a hill. In ‘e’ Joab, Abishai, and Asahel were going into battle, and in the parallel Asahel died, and Joab and Abishai were pursuing the enemy. In ‘f’ Asahel was not willing to turn aside from following Abner, and in the parallel he died because of his refusal to do so. In ‘g’ Abner pleads with him to turn aside from following him, and in the parallel he does the same. Centrally in ‘h’ Asahel persisted and would not turn aside with the result that he was going on to his death, a death that would have grave consequences, both for Abner (3.30), and later for Joab (3.39; 1 Kings 2.5-6).
2.2.12 ‘And Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon.’
Having established the kingship of Ish-bosheth in Mahanaim, Abner gathered Ish-bosheth’s warriors and advanced over the Jordan to Gibeon in Benjamin. Gibeon was in Benjaminite territory and Abner, a Benjaminite himself, no doubt hoped to gather further support there. His final purpose was to advance on Judah.
2.2.13 ‘And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out, and met them by the pool of Gibeon, and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool.’
News of the Israelite movements had reached David through his spies, and he responded by sending out Joab, the son of Zeruiah (David’s sister) to Gibeon, along with his men, in order to prevent any attempted movement on Judah. Arriving there they encamped on the opposite side of a large reservoir to Abner and his men and waited to see what Abner would do. The next move would be up to him.
2.2.14 ‘And Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men, I pray you, arise and play before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” ’
What Abner then did was basically a declaration of war. As had happened in the case of Goliath and Israel (1 Samuel 17) he called on Joab to send out warriors to meet his champions. The grim old warrior spoke jestingly of ‘play, but there was no real intention of ‘play’. It was to be a fight to the death. Whoever won would prove that YHWH was on their side.
2.2.15 ‘Then they arose and went over by number, twelve for Benjamin, and for Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David.’
Agreement was then reached that each side would submit twelve warriors, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth and twelve for Judah and David. Presumably victory would be seen as going to the one left standing at the end.
2.2.16 ‘And they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow’s side so that they fell down together, which was the reason why that place was called Helkath–hazzurim, which is in Gibeon.’
We know nothing about the practises which were followed in Israel with regard to such affairs, but the description suggests that certain accepted procedures were followed. Seemingly the aim was to seize the opponents head or beard, and then slay him with a sword. But the men were all so expert that each immediately slew his opponent, and all twenty four died simultaneously together. It was a grim business. Others see the description as simply signifying the ferocity of the battle as they struggled for the mastery. Either way the result was a draw. Neither side had gained the advantage. But the result was that war was now inevitable. By this action the battle had begun. Nothing could now prevent it from going forward. Blood had been shed.
The ferocity of the encounter, which must have shaken many on both sides, was such that from then on that place was named Helkath-hazzurim which meant “field of the sharp edges.” It would not be forgotten for a long time.
2.2. 17 ‘And the battle was very hard that day, and Abner was beaten, and the men of Israel, before the servants of David.’
Battle then commenced and was hard fought all day, until at length the forces of Abner had to admit defeat before David’s warriors and fled the field.
2.2.18 ‘And the three sons of Zeruiah were there, Joab, and Abishai, and Asahel, and Asahel was as light of foot as a wild roe.’
The three sons of David’s sister were all participants in the battle, and one of them, Asahel the youngest, was fleet of foot. The result was that once the enemy had fled he determinedly set off after Abner with a view to catching up with him and killing him, and thus leaving the Israelite army leaderless and Ish-bosheth without his general. Ignoring Abner’s great reputation as a warrior as of no account he had the confidence of a young man that he would be able to slay him.
2.2.19 ‘And Asahel pursued after Abner, and in going he turned not to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner.’
Indeed he was so determined to kill Abner that he allowed nothing and no one to hinder him in his chase. In his confidence in his own abilities he refused to deviate from his chosen path. His whole thought was fixed on Abner.
2.2.20 ‘Then Abner looked behind him, and said, “Is it you, Asahel?” And he answered, “It is I.” ’
Checking behind him as he ran, Abner felt that he recognised in the dim light of the forest the warrior who was chasing him and slowly overtaking him, and so he called back, “Is it you, Asahel?” The reply immediately came to him out of the semi-darkness, ‘Yes, it’s me.’ (Wrong grammar perhaps, but what most would say).
2.21a ‘And Abner said to him, “Turn you aside to your right hand or to your left, and you lay hold on one of the young men, and take for yourself his armour.” But Asahel would not turn aside from following him.
Abner, who had no doubt in his mind about his ability to deal with the young man without any difficulty, regretted that he should be putting himself in such danger and pleaded with him to desist and find an easier target. He was loth to kill Joab’s brother and begged him rather to find honour by slaying someone more on his own level, and taking his armour.
2.2.21b ‘But Asahel would not turn aside from following him.’
Asahel would not, however, be put off his purpose. He wanted the glory of being the man who had slain Abner, and probably also genuinely recognised how important such a victory would be for his side.
2.2.22 ‘And Abner said again to Asahel, “You turn aside from following me, for why should I smite you to the ground? How then should I hold up my face to Joab your brother?” ’
Recognising that Asahel was getting even nearer, Abner again pleaded with him to change his mind and seek out someone else. He probably had a soft spot for Asahel, and stressed that he really did not want to kill Joab’s brother, for it would mean that he could never look Joab straight in the eye again.
2.2.23a ‘However that might be he refused to turn aside, which was why Abner, with the hinder end of the spear, smote him in the body, so that the spear came out behind him, and he fell down there, and died in the same place.’
But Asahel was not to be dissuaded, and steadily decreased the distance between himself and Abner in order to stab him in the back as he ran. However, as he approached the wily old warrior thrust accurately back with his spear and it went straight through him. The spear was probably pointed at both ends. And the result was that he died immediately, falling where he was.
2.23b ‘And it came about that as many as came to the place where Asahel fell down and died, stood still.’
The pursuing Davidides who came up to that spot during the chase stopped when they saw the body of Asahel in order to do him honour, before proceeding with the chase, for he was a man greatly admired. This appears to have been the custom with a fallen hero as we see from 20.12. It must be assumed that certain rites were then observed.
2.2.24 ‘But Joab and Abishai pursued after Abner, and the sun went down when they were come to the hill of Ammah, which lies before Giah by the way of the wilderness of Gibeon.’
Meanwhile Joab and Abishai led their men on in the pursuit after Abner and Israel, and as the sun went down they came to the hill of Ammah (‘aqueduct’), which is before Giah (‘gusher’) on ‘the road of the wilderness of Gibeon’. None of the sites are identifiable.
2.2.25 ‘And the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together behind Abner, and became one band, and stood on the top of a hill.’
Recognising that the pursuit was continuing, and that their men were therefore being mowed down as they ran, Abner gathered the Benjaminites who were with him (or some who had come to joint them) and formed a single unit on the top of a hill. His aim may well have been to draw attention to them so that the remainder of his forces could escape, as well as to be able to speak to Joab.
2.2.26 ‘Then Abner called to Joab, and said, “Shall the sword devour for ever? Do you not know that it will be bitterness in the latter end? How long will it be then, before you bid the people return from following their brothers?”
Then Abner called to Joab and asked him whether he really wanted to go on slaughtering his brothers. ‘Shall the sword devour for ever’ is a reminder of what the sword had done in verse 16. And then he pointed out the intense bitterness that always results from civil war, especially when it is pursued aggressively, and asked how long it would be before Joab ceased the pursuit.
2.2.27 ‘And Joab said, “As God lives, if you had not spoken, surely then in the morning the people had gone away, nor followed every one his brother.” ’
In view of the fact that Abner had commenced the battle Joab thought that this was a bit of a cheek, and pointed out to him that if he had not originally called for the battle to start by arranging the competition between the two sets of twelve warriors (verses 14-15), then both sides would have gone away peacefully on the following morning with no one pursuing anyone else. The fault therefore lay totally at Abner’s door.
2.2.28 ‘So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the people stood still, and no longer pursued after Israel, nor did they fight any more.’
Joab, however, recognised the truth of what Abner had said. He knew that David would not be pleased if he antagonised the Israelites unnecessarily. So he blew the ram’s horn in order to indicate the cessation of the pursuit, and to call the men together ready for the return home. And being well-disciplined the men responded immediately. The pursuit was over and the killing stopped. The invasion of Judah had also been prevented.
The Aftermath of the Battle (2.29-32).
When Saul and his companions had finished consulting with the medium of Endor ‘they arose and went away that night’ (1 Samuel 28.25), in contrast with David who was told by Achish to ‘start early in the morning, and depart as soon as you have light’ (1 Samuel 29.10. It appeared that there the writer was contrasting Saul’s journey into the darkness with David’s journey into the light. If that appears a little fanciful, consider the similar situation here. Abner and his men go ‘all that night’ and come to Mahanaim, (verse 29) while for Joab and his men, although they go all night, ‘the day broke on them at Hebron’ (verse 32b). It would seem that we have the same indication, that the Saulides are going into the darkness, while David’ men are going into the light.
In between those statements we learn the outcome of the battle. David’s efficient and well-trained army lost only twenty men, while the lesser trained men of Israel lost ‘three hundred and three score men’. If this included the twelve slain in the opening contest the losses of David’s army were incredibly light, consisting only of seven men, and Asahel. It was a clear portent about the future.
Note that in ‘a’ Abner and his men went all night and came to Mahanaim, while in the parallel Joab and his men went all night and day broke on them in Hebron. In ‘b’ we are reminded of the death of Asahel, and in the parallel we are told of the burial of Asahel. Central in ‘c’ are the larger Israelite losses.
2.2.29 ‘And Abner and his men went all that night through the Arabah, and they passed over the Jordan, and went through all Bithron, and came to Mahanaim.’
Abner’s defeated army travelled all night to reach Mahanaim, entering the Jordan rift valley (the Arabah), passing over the Jordan (on the way out of the promised land), and going through ‘all Bithron’ (the word means ‘ravine’) in order to get there. What a vivid contrast it was to their previous journey the other way which they had taken days previously with such great hopes of success. Israel were getting used to being defeated.
2.2.30 ‘And Joab returned from following Abner, and when he had gathered all the people together, there were missing of David’s servants nineteen men and Asahel.’
In contrast Joab returned from the chase and on mustering the men discovered that only twenty men were missing, including Asahel. The mention of Asahel as a kind of addition stresses the greatness of the loss that they felt in his death. He had been a great warrior, and had been one of ‘the thirty’ (2 Samuel 23.24), who along with ‘the Three’ (2 Samuel 23.8-12) were the leading lights among David’s forces.
2.2.31 ‘But the servants of David had smitten of Benjamin, and of Abner’s men three hundred and threescore men who died.’
Meanwhile a count was made of those of Israel who had died, and they numbered ‘three hundred and threescore men’. This may have been calculated by Joab on the basis of the bodies discovered, or it may have been the result of the count when Abner arrived at Mahanaim. It may, however be that the number is deliberately adjectival indicating a large number which indicated the completeness of the victory, for it is a round number, and three is the number of completion, with its repetition emphasising the completeness. The emphasis is on the fact that their losses had amounted to hundreds, with many being slain on their headlong flight.
2.2. 32 ‘And they took up Asahel, and buried him in the sepulchre of his father, which was in Beth–lehem. And Joab and his men went all night, and the day broke on them at Hebron.’
The assessments of the battle having been made they took up Asahel’s body and buried it in his father’s tomb in Bethlehem, the home of David’s family. Asahel’s mother was David’s elder sister. While some were engaged in this Joab led his men through the night and arrived at Hebron in time for the break of day. It was symbolic of the bright future that lay ahead for them.
David Makes Himself Strong In Hebron While Abner Makes Himself Strong In A Weakened House Of Saul (3.1-6).
There would appear to have been constant antagonism between Judah and Israel from the moment when David was made King of Judah, and the result was that while David and his house continued to grow in power, the house of Saul became weaker and weaker, until in the end it was dominated by one man, Abner, Saul’s cousin and former general. This probably does not indicate continuing warfare. Apart from the one incursion above which for Israel had been a disaster, which had taken place once Abner had made the house of Saul safe from Israel’s internal wrangling, Israel were in no position to make war on David. And David, in his usual manner, was seemingly happy to wait for YHWH to decide when he should make his next move. Indeed one of the reasons why the house of Saul grew so weak would be precisely because it was involved in these internal Israelite squabbles, with the result that Abner had to take control with a firm hand and assert his authority. David on the other hand was meanwhile prospering, marrying well and producing six fine sons, which the writer clearly saw as indicating his overall wellbeing and prosperity.
David’s growth in strength is thus illustrated in terms of his son-producing wives, for sons were always seen as making a man’s house strong. The marriages of people like David usually had political aims. His first two wives had firmly established his position in Judah and as a man of influence and great wealth. His third resulted in a treaty relationship with Talmai, the king of Geshur, a city in Syria, north east of Bashan (2 Samuel 15.8; 1 Chronicles 3.2; Joshua 12.5; 13.11, 13). We know little about the others but we need not doubt their importance in his plans.
Note that in ‘a’ the continual antagonism between the two houses is mentioned along with the growing strong of David, while in the parallel the continual antagonism is again mentioned, along with the growing weakness of the Saulides as Abner begins to take over. In ‘b’ it is emphasised that sons were born to David in Hebron, and in the parallel the same is emphasised. Centrally in ‘c’ we have the names of David’s wives and sons.
2.3.1 ‘Now there was long antagonism (war) between the house of Saul and the house of David, but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.’
As already mentioned the antagonism probably did not express itself in continual warfare in view of Israel’s weak condition. It rather resulted in non-recognition of each other’s positions and an attitude of opposition to each other’s claims. As we have seen in chapter 2 Israel’s one failed attempt at warfare came when Abner thought that he had established Ish-bosheth’s position firmly, and as we know, it resulted in dismal failure, simply because Abner had underestimated David’s power. (Had relations been more friendly Abner might have had contact with David and have recognised how foolish it would be to challenge him). David was meanwhile establishing Judah, while making raids on different antagonists in order to gain booty, as he had previously in Ziklag (verse 22), while at the same time leaving Israel well alone. He was prepared to wait for YHWH to fulfil His promises and did not therefore wish to antagonise Israel itself.
2.3.2-5 ‘And to David sons were born in Hebron: and his first–born was Amnon, of Ahinoam the Jezreelitess; and his second, Chileab, of Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite; and the third, Absalom the son of Maacah the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; and the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; and the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital; and the sixth, Ithream, of Eglah, David’s wife. These were born to David in Hebron.’
The double emphasis on the fact that David had six sons in Hebron is clearly intended to demonstrate how God was prospering him, and how strong he was becoming. His time in Hebron was to be seen as one of growth and blessing. Later we will learn of further sons born to him in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5.13-16).
Ahinoam and Abigail we know of from previous references. The remaining four marriages no doubt took place in Hebron. But what was most important was that they all bore him sons. Such sons when grown up could be politically useful (2 Chronicles 11.22-23). The fact that some of them in fact became a thorn in his side was due solely to his own sin with regard to Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba.
Apart from Maacah we know nothing about the wives he married in Hebron but they were probably politically influential. To a king marriage was a means of cementing his position and gaining political allies (concubines were for love). Thus these marriages emphasised his growing prestige and influence.
2.3.6 ‘And it came about that, while there was antagonism (war) between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner made himself strong in the house of Saul.’
One result of the continual antagonism between the two houses and the resulting weakness that it brought to the house of Saul was that Abner was able to establish his own position.
Abner Quarrels With Ish-bosheth Over One Of Saul’s Concubines And Decides As A Consequence To Advance David’s Claims To The Throne Of Israel (3.7-16).
While David’s strengthening position is seen by the writer in terms of his wives and sons, Abner and Ish-bosheth are seen as falling out over Abner’s association with one of Saul’s former concubines. This may well have been an attempt by Abner to further strengthen his position in the house of Saul, for any children resulting from his relationship would be in line for the throne. And besides, to cohabit with a dead king’s concubines was the privilege of the heir so that his action could be seen as a veiled claim to be Saul’s heir (compare 16.21; 1 Kings 2.21-22). Thus either way Abner was treading a dangerous path. Alternately it is possible that it really was simply because he desired her. Whichever way it was, however, the writer uses it to contrast Abner and his concubine with David who was married to a true-born daughter of Saul (verses 13-14).
Note that in ‘a’ Ish-bosheth chides Abner for having relations with his father’s concubine, and in the parallel he responds to David’s demand for the return of his wife Michal. In ‘b’ Abner is angry at being put at fault over a woman, and in the parallel David demands from him a woman, Michal his former wife, if he is to deal with him. In ‘c’ Abner declares that he will deliver the kingdom to David, and in the parallel he contacts David and offers to bring all Israel to him. Centrally in ‘d’ the ‘brave’ king of Israel does not answer because he is afraid of Abner.
2.3.7 ‘Now Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, and Ish–bosheth said to Abner, “Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?” ’
When Abner has sexual relations with his father’s concubine Ish-bosheth chides him and asks him to explain himself. A dead king’s concubines belonged to his heir, and to have sexual relations with them could be seen as a claim to be in line for the kingship, as Ish-bosheth recognised. Furthermore any children produced could be seen as in line for the throne. We should probably see in this not just a simple, annoyed, private enquiry, but an official calling to account. This time Ish-bosheth considered that Abner had gone too far and was afraid of what it might mean. In fact Abner had probably done it simply because he desired the girl and was contemptuous of Ish-bosheth (he hardly had any need to further his claims, even had he wanted to, for he was already the king-maker). But it is possible that he had done it partly in order to test out Ish-bosheth’s reaction. Great men like Abner often liked to display their untouchable position by their actions.
2.3.8-9 ‘Then Abner was very angry because of the words of Ish–bosheth, and he said, “Am I a dog’s head who belongs to Judah? This day do I show kindness to the house of Saul your father, to his relatives (brothers), and to his friends, and have not delivered you into the hand of David, and yet you charge me this day with a fault concerning this woman. God do so to Abner, and more also, if, as YHWH has sworn to David, I do not even so to him,”
Abner was taken aback and furious at Ish-bosheth daring to challenge him. He was clearly very proud of his loyalty to Saul’s house (even though he was the gainer by it) and was angry that Ish-bosheth should throw doubt on it. He may also have felt that Ish-bosheth was beginning to ‘show his teeth’. So he asked whether Ish-bosheth really thought that he was less trustworthy than David. His real opinion of David and of Judah is made clear by his words, ‘Am I a dog’s head of Judah?’. He had no doubt been present when David had likened himself to a dead dog (1 Samuel 24.14), and here he made it quite clear that he considered it a good description of David. Or it may be that the Israelites were simply in the habit of scathingly describing the men of Judah as ‘dogs’ or ‘dogs’ heads’.
He then stressed how, rather than trying to dethrone Ish-bosheth, (as he saw David as wishing to do), he had rather shown kindness to him and to all Saul’s relations, and had not, as he could have done, delivered them into the hands of David. And now Ish-bosheth was chiding him simply because of a woman? He saw it as totally unacceptable. Then in his anger he swore that he would do for David just as YHWH had sworn to him, make him king over all Israel. There is an indication here that he was aware that in maintaining Ish-bosheth as king he was going against the will of YHWH. He was admitting that he knew what YHWH really wanted, and had fought against it. We should therefore see all that subsequently happened to him in that light.
2.3.10 “To transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beer–sheba.”
And what was YHWH’s purpose for David? It was that He would transfer the kingship of Israel from the house of Saul to the house of David, and set up David as king over all Israel and Judah, ‘from Dan to Beersheba’. Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south, in the Negeb, were always seen as the northern and southern limits to the land. The phrase was thus indicating the whole land (compare 1 Samuel 3.20). It is an indication that with all their tribal divisions Israel/Judah were in another way seen as potentially one whole.
2.3.11 ‘And he could not answer Abner another word, because he feared him.’
The silence of Ish-bosheth at this juncture spoke volumes. Having plucked up the courage to challenge Abner (there had probably been much comment in the court) it demonstrated that he was so terrified of Abner that he dared do nothing more. It made him fully aware that he was powerless to do anything to prevent Abner doing precisely what he wanted. So much for his position as king of Israel.
2.3.12 ‘And Abner sent messengers to David on his behalf, saying, “Whose is the land?” saying also, “Make your league with me, and, look, my hand will be with you, to bring about all Israel to you.”
Had Abner been wise he would have recognised that in fact he had won and have left things as they were. But in the event he carried out his threat. This seems to suggest that he had already been considering betraying Ish-bosheth to David and finally made this his excuse. Thus he sent messengers to David to speak on his behalf, asking whose the land of Israel was? The implication was that it was ‘open to grabs’. Then he promised that if David would enter into a league with him he would use all his power and authority to bring all Israel to David’s feet. He was still determined to be the king-maker. But he was to learn that David was made of harder mettle.
2.3.13 ‘And he said, “Well. I will make a league with you. But one thing I require of you, that is, you shall not see my face, except you first bring Michal, Saul’s daughter, when you come to see my face.” ’
David answered in a measured fashion. He said that he considered the proposal was a good one, and agreed to make a league with Abner, but only on condition that his previous wife Michal, the daughter of Saul, was delivered up to him. Until that had happened he would not meet Abner face to face. He wanted him to know who was in charge.
His demand was also significant because if Michal was delivered up to him as his true wife, all would know that he was therefore seen by Abner as the true heir of Saul. It would be reuniting him to the house of Saul in a position of privilege as the acknowledged son-in-law of Saul.
2.3.14 ‘And David sent messengers to Ish–bosheth, Saul’s son, saying, “Deliver me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to myself for a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.” ’
At around the same time as he sent his message to Abner David also on his own initiative sent a message to Ish-bosheth demanding the return of Michal on the grounds that he had betrothed her to him for a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, a marriage gift that had never been returned to him. It was an indication of David’s awareness of the superiority of his army that he made the demand, for it would fly in the face of Ish-bosheth’s own kingship. It was also a pointed reminder to Abner not to see him as dependent on Abner. He wanted it recognised that if he did make a league with Abner, it would be on his own terms.
2.3.15 ‘And Ish–bosheth sent, and took her from her husband, even from Paltiel the son of Laish.’
It was also an indication of Ish-bosheth’s awareness of his own weakness that he meekly submitted to David as he had to Abner, for he sent and took Michal from her second husband, Paltiel, the son of Laish (of whom nothing is known apart from the fact that he dearly loved Michal) and sent her to David. It was an indication of just how weak Ish-bosheth was. It had reached a point where he did not dare to refuse to do what David wanted. First he had been afraid of Abner. Now he was afraid of David.
It should, however, be noted that David’s request was not unreasonable. His wife had been taken from him by force when he had been outlawed, and Ancient Near Eastern law allowed in such a case for a man to take his wife back once he was no longer outlawed, or when he was released from foreign captivity. So anyone who married such a wife recognised that if the husband did ever return, he might lose his wife back to him. This was thus not a breach of Deuteronomy 24.1-4. But what it would be was a recognition that David was no longer to be seen as outside the pale.
2.3.16 ‘And her husband went with her, weeping as he went, and followed her to Bahurim. Then said Abner to him, “Go, return,” and he returned.’
Paltiel was heart broken at losing his wife, and tearfully followed her all the way to Bahurim, until Abner told him to return home. In all the power politics here was the real loser, the poor, innocent, unimportant Paltiel, although we should note that in agreeing to marry Michal he had risked this happening. He must have known what he was doing.
Such was Abner’s power that when he ordered him to return home and forget about Michal, he dared not refuse, in spite of his grief. Abner had truly made himself strong in the house of Saul (verse 6).
Bahurim is modern Ras et-Tmim which is to the east of Mount Scopus near Jerusalem. A man of Bahurim, Shimei, would later curse David as David and his men were passing by when he was fleeing from Absalom (2 Samuel 16.5). It was also at Bahurim that some of David’s men would hide in a well when evading discovery by Absalom’s men (2 Samuel 17.17-21).
Treachery, Treachery! (3.17-26).
In this passage we have an account of double treachery. First we have portrayed the treachery of Abner who, having installed Ish-bosheth as king, callously betrayed him and sought to make Israel turn to David, and then the treachery of Joab who equally callously betrayed David behind his back and called on Abner to return on the pretence that David wanted to see him again, simply in order that he might assassinate him, and that in the face of the fact that he was covered by David’s promise of safe conduct. He had little regard for David’s honour. This was partly because he wanted revenge for his brother Asahel, but he was an astute politician, and it can hardly be doubted that it was also partly because he feared, probably rightly, that under the new deal it was Abner who would be made commander of the host of all Israel rather than himself.
In contrast David comes out of the episode as an honourable man. He received Abner and gave him hospitality and a guarantee of security, and genuinely meant it and was unaware of what Joab was going to do. Furthermore once the evil deed was done he disassociated himself from it, wrote an open lament, publicly bewailed what had happened to Abner, and announced to the world Abner’s true greatness. We might possibly have seen this as feigned (as some do) in order to maintain his reputation were it not for the fact that David’s genuine innocence is emphasised by the curse that he put on the house of Joab. That would not have been necessary in order to demonstrate his innocence if his grief been feigned, especially as we must remember that all would believe that it would come about. It was no light thing that he did and furthermore its dire consequences would fall on his own relatives (they would be his sister’s seed). Thus we can safely exonerate him from blame. Indeed the one charge that we might make against David was that by his curse he was affecting innocent people in the future simply because of the sin of Joab, for he, like the rest, would consider that the curse would be effective. But we have to remember in this respect that the idea that the sins of the fathers fell on the children was a commonly held one and was seen as being just (such children would probably behave like their fathers), while it should also be remembered that David would believe that all such effects could be avoided by any who turned to God in genuine repentance and faith, a principle on which he built his own life. In the end therefore he would see those affected as bringing it on themselves.
And behind all these dealings we are intended to see that the hand of YHWH was at work. It was not He Who caused the treachery, but He simply took it up and used it in His purpose. David’s path would move on smoothly towards the kingship because YHWH was with him, and it would have done so whether there had been treachery or not. In one case the treachery simply speeded the process up, while in the other it merely caused a small blip. It would have been a very different matter if David had been involved in it himself.
Note than in ‘a’ we have described the gross treachery of Abner, and in the parallel the gross treachery of Joab. In ‘b’ David honourably receives Abner and his men and gives them hospitality, confident in the genuineness of Abner’s proposal, and in the parallel Joab asserts that Abner’s proposal and their purpose in coming was totally dishonourable. In ‘c’ David sends Abner away with a guarantee of security (‘go in peace’), and in the parallel Joab is informed that David had sent Abner away with a guarantee of security. Centrally in ‘d’ David’s men return from a raiding expedition with great spoil, while Abner has meanwhile left with a guarantee of security. Note the threefold mention of the guarantee of security which emphasises its completeness and thus makes Joab’s treachery doubly heinous.
2.3.17-18 ‘And Abner had communication with the elders of Israel, saying, “In times past you sought for David to be king over you, now then do it; for YHWH has spoken of David, saying, “By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their enemies.” ’
Having decided that he had had enough of Ish-bosheth, Abner treacherously turned his attention to the task of supplanting him. This tends to reveal that his pretended loyalty to the house of Saul had been a sham. With Saul dead and Ish-bosheth seemingly recalcitrant, all his attention was now clearly on how he could revenge himself against Ish-bosheth and achieve the highest status for himself. (It is quite possible that he did not know of Ish-bosheth’s fear of him and thought that he might try to get rid of him. Alternately he might have considered that being commander of the combined forces of Israel and Judah, which he would demand in return for the support that he gave, offered him a much better opportunity for glory and wealth than being the commander of a relatively weak Israel). So he sent communications to the elders of Israel suggesting to them that as they had always really wanted David as king over them, now was the time to act to bring it about. For, he pointed out, as they all knew, that was what YHWH had promised. But we may ask, how did he know that that was how they felt? It possibly suggests that in the five years prior to his achieving Ish-bosheth’s coronation he had had to constantly argue against just such desires in order to maintain Ish-bosheth’s position. Now he was becoming a turncoat and treacherously urging them to take up the opposite position merely because he was offended at his treatment by Ish-bosheth.
Even more insidious was his method of doing this, for he piously called on the promises of YHWH concerning David as though his only concern was to please YHWH, when previously we know from his own confession that he had been deliberately acting against YHWH’s will in maintaining the rights of Ish-bosheth. He was a blatant religious hypocrite.
“By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their enemies.” There is no reference elsewhere to this specific promise, but there is no doubt that the elders would see it as soundly based on what YHWH had declared or revealed in the past, for it had undoubtedly been made clear in the past that YHWH had raised David up to be the scourge of the Philistines (1 Samuel 16.13; 17.46-47, 54; 18.6-7, 27, 30; 19.8; 23.5), and all would undoubtedly have seen his promises concerning David’s future kingship as indicating that he would be their God-given deliverer against both the Philistines and all their enemies (1 Samuel 16.1, 13). That was why you had a king. Furthermore the expectations expressed in 23.17; 24.20 must surely themselves have mainly arisen as a result of prophetic pronouncements (possibly from Nathan or Gad), or at the very least as a result of expectations expressed among the people who saw it as something determined by YHWH. Thus the idea that YHWH had purposed that David be king over all Israel must have been very widespread.
2.3.19 ‘And Abner also spoke in the ears of Benjamin, and Abner went also to speak in the ears of David in Hebron all that seemed good to Israel, and to the whole house of Benjamin.’
We might have seen the differentiation between Israel and Benjamin here as simply indicating Abner’s close associations with that tribe because it was the tribe of his and Saul’s family were it not for the fact that later, at the time of the division of the kingdoms, Benjamin will side with Judah (1 Kings 12.21; 2 Chronicles 11.12). This therefore suggest that the Benjaminites, who were renowned as fierce and skilled fighters, had a proud spirit of independence and, in a similar way to Judah, did not like just being lumped in with ‘all Israel’. It may well have arisen over what they saw as their unjust treatment by the tribes in Judges 20-21. Abner, who was well aware of this, therefore negotiated with them separately, and pointed out how all the other tribes felt. Then having established what he saw as a satisfactory position he sought out David in Hebron. As far as he was concerned he had successfully staged a treacherous coup against Ish-bosheth.
2.3.20 ‘So Abner came to David to Hebron, and twenty men with him. And David made Abner and the men who were with him a feast.’
Whatever David thought privately about Abner’s behaviour he was wise enough to recognise that he was the only one who could really speak for Israel, and that without him Ish-bosheth’s position would be untenable. Thus he the more readily entered into negotiations with him. Unlike Abner he owed nothing to Ish-bosheth who was still in a state of ‘non-recognition’ towards him..
So on Abner arriving with twenty men, no doubt already having been given the promise of safe conduct, David welcomed them and made a feast for them. As both were aware, such hospitality was the guarantee of peaceful intent. To have eaten together if there had been any intentions of hostilities, would have been contrary to the recognised etiquette obtaining among powerful leaders, and would have been something which was treated very seriously and seen as disgraceful.
2.3.21 ‘And Abner said to David, “I will arise and go, and will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your soul desires.” And David sent Abner away, and he went in peace.’
The result of their negotiations was that Abner promised that he would go and gather all Israel together (i.e. its elders) so that they could come to David with a view to making a covenant with him, a covenant which would include his appointment as king over them. We are not told what concessions were made to Abner but it seems very probable that he was in turn assured that he would be made commander of the joint forces, being second only to David, thus in effect fulfilling David’s compact with Jonathan (1 Samuel 23.17). This is not certain, however, for David’s present commander was ‘family’, and family was often the safest option as far as loyalty was concerned. On the other hand David was becoming a little disenamoured of Joab, and Abner would certainly have wanted something in return. (As usual the writer was not interested in the details of the treaty as such. He was interested in what it meant for David).
The promise that David could then reign over all that his soul desired may reflect Abner’s view of David rather than the correct one. We cannot doubt that David wanted to reign over all Israel, because that was what YHWH had promised him, and that he was even prepared to peacefully work to that end, but we never have any indication of his desire to force the issue, or of any great desire for it. He was content to receive whatever YHWH committed to him and await YHWH’s good time. That was what made him so spiritually outstanding. Not to understand this would be to reflect more on us than on him.
All being satisfactorily concluded, David then sent Abner away to fulfil his promises, and guaranteed him continual safe conduct (‘he went in peace’). The fact that this is emphasised three times (verses 21, 22, 23) indicates how important the breach of this safe conduct would be seen to be.
2.3.22 ‘And, behold, the servants of David and Joab came from a foray, and brought in a great spoil with them, but Abner was not with David in Hebron, for he had sent him away, and he was gone in peace.
Meanwhile David’s nephew and general Joab (2.12-14) had been away on a raiding expedition with David’s men, and they now arrived back bringing great booty. But it was too late for them to be able to meet up with Abner, for Abner was no longer there having been sent off by David with a guarantee of safe conduct.
2.3.23 ‘When Joab and all the host who were with him were come, they told Joab, saying, “Abner the son of Ner came to the king, and he has sent him away, and he is gone in peace.” ’
On their arrival someone informed Joab of Abner’s visit and of the fact that he had been sent away with the guarantee of safe conduct. We do not know how much else they would tell him for they would probably not have been privy to the king’s negotiations, but we can be sure that Joab would have recognised that it must have been to do with Israel and Judah coming to terms, and he would no doubt also have had his spies in crucial places. But he was also a very suspicious man who saw others (especially generals) as being like himself, and thus to his mind any approach by Abner could only really have been in order to sound out Judah’s strength. After all, the last time that he had spoken to him had been when he was on the run after a hard fought battle. Why then should he think that his attitude had changed? Thinking in terms of how he would have thought himself he would have considered that Abner was seething with a desire for revenge.
2.3.24-25 ‘Then Joab came to the king, and said, “What have you done? See, Abner came to you. Why is it that you have sent him away, and he is quite gone? You know Abner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive you, and to know your going out and your coming in, and to know all that you do.” ’
So seeing himself as a little craftier than his pious uncle David, he came to the king and asked him what he had done. Here he had had Abner in his power and he had sent him away with safe conduct, so that how he was out of reach. How foolish. Was he not aware that Abner’s real reason for coming had been to sound out his defences? Did he not realise that on his visit the experienced Abner would have picked up a lot of useful information about both their strong and weak points?
We must assume that David told him at least a little of the reason for Abner’s visit, but it is clear that the suspicious Joab was not convinced (or at least pretended not to be) as we can tell from his next step. If David was foolish enough to let the fish slip out of the net, Abner would discover that Joab was made of different mettle..
2.3.26 ‘And when Joab was come out from David, he sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the Cystern of Sirah, but David did not know it.’
So as soon as he had come out from his audience with David, he sent messengers after Abner calling on him to return. These messengers caught up with Abner and his men at the cystern of Sirah, which is probably the modern Ayin Sarah, one and a half miles (two and a half kilometres) from Hebron. Abner was clearly in no hurry and he and his men were no doubt taking advantage of the opportunity to replenish their water supplies. After all he had David’s promise of safe conduct, and whatever he thought privately about David, he was content that he was an honourable man. He had not reckoned on Joab acting on his own authority, for ‘David did not know it’.
That this was an act of great treachery cannot be doubted. Joab was well aware that Abner had been given safe conduct by David, and that such safe conduct was sacred. Only the most evil of kings would breach such a safe conduct. Furthermore he was taking advantage of his position as David’s general with the specific aim of doing so, for he knew perfectly well that Abner would see him as acting as David’s representative. It is actually very difficult to assess whose treachery was the greater, Abner’s towards Ish-bosheth or Joab’s towards David. Both were inexcusable, the one arising from vanity and ambition, the other arising from a desire for vengeance and ambition. It says much for David that the treacherous Abner never even smelled a whiff of treachery. Had he known the true circumstances how differently he would have acted.
Joab Treacherously Gains Blood Revenge For The Death of His Brother Asahel And At The Same Time Rids Himself Of A Dangerous Rival (3.27-30).
We have to remember here that the desire and responsibility of relatives for blood revenge when a member of the family was killed was widespread throughout the Ancient Near East (it was the only policing system available). Indeed it was this responsibility and passionate desire to obtain revenge for the slaying of a relative that had caused God to set up Cities of Refuge where people who had slain another accidentally could take shelter in order to obtain a fair trial before the experienced Judges of the Cities of Refuge (Numbers 35.9-34). The manslayer (however innocently) who did not reach a City of Refuge in time could have no guarantee of his safety. We remember how Gideon slew his noted captives when he discovered that they had been responsible for the deaths of his brothers (Judges 8.18-21). And here Asahel had been deliberately slain by an identified person during a war between ‘brothers’. It is quite apparent from the story that Joab and Abishai, Asahel’s brothers, actually considered it their duty to kill Abner.
The specific detailed rules concerning blood vengeance are not clear and would indeed have been seen differently by different people, so that while Abner probably considered that he had been perfectly justified in slaying a man whose sole intent had been to kill him after a battle, Joab clearly did not see it in that way. Furthermore the fact that Joab escaped punishment for slaying Abner suggests that most agreed with him. Indeed Abner himself had recognised that that might be so (2.22), but was probably confident that his safe conduct protected him, especially as Hebron was a City of Refuge. Joab, on the other hand, no doubt argued that his responsibility as the brother of the person who had been killed overrode any safe conduct, because while the safe conduct provided protection politically, it did not provide protection in a matter of personal, family vengeance. It will also be noted that he slew Abner while he was ‘in the midst of the gate’, that is, before he had entered the City of Refuge. It was no doubt because he had these reasons that he was able to escape direct punishment, however angry David was. No one living in that day could have denied the right of blood vengeance. It was too firmly rooted in society. That was why David put Joab’s punishment in YHWH’s hands.
Note that in ‘a’ Joab slew Abner in revenge for the blood of Asahel his brother, and in the parallel Joab and Abishai are described as having done it together because it was seen as a joint responsibility. In ‘b’ and centrally we have David’s declaration of his freedom from guilt in the eyes of YHWH and asks for the punishment to fall on Joab and his seed, demonstrating how angry he felt at what Joab had done..
2.3.27 ‘And when Abner was returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him quietly, and smote him there in the body, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother.’
When Abner returned to Hebron, believing that David wished to have further consultation, he was met outside the city by Joab who drew him into the area within the gate purportedly so as to speak to him privately. It is clear that he had no thought that Joab intended him harm. As Joab was well aware it was not until he was through the gate that he could have claimed that he was protected by it being a City of Refuge. Thus he slew him ‘in the midst of the gate’. Note the emphasis on the fact that it was blood vengeance. It was ‘for the blood of Asahel his brother’. Abner had been a marked man from the moment that he had done it.
2.3.28-29 ‘And afterward, when David heard it, he said, “I and my kingdom are guiltless before YHWH for ever of the blood of Abner the son of Ner, let it fall on the head of Joab, and on all his father’s house, and let there not fail from the house of Joab one who has an issue, or who is skin-diseased, or who leans on a stout staff, or who falls by the sword, or who lacks bread.” ’
But David was not at all pleased. While he no doubt recognised that Joab had had the right to blood revenge he clearly considered that he should have observed the safe conduct that he had given to Abner so as not to put him in a difficult position. He recognised that it could put him in a very bad light with the elders of Israel. So he openly declared his own freedom, and the freedom of his kingship, from guilt in the eyes of YHWH ‘for ever’, and called for YHWH’s judgment on Joab and his house.
It is this curse that definitely confirms David’s innocence and genuine anger, and reveals how bitter he felt at Joab’s betrayal. It was a curse on his own relations. ‘One who had an issue’ would be permanently unclean (see Leviticus 15.2). It refers to a urinary disease. To be skin-diseased was also to be permanently unclean. In David’s eyes nothing could have been worse. It prevented close contact with the worship of YHWH. One who leaned on a stout staff was permanently lame, which again prevented their entry into the main court of the Tabernacle ‘before YHWH’. To be slain by the sword would be direct revenge for what had happened to Abner, and was a common enough fate in those days. To lack bread would indicate total poverty, in itself often seen as a judgment of YHWH.
2.3.30 ‘So Joab and Abishai his brother slew Abner, because he had killed their brother Asahel at Gibeon in the battle.’
The writer then summarises the position and the reason for Abner’s death (which clears David of any responsibility for it). The mention of Abishai probably indicates that he had been aware of Joab’s plan and had agreed with it. How far they were justified is open to question. Both would probably have felt that a skilled warrior like Abner could have disarmed Asahel or just wounded him. And as it had been during a civil war it could reasonably be argued that it was simply murder during an illegal war which Abner had commenced. Besides, as we have already seen, slaying someone during warfare seemingly did not remove bloodguilt (Judges 8.18-21). So technically Joab would have been seen as in the right by many if not all of the people. This explains why he was allowed to ‘get away with it’. It was in fact a basic and ancient right that none could deny, and it was one that even David dared not question, even though his own view on the matter was slightly different (1 Kins 3.5). The fact is that it was too strongly embedded in the thinking of the day. Indeed his reaction against it was courageous, given the current thinking, and demonstrated his disapproval of what Joab had done, whether because he felt that Joab had been disloyal to him, or because he felt that Joab had had other motives, such as getting rid of his rival for the position of commander-in-chief. But to see David as lax in his treatment of Joab is to apply the ideas of our own day to his day which is not justifiable. He could not deny him the right to blood vengeance which all saw as self-evident.
David Laments The Death of Abner And Demonstrates His Innocence In The Matter (3.31-39).
In this final passage in the chapter David makes clear his grief over the death of Abner, thus establishing his innocence, and emphasises what a great man he had been. He also writes a lament so as the better to express his feelings. He then finishes by making it quite clear that he does not approve of his commander-in chiefs political tactics and attitude.
Note that in ‘a’ David calls on Joab to weep for Abner, and declares his own innocence, while in the parallel he declares that Joab is too hard for him which is why as a king he is made weak. In ‘b’ David followed the bier, and in the parallel the people recognised that the death of Abner was not the result of David’s decision. In ‘c’ the king wept at the grave of Abner, and in the parallel he fasted and refused to eat food until the day was done. In ‘d’ all the people wept, and in the parallel they all wept over Abner again. Centrally in ‘e’ we have David’s lament for Abner.
2.3.31 ‘And David said to Joab, and to all the people who were with him, “Rend your clothes, and gird yourselves with sackcloth, and mourn before Abner.” And King David followed the bier.
David now called on Joab and all the people who were with him to ritually tear their clothes, put on sackcloth and act as mourners before Abner’s coffin. They were to show outward respect and grief at the great man’s death and so indicate that the death had not been official policy.
This mourning was not excluded for Joab because David was ensuring by it that it was being officially recognised before all the world (whatever might have been true in Joab’s private thoughts), that Joab had slain Abner, not out of malice, but out of loyalty to his own family and its honour. Joab had simply done what most of them would have seen themselves as called upon to do (In that sense it had been true that ‘Abner died as a fool dies’. He knew the custom). For in those days it was seen as incumbent on someone to avenge the violent death of a close relative by slaying the one who had done it. A careful reading of Numbers 35 brings out that even an ‘unintentional’ manslayer was seen as having, according to the custom of the time, to be sought out and put to death in order to maintain the family honour, without any blame being attached to the ‘avenger of blood’. The City of Refuge was thus provided in order to prevent this from happening to an innocent manslayer. So if such a one was caught outside a City of Refuge (as Abner had allowed himself to be, even if only by the width of a gate) he would have only himself to blame. It was a method of controlling cold-blooded murder, by ensuring that the guilty party would know that he would be brought to justice in a time when there were no police to investigate such matters. Indeed if on examination at the City of Refuge the killing was found to have been murder in cold blood, then the City of Refuge provided no sanctuary. The killer would be expelled and thus become vulnerable to the Avengers of blood.
It is, however, important to recognise that this ‘avenging of blood’ was not a requirement of God’s Law. What God’s Law did was provide a way by which innocent manslayers could avoid being put to death by the relatives of the dead man without their case even being heard.
‘And King David followed the bier.’ While the majority of the mourners would go ahead of the coffin, David, even though he was the king, followed humbly behind as a mark of respect to the dead man. This is the first reference to ‘King David’ as such.
2.3.32 ‘And they buried Abner in Hebron, and the king lifted up his voice, and wept at the grave of Abner; and all the people wept.’
Abner was thus buried in Hebron, and the king then wept loudly over his grave. Loud weeping was seen as an essential mark of respect at a funeral, and often professionals would be paid to do it. But here professionals were not needed. ‘All the people wept.’ It was a clear indication that the death had not been officially condoned and was lamented by all.
2.3.33-34a ‘And the king lamented for Abner, and said,
David then composed and rendered a lamentation over Abner. It was a further indication of his innocence with regard to what had happened. The reference to Abner ‘dying as a fool dies’ may well have had in mind that he should have been more wary of Joab. The suggestion is that he died because he was not alert and ready to defend himself when he should have been. His very greatness may well have made him careless when, knowing Joab, he should have known that Joab would not rest until he was dead. Certainly it indicates that he should have been more aware and not so trusting. The remainder of the lamentation then indicates that he was caught napping. He had not been bound or fettered so that he could not defend himself. Then he might have been excused. Rather he had fallen prey to evil men whom he had unwisely trusted, even when he had had his sword at his side. The suggestion is that he had too easily discounted Joab. David does not specifically call Joab and Abishai ‘workers of iniquity, but he gets very close to it and by it indicates his disapproval of what they had done.
2.3.34b ‘And all the people wept again over him.’
Then it is stressed that all the people continued to weep over Abner. The mourning was loud and prolonged. Abner was being given a royal send off.
2.3.35 ‘And all the people came to cause David to eat bread while it was yet day; but David swore, saying, “God do so to me, and more also, if I taste bread, or anything else, until the sun is down.” ’
Once the funeral was over the people became concerned for David because he had not eaten all day. But when they tried to persuade him to eat he refused, and swore that he would eat nothing until after sundown. It was out of respect for Abner. He was determined that all should see the genuineness of his mourning.
2.3.36 ‘And all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as whatever the king did pleased all the people.’
As he had hoped ‘all the people’ noted his actions and were pleased because it indicated the integrity of the king and his innocence of all charges of treachery. He had after all little to gain by it. The writer then indicates that indeed all that David did pleased the people. They recognised him as an honourable man and worthy of being a king in Israel.
2.3.37 ‘So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it was not of the king to slay Abner the son of Ner.’
For that day all recognised, including the whole people of Israel, that it had not been the intention of David that Abner be slain. Indeed, the truth is that he had nothing at all to gain by it. But what is clear is to us is that by Abner’s death David was saved by YHWH from being part of a coup that might well have caused great bitterness among many in Israel, and was especially saved from the charge that he had displaced the true heir of Saul.
2.3.38-39 ‘And the king said to his servants, “Do you not know that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel? And I am this day weak, though anointed king, and these men the sons of Zeruiah are too hard for me. YHWH reward the evildoer according to his wickedness.” ’
David then made clear his real feelings about the actions of Joab and Abishai. He emphasised what a great and princely man Abner had been, and how great therefore the evil had been in slaying him. He felt that in a sense it had even weakened him as king, because thereby he had lost a valuable and capable ally and an astute general. Furthermore it accentuated the fact that a king in Israel could not just do whatever he wanted. However he felt about things he had to obey the Laws and customs, even though he was the anointed king, and that even though sometimes they could be made use of by harsh men in order to achieve their ambitions within the Law. He was restricted to carrying out what was seen by all as just. And that meant that he could do nothing against Joab and Abishai because they had strictly adhered to the customs of the people even if they had ignored what they knew to be his desire.
The suggestion that Joab and Abishai, his sister’s sons, were ‘too hard’ for him indicated his disapproval of their merciless attitude. In his view they had failed to recognise that sometimes justice must be tempered by mercy. Nevertheless what he also wanted them to recognise was that YHWH, Who knows the hearts of all men, would judge men in terms of the hardness or otherwise of their hearts. There would be no such weakness in Him. Thus he prayed that YHWH would ‘reward the evildoer according to his wickedness’. He committed them to the judgment of YHWH. There is a warning to us all in this that in demanding our rights at all costs we too may well often simply be revealing our own wickedness and the unpleasant truth about ourselves.
Saul’s Legitimate Successors Are Rendered Incapable Of Kingship. Mephi-bosheth, Jonathan’s Son, Becomes Lame And Ish-bosheth, Saul’s Remaining Son, Is Assassinated By Two Of His Commanders Who Bring His Head To David Only For Them To Suffer A Similar Fate (4.1-11).
In this passage we have described how the two remaining successors of Saul were removed by ‘circumstances’ from being able to be claimants to the throne of All Israel, the one through tender age and debilitating lameness, and the other through assassination. The two remaining obstacles to David’s becoming king over all Israel were thus removed. The need for this is a reminder that David had constantly honoured the house of Saul and had refused overall kingship while any claimants remained. Now, however, the way was open for him in all conscience to become king, for as the son-in-law of Saul he was the next obvious claimant to the throne. In the circumstances of the time an under-age boy who was also severely lame simply was not seen as suitable for kingship.
The news that Abner had been successfully negotiating a coup with David and had been slain must have caused huge repercussions in Israel. It would have totally undermined Ish-bosheth’s position, for not only did it foment the idea that Israel would be better off under David, but it also meant that he had lost the one man who had kept him in power and had kept the kingdom safe. Without Abner Israel was now vulnerable and Ish-bosheth no doubt feared that David might invade at any moment.
Meanwhile Abner’s treachery had also raised ideas in other people’s minds, causing them to recognise that Ish-bosheth’s future was so uncertain that it might well be a good idea to link up with David as soon as possible. The result was that two of Ish-bosheth’s commanders of raiding bands decided that they would hasten proceedings, and at the same time ingratiate themselves with David, by killing Ish-bosheth and taking his head to David (a head which would be the indication of David’s ascendancy. The head was taken by the victor - 1 Samuel 17.51, 54; 31.9).
But being men controlled only by their ambitions what they had not reckoned with was David’s reaction to the cold-blooded murder of a brother of Jonathan and a son of Saul, whom he had sworn to preserve once he was in the ascendancy (1 Samuel 20.15, 42; 24.21-22). And the result was that they were executed and their bodies used as a warning to others.
Note that in ‘a’ Ish-bosheth became feeble, and in the parallel his head was buried next to the one who had enfeebled him in Hebron. In ‘b’ the two commanders of raiding bands are described, and in the parallel their death is described. In ‘c’ we learn why one of Saul’s two direct descendants will be unable to take the throne of All Israel, and in the parallel we learn why the other will not be able to do so. In ‘d’ the two men smote Ish-bosheth on his bed, and in the parallel they bore his head in triumph to Hebron. Centrally in ‘e’ we learn of how they slew Ish-bosheth, beheaded him, took his head, and made their way to Judah through the Arabah.
2.4.1 ‘And when Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands became feeble, and all the Israelites were troubled.’
We do not know whether Ish-bosheth was aware of Abner’s activities on behalf of David, but the news that Abner had been put to death in Judah must have been shattering. And it was not only he who was concerned, for all the Israelites now realised that they had become defenceless. The one man who had kept them reasonably strong was dead, and they were thus left with an enfeebled king over an enfeebled country. All knew that something would have to be done.
2.4.2-3 ‘And Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, had two men who were captains of raiding bands, the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, of the children of Benjamin (for Beeroth also is reckoned to Benjamin, and the Beerothites fled to Gittaim, and have been sojourners there until this day).’
There were two men who decided to seize the opportunity of the moment. They believed that they knew what had to be done. They were captains of raiding bands (for the word compare 1 Samuel 30.8. It is a reminder that with all their weakness Israel still preyed on others) whose names were Baanah and Rechab. They were sons of Rimmon the Beerothite. Beeroth was near to the western border of the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 9.17; 18.25). It was one of the cities of the Canaanites whose inhabitants succeeded in deceiving Israel, and in making a covenant with them (Joshua 9.17). They too had been treacherous.
It may have been because of the exploit described here that the Beerothites fled to Gittaim, where they became resident aliens, possibly after they learned what David had done to the two captains. They may well have feared blood revenge from Saul’s son-in-law. Alternately the reference may have been to the former residents of Beeroth who had surrendered to Joshua, suggesting that they had then fled to escape servitude. Gittaim may be identical with the Gittaim of Nehemiah 11.33, in which case it was occupied by Benjaminites after the exile. As they are here called resident aliens in Gittaim it is clear that at this stage it was not in Benjaminite territory (it may have become so precisely because Benjaminites had previously formed a good part of its population). More likely, however, the name may have some connection with Gath and its environs. As we know from the example of David Gath appears to have been seen as a suitable place of refuge for refugees fleeing from Israel.
2.4.4 ‘Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, had a son who was lame of his feet. He was five years old when the tidings came of Saul and Jonathan out of Jezreel, and his nurse took him up, and fled, and it came about as she hastened to flee, that he fell, and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.’
The insertion of this information here is vital for two reasons. First of all it explained why the two commanders were so confident that there would be no suitable replacement in Israel for Ish-bosheth. The only other possible claimant was hopelessly lame. It thus cleared the way for David as Saul’s son-in-law. It is pointing out that the only other direct male descendant of Saul was under-age and severely disabled, and thus totally unsuited to kingship in a turbulent age (at this stage the idea that the eldest son was the automatic heir was unknown in Israel. While the successor would preferably be a Saulide, the king would be determined by popular choice and had to be a war-leader). Secondly it explains why David could now see the way open to his becoming king without breaking his covenant with Jonathan. There was now no valid direct heir in the house of Saul.
This situation is a sad indication of the sorrows that had come down on the house of Saul as a result of his rejection by YHWH. His three eldest sons had died with him in battle. His fourth son had been weak and under Abner’s thumb and would shortly be assassinated. And now we learn that his grandson had been dropped by his nurse when she was fleeing from the Philistines so that he was totally disabled (compare 19.24-26).
2.4.5 ‘And the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ish-bosheth, as he took his rest at noon.’
Meanwhile the two commanders who had determined on the assassination of Ish-bosheth set off for Ish-bosheth’s palace and arrived there around noon, at the time when Ish-bosheth was enjoying his siesta. That was when security would tend to be at a minimum. No one foresaw trouble in Mahanaim itself.
2.4.6 ‘And they came there into the midst of the house, as though they would have fetched wheat, and they smote him in the body, and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped.’
The two men found no difficulty in getting past the guards into the palace because they simply gave the excuse that they had come in order to arrange for their men to receive their wheat rations. They would be well known to the guards as two of Ish-bosheth’s commanders, and nothing would be suspected. Indeed they had no doubt done it many times before. But once safely in the building they made straight for Ish-bosheth’s bed chamber and ‘smote him in the body’ before making their escape.
2.4.7 ‘Now when they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedchamber, they smote him, and slew him, and beheaded him, and took his head, and went by the way of the Arabah all night.’
In typically Israelite fashion, having given the core of what happened, the writer then expanded on the detail, and explained that they found him in his bed chamber, and not only smote him but slew him and cut off his head. Then they took his head and made their escape, making for the Jordan Rift Valley (the Arabah), where they arrived around nightfall and continued on through the night in their haste to get out of Israelite territory and reach David safely. They clearly had no doubt about their welcome there.
(The kind of repetition seen in these two verses is typical of much ancient literature and does not necessarily indicate two sources. That was a mistake often made by earlier scholars. Its purpose was rather to ensure that when it was read out the hearers did not miss the crux of the matter).
2.4.8 ‘And they brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David to Hebron, and said to the king, “Look, the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life, and YHWH has avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed.’
The two men brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David. It would be absolute proof of their claim to have slain Ish-bosheth, and would also (in their view) enable David to make clear to all that he was victor over Ish-bosheth (compare 1 Samuel 17.54; 31.9). They never dreamed that David would see it in any other way.
They made what they had done worse by pretending that they had done it in YHWH’s name. ‘Look,’ they said, ‘here is the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul your enemy, the one who sought your life. YHWH has avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed.’ They were presumably not aware that Saul’s eldest son had been David’s bosom friend, and that David took YHWH’s Name seriously. To David the linking of such an assassination to YHWH’s name would have increased their guilt manyfold. (While it was true that Joab had assassinated Saul’s cousin, it was not in the same category. Joab had done it on the well founded basis of blood vengeance a right which even David could not deny).
2.4.9-11 ‘And David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, and said to them, “As YHWH lives, who has redeemed my soul out of all adversity, when one told me, saying, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his tidings. How much more, when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?” ’
But to their astonishment, instead of being pleased and grateful, David looked at them with great severity and pointed out that ‘as YHWH lived who had redeemed his soul from adversity’ (something that he knew was very much true) when someone had come to him and had told him that Saul was dead, thinking it would be good news to him, he had had them put to death. As we know that was a slight understatement of the situation for the person he was speaking of had in fact tried to deceive him, and had claimed to have killed Saul, but the point was clear, the death of Saul had not been good news for him, even though Saul had not behaved well towards him. What then did they think he would do to those who informed him that they had slain Saul’s son, and had done it, not because he had asked them to do it because he was afraid of being killed by the Philistines, but simply when, as a righteous person who had done nothing especially wrong, he was lying on his bed enjoying a siesta? Did they not realise therefore that all that they could reasonably expect was to be put to death and removed from the earth as not fit to live?
By this they learned too late that David deeply respected the house of Saul, and loved them for Jonathan’s sake, and therefore could not forgive those who did harm to members of that house, especially when it was simply with a view to personal advancement.
2.4.12 ‘And David commanded his young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and their feet, and hanged them up beside the pool in Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth, and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron.’
David then commanded his young men to execute the two, after which their hands and feet were cut off and their bodies were hung up beside the pool at Hebron. This decapitation was presumably because their hands had done the evil deed, and their feet had sped to do the deed, and also possibly because their feet had then sped in order to receive what they had hoped would be their reward for murder. This severe treatment was as a warning to others of what would happen to those whose hands and feet were used for the purpose of doing evil.
Meanwhile the head of Ish-bosheth was treated with honour, and buried in the grave of Abner in Hebron. In death he and his mentor were united, and David’s honour was maintained.
David Is At Last Anointed As King Over All Israel (5.1-5).
This section began in 2.1 onwards with David being anointed as king over Judah, and it now ends with David being anointed as king over all Israel. In all that went in between YHWH had been preserving David for this moment. And the important thing was that it was achieved without causing disharmony and bitterness. The whole of Israel were as one in wanting him as king.
Note the threefold reasons why they considered that David was a reasonable candidate for kingship:
In other words he had the three important credentials. He was true-born, he was a successful war-leader, and he had been chosen by YHWH. The last, of course, crowned the other two.
In ‘a’ all the tribes of Israel came to David recognising that he was one of them, a true Israelite, and in the parallel all the tribes of Israel come to make him king. In ‘b’ he was the war-leader who had led Israel out (to battle) and had brought them in, and in the parallel YHWH had established him to be the shepherd of His people.
2.5.1 ‘Then came all the tribes of Israel to David to Hebron, and spoke, saying, “Behold, we are your bone and your flesh.’
All the tribes then came to David at Hebron, possibly in the person of their elders (verse 3), although it could have been by the calling of a general assembly of the adult menfolk, although that would have drawn the unwelcome attention of the Philistines. And their first emphasis was on the fact that he was a true-born Israelite (Deuteronomy 17.15). He was of the same make-up as they were. This was certainly better than having a foreign king over them, and was in accordance Deuteronomy 17.15..
2.5.2 ‘In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel, and YHWH said to you, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.” ’
The next thing that they had brought to mind was how, when he was younger and Saul had been king, he had successfully and charismatically led them out against the Philistines. Thus he had demonstrated that he had the wherewithal to be a successful war-leader. But most important of all was that he had been sealed by YHWH.
Once again we are informed of a prophetic pronouncement which we have not come across previously. We are told that YHWH had said to him, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince (nagid=war-leader) over Israel.” The idea of the king as a shepherd was commonplace in the Ancient Near East, and was added to here by the fact that David had been a competent shepherd. To be nagid over Israel was to be YHWH’s deputy. YHWH was king, his representative was a nagid. This term had been used by Samuel of Saul (1 Samuel 9.16; 10.1), and is later initially used of Solomon (1 Kings 1.35). Such prophecies as this are required in order to explain why both Saul and Jonathan were so certain that David would one day be king.
2.5.3 ‘So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron, and king David made a covenant with them in Hebron before YHWH, and they anointed David king over Israel.’
The result was that the elders of Israel came to Hebron in order to make him king. We note that the kingship was not absolute. The terms were laid down in a covenant, the main requirements of which would be to serve YHWH faithfully and to act as their war-leader whenever the need arose. Then they anointed him as king. We note that while Ish-bosheth would also almost certainly have been anointed, there is no mention of such a thing for him, whereas in the case of David it is mentioned both times that he receives a kingship. This was because in the eyes of the writer he was the true anointed one of Israel (1 Samuel 2.10; 16.13).
2.5.4-5 ‘David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah.’
We are then given the statistics of David and his reign as we had been previously with Ish-bosheth (2.10), and will be in the case of future kings. He was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned for forty years. The forty years is then divided up into seven and a half years over Judah in Hebron and thirty three years over all Israel and Judah in Jerusalem. We should note how Israel and Judah are now seen as two separate groupings. This process had been going on ever since Judah had, along with Simeon, settled the southern part of the land, while Ephraim and the other tribes had settled the north. Until the rise of the Philistine empire each had had different enemies to contend with. And as neither Judah nor Ephraim would yield precedence to the other the result was that once strong kingship ceased the division would almost be inevitable.
David’s age when he began to reign (‘thirty years old’) is the same age at which the priests and Levites were seen as fully matured enough to take up full service with regard to the Tabernacle (Numbers 4.3, 23, etc). Interestingly it is the same age as that at which Jesus Christ Himself commenced His ministry (Luke 3.23). It contains the hint therefore that David was now seen as mature enough to act in the name of YHWH.
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
2 Samuel 5.6-10.19 David Captures Jerusalem, Defeats The Philistines, Receives The Promise Of The Everlasting Kingship, Captures Rabbah
2 Samuel 11 onwards
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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS