Saturday, December 20, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 2

In this chapter, David hands down all of his grudges to Solomon, who then kills all of David's enemies.

This has got to be one of the least cheerful inheritances that Solomon received, when David starts telling him all of the people who are "still with you" and need to be dealt with.  At this point, we can see that while David did not kill the people who resisted him, he did not forget his grudges either.  Barzillai is rewarded again for his loyalty, but Joab and Shimei are condemned to violent deaths.  Joab in particular was generally loyal to David, but David nevertheless marks him for death because Joab previously assassinated two innocent men during times of peace.

So one way to read this chapter is David passing down all of these grudges that he never got to address in his own lifetime.  As a brief but interesting aside, this is exactly the kind of culture that perpetuates the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well.  I can only imagine how many Israeli or Palestinian fathers out there telling their children the debt of violence that they owe to their enemies because of how such-and-such a person killed their grandfather 30 years ago.  Not to say that historical violence should be forgotten or even that this is a uniquely Mideast thing, but this is exactly the kind of attitude that carries violence down from one generation to the next.

The other way to read this chapter is stated in verse 46: Solomon is "establishing" his kingdom by killing anyone who might resist him.  This is a fairly standard (if grim) political tradition that is still practiced to this day.  However dark it may be, it is effective: killing all of the people who have power to resist you is a very reliable way to shut down opposition.

Adonijah dies first.  He goes to Bathsheba and asks for Abishag as a wife.  Notice the immediate tension between these two figures when Bathsheba asks if he comes in peace (or in the alternative, if he comes in violence).  The tension has a clear root as well, since Adonijah and Solomon are clearly rivals and Bathsheba is Solomon's mother.  One might wonder why this is significant, but the answer is pretty clear.  Abishag was essentially a consort to king David, so Adonijah marrying her would have the same political significance as marrying one of David's wives.  In Israel's culture at this time, marrying your father's wife is basically staking out a claim to your father's authority and power.  We saw this most recently when Absalom publicly slept with David's concubines to establish his authority over Israel (2 Samuel 16:22).  Now Adonijah is seeking to do this, and strangely, he is asking Bathsheba for support.

What makes this story even stranger is that Bathsheba agrees and makes the request to Solomon.  It is clearly a subversive request and while it is very dangerous for Adonijah to try this, it is even weirder that Bathsheba would support Adonijah's attempt to undermine Solomon.  Nevertheless, Solomon is not going to be having any of this, and immediately orders Adonijah's death.

Abiathar is allowed to live because of his service to David.  Verse 27 notes that this fulfilled the "word concerning the house of Eli", which is a reference to 1 Samuel 2 (if you can remember that far back) when "a man of God" came to Eli and told him that his house would be cursed because of the sins of his two sons.  As far as I can tell, that passage doesn't specifically say that his descendants would be removed from the priesthood, but it's not much of a stretch to imagine the curse implying that.  We also don't have any clear genealogies of the priesthood from Eli to Abiathar or Zadok, so I'm not sure who Zadok is a descendant of.  All of these men are descendants of Aaron, but we can imagine that Eli is perhaps an older branch of the family and Zadok is from a younger branch, so with the removal of Abiathar the house of Eli no longer holds the priesthood, while Zadok maintains the line of Aaron through some other ancestor.

Out of the three people killed in this chapter (Adonijah, Joab and Shimei), Joab is the only one who hasn't committed a clear sin in this chapter.  Because Shimei was forgiven by David, Solomon needed to find some other reason to kill him in accordance with David's request.  Similarly, Solomon forgave Adonijah in the previous chapter.  However, Joab was never forgiven for his crimes, so Solomon did not need any other reason to act against him.

As with Adonijah, Joab fled to the horns of the altar, pleading for clemency, and this time Solomon rejected his plea and killed him while he was still in the courtyard of the tabernacle.  At long last, the command of the army falls to a different man, Jehoiada.

Lastly, Shimei is commanded to remain in Jerusalem for the rest of his life.  This is reminiscent of David bringing Mephibosheth into his household to eat at his table, essentially preventing him from ever running off to start a revolt in some distant city.  By remaining in Jerusalem, Shimei cannot rally opposition against David.  However, in what we can only guess is a moment of forgetfulness, he goes off to Gath to retrieve some slaves and Solomon jumps at the opportunity to fulfill his pledge to get revenge on all of David's enemies.  Shimei is killed, and with that, the last loose end from David's reign is tied up.

Now Solomon's rule is consolidated and we are about to enter a new era in Israel's history.  This is basically the golden age of Israel's power when they are at their mightiest.  We will shortly observe that Solomon does not walk in the same spirit as David, but it's almost like the afterglow of David's righteousness alone is enough to carry Solomon forward into a very successful kingship.  I will expand on these topics in the chapters to come.  For now though, David's life is over and it is time for us to shift our focus onto this emerging figure, king Solomon.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 1

In this chapter, Adonijah attempts to inherit the kingdom from David, but David gives it to Solomon instead.

This chapter begins with an ending, as David's life comes to an end.  It's interesting to note that Samuel does not end precisely at the death of David; in fact, the primary story arc of Samuel ends when David has secured his kingdom (2 Samuel 20), but probably years before his death.  We can contrast this to Genesis 50 and Deuteronomy 34, which both end their respective books with the death of an honored figure.  2 Samuel ends with a song and a "final word" that seems to anticipate David's death, just as Jacob's final words (Gen 49) anticipated his death, but strangely, David's death is missing.  In that sense, 2 Samuel is breaking with convention.

All of this is relevant to 1 Kings 1 because David is still alive in this chapter, and David's life forms a thematic connection between the end of 2 Samuel and the beginning of this book.  Even though Kings and Samuel were written as separate books, there is a clear continuity between them, and for many purposes they can be treated as a single, extended topic, "the history of Israel from Samuel to the exile to Babylon".

However, David is going to die in the next chapter, which means that his involvement in this book is limited to just setting the stage for his own succession.  It's possible the author of Kings included a reference to David because he is trying to establish the legitimacy of the royal dynasty through Solomon.

Indeed, this chapter begins with David "old, advanced in years".  At this point, David is in practice a "lame duck" king.  He is not an effective ruler, but he still holds considerable political influence because most of the court officials are deeply loyal to him personally.

Adonijah is David's fourth-born son, directly after Absalom in age priority.  Absalom directly revolted against David and temporarily drove David into exile across the Jordan.  Absalom took advantage of disaffection with David's reign, amongst the men of Hebron and Judah who felt they were losing influence, and amongst Benjamin and the northern tribes that were perhaps still bitter about the destruction of the house of Saul.  Nevertheless, David's men defeated Absalom, Absalom died and in the ensuing years, David appears to have secured his position as king over Israel.

With Absalom dead, Adonijah is ostensibly next in line for inheriting the throne.  However, as we discover in this chapter, David appears to have declared Solomon to be his successor.  There are several possible reasons why this might have happened.  One is that Nathan prophesied or implied that Solomon would reign as king when he said that "the LORD loved [Solomon]" (2 Samuel 12:24-25).  Another is that David still felt guilty about killing Uriah and his adultery with Bathsheba, so it's possible he declared Solomon his successor as some sort of compensation for the harm he did to Bathsheba.  And then there are more practical reasons, like if Solomon won David's approval through his words or actions.  However, priority of inheritance usually goes to the oldest living son, so at least to me, it's a bit surprising that David would give the kingdom to Solomon, because it appears to break with the cultural traditions of the day.

Adonijah also objects to the kingdom going to his younger half-brother.  In many ways, Adonijah's revolt is similar to Absalom's.  They are both described as handsome, striking young men.  Both of them get chariots and a group of 50 runners to go before them, in essence claiming the trappings of power.  Both of them aspired to be king.  The biggest difference is that Adonijah is not actually seeking to overthrow David; he is seeking to overthrow Solomon.  In essence, what Adonijah is trying to do is gather enough of David's officials into his camp that he can claim the throne and disinherit Solomon.  The reason why Nathan says he is trying to save Bathsheba and Solomon's lives (v. 12) is because if David dies and Adonijah becomes king, then Adonijah would most likely finish the job by killing Solomon and anyone else who opposes him.

The biggest thing holding Adonijah back at this point is that, while David still lives, David holds the loyalty not just of his court officials, but also of the populace at large, and in the end this is Adonijah's undoing.

Next, I would like to talk about the men who joined Adonijah, especially Joab and Abiathar.  I have written many times about Joab's strained relationship with David.  David already tried to demote Joab once, and Joab responded by killing his own replacement and taking back his position over the army.  We also know that Joab has been historically loyal to David.  However, Joab knows that if Solomon takes power, then it is very likely that Joab would once again be thrown out of office and possibly even killed.  Basically, the political aspect works like this.  If you side with the guy in power, then maybe he will like you and maybe not, but since he is already in power, he will not owe you anything.  If you side with a guy who is not in power, and help get him into power, then he owes you, and it strengthens your own position too.

It was like when Abner put Ish-Bosheth on the throne.  While Ish-Bosheth was the king, Abner was the kingmaker and in the end, Abner proved to be the more influential person.  Joab would know, because Joab killed Abner.  I am betting that Joab wants to do something similar, putting Adonijah on the throne and thereby maintaining his own power.

Abiathar is an interesting case.  We know much less about Abiathar than we do Joab.  What we do know is that he was the sole survivor of Nob and he joined David back when David was himself hiding from Saul.  Abiathar served David for years.  At a certain point, Abiathar and Zadok became "the priests" (for one example, see 2 Samuel 20:25).  This is interesting because according to convention, there is a single high priest and everyone else in the priestly structure are subservient to this sole authority figure.  The priesthood, like many other parts of Israel's society, is patriarchal, which typically means that the office of the high priest passes down from father to oldest living son, descending from Aaron.  The priesthood doesn't really have a concept of "co-high priests".  Therefore, I would be willing to bet that with two senior figures, some sorting out is inevitable.

Because Abiathar sides with Adonijah, I would be willing to bet that David (or Solomon) had promised to make Zadok the new high priest, although such events are not recorded.

Therefore we see a relatively consistent story between Adonijah, Joab and Abiathar.  It is an alliance of a would-be king, a soon-to-be-deposed general, and an almost-high priest.  All three of them are aspiring to power and the top job, and all three of them would be relegated to insignificance if Solomon takes power.  They are all lingering on in power (if they did not have power, they would not be threatening to take the kingdom), but they are all in decline.

The part that interests me is in verse 9, when it says that "the king's sons" all supported Adonijah, except for Solomon.  I'm interested because I don't see what they have to gain from Adonijah gaining power.  So, I don't quite understand that.

Anyway, that's enough for the setup.  For the actual events, Adonijah begins his coup with a party.  The way I interpret it is that Adonijah is trying to act as if he is already king, so that everyone starts to believe it, and if he does this well enough, he will convince all of the people that he is king and (in effect) become king.  It's funny how a celebration can be such a threatening event though.  Nathan and Bathsheba know that their only chance of stopping Adonijah is while David is still alive, because David alone commands the loyalty of the people and his men.

King David's response to Adonijah is very much in the same vein.  Rather than the bloodshed that characterized Absalom's rebellion, in this case the war is very much about perception, trying to create the public perception in the nation that one man or the other is king.  Hence, David's response is entirely about intentional, public symbolism.  Solomon is seated on the king's mule, publicly anointed king, proclaimed king, and then taken back to sit upon David's throne (literally).

Adonijah's revolt started with a party, and it is cut short by an even larger, competing party, when the celebration over Solomon's coronation causes the earth to "shake with noise" (v. 40).  When Jonathan the son of Abiathar comes and brings them bad news, it is not a defeat in battle, it is the celebration that another man has been proclaimed king.  David himself is publicly celebrating and worshiping God while declaring to anyone who will listen that Solomon will succeed him.

I love the contrast between the massive celebration in Jerusalem and the distress filling all the guests of Adonijah.  In fact, the conflict ends without a single man dying.  The men with Adonijah are afraid because they know that by siding with Adonijah, they are in opposition to Solomon, and it is a perilous thing to oppose the king.  They also understood that when the larger city celebrated Solomon, they sided with Solomon and just by the weight of sheer numbers, Adonijah was already sunk.

Adonijah himself knew it, so rather than try to run away or gather more men, he goes straight to the altar, a plea for mercy.  Now, there are two altars in the tabernacle that have horns.  There is the bronze altar of burnt offerings (Ex 27:1-2) and the golden altar of incense (Ex 30:1-3).  So which altar does verse 50 refer to?  The answer is more likely than not, the bronze altar of burnt offerings.  The reason is that the bronze altar was placed openly in the court of the tabernacle, and while the court is not exactly open to the public, it is close.  The golden altar of incense, however, is placed within the tabernacle itself, in the holy place, and only priests are allowed to enter there.

At this point, Adonijah has no chance of fighting Solomon and simply resigns himself to his fate.  Solomon spares him.  However, Solomon is now aware that all of Adonijah, Joab and Abiathar have tried to directly subvert his reign, and he is unlikely to forget it.  That is, if they were at risk of being demoted before, they are at risk of being executed now.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings Introduction

I'm really excited about getting into the book of Kings.

In many ways, Kings is similar to Samuel.  Just like Samuel, it was originally written as a single book and later broken into two halves.  In fact, the transition between 1st and 2nd Kings is even more contrived than the transition between 1st and 2nd Samuel.

Another similarity is that Kings is replete with stories.  Just like Samuel, Kings is a book about the successive lives of Israel's rulers.

The book of Samuel focused primarily on 2-3 actors, mainly Samuel himself, Saul and David.  The book of Kings is somewhat more diverse, because it is a book about the progression of kings that ruled over Israel for many generations.

Samuel and Kings are also written about the same era in Israel's historical progression.  If Samuel was the book that described Israel's emergence as a kingdom and regional power, Kings is the book that describes the bulk of Israel's history as a kingdom and regional power.  The book ends when Jerusalem is destroyed and Israel driven into exile and disgrace.

In this way, Kings also fits into the broader historical narrative, which can only be described as Israel's long-running sinfulness and rebellion against God.  Their rebellion against God started in earnest after the exile, when an entire generation was consigned to die in the wilderness.  During the Judges period, "every man did what was right in his own eyes", living with total disregard for God's laws and morality.  In the book of Samuel, Israel sinned in asking for a king and were punished by being given the flawed Saul as an answer to their flawed prayer.  The book of Kings continues this pattern as Israel drifts in and out of idolatry, ultimately precipitating their destruction at the hands of foreign powers.

In the book of Judges I described something I call "the Judges cycle", which was the cycle of pride, judgment, repentence and redemption that filled that book.  Kings has a somewhat similar pattern, but rather than an inevitable downfall into sin, what we see in this book is that the spiritual life of the king dictated the spiritual condition of the nation.  There are times in the book of Kings when a righteous king reigns (like David), and in those times the nation follows the LORD.  At other times, a sinful king (like Saul) reigns, and in those times the nation follows their king into idolatry.  In all cases, the nation seems to do no better or worse than the king ruling over it.

The history in this book, just like the society it was written about, is entirely patriarchal.  The king really sets the tone for acceptable behavior, so in that sense writing mostly about the king is actually quite appropriate.

However, this book isn't entirely about the kings.  Another sequence of major figures in this book is the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha (whom we will soon meet).  Like Samuel the prophet, the prophets in the book of Kings are typically a moderating influence, trying to encourage devotion to the LORD and sharing the word of the LORD.  Most commonly, this is in the form of declaring judgments and punishment against the metastasizing idolatry spreading through their society.

This book, then, contains roughly two parallel narratives.  One of these narratives is the rise and fall of Israel's regional influence and prosperity in the context of their ongoing conflict against nearly all of the surrounding powers.  Contrary to the moral simplicity that we see in Deut 20 (which encouraged the destruction of the Canaanite nations without exception), in Kings we see Israel engaging in a complex of political alliances, sometimes lording over minor powers and sometimes serving greater powers.

The second narrative is the progression of Israel's spirituality, which I think can only be characterized as a long, slow progressive decline, only broken by a handful of brief but stunning revivals (at the hands of a righteous king).  Unfortunately, and much to my frustration when I first read these stories, the revivals never last beyond a single generation.

Lastly, the book of Kings will contain several of the most significant historical events in the Old Testament, which I will mention briefly now, and in more depth later.

The first is the partition of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom.  As strange as it may sound, the unified kingdom under Saul and later David is actually an anomaly compared to what happens in most of Israel's later history.  In short, we have already seen several political splits across the north-south axis in the book of Samuel.  Judah supported David when he was fighting against Ish-Bosheth for control of the nation, and Judah supported David when he was returning across the Jordan after defeating Absalom's rebellion.

The northern kingdom is called "Israel" and the southern kingdom is called "Judah".  However, sometimes the OT uses the word "Israel" to refer to the unified kingdom.  Some of this language is possibly injected into Samuel, such as 1 Samuel 18:16, 2 Samuel 2:9-10, 2 Samuel 3:10, 2 Samuel 5:5 and elsewhere.

It's also possible that Judah was listed separately because it was by far the largest tribe at this point, and one of the most powerful.  It's not my point to say whether or not the references to "Judah" in Samuel are anachronistic (i.e. demonstrating that Samuel must have been written after the kingdom was split), but rather to show that the split between Israel and Judah has historical roots going back to at least the early kingdom period.  But even more important than that, I want my readers to automatically translate in their minds "Judah" to "the southern kingdom centered at Jerusalem" and "Israel" to "the northern kingdom centered at Samaria".

The second major historical event is the exile to Babylon, which concludes the book of 2 Kings.  This event is important for a bunch of social, cultural, religious and historical reasons, so I'm not going to really dive into it now.  It is intended as the logical conclusion of Israel's sin, the final divine rejection and punishment for their continuous sin and rejection of the LORD.  Having rejected him, the nation is in turn rejected by him.

In conclusion, this is a very eventful, dense book that has lots of fodder for interesting discussions.  There are a few drier parts where the book contains a much more bland recitation of names, like an extended genealogy, and it's during these times that my readers should remember Israel's pursuit of continuity.  The purpose of this book as a whole is to remind Israel where they came from and who they are.  The list of kings, much like a genealogy, is meant to give the ancient people of Israel who wrote and read this book an understanding of how they fit in, how they connect to the ancient stories about David and Moses that we have already passed through.  We can read these stories with a similar mentality.  Even if we are not born into the family of the Jews, if we claim the name of Jesus then we are inheritors of their promises, of their punishment, of their glory, of their rebellions and of their ultimate redemption at the hands of God.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 24

In this chapter, David takes a census of the nation and incurs the wrath of God.

As I've stated a couple times regarding 2 Samuel chapters 21-24, this chapter is not chronological with anything in the book, including the other parts of this appendix.  The formal story ended in chapter 21, and the last three chapters of the book (including this one) are just a collection of several stories from David's reign that didn't fit elsewhere.  It also included a couple songs that are meant to epitomize David's life.  This particular story is peculiar and deserves closer attention, because I think it is likely moralizing, but since we are given this story without the immediate context from David's life or Israel's culture and political situation at the time, it is harder for us to process than the earlier portions of Samuel.

With all that as an introduction, I will now discuss the story itself.

It begins with a bold but perplexing statement, that the LORD's anger burned against Israel, and therefore he incited David to sin by ordering a census.  There are at least three confusing elements to this statement, which I will address in order.

1) Why is God's angry with Israel?  While we can imagine many possible reasons, such as Israel's nearly perpetual idolatry, we don't know the actual reason.  Rashi (a famous Jewish commentator) is also confused: speaking of God's anger, he says "I do not know regarding what".  It's possible that the author is interpolating God's anger as the source of Israel's troubles.  It would certainly be consistent with other parts of the OT, such as Deuteronomy 28, which seems to place all the troubles and distress of Israel at the hands of God's anger, caused in turn by Israel's disobedience.  It is widely believed by people in the OT that distress and poverty are signs of God's disfavor, while wealth and glory are signs of God's favor.  I don't believe the OT itself, taken as a whole and in context, supports this theory, but passages like Deut 28 certainly push in that direction.  On the other hand, David's life itself contradicts this principle, because David was honored by God and even called a "man after God's own heart", yet he suffered for a long time at the hands of Saul,

2) Why would God "incite" or "cause" David to sin?  It's clear that this is intended to be a punishment, but taken at face value this appears to undermine the notion of free will, as well as raising difficult questions about what constitutes sin.  How could God "incite" someone to sin, and then punish them for sinning?  Even more simply, how could God, who is supposed to be sinless, himself cause someone to sin?

Regarding these points, I think it's likely that my previous statements are just reading too much into an isolated comment.  What is clear is that God somehow brought about the circumstances that would encourage or induce David to call for a census, but since we don't know why God was angry in the first place, it is hard for us to understand God's actions in this situation.  Therefore I think it is best to interpret this verse conservatively, because it is incidental to the story and largely devoid of context.

3) Why is taking a census a sin?  This is the question that is perhaps the easiest to answer of the three, although at first glance it is pretty confusing.  It's confusing because Moses was twice commanded to take a census of the Israelites.  The first census was in Numbers chapter 1, the first generation going out of Egypt, and the second census was in Numbers chapter 26 when the second generation, that grew up in the desert, was about to enter the promised land.

This, therefore, is the third major census, and there's no obvious reason why this census is a sin while the other two censuses were okay.  My opinion is that the census is considered sinful because it is presumptuous towards the promises of God.  In a nutshell, God promised to the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky.  By seeking to count the men of Israel, David is challenging that promise (in a manner of speaking) because he is counting the men to see if God did what he promised.  That's why Joab replies, "let there be 100 times as many people", because he's trying to say that God will multiply the people and bring glory to Israel, and that David should not question it.

Why were the first two censuses okay?  The biggest reason is that God commanded them to happen.  The second (more situational) reason is that they needed to count the men over 20 in preparation for warfare.  It wasn't a purely political move, the census was a military action because they were both counting and organizing the people (organization by family and clan was an inherent part of the census).  In this case, there is no war, so David's census is (as far as I can tell) purely for his own gratification.  The background to this chapter is relatively sparse, but it appears that David just wants to know.

Either way, this puts Joab in the unusual position of trying to convince David to avoid sinning, when usually it is Joab who is the man of bloodshed and David the righteous guy.

Joab goes out and spends over 9 months taking the census.  There is a rabbinic tradition that Joab was deliberately stalling in the hope that David would change his mind before the task was completed.

Nevertheless, the census is completed and it's almost like from that very moment David reverts back to his normal form, and he is immediately grieved over what he has done.  David shows his true heart, immediately repenting and pleading for mercy.  However, because God had planned to do this out of his "burning anger", it seems that there is no escape from punishment this time.  Another peculiarity of this story emerges though, when Gad gives David a choice of his nation's punishment.  I can't think of any other story like this when a man is given a choice of some set of punishments.  There are three punishments with the first being longest, and then shorter, and then the shortest.  However, they are in reverse order of severity, because the famine would be least severe, while defeats in battle is more severe, and pestilence likely the most severe.

David chooses the direct punishment of God, which means the pestilence.  Rashi mentions that David chose pestilence because it is also more equitable.  In famine, the king always eats, and in war, the king is surrounded by loyal men to protect him, but in a plague, there is no security or status or bodyguard for protection.

The next peculiarity of this story is that the pestilence, a plague killing the people of Israel, is manifested in the form of a destroying angel.  The bible speaks on some occasions of destroying angels, but in this case it is an angel that is openly visible to David and the other people.  I don't have time to discuss the role of angels in depth here, but let it suffice to say that angels act as agents of the LORD's will, enforcing his decrees and plans in many different ways (such as preventing Adam and Eve from returning to Eden, Gen 3, and later securing Israel's passage during the exodus, Ex 14:19).  That is the role of the angel in this case, bringing the plague as divine judgment on Israel.

However, as David predicted, the LORD had mercy and stopped the angel from destroying Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a former city of the Jebusites, and it appears that a remnant of the Jebusites survived in the area.  In terms of their political situation, the Jebusites may have survived but they are clearly a minority in the midst of a hostile foreign power.  Even other Israelites would cower at David's presence, so how much more would a Jebusite give away all his possessions and be glad that David wasn't coming to kill him and his family like Saul tried to kill the Gibeonites.

The conclusion of the chapter, however, is that David refuses to offer a sacrifice that is given to him by another man.  He will only give a sacrifice that is from his own wealth and his own possessions.  After everything that I said about plagues and angels and free will (or lack thereof), I think this last part of the chapter about the altar is "the point" that the author wanted to get across.  I feel like everything in this chapter is a buildup to the moment when David refuses to offer another man's oxen as his own sacrifice, and insists that he should buy everything that he is giving away.

Perhaps David had in mind the words of Nathan the prophet, when Nathan spoke a parable about a rich man who refused to take an animal from his own flock, but stole from another man in order to prepare a meal for his guest (2 Samuel 12:1-4).  Perhaps, having been rebuked for taking the wife of another man, David is now refusing to take the oxen of a man even when it is freely offered to him.  I certainly think the parable of Nathan has some parallels to this passage, especially 2 Samuel 12:4 that says, "and [the rich man] was unwilling to take from his own flock or his own herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him."  I can only imagine David responding to that by saying, "May I never take from somebody else what I am not willing to give myself."

One could also issue comments about the intercessory power of the altar, David's sacrifice intervening between God's judgment and the nation (much like the intercessory censer that Aaron wielded in Num 16:45-47), and other similar things.  However, the sense that I get is that this chapter is more about David and the meaning of sacrifice than these other spiritual concepts.  This is about atonement for sin and it establishes a very simple but important concept: for atonement to have any meaning, it cannot be something "which costs me nothing".

How can David's statement fit into the framework of substitutionary atonement that is implicit in the Passover?  If the guilt of men can be transferred to an animal, and the animal dies for the sins of a man, then isn't that another way of saying the man "pays nothing" for his atonement, since the death is experienced by another being, namely, the lamb?  A simple response is to say, "the man is offering an animal out of his possessions; he suffers material loss."  To some extent that is true, and that seems to be David's most direct point, but I don't think it fully addresses the question.  How can money atone for sin?

It cannot.  If it could, there would be no need for the shedding of blood.  This leaves us with a paradox.  How can atonement be "substituted" onto another, such that an animal dies to atone for the sin of a man, if David now insists that the atonement for a sin must not be "free"?  In a similar way, "everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deut 24:16), which seems to imply that the punishment for sin cannot be transferred to another.  However, in 2 Samuel 12:13 Nathan says, "The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die."

How then can this paradox be resolved, such that a man dies for his sin, and yet another dies in his place, and yet the sin is taken away and the man "shall not die"?  The only way I can imagine this being possible is if a person dies with their offering, sharing in the death of the atonement, and therefore dies yet lives on.  In part, I think the Passover is about transferring guilt to an animal so that the demands of the Law may be satisfied, and in part I think it's about the admission of sin and guilt and the proper penalty of death that lies over each person.

Much more could be said about this, but for now I will defer.  I will leave my readers with one final thought.  If we die with our offering (in a mystical sense), and we share in death with our offering, then it suggests almost a mystical union between a person and his or her sacrifice.  The Passover (and substitutionary atonement in general) is perhaps not as much a substitution, as it is an identification, saying, "this is me, this is the death that I deserve to die."  Yet even knowing all this, it is still a mystery to me how a person can die in one sense, and yet live on in another.  I think this is one of the greater mysteries of God's redemption, so I don't really have the answers, just the questions.

And with that, we conclude 2 Samuel and will move on to 1st Kings.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 23

In this chapter, David shares his final words, and we learn more about the exploits of David's most valiant men.

David is following in the grand tradition of other OT figures by giving us a magnificent set of "last words", a final prophetic pronouncement about something or other.  Jacob gave us his pronouncement about the future of his twelve children in Genesis 49, and Moses give us both a song and a "final blessing" in Deuteronomy 32-33.

For whatever reason, the prophecies of Jacob and Moses are mostly focused on the future of the twelve tribes.  David, however, appears to be mostly talking about himself.  Still though, despite the differences in content, I think it's pretty clear that this chapter is meant to evoke the same kind of imagery as Gen 49 and Deut 33, namely, the grand old patriarch passing down to us his final words of wisdom.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the previous chapter (2 Samuel 22) is a song, and this chapter is David's last words, which parallels the structure of Moses's final song and prophecy from Deuteronomy.

At an even higher level, these two figures represent two distinct eras.  Moses shepherded Israel through one of their first great eras when he brought them into the covenant with God at Sinai and then into the promised land.  David is bringing Israel into their next great periods which is marked by glory and power.  David defeated all of Israel's enemies, expanding them into a regional power, and establishing the most significant royal dynasty in Israel's history.  Although Saul was their first king, it is David who will be remembered as their most beloved king.  In a sense, we can imagine Moses as representing the Pentateuch, and David as representing the kingdom period.

In terms of content, David seems to be mostly talking about himself.  In verse 1 he calls himself the "sweet psalmist of Israel", referring to his musical career to which we have been only briefly acquainted (he sang once at the death of Saul, and again in the previous chapter).  We knew he played the harp for Saul in his youth, but he is also likely the author of a large number of songs, which are contained later in the OT.

In verses 3-4 David talks about the blessing of a righteous king, making a thinly veiled reference to himself.  In verse 5 he refers even more directly to God's promises to him from 2 Samuel 7.

And that's pretty much it as far as I can tell.  David is just kinda bragging about how awesome his kingdom is and that God is going to secure his future with an everlasting covenant.

In the second, and somewhat longer, half of this chapter, we learn the names and exploits of some of David's "mighty men".  I see this as a longer version of what we read in 2 Samuel 21, when we learned about the four of David's men who slew giants during various wars.  In this chapter we have David's men doing all kinds of crazy things, most notably killing hundreds of enemy soldiers while fighting alone, which is similar to what Jonathan did when he attacked a Philistine outpost and killed a bunch of dudes (1 Samuel 14).  As with 2 Samuel 21, I think the main point of this story is to show us how David inspired others to greatness.

For the most part I don't have anything to add to the stories in this chapter, so instead I'll make a few comments on the names.

1) The "Three" are heroes of David who are only named here and whatever role they might have played in David's stories was entirely anonymous.  Many of the "Thirty", David's B-list soldiers, are also unknown outside of this chapter.  So I think it's interesting that these heroes are running around killing hundreds of enemies by themselves and yet they are given very little attention in the stories of Samuel.  Of course, it makes sense that Samuel would focus more on the kingship and redemptive history of Israel than just some dude hacking down Philistines, but I think it's interesting that these guys can go around being all amazing, and yet to us they are largely unknown.  What I think about this is that they were successful, they achieved great things, even though they are not known to us.  In the same way, we are capable of achieving greatness even in the midst of obscurity.

2) Abishai was amongst the Thirty.  This isn't too surprising because from previous parts of the story it was clear that Abishai was a pretty heroic guy.  He has a lot of amazing exploits, though he was also quite violent compared to David, asking permission on many occasions to kill David's enemies.  He also closely supported Joab in spite of Joab's several crimes.  Abishai supported Joab because they were brothers, and in their culture blood relations were frequently more important than right and wrong (for instance, Judges 19 when the tribe of Benjamin fought against the other tribes to protect their own tribesmen).  What I learn from Abishai is this: being amongst the Thirty or the Three does not mean they are perfect, it means they are brave.  I do not think Abishai was perfect, but he was brave and he fought valiantly in many wars.

3) Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was "over the Kerethites and Pelethites" in a couple previous verses.  Here we are told that he was placed over David's personal guard (v. 23), which is probably what the Kerethites and Pelethites refer to.

4) Asahel was one of the thirty, but he was killed years ago in the fight against Abner and Ish-Bosheth.

5) Elhanan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem is possibly the same Elhanan that killed Goliath in 2 Samuel 21 even though the names are slightly different and Rashi asserted that the Elhanan in 2 Samuel 21 is another name for David.  I think it's more likely that Elhanan in that chapter and this one is the same person, and a different person from David.  In that case, Elhanan killed another giant from Gath, possibly named Goliath.  It's also possible that the author is conflating elements from David's story with the feats of another man, Elhanan.

6) Eliam the son of Ahithophel is a new character to us, but Ahithophel himself is not.  He was David's close counselor in the time of Absalom's rebellion, and Ahithophel sided with Absalom.  He killed himself during that revolt.  We aren't told what happened to Eliam himself, since at least one of the Thirty (Asahel) died years ago, it's possible Eliam died during the revolt also.  Or it's possible he sided with David and survived.

7) Zelek the Ammonite and Uriah the Hittite are both from the nations of the promised land that Israel was commanded to destroy.  It is likely that they converted to Judaism and at least in the case of Uriah, we know that he served faithfully in the army and was (by all accounts) a pretty amazing guy.  David had him killed off in 2 Samuel 11 to cover up his affair with Bathsheba.

So out of the ~35 people mentioned by name, we have heard of about 4 of them before, and even those 4 we barely know.

Lastly, the final verse of this chapter states that there were 37 in all, which is obviously not "30" plus "3", so there are a few more people included in that count.  I tried counting the names myself and if you count the "armor bearers" and the "sons of Jashen" as one person each, then the total number of names (including Abishai and Benaiah) is 37, assuming I've done my math correctly.

My best guess is that "the Thirty" and "the Three" are not meant to be literal numbers, but rather designate groups of individuals with a certain level of reputation or authority and I'd be willing to bet the exact number varied over time as heroes came and went.  It's not really a number as much as a position.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 22

In this chapter, David sings about God saving him from Saul and his other enemies.

This chapter foreshadows what we are soon approaching, the book of Psalms.  Line after line, verse after verse, chapter after chapter, the Psalms are going to take a long time to get through and because David (ostensibly) authored many of them, there will be a lot of repeated concepts and idioms throughout.

This chapter in particular is nearly word-for-word identical with Psalm 18 which is interesting in and of itself.  What it clearly demonstrates (as if there were any doubt) that these were originally independent books, so the author of Samuel did not assume that his readers would have a copy of the book of Psalms.  Otherwise the redundancy would not have any point.  With less certainty, we can hypothesize that the book of Psalms was being composed in a similar time frame to when the book of Samuel was written.

I don't want to discuss the book of Psalms in depth here, though.  I'll just focus on the content of this Psalm and how it relates to David's life, which I think was the author's intent in placing it here.

In the first verse we find both the context and the purpose of David's song, which is that the LORD has delivered him from all his adversaries, of whom Saul was the greatest, and David wants to praise and honor God for what God has done in his life.

This chapter is drawn from after David had been saved from Saul, but otherwise it is difficult or impossible to figure out exactly when, during his lifetime, it was written.  Since that is the case, I'm going to focus much more on the theological and poetic elements of this psalm rather than trying to relate it to specific events in David's life.

First of all, I really like verses 2-3.  They contain a lot of repetitive elements, emphasizing David's possession of the LORD.  He says the LORD is "my God".  It emphasizes safety and defense from harm: rock (stability), fortress, savior, shield, refuge and deliverer.  But more than that, David talks about God as being his.  This is essentially relational and it shows that David has tremendous confidence in God, not just in his trust that God would bail him out of difficult situations, but because he felt like God was committed to him.

Second, what I really like about this chapter as a whole is the human-like and descriptive imagery that David uses to describe God.  There are a lot of things to like about the book of Samuel, but if there's one thing I miss from the Pentateuch it is the much more interactive relationship the patriarchs had with God compared to people in the kingship period.  God appeared to Abraham several times and wrestled with Jacob.  Moses saw a burning bush and approached the LORD upon a burning mountain.  In comparison, while God has still been influencing events in the lives of Saul and David, he has not been appearing with the intensity or frequency that we observed in prior epochs.  As someone who is interested in descriptions of the LORD, this disappoints me somewhat.  This chapter is quite different, however.

In this chapter, God is described as being like a stormcloud, surrounded in darkness and flashing out with lightning and thunder, with fire, wind and earthquakes, raging with power and wrath at all those who would harm his servants.  Like the burning mountain that Moses saw, this is a benevolent violence and force.  It is not coming to destroy, but rather to rescue and lift David out of the "many waters" that are seeking to drown and bury him, to cover him up that he may not rise again.  The waters represent many peoples, and David feels like he was drowning in a torrent when the LORD came in strength to sweep him up and place him on solid ground.

Third, in verse 5 David talks about "waves of death" encompassing him.  The term "waves of death" is based on the Hebrew word משבר, which translates as "crisis", but Rashi explains that the term refers to a stone seat that a woman would sit upon while giving birth to a child.  Therefore in the psalm, David is alluding to himself as travailing like a woman giving birth to a child and as a metaphor, we can imagine his prayers as being like birth pangs as he is trying to bring about a change in his situation and in his life.  Like a pregnant woman, David is going through waves of pain, surrounded by death and destruction on every side, until the LORD should emerge and rescue him.

In an even broader sense, we could say that David is going through the pangs of childbirth as he awaits the Messiah, the one who would tread upon the serpent's head (Gen 3:15).  In a limited sense, Israel has been planted in the promised land and blessed with the favor of the LORD, but in a broad sense they are still waiting for the LORD to bring everything back to completion, to return the world to the perfect and deathless state that endured while mankind lived in the garden of Eden with the LORD.  David praises the LORD for his salvation and rescuing him from death, and while this has a temporal fulfillment in how he was saved from Saul, there is also a prophetic aspect to this as David looks forward to his resurrection from the dead.  Indeed, David could not truly be saved from death as he claimed were he not saved from the death of his body and soul by the power and mercy of God.

Israel was meant to be a sign of what is possible for those who obey and live in covenant with God.  It was not meant to be the completion of God's acts amongst men, but to be a declaration of what God would do for those whom he loves and who follow him, and an invitation for all men to enter into a similar covenant.  In the same way, David's salvation is also a sign and a declaration of the salvation that God would fulfill and make complete amongst all those who seek him the same way that David sought him.  It was a salvation now, rescuing David from all his enemies, but it also foretells a greater salvation that would come and rescue David from the curse that came upon mankind after the sin of Adam.  David praises God for the salvation that he receives now, and he also praises God for the salvation that he is anticipating in this psalm.

I am describing this passage as an allusion to the Exodus story, and Rashi agrees.  When David speaks of the wrath of God causing earthquakes, fire, lightning and thunder, it is very likely that he is also alluding to the tremors of Mount Sinai when the LORD descended upon it in Exodus 19.  The salvation that David describes could also be an allusion to the exodus from Egypt, because the "darkness" (v. 10, 12) could be a reference to the veil of darkness that separated the Egyptians from the Israelites and protected Israel from harm (Ex 14:19-20).  In the same way, David almost directly references the crossing of the Red Sea in verse 16 when he says "the channels of the sea appeared, the foundations of the world were laid bare."  This most directly refers to the crossing of the Red Sea.  I also think part of what this means is that God sees and understands everything about the innermost parts of the world, and every part of the world is laid bare even as the hearts of men are also laid bare.  The power of God is not just to change the world or destroy evil doers, but it is also to uncover and reveal what is hidden, so that the good or evil that dwells within creation and mankind may also be revealed.  The salvation in verses 17-18 is therefore both the salvation of David, and also the salvation of Israel as they were freed from the threat of death that encompassed them.

This psalm is pretty amazing.  There are five different things going on in this one passage (v. 5-19).  On the one hand, David is talking about God saving him from Saul and his other enemies.  On the other hand, he is referencing the exodus from Egypt and crossing the Red Sea.  On the third hand, David is alluding to when the LORD came down on Mount Sinai and formed the covenant with Israel.  On the fourth hand, David is using metaphorical language to describe God's activity as being like a storm cloud coming down from heaven and shooting lightning like a batch of arrows at his enemies, a force of nature coming to rescue him.  On the fifth hand, I think this passage anticipates David's eventual salvation from death as he labors in prayer, like a woman laboring to bring forth a child.  What I think is amazing about this is how there are so many layers all active at the same time, and with the same words David is talking about so many different things.  It's like a triple entendre or something.

Verse 20 is particularly striking, and this is David's conclusion.  Having described God's activity amongst men, now David is describing God's motivation: The LORD rescued David "because he delighted in me."  What an incredible revelation.  No wonder David has such confidence and trust in the LORD's protection, when he is convinced that God takes pleasure in David's life and David's heart.

Verse 20 is the end of the first logical segment of this psalm and the beginning of the second.  From verses 1-19, we see the oppression of evil and sin and how God rescues David from all his enemies.  In verses 20-28, David starts telling us why God protects and delivers him.  David claims that he is righteous, innocent and he obeyed all the laws and commands of the LORD.  We know that factually this isn't entirely true, as David sinned on several occasions.  I think verse 25 is the key for understanding this passage: David says he was clean before God's eyes.  David knew that he had sinned, but he also knew that he was forgiven and since he was forgiven, he was innocent in the eyes and judgment of God.  As it is written: "The LORD has taken away your sin" (2 Samuel 11:13).  David had sinned, but he also repented and in his repentence, he was made clean and innocent.

Verses 26-27 are also interesting.  In a plain reading of the text, what David is saying is, "to the people who are kind, you show kindness to them."  That is, God acts kindly towards people who are kind, and he acts with purity towards those who are pure.  In a similar way, God does not act with evil towards the "perverted", but he is clever and does not allow them to get away with their perverted desires.  To the kind he shows kindness, but to those who do evil he brings judgment.

I think there is a broader possible understanding of this passage.  In a literal sense, David means that God acts kindly towards those who are kind.  But in a more figurative way, we can understand that God reveals kindness as part of his nature towards those who have kindness as part of their nature.  To people who are kind to others, God reveals to them that God himself is also kind to others, which is another way of saying that God brings specific revelations of his nature and character towards those who do good.  Indeed, it is by adopting the goodness of God in our relation to others that we discover what God is truly like.  The reason is that when we act out of goodness towards others, we begin to feel the emotions that govern the heart of God; by acting with purity, we understand what motivates God in his purity.  When we act in kindness, we understand why God acts in kindness, because what motivates all of these things is love, and when we act in love, we understand the heart of God.

I don't see any one unifying theme in the rest of the psalm.  David speaks a lot about God giving him victory over his enemies, using a mixture of metaphorical terms such as "the shield of your salvation".  Once again, I get the sense that David is using double entendres, referring to both his specific salvation from harm, such as the threats of Saul, but also a more metaphorical "salvation" in a general sense.

There are a few more minor notes I could throw in, but I think I've said enough for this chapter.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 21

In this chapter, the Gibeonites are given justice against Saul, and David's men kill some giants.

As I mentioned briefly in the previous chapter, this chapter is not chronological.  In fact, even the two stories in this chapter are both selected from random points in David's life.  The way you should think about the book of Samuel is that it contains one, long biography on David (which concluded in the previous chapters), and now the rest of the book is going to be random stuff that didn't thematically fit into the previous story.

So the first story is about the Gibeonites.  To remind my readers, the Gibeonites were a native people, inhabitants of Canaan before the Israelites arrived in force.  The Israelites had been commanded (most strongly in Deuteronomy 20) to destroy all the native tribes of Canaan, which very much included the Gibeonites amongst others.  After Israel had destroyed Jericho and wiped out large chunks of the Amorite kingdom east of the Jordan, the Canaanite peoples were all terrified.  Gibeon, therefore, sought to deceive Israel in order to form a treaty with them, and this story is detailed in Joshua 9.

The treaty is essentially a lord/vassal treaty, with Gibeon agreeing to serve Israel and Israel agreeing to protect Gibeon.  In fact, in Joshua 10 Israel found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to go out and rescue Gibeon from a coalition attacking them, which they are responsible to do as Gibeon's lord.

Remarkably, in this chapter the LORD sends a famine on Israel because Saul had violated the covenant with Gibeon by trying to murder them.  So even though Israel sinned by swearing an oath to defend a nation they were supposed to destroy, the LORD was now holding them guilty for breaking that oath, even though Saul is doing what Israel was originally commanded to do.  So the first thing I see in this chapter is how the LORD cares more about what Israel promised it would do to others than what he had commanded them to do.

The second thing I see in this chapter is how Saul is still trying to act in a righteous way and still getting it wrong.  People ask, "Is Saul also among the prophets?"  As if to say, "Since when did Saul start hanging out with righteous people?"  Back in 1 Samuel 13 Saul offered a sacrifice because he was too afraid to wait for Samuel, and he wanted to do something to rally his men and show that they had divine favor.  And now he's running around killing Gibeonites because of his "zeal for the sons of Israel", but the LORD sends judgment on Israel because Saul sinned in doing this.

I would almost feel bad for him, except that I'm not convinced that Saul is really trying to do the right thing.  Remember this: out of the many years that Saul reigned in Gibeah, he never brought back the ark of the covenant from Kiriath Jearim.  It's hard to know for sure what was going on in Saul's heart, but there are many times when it appeared that Saul was more interested in the appearance of holiness and devotion rather than the substance.  He was able to give off the appearance of righteousness when things were going well in his life, but when the pressure started to build up, he would go and consult with a spiritist (1 Samuel 28).

In retribution, the Gibeonites ask for 7 of Saul's descendants to be given to them to kill as vengeance for the blood that Saul shed.  Strictly speaking, this is contrary to the principles of the Law.  The Law says that no man should be put to death for the sins of the father (Deut 24:16) and that's exactly what happens here.  Nevertheless, David assents because with Saul already dead and the LORD judging Israel for Saul's crimes, he needs to do something to bring peace to the land.  The reason why this situation is somewhat different is that Saul was the king of Israel, so in a sense he was acting in an official capacity, representing the nation.  And by breaking Israel's treaty with Gibeon, Israel as a whole is considered guilty and that's why the LORD is punishing the entire nation.

At this point, David just asks the Gibeonites themselves what they want for atonement, "that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD", i.e. Israel.  The Gibeonites decline money; they want revenge, so David has little choice but to give it to them.  Also, because the Gibeonites are not part of Israel, they do not feel bound by the commands of the Jewish Law, and while David is bound by the Law, he is also bound to give the Gibeonites justice.

Furthermore, the Law also states that the bodies of the dead are not to be left unburied overnight (Deut 21:22), but in this chapter the bodies of the dead were left exposed from the harvest until the first rain (i.e. from late summer until winter, a few months).

David deliberately spared Mephibosheth because he had sworn an oath to show kindness to the descendants of Jonathan, but otherwise he gives seven sons of Saul to the Gibeonites, and the Gibeonites kill them and leave their bodies exposed before Gibeah, which was Saul's royal city and part of the tribal inheritance of Benjamin.  In essence, they are leaving the bodies rotting in front of Saul's own tribe in a very deliberate, disrespectful fashion.

Aiah honors the bodies of the dead by staying near them for several months, the entire time they were exposed, and preventing wild animals from tearing them apart, and David also honors Saul by collecting and burying all of Saul's dead kindred in Saul's father's tomb.  This is David's final act of kindness for Saul.  In 1 Sam 24:20-22 Saul asks David to show kindness to him and his descendants when David is made king, and I think David has kept the promise he made at that time.

The second half of this chapter is all about giants, and the killing thereof.  This part is a collection of four different giants who are killed at four different times by four different people.  In the first story, it says that David became weary and during his point of weakness, one of the giants sought to kill him, but Abishai, the man of bloodshed whom David rebuked so many times, came to rescue him and killed the giant.  This gives us more insight into why David stopped going out to battle (he did not go out in 2 Samuel 11:1 which ironically led to the sin with Bathsheba, and then again his men pleaded for him to remain in the city in 2 Samuel 18:3 when fighting the men of Absalom).  It appears that as David became older, he started losing his strength and endurance during battle, and his men were afraid that he would be struck down.  This is why, in the second half of his life, he became more of a political ceremonial figure than a military commander, even though he had a lot of military experience in his youth.  This story also shows clearly why David cannot move against Joab or Abishai: Abishai literally saved his life.

Of the other three giants mentioned, the only one I want to talk about in particular is Goliath the Gittite.  David himself killed a giant named Goliath, who was a Gittite (resident of Gath).  This leads some (such as the Jewish commentator Rashi) to suggest that "Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim" is David.  Factually, it makes sense, since it's hard to believe there is a second Goliath the Gittite who was killed by an Israelite.  However, the name Elhanan is unfamiliar and later passages in both Samuel and the book of Chronicles refer to another "Elhanan from Bethlehem", so it strikes me as more likely that this is referring to some other person.  Not to mention, David fought Goliath at Socoh and Azekah, so Gob is also unknown to us before this chapter.  However, verse 22 possibly implies that Elhanan is David because it says these four giants "fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants".  We might interpret that to mean that David is one of the "hands" that killed a giant in these stories.  On the other hand, it might mean that David was partially responsible for killing the giants because he was the commander of these men and trained them in warfare.

As a truly minor point, verse 21 refers to a "Shimei, the brother of David", which is probably a reference to Jesse's second son, who is variously called Shammah (1 Samuel 16) or Shimeah (2 Samuel 13:3).

Lastly, I want to talk about these four stories at a higher level.  In particular, I see these stories as being the measure of David's greatness.  David struck down one giant and by that he became the hero of Israel and a great man.  But this chapter, I think, is an even greater honor, because David did more than kill a giant: he raised up an entire generation of men who went out and slew giants.  We have not just one, but three (or possibly four) distinct stories about men serving under David who each killed a giant.  Killing one giant is a hard thing, but how amazing is it that David was able raise up and inspire others to go out and kill the giants that were threatening to oppress their nation?  This is, I think, the more remarkable accomplishment and I think it is one of David's greatest legacies.  To slay one giant takes heroic faith, but to train others to slay giants takes heroic leadership.

This should be our goal in life: to do great things, and also to bring great things out of others, to inspire others to greatness and to have the lives of our children be more remarkable and glorious than our own.  In all of these things David excelled, in spite of his weakness and mistakes, and that's why he is one of the most honored figures in the bible.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 20

In this chapter, Joab murders Amasa and crushes a second revolt.

The events of this chapter follow on immediately from the arguments that were breaking out in the previous chapter.  In that chapter, the other tribes of Israel were complaining that the men of Judah had taken the king across the Jordan river and denied them any prominence or honor in re-establishing the Davidic kingdom.  The men of Judah, in turn, responded to them "harshly", and that seems to have escalated the confrontation to a much more violent dispute.

In this chapter, the revolt begins with a Benjamite which is in many ways a continuation of the running conflict between Judah and Benjamin.  To remind my readers, Saul was part of the tribe of Benjamin and he relentlessly sought to kill David.  David, in turn, was part of the tribe of Judah and he sent gifts to the elders of Judah to ingratiate himself to them (1 Samuel 30:26).  David fought against Saul's son, Ish-Bosheth, who eventually died.

When David was driven out of Jerusalem, a Benjamite named Shimei harassed him, which shows that the men of Benjamin are still pretty hostile to David.  Now we see a Benjamite encouraging Israel to turn away from David, and what he says in particular is "We have no portion in David".  Once again he is using the language of inheritance, which is because the men of Israel feel like Judah is trying to claim David as their own "inheritance", since he is their relative.

So that's the background for the conflict between David and Sheba.

When David returns, the first thing he does is take the ten widows who Absalom slept with and locks them up.  David himself cannot sleep with them because the Law says that once a woman is divorced and marries another man, she cannot come back and marry the first man (Deut 24:1-4).  This isn't the same thing, but to avoid the appearance of impropriety, David would seek to avoid sleeping with them again.

After this, David asks Amasa to call out the men, and what I feel here is David trying to empower Amasa and weaken Joab.  Unfortunately for Amasa, he takes too long getting back so David starts getting desperate and turns to Abishai.  Once again, David is trying to subvert Joab, but Abishai brings Joab with him, which makes sense because they are brothers and closely allied.

Joab once again takes matters into his own hands and slays Amasa in cold blood.  Joab is generally loyal to David, but he is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way and challenges his authority.  Joab and Abishai are more than happy to kill David's enemies too, and David is the one who prevents them.  But in this case, Joab is fighting for his own position, and he is utterly ruthless when fighting for himself.

He is utterly ruthless when dealing with Sheba too.  Sheba goes to hide in a city, and Joab goes to tear the city down in order to kill him.  A "wise woman" prevents him, and from this story what I'd say is that Joab isn't trying to destroy towns of Israel, but he won't let that stop him if a town comes between him and his objective.

This chapter concludes by telling us the officials in David's administration, with the foremost being Joab himself.  After killing Amasa, David again refrains from turning against Joab because he is afraid of Joab's influence.  Even to the very end of David's life, he is never able to remove Joab from power or bring him to justice.

As unlikely as it may seem, this is the end of David's primary arc.  2 Samuel still has 4 more chapters after this, but the last 4 chapters are just a collection of unrelated stories taken from different periods of David's life.  From this point on, it is entirely non-chronological and much more of an appendix.

So what can we say about David's life?  I would describe David in a few ways.

First and foremost, he sincerely sought to follow the LORD and honor him as the true king of Israel.  He brought the ark of the covenant back to Jerusalem with a triumphal procession and wrote many of the Psalms that are recorded later in the bible.  He fought Goliath with a tremendous faith in God to save him and destroy his enemy.

Second, David was merciful to nearly everyone who resisted him or tried to harm him.  David refused twice to kill Saul, refused to harm Ish-Bosheth, and Abner, and even Absalom, and Shimei, and he honored Mephibosheth, who was the grandson of his enemy Saul.

Third, David suffered on several occasions because he always saw the best in others and trusted others, which gave his enemies opportunities to betray him.  Saul tried to murder him several times, and he returned after a couple of those murder attempts.  All that did was give Saul more chances to "pin him to the wall" with a spear.  David also forgave Absalom, brought him back into prominence, and then tried to spare his life even after Absalom betrayed him.  David also refused to take action against Amnon, possibly out of a misguided sense of mercy.

Fourth, David was a survivor.  For all of his mistakes, David perseveres through many challenges and hardship.  He spent many cold nights tending sheep, and then hiding from Saul, and then later he was driven out of Jerusalem by his son Absalom.

Fifth, David made mistakes.  The biggest mistake of his life was sleeping with Bathsheba and killing Uriah to conceal his sin.  And he pays a heavy, heavy price for it.  But he repents and tries to fix his life after that.

There's many more things that could be said, but for now I will leave my readers with these words.  David was a human being, just like anyone else.  Like him, we also face many challenges and hardships, like him we make mistakes and suffer for them, and like him, if we seek the LORD with our whole hearts, we will see great things in this life, and in the next, eternal life.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 19

In this chapter, everyone jockeys to be David's friend and David crosses over the Jordan back into Israel.

This entire chapter is basically just the various interest groups in Israel rushing back to position themselves as supporters of David.  Verse 10 puts it very clearly when Israel says, the man we wanted to be king is dead, and now we have another king coming back whether we like it or not, so maybe we should accept him instead.  Having fully unified around Absalom, there is now considerable turmoil as the people adjust to this new reality that they were all traitors to the king, and if David feels like it, a lot of people are going to be dying soon.  Remarkably, David punishes nobody upon his return.  Even Shimei, the man who cursed him on his way out, escapes death for a second time simply because David himself refuses to kill Shimei.

But that's not how the chapter starts.  It begins with David grieving over Absalom and it gets to a point where Joab has to come and knock some sense into him.  I think Joab is right.  David is humiliating his men by showing that he cared more for the son who fights against him than for the loyal men who were fighting and dying for his household.  Remember that Absalom sought the death of David alone.  All of his men could have turned and joined Absalom, even as Ahithophel did, and Absalom would have probably rewarded them for it.  The men fought for David because they honor him and revere him, and David shows no regard for them whatsoever.  In the end, David goes to meet his troops in the gateway, but I feel that David is less than wholehearted in this gesture.

Meanwhile, the rest of Israel was scattered in defeat and now find themselves in confusion.  They are confronted by an awkward situation, having to bring back a king they firmly rejected.  David himself also has an awkward situation, which is that Judah was the center of the rebellion against him.  David is from the tribe of Judah and reigned from Hebron for the first seven years of his kingship (2 Sam 2:11), but Hebron is the very city where Absalom started his revolt.  David needs firm support, but his own tribe betrayed him the most directly.

Nevertheless, David turns specifically to Judah to renew their support for him and bring him back across the Jordan.  Crossing the Jordan is a fairly significant symbolic act, mimicking the original crossing of the Jordan when Israel entered the promised land.  In this chapter, it appears to take on additional symbolism, almost like a coronation or inauguration of some official, and everyone wants to cross over with David as a sign of their support for him.  David himself invites the men and elders of Judah to lead in bringing him back.  From David's perspective, this is important because the rest of the nation is in confusion about whether they should support him.  So I don't think it is a foregone conclusion that Israel would rally around David.  Instead, David is seeking to build support in his own personal tribe, and then leverage that support into broader national support as he returns to Jerusalem.  In a basic sense, David's plan works, but the upshot is that the northern tribes feel snubbed and this will shortly resolve into a more adversarial position.

David also appoints Amasa to take over the army in place of Joab.  This is a significant political move and marks a shift in David's relationship with Joab.  I have extensively detailed in my previous commentaries the several clashes between Joab and David.  Joab murdered Abner, who was at peace with David, and then just recently Joab murdered Absalom contrary to David's instruction.  At one point David says, "Today I am weak and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me", the sons of Zeruiah referring to Joab and his brother Abishai.  David wanted to take action against Joab when Joab killed Abner, but he was afraid to do so because he depends on Joab to command the army.

In many other places, we see Joab successfully running the army and winning battles on behalf of David.  Not the least of these battles is the one fought in the previous chapter, when Joab defeated the army of Absalom and resecured the throne on behalf of David.  It is in the wake of this victory that David is demoting Joab and placing Amasa in his stead.  We should see this in two lights.  The first and most obvious is that David is trying to weaken Joab.  Even though Joab has proven his loyalty to David many times, David is angry at Joab's violence and similarly he rebukes Abishai several times for his violent nature (like in verse 22 of this chapter).  David is also angry at Joab's deceit and murder of Abner, and likely still wants to punish him for that crime.

The second aspect of David's decision is that he is promoting Amasa to, in a sense, reconcile himself with the supporters of Absalom.  Amasa was the commander of Absalom's army, and in a strict sense he could be put to death for his betrayal.  However, given the vast scope of the insurrection and the broad support for Absalom, David appears to be highlighting peaceful reconciliation with his erstwhile enemies as long as these people are willing to submit to him once again.  This is the kind of decision that happened with the Rwandan genocide.  In that case, the Rwandan genocide was murder committed on an epic scale, with up to 10% of the entire country's population implicated in one crime or another.  If one person murders another, that person can be imprisoned or executed for the crime, but when an entire society commits murder, to punish that crime would require destroying the entire society.  That is almost a nonsensical action, because one of the chief purposes of criminal justice is to preserve society.

In a similar way, if David were to punish all the men who betrayed him, he would essentially have to destroy the kingdom that he was ostensibly coming back to claim.  Therefore, in several ways David chooses to show mercy and not punish any of the people who fought against him.  First with Amasa, he shows mercy, and secondly with Shimei, David again shows mercy.

Shimei in particular knows that he is in deep trouble, and that's why he is one of the first to cross over when David is on his way back to Israel.  Abishai threatened to kill Shimei when David was leaving for exile, so how much more is Shimei at risk of death when David returns.  But instead David swears to not harm him.  Contrary to how it appears now, David does not fully forgive Shimei, and on his deathbed he will charge Solomon (who reigns after him) to bring justice upon Shimei.  But like I mentioned above, it is probable that David is trying to reconcile himself with the various tribes in light of their revolt, so he does not want to kill anyone when his own authority is still so tenuous.

Mephibosheth emerges again, and as I previously indicated, he challenges Ziba's testimony.  Between the two of them, I think it's more likely that Ziba is telling the truth, but regardless of what I think, David decides that he cannot judge between the two of them, because he has no evidence to corroborate one against the other.  Therefore he divides the estate between the two of them, reversing in part his previous judgment in favor of Ziba.

Barzillai emerges again, but to no significant effect this time.  David offers him a royal pension, and Barzillai instead nominates some dude Chimham who is only ever mentioned in this one chapter.  Presumably Chimham got to live a pretty sweet life being directly subsidized by the king, but his affairs are otherwise inconsequential.

This chapter concludes with the men of Judah getting into a dispute with the men of Israel, the ten northern tribes (the two southern tribes most likely being Judah and Simeon, or possibly Judah and Levi).  Both Judah and the northern tribes (referred to as the "men of Israel", because Israel becomes a cognomen of sorts for the northern tribes) were reluctant to get involved with bringing David back until David took the initiative and, in essence, brought himself back by reaching out to Judah.  So it's with more than a little irony that Judah and the men of Israel are now arguing about who should have had the right to bring the king back, when earlier in this chapter they were debating whether the king should be brought back at all.  This reminds me of the story from Judges 12 when the men of Ephraim become jealous of Jephthah's victory and they actually fight a war over it, because Ephraim felt dishonored by being left out of Jephthah's army.

In the same way, the "men of Israel" feel dishonored because Judah was given the place of honor in bringing back the king, when they represent "ten parts", having ten out of the twelve tribes.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 18

In this chapter, David wins a battle against Absalom's men and Absalom dies.

Absalom dies.  Spoiler alert!  Now that's a lesson to all of you who want to read my commentary before reading the chapter itself.

Anyway, this chapter begins with David and his men gathering in the town of Mahanaim (the area originally named by Jacob back in Gen 32).  We see David assign three commanders over the army, including both Joab and Abishai, and himself commands none of the army.  In fact, "the troops" tell David that he should not go out with them.  I have stated over and over that David is no longer behaving like the strong military commander of his youth, and this chapter seems to confirm it again.

Although in this chapter David expresses his desire to go out with the men, it is clear that he is much more valuable as a political figurehead than as a field commander.  He sinned with Bathsheba when he was staying in Jerusalem and all the men were going out to war, but now it is his men who urge David to remain in the city while they go out to fight his enemies.

The second recurring theme of this chapter is David's gentle attitude towards his children, even when they are literally fighting against him.  In this case, he commands his army to "be gentle with the young man Absalom".  Remember that David killed the Amalekite who (claimed he) slew Saul (2 Samuel 1:14-15), and later he killed Rechab and Baanah because they killed Ish-Bosheth.  This is how David treats the men who kill his enemies, then how much more should his own men feel afraid to lay hands on David's son, even when Absalom is rising in rebellion against him?

I think in some cultures and some situations, David's gentleness towards his children could be excused.  If he were not king and were not living in such a heavily patriarchal society, perhaps he could behave in this way without having any adverse consequences.  But in a society like Israel's and with himself sitting as the ultimate authority over the country, his gentleness towards his children ultimately leads to the deaths of both Absalom and Amnon, and it is worse than if he had killed Amnon himself because then Absalom probably would not have revolted.

I mean, let us remember what was Absalom's chief criticism of David: that the people of Israel were bringing proper claims but not getting justice.  And in at least one situation, the life of Tamar, Absalom was absolutely correct.  Tamar did not get justice, because David refused to take action against Amnon.  Although Absalom likely has personal ambition behind his actions, I think it's also plausible that he has a personal grievance against David because of what happened to Tamar, and frankly he would be right.

In the end, it's just really unfortunate how all these things turned out.  I don't think David ever meant to do harm to his children, and indeed it seems that he means only to do them good, and that is probably a big reason why God never openly rebukes him about his behavior towards his children.  But he really caused himself a lot of grief through his behavior, and not himself alone.  20,000 men die in this battle that his men are fighting to regain David his throne.  And that just goes to show how the sins of a powerless man can harm a few, but the sins of a powerful man can harm many, and David was definitely a powerful man.  God made him king because David was a man after God's own heart and was inclined to rule justly and to do good.  But in the end, David proves himself to be only a man, fallible and flawed like every other, and though he mostly does good, his sins are very costly.

Anyway, the battle spreads out in a forest and somehow the forest kills more than the sword?  Rashi suggests that "the forest" refers to the numerous wild animals that still lived there and preyed upon the soldiers as they wandered, or perhaps attacked the wounded men.  Another possibility is that men died from treacherous conditions in the forest.  Either way, it paints a much more perilous vision of forests than what we find in modern life after mankind has exterminated many of the large predator species that used to live in the Mideast, Europe and America.

Also, the battle site is called the "forest of Ephraim" even though (as will later be made clear) the battle is happening east of the Jordan.  Ephraim's tribal inheritance is west of the Jordan, so it is peculiar that the forest would refer to a tribe that did not dwell in this land.  Rashi explains that when Joshua divided the land, he allowed that any forest land may be used as pasture for animals, and therefore the Ephraimites must have taken their animals across the Jordan to pasture in this particular forest.  I don't know what verse in Joshua makes this allowance, however.  Joshua 17 has some discussion about Ephraim and Manasseh being ordered to clear out the forests in the "hill country" of Israel.  It's possible that the Talmud expands on this passage and Rashi is obliquely referencing it, but I don't know enough to figure that out.

Absalom dies a particularly humiliating death, having his "head caught in a tree".  Possibly this refers to his luxurious, abundant hair (2 Sam 14:26) getting entangled in the thick branches, and to complete the humorous picture, his mule didn't seem to notice and just keeps going, leaving Absalom dangling from the tree.  Alas, if only Absalom had cut his hair before going to battle, this might not have happened.  David's men see him hanging there, but afraid of David's wrath, they leave him unharmed and go tell Joab.

Joab once again shows that he is a ruthless man and while he is acting to defend David's kingship, he also disregards David's command to preserve Absalom's life.  Joab helps David, but he clearly does not fear David like the other men do.  Of course, Joab has gotten away with murder before, and Absalom is a much more dangerous and destructive person than Abner (who Joab murdered).  Joab kills Absalom in battle, which is a further mitigating factor.  So while Joab is killing a defenseless man, I think his action here is arguably the right thing to do.  While I previously blamed David for Absalom's rebellion, Absalom also bears responsibility for the 20,000 men that die under his authority, so he is not at all innocent here.

After Absalom dies, he is buried under a pile of rocks, which is not unusual for the time (cairns were a popular thing in the Mideast, such as Gen 31 "witness heap"), but it's also possible that this was meant to juxtapose with the pillar that we are told Absalom constructed in verse 18 to honor himself.  He built a pillar in honor of himself during his life, and the men who killed him built a pile of rocks to mark the place where he died.

Verse 18 is also interesting because Absalom claims he has no son.  This is apparently contradicted by 2 Samuel 14:27, where Absalom is noted to have 3 sons and a daughter.  It's possible all his sons died, or it's also possible (as Rashi notes) that Absalom was specifically referring to sons who could equal him or carry on his legacy, and that his three sons were not notable or strong personalities.  Either way, the sons of Absalom (like Kileab, the son of David) come to no account.

In the last part of this chapter, Ahimaaz requests to go tell the news to David, perhaps thinking to himself that he is bringing good news, "that the LORD has delivered him from the hand of his enemies" (v. 19).  As Joab points out (and as I've partially discussed in 2 Samuel 1), Ahimaaz would have been given a reward if he came bringing good news, but David was concerned only over his son.  Instead, Joab commands a Cushite (Egyptian) slave to go and bring the news to David, basically so that if David wants to shoot the messenger in his grief, he will only be killing a foreigner who is considered much less valuable than one of his own men or a fellow Israelite.

When Ahimaaz reaches David first, he announces that the battle went well, but equivocates when David asks about the fate of Absalom, probably recognizing that he was unlikely to benefit telling David the truth, and plausibly going to suffer for it.  So while Ahimaaz would certainly have known Absalom was dead, he basically lies about that part to avoid David's anger.

What strikes me about this passage is that David's first question is about whether Absalom is safe.  David doesn't care about the men, or Joab or the battle, what he wants to know is whether or not Absalom was harmed.  And then when he finds out that Absalom is dead, his reaction is pure, unmitigated grief.  Regretful, but this is the power of sin to cause grief.  While David's sin caused grief in the lives of many, ultimately that grief comes roaring back into his own life with tremendous power.

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 17

In this chapter, Absalom takes the advice of Hushai over the advice of Ahithophel, and David escapes with his life.

In the previous chapter, Absalom accepted the advice of Ahithophel in order to fulfill the words of Nathan the prophet.  In this chapter, Ahithophel and Hushai offer conflicting advice, and Absalom chooses the advice of Hushai.  In effect, this validates David's strategy of leaving Hushai behind to give bad advice to Absalom, but perhaps more importantly we can see in v. 14 that it is the LORD acting, "in order to bring disaster on Absalom."  So in my opinion, this chapter is not as much about David defeating Absalom through craftiness and deceit than it is about God helping David and eventually reestablishing his kingship.

Similarly, the escape of Jonathan and Ahimaaz shows more of the fortune of God than any particularly careful planning on David's part.  Importantly, Jonathan and Ahimaaz are the sons of Zadok, which was the second element of David's earlier planning.  David had met with four friendly groups on his way to exile.  The first was his most loyal soldiers, the Kerethites and Pelethites.  The second was Zadok and his sons, who are now benefiting him by bringing him news about Absalom's plans.  The third was Hushai, who benefited him by leading Absalom into a poor decision.  The fourth was Ziba, who brought him food and wine for his men.  So basically, every group that David met has now helped him in one way or another, but overarching all of this is God's intention to protect David and bring Absalom to ruin.

Verse 14 tells us that Ahithophel's advice was good and Hushai's advice was bad.  The fundamental reason why is that Ahithophel would strike quickly before David has time to escape and regroup, but in the end Absalom is afraid of David's reputation and decides to build a massive army to overwhelm David's forces.

What surprises me about this chapter is how broadly unified Israel is behind Absalom, such that he could rally an entire army from the very north to the very south of the country against its (former?) king.  It's easier for me to imagine the nation changing their declared allegiance from David to Absalom, but now they are will to actively seek to kill him.  So this chapter feels like a pretty drastic escalation.

One minor point I'd like to make.  If my readers remember, there were several places in the Pentateuch that contained lengthy repetitions of earlier discourse.  For instance, Gen 24 contains two copies of the story about the servant of Abraham meeting Rebekah.  The first copy of the story is when it happens, and the second copy is when the servant is laboriously recounting that same story to Laban and Bethuel.  In a similar way, the book of Exodus contains significant blocks of duplicated text regarding the tabernacle: first there is a long section describing the plans for its construction, and then there is a long section describing how the workmen constructed it exactly according to those specifications.  In all of these repetitions, I noted that repetition is a common pattern in oral traditions because it aides memorization.

I mention all this because in this chapter alone there are three occurrences of a phrase translated to "such and such" or "so and so" (v. 15 and v. 21) and while it is a relatively minor thing, I think it shows us the very different origins of the Pentateuch compared to the book of Samuel.  More explicitly, Samuel does not utilize repetition, which indicates that it may not have emerged as an oral tradition when it was first written.  This isn't a perfect rule because we know that large portions of the OT were transmitted orally before ever being written down, but it seems likely that the Pentateuch has a longer oral history compared to Samuel.  We could have figured that out just by analyzing cultural differences between Israel's history in the time of Abraham compared to David, but I think the textual difference is strong corollary evidence.

Moving on, Ahithophel kills himself when he sees that his advice was not followed.  It's not clear to me why, but I always assumed it was because Ahithophel considered himself disgraced or that he was removed from influence when Absalom disregarded his advice.  Possibly Ahithophel foresaw Absalom's defeat and therefore saw no purpose for living further.

What is clear, however, is that Ahithophel was under judgment from God for turning against David, and therefore his disgrace and death was a punishment for his betrayal, similar to how God is planning to bring disaster upon Absalom.

Lastly, I find it somewhat ironic that Shobi comes to assist David when David fought his brother Hanun back in 2 Samuel 10.  Perhaps Shobi favors David because of the "kindness" that that Nahash showed towards David (2 Sam 10:2).

Nevertheless, this chapter ends with Absalom firmly in control over the nation, but David escapes into the wilderness with all his men and they are rallied to fight back.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 16

In this chapter, Absalom takes Jerusalem and sleeps with his father's concubines, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Nathan.

This chapter begins with an interesting little story about Ziba and David.  If my readers may recall, Ziba was a former servant of Saul who, in 2 Samuel 9, David assigned to administrate Saul's former estate on behalf of Saul's crippled son and heir Mephibosheth.  David also commanded Mephibosheth to reside in Jerusalem rather than his tribal homeland of Benjamin, so we can reasonably understand that both Ziba and Mephibosheth are in close proximity to David at this time.

This part of the story is continuing with the "parade of various groups and officials who meet with David on his way out".  Ziba says that Mephibosheth remained in town because he expected to be given the kingdom back, and David in turn rewards Ziba by promising to give him the entirety of Saul's estate when David has taken back the kingdom.

I think the last part of this exchange is the most peculiar.  First of all, let us note that we only have Ziba's word at this point.  Ziba is telling us that Mephibosheth is disloyal to David (which is not in itself unlikely given David's history with his father Saul), but keep in mind that Mephibosheth literally cannot walk out to meet David without help.  If Ziba left him behind, Mephibosheth could do nothing about it.  So just from that basis alone, we have reason to distrust Ziba's words.

Secondly, let us note how strange it would be for Mephibosheth to expect himself to get the kingdom when Absalom is himself coming to take it.  I can't imagine any possible reason why Absalom would be inclined to just hand the kingdom over to Mephibosheth, and at this point it seems equally unlikely that the men of Israel would turn it over to a politically insignificant cripple.  I hate to say this, but in Israel's society at the time people with physical infirmities were looked down upon.  Like many cultures, it valued power and strength and regarded weakness and poverty as a curse from God.  So if Mephibosheth really thought this, then he was badly mistaken; but it seems more probable to me that Ziba is simply lying because he was hoping to get a reward, and that's exactly what he gets.

After Ziba, the parade ends with Shimei, a relative of Saul (and perhaps meant to be contrasted with Ziba, who also served in Saul's house).  Shimei curses David as a "man of bloodshed", which is ironic considering the history of Saul and David's repeated mercy towards him.  David sheds blood in his subsequent war against Abner and Ish-Bosheth, who both died contrary to David's wishes.  David certainly was guilty of bloodshed in the death of Uriah, which is the most direct cause for his present crisis.  So I think it's an interesting question whether or not David is a man of bloodshed.

Abishai, for his part, proves himself to be a man of bloodshed by asking permission to kill Shimei, and David (in many ways) proves himself innocent by rebuking Abishai and accepting not only the humiliation of being driven out of his home, but the disgrace of being cursed on his way out.  As in many other situations, David proves his worth by placing his hope and expectation in the LORD, that "the LORD will look on my affliction and return good to me instead of his cursing."  David has definitely made mistakes, but it looks like he has developed a lot of humility and he accepts both curses and blessings, in hope that the LORD will do good for him and secure his life.

The chapter concludes when Absalom enters Jerusalem.  He enters alongside Ahithophel (signifying Ahithophel's prominence in the revolt), and Hushai greets him.  Absalom is skeptical, but is eventually deceived and accepts Hushai as one of his counselors.  He then sleeps with David's concubines publicly, which fulfills the curse from Nathan that David received back in 2 Samuel 12.  He is told to do this so that he can deliberately alienate himself from David.  Besides the obvious reason (he is sleeping with some of David's wives), this is also an act that directly challenges David's kingship.  We've seen this a couple times, but sleeping with a man's wife or concubine is (in Israel's culture) equivalent to saying, "I have inherited this man's wives along with his estate."  You are claiming inheritance over his possessions, and not like "in the future I will inherit these things", but it's like you are taking their possessions and wives in the present tense, as if that man were already dead.  Reuben did this when he slept with one of Jacob's concubines (Gen 35:22), and Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of doing it (2 Samuel 3:7).  Now Absalom does it to challenge David publicly, in order to strengthen the hearts of the men who sided with him against David.

Rashi* has an interesting suggestion why this act would strengthen Absalom's rebellion.  Remember how Absalom murdered Amnon, was driven into exile, but then reconciled to David?  Amnon himself raped his half-sister and David did nothing.  So over multiple situations, David has shown himself sensitive towards his children, even when they do horrible things.  So Rashi suggests that when Absalom sees David, or if David starts to threaten Absalom, Absalom may have a "change of heart" and return to David.  David has shown that he is likely to forgive his children, and that would leave Absalom's many supporters likely to die in subsequent crackdowns.  Therefore by intentionally aggravating David, all those who wish to support Absalom can be more confident that Absalom will not betray them in turn.

Rashi puts it more succinctly: "For now they [lit., their hands] are lax to support you for they say in their hearts: the son will have a change of heart when [he is] near his father and we [alone] will remain despised by David."  But I think the more critical factor here is how David has shown multiple times that he is likely to accept his son if his son returns to him, leaving all of Absalom's supporters "despised by David".

So all things considered, I think sleeping with David's concubines is actually a very astute political maneuver, and at the same time it fulfills Nathan's curse.

*Rashi is an excellent 11th century CE Jewish commentator who wrote a full commentary on the OT based on the existing Jewish Talmud (earlier commentaries from the 2nd through 5th centuries CE).  You can find Rashi's commentary online at which is a great resource in general for studying the Torah (i.e. the Old Testament).