Thursday, September 4, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 5

In this chapter, David is made king of all Israel, conquers Jerusalem, and defeats the Philistines in battle.

This chapter details some of the early events in David’s reign. Suffice it to say, becoming king did not end the series of wars that he’s had to fight up until this point. Rather, we see that him becoming king is just going to draw him back into multiple conflicts, similar to the wars he fought as Saul’s lieutenant. Also, we finally learn how long David was at war with Ish-Bosheth: he reigned from Hebron for 7 and a half years, so this would have been very close to the duration of his long struggle with the house of Saul.

This chapter lists three principal events after David is anointed king over Israel: the conquest of Jerusalem, the construction of David’s palace, and the two wars against the Philistines, and they are given by the text in that order. However, we have reason to believe that this may not be chronological order. To wit, observe several details from verse 17.

First, v. 17 tells us that the Philistines attacked when they heard that David was anointed. It is improbable that David would have had enough time to muster an army, conquer Jerusalem and build a palace for himself in the time before the Philistines could gather an army to invade Israel. It is further unlikely that David would have enough military force to repulse the Philistine army cotemporaneously with his own attack on Jerusalem or later events, considering that the Philistines had severely defeated Israel in their previous war, and Israel had spent the entire 7 years since then in its own civil war, which would leave it weak and vulnerable.

Second, v. 17 tells us that David “went down to the stronghold”, an expression almost identical to what David did when he was fleeing from Saul and he went to hide in the Judean desert. While it’s possible that “the stronghold” refers to the fortress of Jerusalem, I think the similarity of expression to 1 Samuel 22:4-5 makes it more likely that David went into hiding in the desert. Additionally, the NIV translation refers to the Philistines going “to search for” David. It’s not talking about them seeking to fight David because David is not their equal. This particular war is doubtless asymmetric.

But I think it’s unlikely that David would vacate Jerusalem after he had captured it precisely because the Jebusites describe it as such a strong defensive position. Once it had been fortified, I doubt that David would flee back into the desert.

Okay, so now that we have the chronology down, let’s examine the events more closely. Beginning again in v. 17 when the Philistines gather to attack David, why would they do so? David had reigned in Hebron for a long time and had even lived near Gath for an unspecified time period in the service of Achish. What is it about David that makes him so much more threatening now?

In my opinion, the simplest answer is that the Philistines were threatened by the reunification of the northern and southern tribes of Israel. While David was fighting Ish-Bosheth, both the north and the south of Israel would be weak and the Philistines would not be challenged. Now that David has reunited the kingdom, it is possible that he will attack the Philistines to regain the territory that Israel lost after Saul’s defeat on Mount Gilboa (in 1 Samuel 31). But really though, the Philistines had been attacking Israel time after time for generations now. I don’t think they need an excuse to attack again.

Each time the Philistines attack, it says they spread out in the valley of Rephaim, and each time it says that David inquired of the LORD whether and how he should drive them back. The second time was somewhat more interesting than the first, because before the second battle it says that the sign for David to attack is when he hears the sound of marching in the tree tops. To me at least, this conjures an image of an army of angels marching along through the air, going ahead to fight David’s enemies before he gets there. The more prosaic explanation is that it would be caused by wind blowing through the trees and rustling leaves.

I think now is a good opportunity to reflect on the manifestations of God. Starting in Genesis I did an informal series on the various ways that God appears to the saints of old. The last time I referred to this was in Joshua when I noted that the LORD was changing his appearance from the provision and protection that he gave in the desert of Sinai, and was now appearing to Israel as the great military commander, the general who would lead them to victory over their enemies.

I think the appearances of the LORD in 1st and 2nd Samuel have been largely consistent with how the LORD appeared to Joshua. Just thinking back to how the LORD guided David, it’s been a lot of subtle coincidences. Like the two separate times that David was given an opportunity to kill Saul. I think both of those opportunities came from the LORD, but neither of them were overtly supernatural.

It seems like the LORD is most commonly operating through two channels: the utterances of prophets like Samuel and the ministration of the ephod, which David uses to “inquire of the LORD”. It is probable that many of the times it says David “inquired of the LORD”, it is referring to him asking the priest while the priest is wearing the ephod and mediating these requests. 1 Samuel 23:6 makes it clear that when Abiathar fled to David, that he brought the holy ephod with him, and this was probably how David communicated with the LORD most of the time.

This feels very different to me from the earlier parts of the OT in Genesis and Exodus. Reading the account of Abraham or even Jacob, it is remarkable to me how they interacted with God directly, seeing him face to face. Moses, too, saw the LORD and ascended up Mount Sinai to speak to the LORD and receive his commands. In comparison, the life of David is interesting, but his interactions with the LORD feel a lot more elusive to me. He speaks to the LORD often and is closely guided, but it doesn’t seem like David has the same kinds of powerful dreams and visions that were at least written about commonly, even if they didn’t occur commonly when drawn over the 80 to 120 years that these men lived. Like when Abraham negotiated with God about the destruction of Sodom, or when Jacob saw the ladder ascending to heaven in a dream, or when Moses saw a mountain covered with fire and wind and earthquakes and the elders ate a meal in the presence of God (Ex 24).

Not to say that I feel sorry for David; he has a pretty remarkable life, and God honors him a lot in many ways. From the point of view of understanding the manifestations of God in the bible, it’s clear that this is much more of a time of subtle manipulation and operating through human agents (like the prophet Samuel or the high priest) rather than directly operating in people’s lives like when God destroyed Sodom. I think this is worthwhile to note for the times in our own lives when it seems like God is not acting or at least not acting in a way that we clearly understand, especially in western civilization and in a time like this, when it seems like God is distant from our world.

Ok, now I’m going to get back on topic. David inquires twice, and twice the LORD commands him to strike the Philistines, and twice the Philistines are defeated (the second time being more severe than the first). This has the immediate effect of securing David’s new kingdom from one of their most serious threats, because the Philistines are a strong regional power at this time. So David has fought off the first couple challenges to his reign.

Defeating the Jebusites and taking Jerusalem was David doing his part to fulfill Israel’s general mission of conquering the entire promised land. Joshua 13 told us about the many places within Israel’s (putative) boundaries that remained in enemy hands, and Israel has an implied duty to conquer all of these territories and wipe out all of their inhabitants (cf. Deut 20). An ironic sidenote is that the Geshurites are a tribe David allied with by marrying the daughter of the king of Geshur, but the Geshurites are listed as one of the areas that had yet to be conquered in Joshua 13. So while David is pressing against the Jebusites, it appears that Israel is going to coexist with Geshur for some time, along with the many other hostile nations that Israel is simply too weak to destroy.

David conquers Jerusalem and makes it his new capital for the united Israel. V. 8 also has a peculiar reference to David saying that people would need to use “the water shaft” to reach David’s enemies. This can be hard to understand at first, but from what I know, archaeologists have found evidence that Jerusalem used hidden tunnels to get water during a siege (such as this). Evidence suggests that David used the “water shaft” as a secret entrance to get into the city, and thereby compromised the defenders. Otherwise, Jerusalem is actually quite defensible, situated on a plateau surrounded by several valleys.

When it says in v. 8 that “the blind and lame will not enter the palace”, it’s possible this is referring to the literal blind and lame people, or it could be an allusion to the Jebusite people, remnants of which remained in the Jerusalem area even after they were defeated. These Jebusites gradually integrated with Israel over the years, but it’s likely that they were discriminated against, such as here.

Some other details: this chapter contains the first reference to “Zion”, and in this case it refers specifically to the city of Jerusalem rather than in later times when Zion becomes more of a metaphorical and idealistic concept.

Another notable detail is David’s pleasant relationship with Hiram, king of Tyre. Tyre is outside the boundaries of the promised land, so there are no stipulations in the covenant of Moses that Israel must be at war with them. Tyre is a Phoenician city and very commercial, which is perhaps why they are more interested in building a palace for David (they were certainly well-paid) rather than be at war with him. The only other alliances I can remember that Israel has are with the Kenites (through Moses’s father in law), the Gibeonites (who deceived Israel into swearing to a peace treaty) and the Geshurites, who David allied by marriage. Other than these three tribes, Israel is hostile with nearly every other inhabitant in the ancient near east. So this impromptu alliance with Tyre is a pleasant surprise to me.
Lastly, we discover that David is having more wives and children. The most important of these new children is Solomon (v. 14), who will eventually succeed him. As with the last time the bible described David having a bunch of children all at once, David is not having all these children in a single weekend. Verses 13-15 are probably naming the children he had over a long time frame, possibly as long as his entire 33 year reign in Jerusalem, so this should not be taken chronologically.

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