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).

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 15

In this chapter, Absalom overthrows his father and David flees for his life.

This chapter begins with Absalom amassing power and prestige for himself.  He almost immediately demonstrates that he is more interested in his own honor and glory than the glory of the LORD, so it is unlikely that he would reign the way that God wishes.

The second thing worth mentioning is how Absalom's rebellion against David is contrary to how David himself treated Saul.  When Saul was king, he attempted to kill David to protect his own throne and legacy.  Now that David is king, it is his own son and likely heir to the throne that is remarkably attempting to overthrow his own father.  Absalom essentially betrays David the same way that Saul (incorrectly) thought that David was going to betray him.  In particular, David says "I will not lay a hand on the LORD's anointed"; Absalom shows no such reservation.

The third thing I'd like to point out is the peculiarity of Absalom's rebellion itself.  Amnon, David's firstborn, is dead.  Absalom slew him.  Kileab is David's second-born, and he is only mentioned once in the entire bible.  Although ostensibly he is now David's heir to the throne, some commentators suggest that he must have died in his youth to explain why Kileab is never mentioned in relation to the various rebellions against David or the eventual succession of Solomon.

If that were the case, then Absalom would be next in line for David's throne.  However, it's possible that David disowned him after he murdered his brother.  It's not exactly clear if that's the case after "the king kissed Absalom" in the previous chapter.  By the ordinary pattern of inheritance, Absalom should be next in line for the throne.  It would only be if David has disowned him that the throne would fall to one of Absalom's brothers, and that is the only situation where Absalom's rebellion makes any sense.  It would be totally insane to try to usurp your father's throne if it's falling to you after he dies anyway.  It's the equivalent of trying to steal from yourself.  So I think it's more likely that David has already told Absalom that he would not be king, and Absalom is acting to secure his own future over the kingdom.

This chapter repeats the pattern from the previous couple chapters, which is David's weakness and undeserved trust for the people around him; in this case, Absalom.  Absalom is amassing chariots and servants and through his good looks and charm, "stealing away the hearts of the men of Israel", and David does nothing about it.  I wonder if David even realizes that his son is taking the kingdom out from under him.  Absalom again asks David for permission, this time to depart to another city and David allows him to do so.  David is blindly trusting, even though Absalom is trying to build his own power base.  All I can imagine is that David doesn't realize Absalom is preparing a coup despite how public that behavior is.  I mean, Absalom is literally standing at the gate talking to people as they enter the town about how he should be a judge, and David doesn't realize what is going on.  This is unfortunate naivety on David's part, and it will cost him.

Absalom begins his rebellion by going to Hebron, which is interesting because Hebron was previously David's royal city and one of his most significant power centers, because it is (in a vague sense) like a capital for Judah, which is David's tribe.  So Absalom's decision to go there reveals that David is losing the loyalty not just of the others tribes, but even his own tribe.  One commentary I read suggested that Hebron turned against David because David moved the royal city from there to Jerusalem, which is an interesting suggestion.

The first decisive action David takes is to flee from Jerusalem, and it possibly saves his life.  He was slow to realize Absalom turning the hearts of the people against him (by claiming that there was nobody with the king who could give them justice) but once he realized what happened, it seemed like the old David kicked back into life.  Ironically, this is the second time David has had to flee for his life from the royal city; last time he was fleeing as a servant of Saul, and this time he is fleeing from his own throne which is about to be taken from him.

The rest of this chapter is essentially a parade of David's supporters, listing all of the prominent figures and groups that travel with him into exile or support him in other ways.  All of these groups and individuals will remain deeply influential after Absalom's revolt is quashed, as this event is one of the first filters applied to see which of David's men are true to him and which are only interested in power and wealth.

David himself has spent many years wandering and running for his life, but many of the prominent figures in his kingdom joined him after he became king, so for many of them this is a decisive moment.  David had no choice when he was sent into exile, but David's men do have a choice: Absalom would likely accept just about anyone who would swear loyalty to him.  That makes the decision of those who go with David all the more significant.

It begins with the "mighty men", the Pelethites and Kerethites, and alongside this group it also mentions 600 Gittites, which is a demonym for the people of Gath.  That these three groups are listed together suggests they fill a similar role, as loyal troops and enforcers of David's regime.  The Gittites are most interesting because they are definitely not Israelites, so it is possible they are converts to Judaism.  They also show exceptional loyalty, seeking to go with David into exile.

Next it lists Zadok and the Levites.  It should not surprise us to learn that the religious authorities side with David given the prominence that David has placed on the ark and the temple and other things of the LORD.  David has been a fervent (and by all accounts sincere) promoter of the LORD as king over Israel, which politically benefits the priests and Levites whose livelihood is dependent on how many sacrifices the people offer to the LORD.

As David goes past the Kidron valley and up the Mount of Olives, the story concludes with a tale of two counselors.  The first counselor, Ahithophel, deliberately betrays David and goes to serve Absalom.  The second counselor, Hushai, remains loyal to David and tries to go with him into exile.

I think these three groups also represent the different seasons and situations in David's life.  He built the loyalty of the Pelethites and Gittites when he was in exile in Gath and the Negev, proving himself to be a rugged man and a fighter.  He built the loyalty of the priests and Levites during the early days of his kingship when he brought the ark back to Jerusalem and tried to build a temple (though he was eventually dissuaded).  The two counselors represent the political and administrative aspects of his kingship, as he increasingly drifts away from his shepherd youth and fugitive adolescence and is now becoming much more of an old, staid authority figure and managing complex international politics as Israel claims dominance over some of its neighbors and fights wars against others.

Out of these three groups, only the first one is permitted to go with him.  David commands the priests, the ark and Hushai to return to Jerusalem and serve him by spying out Absalom's plans and to thwart him from within as a fifth column.  It should not surprise us much that the two groups who supported him during his reign as king would be least capable of toughing it out in the Judean wilderness, and therefore he sends them back.  They mean well, but it's unlikely they have the skills or endurance to help David in these kinds of situations, while the Pelethites and Kerethites cut their teeth being hunted by Saul alongside David.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 14

In this chapter, Joab convinces David to bring Absalom back from exile.

Taken as a whole, I think this chapter also shows David to be a largely passive agent, as other people move and act around him.  Other people come and ask him for things, but David does not seem to be taking the initiative I would expect in this story.  It's possible that David is reluctant to punish Absalom when David himself committed murder by killing Uriah.  This unfortunately shows us how sin in the highest reaches of government can ripple outward into society, as David's sin opens the door for many others to commit the same crimes that David himself committed.

First of all, David's "heart is inclined towards Absalom", and he "mourned for his son every day".  But David doesn't take any action towards this, and it's only when Joab prods him that David allows Absalom to return.

Joab hires a "wise woman" to go and convince David to reconcile with Absalom.  This story is strangely reminiscent of Nathan's parable through which he rebuked David in 2 Samuel 12, which makes me wonder if the "wise woman" is some sort of term for a female prophet.  The banter between David and the "wise woman" is amusing, but I don't see anything there that requires much explanation.

Verse 7 says, "and destroy the heir also", by which the woman's (metaphorical) family gives away their true intentions.  Although ostensibly they are killing the woman's son because he committed murder, she is implying that her extended family wants to kill him so that the woman can be left without an heir, and the man's inheritance would go to them instead.  The woman, for her part, depends on her sons to provide for her old age, and of course she wants her husband and her family to continue in the land through her remaining son.  Of course, none of this actually happened, but it's what she is trying to imply as her family's motivation.

In verse 11, the woman asks David to "remember the LORD your God", by which she is asking him to swear an oath confirming his judgment on her behalf.  When David says, "as the LORD lives", that is a ritual formula indicating that he swore an oath in the name of the LORD to do what she asked.

David apparently perceives that Joab is behind this woman's behavior, which makes me wonder two things.  First, how did David know that Joab was behind her, and secondly, why does Joab care about David's reconciliation with Absalom?  We can see that Joab perceives something in David, that David wanted to be reconciled with Absalom.  Perhaps Joab was concerned that this was becoming a distraction to David, or possibly he was seeking to ingratiate himself with Absalom.  Joab remains loyal to David, but it's possible that he's trying to build alliances with "the princes", the future rulers of Israel.  I should mention, Absalom is not David's heir; David's second-born (after Amnon, who died) is Kileab.  Absalom is David's third-born, so it would only be with Kileab's death that Absalom would reign.  Besides this, Kileab is a largely inconsequential figure, as David eventually declares Solomon to be his successor.

So I'm not sure.  I don't understand Joab's motivation here, but what is clear is Joab's influence.  Joab convinces David to bring Absalom back, and then convinces David to allow Absalom to meet him again.  This second part is significant.  In verse 24, we are told that David allows Absalom to return, but "let him not see my face."  What this means is that David is allowing Absalom to live in his own home with his family, but he is denied having any political influence and David shows his disapproval in this way.

Absalom his to burn Joab's fields to get Joab to see him (Joab is possibly avoiding Absalom because Absalom is in disfavor with the king).  Joab goes to talk to David, and David allows Absalom to see him, which basically means that he is politically rehabilitated as David has ultimately decided to not punish Absalom.

What I see here is Joab acting as a major power broker, and Absalom learning that he can murder people with impunity because David refuses to punish him.

There are a few more interesting details in this chapter.  One is that Absalom names his daughter after his sister, Tamar.  Secondly (and more important to the story) is that Absalom is "highly praised" and very handsome.  We discover that he also has abundant quantities of hair, which is a symbol in the bible for male strength, youth and fertility.  In this respect, Absalom is most reminiscent of Saul, who was also a tall, handsome and strong figure, but a terrible king.  Absalom's beauty will play a role in later parts of the story, as he will cast his aspirations for the throne in a little while.

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 13

In this chapter, Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, and Absalom kills Amnon in revenge.

In previous chapters, I have discussed David's character.  What stood out to me the most about him is that he sincerely loves God, and he is capable of being very shrewd in terms of political maneuvering, but he is not a strong ruler in terms of controlling the kingdom and maintaining authority over his subordinates.  This showed up most clearly when David did not take revenge on Joab after Joab murdered Abner.  In that case, David depends so heavily on Joab that he simply cannot punish him for his clearly evil deeds.  Again, in 2 Samuel 12, Joab overthrew the city of Rabbah, and only after the battle was nearly over did David come in to claim the victory.

In this chapter, what we see is that David shows the same weakness when dealing with his own family, and this is going to cause David a lot of problems during the remainder of his lifetime, perhaps more than any other issue.

Also, these problems are what Nathan prophesied about when he said that David would face evil coming from his own household and family, so it is indirectly the result of his adultery with Bathsheba.

Anyway, to establish the main players here, let us begin by observing that Absalom and Tamar are full siblings, the children of the same mother.  Amnon is their half-brother because he is the son of David, but not the son of the same wife of David as Absalom and Tamar.  Jonadab is their cousin, the son of Shimeah who is a brother of David.  I think it is also significant that Amnon is David's firstborn, which means that he is first in line for inheriting David's throne.  I think it is likely that at least some part of David's weakness in dealing with Amnon is that David expect Amnon to inherit his kingdom.

What happens is Jonadab (for whatever reason) tells Amnon how he can trick Tamar into entering his house, and then rape her.  David unwittingly plays along the entire time, and at no point does he proactively do anything to control his children.  I think if there's one thing that stands out to me more than nearly anything else, it's David's passivity in this chapter.  He's angry sometimes, he weeps other times, but at no point does he do anything.  And we're talking about the king, so he is supposed to be the supreme authority over the entire kingdom, and much more so his own family of which he is the patriarch.  This lackadaisical attitude is entirely out of keeping with David's many responsibilities.

After Amnon rapes Tamar, it says that he hates her with a greater hatred than his previous love for her.  This is, no doubt, because Amnon never loved her.  It was lust, pure and simple and evil, and once he got what he wanted, his disrespect for her came out to the fore.

A couple comments.  First of all, the law forbids sexual relations between half-siblings (Lev 18:11), so what Amnon is doing is at least forbidden, possibly punishable by death.  Rape is certainly punishable by death.  Secondly, in v. 13 Tamar begs for Amnon to marry her instead of raping her, but he refuses, and then he throws her out.  To a significant extent, men would only marry virgins in Israelite society (and most other societies in the ancient world), so by having sex with her and throwing her out, Amnon is coming about as close as he can get to preventing her from ever marrying, which is one of the biggest events for women in this time period (more so than in modern life, though marriage is still obviously significant in modern life as well).

Simply put, sexual standards were a lot stricter for women in Israel than they are in modern Western civilization.  In modern times, a woman could have a career, sleep with one or more partners, get married late or never get married at all.  In ancient Israel, they did not have most of these options.  Men in ancient Israel could have multiple wives, could have sex before marriage (with certain limits) and in broad terms, there simply wasn't any notion of male virginity in the same way that their society thought about female virginity.  As a result, what Amnon does is possibly even more horrible than when a woman is raped in modern life, because as we can see in v. 20, this event is essentially the end of Tamar's life as she remains in her brother's household and is "desolate" for the rest of her life.

Third, when Tamar tells Amnon that his actions would make him a "fool", and that he would be doing a "disgraceful thing".  The root Hebrew word for both of these terms is "nabal", which means fool.  This is, once again, David's karma.  Because of David's sin, he who once showed himself superior to Nabal, the fool, now has his sons acting like fools as punishment for his affair with Bathsheba.  The repeated use of the word "fool" is meant to contrast the shift in David's affair before and after he commits his great sin.

Two people hear about what happened: Absalom and David.  David gets angry, but Absalom gets revenge.  This is what I mean about David's weakness.  Because he refused to take action against his own son, he essentially forces Absalom to get revenge for his sister.  By all rights, Amnon deserved to die, and David is the authority most responsible for carrying out justice, which he does not do.

When Absalom sees that David is doing nothing, he holds a sheepshearing celebration (similar to 1 Samuel 25), and connives to invite all of David's sons, specifically requesting Amnon to come.  David once again shows his passivity by asking, why Amnon?  But then permitting him to go.

David first mourns for the death of Amnon, and then eventually mourns for his separation from Absalom, because Absalom was driven into exile.  Absalom flees to Geshur, because he is the grandson of the king of Geshur (through his mother, the daughter of the king of Geshur).  Absalom correctly believes that he can find shelter from retribution there.  It's sadly ironic that Absalom has to go into exile when he is simply carrying out justice, because Amnon deserved to die from his crime.

What we see is that David is starting to show the same weakness towards Absalom that he showed towards Amnon.  Even though David made a mistake by not punishing Amnon, he is showing further vulnerability by not controlling Absalom too.  This will come back to cause him serious problems in the very near future.