Thibble Thursday: Return of the Exile (2 Samuel 1–2)

We begin a new book: 2 Samuel is the story of David’s executive power over Israel, while 1 Samuel was Saul-focused. The dividing point is of course the death of Saul, which we saw in our last installment. Incidentally, the division of the book into two parts is largely arbitrary; AFAICT, it’s an innovation of the Septuagint, and in prior versions of the text Samuel was one big book.

Short snarky summary: David learns that Saul’s dead. He’s sad that the king is dead but glad to come home. His sorrow might be a bit difficult to credit as his first act is to go to war with Saul’s heirs.


Chapter 1 picks up right where 1 Samuel left off. Recall that David was off harrying Amelekites in the service of the king of Gath while that same king was routing the Israelite army. This means that David was not only spared the awkward prospect of killing Saul, but wasn’t even around when Saul was killed. David himself is living in a peculiarly neutral zone at the moment: the ostensibly Philistine town of Ziklag, given to him as a gift by the king, which will henceforth be treated as if it was part of the royal portion of the Davidic dynasty, which is to say Judah (the story claims, as I’ve mentioned before, a unity of Judah and Israel at the time and continuing through the time of Rehoboam, but little cracks in this assertion keep coming through, so we’ll just split the difference and call Ziklag a Judahite city, whether “Judahite” describes a tribe or a nation). Allegiencewise David is in kind of a weird space at this point as well: he’s going to jump off on his old frenemies the Philistines to seize the throne. But first he has to learn the throne’s vacant. This occurs when a survivor of the battle stumbles into town to be interviewed by David. And not just any survivor, even: a truly idiosyncratic survivor, who, among other things, is either a liar or determined to break the continuity of the story.

He leads with the most relevant information, namely, the death of Saul and Jonathan, but when called on to substantiate his story, the details are pretty damn weird. First off, he tells Saul (presumably truthfully) that he’s an Amalekite. That’s already strange: what the hell is an ethnic Amalekite doing on the field at a Philistine-Israelite battle? The only possibility I can imagine is that he’s a servant or slave, which doesn’t really work because even in Saul’s misplaced act of plunder of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel chapter 15, he did in fact kill all the young people, so it’s not clear where this Amalekite came from, or why he would be (as he seems to be) on the side of the Israelites. He says in 1:6 that he came upon the battle by chance, but that only raises more questions as to why he entered into the fray.

In addition, in this Amalekite’s rendition of the story, Saul ordered this latecomer to the party to kill him quick, since he’s going to die anyways. That part’s familiar, except that when he did say that, it was to his shieldbearer, who refused, and Saul committed suicide. I’d like to blame this on one last gasp of the dual-authorship kludge, because it’s how I’ve excused every continuity error so far, and why stop now?

Anyways, David’s response to this intelligence is, after a moment of grieving, to order this messenger killed. No, really. And not because he’s an Amalekite, although that probably didn’t help. THis man’s real crime is striking down God’s anointed king, never mind that God’s anointed king asked him to do it. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but then, I don’t like David much and this sort of behavior just reminds me that he’s morally kind of dubious.

The rest of Chapter 1 is taken up with David’s lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan. I suppose we’re supposed to take his grief for Saul as sincere, although nobody would blame him if he were a bit happy the old lunatic has finally stopped hounding him. There are a few colorful turns of phrase in his elegy: it opens with a quote from “the book of Jashar” or possibly “the book of the Just Man”, apparently a lost work (although there are several post-Biblical apocrypha with the same name), which was previously referenced back in Joshua 10. It also characterizes Saul and Jonathan as lions, which has a certain amount of tribal-symbolism irony in it, as the house of Saul will ultimately come to represent the anti-Judahite faction in Israel, and Judah is the tribe symbolized by the lion. Finally, we have, as a particular lament for Jonathan, the claim that “his love was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” Slashfic writers, start your engines!

However, in Chapter 2, the lamenting is over, and it’s time for David to go and take what’s rightfully his. With God’s approval, David takes his household and ary, and basically declares Hebron to be the seat of his kingdom. Hebron is deep in the territory of Judah, and this act is ultimately an elevation of Judah, David’s own tribe, into kingship over Israel as a whole. This intertribal tension is going to end up simmering into three generations of infrequent rebellion before the schism becomes irreparable.

The first instance of the continual rebellino actually happens immediately in this chapter, with the weakened House of Saul serving as the champion for non-Judahite Israel. The Saulite camp is headed up by Saul’s general Abner (last seen in 1 Samuel chapter 26, where he failed to protect Saul from a raid by David), who is legitimizing his power play by serving under Saul’s son Ish-bosheth. Ish-bosheth might be a puppet: the narrative here is mostly ascribing agency to Abner, who sets up the anti-Judahite camp over in trans-Jordan, which is as far from Judah as possible (and also, in a perhaps pro-Davidic aspersion on the Israelite forces, lies outside the borders of the Holy Land and is thus unsuitable as a rallying point for righteous Jews). So Ish-bosheth is crowned king of Israel, and gains the support of the Transjordanian and northern tribes, while David’s claim of kingship is endorsed only by Judah and perhaps some of their southern neighbors. Although the text doesn’t explicitly say as much, there is a strong implication that a civil war has commenced. Incidentally, ignoring the whole “anointed by Samuel and God” business, smart odds are against David, because while Judah is well-situated, rich in resources, and defensible, the rest of Israel is a lot more populous.

The not-quite-a-civil-war is met, in a truly bizarre form, in 2:12–16, with what appears to be some sort of ritualized combat. Twelve men of Judah and twelve men of Benjamin (from the Saulite contingent) are instructed to “sport” before the generals. Said sport involves opponents pairing off, grappling, and stabbing each other, the net effect of which appears to be the senseless death of twenty-four men in an act benefitting neither side. Is this ritual? Entertainment? An utterly inconclusive attempt to settle the succession through a duel of champions? Pinsky, in his Life of David, found this scene as perplexing as I did, and other than the slaughter and the etiology for the place name of חלקת הצרים, it serves no narrative purpose. A more conventional battle follows, with David’s troops routing the Israelites; however, significantly, Joab’s brother Asahel, chasing after Abner, is slain. In fairness, Abner attempts to behave well: he pleads with Asahel to stop chasing him, or to stop to don armor for combat, and only when no other choice is available does he actually drive a spear through his pursuer. THe significance of this vignette is to make Abner essentially irreconcilable: even if he came under David’s wing, he would still be hunted for vengeance by Joad, who’s in David’s inner circle, and as a result either Joab or Abner must die for peace to reign in the kingdom.

To his credit, Abner continues to behave well, and attempts to engage Joab diplomatically, suggesting that revenge won’t really solve anything. Joab withdraws for the time being, but as we’ll see, he’s not actually letting Abner off, but is contriving to fight smarter, not harder.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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