Thibble Thursday: Once in Royal David’s City (2 Samuel 6–9)

C’mon. It’s Christmas and I’m writing about King David and the establishment of Jerusalem. When am I going to find a better use for that post title? Also, I totally did not realize this Jethro Tull cover existed.

Short snarky summary: The Ark of the Covenant, released from captivity, rises to kill again. It is offended by being poked at but not by nudity. David is forbidden by God to cage this fearsome beast. In a funk, he goes out and kills some Philistines.


Chapter 6 starts with David marching off to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant, which, as far as can be told from the text, has been languishing in Kiriath-jearim since Samuel’s day. The text claims David is retrieving it from “Baalim”, which a gloss indicates is actually Kiriath-jearim; sure, why not? H also brings an army of 30,000 men with him, which seems like overkill for a peaceful retrieval mission. I suppose the argument is that he wants to do the Ark honor, but surely there’s something better to do with the manpower? Anyways, they load it up and start it rolling on back to ol’ Royal David’s City. But meanwhile, there’s an incident: the cart bounces, and the Ark looks like it’s going to fall, and one of the attendants, Uzza (one of the sons of the ark’s host), reaches out to catch it. That was a bad choice, because he is instantly struck dead by the wrath of God.

It’s shit like this that makes the more fanciful sort of Biblical exegesis include possibilities like that that the Ark was potent radioactive, or that it was some sort of enormous capacitor which was regularly charged or whathaveyou, because every time people touch the damn thing bad shit goes down. There was the Philistines and their hemorrhoids back in 1 Samuel 5, the seventy (or 50,070, maybe) men of Beth-shemesh, and now this. The awful thing is that Uzza was not being remotely intentionally sacreligious. But I guess God doesn’t care about your intent–you’re impure and you touch the ark, you get seriously bewrathed. Now, Uzza gets a place-name out of it, which suggests that this might be some sort of etiological tale for a place with that name. Anyways, just like the last time the Ark murderated somebody (or fifty thousand somebodies) they decide it’s expedient to stop the procession and park it with some convenient local (this time, Obed-edom the Gittite). Three months later he figures God’s wrath has abated and that maybe they can take the Ark to Jerusalem. This time they don’t bring along one of its hosts’ kids, because that’s totally asking for trouble.

Instead, they offer sacrifices, and sing, and dance all the way to Jerusalem. The dancing is the key aspect, plotwise, because David’s in a skirt (that’s not weird; a lot of men’s clothing over the ages has been of the non-divided-leg variety), and wearing no underwear (again, not all that weird), and dancing in an intensely skirt-swirling way. So, yeah, the entire population of Jerusalem is getting an eyeful of Little David there. The audience includes David’s wife Michal, who is not amused. She doesn’t mind seeing the royal cock (I suppose she’s seen it before), but she’s kind of offended that everyone else gets to see it too.

Anyways, after David sends everyone home (with a gift of bread and raisin cake, and maybe meat, depending on the translation), Michal lets him have it, but David spurns her, claiming to be dancing in the honor of God, and that it’s none of Michal’s business. And then he never has sex with her again. He’s got a lot of wives; some of them are bound to be spares, but Michal seems rather ruthlessly treated by the narrative. Bear in mind that back when she truly loved David, she ended up married off to some dude basically to spite him. Then years later, after David’s already remarried twice, he ransoms her back, largely (it appears) as a political ploy to tie himself to the previously ruling dynasty. We don’t know how Michal felt about this, but clearly her present husband was greatly affected by it. So it’s not wholly surprising that Michal feels hard done by with regard to her matrimonial history. Anyways, she disappears pretty much entirely from the story at this point.

Anyways, Chapter 7 deals with an issue very dear to the heart of Judaism: where should be God’s house on Earth? Theologically, the whole notion of God having a house of Earth is kind of troubling, but we kind of insist there should be one and that we’re the ones to provide it. The Tabernacle described at extensive length (and twice) during Exodus was supposed to be a kind of mobile home for God, serving as a shelter specifically for the Ark (although with other accouterments as well). Once they arrived in Israel the Ark seems to have bounced around a fair bit: Joshua brought it to the scene of this batles, and then it (and the entire Tabernacle apparatus) were given a semi-permanent home in Shiloh, and the the Philistines captured it, and then, as we have seen, it took the long, tragedy-inducing route to Jerusalem.

But it’s still in the Tabernacle, apparently: a desert enclosure for a nomadic peole, and David feels very strongly that as his nation has progressed from wandering in other people’s territory to reigning in their own, the time has come to give the Ark a proper home that wouldn’t be at risk of blowing away in a strong wind. In other words, David wants to build the Temple.

David conveys his request to the prophet Nathan—who I am mostly but not entirely sure is not the same person as his son Nathan—whose response is basically, “Sure, go for it.” Nathan must only receive updates from God occasionally, because he doesn’t put his head together with God on this one before firing off his quick, breezy answer. We know this because after he gives David the go-ahead, God dictates a 12-verse rant about why David’s plan is terrible. To summarize: if God wanted a permanent house, he’d ask for a perament house (or demand it and kill anyone who doesn’t comply, which is frankly more his MO). God likes tents, and the Tabernacle’s still got some life in it yet. He’ll ask David’s son for a house, but David himself should be contented with being God’s extra-special friend and quit trying to do him unsolicited favors. David’s response is formal and courteous (probably to mask his disappointment) and stylistically seems to echo the Psalms, with their unabashed praise of God and of his people.

So that’s the end of David’s plans to build the Temple, but he seems to still have excess unspent energy, so he puts it to work subduing his neighbors. Somehow there always seems to be someone to fight in the region of Canaan (true now as it was then, I guess), and having consolidated the kingdom and recovered a bit from the civil war, David’s out to acquire some tribute states, riding out against the Philistines, the Moabites, the kingdom of Zoba, the Arameans. Somewhere in there, according to the list of vanquished foes in 8:12, he subdues the Ammonites and Amalekites too. The litany of conquests is mostly dry, listing the individual foes and the tribute won from them, but a few details stand out.

Verse 8:2 deals with the conquest of Moab, and it looks like the text obliquely suggests that he massacred two-thirds of them: it says he “measured them out by the line, making them lie on the ground”, putting two lines to death and letting one line live. The whole measuring-out-lying-down-people thing is weird, but I’m reading this as capriciously killing more than half of the population (or maybe of the surrendered army), which is kind of horrific behavior for an ostensibly good king. But, then, this is the guy who, back when he was riding with Philistine raiders, massacred entire villages so that nobody would be around to cast aspersions on his good reputation.

The battle against Zoba I regard as significant mostly for being one with actually sane-looking numbers, which, honestly, is a first for the Bible, in which invariably the Israelite force is either comically overlarge (the 600,000 men of Joshua’s day) or tiny but mighty (Gideon’s 300-man troop). In the battle against Zoba, however, David dispatches a force of 1700 horse, 20000 foot-soldiers, and 100 chariots, defeating the Zoban army and 22000 supporting Arameans. These numbers look almost plausible—maybe a bit large for a local battle of small kingdoms but not absurd.

But there’s a bit more to David’s statecraft in Chapter 8 than grinding every single foe in the area into a reddish paste. There’s also some peaceful actions: Hamath, which was a rival kingdom of Zoba, made an alliance with Israel, and David consolidated his domestic power with garrisons and by setting up civil authorities, some of whom have familiar names, particularly Zadok the priest (set up alongside Abiathar, his long-suffering personal chaplain dating from the days of Saul), and Jehoshephat the secretary (remembered mostly because his name’s fun to say. Isaac Asimov clearly thought so, as he made exclaiming his name a verbal tic for his character Lije Bailey).

Anyways, moving from matters of state back to the personal, David’s feeling generous towards the House of Saul again. Maybe after his public tiff with Michal he feels the need to reassert his tie of friendship which some in Israel probably still think of as the true rulers of the land. The problem is, he’s running out of Saulites to be publicly nice to. Saul and Jonathan are long-dead in war, Ish-bosheth was assassinated, and Michal is no longer on speaking terms with him. The only Saulite left is Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, mentioned briefly back in 4:4. Conjecturally, Mephi’s disability was actually a benefit to him: he wasn’t marching off to war when Jonathan and Saul died, nor was he likely to have been drafted into an active role in the civil war that followed. He’s basically one of those congenial but not very useful royal appendages around any court, but reading between the lines it seems that the fall of the house of Saul has somewhat deprived him of what fortune he might have had. So David decides to summon Mephibosheth and be publicly nice to him, bringing him back into his court at Jerusalem as a hanger-on to a whole new court.

Next time: David reaches a new low in personal behavior!

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

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