Wibble Wednesday: Never be the same (2 Samuel 19–21)

Really trying to keep on schedule. It’s summer, so I’ve got no excuse.

Short snarky summary: David may have won the last civil war, but he alienated most of his friends and unrest is the order of the day thenceforth.

We last left David’s troops victorious against Absalom’s honestly kind of half-assed rebellion, and now there’s time for some mopping-up. First off, David is reacting very badly to the news of Absalom’s death: he goes out to a publicly viewable place and lamentsloudly. In fairness to David, this is a not unreasonable way for a father to react to the death of his son. On the other hand, the son in question was just the target of a major military campaign, and Joab is rather irked by this display of treasonous sympathy, and tells David off in no uncertain terms, telling him he’s bringing shame to his supporters who won the war for him. Meanwhile, the entire nation of Israel is cagily laying low, not entirely sure who David will blame. Apparently David blames his kinsmen of the tribe of Judah, ad he sends messengers to them to castigate them for not bringing him home in honor. On the other hand, he insists on making his Judahite kinsman Amasa the army commander, displacing Joab, who has finally annoyed David into action (it certainly took long enough). On the other hand, Amasa was last seen as Absalom’s army commander, so, I dunno, David might not be showing real great judgment here.

So David finally goes home, and is received by, of all people, Shimei the Benjaminite, who we last saw back in Chapter 16 insulting and taunting David as he retreated from Jerusalem. Shimei, who is aggressive but not foolhardy, abjectly begs forgiveness for his insults. A retainer of David — the same one who wanted to kill him back when he first appeared — suggests that Shimei should be put to death, but David decides mercy is the best route. He may come to regret that move later, because lèse-majesté is going to become commonplace in the near future.

Also welcoming David back is Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth and his servant Ziba. We saw Ziba back in Chapter 16 too, when he claimed that Mephibosheth had withdrawn all support from David and was angling for the throne himself. Now Mephibosheth presents his side of the story, which is that he was abandoned and betrayed by Ziba, and supported David but was unable to act. Surprisingly, although David credits this story, he does not punish Ziba, but lets him keep fully half the spoils of his deception.

Meanwhile, Barzillai, who welcomed and provisioned David’s troops in retreat (Chapter 17 this time) is invited to serve at court, but pleading age and infirmity, Barzillai sends Chimham (his kinsman? his servant? some member of his household, anyways) in his stead. Meanwhile, a quarrel erupts (the first of many) between greater Israel and Judah, the former accusing the latter of having stolen the honor of escorting the king home.

This quarrel seems to be logically connected to the story of Chapter 20, in which a Benjaminite calls the people of Israel (presumably, specifically not the Judahites) to rebellion, claiming they have no share in the monarchy, and that David favors his kinsmen of Judahover the rest of the nation. A whole new civil war erupts, and David sends out two cohorts, one with Amasa, and one with Abishai and Joab. Amasa’s troops move a bit slow, and Joab, suspecting him of footdragging, waits for him to arrive, embraces him, and then stabs him in the gut. You’d think David’s men (and I) would be used to this kind of behavior from Joab by now, but still it ends up being a surprise. Sheba, the Benjaminite leader of the rebellion, withdraws to the stronghold of Beth-macah, and Joab lays siege to it.

The civil war ends with a whimper instead of a bang, because one of the women (why a woman? not that women can’t do diplomacy, but in this historical period, they didn’t) of Beth-maacah comes out to beg for their city to be spared, and Joab says “I only want Sheba. I don’t really care about the rest of you,” and, in consequence, Sheba’s head comes sailing out of the city and all the beseigers go home, and Joab, who was just recently demoted, is returned to his lofty position, what with the untimely and sudden death of his replacement. I must admit a certain horrified admiration for the dude’s ruthlessness, and his cheerful willingness to murder the fuck out of anyone who gets in his way.

In Chapter 22 peace appears to come briefly, but there is no end to troubles, and instead God brings forth a famine, for Saul’s sin of attempting to exterminate the Gibeonites. “Who?” I hear you cry. The Gibeonites, of course, who bacǩ in Joshua 9 deceived the Israelite extermination force that they were nomads, not Canaanites, and were thus not included in the extermination orders. Joshual made peace with them but regretted it and reduced them to a slave-class for Israel as a whole. Apparently Saul tried to exterminate them and God saw this as a violation of Joshua’s oath and punished Israel with a famine. This is pretty typical Old-Testament-God behavior, where nothing us mere mortals do can be right. Joshua was wrong to make peace and Saul was wronger to violate it, and the whole mess ends up in the lap of David, who for once isn’t actually responsible for this misfortune at all. Anyways, David moves to make recompense with the Gibeonites, who ask blood for blood and want the death of seven members of Saul’s house. David acquiesces, handing over Saul’s son Mephibosheth (not to be confused with Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth, mentioned earlier here) and the children of Saul’s son-in-law Barzillai the Meholathite (not to be confused with Barzillai the Gileadite, mentioned earlier here). who are impaled. Then he brings them home and inters them properly with Saul and Jonathan.Unfortunately for David, the severe lack of actual Saulites is not going to slow the pack of Saulite rebellions to come.

Chapter 21 ends with a few battles with the good old Philistines. Apparently a bunch of Gathite giants (kinsmen, one assumes, of the Gathite giant Goliath; one of these new giants is also named Goliath) decide to fight Israel. One nearly kills David, who is then forbidden from fighting with the vanguard of the Israelite army, but all of them are killed.

THis is nearly the end of David’s story. We get some psalms another famine, but the reign of David is, in this civil strife and misfortune, nearing its twilight, andnext week we’ll close it out for good.

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

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