Sibble Saturday: Uncountably infinite (2 Samuel 22–24)

We’re nearing the end of King David’s story, and next week we finally get into the book of Kings! But there area few last gasps of this part of the story. THis was nearly done on Wednesday, but life happened.

Short snarky summary: David sings a song of praise for all the times he’s had his ass saved, and decides to take a census. For obscure reasons this latter action motivates God to put on his massacre-face.

Chapter 22 and the beginning of Chapter 23 seem to serve mostly as a summation of David’s life. Let’s review: David had a hell of a lot of good fortune, escaping from disastrous situations time and again, but never seems to have had much chance to enjoy it. First he won a lopsided single combat and then he escaped from Saul’s murderous wrath, managed to survive and emerge victorious on both sides of the Israelite-Philistine war, and weathered at least two rebellions and another Philistine incursion. That’s not too shabby, but it doesn’t seem like he had much of a chance to enjoy it. There’s a lot to suggest he didn’t much deserve this good fortune either: the whole sordid Uriah affair, his generally poor treatment of some other wives (e.g. Michal), and his boundless and completely unwarranted faith in the apparently psychopathic Joab. But at this point in the text it’s all about his good luck rather than his major character flaws.

What is presented in most of the text of Chapter 22 is a form much more familiar in the book of Psalms: it’s a poetic work. We’ve seen a few other such songs with similar themes of deliverance and victory, such as the song at the sea (Exodus 15) or Deborah’s song (Judges 5). This is rather longer than those and less specific, though, and stylistically it resembles some works in Psalms (which is just fine by those who credit authorship to mythical figures, as the book of Psalms is supposed to have been written by David, just like this psalm here.

This chapter has stimulated a lot of exegetical stories and elaborations on simple stories in the text, because a lot of language which seems to me to be generic metaphors of triumph and supernatural aid were taken awfully literally by the creators of the Agaddah. So a trippy Ezekiel-lite description of when God “bent the sky and came down, Thick cloud beneath his feet” (22:10) gets spun out into some story where adverse weather conditions protected David, and clearly David wouldn’t say “He reached down from on high, He took me, Drew me out of the mighty waters” (22:17) unless David had at some time been in danger of drowning? So there are a few extra chronologically unmoored exegetical stories out there, born mostly of the fact that the biblical commentators didn’t really believe in metaphor.

Otherwise there’s not muchto say about this text: it’s a song of thanksgiving, played pretty straight. I fear I’m not going to have a whole hell of a lot to say when I get to Psalms, because it’s 150 damn chapters mostly of this same sort of bland cheerleading.

Chapter 23 begins with another, much shorter verse work, billed as “the last words of David”. But this is kind of chronologically twisted, because David’s still alive in the next chapter and a little ways into Kings. This work is much more ritually declamatory than the last chapter, and is fairly heavily bracketed with formulas of pronouncement. The basic gist of the whole declaration is “God chose me, and I am good, and God and I together are going to kick hell out of the wicked.” So in the space of a chapter and a bit our poetic works veer from contrite humility to extraordinary arrogance.

Chapter 23 ends with an enumeration of David’s warriors. It’s intersperesed at random intervals with war stories which never got told earlier: For instance, Shammah the son of Age is introduced, and at the same time a story about how he defended a field of lentils from a Philistine raiding part. Dropped in he middle of the list of warriors is an extended and very weird martial story about three of them, who went in great danger to fetch a thirsty King David some water, who immediately poured it out, saying he couldn’t possibly drink the blood of those who risked their lives. Anyways, there’s a long list and occasional perfunctory stories, and as far as I can tell almost none of these people are actually narratively significant. Also, a similar list apparently appears in 1 Chronicles 11, except with a slightly different lsit of names (the names in the Septaugint are apparently a bit different, too). So some of this might be valuable grist for a serious hard-core comparison of Bible texts looking for common sources and redactor changes, but as far as deriving any narrative force from it, there’s not much here.

And finally we get to Chapter 24, which is (assuming the text is in some semblance of chronological order) the last significant action of King David’s life. The way the vital elements of the text are introduced is a little unusual: the core of the story is that David took a census and instigated a divine plague, but the telling here starts not with the census, but with divine anger: God’s mad with Israel, so he’ll induce David to take a census. That cause-and-effect seems completely incomprehensible until you add in the bit where the census stimulates a divine plague. It seems to me that God could use his anger to justify a plague directly and cut out the whole census-taking middleman, but this convoluted logic may be why He’s God and I’m not.

There are a handful of mysteries here, some more easily answered than others. Mystery the first: why is God wroth with Israel in the first place? That one’s easy, because wrath at Israel is kind of what God does whenever he gets bored, and he spent most of Judges doing it, so presumably Israel still pisses God off on a regular basis. Second and more complicatedly, what’s the census connection? It appears to be a matter of general knowledge, whatever the census taboo is, since Joab and the other army bigwigs object to taking a census, and after the census is done, David repents of his rash action, suggesting that everyone knew that a census is a bad idea. But why should it be? The standard exegesis goes back to God’s promise to Abraham, that his descendents would be unnumberable, so that numbering Israel is a direct rebellion to God’s will on this point. But there have already been several censuses: at least 2 under Moses, so censuses in themselves aren’t obviously bad, and nobody really understands what the crime here is.

Speaking of those earlier censuses: the population was established as around 600,000 adult battle-ready males for the nomadic Israelites, a number which is hilarious and inane and completely inconsistent with the sort of populations sustainable at that time and place. David’s census is, if anything, even worse, with a reported conscriptable population of 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah;even if we assume the latter figure is a subset of the former, it’s still a ridiculously large population for a fairly obscure Bronze Age (or early Iron Age) community.

Anyways, David realizes his error even if we can’t, and is called on by the prophet Gad (Nathan must be on break) to choose from one of three fates: his own suffering at the hands of his enemies, a seven-year famine, or a three-day plague. David chooses the third (well, we knew he wasn’t going for the first, right?), or so it appears; he certainly seems to specifically refuse the first (“let me not fall into the hands of men”), but the Masoretic text doesn’t explicitly have him choosing the pestilence.

Nonetheless, the plague falls, and kills 70,000 in a single day. There’s a weird anthropomorphism, in that the plague is apparently incarnated in an angel, who, when God commands a cessation of the plague, is in a specific place murdering people, which seems to indicate a fairly profound ignorance of how disease spreads. But the Angel of Death is halted specifically on the threshing floor of Araunah, and what follows feels like an etiological story for some much later attribution of a site as “the threshing floor of Araunah”. David sees the angel (anthropomorphism again!) and then bemoans the injustice of slaughtering the innocent, instead of his own house, which is to blame. This criticism on David’s part is incoherent and frankly not to his credit, since he was offered the opportunity to take the punishment personally and rejected it. But the rules seem to change again, this time in his favor, since Gad informs him the plague will be permanently stayed (despite running only one day of its three-day course) if he establishes an altar there at the threshing-floor. This he does, with some unnecessarily complicated back-and-forth with Araunah about whether to take it as a gift or buy it. So as I mentioned above, I imagine there was some latter-day threshing-floor-of-Araunah altar, and this is an explanatory tale for what it is and why it is where it is.

Now, it’s still not wholly clear to me what David did wrong here. But, then, nothing about this story makes a lot of sense viewed up close. The census was wrong but it’s not clear how, the three-day plague was shortened to one for no good reason, David criticizes God for doing exactly what he asked for in the face of more just options… it’s a very unsatisfying story.

The good news is that next we move into Kings, which starts us transitioning gradually from stories of myth with scant archaeological evidence towards tales which have verifiable historical bases.