2 Samuel 10: David Defeats the Ammonites
Although the section heading for this passage refers to David defeating the Ammonites, it’s not a full defeat—that is, he doesn’t wipe them out. The Ammonites will continue to bother the Israelites for years to come.
Regardless, let’s get into the passage…
The passage starts with the king of the Ammonites dying, and David deciding to show kindness to his son Hanun. He sends a delegation to Hanun to express sympathy for his father’s death. Unfortunately, Hanun gets some bad advice:
… When David’s men came to the land of the Ammonites, the Ammonite commanders said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think David is honoring your father by sending envoys to you to express sympathy? Hasn’t David sent them to you only to explore the city and spy it out and overthrow it?” So Hanun seized David’s envoys, shaved off half of each man’s beard, cut off their garments at the buttocks, and sent them away.
When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”
We don’t need a commentary to understand that something very cultural is happening in the insult delivered to David’s men. This might not be as embarrassing to modern men as it would have been for David’s men—especially the part about shaving off only half their beards, which seems very culturally specific—but at the same time, even for modern people, we can see that this would be humiliating for them. David definitely understands their humiliation.
The Ammonites immediately understand that they’ve become “obnoxious” to David (verse 6)—the ESV says they realize they’ve become “a stench” to him—they immediately go out and get a bunch of mercenaries from other nations; in all, they hire 34,000 fighting men from other nations1.
David sends Joab and his army to meet them, though he doesn’t go with them2. The Ammonites form two battle lines, with all of the Ammonites on one side of the Israelites and all of the hired mercenaries on the other side of them. So Joab splits the men into two, with him and his men against the mercenaries and his brother Abishai and his men against the Ammonites.
Joab said, “If the Arameans are too strong for me, then you are to come to my rescue; but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come to rescue you. Be strong, and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.” (verses 11–12)
Unfortunately for the Ammonites, they seem to have been trusting too much in their mercenaries. Joab and his men advance against the mercenaries… and they flee! When the Ammonites see this, they retreat as well. So the Israelites return back to Jerusalem.
And this should be the end of the story, except that some of the mercenaries—the Arameans—don’t want to give up. They regroup and prepare for another battle against the Israelites. So David gets his men and goes to meet them, and defeats them again.
This leads “all the kings who were vassals of Hadadezer”—I’m really unsure what sub-group of people this is!—to make peace with David and become subject to him. It also leads the Arameans—which, as mentioned in an earlier footnote, the ESV calls Syrians—to be afraid to help the Ammonites anymore. So the Ammonites are still there, but they’re probably not going to be bothering Israel for a while, and they don’t have any allies that would help them in doing so.
This chapter is driven by the politics of Israel’s part of the world in 995 BC (which is approximately when this passage takes place). Despite the fact that Hanun starts the passage off by taking some bad advice—the Ammonites could have continued to have friendly relations with Israel if he’d received their envoy instead of humiliating them—I’m guessing that all of the other nations getting involved—even though they’re initially hired by the Ammonites—are probably thinking about eliminating a potentially powerful rival from the landscape: Israel.
Israel was a large nation at the time—using the mapping tool I linked to in the footnote to look at the year
-995 (i.e. 995 BC) will show that Israel looks to be larger than Assyria or Babylon, though still smaller than Tanis/Egypt. (The Phrygia, Indo-Aryan, and Western Zhou areas/nations are also larger at that time, though none of those nations really play into the Biblical narrative. Kush looks to be about the same size as Israel, geographically, though I don’t think they play into the Biblical narrative either.)
So after the first defeat of the Ammonites/Syrians, when the Syrians line up to take another go at Israel, I doubt it’s out of a sense of duty to the Ammonites: “We were hired for a job, so we’re doing to do it!” No, I think they see that Israel might be even more powerful than they’d originally thought, and want all the more to eliminate the nation as a rival.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, we know that they were up against Israel’s God even more than they were up against Israel’s soldiers, so they didn’t really have a chance. We’re going to see God build His nation of Israel into an even more powerful nation—until they sin against Him, and He reduces their power again, and finally even submits them to being conquered by other nations.
Speaking of God being in control…
Joab seems to be a very effective leader of David’s army, but he also trusts God. Look again at what he tells his brother before the first battle:
Be strong, and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.” (verse 12)
He’s going to be strong; he’s going to fight bravely; he’s going to trust God.
Trusting God and doing our best are not in opposition to each other; we should always be doing both. What I do at work doesn’t have nearly the same consequences for the world as Joab’s job, but I should still be trusting God and doing my best. Sometimes He’ll make it easy for me and sometimes He’ll make it hard; sometimes He’ll make me successful and sometimes He won’t. But He’ll always be accomplishing His will.