2 Samuel 8: David’s Victories, David’s Officials
This chapter feels like sort of a “transition chapter” to me. David has become king of Israel; he’s conquered Jerusalem and brought the Ark there; he’s received promises from God that his line of descendent kings will last forever. Now, in this passage, we hear about a bunch of David’s victories. The point of the passage seems to be the phrase, “The LORD gave David victory wherever he went” (mentioned twice, in verse 6 and verse 14).
It’s pretty violent, though. “Victory” here means victory in battle, so that means a lot of Israel’s enemies are dying. And some of it is pretty… brutal? What’s a stronger word than brutal?
David also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought him tribute. (verse 2)
I won’t recap the rest of the chapter—it can be read pretty quickly—it just goes through a list of some of David’s victories, calls out some of the officials working under him, and mentions that David was “doing what was just and right for all his people” (verse 15).
For the most part, this chapter is… kind of boring. Odd to say about a passage involving so much death, but it’s true. It’s just a list of victories, kings from other nations who are bringing David tribute, and officials in David’s administration. Not exciting. Nobody is reading the story of David in the Old Testament and wondering, “That’s all find and good, but who were the recorder and the secretary???”
But then there’s verse 2, which sticks out to the modern reader so much that it’s probably the only thing we’ll remember from this passage. So barbaric! Having the Moabites lie down, measuring them off, and killing two thirds of them… was that the best way to achieve it? I can’t even read that without picturing myself as one of the Moabites, lying there on the ground, wondering where the cord would fall. (And if you think about it, that would be a lot of tension—this isn’t the kind of thing that can be done quickly!)
I’m positive that enough research would bring me some additional information on the cultural practices of David’s day and age; time and time again, when something in the Bible—especially the Old Testament—seems “wrong” (for lack of a better word), additional context has given me a different perspective. Maybe what David did was more humane than the way the Moabites had treated their enemies? I don’t know. But the things is, even if it turns out that it wasn’t such a bad thing at the time, I still think there’s validity in the modern reader wrestling with the morality of it. It would be wrong to ignore context, and assume that our culture is always right and older cultures are always wrong—what things do we do in the modern world that are so much part of the culture we don’t even think about it?—but it’s still valid to look at the things that were done in the Old Testament and prayerfully consider them. And if we look back on verse 2 and decide that David’s actions were barbaric, then how will that impact the way we live our lives?
There’s another point on this, aside from how cruel the method was: I’ve lost track of the rules for what nations the Israelites were supposed to wipe out completely and what nations they were allowed to subjugate. Was David doing wrong by letting some of the Moabites live, so they could bring him tribute? Were they supposed to be completely wiped out? I don’t know/remember.