2 Samuel 21: The Gibeonites Avenged, Wars Against the Philistines
The first part of this chapter starts out with mention of a people called the Gibeonites. To understand who these people are we have to go all the way back to Joshua 9, when the Israelites were first conquering the peoples of the land to take it for themselves. Joshua and the rest of the Israelites had strict instructions from the LORD: they were to completely destroy all of the people in the land; nobody was to be left.
The Gibeonites were one such people, but they were different in that they recognized the power of the Israelites’ god and feared that He would enable the Israelites to wipe them out. They came up with a plan: they’d trick the Israelites into thinking they were a people from far away, get the Israelites to sign a treaty with them, and then live secure in the knowledge that the Israelites wouldn’t break the treaty and kill them. And, despite some initial doubt about the Gibeonites’ story, the Israelites sign the treaty anyway and prove the Gibeonites to be correct in that they don’t destroy them.
Until some unspecified time in the future, at which point Saul tries to destroy the Gibeonites. The incident isn’t recorded in the Scriptures, but it sounds very much in character for Saul: he was known for his zeal but not for his obedience to the LORD, which is a bad combination1.
The passage opens with a three-year famine across Israel. David wants to know why, so he seeks the LORD’s guidance. God tells David that this famine is happening because of Saul’s actions in seeking to put the Gibeonites to death, despite the Israelites’ vow not to. (We aren’t told how David asked God, nor how God answered him. It’s a detail that we might be curious about but the Scriptures don’t feel that detail is important to the story.)
So David brings in the Gibeonites and asks them how he can make atonement.
The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.
They answered the king, “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.”
So the king said, “I will give them to you.”
David agrees to this. He spares Mephibosheth, because of his own oath, but hands seven others over to the Gibeonites: “Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite” (verse 8—where obviously this Mephibosheth is a different Mephibosheth than the one David spares, who is Jonathan’s son). The Gibeonites do exactly as planned, killing these seven men and exposing their bodies on a hill.
One of the women mentioned above is Aiah, a former concubine of Saul and mother to two of the men who were killed. Her response to this is to stay by the seven men’s bodies, keeping birds and wild animals away from them. When David hears about this he has the remains of Saul and Jonathan brought and, along with the remains of the seven men who were just killed, entombed in the tomb of Saul’s father. Thus they’re all given a proper burial. (Verse 12 gives an aside in which we’re told that the remains of Saul and Jonathan had previously been “stolen” by the people of Jabesh Gilead, but I don’t understand the significance of that.)
After this, we’re told that, “God answered prayer in behalf of the land” (verse 14), meaning that the famine must be over.
The remainder of the chapter describes further war and battles between the Israelites and the Philistines. In rapid succession we’re told about four separate occasions.
In one battle David goes with his men but becomes exhausted during the battle and is almost killed. Abishai—son of Zeruiah—rescues him, but after this David’s men decide that David isn’t to come out into battle anymore, “so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished” (verse 18).
We’re then told about a few other battles, in which certain Israelites kill certain other Philistines, and then are told that all of the particular Philistines named are descendents of a man named Rapha, but I don’t know the significance of that fact.
This is another occasion in which I have more to say about the “less exciting” part than I do about all of the war and battles and killing.
We are often reminded in the Bible that natural disasters and other harsh or terrible circumstances sometimes just happen—we shouldn’t see something bad happening and assume that it’s a punishment from God. A famous passage is Luke 13:1–9, where Jesus addresses this point (among other things).
That being said, as Christians we also have to prevent ourselves from being too simplistic. It’s true, bad things2 happening doesn’t necessarily mean judgement from God, it’s not always a one-to-one relationship of “I’m doing this to punish you for that thing you did”—and we do need to be reminded of that—but we shouldn’t think that it means it’s never punishment from God, either. This passage is an example of a famine being sent by God for a specific reason, that He is able to articulate to David.
Depending on one’s background (and probably temperament), usually one or the other of these messages will resonate, but often not both.
|“Conservative” Christians||“Liberal Christians”|
|Good||Recognize the Bible’s teachings that things are sometimes more than what we can see with our eyes; there is a God who is in control, and sometimes we sin against Him and need to be corrected.||Understand that the world is complex, and that people who are suffering often need compassion much more than they need judgement, regardless of the reasons for their suffering.|
|Bad||Can fall into superstition, and looking for simplistic answers to complex questions. It’s true that God is in control of everything, but if one’s answer to every situation is only that “God did it,” one will not be overly helpful to those around them.||Can fall into a mindset that forgets there is a God who is in control. Attempts to help those around them might be done in absence of God; prayer can be neglected, since we know the solution to this problem, so we don’t need Him.|
These terms “conservative” and “liberal” might not be fully descriptive of this scenario, but I do see this topic as a specific case of a larger dichotomy of Christians into “conservative” and “liberal” camps.
The Death of the Seven Men
If it seems barbaric to have these seven descendents of Saul put to death, to make atonement to the Gibeonites… I agree! I think it is barbaric.
I talked above about “conservative” vs. “liberal” Christians and made a lot of sweeping generalizations; I’ll make another here: there are a number of Christians in North America who seem to feel that we need to go back to an Old Testament style of Christianity. That America—they’re typically American, though some Canadians probably feel this way too—should be “a Christian nation,” and that laws similar to the Old Covenant laws of the nation of Israel should be enacted. We should go “back” to being a theocracy, where God is the head of the nation, instead of a democracy where the people are. There seems to be a underlying assumption that this time we’ll get it right, though the Israelites didn’t.
So, for example, there should be a death penalty for adultery, and that kind of thing. They typically have a lot to say about homosexuality, as well—though they tend to be silent on any notion of helping the poor, despite that being a very common topic in the Old Testament, preferring instead that the poor “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (I mentioned that I’d be making sweeping generalizations, right?)
This idea of going back to an Old Covenant style of society is worrying for a lot of reasons, as even a casual reading of the New Testament should illustrate—Christians are not a “nation,” like the Old Testament Israelites were, for starters—but this passage is one of the things that worries me. Would such an “Old Covenant style Christian” see a passage like this and assume that yes, this is how a society should behave?
I don’t have a problem with people who feel that society is becoming less godly, and wanting their nation to be more righteous—the best way of accomplishing that being to lead by example; it’s worked for Christians in the past—but similar to the “conservative” vs. “liberal” Christians mentioned above, we should strive not to be simplistic in our thinking. Just because something happens in the Old Testament Scriptures it doesn’t mean it was good or right, or something to be emulated. (And even if it was at the time, it wouldn’t necessarily be good or right in the 21st Century.)
Abishai, son of Zeruiah
It feels like I can’t stop writing about “the sons of Zeruiah,” Joab and Abishai, but they keep coming up in 2 Samuel! David doesn’t like them, and seems to want to get rid of them, but they continue to do nothing but be faithful to him. Here’s an occasion in which Zeruiah saves David from death. At least we don’t hear of David trying to insult him in this case…
In the blog post for Joshua 9 I mentioned that I couldn’t find the passage where Saul commits this act. I no longer feel ashamed by that, since the ESV Study Bible notes indicate that the episode isn’t recorded in the Scriptures, so it’s not that I missed it. ↩︎
The term “bad things” might sound under-emphasized, but I don’t mean it that way. Sometimes the “bad things” that happen are terrible things, impacting millions of people. We could look at the amount of starvation around the world right now, impacting people across the globe, while people in my area of the world gorge ourselves on an excess of money, food, and possessions. ↩︎