Sunday, May 21, 2006

1 Samuel 25

In this chapter, David is tempted to murder, but the Lord, acting through a woman, saves him.

The basic story is that, while hiding out, he and his men have fortuitously served as a shield against wolves and rustlers for the shepherds and flocks of a Calebite named Nabal. So, when shearing day arrives, David expects Nabal to provision him, as hospitality customs might advise. Nabal, being greedier than clever, instead insults the emissaries David dispatches.

This sends David into a killing rage, and he marches on the house of Nabal, with the intent of exterminating it. Nabal's wife Abigail, being noticeably smarter than her husband, sends a party with a feast to meet the army marching toward Nabal's house. Abigail's speech to David is a remarkable polemic, effectively cursing Nabal, promising David that God will save him and destroy his enemies, and predicting a lasting dynasty for David.

Note that although she has never met David, she says that God has promised him "every good thing." From this we may infer that Abigail's speech is a prophetic utterance. The last line, indeed, contains deep wisdom: by trusting God to settle
scores, David will free himself of the "staggering burden of needless bloodshed."

Returning home to find Nabal drunk, Abigail waits until he awakens (presumably with a nasty hangover) to tell him that his arrogant dismissal of David's men nearly led to the elimination of his entire gene pool, starting with his gene puddle. He has
some form of seizure, perhaps a stroke or heart attack. He dies 10 days later. While the body was yet cooling, David made Abigail his third wife after Michal and Ahinoam. In the meantime, however, Saul had apparently repossessed Michal and married her to Paltiel.

There are many interesting angles to this chapter. It is set immediately after the death of Samuel. "All Israel [presumably including David and his men, under truce] assembled and mourned." Only after Samuel's death does David move from En Gedi, with its beautiful waterfall and oasis, to the Desert of Maon ("habitation"). According to the Zondervan NIV, some Septuagint manuscripts say Desert of Paran ("place of caverns").

The Desert of Paran covers much of the Sinai Peninsula. According to Jewish History Maon (now called Maun) is 5 miles south of Hebron (hence roughly 20 miles south and west of Jerusalem and in the mountainous region between the Dead Sea
and the Mediterranean). References to "the Desert of Maon" simply mean the unpopulated region around the village. in 2 Sam. 2, David was publicly anointed king of Israel in Hebron and ruled there for 7 1/2 years.

Nabal is a Calebite. Caleb was a specially honored descendant of Judah, being one of the two spies (the other was Joshua) who urged the Israelites to occupy Canaan according to God's command. Yet "Caleb" is also Hebrew for "dog," and can't have been a desirable clan name.

The home of Abigail ("my father is joy") and Nabal is in Carmel (Hebrew: garden-land). According to Abigail, the name of Nabal means "fool," but she makes a point of explaining this to David, suggesting perhaps either that the word was not in common use or that an editor was making a didactic point. In any event, this passage underlines how neglect to act generously amounts to injustice. Even if those who are so treated do nothing on their behalf, the Lord will not spare their oppressor. Rather, His will be the hand that strikes them down.

The marriage to Abigail foreshadows the Bathsheba story in a manner that would have troubled any editor but would explain a great deal about later events. The Lord later forbids David to bring the Ark to Jerusalem and build the Temple, because David had shed blood (1 Chron 28). This is puzzling: In 1 Samuel, David repeatedly refrained from violence, even when seriously provoked by Saul, by Shimei, and eventually by his own son, Absalom. Whatever blood David has spilled, according to the account of 1 and 2 Samuel, has been God's enemies... with the minor exception of Uriah the Hittite. We are told in 2 Sam. 12 that that sin has been washed clean by the death of the child conceived of the adulterous union.

Yet there are reasons to see David as less restrained in shedding blood than his scrupulous behavior with Abigail in 1 Sam. 25 would have us believe. On his death bed, David's last charge to his son Solomon is to clear the family name of the shedding of innocent blood by punishing Joab for the murders of Abner and Amasa--by killing them. Joab is ultimately killed while clinging to the altar, probably not the way God would have preferred.

David also orders Solomon to kill Shimei for having cursed David (1 Kgs 2), an act of political expedience and vanity, not justice. As David himself said (2 Sam 16), Shimei's cursing perhaps led to David's salvation after Absalom's coup. Solomon goes on to kill his own brother Adonijah simply because Adonijah covets the throne, thereby beginning the dynastic wars. David on his deathbed seems consumed with vengeance.

This is not the only episode. David swore to Jonathan eternal friendship with the house of Saul. Yet in 2 Sam. 2, a war inexplicably breaks out over what seems to start off as roughhousing, but ends with 12 men on each side dead, killed by mutual dagger thrusts. This war was politically convenient for David, as his general Joab doubtless knew.

In 2 Sam. 2, there is an amazing comment that may illuminate so much. The editor identifies Saul's house as "Israel." In 1 Kgs 12, Jeroboam (who is identified with "Israel") revolts against Solomon's son Rehoboam, fissioning the Davidic kingdom into two weaker halves. Jeroboam's father Nebat was an Ephraimite, not a Benjamite like Saul. Is it possible that he traced his ancestry through his mother Zeruah to Saul, and that the war between Joab and Abner foreshadowed the later war between Israel and Judah?

But the story of Bathsheba is the crux of discerning whether David was a peaceful man who was a soldier by necessity or a violent man who found restraint useful. The Bathsheba story is not a simple story of adultery. When David's adultery is about to be discovered, because her husband Uriah the Hittite is too committed a soldier to put sexual recreations ahead of destroying Israel's enemies, David orders that he be abandoned in the clutches of the enemy.

The story of Bathsheba is the story of murder and pride-- as we see, God (and presumably the Israelites) forgive David when he confesses his sin. Further, the Bathsheba story shows David's greed for women.

And this brings us back to Abigail and Nabal.

Did the Lord strike down Nabal?

Or did David, acting through Abigail?

Monday, May 01, 2006

1 Samuel 24

In this chapter, Saul sets out with a massive force of 3,000 men to search for David in the En Gedi Desert. By chance, he pauses for a pit stop in the very cave in which David and his men are hiding.

Although this is a perfect chance to assassinate Saul and assume the kingship, David chooses instead to snip a bit of cloth from Saul's robe. Even so, his conscience is deeply troubled for having made even this symbolic attack on the leader chosen by God. So, he confronts Saul outside the cave-- Saul's men are mysteriously nowhere to be seen-- and shows him the snippet from the robe as proof that he could have killed Saul and therefore as evidence that he means no harm to Saul.

Saul weeps, though evidently not in sorrowful repentance, since in the next chapter he will again be hunting down David. Yet he acknowledges that David will be king and makes him swear an oath to spare Saul's descendants, confirming the covenant David made with Jonathan in 1 Sam. 20. David, not being persuaded of Saul's sincerity, returns to his stronghold.

Engedi is apparently the place called Hazezon Tamar in Genesis 14:7 and was Amorite territory; cf 2 Chron.20:2. associates the name with date palms.

There are some odd things in this chapter. First, the cave in which David and his men are hiding must be immense, since they are able to carry on a conversation without alerting Saul. We don't know how many men are present, but it could range from two up to 600. So the "cave" would seem to be the natural hollow at the base of the En Gedi waterfall rather than a fully enclosed area.

Also, Saul must have taken a very long time to relieve himself, since David has the time to discuss his plan, crawl forward in the dark, and snip off his prize before Saul can (metaphorically) get zipped. And there is the peculiar absence of Saul's men. They are off in wild country, searching for a man Saul considers his deadly enemy, but his own guard is conspicuously absent.

There is a passage in the chapter of David's men speaking to him that is variously translated as "This is the day the Lord promised you, when your enemy is in your power" or "Today the Lord is saying that He has delivered your enemy into your power." The former carries an implication of a prophecy, nowhere explicitly recorded, while the latter seems blasphemous. David rebukes his men, and behaves with utmost honor, refusing to assassinate the man the Lord made king while also calling on the Lord to judge Saul for his wickedness. Alas, this will lead to a protracted struggle for power that foreshadows David's hesitation to kill his rebellious son, Absalom.

Considering how painfully respectful David is of the Lord, it is difficult to understand why Jehovah doesn't intervene a bit earlier to remove Saul from the throne. It's unclear what David gains from his time in the wilderness, and very clear what he loses. God's delay will lead David into a serious of actions which will gravely complicate assuming the throne. The worst of these may have been the taking of more than one wife, creating competing factions among his own children, as happened with Jacob. The unlimited multiplicity of wives, which also led Solomon astray, may have been a factor in David's temptation with Bathsheba.

And then there is the bitterness that grew up between David's relatives and Saul's, which ultimately ends in the extermination of Saul's family. Would David's kin have been so bitter if they had not had to spend so much time in exile, watching Saul wreck the kingdom and lead it into heresy? Of course, David could have prevented all this by not being respectful of authority past the bounds where it is deserving of respect.