Even though David puts down one last challenge to his rule (Sheba, Ch. 20) from Saul’s tribe of Benjamin, and one should expect a peaceful twilight to his reign, several disturbing events complicate the picture. One is the hanging of seven descendants of Saul, at the request of the Gibeonites. They were the Canaanite tribe that had fooled Joshua into making a peace treaty with them (Joshua 9). Yet God and David take this treaty seriously, as a binding moral obligation, one that Saul aggressively and intentionally broke. Several generations after Saul, the effects of this breach of trust linger ecologically, as God had said would happen if the people did not keep faith with their covenants. “The land would vomit them out….” Thirty centuries later, we have a hard time seeing the connection between the moral order of the universe and the natural one. Yet our current ecological crises also have moral and spiritual roots, in greed and the worship of power and ease.
That seven of Saul’s descendants should pay the price for his conduct is also disturbing. Jeremiah would later say, “Everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge (Jer. 31:30).” Yet God is also “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me (Ex. 20),” not because they share the parents’ guilt, but because the consequences, benefits and costs stemming from our actions can overlap into the next immediate generation. If we have benefited from the actions of our immediate ancestors, then we also bear some responsibility. What are the benefits, costs and responsibilities we yet bear today for all that was done to Native Americans, enslaved Africans, exploited immigrants and colonized people around the world? Something had to be done on behalf of the Gibeonites. Their answer, to sacrifice seven of Saul’s male descendants, may reflect more on the Gibeonites, as a pagan tribe, then it does on God, who advocated for justice on their behalf. In other words, we don’t know how much the sacrifice was their request, or what of it was God’s. Either way, David is powerless to argue with them. This is also a story about the powerlessness of political power. Ironically, the Gibeonites have effectively done what David refused to do: practically finishing off the house of Saul.
Before we dismiss this story as a remnant of a blood-thirsty age (how does ours stack up any better? How can we claim to have progressed or evolved?) with a false understanding of a blood-thirsty God, note as well the attentive, affirming tone around the actions of Rizpah, mother of two of the sacrificial victims, as she attends to the exposed bodies. Note also the actions of David, in honoring not only the seven victims, but also those of their ancestors, Jonathan and Saul, with proper burial. Then,we are told, rain and health were restored to the land.
Far from a simple story of scapegoating and satisfaction through sacrifice, this story lays bare the tension at the heart of the Old Testament, which tension is also at the heart of every person, every relationship, every community. On the one hand, there is the indisputable evidence of estrangement, defilement, sin and its consequences, even on the earth, even on the generations that follow. On the other hand, the usual response of payment by punishment and sacrifice, while evening the score (temporarily), only sets up another injustice, and another score to settle, like that of Rizpah. It will lead to the Israelites’ expulsion back to Babylon, where the story all began, after the land vomits them forth for their idolatry and bloodletting.
The answer will come as a final, once-and-for-all divinely-provided scapegoat, the Lamb of God, also hung on a tree, cursed, to take away all curses, who will take away the sins of the world, through whom all sin and shame are covered and paid. After him, no more scapegoats are necessary.
“Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David…”
So begins a story in II Samuel 24 that has long perplexed and even disturbed me, especially the idea that God himself would incite someone to sin, so as to have cause to carry out his anger. The parallel account in I Chronicles 21 names Satan (lit. “the Adversary”) as the instigator. So I wonder if “he” in verse 1 is really God or Satan, the agent of “the anger of the Lord,” which would match with other biblical passages in which God is said to do what he merely permits; God does not apologize for, nor suspend, the moral order of his universe, also a given of his creation. The deepest, greatest sin may lie in David’s attitude and desire: obviously something of a military and expansionist, hegemonic nature, because the census results are military in nature. The action becomes both the expression of and the punishment for the underlying evil. Any previous census in the OT was oriented toward worship. Any legitimate census in Israel was ordered by God, because, in the ancient semitic world view, one can only count what is one’s own. The Israelites belonged to God, not David. Every census required a sacrifice on the part of the person counted, “lest there break forth a plague against you (Ex. 30:11-16).”
That a plague should break out against the people, innocent of David’s crime, also seems unfair. I’d have more respect for David if he had chosen the punishment that applied most to himself (“three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you”) , but that too might have led to a fratricidal civil war with even more innocent deaths. Still, leaders make many decisions for which innocent people pay dearly, by the millions in the cases of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot, but sometimes also by the well-intentioned policies of well-intentioned leaders. It is part of the tragic dilemma of worldly leadership.
In the end, the plague still cost David dearly, with the purchase of Araunah’s threshing floor and livestock (50 shekels of silver, and 600 shekels of gold for “the site” acc: I Chronicles 21, which had to have been bigger than the threshing floor alone).
Adding poignancy to this story is that the threshing floor is, according to the parallel story in I Chronicles 21, on Mount Moriah, where a previous sacrifice was stayed, that of Isaac, under the hand of Abraham. But another sacrifice on that same mount, a thousand years later, was not stayed: that of Jesus, the Lamb of God.
I Kings 1-6 relates the transition from the reign of David to that of Solomon, an unusual choice given his later birth, relative to David’s other offspring, especially Adonijah, next in line logically, after his two deceased older brothers, Absalom and Amnon. Bathsheba’s fear for herself, and Solomon, should Adonijah take the throne, is a logical outcome of the explosive mix of power and polygamy. Solomon’s initial offer of mercy to Adonijah is unusual for a king of the time. Adonijah’s request for Abishag, as a wife, when she had been something just short of a concubine to his father, David, could be construed as a grasp for power, in symbolism at least.
EXODUS 2.0: The End and Betrayal
Though Solomon famously requests the divine wisdom for which he is known, the first hint of his coming moral and spiritual dissolution, and that of all Israel, is given in his alliance with Pharoah and his marriage to one of Pharoah’s daughters (one of many marriages for reasons of state). This is a stunning reversal of the Exodus, which had continued through Israel’s wars against Egypt’s vassal states, like Philistia, all the more stunning for the fact that the royal house of Egypt was now treating the royal house of Israel like an equal, even an ally, rather than an enemy and the upstart rebel against her buffer states and their suzerainty treaties. Yet, we will see in later chapters how the House of Egypt nurtures some of Solomon’s adversaries. Solomon’s opulence, military might and growing power at home, as well as abroad, justify the restrictions and the warnings that Moses and Samuel had given the Israelites regarding a king. Since Solomon knew better, then the moral and spiritual descent of Israel’s wisest king makes him also the most foolish of kings.
I KINGS 6: THE FIRST TEMPLE: This section of scripture is pivotal also for the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from the portable Tabernacle to a stationary temple, as foreseen in the Law of Moses. It reflects Israel’s change of status from that of a pilgrim people to that of a settled people. This development will be reversed, temporarily with the Babylonian Exile, and again, when “The Word became flesh and dwelt (lit. “tabernacled”) among us (Jn. 1:14).” Yet the vision of a final, everlasting house of God where people and God dwell together, securely, will find expression in the later chapters of Ezekiel, and in John’s Revelation.
When looking online for information and explanations about this edifice, be careful of all the occult and secret society speculations, as well as that of groups advocating the destruction of the Muslim Dome of the Rock so as to rebuild the temple and thereby provoke the Rapture. One straightforward informative source is http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/The_Temple.html
A recent archaeological update: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/10/071023-jerusalem-artifacts.html
Attributed to David, it reflects elements of his life, such as the tabernacle, war, adversaries, and the focus of his heart toward God.