The Complete Book of 2 Samuel
The Book of 2 Samuel
Did Saul really kill himself? The final chapter of 1 Samuel made a big deal out of Saul's suicide. But the first chapter of 2 Samuel rebuts that story. An Amalekite messenger brings the news of Saul's death to David. When questioned, he says that he knows the king is dead because he killed Saul himself. The wounded king begged the Amalekite to finish him off, so he delivered the blow. You just know it's not going to end well for this regicidal Amalekite. Even though it was a mercy killing, David has the Amalekite executed. No matter what the reason, you're not allowed to murder the Lord's anointed. David is very savvy about protecting his own interest.
Always a good weeper, David cries again for Saul and Jonathan. He feels genuine and profound sorrow. David, let's remember, never touched a hair on Saul's head, even when Saul was trying to kill him. David sings a gorgeous lament about the deaths. (Hey, language mavens! This song is the source of the phrase: "How the mighty are fallen.") David reserves his deepest sorrow for Jonathan, of course: "Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." More speculation, friends?
Chapter 2 and Chapter 3
David gets himself crowned in Hebron—but only as king of Judah. Saul's son Ishbaal rules the other tribes. War soon breaks out between the rival monarchs, with David's generals—notably the brothers Joab and Abishai—getting the best of it.
Ishbaal's top commander is Abner, who had been his father's general, too. But Abner and Ishbaal soon squabble over a concubine, and Abner prepares to defect to David's team. Before that happens, David demands that Ishbaal and Abner return his first wife, Michal, Saul's daughter. When David and Saul had their falling-out, the king had given Michal to another man. In a heartbreaking scene, Michal returns to David, her new husband Paltiel trailing behind her, sobbing.
Let's linger for a moment on this episode. David has an exquisite ability to make other husbands suffer. First he gets Nabal smote by God and marries his widow. Here he's leaving Paltiel heartbroken to retrieve a wife whom, as we'll learn in a few chapters, he doesn't even like. And pretty soon, he'll get Bathsheba's husband killed so he can marry her, too. It's in the nature of sexually voracious men to humiliate rival husbands and boyfriends—that's what happens when you take someone's girlfriend or wife. But David is the world champion of this. His sexual pursuits leave men dead, not merely embarrassed.
Abner has a secret dinner with David and vows to rally the rest of Israel to his side. David's general Joab is infuriated at Abner's ascendance, because Abner murdered one of Joab's brothers. Joab tricks Abner into meeting with him, then stabs him to death. Abner's assassination infuriates David, who asks God to make sure that from now on the men of Joab's family will either a) die violently; b) go hungry; c) catch leprosy; d) have odious "discharges" (don't ask!); or e) be effeminate (the actual words are "hold a spindle"—which means do women's work). Even so, David keeps Joab as his top commander. The man knows how to kill.
I've noticed that the numbers in the Bible are getting less and less incredible. Back in the first five books, armies were of monstrous size—hundreds of thousands of men in a single battle. But as the events described have gotten closer in time to the actual writing of the books, the numbers are shrinking to more realistic figures. It's been particularly noticeable in Samuel: David's entire militia numbers only 600, and the army Saul raises against him has only 3,000 men. Here in the great battle with Ishbaal's army, David's men kill only 360 enemy soldiers, while suffering only 20 casualties themselves. These are believable numbers and lend the stories historical credibility.
Two gangsters assassinate king Ishbaal and bring his head triumphantly to David. Does David appreciate another regicide? Oh, no—he does not. He executes the assassins and chops off their hands and feet. Get it through your thick heads, Israelites: Don't touch the king—any king!
Chapter 5 and Chapter 6
Thanks to Ishbaal's death, David finally rules all of Israel. He's now 37 years old. David quickly captures Jerusalem from the Jebusites and names it the City of David. Until now, Jerusalem has been a nothing, just another town that the Israelites have had a hard time conquering. Hebron, Bethel, and Shiloh have been far more important to Bible geography. But David turns Jerusalem into the holy metropolis. He settles in there and has a grand palace built from cedar trees sent by the king of Tyre. He rapidly fathers 11 new kids by a variety of concubines and wives.
David collects the ark to bring it to Jerusalem. He dances and sings in front of the ox cart that holds the ark. When the oxen jostle too much, cart-driver Uzzah steadies the ark with his hand. Bad, bad move. God smites him on the spot. David is furious about the Lord's massive retaliation against Uzzah. On the other hand, God has made it pretty darn clear that the ark is as holy as it gets. My question: What if Uzzah hadn't steadied the ark, but instead let it fall to the ground? Would that have been worse or better?
Post-Uzzah, David is so terrified of the ark that he decides not to take it to Jerusalem but instead leave it in the house of Obed-dom the Gittite. Everything goes right for Obed-dom—having the ark is like hitting the God lottery. When David sees Obed-dom's prosperity, he immediately collects the ark and brings it to Jerusalem, dancing all the way. His wife Michal rebukes him as a "vulgar fellow" for cavorting like that in front of servant women. David snaps back that he was dancing for the Lord—the very Lord who chose him to be king instead of Michal's father, Saul. And he says that the maids who saw him dancing would actually "honor" him for his exuberance. It couldn't be any clearer: Dancing and music delight God! This is all very Footloose. How do anti-dancing Christian denominations reconcile their position with God's obvious love of the cha-cha?
(Incidentally, Michal is punished for her dance criticism. She's barren, presumably because David refuses to sleep with her—even though he broke up her other marriage to repossess her.)
This must be a chapter that's important to Christianity. God is peeved that David gets to live in a lovely cedar palace, while His ark is still stuck in a tent. (Even the Bible is all about real estate!) The Lord sends the prophet Nathan to instruct David to build a temple for the ark. The Lord, speaking through Nathan, offers all kinds of incentives for the king, promising him that He will make a great name for David, and that He will raise up David's descendants. Then God says, either of David or his heirs—it's not quite clear—"He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings."
If I remember correctly from my religion class back at St. Albans, Jesus claims descent from David. Does this verse explain why? This promise to David seems to describe the relationship of Jesus and God and the death of Jesus. Dear Christian readers: Is this an important verse for you?
David, no fool he, thanks God effulgently for the blessings, flatters Him lavishly, and promises, in the purplest possible language, to build Him a house in Jerusalem.
Update, Nov. 2, 2006: Whoops! Several readers have already pointed out that I misread the exchange in Chapter 7. I got confused about who was talking. It's not God who is complaining that He doesn't have a house. It's David expressing how embarrassed he is that he has a palace and the ark doesn't. David wants to build the temple, but the Lord tells him not to, because his descendants will do it. My apologies for the screw-up. I did manage to read that passage about "father" and "son" correctly.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.