I’ve argued—alright, claimed—previously that the overarching theme of the Books of Samuel is the priestly action of intercession. We see the need once again in II Samuel 21, when the aggrieved Gibeonites bring their suit to King David.
A famine has fallen upon Israel, which can only mean one thing: some kind of transgression. The Promised Land always supports the people so long as they keep the commandments. When the people abandon the Deuteronomic way of life, the land rises against them.
The last time we saw this was in the time between judges, when the civil war and the widespread sins of the Israelites led to a famine that drove Elimelech and Naomi to sojourn in Moab, bringing the wonderful character of Ruth into the bloodline of David. We also saw it negatively reinforced when Saul’s rash oath deprived his Israelite army of the sustaining honey of the forest.
This time around, the spiritually alert David consults God and learns the cause of the famine. Israel has bloodguilt for something Saul did many years previously during his reign. At the time of the failed conquest, the Israelites had made a covenant with the Gibeonites that they would ally with them against other Canaanites and in return not drive them out.
Upon Saul’s ascent to the throne many years later, he broke this oath and began to wage war against them. Using a previous divine command to justify enriching Israel at the expense of the nations? Not surprising, given his failure in I Samuel 15 with the Amalekites! Saul is dead now, but the bloodguilt for his action has gone unpaid, and the land has turned against the Israelites as a result.
But hold on a second. Why should the Israelites be suffering for the misdeeds of a dead king? I’m glad you asked!
There is a pair of monumentally important scenes in I Samuel—when Samuel delivers the terms of having a king to Israel (I Sam 8) and his farewell address (I Sam 12). Samuel tries to discourage the people from having a king because, hey, they have a pretty good one already and He smote the Egyptians with the breath of His mouth and all that.
When the Israelites insist on having a king like the other nations, God relents but sets clear terms. In addition to the usual “taxes, army, servants” stuff that goes with royal courts, the king will speak and act on behalf of Israel. It is no longer enough for the people to keep the commandments of God—now Israel and the king have to be good to enjoy the blessings of God. Good king, good times. Bad king, bad times.
Samuel lays down some extremely sarcastic “I’m sure it will all be just fine” talk in his farewell address, drops the mic, and disappears from the public stage. The people realize then what they have gotten themselves into, but now they are stuck with it: if they sin, land rises against them and God no longer protects them. If they do it right but the king sins…same story. Good luck, fellas! The mystical relation between land and people now has a third term, the king.
Saul’s actions as king inevitably and necessarily place guilt upon Israel, not only because he commits an atrocity against the Gibeonites, but because he turns all of Israel into oath-breakers. Turns out having someone who can act on your behalf physically and metaphysically is pretty dangerous (sub-tweet: Adam). The fact that decades have passed only means that the Israelites have owed this debt for decades and are lucky things didn’t get ugly sooner.
David understands the score and moves quickly to expiate the guilt of Israel. The Gibeonites insist that this is no matter of silver and gold (neither gold nor silver have I, but what I do have I give you), nor is it just for them to take action against the Israelites. That would make them oath-breakers! Yet again, a tribe of the nations taking the moral high road against Israel. So David asks them what they would have him do, and the terms are simple: seven sons of Saul must die.
David rounds up seven descendants—mostly grandsons—and hangs them. The narrator takes care to inform us that David spared Mephibosheth, but otherwise the estate of Saul faces yet another loss at the hands of David. The famine is lifted. Justice is restored. Yay! Right…?
It’s fascinating to ask my students if they think this is fair. Many of them quickly say yes. Some hesitate. I have to give them some cover, make it safe to say they think this might not be ok. Second question: what did these seven people do to deserve death? Nothing, right?
It’s a fascinating tale of the perils of corporate guilt and responsibility. This is the kind of ancient world ethics that God is slowly leading the Israelites out of. It’s also the exact kind of arrangement that the people willingly entered into by having a king in the first place. They pay for the sins of their king. Fair, right? Maybe be careful who you hitch your wagon to, guys…
I think it’s worth noting that, much like the semi-absence of God in Deuteronomy, God plays no active role in this beyond informing David of the root of the problem. The solution is one that David comes up with on his own in consultation with the Gibeonites. Just because people do things in the Bible doesn’t mean they are doing the right things.
Could we perhaps have yet another test for the covenant mediator here? All this testing is exhausting! What’s a king gotta do to prove himself around here? It’s almost as if…you know, it’s almost as if no human could ever live up to this job! Crazy, right?
So where’s the priestly action of intercession? Does High Pries David offer up lawful human sacrifices on the altar of justice to bring peace to the Israelites? Or did he miss out on a far more significant sacrifice to bring a higher justice to the world?
I’m glad you asked! Let’s go look at the final chapter of the book (TBC).