Shmuel II Seven: A House for God

With the ark back in Jerusalem, there’s a period of peace for the Israelites. David has his palace, but something is missing in the capital. God comes to Nathan, who is the new prophet in Israel. “Go and say to My servant, to David; so says the Lord: ‘Shall you build Me a house for My dwelling (Samuel II 7:5)?'” It’s been years since the people stopped wandering and put down roots in the land, but God’s dwelling place, the ark, is still impermanent. He has done immeasurable things for the people, and for David specifically, and now he wants a house. “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever (Samuel II 7:13).”

God promises David that no matter how mad He gets at him, it’ll never be like it was with Saul, when God removed Himself from the anointed king. David, and his descendants, will rule Israel forever. David, as always, is humble before God. He immediately agrees to take on the task of building the Temple, the house of God. “And let Your name be magnified forever, that it may be said: ‘The Lord of Hosts is God over Israel; and the house of Your servant David shall be established before You (Samuel II 7:26).”

It’s fitting that this new era for the Israelites is the chapter that I’m reading today, on New Year’s Eve. I wish all of you a Happy New Year. I look forward to seeing what 2016 will bring!

Shmuel II Six: The Return of the Ark

David has his city, and now it’s time to take things one step farther. “And David arose and went with all the people that were with him, from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called a name, the name of the Lord of Hosts who dwell upon the cherubim upon it (Samuel II 6:2).” The ark is coming to Jerusalem. David, along with the rest of the people, celebrates its arrival. Of course, each time the ark is dedicated, it can’t go without drama. In the desert, it was Nadav and Avihu who died for not behaving properly. Now, it’s Uzzah, a man who touched the ark because the oxen carrying it swayed. “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God (Samuel II 6:7).” Again, things seem oddly harsh. Uzzah wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. We know his exact motivation – he wanted to help. But God acts quickly, and even David is upset about this turn of events.

“And David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me now (Samuel II 6:9)?'” His fear makes total sense to me. God is a fanatic when it comes to the ark, so how could any man presume to know what’s best for it? The ark stays outside of Jerusalem for three months, and the man who houses it is blessed. So David is reassured and brings the ark to Jerusalem. “And David danced with all his might before the Lord; and David was girded with a linen ephod (Samuel II 6:14).” David is overjoyed, and the city celebrates with him. Everyone, that is, except Queen Michal. She sees him dancing, and we are told that she loathed David.

David makes his offerings, and blesses the people, and then finally goes home to bless his own house. “And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and she said, ‘How honored was today the king of Israel, who exposed himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as would expose himself to one of the idlers (Samuel II 6:20).'” Michal isn’t impressed with David. Because of her complaints against him, she is barren for the rest of her life. It seems like a sad life for Michal, who once loved David and sacrificed for him, and now lives a life of resentment. The return of the ark has come with a few shadows, in spite of David’s extreme joy at its arrival.

Shmuel II Five: Conquering Jerusalem

Ishbosheth’s death means that David no longer has any rivals. “And all the tribes of Israel came to David to Hebron, and spoke, saying, ‘Here we are. We are your bone and your flesh (Samuel II 5:1).'” The people are loyal to him, and David becomes the undisputed king of all of the Israelites. Amazingly, with all of the stories already behind us, David is only 30 years old at this point. We know that he’ll remain king for another 40 years. “In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty three years over all Israel and Judah (Samuel II 5:5).” I like that a physical transition accompanies the change in his role. Hebron only belonged to part of the people, but just like Washington DC is outside any state, Jerusalem was outside any tribal area. It belonged to all the Israelites, so it was the perfect place for David to make his city.

“And David conquered the stronghold of Zion which is the city of David (Samuel II 5:5).” David and Jerusalem have become synonymous, a tradition that continues until today. It’s in Jerusalem that David becomes a strong king. He builds his palace, and extends his family even further. This is the second edition of David’s children. This time, we don’t even get their mother’s names, but we do hear about more children: Shammua, Shobav, Nathan, Solomon, Ibhar, Elishua, Nepheg, Japhia, Elishama, Elyada, and Eliphalet.

“And the Philistines heard that they anointed David as king over Israel, and all the Philistines went up to seek David; and David heard and went down to the stronghold (Samuel II 5:17).” The Philistines seem to always be a problem. It’s interesting that Amalek is the traditional enemy of Israel, when it seems like the Philistines attack with far more regularity. This time, God gives David and the Israelites the victory.

Shmuel II Four: The Death of Ishbosheth

Word about Abner’s death has reached Ishbosheth. “And Saul’s son hear that Abner had died in Hebron, and his hands became feeble, and all Israel were dismayed (Samuel II 4:1).” Clearly he’s afflicted by this news, and is in shock at this new reality. Even though Abner and Ishbosheth clearly had their problems, this was not welcome news to him.

Now, in addition to Saul, there are a few other remaining members of Saul’s family. “And Jonathan, the son of Saul had a son who was lame in his feet. He was five years old when the news of Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse carried him and fled; and it was in her haste to flee, that he fell and became lame, and his name was Mephibosheth (Samuel II 4:4).” After we’re told about this grandson, we hear about the final fate of Saul’s son, Ishbosheth. He is killed by men thinking to honor David by destroying his rival, and they brought his head to David in Hebron. But David, as we know, has a soft spot for Saul’s family, and doesn’t have an appetite for vengeance against them at this point. “And David commanded the young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and feet, and hanged them up beside the pool in Hebron. But the head of Ishbosheth they took and buried in the grave of Abner in Hebron (Samuel II 4:12).” With this latest death, David is left as the only king, for the moment. The descendants of Saul are dropping quickly at this point, but they all remain intertwined with David, keeping the connection between the families strong.

Shmuel II Three: David’s Family

The problems between Saul and David have continued, even after Saul’s death. “And the war between the house of Saul and the house of David was long; and David kept growing stronger, while the house of Saul were continuously growing weaker (Samuel II 3:1).” But David isn’t fully consumed with the war. He’s busy procreating. During his time in Hebron, he greatly expands his family. It seems that each of his wives has a son during this period:

  1. Amnon, son of Ahinoam
  2. Chileab, son of Abigail
  3. Absalom, son of Maacah
  4. Adonijah, son of Haggith
  5. Shephatiah, son of Abital
  6. Ithream, son of Eglah

Meanwhile, Abner is still supporting the house of Saul. But loyalties like that are never simple. “Now Saul had had a concubine whose name was Rizpah the daughter of Aiah; and he said to Abner, ‘Why did you go in to my father’s concubine (Samuel II 3:7)?'” Ishbosheth is speaking at this moment, and Abner is angry at the accusation. He wants more respect from the man that he put on the throne, but Ishbosheth isn’t pleased. Abner’s loyalties don’t run that deep, because he decides to switch sides and give himself to David as a servant instead.

David doesn’t question the situation. “And he said, ‘Good; I shall make a covenant with you, but one thing I ask of you, namely that you shall not see my face until you first bring Michal, Saul’s daughter when you come to see my face (Samuel II 3:13).'” In spite of all of his wives and sons, David is still thinking about his first bride, and wants her back after all this time. Now, there are pragmatic reasons for this. Namely, Michal is the daughter of the previous king, so marrying her can only enhance David’s claims to her father’s throne. But it’s also possible to read this purely as a love story. David calls Michal his wife still, indicating that he still cares about her.

Michal is silent in this part of the text, so we don’t hear her reaction to her own fate. She is taken from her husband, Paltiel, but we only hear his reaction. “And her husband went with her, walking and weeping after her up to Bahurim; and Abner said to him, ‘Go, return,’ and he returned (Samuel II 3:16).” Michal is an elusive character, so it is left to commentators to give her a voice. One of my favorite books of modern biblical fiction is Queenmaker, where the author, India Edghill, tells the David story from Michal’s point of view. It paints everything in a different light, and even though it’s fiction, it colors how I see the text itself. In the actual text, though, we don’t hear about the reunion. Instead, the story moves back to the Joab/Abner rivalry. Joab ends up killing Abner to avenge his brother, and David mourns for him.

Shmuel II Two: Abner and Joab

David has mourned Saul, and avenged him to a degree. Now, he needs to think about his next steps. God tells him to leave his exile and go to Hebron. “And David went up there, and also his two wives, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess and Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite (Samuel II 2:2).” By bringing his wives, it indicates to me that David intends to set up shop in Hebron for the foreseeable future. He brings his men with him too, leaving Ziklag behind. We don’t hear about a goodbye to his benefactors from this period, but they might still be occupied with the war against the Israelites.

So David gets to Hebron, and makes a dramatic entrance. “And the men of Judah came and there anointed David as king over the house of Judah, and they told David, saying, that the men of Jabesh-Gilead buried Saul (Samuel II 2:4).” David is pleased to hear this, and sends messengers to these men.

At the same time, Abner, who was Saul’s general, takes Saul’s remaining son, Ishbosheth, and makes him king. “And he made him king over Gilead and over the Ashurites and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel (Samuel II 2:9).” I sympathize with Abner’s position. As the commander of the last king, he probably won’t prosper under the new administration. Therefore, he engineers a prime role for himself by choosing an alternative successor to David and positioning himself as his benefactor. However, this divides the people, with David as king in Judah and Ishbosheth in Israel. Both men have good claims to the throne: David was chosen by God and ordained by Samuel, but Ishbosheth is the son of the last king.

We are told that Ishbosheth reigned over Israel for two years, and that David remained in Hebron as king of Judah for seven and a half years. During this time, there’s a meeting between Abner and his men and Joab, one of David’s servants. “And Abner said to Joab, ‘Let the boys get up now and play before us,’ and Joab said, ‘Let them get up (Samuel II 2:14).'” This seems like a weird thing to say in general, and also a strange exchange between these two men. It turns into an awkward, almost anti-climactic battle, with all of the men killing each other. David’s side, for some reason that I’m not clear on, is declared victorious.

Abner is the pursued by one of David’s men, Ashael, who is Joab’s brother. Abner tries to rebuff him, but Ashael doesn’t stop, and Abner ends up killing him. This leads Joab and his other brother, Abishai, to take up the pursuit of Abner. “And Abner called Joab and said, ‘Will the sword forever consume? Did you not know that it would be bitter in the end? Until when will you not say to the people to return from after their brothers (Samuel II 2:26)?'” This speech gets through to Joab, and for now, the internal war ends. The people are still divided though, and the dual monarchy continues.

Shmuel II One: Mourning Saul

This second part of the larger Samuel story arc begins exactly where the last one left off. “And it was, after Saul’s death, and David had returned from beating the Amalekites, that David dwelt in Ziklag two days (Samuel II 1:1).” At this point, David doesn’t know the news that’s coming from the front. It’s always easiest to ask questions in hindsight, but I wonder how things would have turned out if David hadn’t been rejected by the Philistine forces. In spite of all of their issues, would he really have been able to fight Saul, and especially, Jonathan? Or would the tide have turned in favor of the Israelites?

Three days after the battle, a man from Saul’s camp comes to David. “And David said to him, ‘What was the situation? Tell me now.’ And he said, ‘That the people fled from the battle, and also many of the people fell and died, and also Saul and his son Jonathan died (Samuel II 1:4).'” At first, David doesn’t take him at his word. He questions how this man new that Jonathan and Saul died. It turns out that this man was with Saul as he died, and took his crown and bracelet to bring to David. David ignores the news of the crown, and mourns the loss of Saul and Jonathan. In spite of Saul being a relatively bad king, the people mourn him together, and he’s given the honor in death that he hoped for.

David’s mourning takes the form of a song. He’s known in Jewish history as the author of most of the Psalms, and in general as an articulate speaker. This is our first song of David, at this moment of his great grief. “O beauty of Israel! On your high places shall lie the slain? How have the heroes fallen (Samuel II 1:19)?” He sings about Jonathan, and about Saul, and entreats the people to mourn them, both crying for the collective loss and for his personal one. “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan, you were very pleasant to me. Your love was more wonderful to me than the love of women (Samuel II 1:26).” David is caught up in the moment, and isn’t being pragmatic yet. But with Saul and his sons gone, there is no one to dispute David’s claims to the throne. Will he stay in exile much longer now that this is the case?

Project 929 One Year Update

Today marks the end of the first book of Samuel, and of exactly a year of Project 929. In a moment of personal reflection, I can honestly say that I’ve never stuck with a voluntary personal enrichment project for this long. I haven’t missed a day of 929 (thus far). I’ve read a chapter of Tanakh, and blogged about it, five days a week, for this entire year. I’ve written from four different countries and four different states. I’ve written on the day that I moved from Israel back to America, on my first day at my new job, my birthday, and the days of numerous obligations and stresses. This project has provided me with a touchstone, something to prioritize on a daily basis. It’s been challenging to find the time, and to digest some of the content. It’s also been rewarding, to read the original texts of stories that I’ve known for my entire life, and to be exposed to interludes that I knew nothing about. I also love seeing the moments when the stories intertwine with my life, particularly in the last few months, as the Israelites have moved into the land and spend time in the places that I know and love. 

I’m finding that I have new appreciation for the commentators. I like reading the text on my own, and providing my own interpretations, but I also feel lost without their guidance. But I’m happy to have the opportunity to add my own voice to the thousands that have read and remarked on these words before me. I’m sure that Year 2 will be more challenging than Year 1. For one thing, the majority of the familiar stories are behind me. This year will have me deeply immersed in Nevi’im, and the stories will move from narrative to prophetic. The books also get longer, with this whole upcoming year not even seeing me to the end of this portion of Tanakh. It’s crazy how much there is to read. But I like having this constant, particularly in a time when so many things are changing in my life. So I’d like to thank all of you, my readers, for joining me on this journey. I hope you’re enjoying the ride along with me!

Shmuel I Thirty-One: The End of Saul

While David is dealing with his own problems, the Philistines are having an epic battle with the Israelites. On Mount Gilboa, the two sides clash, with a heavy death toll. “And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines slew Jonathan and Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul’s sons (Samuel I 31:2).” Jonathan is dead, but the battle isn’t over. Saul himself is in range of the Philistine archers, and he doesn’t want to die at their hands. Instead, he kills himself, rather than risk falling victim to the Philistines. “And Saul and his three sons and his weapon-bearer died. Also, all his men died together on that day (Samuel I 31:6).” It’s not a noble end for Saul, in my opinion. He doesn’t die valiantly in battle, but instead by avoiding his last battle. He doesn’t want to be humiliated, so instead he ends his own life. It’s not embarrassing, but it’s also not brave or regal.

The Israelites flee, and the Philistines occupy their land. And, it looks like Saul’s plan to not be humiliated in his death is a failure. “And they severed his head and stripped his armor; and they sent them around in the land of the Philistines, to spread the tidings to the house of their idols and to the people (Samuel I 31:9).” They nail his body to the walls of Beit Shean. However, the Israelites come and steal it back, along with the bodies of his sons. They mourn Saul properly, and with that, the book ends. It’s a tragic end in all honesty, and leaves Israel leaderless and subjugated to their enemies. The Israelite comeback will have to come in the next book, which starts tomorrow! Until then, 666 chapters to go!


Shmuel I Thirty: Amalek Returns

David has been sent away from the Philistine front, and he and his men come back to Ziklag, on the same day that the Amalekites are raiding and burning the city. “And David and his men came to the city, and behold, it was burned with fire; and their wives and their sons and their daughters had been captured (Samuel I 30:3).” With their own families as the casualties of this battle, David and his men cry until they’re weak. Their first instinct isn’t to fight, but to cry, which should give some indication as to the horror of what they faced at that moment. David’s own wives have been taken, along with the families of his men.

“And David was in dire straits, for the people spoke of stoning him, for the soul of all the people was grieved, each man concerning his sons and concerning his daughters; but David strengthened himself in the Lord his God (Samuel I 30:6).” David needs a plan, so he goes to Abiathar, the priest. God tells David to pursue the Amalekites, and assures him of a victory. So the 600 men chase Amalek, and as they’re following, they find an Egyptian man in the desert. They give him food and drinks, and it turns out that he’s an Egyptian slave of an Amalekite man. This abandoned slave becomes David’s guide, leading him to the Amalekite army.

“And David smote them from evening until evening to their morrow, and no man of them escaped except four hundred young men who rode on camels, and fled (Samuel I 30:17).” David is victorious, but I can’t help but think: is this all Saul’s fault? Saul was supposed to fully wipe out the Amalekites, but he let Agag survive. Is this why this new atrocity was able to take place? Saul didn’t know, of course, what his actions would lead to, so it’s hard to hold him personally accountable for this. But it’s also impossible to fully separate him from these new events.

David takes the sheep and cattle of the Amalekites as spoils of war. He divides his bounty, and goes back to his new home in Ziklag.