Melachim I Three: Solomon’s Wisdom

King Solomon eventually becomes known for, among other things, the huge amount of women that he ends up marrying. Here we have one of many examples of that. “And Solomon became allied by marriage to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and took Pharaoh’s daughter, and brought her into the city of David, until he had completed building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem around that (Kings I 3:1).” No one seems concerned with this ancient intermarriage, and Solomon is described as being someone who loves God. Although Solomon is a good king and regularly sacrifices to God, there’s no Temple yet, so he has to go to Gibeon in order to do it.

Solomon is so righteous that God comes to him in a dream and asks Solomon what he would like from Him. “Give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and bad; for who is able to judge this Your great people (Kings I 3:9)?” Solomon’s request is noble and speaks highly of his character. His request isn’t for his own personal gain, but rather so that he can better serve God by serving the people. God is also impressed by the selflessness of this request, particularly when Solomon really could have asked for anything, so He grants the wish, and more. “And I have also given you that which you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that there shall not be any among the kings like you all your days (Kings I 3:13).”

All of this took place in a dream, so when Solomon wakes up he sacrifices to God. “Then came two women, harlots, to the king, and stood before him (Kings I 3:16).” Solomon’s new wisdom is going to be tested right away, in what will become the most famous example of it. I think it’s safe to say we all know the story. The women share a house and each have a baby. One dies, and is accused of switching the babies. Solomon the wise, fair king, knows just what to do. He decides to cut the baby in half in order to provoke the women into telling the truth. It works, and the people see his wisdom.

Out of all of the stories that I’ve heard for years and am now reading in the original, this one is actually totally true to form. Everything about it was familiar and as anticipated. My only question is if it would have worked today, or if a liar would have continued to lie, believing their own truth past the point of no return?

Melachim I Two: The Death of David

With his son taking control of the kingdom, David is dying. He leaves his son, King Solomon, with his blessings and teachings. “I go the way of all the earth; you shall be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man (Kings I 2:2).” Solomon is charged with walking in God’s ways and following the law, even though he’s the king. In addition to telling Solomon about these otherworldly matters, he also has practical advice about how to deal with Joab, who it seems is finally going to pay for all of the killing that he’s done in his life.

“And you shall do according to your wisdom, and do not let his hoary head go down to the grave in peace (Kings I 2:6).” David emphasizes throughout his instructions that Solomon is wise. This, of course, is the epithet that we associate with Solomon, so it’s interesting to see that it was his own father that gave him that designation. It’s not from God, or from rabbinic tradition, but instead is how his own father thought of him. That’s touching to me for some reason. It makes it all the more personal, a father bragging about his son, rather than a laudatory term that admirers gave.

“And David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David (Kings I 2:10).” It’s the end of an era. After forty years as king, David is gone, and Solomon is installed as king. However, his brother, Adoniahu, comes back to Jerusalem at this point. Instead of going to the king though, he goes to Bathsheba, the king’s mother. He claims to come in peace, and asks her to intercede with her son on his behalf in one matter. “And he said, ‘Say, I beg of you, to Solomon the king, for he will not refuse you, that he give me Abishag the Shunemitess as a wife (Kings I 2:17).'” Abishag, as we know, is the girl brought in to be David’s companion in his old age. Bathsheba agrees to the request and goes before Solomon.

Although Bathsheba thought the request was reasonable, her son clearly doesn’t. He sees it as the first step towards asking for the whole kingdom, and puts his brother to death. This is not an auspicious start to the new reign, and the punishments only continue. The priest Abiathar is sent away from Jerusalem for supporting Adoniahu, and Joab, to escape his own demise, goes to the tabernacle so that he won’t be killed. But his ploy doesn’t work. Solomon orders him killed anyway, in order to avenge innocent blood. In all of these matters, Benaiahu is his enforcer, helping Solomon to secure his throne as he assumes the leadership of the people.

Melachim I One: King Solomon

The start of this book starts with the end of an era. The end of the time of King David. David is a seminal figure in Jewish history. He’s one of the individuals who truly shaped our collective history and culture. He shaped a nation, so his story never truly ends, because his influence continues, but here we have the beginning of the end of his life.

“And King David was old, he came into his old age, and they covered him with clothes, but he was not warmed (Kings I 1:1).” David’s people want to make sure that he’s comfortable in his old age, so they decide to find a young girl to warm him. This seems a lot more complicated than piling on blankets, but to each their own. They find Abishag, and bring her to David in Jerusalem. “And the young girl was very beautiful, and she was a warmer to the king, and she ministered to him, but the king did not know her (Kings I 1:4).” So their relationship stays chaste, and Abishag truly serves her purpose of warming the king, nothing more.

At the same time, Adoniahu, one of David’s sons, declares that he’s going to be the next king. He looks like his late brother Absalom, and shows some of his personality by getting ahead of himself in his quest for the throne. Joab, and Abiathar the priest, decide to follow this son. At the same time, Zadok, the other priest, Nathan the prophet, along with several other key influential men, stay with David. Adoniahu is busy declaring himself king, but for some reason he marks his brother Solomon has his rival and doesn’t invite him to join in the festivities. “And Nathan said to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, saying, ‘You have surely heard that Adoniahu the son of Haggith has reigned, and our lord, David did not know (Kings I 1:11).'” Nathan plots to get Solomon on the throne, using David’s elderly weakness as a way to convince him that Solomon is his choice of heir. This seems dishonest to me, even if it’s as a means to a necessary end. I hate when people take advantage of the elderly, using their weaknesses against them.

Anyway, Bathsheba goes along with it, and tells David all that Adoniahu is doing. Together with Nathan, they pressure David, and he promises that Solomon is his choice of heir. “And the king said to them, ‘Take with you the servants of your lord, and you shall cause Solomon my son to ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon (Kings I 1:33).'” It’s in Gihon that Solomon will be anointed as king, even while David lives, so that he can begin to administer the kingdom. It is done, and the people rejoice and sing for Solomon. At the same time, Adoniahu is feasting with his followers when he hears the news. “And Adoniahu was fearful of Solomon, and he rose and went, and he took hold of the horns of the altar (Kings I 1:50).” Solomon promises to be merciful with his wayward brother, so he sends him to his own house, rather than killing him. This merciful act is Solomon’s first one as king, and marks the man who will become known for his peaceful, fair leadership.

Shmuel II Twenty-Four: Census

God is angry at the people, and His reaction was to tell David to count the people. I’m not quite sure why one is a result of the other, but it’s clear throughout Tanakh that numbering the people is a huge deal for some reason. Regardless of the provocation, David complies, and sends Joab to take a census of the people. “And Joab said to the king, ‘May the Lord your God add to the people a hundredfold of whatsoever they may be, and the eyes of my lord, the king may see it; but my lord the king, why does he desire such a thing (Samuel II 24:3)?'” Joab, like me, clearly doesn’t get why he’s been given this task. But he goes along with it, and goes out to count the people.

We hear about Joab’s travels for a while. It takes him months to complete his task. “And Joab presented the sum of the number of the people to the king; And Israel consisted of eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men (Samuel II 24:9).” These are formidable numbers, showing that the Israelites were a strong fighting force. They were clearly a power within the region under the reign of David.

Things don’t go well though. David deeply regrets numbering the people, and says that he sinned before God in doing so. Again, I don’t know why. Is numbering hubris? Is it something that people aren’t supposed to know? Honestly, it just seems like a practical measure to take, so I have no idea why it’s so upsetting. David is freaking out though, and he goes to a prophet to intercede with God. David is given three choices. He can choose a famine, a pestilence, or war. He decides to take the punishment of three days of pestilence in the land. “So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men (Samuel II 24:15).” I guess the census is no longer relevant, because the people have definitely fallen in number since Joab’s count.

The angel that has brought the pestilence gets a little overzealous. He goes to destroy Jerusalem, but God regrets it. In order to end the chaos, David is instructed to build a new altar to God in Jerusalem – specifically, in the threshing floor of Aravnah the Jebusite. So David goes to this guy Aravnah, and he gives him his property. Well, he tries, but David insists on paying for it, so that no one will be able to say that he built his altar on a place that he got for nothing. So David builds an altar, and the plague leaves Israel.

With this, the books of Samuel are over. It’s always exciting to start a new part of Tanakh, and I have to savor these small achievements, because in a few months the books will each get super long and they won’t come along as regularly. I’m excited to get up to the stories of Solomon, and to see how they measure up to the versions that I learned growing up. Other than that, I’m not sure what exactly awaits in the two books of Kings, but I’m eager to find out. 642 chapters to go!

Shmuel II Twenty-Three: David’s Last Words

Just as Jacob and Moses gave long speeches as their final words, David also goes out with profound words. “And these are the last words of David; the saying of David the son of Jesse, and the saying of the man raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, And the sweet singer of Israel (Samuel II 23:1).” Last words theoretically are the chance for a dying man to share his ultimate wisdom, the things that he wants to linger for the next generation. Therefore, a lot can be understood about a person’s beliefs and priorities by what they choose to say in these moments.

“The God of Israel said, concerning me spoke the Rock of Israel, ‘A ruler over men shall be the righteous, he that rules in the fear of God (Samuel II 23:3).'” Leadership can’t be corrupt if the ultimate authority remains God, rather than the ruler. David always bowed to God, keeping him from being an absolute ruler in a time when most kings felt that they had divine right.

David remembers the brave men that served him in battle and in leadership. It says a lot that even as he thinks about himself, he has a whole list of others to think about too. This, combined with his reliance on God, shows that he was humble, even until the end.

Shmuel II Twenty-Two: A Song of David

“And David spoke to the Lord the words of this song, on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul (Samuel II 22:1).” Does this indicate that in the end, Saul was one of David’s enemies? Or is it not meant to equate the two, but rather to note all that David overcame, both with regards to Saul and his enemies? Either way, this is a song of David, something that I imagine I’ll be typing for months once we get to the psalms. David is a poet and a lyricist, so it’s obviously beautiful, but higher on flowery language than content.

David describes God as his rock and shield, which makes sense, as he’s thanking God for saving him from his enemies. “When I am in distress, I call upon the Lord, yes I call upon my God: and out of His abode He hears my voice, and my cry enters His ears (Samuel II 22:7).” This seems to speak to the very personal relationship that God and David has. David speaking to God is almost like calling a friend who you turn to when things get tough. It’s just that David’s friend has infinite power and the ability to both bless and curse.

God is greatly anthropomorphic in this chapter. David describes Him in humanized terms, which I guess makes sense, because it’s the only way that human beings can begin to relate to an unknown deity. “And He bent the heavens and He came down; and thick darkness was under His feet. And He rode upon a cherub and did fly; He was seen upon the wings of the wing (Samuel II 22:10-11).” God is, of course, everywhere, all the time. So what does it mean for Him to be in a specific place or doing a certain thing? Does this mean that His presence was concentrated there, and therefore that’s where it was felt, or most in evidence? Is David being literal, which would be beyond belief in many ways, or is all of this a metaphor for God’s strength?

“With a kind one, You show Yourself kind. With an upright mighty man, You show Yourself upright. With a pure one, You show Yourself pure; But with a perverse one, You deal crookedly (Samuel II 22:26-27).” This seems to say that God deals with all of us on our own terms. Just as a parent doesn’t parent each of their children the same way, our own behaviors are reflected in how God treats us. We get what we deserve from our relationships with Him. David, having been victorious, knows that he is worthy of his rewards, because God wouldn’t have saved him if he hadn’t been righteous. It must be very validating to have that kind of unshakable faith. I like it because it makes people responsible for their actions, because God’s treatment of us is based on what we do.

God has done a lot for David. “Therefore I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the nations, and to Your name I will sing praises (Samuel II 22:50).”

Shmuel II Twenty-One: The Gibeonites

Time passes. “And there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘For Saul, and for his bloody house, because he put to death the Gibeonites (Samuel II 21:1).'” David wants to make amends with the Gibeonites in order to end the famine. He asks them what he can do in order to make things right. They don’t want gold though, or anything else of material value. What they want is much bloodier.

“And they said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and who plotted [against] us that we be destroyed from remaining within any of Israel’s borders (Samuel II 21:5).'” Essentially, they want to kill Saul’s remaining descendants. David, who loved Saul, doesn’t protest at all, but delivers them. He only takes pity on Mephibosheth, because of his great love for Jonathan. But the rest of Saul’s blood, the sons of his concubine and his daughters, are hanged by the Gibeonites. Seven men in total are killed in order to make up for the slight to the Gibeonites.

Rizpah, who was Saul’s concubine, and the mother of two of the murdered men, attempts to protect the bodies of her sons. David sees this, and takes the bones of Saul and Jonathan and brings them to the site of these new deaths. Then, all the men of the family are finally buried together, near the home of Saul’s father. This whole story is crazy. I don’t fully recall what happened between Saul and the Gibeonites, but that David just hands over innocent men to die, and God seems to endorse it, is horrifying. It seems to work – the famine ends – but this only makes it worse. It shows that God wanted this kind of sacrifice, even though Jewish tradition teaches that God doesn’t want human sacrifices to please Him.

Shmuel II Twenty: Sheba

The Israel/Judah division continues. A man named Sheba, from the tribe of Benjamin, declared that Israel should go to the tents, rather than follow David. “And all the men of Israel went up from after David, following Sheba the son of Bichri, but the men of Judah cleaved to their king from the Jordan until Jerusalem (Samuel II 20:2).” David returns to Jerusalem, in spite of the divide amongst the people. He reunites with the wome that he left behind, his concubines. And then he calls for the men of Judah to rally to him. “And Amasa went to call together the men of Judah, but he tarried past the set time which he had appointed him (Samuel II 20:5).” David wanted the men quickly, but Amasa didn’t deliver. So David goes to Abishai, because he’s worried. He thinks that Sheba is more dangerous than Absalom was, so he sends Abishai to pursue him.

“And Joab’s men went after him with the archers and the slingers and all the warriors; and they went out of Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri (Samuel II 20:7).” Joab runs into Amasa while chasing Sheba, and greets him warmly. But Amasa doesn’t notice Joab’s sword, and ends up getting stabbed. Amasa bleeds, and Joab continues to pursue Sheba. This is all told with remarkably little emotion, even for this level of drama. Joab tracks Sheba to a city. A wise woman from within the city calls to him. “I am of that are peaceful and faithful to Israel; Do you seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel? Why should you swallow up the inheritance of the Lord (Samuel II 20:19)?” Joab explains that he’s not there to destroy the city, he only wants Sheba. So the women of the city band together to behead Sheba and throw his head over the wall so that Joab will leave the city alone. Again, this is told matter of factly, when it’s an insane story. The people just behead him? How is this a thing? Sometimes Tanakh stories are truly bizarre, especially the ones that tended to get passed over when I was in school. I don’t know what to make of them. Why were they important enough to get canonized, but not to be explained or regularly taught?

Shmuel II Nineteen: Mourning Absalom

Upon hearing the news of Absalom’s death, David is devastated. “And the king trembled, and he went up to the upper chamber of the gate, and wept; and thus he said, as he went, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died in your stead, O Absalom my son, my son (Samuel II 19:1)!'” It says a lot about David’s capacity for forgiveness, that his instinct is to mourn and cry for his child lovingly, even though their relationship was so fraught. Joab finds out that David is mourning, and his mourning impacts all of the people. They are no longer celebrating their victory, because of the king’s sadness. He continued to cry, leading to Joab coming to admonish him. “And Joab came to the king, into the house; and he said, ‘Today you have embarrassed all your servants, who have today saved your life, the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines (Samuel II 19:6).'” Joab contends that David needs to thank his servants in order to assure their continued loyalty, rather than mourning the man who caused them to leave their homes and go to war.

The people are divided into Israel and Judah again, just as they were before the united crown of King David. David needs to figure out how to unite them once again. This particular chapter of Tanakh wanders, in a way that’s confusing to me. David comes back towards the Jordan, and reunites with Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s disabled son. He finally comes back into the land, escorted by Israel and Judah. They keep fighting amongst themselves, though, and it’s clear that there are wounds amongst the people that won’t be easily fixed.

Shmuel II Eighteen: The End of Absalom

David’s camp is a large one at this point, and he’s still on the run from Absalom. “And David sent forth the people, a third in the hands of Joab, a third in the hands of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and a third under the hands of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, ‘I too will go forth with you (Samuel II 18:2).'” The people love David, though, and they tell David to stay behind so that no one will notice them and attack. So David stayed in the city while his people split up. Even though his son had declared rebellion against him, David still loved Absalom. “And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai saying, ‘Deal gently for me with the youth, with Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king commanded all the captains regarding Absalom (samuel II 18:5).”

A battle finally takes place, with thousands dying in the civil war. Absalom is riding on a mule, and his long hair gets caught in the branches of a tree. “And a man saw it and told Joab. And he said, ‘Behold I saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth (Samuel II 18:10).'” Joab asks the man why he didn’t kill Absalom, in spite of David asking that they deal gently with his son. The man reminds him of this, but Joab doesn’t listen. He personally kills Absalom while he’s trapped in the tree, totally ignoring David’s orders. Joab and the people bury Absalom, and then the Israelites disperse.

It’s only left for David to find out about the death of his son. This is terrible news for any father to receive, even a father who had recently been warring with his child. David is left in the city, and sees a messenger coming with the news, which he hopes will be news of peace. But that’s not the news that he receives, and the chapter ends with David learning of the death of Absalom.