Saturday, June 14, 2008

David Fraternizes with the Other Nobles: 2 Samuel 9-10

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

David's still playing surprisingly gracious with other nobles - as long as they don't slight him.

For example, out of nowhere, he decides it's time to repay some of his debts to Saul's family. He misses Jonathan and wants to "show kindness" to someone from tha thouse. They find that Jonathan had a disabled son named Mephibosheth who's still alive, so David has him summoned and promises to give him some land that would have belonged to him had there not been the civil war and the death of Saul. He also orders one of Saul's former servants, named Ziba, to become Mephibosheth's servant, along with all of Ziba's own sons and servants.

This is an intriguing moment - David orders someone into servanthood with no apparent expiration date. Does the king's writ now override the laws of Moses?

David is considerably harsher with the Ammonites. Because he was once on good terms with king Nahash, David decides to send emissaries to Nahash's son, the new king Hanun. I think this is nice and diplomatic of David, although it does seem a considerable divergence from the original God-given rules against making treaty with foreign nations.

Hanun doesn't seem particularly angry himself, but his nobles, suspicious that the emissaries are in fact spies, humiliate them: they "shave off half of each man's beard, cut off their garments in the middle at the buttocks, and send them away." This is evidently so embarrassing for the men in question that David refuses to look upon them, preferring to find out how the emissaries fared by means of messengers.

David doesn't seem determined to react, at least initially, but then he learns that the Ammonites have hired some mercenaries from Aram and Maacah, so he sents General Joab with his full army. Predictably, Joab trounces them. Later, David joins the battle with reinforcements and delivers such a crushing defeat that the system of alliances the Ammonites and Arameans have signed to protect them against Israelite aggression collapses, and various vassal kings make separate peace treaties with Israel.

We seem to be moving from holy war towards uneasy inter-national politics (I use this term carefully because it has a particular meaning today which obviously wouldn't apply nearly as smoothly to the people groups of the ancient Near East). David's connection with God continues to be seen through battle, but the narrative has shifted, at least for the moment, into an extremely elitist political space where nobles and kings and their senior generals are, for the most part, the only people worth mentioning. This leads to shorthand such as the dubious claim that David killed 700 charioteers and 40 000 soldiers at the Battle of Helam (near the end of chapter 10), whereas of course this killing would have been done by David's army, just as today we say that "Bush invaded Iraq."

Don't worry. The high politics narrative won't last long, because David's penis is about to get in the way.