Thursday, June 12, 2008

David Kills Some Pagans: 2 Samuel 5:6-25, 8:1-14

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

Now that he's king, David starts a war to purify the land of Israel. His first target is the "fortress of Zion," the city of Jerusalem. I have to say this is a little strange, because the Jebusites were supposed to have been slaughtered back in Judges 1 (which, mind you, I already argued was a fictitious book of social and theological criticism), and for this reason David paraded to Jerusalem with the head of Goliath back in 1 Samuel 17. Why would David bring the head of Goliath to Jerusalem in celebration if that city was still in Jebusite hands?

Either way, the Jebusites are confident David can't take the city, but he does. He accomplishes this feat either by using scaling hooks to take the city walls, or by sending his men crawling up a water shaft into the city (v. 8). These are rather different accounts and I'm surprised my NIV doesn't explain why it can't figure out which is which.

Next, he starts a war with the Philistines again, and unlike Saul, David defeats them handily. The Philistines retreat in such haste that they forget some of their idols behind. You'd think David wouldn't have much interest in idols, but for some reason, he and his men "carry them off" to God knows where.

Later, David engages in a series of military campaigns nearly worthy of Joshua's lengthy string of successes. In chapter 8, the Bible describes him racking up an impressive list of kills "in the course of time": the Philistines, the Moabites, the Zobahites, the Arameans, and the Edomites. The kings of Tyre and Hamath are impressed and send him great quantities of treasure - in fact, the former even builds David a palace in Jerusalem. Somewhat disturbingly, after Moab surrenders, David apparently has them separated out by lots and executes two-thirds of them at random, then demands tribute from the survivors.

Only after all this has been done, at the end of chapter 8, does David set all aright politically by appointing qualified advisors, military commanders, and so on.

The new social order being created in Israel is an intriguing one if a disappointing one. The king is first and foremost a military figure, and in that sense the book of Samuel draws on the strongest militarist section of the Bible to date to measure David's success and his intimacy with God. Back in Joshua, in particular, military success was taken as a sign of divine support. Divine support is even more important for a king whose children would inherit the throne than it is for a general whose children would not, however, and so 2 Samuel's description of David's military skill is politically significant.

Contrast David's swift victories in chapter 5 with Saul's bumbling tactics back in 1 Samuel. Saul isn't a bad fighter, but he just can't seem to win a lasting victory against any of Israel's enemies, especially the Philistines - and eventually it leads to his death. David, by contrast, fights short, decisive battles: he routs the Jebusites in just one verse, and beats back the Philistines "from Gibeon to Gezer" with very little difficulty. God must be with him! Look at his successes!

Beyond the military, the end of chapter 8 suggests that David has undisputed command over every aspect of Israelite society: he appoints the high priests, the generals, and the officials of the royal court. Giving total control over all these things to a single person is something God was reluctant to do before, but apparently it's okay now.

In 1 Samuel, I suggested that there were three stories of David's original accession because the writers needed to appeal to three different constituencies to legitimize David's rule - the religious, the political, and the military. These early victories fulfill the militarist expectations for the legitimacy of his rule: God has demonstrably chosen David to win on the battlefield. It is only afterwards that he starts to worry about other issues - like God.

Special note on Biblical inerrancy: Here, again, the NIV (and possibly others, though I'm not interested in checking this time) deliberately distorts the words of the Bible in order to defend its inerrancy doctrine. 2 Samuel 5:25 actaully says in the Hebrew manuscripts that David beat back the Philistines "from Geba to Gezer." Oops! Over in 1 Chronicles 14, the Bible says it was "from Gibeon to Gezer." So naturally the NIV just slips the right words in, taking it upon themselves to correct God's mistake in the transmission of his holy writings. They defend this on the grounds that the Septuagint does the same thing, mind you, which is better than they've done on other occasions. Still, I have to wonder at this tactic (which they do adopt here) of justifying alterations to the text on the grounds that part of the duty of the translator is to correct errors in the text.