Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Restoration of Israel: 2 Samuel 19:8 - 20

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

Inconveniently for the incompetent scribe who put numbers in my Bible, the next section of the story of David actually begins not only in the middle of a chapter, but in the middle of a verse. The civil war with Absalom seems to be over now that Absalom is dead, but the country is in tatters. There are enormous numbers of refugees (which today we'd call "internally displaced persons," I suppose), and the people bicker about whether to accept David back as king. David reaches into the confusion to appease the priests and the Judeans, offering to let General Amasa replace Joab as his right-hand man.

The Judeans organize a huge crowd to welcome the return of David as king. Shimei, who tried to stone David a few chapters ago, comes forward to beg forgiveness, and David happily grants it, promising that "you shall not die." Mephibosheth also aks forgiveness, and David orders him and his former slave, Ziba, to divide up their inherited properties evenly. (Mephibosheth selflessly suggests that Ziba can have it all anyways, because he's just so glad to have a good king back.)

Unfortunately, the Israelite tribes aren't ready to lay down arms. As David is proceeding along the Jordan with his prized Judean troops, some men from the other tribes come forward to protest that they have "stolen the king away." The Judeans argue that "the king is closely related to us," but the others argue that this shouldn't matter: "we have ten shares in the king." It's a little unclear, but I think David is in the wrong here. He's been reinstating Judean friends left and right, and the rest of the kingdom feels cheated out of what should been an equitable restoration. Basically they're protesting the same sort of nepotism that still happens in post-conflict situations today, so that, at least, should be fairly easy for us to identify with.

Matters come to a head when a Benjamite named Sheba of Bicri declares that his tribe actually doesn't even want David and the Judeans to come back into power, and calls for a rebellion. The Judeans escort David safely to Israel (where, in a very questionable act, he punishes the concubines Absalom raped by having them locked up "in confinement till the day of their death"), but he has his mind on the new rebellion already and orders his forces to pursue and apprehend Shiba. Even though David earlier appointed Amasa his new general, he hands the pursuit over to Joab, a fateful decision - Joab, skeptical of Amasa's integrity, promptly assassinates him. Eventually Joab hunts down Sheba, too. (Actually, they trap him in a city, and the inhabitants of the city agree to toss out Joab's head in exchange for their own lives, a bargain which Joab cheerfully accepts.)

With order seemingly restored, David sets about appointing a new cabinet. Like today, there's a defence minister (Joab), and a few other key posts (secretary, recorder, chief priest, etc.). There's even someone "in charge of forced labor," which is intriguing. Sometimes I wonder why we don't have a Minister of Slaves anymore - a much better-sounding title than "Minister of Labour," and the job function (putting down strikes) seems to be pretty much the same.

Once again, it's intriguing to note that God seems to play little part in events. Even David isn't seeking his guidance during the restoration of Israel. The priests, moreover, are now completely irrelevant - they've been decisively subordinated to the state and have simply become one set of ministers and advisors among many. (David actually has three priests he puts in charge: Zadok, Abiathar, and his personal priest, Ira the Jairite.)