Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What the Fuck? Part 1: Avenging the Gibeonites: 2 Samuel 21:1-14

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

The major intrigue is over now and the remainder of 2 Samuel is a bizarre series of appendices. In the first, God makes his triumphant return to the narrative, appearing to David in the midst of a national food shortage and declaring that the shortage is the result of "Saul and his blood-stained house," who made an evil decision to "put the Gibeonites to death."

I'm afraid I have absolutely no idea what God is talking about here. Saul never gave any orders to put the Gibeonites to death, or to do anything else with them for that matter - at least not in any form that is recorded in the Book of Samuel. What's going on here? Is God losing his mind?

No matter. David promptly summons some of the surviving Gibeonite elders and asks how he can make amends for what was done to them by Saul. The Gibeonites are initially quite graceful, saying they want neither money nor blood vengeance, but David presses, so they make a chilling proposal: David should take seven sons of Saul and execute them "before the Lord" at Gibeah. David obligingly selects seven of Saul's surviving offspring and hands them over to be executed. Their remains are buried, and God's anger melts away. God "answers" the prayers of the people and restores full food production.

This incident is disturbing for more than just the strange story of the mysterious Gibeonite massacre, however. There is no mention in the Bible that the seven sons of Saul were guilty of anything beyond being sons of Saul. The separation from the initial crime, not to mention any Biblical prescription of punishment (they appear to be killed by "exposure" to the weather), brings their deaths perilously close to a human sacrifice meant to appease God's wrath, rather than a just sentence of execution in accordance with the law.

(I would think any execution unjust, but for other reasons; what's telling is that this execution can't even cling to the law of Moses's minimal legal basis for state-sanctioned killing.)

It's also telling, I think, that for what I think may actually be one of the first times in the Bible, God actually explicitly takes the side of one of Israel's former enemies, against his own people, in order to right this alleged wrong. In the past he's occasionally let foreigners punish Israel as a means to show his people they have sinned, but he's never actually taken the side of those foreigners before. Here Israel is in the wrong and Gibeon is in the right. It's a sign of how far the people have fallen or, alternatively, how far God is now distancing himself from Israel.