A Brueggemannian Interpretation of 2 Sam 21:1-14

A couple of days ago I read the manuscript for a forthcoming book by Walter Brueggemann called Divine Presence Amid Violence (another commissioning triumph for my good friends at Wipf and Stock).

The book is focused on the question of how we can discern divine revelation in the very brutal and violent texts of the OT. How could there be a word of the LORD to Israel amid such violence and how can it be a word of the LORD to us in our different contexts today?

Brueggeman proceeds by way of a study of Joshua 11 and I found his reflections to be genuinely helpful. I will not tell you what they all were - you'll have to read the book for that when it comes out (it is a very short book so a nice, quick read).

Anyway, this morning I was reading 2 Sam 21:1-14. The story goes like this.

1. There was a famine in Israel for 3 years
2. David inquires of YHWH and YHWH tells him that the famine has come because Saul slew the Gibeonites (non-Israelites with whom Israel had a peace treaty - Josh 9). This was a bloody violation of a binding treaty agreement.
3. David summons the Gibeonites and asks how he can make amends.
4. They ask for seven of Saul's sons so that they can hang them. David agrees.
5. The seven men are executed by the Gibeonites.
6. Rizpah, the mother of two of the dead men, kept vigil over the bodies
7. David hears of this and is motivated to gather the bones of Saul and Jonathan, and those of the seven hanged sons of Saul, and to give them a dignified burial in the sepulchre of Kish, Saul's father.
8. Then God ends the famine.

I have always found this one of several objectionable texts that I have had to struggle with. Possibly Saul's sons had been involved in the massacre, but as far as the story is concerned their main 'crime' is being the sons of the man who committed the massacre. Punishing the sons for the sins of the father is an objectionable notion for us (and not only for us - the Law of Moses forbids it).

Anyway, inspired by Brueggemann I made a couple of simple observations that helped mea little.

1. God did not authorize the killing of Saul's sons. Strictly speaking the only direct divine revelation in the chapter is in 21:1b and there God simply pointed out the root cause of the problem and (implicitly) called David to do something about it.

2. The execution of the men did not end the famine, indicating that things had not been put right. That only ended when David treated the house of Saul with dignity and gave a propoer burial to all 9 dead men.

The story distances God somewhat both from the killing of the men and indeed from approving of the killing of them men. All we know for sure is that God disapproved of Saul's massacre of the Gibeonites and that David needed to make recompense. The death of the men was indeed an act of recompense but did not, of itself, solve the problem suggesting that God was not unambiguously satisfied. Only when David treated the Saulites with more respect did God relent.

Of course, this does not dissolve all the problems in this story nor does it deal with other stories. However, it does suggest ways in which the text might speask afresh into our contexts ... but I'll leave you to think about how.


Robin Parry said…
It just popped into my head that a 'Brueggemannian' sounds like a member of a Scandanavian family of chipmonks. Doubt if that helps but thought I'd say it anyway.
antony said…
No... that helps... thanks.
Anonymous said…

Thank you for the glimpse of the upcoming book. I look forward to reading it when it is published.

That reading of the story may not rehabilitate David, but it does seem a fruitful reading of the story to me.

Rizpah the mother was more in tune with God's heart than David. My daughter will like that.
Dave Faulkner said…
I was so intrigued by this, I contacted Wipf and Stock to find out publication details. I gather you will be responsible for its appearance in the UK. I look forward to hearing when - it sounds a fascinating book. Thank you.

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