Gibeonite Revenge

(2Sa 21:1) Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.

The phrase "bloody house" translates the Hebrew phrase בית הדמים. A related phrase is עיר הדמים "bloody city" in Eze 22:2 and Eze 24:6,9. Clearly, the term "bloody city" does not refer to the righteous people that were there, such as Jeremiah and Baruch. Rather, it referred to those guilty of bloodshed. Similarly בית מרי "rebellious house" in passages such as Eze 2:5-6 and Eze 3:9 did not refer to every Israelite (for example, it is clear that it did not refer to Ezekiel), but to the disobedient. Moreover, let us note that the word בית "house" does not have to denote a family. For example, בית ישראל "house of Israel" denotes the entire nation of Israel. Based on these observations we could infer that "bloody house" does not refer to the family of Saul but to the people guilty of bloodshed. Clearly, Saul was part of this house. Now, a closer translation of 2Sa 21:1 would be " ... It is towards Saul and towards the house of blood, because he slew the Gibeonites." Note that the word "his" does not appear with "bloody house" in the original language.

(2Sa 21:2) And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.)

Note that 2Sa 21:2 only mentions Gibeonites of Amorite ethnicity. We could understand that by the time of 2Sa 21:2 either no Hivite Gibeonites were left or the Hivite Gibeonites were too few to be mentioned. In the days of Joshua, Israel made a covenant with the Hivites living in Gibeon (Jos 11:19, 9:7). Clearly, the covenant applied also to those in Gibeon of different ethnicity. By the time of 2Sa 21:2 the Amorites were left. The disappearance of the Hivites could testify to troubles that they went through. Since 2Sa 21:2 mentions that Saul sought to kill the Gibeonites, it might be that Saul exterminated the Gibeonites of Hivite ethnicity. This would make his trespass of the covenant even more flagrant, in that he killed the descendants of the very people group with whom the covenant had been made.

(2Sa 21:3) Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the LORD?
(2Sa 21:4) And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you.
(2Sa 21:5) And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel,
(2Sa 21:6) Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, whom the LORD did choose. And the king said, I will give them.

The passage does not state that David asked the Lord concerning what he should do for the Gibeonites. We read instead that "David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you?" (2Sa 21:3). The Gibeonites sought to bring judgment on Saul. Literally, what they said in 2Sa 21:6 is "Let him be given to us by seven men of his sons ... ". In other words, from their viewpoint, executing seven sons of Saul was like executing Saul. However, the Scripture says that "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deu 24:16). Thus, the request of the Gibeonites indicates that they did not follow the law. The fact that David agreed to their request could be explained as follows. Understanding the passage to take place after the rebellion of Absalom and the rebellion of Sheba (who was a Benjamite, 2Sa 20:1), it may be that the descendants of Saul had been against David during these rebellions. In fact, the Scripture mentions explicitly a man of the house of Saul that was very hostile to David at that time (2Sa 16:5-13). Thus, it may be that David considered some of Saul's descendants to be worthy of death anyways.

In 2Sa 21:4 we find ויאמרו לו הגבענים "and the Gibeonites said unto him", involving the preposition ל translated here "unto", while in 2Sa 21:5 we find ויאמרו אל המלך "and they answered the king", involving the preposition אל. Note that the preposition אל does not imply a face to face conversation, as we can see in Ex 18:6-7. Since 2Sa 21:5 has ויאמרו אל המלך instead of ויאמרו למלך, we could infer that 2Sa 21:5 could have happened in a different occasion, sometime after 2Sa 21:4. Based on this observation, a possible interpretation of the passage is as follows. David did not ask the Gibeonites to decide on the spot what they should ask for. Then, the Gibeonites took some time to consider what they should ask for. When they made a decision, they sent to the king their answer. At this time the dialogue was not face to face, so David did not have to reply immediately. After taking some time to think about it and talk to his counselors, he made a decision. Thus, in this interpretation, the decision to execute the seven men was not a rash decision, but one that was carefully considered.

(2Sa 21:7) But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the LORD'S oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.
(2Sa 21:8)MKJV But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth, and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite.
(2Sa 21:9) And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the LORD: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.

The sons of Rizpah must have been at least forty years of age, since Saul had died about forty years earlier. Since Saul reigned forty years, they could have been considerably above forty years of age. The sons of Michal might have been younger, but nonetheless still about forty years of age. At that time these descendants of Saul likely had children and maybe even grandchildren. (The age of the sons of Michal could be estimated as follows. While Saul was alive, Michal was given to פלטי בן ליש "Phalti the son of Laish" (1Sa 25:44), not to be confused with פלטיאל בן לוש "Phaltiel the son of Laish" (2Sa 3:15). Indeed, note that not only פלטי "Phalti" and פלטיאל "Phaltiel" are spelled differently, but also ליש "Laish" in 1Sa 25:44 and לוש "Laish" in 2Sa 3:15 are spelled differently in Hebrew. Then, understanding Phalti and Phaltiel to denote two different persons, it would follow that Michal was married first to David, then Phalti, then Adriel, then Phaltiel, then David again. David took back Michal sometime before he became king over all Israel, during the reign of Ish-Bosheth, who reigned only 2 years (2Sa 2:10). Understanding this two-year period to be at the beginning of the reign of David over Judah, we can conclude that he took Michal back approximately 40 years before the events of 2Sa 21. Therefore, her sons must have been about 40 years old or older at the time of 2Sa 21. Now, assuming that David married Michal when he was about 18 years old, the sons of Michal could not have had much more than 40 years of age, for David died at 70 and they were born after he was separated from Michal. Now, in this interpretation, 2Sa 6:23 states that Michal was not granted to bear any children after she returned to David. Some evidence for this interpretation of 2Sa 6:23 is as follows. By examining the context of 2Sa 6:23, we can see that narrative sentences connected by the conjunction "and" are typically in chronological order and in a cause/effect relationship, as in 2Sa 6:20. Of course, this may not apply well to sentences that are part of a quotation, as in 2Sa 6:21-22. Now, since 2Sa 6:23 begins with ולמיכל "And to Michal" and not with ומיכל "And as for Michal", we could understand that 2Sa 6:23 is not a parenthetical statement but a sentence that fits the aforementioned chronological and cause/effect pattern. Then, the meaning of the verse is not that Michal was never granted any children, for if she had no children by the time of 2Sa 6, this would neither follow chronologically nor be a consequence of the preceding verses. Rather, the interpretation would be that after that time she was not granted any more children.)

(2Sa 21:10) And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.

The Gibeonites were not following the law. According to the law, the bodies had to be buried: "if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance" (Deu 21:22-23). In view of the following verse it may be that David was unaware of the fact that the bodies were not buried.

(2Sa 21:11) And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done.
(2Sa 21:12) And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabeshgilead, which had stolen them from the street of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa:
(2Sa 21:13) And he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged.
(2Sa 21:14) And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was intreated for the land.

We do not read that the Lord "was intreated for the land" in verse 9, after the seven men were executed, but in verse 14, after the men were buried.

Overall, the following remarks could be made about this passage. David reigned over the entire Israel for 33 years (1Ki 2:11). Understanding this passage to take place towards the end of the reign of David, it becomes apparent that for about 30 years nothing had been done to deal with the injustice done to the Gibeonites. A period of 30 years would have been more than adequate to address this issue. Apparently, however, nothing had been done. The shedding of innocent blood defiles a land (Num 35:33). Moreover, a defiled land troubles its inhabitants, as we read in Lev 18:25 and Hos 4:2-3. Taking in account also that in those days the people were provoking the Lord to anger (2Sa 24:1), the years of famine should not be too surprising. Let us note also that famine is among the judgments for disobedience mentioned in the law (Lev 26:19, De 28:23).

The famine drew attention to what has been done by Saul and by those guilty of bloodshed. Saul did not shed blood by himself. There were others who supported him in this and carried out his plans, some of high rank and some of low rank. It would seem likely that poor descendants of those involved in the bloodshed were affected directly by the famine. Moreover, as seen in this passage, the famine also brought trouble to the descendants of Saul. Thus, the statement found in 2Sa 21:1 that the famine was "towards Saul and towards the house of blood" could be interpreted both as saying that the famine drew attention to what has been done, and that it was bringing trouble to those who had been involved in the bloodshed. Trouble came to them indirectly, in that their descendants were affected. Now, the Lord did not ask in 2Sa 21:1 that some of the descendants of Saul be executed. However, he knew in advance that this would happen. We read in this passage that David sought the Lord concerning the reason of the famine. However, we do not read that David sought the Lord about the way in which he should respond or whether some people had to be executed. In fact, the passage seems to indicate the opposite, that David did not seek the Lord about these things. Indeed, if David were following closely the Lord in this matter, the commandment of De 21:22-23 would have not been broken. The Lord would have moved David somehow to ensure that the men received proper burial after their execution. What we read instead is that many days passed before David become aware that the men were not buried (2Sa 21:10). Since David was a godly man, the reason he did not seek God's guidance could be that he and his counselors were confident that they knew how to deal with the situation at hand.

It is rather clear that the seven men who were executed were not innocent. If their were innocent, their execution should have made things worse, given that the famine came because innocent blood had been shed. On the contrary, we read that after the men were buried, the Lord "was intreated for the land" (2Sa 21:14). This statement and the fact that the Lord did not condemn the execution, indicate that these people were actually worthy of death for sins of their own, though not for the sins of Saul, for sons could not be put to death for the sins of the fathers. Since they were not executed earlier, it would seem that the sins leading to their death were recent. They probably committed these sins during the rebellion of Absalom. Perhaps they killed people thought to be faithful to David. When David returned to power, he tended to be gracious towards those who had been hostile to him (2Sa 19:21-23). This might explain why they were not executed earlier. We could say then that the famine drew attention also to the sins of the descendents of Saul.

The Gibeonites did not seem too concerned about justice. Their actions indicate that they were seeking revenge. Most likely, the death of the seven men did not bless the Gibeonites in any tangible way. However, this is the thing they asked for. What people ask for may not be what they need. More than anything else, the Gibeonites were in need to know the God of Israel (Ps 67:1-3). They should have asked for teachers to teach them God's word. Now, the execution of the seven men illustrates the fact that people may not always carry out justice right. There is no indication that the men were tried before their execution. In their own eyes, probably, they were dying because they were descendants of Saul. Nonetheless, the Scripture makes it very clear that everyone will be judged fairly in the end, at the last judgment. "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing ... " (Ecc 12:14). He "will render to every man according to his deeds" (Ro 2:6). Everyone will know why he is condemned on that "day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (Ro 2:5). The famine and the events that came with it illustrate the fact that God will not acquit the wicked (Ex 23:7, 34:7, Na 1:3). These things also testify about the mercy of the Lord, for reminders of his justice can move people to repentance and reconciliation with God.

Finally, let us note that the nations living in Israel were given the task of working on the construction materials of the temple (1Ch 22:2, 2Ch 2:17-18 (2:16-17), 1Ki 9:20-21, 2Ch 8:7-8). It is interesting to notice, however, that this did not happen before reconciliation was sought with the Gibeonites.


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