Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Fifteen: 2 Samuel 16 – 1 Kings 9
The end of Second Samuel and the beginning of the Books of Kings is essentially the concluding of the story of David and the introduction of his successor, Solomon. Historically, the section is interesting because it illustrates how David’s reign was important to establishing stability in the kingdom of Israel and yet how it was still precarious (even his own son rose against him in the end). Similarly, it highlights the difference between the two reigns, in that Solomon’s reign was more peaceful; more time could be spent on diplomacy, infrastructure, etc.
The Death of David: The last part of II Samuel describes how one of David’s sons, Absalom, rises against him in an effort to take the kingdom. This demonstrates that, despite David’s great skill as a military and political leader, as well as his many virtues as a man, the kingdom was nevertheless precarious and still in flux. It establishes a striking difference between the end of the “shaky” area of Israeli establishment and the rise of a secure and prosperous nation under Solomon. It should also be noted that earlier prophecies, such as Nathan’s vision that David’s own son would eventually have sex with his father’s wife (or wives, as it turns out) in public are proved true. I think it is important to connect David’s vices and virtues with the strengths and weaknesses of Israel at this time. From the time of Saul, the kingdom has continued to grow both in political power and in its embracing of monotheistic religion (Yahvism). Like David, though, mistakes are still being made. David is in many ways the personification of his rule, just as Saul (not a bad king, per se, but one with many fatal flaws) was the personification of his own. This trend continues with Solomon.
The Wisdom of Solomon: Solomon is anointed king while David still lives, which is the first step to securely and strongly establishing him as the undisputed ruler. He also acts quickly, upon ascension, to eliminate any possible objections: he kills his brother Adonijah and his father’s general, Joab, both of whom had been preparing to claim the throne for Adonijah (indeed, at the moment Solomon is anointed king, Adonijah is throwing a party in preparation for his own ascension!). He also banishes (then kills) Shimei, who is the last powerful representative from the kingdom of Saul. This quick action plus the support of David himself brought the kingdom rapidly into Solomon’s favor. Things only get better from there, however, as the new king soon proves his worth to god. When god comes to the king in a dream and asks what Solomon would have, his response is refreshingly noble: wisdom – a good head and heart for fair judgement over his people. The moral development of kings from Saul to David to Solomon continues to grow. Solomon’s wisdom is shown in his ability to build relationships between multiple border nations, to establish a temple for Israel’s religion and encourage their full conversion, thus further solidifying the tribes into a single nation of shared cultural customs, and of course, in the anecdote of the two women who appear before him with a baby, asking him to determine who is the baby’s true mother (1 Kings 3:16-28). Solomon’s reign, written about 400-years after it ends, is seen by those later priests as the climax of early Israeli history, and there is a clear sense of awe and euphoric nostalgia in the writing of it.
Solomon’s Politics: The wisdom of Solomon is meant to go undisputed. He asks god for this ability, and not only does he get it, but he is also rewarded (for his humility) with riches, power, health, etc. Certainly, Solomon is a brilliant leader and judge. He allies himself with the Egyptians and the Lebanese, in the first case through marriage and in the second through commerce. An unfortunate fact about Solomon’s reign is that he stretched the kingdom’s budget too far. When he could not pay for all the supplies he needed to build the temple and the king’s house, he resorted to using forced labor; or, in other words: slaves. (1 Kings 9:15; 1 Kings 9:20-21). This seems to be often overlooked in discussions of Solomon’s reign which, otherwise, is peaceful and admirable.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Suicide: In this part of the bible, we find one of the five (or six, if you count Samson) instances of suicide described in the bible. It’s interesting that in none of these cases is the suicide treated as sinful or evil; so, where does the idea of suicide-as-mortal-sin come from? Some argue that the commandment “thou shalt not kill” applies to killing one’s self. This might be true, but there doesn’t seem to be clear indication of such and the five (or six) biblical accounts of suicide do not really lend themselves to that interpretation, either.
David’s Continued Love: In II Samuel 21, David delivers Saul’s descendants to the Gibeonites to be killed, with the exception of Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son, whom he continues to protect and to keep in his favor. This demonstrates again David’s continued love for Jonathan, as well as the respect he keeps for the covenant they shared. Even later, when it is argued that Mephibosheth was biding his time (while Absalom and David were arguing) to return to the throne, David’s return to power sees Mephibosheth back in favor again, without question.
Rizpah: One story that I think is often overlooked in II Samuel is that of Rizpah, whose seven brothers are killed and hung up in public. Like Sophocles’ Antigone, Rizpah cannot bear to see the bodies desecrated and be left to rot without ritual. The custom of burial rites for the dead in this region is so close between the Greek myth and this Christian tale, it is striking. It also says much about David that he is moved by Rizpah’s actions and eventually orders that the bodies be buried, along with the bodies of their ancestors (Saul and Jonathan) in a proper ceremony and in a proper setting.
David’s Census: David institutes a census, which is for some reason frowned upon by god (Why? There seems to be no prior outlaw to this). The punishment for this census is one of three things: 7 years of famine; 3 months fleeing enemies; or 3 days of pestilence. David (wisely?) chooses the pestilence, which results in the death of 70,000 people. It is likely that the actions here are reversed. There was, perhaps, a serious pestilence at the time, which happened to take place after an unpopular census was taken (census being typically administered for the purposes of either a: raising taxes or b: organizing a military draft). So, post hoc ergo propter hoc – a later writer, no fan of censuses, might happily argue that the one was caused by the other.