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Sunday, September 30, 2007

2 Samuel 3 -- The Man of Shame

Today's post is an exercise in self-evaluation via an examination of someone else's shamelessness. The question we are asking ourselves is, "How far am I willing to follow someone when the course he is taking begins ro bother my conscience?" Fortunately, we can examine this shameless behavior from a safe distance of about 3000-2500 years. It gives us some space to think calmly and test our resolve before it will cost us something dear to stick our heads up and shout, "Wait ... a ... minute!"

The shameless individual is (I think) the narrator of 2 Samuel 3. We are catching him in the middle of his account of the war between the "house of Saul" and the "house of David." To summarize, David had just become king of Judah after the death of Saul and Jonathan at the hand of the Philistines. Abner, the commander of Saul's armies, had taken Saul's son, Ish-Bosheth (or Ishbaal) and made him king of Israel. War broke out between the two camps over who would be king of all "Israel." Most of chapter 2 is taken up with an account of the first battle in the war, and the focus of the account of this battle is the death of Asahel, youngest brother of Joab, commander of the armies of Judah, at the hands of Abner. This story prepares us for some of the events of chapter 3.

The narrator opens chapter 3 with a summary of the war's progress and a list of the sons born to David while he reigned in Hebron. Basically, though the war lasted "a long time," it was going well for David. Not only did he prosper militarily, his family was enlarged by the addition of several wives and sons. The rest of the chapter deals with a set of pivotal episodes in the war over the kingship. The main figures in this set of episodes are Ish-Bosheth, Abner, David, and Joab. Remember that pairing: Ish-Bosheth/Abner and David/Joab.

I took the title of this post from the name "Ish-Bosheth," which translates roughly as "man of the shameful thing." As has been pointed out many times, it is likely that the man's real name was "Ish-Baal." Over the course of time, names ending in "Baal" came to have a bad connotation to Jews. It reminded them of the Canaanite god, Baal, the worship of whom by their forefathers had so incensed the prophets and had become in some Israelite theology a primary cause of the political disasters suffered by the Israelite kingdoms in the 1st millenium BCE. So, his name was changed by the narrator or a later editor to reflect "right thinking" about the significance of "Baal" in a person's name. But of course, whether concocted by the narrator or a later editor, the moniker fits Ish-Baal. His abject weakness compared to Abner and David is shameful. If you think his situation is shameful, just wait.

The next part of the story deals with a conflict between Abner and Ish-Baal. The narrator informs us that in the course of the war Abner "strengthened his own position" in the house of Saul. We are not told how he accomplished this, but we are told that Ish-Baal accuses him of sleeping with one of Saul's concubines. If true, Abner would have been asserting a claim to the throne of Israel. (The political significance of taking possession of the (former) king's wives/concubines is stressed several times in the story of David.) Abner speaks as if he were incensed at this accusation, defends his loyalty to the "house of Saul," and swears that, since he has been rewarded with a false accusation, he will turn the kingdom of Israel over to David.

Interesting points in the story so far:
1. The narrator does not tell us plainly whether Abner was guilty.
2. Abner describes himself as a kingmaker. According to the narrator, that was his role for Ish-Baal. Now Abner describes himself in the same terms. He claims quite boldly that he will fulfill the promise God made to David that he would become king over all Israel.
3. Ish-Baal does nothing to stop his commander, because "he was afraid of him."

The next set of episodes involves Abner's negotiations with various parties to effect the transfer of the kingdom to David. He communicates with David, the elders of Israel, and the Benjamites. As part of the settlement, David insists on having his (former) wife and Saul's daughter, Michal, restored to him. The narrator informs us that David communicated this demand to Ish-Baal directly, who complied -- another indication of his shameful weakness. The negotations give the narrator the chance to show how Abner and the elders of Israel recognized that God's blessing had and would rest on David and on Israel with David as king. We are told that David and Abner made a covenant which apparently involved Abner joining David's staff and taking a high position in the military command and that David and Abner celebrated the covenant with a communal meal and then departed in peace.

What are we to think of Abner? First, he is a realist. His position was endangered by the growing weakness of the Saulide kingdom. Second, he is ambitious. By entering negotiations with David, he was giving himself a chance to hold on to power. He was negotiating from a position of weakness, but tried to hide that weakness behind rhetoric and the appealing offer of a peaceful transfer of power. Third, he really was powerful. His efforts to bring the Israelite tribes under David's rule succeeded.

Of course, being a Saulide, Abner himself cannot prosper. This has been the narrator's determined view of everyone associated with Saul. Abner is killed by Joab in retaliation for Asahel and perhaps to prevent Abner from muscling himself in front of Joab. We have already seen his exalted view of his own role in David's ascent to kingship. In addition, the narrator uses David's words of lament to tie Abner to Nabal. David asks, "Should Abner have died as the lawless die?" (NIV) "Lawless" is actually "nabal," the Hebrew word for "fool." It suits the narrator's purpose for this verse to have a double meaning: "Should Abner have died like Nabal?" The comparison intended by the narrator is not the manner of death (contra McKenzie in King David: A Biography) but the cause of death: a consequence of one's own actions, particularly actions opposing the ascent of David.

Now that the kingdom has been transferred to David, the narrator shifts his attention to the death of Abner. It is clearly all Joab's fault. He and the army return from a raid to find out that David has made a treaty with Abner and sent him away in peace. Joab objects that Abner only used the occasion to spy. He then summons Abner back to Jerusalem and, unknown to David, murders him in a gateway. When David finds out, he immediately claims total innocence of the deed and pronounces a curse on Joab's descendants. He forces Joab to join the rest of the people in public mourning. He fasts all day long during the funeral proceedings. The narrator assures us that the king's actions convinced the people that David had nothing to do with Abner's death. The chapter ends with a speech of David to his men, in which he praises Abner, confesses his inability to deal with Joab and Abishai, and appeals to God to bring judgment on them.

Many others have noted how unbelievable David's protestations are. I will only point out the following:
1. To ancient Israelites, calling curses down on the descendants of a criminal may have passed for justice. Too bad for them. In this case, it falls pitifully short. Forget that punishing a person's family for a crime they did not commit is wrong. David is the king, the supreme judge and commanding officer of Israel. What about dealing with the criminal!?!?
2. David's explanation for his failure to deal with Joab (and Abishai) seriously undermines the narrator's entire program. If David is speaking the truth, then he is a God-forsaken weakling. He can't (or won't) deal with Joab and Abishai. Let God deal with them, but don't get me involved. And he says this to his own men! What!! You mean they believe him, but won't back him up? Wow! Who holds the reins of power in Judah? And Abner thought he was a kingmaker! David is far more a "man of shame" than Ish-Baal.
3. But the weakness defense is unbelievable enough to leave most scholars, besides some conservative evangelicals and the like, convinced that we are dealing with propaganda. We should read the story as an attempted coverup. But it is transparently so. This leaves us with a question. Was the narrator aware of how obvious he makes the coverup? Is this parody or irony?

Taking the story as a parody of a coverup offers some comforts. First, it means that the narrator has a conscience. Second, it means that we don't have to make excuses for David. He really was as bad as he often seems to be. Third, it may fit the way David is handled in later chapters of 2 Samuel.

Unfortunately, I don't think we should read the story that way. I have two reasons for saying this. First, there is no serious indication of parody in the sections of the story that imply the narrator's antagonism against Saul. Second, had the narrator wanted to parody the coverup, he had plenty of opportunities to make literary allusions to other parts of the story that would drop us hints as to what he was doing. For example, the narrator could have let us in on Ish-Baal's explanations for his inaction when Abner decided to unmake him. He could have recast the interchanges between David and Joab to mirror more closely the interchanges between Ish-Baal and Abner. He did not, because that was not his intent. He really expects us to believe his version of the story. In fact, he throws down a challenge: "all the people were pleased with David's conduct in the Abner affair; they all knew David was innocent. What's wrong with you?" If you don't know where I'm coming from, go back and read my post "Discerning good from evil". In this passage, the narrator is taking a positively evil stance; this is an individual who has no shame. Are you willing to follow him?

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