2 Samuel 21
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.
Chap. 2 Samuel 21:1-11. A Three Years Famine for Saul’s massacre of the Gibeonites. The Execution of Saul’s sons

1. Then there was a famine] Render, And there was a famine. There is no adverb of time marking chronological connexion with the foregoing narrative. In Palestine a famine was the almost certain consequence of a failure of the winter rains, on which both cornfields and pasturage depend. See 1 Kings 18:2; Joel 1:8-20; for famine as the result of drought; and cp. Genesis 12:10; Genesis 26:1; Genesis 42:5; Ruth 1:1; 2 Kings 8:1-2.

in the days of David] This famine must have occurred after David became acquainted with Mephibosheth (ch. 2 Samuel 9:1 ff.), for it is expressly stated that he spared Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 21:7); and in all probability before Absalom’s rebellion, in the account of which we may trace one, if not two allusions to the execution of Saul’s sons (ch. 2 Samuel 16:7-8, 2 Samuel 19:28); but its date cannot be fixed more exactly, and the phrase in the days of David seems designedly indefinite.

For a discussion of some questions connected with the famine and the surrender of Saul’s sons for execution see Additional Note II., p. 234.

inquired of the Lord] Sought the face of Jehovah: a phrase not found elsewhere in Samuel, and perhaps indicating that this chapter was taken by the compiler from a different source. Cp. Psalm 24:6; Psalm 27:8. David sought to ascertain the cause of this judgment; for famine was one of the “four sore judgments” of God (Ezekiel 14:21; cp. 1 Kings 8:35-37).

his bloody house] His blood-guilty house: upon which rested the guilt of shedding innocent blood. Cp. Psalm 5:6; Ezekiel 22:2. Unexpiated murder “defiled the land,” and involved the nation in punishment. See Numbers 35:33-34; Deuteronomy 21:7-9. The Sept. text differs slightly, reading: “Upon Saul and upon his house is blood-guiltiness.”

the Gibeonites] On Gibeon see note on ch. 2 Samuel 2:12.

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.)
2. the Amorites] Amorites (= highlanders) is here and elsewhere used as a general designation for the ancient inhabitants of Palestine, particularly those who occupied the mountainous country. See note on 1 Samuel 7:14. The Gibeonites belonged to the tribe of the Hivites.

had sworn unto them] See Joshua 9:3 ff. The oath though obtained by fraud was acknowledged to be binding (Joshua 9:19-20), and its violation was a breach of the third commandment (Exodus 20:7).

in his zeal] Probably in a fit of zeal to carry out the Law by cleansing the land from the remnant of the heathen (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:2) as he cleansed it from the soothsayers (1 Samuel 28:3). There is no allusion to the deed elsewhere.

wherewith shall I make the atonement] The cognate substantive—also rendered satisfaction (Numbers 35:31) and ransom (Exodus 30:12)—means literally a covering. The “atonement” is a covering, which hides the offence from the eyes of the offended party, and withdraws the guilt from the gaze of an avenging God.

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?
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.
4. no silver nor gold] No money compensation could expiate Saul’s offence. Money-compensation for murder is allowed by the laws of most nations in a primitive stage, e.g. of the ancient Germans (Tac. Germ. 21); the Anglo-Saxons; and the Arabs of the present day. It was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law (Numbers 35:31-32), because a mere money fine is insufficient to enforce strict regard for life, and such a custom may easily be abused by the rich. See Mozley’s Lectures on the Old Testament, p. 207 ff.

neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel] Our cry for vengeance is against the house of Saul, and not against the nation at large.

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,
5. devised] This, and not the marginal alternative cut us off, is the right rendering.

in any of the coasts] In all the borders. Coast, from costa, a rib or side, originally meant any border or frontier-line, not the sea-line only; and then, like the Lat. fines, the territory enclosed by the border.

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.
6. seven men] A sacred number, for their execution was to be a solemn religious act of expiation.

we will hang them up] They were to be impaled or crucified, as a public exhibition of the punishment inflicted. In all probability they were put to death first. The practice corresponds to that of hanging a criminal’s body in chains on the scene of his crime, which was once common in England.

unto the Lord] For the punishment was demanded by divine justice. Cp. Numbers 25:4.

in Gibeah] The home of Saul was to be the scene of the punishment.

whom the Lord did choose] The exact title, the chosen of Jehovah, is nowhere else given to Saul, but is implied by 1 Samuel 10:24. That it should be thus used by his enemies is strange. Was it from a feeling that the fact of his divine election aggravated his guilt?

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.
7. the Lord’s oath] See 1 Samuel 18:3; 1 Samuel 20:12-17; 1 Samuel 20:42; 1 Samuel 23:18.

But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite:
8. the five sons of Michal … whom she brought up for Adriel] The Heb. text can only mean whom she bare to Adriel. But it was Merab, not Michal, who was married to Adriel (1 Samuel 18:19). Consequently we must either read Merab for Michal, or take the explanation given in the Targum and adopted by the E. V.: “the five sons of Merab, (whom Michal the daughter of Saul brought up), whom she bare to Adriel.”

the Meholathite] Of Abel-Meholah, a town in the Jordan valley near Beth-shan, famous as the birth-place of Elisha (1 Kings 19:16).

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.
9. in the first days] Barley harvest preceded wheat harvest, and began about the middle or end of April. Cp. Exodus 9:31-32; Ruth 1:22; Ruth 2:23.

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.
10. spread it] As a rough tent to shelter her while she watched the corpses. The usage of the word is decisive against understanding it to mean spread it under her for a bed, as is done by the Vulg. and most commentators.

dropped upon them] Was poured upon them (cp. Exodus 9:33): that is, until heavy rains shewed that the crime was expiated and the judgment of drought withdrawn. The bodies were left hanging, instead of being taken down on the day of execution (Deuteronomy 21:23), until assurance was given that the satisfaction had been accepted. If the rain did not fall until the usual season, Rizpah must have kept her devoted watch for six months, from April to October.

neither the birds … nor the beasts] To become the prey of bird and beast—the certain fate of an unburied corpse—was the depth of ignominy. Cp. 1 Samuel 17:44; 1 Samuel 17:46. “If an animal falls at night,” writes an Eastern traveller, “it is not attacked till daylight, unless by the jackals and hyænas; but if it be slaughtered after sunrise, though the human eye may scan the firmament for a vulture in vain, within five minutes a speck will appear overhead, and wheeling and circling in a rapid downward flight, a huge griffon will pounce on the carcase. In a few minutes a second and third will dart down; another and another follows—griffons, Egyptian vultures, eagles, kites, buzzards and ravens, till the air is darkened by the crowd. ‘Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.’ ” Tristram’s Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 169.

And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done.
11–14. Burial of the bones of Saul and his sons

11. The curious addition of the Sept. to this verse, “and they were unfastened, and Dan the son of Joash, who was of the descendants of the giant, took them down,” is almost certainly a corrupt rendering of 2 Samuel 21:15-16, placed here by mistake.

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:
12. David went] Touched by Rizpah’s maternal devotion, and wishing to shew that he had no personal enmity to the house of Saul.

the men of Jabesh-gilead] The citizens, lit. lords or possessors of Jabesh-Gilead; a term peculiar to the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel (Joshua 24:11; Jdg 9:2 ff; Jdg 20:5; 1 Samuel 23:11-12). For their bold rescue of the bodies see 1 Samuel 31:11-13. Cp. 2 Samuel 2:4.

the street] The bodies were hung on the wall (1 Samuel 31:10) in the square or open place just inside the gate, the public meeting-place of all the citizens. Cp. 2 Chronicles 32:6; Nehemiah 8:1; Nehemiah 8:3; Nehemiah 8:16.

Beth-shan] Now Beisân, four miles west of the Jordan in the Wady Jâlûd. See note on 1 Samuel 31:10.

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.
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.
14. Jonathan his son] The Sept. adds, “and the bones of them that were hanged.”

Zelah] Enumerated among the towns of Benjamin in Joshua 18:28, but not yet identified. Beit Jala near Bethlehem, which has been suggested, is not in the tribe of Benjamin.

God was intreated] Accepted the intreaty or intercession thus made on behalf of the land. Cp. ch. 2 Samuel 24:25; Genesis 25:21; 2 Chronicles 33:13.

Moreover the Philistines had yet war again with Israel; and David went down, and his servants with him, and fought against the Philistines: and David waxed faint.
15. had yet war again] “Again” refers to earlier wars, the account of which preceded this narrative in the document from which it was taken.

went down] From the high lands of Judah to the low country of Philistia—the Shephêlah or maritime plain.

15–22. Heroic exploits in the Philistine wars

This section is quite unconnected with the preceding narrative. It is perhaps a fragment from some “book of golden deeds” recording the exploits of David and his warriors. From such a chronicle may also be derived ch. 2 Samuel 23:8-39, possibly ch. 2 Samuel 5:17-25, and some other sections of the book.

2 Samuel 21:18-22 are also preserved in Chronicles, where they are placed immediately after the capture of Rabbah (1 Chronicles 20:4-8).

And Ishbibenob, which was of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of brass in weight, he being girded with a new sword, thought to have slain David.
16. Ishbi-benob] Perhaps = “dweller on a height,” a name given him because he lived in some inaccessible castle. But there are good reasons for suspecting that there is some corruption in the text, and that the giant’s real name has been lost.

of the sons of the giant] The word for sons is one specially used of the progeny of the giant races of Canaan (Numbers 13:22; Numbers 13:28; Joshua 15:14). Râphâh, or with the article ha-Râphâh, translated “the giant,” may be a quasi proper-name for the father of the four giants here mentioned, or, more probably, for the founder of the tribe of Rephaim. The Vulg. has Arapha, and hence comes Harapha, the name of the giant introduced in Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

three hundred shekels] About nine pounds: half the weight of Goliath’s spear head.

brass] See note on ch. 2 Samuel 8:8.

with a new sword] There is no substantive expressed in the Hebrew: the Vulg. supplies sword: others suit of armour: the Sept. reads a mace instead of the word new, and this suggests the probability that the original reading was some rare word, denoting a specially formidable kind of weapon.

But Abishai the son of Zeruiah succoured him, and smote the Philistine, and killed him. Then the men of David sware unto him, saying, Thou shalt go no more out with us to battle, that thou quench not the light of Israel.
17. and smote] Perhaps, and he (David) smote; as 2 Samuel 21:22 seems to imply that one of them fell by David’s own hand.

that thou quench not the light of Israel] Extinguishing the lamp is a natural metaphor for changing the light of prosperity into the darkness of calamity; and in particular David’s sovereignty was the lamp which God’s favour had lighted for the well-being of His people. An Arab in misfortune says, “Fate has put out my lamp.” Cp. Job 18:6; Proverbs 13:9. The expression light of Israel seems to indicate that David was already king of all Israel, and if so, the incident may have happened in one of the wars recorded in ch. 2 Samuel 5:17-25.

And it came to pass after this, that there was again a battle with the Philistines at Gob: then Sibbechai the Hushathite slew Saph, which was of the sons of the giant.
18. at Gob] A place mentioned only here and in 2 Samuel 21:19. The Sept. reads Gath, the parallel passage in Chron. Gezer; and we must suppose that Gob is either a corruption of the text, or some otherwise unknown place perhaps in the neighbourhood of Gezer, for which see note on ch. 2 Samuel 5:25.

Sibbechai the Hushathite] One of David’s heroes (1 Chronicles 11:29), general of the eighth division of the army (1 Chronicles 27:11). See note on ch. 2 Samuel 23:27.

Saph] Written Sippai in Chron., where it is added that the Philistines were subdued.

And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.
19. in Gob] The Sept. reads Rom (B) or Gob (A), and Chron. omits the name of the place altogether.

where Elhanan, &c.] Lit. and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite. The words the brother of are conjecturally inserted in the E. V. from 1 Chron. They are not found here in the Hebrew text, or in any of the ancient versions. The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 20:5 reads and Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite. Now (1) the reading Jair is certainly preferable to Jaare-oregim. Oregim, the word for weavers in the line below, was inserted by a careless scribe, and the Hebrew letters of Jair (יעיר) transposed so as to read Jaare (יערי). (2) The letters of the words Beth-lehemite, Goliath, which stand together in the Heb. text, so closely resemble those of Lahmi the brother of Goliath, that it is almost certain that one reading is an accidental corruption of the other. But which is the original it is not easy to decide. There is no difficulty in supposing that another giant, beside the one slain by David, bore the name of Goliath. Another Elhanan of Beth-lehem is mentioned in ch. 2 Samuel 23:24.

There is a curious Jewish tradition, preserved in the Targum and by Jerome (Quaest. Hebr. in libros Regum), identifying Elhanan with David. The Targum here paraphrases thus: “And David, the son of Jesse the weaver of veils for the sanctuary, who was of Beth-lehem, slew Goliath the Gittite.” But there is no evidence whatever in support of this idea.

the staff of whose spear, &c.] Cp. 1 Samuel 17:7; 1 Chronicles 11:23. The shaft of his spear, short, but extraordinarily stout and heavy, was popularly compared to the “beam” to which the web is fastened in a loom.

And there was yet a battle in Gath, where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number; and he also was born to the giant.
20. six fingers … six toes] Pliny mentions such a peculiarity (Hist. Nat. 11:43), and it is not unknown in modern times.

And when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimea the brother of David slew him.
21. defied Israel] Cp. 1 Samuel 17:10; 1 Samuel 17:25-26.

Jonathan] David’s nephew, brother of the astute Jonadab (ch. 2 Samuel 13:3).

These four were born to the giant in Gath, and fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants.
22. were born to the giant] Were descendants of Rapha, or, the giant: not necessarily all four sons of one man. See note on 2 Samuel 21:16.

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