Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.XXI.
(1) Then there was.—Read, and there was, there being no indication of time in the original. It is plain from 2Samuel 21:7 that the events here narrated occurred after David had come to know Mephibosheth; and if in 2Samuel 16:7 there is (as many suppose) an allusion to the execution of Saul’s sons, they must have happened before the rebellion of Absalom. There is no more definite clue to the time, and the expression “in the days of David” seems purposely indefinite. The narrative is omitted from the Book of Chronicles.
Three years.—A famine in Palestine was always a consequence of deficient winter rains, and was not very uncommon; but a famine enduring for three successive years was alarming enough to awaken attention and to suggest some especial cause.
Enquired of the Lord.—Literally, sought the face of the Lord. The phrase is a different one from that often used in Judges and Samuel, and agrees with other indications that this narrative may have been obtained by the compiler from some other records than those from which he drew the bulk of this book. David turned to the true Source for a knowledge of the meaning of this unusual affliction.
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) For his bloody house.—Better, for the blood-guilty house. Saul’s family and descendants are regarded, according to the universal ideas of the times, as sharers in his guilt. The story of the Gibeonites and of Joshua’s league with them is told in Joshua 9, but Saul’s attempt to destroy them is mentioned only here. It is plain, from what is said of them in 2Samuel 21:8, that they had never become incorporated with the Israelites by circumcision, but remained a distinct people. Saul’s sin consisted in the violation of the solemn oath, in the Lord’s name, by which the nation of Israel was bound to the Gibeonites. “His zeal” in that case was of the same ungodly character with many other acts of his reign, in which pride, arrogance, and self-will were cloaked under a zeal for God’s honour and His people’s welfare.
The Amorites.—More precisely, the Gibeonites were Hivites (Joshua 9:7); but they are called Amorites (=mountaineers) as a frequent general name for the old people of Palestine.
Two questions are often asked in connection with this narrative: (1) Why the punishment of Saul’s sin should have been so long delayed? and (2) why it should at last have fallen upon David and his people, who had no share in the commission of the sin? The answer to both questions is in the fact that Israel both sinned and was punished as a nation. Saul slew the Gibeonites, not simply as the son of Kish, but as the king of Israel, and therefore involved all Israel with him in the violation of the national oath; and hence, until the evil should be put away by the execution of the immediate offender or his representatives, all Israel must suffer. The lesson of the continuity of the nation’s life, and of its continued responsibility from age to age, was greatly enhanced by the delay. Besides this, there were so many other grievous sins for which Saul was to be punished, that it was hardly possible to bring out during his lifetime the special Divine displeasure at this one.
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?(3) Make the atonement.—This is the same technical word as is used throughout the Law in connection with the propitiatory sacrifices. It means literally, to cover up, and is here used in that literal sense. David asks what he can do to so cover up the sin of Saul as to remove it from the sight of those against whom it had been committed—the Gibeonites as the earthly sufferers from it, and God Himself as the one against whom he had chiefly offended. Then might God’s blessing again return to His people.
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.—Money compensations for sins of blood were extremely common among all ancient nations, but were expressly forbidden in the Law of Moses (Numbers 35:31), and in this respect the Gibeonites appear to have accepted the teaching of the law of Israel.
Kill any man in Israel.—Notwithstanding that the guilt of Saul’s sin, until it should be expiated, rested upon all Israel, the Gibeonites recognise that it had been committed by him, and do not seek that, apart from their connection with him, any Israelite should suffer on their account. David appreciates the fairness of their view of the matter, and promises beforehand to do whatever they shall require.
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) Let seven men of his sons.—The head of the house and his household were closely identified in all the ideas of antiquity. Saul being dead, his male descendants were considered as standing in his place, representing him, and responsible for his acts, just as is largely the case in legal affairs and matters of property at the present day. The number seven is, doubtless, fixed upon as being first, a considerable and sufficient number; and then, on account of its sacred associations, and as the representative of completeness.
We will hang them up.—The sons of Saul are only to be given up by David; their actual execution is to be by the Gibeonites, and the method is that of hanging or fastening to a stake, either by impaling or by crucifixion, the word being used for both methods of execution.
Unto the Lord—i.e., publicly. (Comp. a similar expression in Numbers 25:4.) The sin had been outrageous; its punishment must be conspicuous. The place of execution is fitly chosen in the home of Saul. It seems strange that he should be here spoken of as “the Lord’s chosen;” but this and the expression “unto the Lord” go together; what Saul had done he had done as the head of the theocracy, as God’s chosen ruler, and now his family must be punished in the presence of Him against whom he had offended—“before the Lord.” The idea of regarding the execution of these men as a propitiatory human sacrifice is utterly destitute of any shadow of support.
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) Took the two sons of Rizpah.—The suggestion that David took advantage of this opportunity to strengthen himself further against the house of Saul is utterly set aside by two considerations: (1) David could not lawfully refuse the demand of the Gibeonites, since the Law absolutely required that blood-guiltiness should be expiated by the blood of the offender (Numbers 35:33), which, in this case, became that of his representatives; and (2) David’s choice of victims was directly opposed to such a supposition. He spared, for Jonathan’s sake, the only descendants of Saul in the male line, who only could have advanced any claim to the throne, and took (1) the two sons of Rizpah, a concubine of Saul, with whom Abner had committed adultery (2Samuel 3:7), and (2) five sons of Saul’s eldest daughter Merab, who had been promised in marriage to David himself, and then given to another (1Samuel 18:17-19). The text has Michal instead of Merab; but this must be an error of the scribe, since it was Merab, not Michal, who was married to “Adriel the Meholathite” (1Samuel 18:19), and Michal was childless (2Samuel 6:23). The English phrase “brought up for” is taken from the Chaldee; the Hebrew, as noted in the margin, is bare to.
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) The beginning of barley harvest.—This was immediately after the Passover (Leviticus 23:10-11), and therefore about the middle of April. The rains of autumn began in October, so that Rizpah’s watch must have been about six months. She spread the sackcloth as a tent to form a rough shelter during the long watch. For water dropped read water poured, the word being used for melting, flowing, and hence for heavy rain. It was not until these rains began (which may probably have been somewhat earlier than usual) that the people were assured of the Divine forgiveness, and therefore the bodies of the executed were left unburied until then.
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) Took the bones of Saul.—Moved by the story of Rizpah’s tender care, and wishing to show that he cherished no enmity against the house of Saul, David buried honourably the remains of Saul and of his descendants. In 1Samuel 31:10 it is said that the Philistines fastened the body of Saul “to the wall of Beth-shan;” here, that the men of Jabesh-gilead took them secretly from the street. The two statements are quite consistent, for the exact place where the Philistines hung up to public view the body of the slain and defeated monarch was the broad space or square, just inside the gate, where the people were wont to gather; and it was from the same place that they were taken. Most MSS. of the LXX. add to the previous verse: “And they were taken down, and Dan the son of Joa, of the descendants of the giant, took them down.”
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) In Zelah.—According to Joshua 18:28 a town of Benjamin. It has not been identified, but was probably near Gibeah.
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.—This, like the preceding narrative, bears no note of time except that it occurred after some other wars with the Philistines; but this is only to say that it was after David ascended the throne. From the latter part of 2Samuel 21:17 it is plain that it must have been after David had become king of all Israel, and probably after he had become somewhat advanced in years. In 1Chronicles 20:4-8 much the same paragraph is placed immediately after the war with Ammon; but this seems to be a mere juxta-position rather than designed as a chronological sequence.
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.—The name is a strange one, and it is generally thought that some error has crept into the text, but none of the suggested emendations are free from difficulty. Perhaps the most probable is that in the Speaker’s Commentary, by which for Ishbi (the Hebrew margin) they halted is read, and benob, by a very slight change in one letter, becomes at Gob; then a clause is supplied, there was a man, so that the whole reads, “David waxed faint, and they halted at Gob. And there was a man which was of the sons,” &c.; 2Samuel 21:18 (as well as 2Samuel 21:19) seems to imply a previous battle in Gob.
Three hundred shekels.—About eight pounds; just half the weight of Goliath’s spear-head (1Samuel 17:7).
Girded with a new sword.—The word sword is not in the original, and its omission, where intended, is unusual. Either it should be girded with new armour, or else the word for new is intended to denote some otherwise unknown 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.—The original leaves it doubtful whether Abishai is the nominative to the verb, or whether it should be simply he, referring to David. 2Samuel 21:22 seems to imply that one at least of the sons of the giant fell by David’s own hand.
Sware unto him.—This was a solemn transaction, by which David should hereafter be restrained from personal exposure in battle. That he should be spoken of as “the light of Israel” implies that his government over all Israel had continued long enough already to make its immense benefits sensible.
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.—Comp. 2Samuel 21:19. The place is otherwise unknown. 1Chronicles 20:4 reads “Gezer,” and the LXX. substitutes “Gath.” (Comp. 2Samuel 21:20.) It is not at all remarkable that the names of many small places should be lost after the lapse of three thousand years, nor that the locality of the hamlet should be marked in the later chronicles by the better known neighbouring town of Gezer.
Sibbechai the Hushathite.—Comp. 1Chronicles 20:4. He is also mentioned in the list of heroes (1Chronicles 11:29); but in 2Samuel 23:27 the name is changed into “Mebunnai the Hushathite by a slight alteration in the letters of the original. He was captain of the eighth division of the army (1Chronicles 26:11). The giant whom he slew is called “Sippai” in the parallel place in Chronicles, and it is there said 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) Jaare-oregim.—The parallel place, 1Chronicles 20:5, reads simply “Jair.” It is generally supposed that “oregim(= weavers) has accidentally crept into the text from the line below, and “Jai” and “Jaare” are the same with a slight transposition of the letters. Another name for the same person must have been “Dodo,” if this Elhanan, as seems altogether probable, is the same with “Elhanan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem,” one of the thirty-seven heroes, in 2Samuel 23:24.
The brother of.—These words, not found in the Hebrew here, are taken from Chronicles, where also the name of the giant, “Lahmi,” is given. It is quite possible, however, that the word “Beth-lemite,” which is wanting in Chronicles, is a corruption of “Lahmi the brother of.” There is a curious Jewish tradition that this Elhanan was David himself, and this has been preserved in the paraphrase of the Chaldee, “and David the son of Jesse, the weaver of veils for the sanctuary, who was of Bethlehem, slew Goliath the Gittite.”
And when he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimea the brother of David slew him.(21) Jonathan the son of Shimeah.—Hence he was the nephew of David (1Chronicles 20:7), and was either the wily Jonadab mentioned in 2Samuel 13:3, or, more probably, his brother. David’s family connections seem to have constituted a clan of heroes.
These four were born to the giant in Gath, and fell by the hand of David, and by the hand of his servants.(22) Born to the giant.—They were all descendants of Rapha, but not necessarily all the sons of one man.