Monday, May 30, 2011

David and Saul's Sons

This is a follow-up to the most recent post on Generational Responsibility.

In 2 Samuel 21, the story is relayed of how David gave over seven of Saul’s sons to the Gibeonites to be killed by them. Was this a morally good act? Could David have misunderstood what he was to do? What of the guilt of Saul himself? Was it imputed directly to those of his house?

We must examine this biblical text in order to understand more. First, we know that the term “sons” here is being used to extended family (i.e. grandsons, nephews, etc.). We know this because of the comment of verse 7: “But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul.” The seven delivered included: the two sons of Rizpah (making them his sons), and the five sons of Merab[1] (making them Saul’s grandsons). All of these were delivered to the Gibeonites upon their request as revenge for Saul’s breaking of their long-standing peace treaty in killing their people.

Just as we cannot say David was mistaken in performing this act (because God answered David’s questioning of the famine with the evil done by Saul), so we cannot say God did not wish this to be done. The reason is because after these men were killed, God lifted the famine (v. 14). The lesson is that vows and vengeance belong to the Lord.

But what of the sons themselves? Were they innocent? It seems unlikely. While we are not told of their crimes in great detail, we do know they bore actual guilt. In fact the Bible records just this idea in verse 1. “It is for Saul, and his bloody house.” The punishment was not merely for Saul’s actions but for actions carried out by members of his household also. The narrative of these acts does not appear anywhere else in the biblical record. However, because of Deuteronomy 24:16, we know this account must be implicating members of Saul’s household in the fighting.

This would not have been unusual, as in ancient near east culture had both the kings and their sons fighting in raging battles (this is in fact how both Saul and his son Jonathan died). So the likely reconstruction is that Saul attacked the Gibeonites with the aid of his army, which included probably most of the males of Saul’s household as well. The army killed those Gibeonites despite the Israelite treaty in place. Years later, Israel was enduring an extended famine. David asked the Lord why it was in place, the Lord answered that it was Saul and his household leading the charge and killing the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites demanded retribution by executing some of Saul’s household, and David sent over some of the sons. The strongest likelihood is that David had known or been able to obtain information about which sons had been involved (again, probably all of them who were able-bodied [this eliminated Mephibosheth] and of age). They were killed, and the famine was abated.

We know God deals righteously even when executing judgment. There is no unfairness with God. This was clearly a punishment, but the ones being punished were guilty according to the biblical record.

                [1] There are two possible explanations for verse 8’s reading “Michal” even though Michal was said to have died childless in . A. Michal raised the sons of her sister Merab. B. This is a copyist error. In either case, these are children of Saul’s house.

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