July 17 – July 24, 2020

Friday, July 17

2 Samuel 15: Absalom, so easily forgiven by a vacillating father, is now determined to replace that father. He lays the groundwork carefully by befriending those already dissatisfied with the current political arrangements. As the son expected, David does nothing about it.

In due course it is too late, for Absalom has garnered considerable support throughout the realm and developed a revolutionary network. If it is true—as the woman from Tekoa testified earlier—that David “knows everything in the land,” the king’s failure to act is truly astonishing.

Eventually, Absalom makes his move against his father. Indeed, he even secures David’s blessing to travel to Hebron (the earlier capital), there to consolidate his power and move directly to assume command of the kingdom.

After he describes the origins of Absalom’s rebellion, the author’s attention turns more directly to David’s flight from Jerusalem. This king, traveling eastward across the Jordan and up the Mount of Olives, rides a donkey. Betrayed to the enemy by one of his inner circle, repudiated by his people and mocked by a scoundrel, David has ever seemed to Christian readers a type and foreshadowing of Jesus. In making this association, they have been inspired by the prophet Zechariah, who wrote of the coming Messiah, “ Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! / Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! / Behold, your King is coming to you; / He is just and having salvation, / Lowly and riding on a donkey, / A colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).

The imagery of Zechariah is taken from the description of David’s flight in the present chapter. The king leaves in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge. He portrays the outlines of a “suffering anointed one.”

Even in the present description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving “a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him.” Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.

Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet to come, Zechariah prophesied the messianic entry of Jesus into Zion. In the Gospel story, the Savior arrives by the very path David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, Jesus comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.

Saturday, July 18

Second Samuel 16: This chapter tells of David’s second sojourn in the wilderness; as he earlier fled to the southern desert to escape Saul, so now he flees to the eastward wilderness to escape the forces of Absalom. This move away from the capital is both strategic (because the king could be trapped inside Jerusalem) and humane (because many citizens might perish, if Jerusalem were besieged).

This resolution is typical of the narrative as a whole, in which political decisions are made on the basis of plain political calculation. Nonetheless, this is more than a political narrative; it is the story of the Lord’s fidelity of His promise to David. It is a story about God’s providential guidance of history, a guidance which makes use of fallible human decisions. In this story, God’s power is perfected in man’s infirmity.

Thus, Hushai, who will be instrumental in thwarting the traitor Ahitophel, appears on the scene immediately after David’s desperate prayer: “O Lord, I pray, turn the counsel of Ahitophel into foolishness!” (15:31)

Instead of permitting Hushai to travel with him, David sends him back to Jerusalem to act as a counteragent against the conspiracy. That is to say, God’s help is invoked, but the prayer is answered in a way that invites a human political decision. This is a story of both providence and politics.

The same comment is warranted with respect to the priests who want to flee with David. He makes them stay in the city with the Ark of the Covenant. This decision is based on political calculations—it was a sign to everyone that David expected to return—but it also provided the king with extra eyes and ears in the city. That is to say, the political decision becomes part of the providential plan.

Given David’s earlier protection by the Philistines (when he was pursued by Saul), it is ironical that once again he relies on the support of Philistine mercenaries when he flees from Absalom (15:18).

The chapter begins with David’s meeting with Ziba, to which we made reference earlier. David takes Ziba’s testimony against Mephibosheth at face value, but he will be obliged to reconsider the matter later (19:24-30).

In the encounter with Shimei (verses 5-14) we understand how much Saul’s relatives—even so many years after David’s accession to the throne—resent the downfall of the earlier king. David, in the words of the Prophet Zechariah, comes in meekness, sitting on the foal of an ass.

David’s nephew, Abishai, wants to cut off Shimei’s head—the sort of response we have come to expect of Abishai (First Samuel 26:6; Second Samuel 2:24; 10:10). Just as David, during his earlier exile, forbade Abishai from using violence on Saul, so here, in his second exile, he prohibits Abishai from dealing violently with Shimei.

Sunday, July 19

Second Samuel 17: Since Absalom’s revolt took shape at Hebron in chapter 15, the narrative has moved rapidly. The scene changed immediately to Jerusalem, where David, informed of the rebellion, took stock of his scant military resources in the city. This inventory prompted the king’s decision to flee. From that point on, David became the narrator’s point of attention. Absalom was mentioned only within the dialogues of the characters until David fled (15:14,3134). After David’s flight, Absalom’s arrival in the city was barely noted—“And Absalom came into Jerusalem” (15:37)—because the narrator wanted to maintain the theme of David’s flight.

In 16:13 the narrator turned his attention to what was happening (“Meanwhile”) in Jerusalem while David fled. First, there was Absalom’s public assumption of his father’s harem. This bold step, taken on the counsel of Ahitophel, symbolically testified to Absalom’s seizure of the throne. It was certainly a point-of-no-return in the course of the revolution. It also had the effect, moreover, of giving David and his party an extended time to get further away from Jerusalem.

As we move into chapter 17, Ahitophel, now conscious that this delay is not helping the revolution, offers to pursue David while he may still be within striking range of a surprise attack (verses 1-4).

At this point Hushai speaks up. This is the truly decisive moment in the whole story. David’s determination to keep Hushai at Jerusalem—to serve as a spy while posing as the king’s adversary—leads directly to the story’s most important factual development: Absalom’s decision to strengthen his position in the capital before pursuing David. This decision, taken on the counsel of Hushai and directly against the advice of Ahitophel, permits David and his company to escape. Humanly speaking, this counsel of Hushai is what determines the providential outcome favorable to David, because “the Lord had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahitophel, to the intent that the Lord might bring disaster on Absalom” (verse 14).

The next episode, involving two pro-David spies employed by Hushai (verses 15-21), further demonstrates the Lord’s “intent” against Absalom. At their warning, David crosses the Jordan during the night (verse 22).

Leaving David, the narrator turns his attention once again to Jerusalem. Here, it does not take long for the worldly-wise Ahitophel to size up the situation and realize that he has backed a loser. He removes himself from the coming disaster by taking his own life.

Meanwhile, Absalom, apparently informed about the two spies, senses the need to hurry. He marches his army across the Jordan in pursuit of David, whom he could have overtaken the previous day if only he had followed the advice of Ahitophel.

Monday, July 20

Second Samuel 18: After his flight to the other side of the Jordan, it appears that David’s little army receives increasing support from new volunteers, as word of the rebellion spreads. By the time Absalom crosses the Jordan, a huge opposition has gathered to support David, a force large enough to be broken into three contingents.

We know of Absalom’s love of military display (15:1), but in the course of his career he has shown no sign of military ability. Consequently, he marches his forces straight into the trap set for him. The few tactical details mentioned in the story suggest that Absalom is hit from both flanks, as he advances on what he believes to be David’s entire army. The double flanking tactic used against him is all the more effective because it is deployed in a wooded area, which provides concealment for David’s forces. The result is a complete rout of the revolutionary army.

David, prior to the battle, is so confident of victory that he gives instructions about how Absalom is to be treated, once he is captured. Even now, he is concerned about the safety of his rebellious son.

The Bible’s dramatic description of Absalom’s fate would be sufficiently memorable by itself, but it has been rendered even more unforgettable through its representation in the works of such artists as Francesco di Stefano, William Brassey, Georges Rochegrosse, and Gustave Dore. Absalom’s luxuriant hair, already established in the story as a symbol of the young man’s unbounded self-absorption, now becomes the instrument of his humiliating defeat. His very “elevation” is his downfall.

Suspended by his hair from the overhanging limb of a terebinth tree, helpless Absalom is discovered by soldiers under Joab’s command, and Joab, in contravention of David’s order, executes the rebel, putting three spears into his chest. The reader senses in Joab’s literal “overkill” his response to a great frustration. He has strenuously worked to keep Absalom in the royal favor, and to what avail? Absalom, who burned Joab’s fields, certainly showed no gratitude. And now the young man has thrown the whole country into civil war. As far as Joab is concerned, enough is enough. He has no intention of honoring David’s plea for gentle treatment for his rebellious son.

The fast-paced narrative of Absalom’s death is followed by a very slow account of how the news of it comes to David. The pace of the story reflects the reluctance everyone in his army feels about sharing the news with the king. (The reader already knows, after all, how David reacts to bad news and how dangerous it was to be the bearer of such news!) When he does learn of it, David’s lament for the death of Absalom is even more poignant than his dirge about the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

Tuesday, July 21

Second Samuel 19: Six parts comprise this chapter: David’s conversation with Joab, his return trip to Jerusalem, his mercy to Shimei, his encounter with Mephibosheth, his meeting with Barzillai, and a quarrel between the citizens of Judah and the other Israelites.

In the first part (18:33—19:8), Joab objects to David’s continued public mourning over the death of Absalom. Not only is this lamentation excessive and unseemly, in Joab’s view, but it also demoralizes David’s supporters, who recently risked their own lives and fortunes by coming to the king’s assistance during the rebellion. Joab, the no-nonsense general who actually took Absalom’s life, accuses David of loving his enemies more than his friends.

Joab’s words yank David’s attention back to the present moment. David must put a stop to the mourning; this is a new day, and there are things to be done in order to restore order and settle the fortunes of the realm. Within just two verses (5 & 6), Joab uses the word “today” five times.

If one thing has been made clear about David in the immediately preceding chapters, it is his vulnerability. Joab, in speaking to the king so strongly and frankly here, is confident that David is aware of this vulnerability. Humanly speaking, David owes the maintenance of his throne to Joab. He is unable to gainsay the stern counsel of his chief general.

Joab’s private exhortation to the king leads to the second part of the chapter, David’s return to the capital to secure the realm and restore order. Along the way, he has time to think about Joab, the man who dared to ignore his order that no harm should come to Absalom. He resolves to replace Joab as chief general.

Exhausted from the events of the past several days, David is in no mood to seek revenge on Shimei—at least not “today” (four times within verses 20-22). This resolve does not include the future, however, and Solomon will be released from any obligation to show continued mercy to Shimei (cf. First Kings 2:8-9,36-46).

Nor does David feel confident, just now, of settling the old business between Ziba and Mephibosheth. Unable to adjudicate their conflicting claims, he determines on a compromise.

David is in the mood, however, to reward his friends, especially Barzillai, whose assistance was invaluable during the recent conflict. The story in verses 31-39 served, in ancient times, to explain the prominence of Barzillai’s family at the royal court.

The final part of the chapter (verses 40-43) describes a rivalry of loyalty to David. This episode indicates a continued dissension between north and south, a dissension that will break out presently in the rebellion of Sheba.

Wednesday, July 22

Second Samuel 20: Absalom’s revolt is barely suppressed before another is started by a Benjaminite named Sheba. This rebellion provides the context for several dialogues, through which the drama of the chapter is advanced:

First, there are the commands given to Amasa, the new military leader, and to Abishai, the brother of Joab. There appears to be some breakdown in communication. Amasa, summoned to meet with David, charges off to pursue Sheba at once. David, who seems to panic, not certain where Amasa has gone, dispatches Abishai to go after Sheba. Meanwhile, the reader has no idea where Joab is. Probably the others in the story did not know either.

Second, when David’s two forces are joined at Gibeon, the displaced Joab greets Amasa and treacherously murders him, very much as he earlier had Abner. De facto, David signed the death warrants of both Abner and Amasa by favoring them over Joab.

Amasa’s men, now deprived of their leader, are persuaded to join the other group, led by Joab and Abishai, in pursuit of Sheba.

Third, there is the conversation—or negotiation, perhaps—between Joab and the “wise woman” of Abel Beth Maachah, who speak to one another over the wall of the city. Joab, who is quite prepared to besiege the city for as long as it takes, is questioned by this woman with respect to his intent. When he assures her that he would much prefer not to destroy the city, the lady offers to toss Sheba’s head over the wall. With this guarantee from Joab, she then persuades the town elders to comply. Once he has Sheba’s head in hand, Joab honors his part of the commitment and retires his army back south to Judah.

The description of this final conversation puts the reader in mind of Joab’s earlier “wise woman” from Tekoa. These anonymous women are described in exactly the same way—“wise woman”—and both serve to avert the threat of further vengeance. As the first woman helped Joab resolve the problem between David and Absalom, the second assists him to resolve the problem of the siege. Both, that is to say, are women of wise counsel. Both women want to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The first exhorted David, “do not permit the avenger of blood to destroy anymore, lest they destroy my son” (14:11), and the second tells Joab, “You seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel” (20:19).

The chapter closes with the adjustment of David’s staff after the two recent revolutions. Nothing is said, for now, about David’s personal feelings with respect to the treacherous Joab, who has a good deal of blood on his hands and has given the king every reason to distrust him.

A subjective quest for emotional fulfillment subverts Christian worship, by focusing on how worship makes a person feel, and by encouraging worship schemes that arise from individual self-expression rather than the lived history of the people of God down through the ages. “Man fully alive” is at the heart of that most baneful of cultural deviations, the circus known as “the contemporary worship service.”

Thursday, July 23

Second Samuel 21: There are two stories in the present chapter: David and the Gibeonites and the Philistine Giants.

Reacting to a persistent shortfall in the annual harvest, David makes an oracular inquiry respecting its cause. He learns that Israel is receiving divine punishment for Saul’s earlier massacre of the Gibeonites. This is the first and only time the reader learns of this crime of Saul. Israel has not yet addressed the crime—a violation of an ancient pact with the Canaanite city of Gibeah (cf. Joshua 9:15)—and now the nation’s second king must do so.

The reader observes in this story a certain flatness and simplicity. We perceive in David’s decision none of that inner conflict and psychological complexity the book as a whole would prompt. The king, as portrayed here, is completely unemotional and matter of fact, as though the decision to slaughter these descendants of Saul involves no inner turmoil. With respect to David, the episode is recorded more as a chronicle than as a dramatic story. Quite coldly, the king hands seven of Saul’s descendants over to the Gibeonites to be the brutally executed for the crime of their forebear.

This killing of Saul’s descendants is an execution. If the Gibeonites understood it as a substitutionary sacrifice—as seems to be the case—it is quite out of character with the sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic ritual.

For all that, the Christian reader is perplexed by an episode so gory; its ethical quality falls far short, not only of the standards of the Gospel, but also of the usual moral expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures. That is to say, this is not an edifying story, nor does this archaic account add luster to the Christian reader’s appreciation of David.

The neutral, unemotional quality of the account changes, nonetheless, when the narrator tells of Rizpah’s solicitous care for the cadavers of Saul’s offspring. This loving solicitude earns her the respect of David. Indeed, Rizpah is the only person in the story who elicits sympathy and respect.

David, in response to the actions of Rizpah, gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, along with the bones of these seven victims, and buries them in the family plot in the territory of Benjamin.

The descriptions of the Philistine giants and their armor are reminiscent of the story of Goliath. These oversized Europeans made a significant impression on the Israelite warriors who faced them in conflict. Since the present chapter ascribes the slaying of Goliath the Gittite to Elhanan, one of David’s warriors, it seems to contradict the story in First Samuel 17. Notwithstanding several explanations advanced over the years, this ascription remains one of the unresolved dilemmas in biblical studies.

Friday, July 24

Mark 10:17-31: Jesus here tells the parable of camel and the eye of the needle in response to Peter’s bewilderment of what just transpired with the rich man. As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?

Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate.

On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has some affinity to a thread, whereas camel obviously does not. This explanation keeps Jesus for mixing metaphors. This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is rather clever, even ingenious, but it is also too late to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear in the first thousand years of Christian history!

What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 27). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.

This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.

Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 28) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.

Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).

Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse 29-30). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.