2 Samuel 21:1–22 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
“The Gibeonites Avenged”
Finally, in chapters 21–24, we have the epilogue or appendix to this "Samuel" book. The events in these chapters are not chronological. Each chapter's account emphasizes the theological message of the book and the major theological points the writer wanted his readers to learn and appreciate. They also seem to focus on the divine and human sides of leadership. Each gathers up a few of the lessons that David learned through his forty-year reign as king.
The first is the story of the Gibeonites, which teaches that the past must be reckoned with. While the Israelites had made a covenant with the Gibeonites four centuries before the days of David, it's doubtful that King Saul had forgotten this covenant. More likely he convinced himself it was too “old” to have a binding force any longer. How wrong he was! His actions with regard to the Gibeonites brought a famine upon the land of Israel, some time after he died. It fell upon David to deal with Saul's breaking of that covenant by making things right.
This story sounds strange to our Western ears. We wonder how and why it was necessary to kill seven descendants of Saul for something done years earlier, having to do with a covenant that was 400 years old. We ought to be puzzled that the mother of two of those executed would make the effort to protect the corpses of her sons, and that David would be prompted to give those bones a proper burial, accompanied by the bones of Saul and his son. Stranger still is finding that Goliath, with whom David fought at the outset of his military career, had a number of siblings who were all giants as well.
If there are things in our past that can still be corrected, we have a responsibility before God to go back and set them straight. Many a man or woman, boy or girl, must have learned that money that he or she stole or borrowed before becoming a Christian weighs heavily upon his or her conscience. The money must be collected and paid back because God desires truth in our inward parts. He's not content with mere outward formalities; he wants one's whole life to be made right. In today's story of the Gibeonites, David went back and corrected something that happened under King Saul. As heir to Saul's throne, David had to get something set straight.
These two strange stories were placed together in chapter 21, recorded and preserved under divine inspiration and supervision. Let's bear in mind that these stories come at the conclusion or climax of 1 and 2 Samuel. The author has been building up to this point in the text, so the message must be important for all of us. Let's read these two stories carefully to learn what God is telling us.
King Saul’s Broken Treaty with the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1–6)
In this first passage of chapter 21, the author reminds the reader that breaking covenants results in God withdrawing the blessing of fertility. David had broken the Mosaic Covenant and so experienced God's discipline; violating God's revealed will always has this effect. When David righted King Saul's wrong, the land again became blessed. David was usually faithful to the Mosaic Covenant, and, therefore, was blessed more than he was cursed. This section stresses the importance of obedience.
Extensive rainfall in Israel typically occurs between November and March, with a long dry summer. Fall rains were referred to as the "early or former rain"; spring rains were referred to as the "latter rain." The Israelites were used to erratic rainfall, often involving a year or two of drought. But when the crops failed three years in a row, the people were desperate.
The author makes no effort to give us a precise time frame for these events. We don't know when in David's life this famine occurred. References elsewhere in 2 Samuel enable us to date this incident as being early in David's reign. God probably sent judgment on Israel for Saul's action soon after his death. His concubine watched over the bodies of her slain sons until the famine ended. If this took place later in David's reign, she'd have been very old, which is possible but unlikely. Also, David buried the bodies of Saul and Jonathan at that time, hardly years later. And the fact that David didn't execute Mephibosheth suggests that this son of Jonathan had then come under David's protection. That took place after David moved his capital to Jerusalem. After the Ammonite wars began, David might not have had time for what the author describes herein. Consequently a date within 996–993 BC for this famine seems reasonable.
Characteristically, David sought the Lord about the famine, praying for Yahweh's guidance, as revealed in v. 1.
During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death” (2 Sam. 21:1).
God spoke to David, either through his own prophetic gift, through his court prophet (Gad or Nathan), or through the Urim and Thummim cast by the high priest. In any case, the word of the Lord was clear concerning the cause of the drought (v. 1b).
As we start our text, some 400 years or so have passed since the leaders of Israel made their covenant with the Gibeonites. We're tempted to write this covenant off as ancient history, but all of a sudden we find the Gibeonites appearing in our text. Israel had been suffering from a three-year-long famine. So David inquired of the Lord to learn why Yahweh had sent this famine. God answered that it was because of Saul's sin against the Gibeonites. Out of a misguided sense of loyalty to the children of Israel and Judah, Saul and his house commenced a program of genocide against the Gibeonites, systematically eliminating them. We aren't told elsewhere of the incident in which Saul, "in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them" (v. 2b).
Verse 5 indicates that this was a deliberate plan to exterminate that entire people group. If Saul had planned to exterminate the Gibeonites, he could have easily carried out that mission from his home at Gibeah. We don't know how far Saul got with this evil scheme nor what stopped him from completing it. Hundreds of Gibeonites had been killed despite promised protection under the ancient treaty. Because of this broken covenant, God had withheld the rain. He expected Israel to take seriously what they'd pledged.
Sometimes natural catastrophes such as famines resulted from Israel's sins. There's no mention elsewhere in Samuel that Saul had broken the Israelites' treaty with the Gibeonites (cf. Joshua 9:3–27). Saul evidently refused to acknowledge Israel's treaty with them and put some of them to death.
Gibeon was a great city, about five miles northwest of Jerusalem; its warriors were among the best. We would have expected them to put up a fight, but these people chose to take a different approach. These Gibeonites believed that God had given the land of Canaan to Israel. They knew they had no chance if they waged war against Israel. In vv. 2–3, David sought both to satisfy the Gibeonites and to "make up for" the wrong done to them. He called on the Gibeonites, asking them what he should do to make this matter right (v.4). They responded in a very different way than we'd expect, making it clear that it wasn't money they wanted. Neither was it in their power, as a subject people, to put Jews to death.
David asked the Gibeonites what they wanted, assuring them that he'd grant their petition. They told David that since Saul destroyed some of them and proposed to kill them all, they'd find justice served if only seven of Saul's “sons” were handed over to them for execution. The form of execution isn't specified. They'd likely have hung Saul's sons “exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul — the Lord’s chosen one” (v. 6). Hanging was the punishment used for very serious crimes (see Genesis 40:19). Their request seems to have been a like-kind retribution, according to the Torah (Exodus 21:23; Leviticus 24:21; Deuteronomy 19:21).
David’s Justice and Mercy (vv. 7–14)
Yahweh's judgment wouldn't come immediately but it would come. David showed himself to be a true son of Yahweh by keeping his covenant with Jonathan and by sparing Mephibosheth (1 Sam. 18:3; 20:8, 16). However, he followed God's law and executed seven of Saul's descendant sons, including another Mephibosheth and five sons of "Merab" (v. 8), another of Saul's daughters, often called "Michal." David could justly slay Saul's seven sons if they'd had a part in the execution of the Gibeonites, which seems to have been the case (v. 1). The execution took place in Gibeah, Saul's former home and capital, which was on a hill of Benjamin (v. 9). The barley harvest began in late March or early April when the Passover feast took place. Since Passover memorialized the Israelites' liberation from Egypt's oppression, this was an appropriate time for this event. By getting things right with the Gibeonites, David brought Israel out from under God's oppression that Saul's sin had caused.
The next story about Rizpah is very strange, even stranger than the one concerning the hanging of Saul's “sons.” This story is a continuation and completion of vv. 1–9. It's the execution of Saul's sons that precipitates Rizpah's actions, then David's. Not until after the burial of Saul and his sons did the famine end (v. 14). We must therefore attempt to understand this story in the context of what we've just read and of the chapter as a whole.
Enter Rizpah, a concubine of Saul, the mother of two of the seven delivered for execution by the Gibeonites. Apparently these sons' bodies weren't removed, as expected. This text suggests that Rizpah wasn't acting normally. But what mother would allow birds to devour the carcasses of her sons? Since the bodies of Saul's sons were left unburied, this mother determined to watch over them, stationing herself nearby so she could drive off the birds and devouring beasts. She held a vigil over the bodies until the late rains came. The coming of rain showed that the famine was over, justice was satisfied, and Israel was delivered. David got word of this. By Rizpah's actions he was prompted to take action. These were seven of Saul's sons who weren't yet given a proper burial. David was reminded that Saul and his three sons hadn't been properly buried either.
The author didn't mention how much time elapsed between the execution of Saul's descendants and the coming of rain. Leaving corpses without burial, to be consumed by birds of prey and wild beasts, was regarded as the greatest insult that could befall the dead. David's action ended the famine, and God again blessed Israel with rain and fertility. David also proceeded to give Saul and Jonathan honorable burials (v. 14).
Because Saul had been unfaithful to Israel's covenant with the Gibeonites, God punished the nation with famine (lack of fertility). When David, who followed Mosaic Law, righted this wrong, God restored fertility to the land. He also reduced Saul's line from one of the most powerful-looking men in Israel, Saul, to one of the weakest-looking, Mephibosheth. David's faithfulness to his covenant with Jonathan shows very well that he was a hearty covenant-keeping king like Yahweh. Sadly on the other hand, Saul broke Israel's covenant with the Gibeonites.
Thankfully, God answers prayers. In this case, the author underscores the fact that God removed the famine because he took heed of his people's prayers and because the sin that hindered their prayers had been atoned for. Let's not miss the point that our author stresses: Sin hinders our prayers, but when that sin has been dealt with, God then heeds our prayers. Never underestimate the importance of prayer!
Four Men Kill Giants (vv. 15–22)
Even a great man of God grows old. As his years went on, David became unable to fight as he once did. In this battle against the Philistines, David's life was endangered when he became exhausted in battle against a descendant of Goliath (v. 15). When David's strength failed him, God protected him through the strength of others (v. 17). God will allow us to be in places where we need the strength of others. In his advanced age, it was time for David to retire from the field of battle. His season as a warrior had passed.
The two lists of David's mighty men (vv. 15–22 and 23:8–39) show God's remarkable blessing of David for his submission to Yahweh, Israel's Commander-in-Chief. David's small army accomplished amazing feats because God was with David. His divine election, coupled with his customary god-ward trust and obedience, resulted in many forms of fertility (military, political, and influential). This record of four giant killers emphasizes the supernatural character of the victories David was able to enjoy because God fought for him by using various men in his army.
The four heroic testimonies presented in the eight closing verses may describe what happened when David was fighting the Philistines early in his reign (cf. 5:18–25), probably right after he became king of all Israel in 1004 BC. However, it's really impossible to tell how the incidents recorded here might relate to others mentioned in this book.
All four Philistine "giants" cited in vv. 16, 18, 20, and 22 appear to have been the father or descendant of four huge Philistine warriors mentioned herein. However, the Hebrew word translated "giant" (raphah) is a collective term for the Rephaim, which were the mighty warriors who originally inhabited the Canaanite coastal plain. They were the ones who terrified ten of the twelve spies that Joshua sent out from Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13:31–33).
David would have been more valuable to the Israelites as a living king than as an aged, decapitated warrior. The image of "the lamp of Israel" (v. 17) refers to David, the source of Israel's human guidance, prosperity, and wellbeing — its leading light. It perhaps draws on the lampstand in the tabernacle (Exod. 27:20–21). The symbol of a lamp burning in a tent or house represented a family having continued prosperity. As God was a light to his people, so was he a source of life for his king. Similarly, today, Jesus is the light of the world, and we Christians are to let our light shine before men. When an Israelite man died, his lamp was extinguished (Job 18:6; Proverb 13:9); David's death would be tantamount to the extinction of the community's life. The figure of the lamp came to symbolize the Davidic dynasty as maintained by Yahweh.
The "four" descendants of Rapha (v. 22) were "Ishbi-Benob" (v. 16), "Saph" (v. 18), "Goliath's brother (v. 19), and the unnamed "man of great stature" (v. 20). It's possible that Goliath had four brothers. The point of this brief section is that God blessed David with military victories far beyond anyone's normal expectations because he was God's faithful, anointed servant. Yahweh brought blessing through him to Israel, militarily and agriculturally. This chapter's first incident illustrates how breaking covenants reduces fertility (vv. 1–14), while this second account (vv. 15–22) shows that God's favor results in supernatural victories. If there's one thing chapter 21 reveals, it's the fact that God judges nations.
Intro Video: “The Second Book of Samuel”
† Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.
- Q. 1 Saul decimated the Gibeonites "in his zeal" but David spared them due to an oath "before the Lord." What does this say about the basic differences between both men?
- Q. 2 Would it please God to see Saul's descendants executed? Why or why not?