Notes on 2 Sam. 4

In which we resume our passage through First and Second Samuel with a diverse and skeptical group of readers.

The Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA continues to make its way slowly through Second Samuel. I continue to take notes for the group, but I’ve been delinquent in posting them here. The last set of notes published here was on Chapter 3, in which after the death of Saul his general Abner sets up his son Ishbaal, aka Ishbosheth, as a puppet king and a war ensues between the House of Saul and the House of David.

In chapter 4 (text at the jump), Ishbosheth (no longer given even his modified name, but referred to merely as “the son of Saul”) is shaken, and “all Israel” dismayed, to hear of the death of Abner.

It’s not entirely clear why Ishbosheth should be upset, since Abner had more or less openly sold him out to David. Perhaps if Ishbosheth had the makings of a king rather than a figurehead, he could have used Joab’s murder of Abner and the resulting “dismay” among the Israelites to split the pro-David coalition, arguing to the elders of Israel that if Abner wasn’t safe going away from David’s court, they wouldn’t be safe with David as king.

Ishbosheth has under him two brothers, Baanah and Rechab, brothers who are Beerothite gerim (resident aliens) dwelling with Benjamin (Saul’s tribe). They are described as commanders of raiding parties.

Raiding whom, we wondered? Amalek or Moab or the Philistines, or raiding Judah? We asked the same question about Joab’s raids. Was this skirmishing against national enemies, or the sort of border reiving that brought misery to the Scots Marches for centuries?

Baanah and Rechab murder Ishbosheth in bed, and bring his head to David, expecting reward. (The text is obscure about how the killers got access to the king while he was asleep; they seem to have entered with, or posed as, wheat merchants; Ishbosheth seems to be living on his ancestral property rather than in any sort of palace.)

David instead is angry, and orders them killed and their bodies mutilated. (The rabbis note that mutilation is against the law, but the king has emergency powers.) Before giving the order, David makes a speech linking his treatment of them to his treatment of the Amalekite ger who either finished Saul off at his request or merely stripped the corpse and brought the crown and arm-ring to David; David here says that he merely came expecting reward for good news, which is inconsistent with what he is reported as having said when he gave the order to kill the Amalekite.

Be that as it may, David repudiates the murder in the most forceful possible way, as he (less forcefully) repudiated the murder of Abner. He orders the head of Ishbosheth buried in the tomb of Abner, rather than in the tomb of his father Saul; no explanation is given. He orders the hands and feet of the murderers displayed by the pool of Hebron.

In the midst of this narrative, we are told about Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (presumably originally Mephibaal), crippled at the age of five when his nurse, fleeing after news came of the death in battle of Saul and Jonathan, dropped him along the way. What is that verse doing in the midst of this story? Alter suggests that it is to remind us that with Ishbosheth out of the way, the House of Saul no longer has an able-bodied heir who might challenge David for the kingship. We will here more of Mephibosheth later, and see how it is that David carries out his pledge to Jonathan not to extirpate his line.

1 And when Saul’s son heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands became feeble, and all the Israelites were affrighted.

2 And Saul’s son had two men that were captains of bands; the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, of the children of Benjamin; for Beeroth also is reckoned to Benjamin;

3 and the Beerothites fled to Gittaim, and have been sojourners there until this day.

4 Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, had a son that was lame of his feet. He was five years old when the tidings came of Saul and Jonathan out of Jezreel, and his nurse took him up, and fled; and it came to pass, as she made haste to flee, that he fell, and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.

5 And the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ish-bosheth, as he took his rest at noon.

6 And they came thither into the midst of the house, as though they would have fetched wheat; and they smote him in the groin; and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped.

7 Now when they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bed-chamber, they smote him, and slew him, and beheaded him, and took his head, and went by the way of the Arabah all night.

8 And they brought the head of Ish-bosheth unto David to Hebron, and said to the king: ‘Behold the head of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul thine enemy, who sought thy life; and HaShem hath avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed.’

9 And David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, and said unto them: ‘As HaShem liveth, who hath redeemed my soul out of all adversity,

10 when one told me, saying: Behold, Saul is dead, and he was in his own eyes as though he brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, instead of giving a reward for his tidings.

11 How much more, when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house upon his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?’

12 And David commanded his young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and their feet, and hanged them up beside the pool in Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth, and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: