Notes on 2 Sam 5:1-5

David is recognized as king over all Israel after the death of Ish-bosheth.

It’s been a while since I posted any of the products of UCLA’s Jacob Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group, but we’ve been reading our way steadily through what Jonathan Alter calls “The David Story” and I’m still taking notes. Back in April, I posted the notes on Chapter 4 of Second Samuel. The group is now starting Chapter 20; I’ll try to get caught up.

Below are the notes on the first five verses of 2 Sam 5:

Then came all the tribes of Israel to David unto Hebron, and spoke, saying: ‘Behold, we are thy bone and thy flesh.

In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was thou that didst lead out and bring in Israel; and HaShem said to thee: Thou shalt feed My people Israel, and thou shalt be prince over Israel.’

So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron; and king David made a covenant with them in Hebron before HaShem; and they anointed David king over Israel.

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.

In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah.

The chapter starts immediately after David has become king over the opposition of Ish-bosheth.

[That is, Ish-baal; the scribes refused to write the name of the Canaanite deity, and when it occurred in someone’s name theysubstituted “bosheth,” “shameful.”]

Abner, who had first set up Ish-bosheth as a puppet king and then betrayed him to David, is now dead, as is Ish-bosheth himself. Both have been murdered, Ish-bosheth by the hands of two of his own commanders and Abner by the hand of David’s general Joab.

Abner, having decided to sell out Ish-bosheth, convinced the elders of “all Israel” (which seems to refer to the ten tribes that will later make up the Northern kingdom, that is all but Judah and Benjamin), and also the elders of Benjamin, to recognize David as king. Presumably this would have left Abner in a powerful position at the new court. Joab, David’s general, whose brother Amasa was killed by Abner in combat, kills Abner just after the meeting between Abner and David at which the deal is sealed.

Throughout First Samuel, David’s anointment as king in succession to Saul is known, apparently, only to David himself, to Samuel who anoints him, and (in some form) to Saul and Jonathan, both of whom recognize him as Saul’s inevitable successor. No one calls him king until after the death of Saul, when he is recognized by his own tribe of Judah, but seemingly by no one else.

But as Ish-bosheth weakens, the prophecies seem to start coming out of the woodwork. In Chapter 3, Abner says to the elders of Israel,

In times past ye sought for David to be king over you; now then do it; for HaShem hath spoken of David, saying: By the hand of My servant David I will save My people Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their enemies.

To which we said, “Huh?” Was there in fact widespread support outside of Judah for David (who had earlier been hailed as slaying his myriads while Saul slew his thousands) as king? Perhaps Abner was responsible not only for setting up Ish-bosheth but for preventing the widespread recognition of David’s succession. (The different lengths given for David’s reign in Hebron and for Ish-bosheth’s reign suggest that David was recognized as King of Judah when no one was recognized as King of Israel.)

Has the narrator concealed from us a prophecy concerning David that was extant among the people? Perhaps Abner is inventing, or promoting from obscurity, facts and prophecies that had previously been below the surface, in order to make his turnabout, and the turnabout he proposes to the elders, seem less like an opportunistic betrayal. Or perhaps he’s just making sh*t up. Reinventing history to accord with current events did not, after all, start with Orwell’s “Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

Now “all the tribes of Israel” play the same tune: even under Saul, David was the war leader (he “led out” and “brought in” the troops), and again HaShem is said to have named him king.

Moreover, they remind David of their kinship: “we are thy bone and flesh.” This partly echoes the dialogue between Abner and Joab that leads to the truce after the fight at Gibeah: the tribes, however divided politically, are understood to be kinsfolk, so a ruler from Judah is not a foreigner to Ephraim. Some commenters give the phrase a different meaning; David is descended from the Moabite Ruth, which brings his Israelite identity into question. But “bone and flesh” apparently has the meaning “on both the father’s side and the mother’s”: the “white” parts of the body — bones and teeth — were understood as the product of male descent, while the “red” blood and flesh were understood to pass in the female line. So David is being assured that his legitimacy will not be challenged on grounds of ancestry.

It is easy, and perhaps correct, to read back into this story the division that will later emerge between Judah and Benjamin under Davidic kings on the one hand and the ten “northern” tribes of Israel on the other. Did the later split simply recapitulate an earlier division? Or is the earlier division folk-history explaining the origin of the later split?

And what was the relationship among the tribes in the first place? The book of Judges portrays a world in which there is only temporary and incomplete inter-tribal authority; the Judges have difficulty enforcing their will on reluctant tribes. Were the Twelve Tribes (the number is constant, though there are two different lists: after Reuben disappears, Ephraim and Manasseh are counted as tribes rather than as branches of the tribe of Joseph) understood as being in some sense a commonwealth before they had a king? The commonality seems to be largely religious and perhaps linguistic rather than political (as in ancient Greece). The fixed number twelve suggests some sort of monthly rotation of ritual duties, but if that was the case we don’t seem to have any of the relevant details.

The content of the Judgship and the kingdom seem alike obscure. We were unclear on the extent to which the word “judge” implies a judicial function as opposed to war-leadership. We couldn’t recall an instance in which any of the Judges decide a case, either civil or criminal, or make a law. The cry of the people for a king, to which Samuel acquiesces, is for a war-leader, not a law-giver.

Nor does either Eli or Samuel “give justice” in any sense we could recognize. Samuel has charismatic religious authority — he is “a man of God — and rides some sort of circuit, but whether that circuit is judicial as well as ritual the text doesn’t tell us. Eli’s sons are accused of oppression, but in the context of sacrifice, not adjudication. When, under the Judges, when there “was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes,” did that refer to lawlessness, to the lack of cultic uniformity, or to the lack of political unity preventing common military action?

We have almost no sense of how the tribes were ruled internally; there don’t seem to be chiefs over entire tribes, but rather elders ruling clans within tribes, but even that is left vague. If the elders resisted, or resented, the centralizing trend that weakened their authority, that resistance doesn’t show up until Solomon’s accession.

It’s also notable that David’s birth-family, like Saul’s, is never mentioned after he comes to power. He had a father and six elder brothers, and he was only thirty years old when he took the throne, but they have simply disappeared, not having been heard of since the battle with Goliath. (Zeruiah, the father of Joab, Amasa, and Abishai, is said to be David’s uncle.) King Saul also has children, but apparently no politically relevant siblings.

What is it that makes David king? With Abner gone, David has (to the limited extent that Joab is loyal to him) what may be the only effective military force, but his accession isn’t a conquest. His position seems to be closer to that of Washington, whose military reputation made him the obvious political choice even though he no longer had an army, than to Gen. Pinochet or Sgt. Doe.

In verse 1, “all the tribes” are said to come to “David.” In verse 3, the elders are said to come to “the king,” and then anoint him. So in some sense he wasn’t “king” before his recognition, but was king before he was anointed. (Anointed for the third time, having been anointed secretly by Samuel and openly as King of Judah). Is it the recognition by “all the tribes” that makes him King, with the anointing merely ceremonial, like a European coronation?

And what is the “pact” (b’rith) that David makes with the elders? Was it some sort of conventional vassalage treaty, or a special deal in which he agreed not to take revenge on those who had fought against him on behalf of Saul and Ish-bosheth? Is the “pact” a condition of the kingship, as the English Whigs later insisted? Apparently not, since David is named “king” before the pact is made, and Saul makes no pact on his accession.

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: