Sunday, December 29, 2019

Two Wrongs

I was sure I had written at length some time recently about King Saul’s attempted ethnic cleansing of the Gibeonites and the grisly complications it produced during the reign of his successor, but I see no evidence of such an exercise on the blog.

2,223 posts, and no significant exploration of the subject.* I promise I wasn’t intentionally dodging a bullet.

Well, let’s rectify that.

Rough Justice

The idea that a basically-decent ruler like David might find it not only expedient but obligatory to order the deaths of seven probable innocents in service of the greater good is frankly repulsive. I’ve always had trouble with it, and it does not surprise me to come across others who are equally confounded by chapter 21 of 2 Samuel.

In a nutshell, here’s what happened. At some point during the reign of Saul, the king of Israel got it into his head that his people would be well-served by exterminating a small group of native Canaanites living among them. Perhaps the Gibeonites were troublemakers of one sort or another. Perhaps he was (wrongly) convinced that God’s original instructions to wipe out the idol-worshiping, baby-killing, sexually immoral former inhabitants of Canaan — now approximately 400 years out of date — were still in effect. Perhaps he was simply racist. We don’t know his reasons; only that Saul “sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah.” The writer of Samuel records that “he put the Gibeonites to death.”

It wasn’t just Saul who was implicated in this crime. When rulers do appalling things, it is usually because their people permit or endorse them. Nor do they generally carry out their programs by themselves; they almost always use agents, many of whom are quite happy to go along with their agendas. In this case, we do not get any indication in the passage that Saul’s genocidal inclinations met with resistance or protest. Like any politician, Saul had almost surely put a finger in the wind, gauged public opinion, and then responded accordingly.

A Grisly Solution

However, Saul’s plan was not a complete success. Some Gibeonites managed to escape his wrath. That was a good thing. He was dead wrong. The Gibeonites had (admittedly by trickery) extracted from the elders of Israel a solemn oath to spare their lives, and God takes the vows of men very seriously indeed. As a result, even after Saul was long gone, God punished Israel with three years of famine so severe that David, his successor, eventually came before the Lord to ask the reason. God was unwilling to bless his people until the oppressed Gibeonite minority among them received satisfaction for the untimely executions of their friends and family members.

So David went to the Gibeonites and asked, “How shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” The Gibeonites answered that they required the deaths of seven descendants of Saul. So seven men were taken by force from among Saul’s relatives and given to the remaining Gibeonites, who executed them by hanging them outside Saul’s hometown of Gibeah.

Choices and Consequences

It seems like a grotesque, primitive spectacle. I will not defend the morality of it, and there is no need to. God didn’t order this particular means of atonement. That decision belonged to the Gibeonites.

These Gibeonites were a servant-class, cursed because of their deception to never be anything more than “cutters of wood and drawers of water”, as Joshua once put it, for the Israelite people. They had very good reasons to be angry that may have gone well beyond Saul’s attempt to kill them off. We do not know whether they were universally well-treated in their service, but considering the moral condition of Israel in those days, it seems unlikely. They certainly had not acquired the normal rights of Israelite citizens in four centuries. Moreover, we do not know anything about the Gibeonite concepts of justice and vengeance, and whether they were consistent with the Law of Moses.

So the choice the Gibeonites made was maybe not a choice you or I would have made, and it was probably not a choice David was comfortable making either, if only because of its negative political implications. Once again, the house of David was set against the house of Saul.

Where Was God?

Now, it is certainly possible that these seven members of the former royal family had actively participated in the original Gibeonite massacres. It is also possible that, given the passage of time, one or more were entirely innocent of Saul’s crimes. We simply do not know the answer to that question. Was David grudgingly choosing what he believed to be the lesser of two great evils, or was he visiting God’s justice on a bunch of imprudent and genocidal Benjaminites who richly deserved it? Neither possibility can be ruled out. But if it is the case that David chose to execute innocent men, it is not God who made him do it.

Executing innocent men would never have been God’s choice. In the Law, God had ordained that “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” If these men were not complicit in Saul’s crimes, executing them would normally have constituted a serious violation of God’s law.

A Nobler Attitude

The noblest figure in this tale is probably the least talked-about:
“Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens. And she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night.”
The Gibeonites had left the seven hanged descendants of Saul to rot in public indefinitely. Perhaps this was common practice in that day. It certainly sent a strong message. The sight of a decaying carcass in the process of being consumed by predators is not easily forgotten. It says, “These were the bad guys. They lost. Don’t do what they did.” It exalts justice at the expense of mercy.

In some ways that’s not a bad thing. Remembering that sin has consequences is not the worst lesson we can learn. But it’s a one-sided story, and the looming specter of judgment is not the only message God is interesting in showing to the world. The massacre of the Gibeonites had been a wicked act, but Rizpah had also lost two sons in the process of atoning for it. And as we have been told repeatedly, two wrongs never make a right. Saul’s concubine refused to let vengeance have the final word. So she committed a public act of love, at great cost to herself.

It is hard to miss the fact that this story does not end with seven executions. Though the Gibeonites had been satisfied, the famine did not cease immediately. It continued through harvest time until rainy season. All that time, Rizpah quietly defended her dead sons and their relatives from predation. What an unspeakably unpleasant task! It’s awfully hard to explain God’s delay in responding to the prayers of his people if we believe that he ordered or condoned the solution that was negotiated between David and the Gibeonites. Something about that just doesn’t add up.

Finally, David heard about what Rizpah had done, and ordered that the seven men be buried with dignity. Only after that did God respond to the pleas of Israelites for relief from famine.

Lessons from History

What can we learn from such an unpleasant story? A few things, certainly:
  1. God’s methods change, and we need to change with them. Of course God’s character never changes, but his will in any given situation is often modified by the facts on the ground. We need to respect that. At one point in time, all Amorites were fair game. God intended them to be utterly swept away because of their sins. However, once they received a promise of safety from God’s people, the Gibeonite situation changed considerably. Attacking them went from being the command of God to being a direct and punishable violation of his will. In reading through the scriptures, it is necessary to be discerning about following instructions given by God to men and women at other times and places. They may or may not apply to us.
  2. We are obligated to the past as well as the present. Other people’s choices matter, and we ignore them at our peril. They were frequently made with the same care and consideration that we make our own, and sometimes with greater wisdom. Saul failed to take seriously a solemn promise made by the elders of Israel to the Gibeonites 400 years in the past. But God had not forgotten that promise. We live at a time in history in which every year is Year Zero, and the unchallenged whimsy of angry children is allowed to overturn traditions, history and the hard lessons learned by prior generations. This is foolish presumption.
  3. Rash choices hurt innocent people. God is under no obligation to step in and fix the messes we make, and generally speaking, he does not. Actions have consequences. This is not a particularly profound observation, but it is an important one. You can see it in your own life, I’m sure. If this seems unfair, bear in mind that all human freedom depends on us having genuine options, both good and bad. The alternative is worse. Moreover, if we cannot see the consequences of our mistakes played out in real life in real time, the pain we are capable of causing one another remains only theoretical to us and we learn nothing. This is especially true in the relationship between leaders and those they lead.
  4. When you put yourself in the hands of men rather than the hands of God, you will often get results you would rather not. David had figured this out by the time he made his next major error in judgment. “Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great,” David told the prophet Gad, “but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

* Turns out I’m lying through my teeth. Here it is. Either Google’s blog search engine is not very good, or else I’m not using it correctly. I did indeed explore the subject on my last pass through 2 Samuel back in 2017. In any case, this new post is sufficiently different from the older one that I’ll go ahead and publish it anyway ...

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