Finishing up the story of David, King of Israel and Judah - We left off with things going pretty well for David as he repeatedly defeats his enemies.
So all good, right? Nope. Not for long. After exterminating other tribes for a while, he gets in trouble the traditional way - can't keep his hands to himself. One day David sees Bathsheba. You may have even heard of Bathsheba as the story still has popular appeal. People hate adultery when it is them or their friend who is cuckolded, but they love it as entertainment. Bathsheba is married, but David does the wrong thing and summons and sleeps with her. Even worse in religious terms - he did it while she was still purifying herself from her monthly visit. Bad idea. She winds up pregnant and lets him know. So, he does the decent thing (I kid), and tries to get Uriah, the husband, to go home and sleep with his wife so he won't realize the baby wasn't his. But Uriah was a faithful soldier and stayed with his men, as they were at war. Good guy. So, David asks Joab, his nephew (who remember he cursed, but still employs as his commander in the field) and asks him to put Uriah where the fighting is fiercest and then abandon him to his fate. That worked out well. After Bathsheba mourned, she came to be David’s wife and bore him a son. Really, what else is a girl going to do around 1200 B.C.? But God was pisssssssssed.
Maybe David didn’t realize the trouble he was in. Soon, he was raging about a rich man who took the lamb of a poor man rather than his own livestock to feed a traveler – David wanted him killed for it. But, we never find out what happened to the guy because Nathan points out to David that he will be punished for it if he does it. Maybe his point was – stopping talking about other people and consider yourself. Nathan prophesizes that someone from his own household will sleep with all his wives. Kings hate it when that happens. Almost as an afterthought, Nathan adds – oh, and God is going to kill your son. God does make the baby he had with Bathsheba sick. At first, David is sick with worry himself – but when he learns that the baby actually died – he goes about his business, saying, well, now he’s dead, so, move along everybody, nothing to see here. In fact, he goes to Bathsheba and they make another baby they call – Solomon. You probably have heard of Solomon too. But, we’ll get back to him later on in the story.
In the meantime, Joab is kicking the Ammonites’ butts and tells David to come take a city or they will name it after Joab instead. David does, and takes the defeated king’s crown, a big shiny one too. Not a good time for the Ammonites, as he takes all their cities. See, not all so bad. Except. . .
. . . something creepy happens. One of David’s sons, Amnon, follows in love with his sister, Tamar – I think she was a half-sister, but you can tell the author wasn't any happier for it. On the advice of David’s brother, his uncle, he pretends to be sick and tricks her into coming into his bedroom. Then he tries to have his way with her. She tries to talk him out of it, so, he rapes her. Then she doesn’t want to leave, because that would be a worse shame (I guess) and just like that, he now hates her more than he loved her. So, he has her thrown out. Their brother Absalom hears about it and tells her to relax, and she lives in his house, a bitter woman. Absalom says nothing to Amnon, but two years later he gets David to send Amnon on a trip with him and he has him killed. David hears about it back home and mistakenly thinks all his sons are dead, but that just turned out to be a silly rumor. It is little touches like that which make you think maybe there is some historical basis for it as there is just no point to that plot twist. Still, Absalom flees and for three years stayed away. But David, knowing Absalom had avenged the rape of his sister, had already forgiven him. Kind of. I mean, families fight, right? Seriously, it is more than a thousand years to early to say it, but Jeeeeesus, what a group.
Joab knows that David yearms for Absalom to return. He creates a bizarre artifice by sending a servant to David with a wacky story I’m not even going to trouble you with, because, frankly, I don’t really understand it - but at the end, like a protagonist in a Dan Brown novel, David figures out that Joab is behind the ruse and says to him, okay, go get Absalom. Now it’s really going to get weird.
Joab brings Absalom back, but David orders that Absalom not see his face. Why, you might reasonably ask? I don't know. A few years go by and Absalom sends for Joab. who ignores him. So, naturally, Absalom has his servants burn down one of Joab’s fields. Joab comes and says – Hey, what the hell, or something like that, and Absalom says he just wanted to get his attention. He asks to see his father and if he did anything wrong, David can put him to death. It is all arranged and Absalom goes to his dad, falls to the ground, and David forgives him. Of course, he does. These people are nuts.
Not surprisingly, Absalom, a proto-politician, starts cleverly winning the hearts of the Israelis. When David learns this, he deals with it calmly and rationally - screaming like a lunatic that everyone with him should flee for their lives. At the very least, it was an over-reaction. So, David and his people flee to the wilderness, but he sends a few back of them with the Ark to be spies.
Absalom comes to Jerusalem, and is now king. He asked his advisor Ahithophel (say that three times fast) what to do. This is what Ahithophel tells him:
“Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines right in front of everyone. I guess they had a higher vantage point than the roof.
That would probably get big ratings, even today. But it would have to be on cable.
Both Absalom and David thought Ahithophel gave great advice. But Absalom also calls for Hashei, who is David’s secret mole in Jerusalem, and charged by David with countering whatever sound advice Ahithophel gives. Leave aside sleeping with David's concubines, Hashei gives what sounds to me like the same advice Ahithophel gave, although having him wait a little longer to attack. For some reason, it seems like better advice to Absalom.
Hashai then sends two priests to warn David that Absalom is coming for him. But, the priests are seen and Absalom’s men follow them. Fortunately, a couple hides them in the well. Their pursuers had to be idiots, because they didn’t find them. The priests got to David and warned him in time (although – if Absalom was following Hashai’s advice, there should have been no rush – plot flaw!)
And if you think Ahithophel would figure it all out and ruin Hashai’s schemes, think again. The big baby went back to his hometown and hung himself. Once again, things are looking up for David. The two armies prepare to fight. His men persuade David to stay behind but he asks them to be gentle with Absalom for his sake. But Absalom is riding on his mule when his hair gets tangled in a tree branch and he’s left hanging there. How is that even possible? Joab and his men kill him and bury him in a pit. Maybe they did it gently.
When David learned of Absalom’s death he wailed: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” Personally, I wouldn’t have given the jaw of an ass for Absalom myself, but you know Jewish parents.
Joab, hearing that David was mourning, went to him and gave him a piece of his mind. “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come on you from your youth till now.”
This is why I like Joab more than David. Obviously, he was a violent guy, but he actually made sense a lot of the time. A lot more than David did, anyway. What’s wrong with God that he preferred David?
David went back to Jerusalem. He didn’t kill the concubines who Absalom had slept with. He just confined them for the rest of their pathetic lives. I suspect that was seen as merciful and just for this – because, after all, the concubines were at fault, right? At least in the bronze age mind they were - I guess.
In any event, now the Israelis and the Judeans don’t get along so well. An Israeli named Sheba blew his trumpet and called away the men of Israel. Joab went after them. They came to a great rock and Joab went to meet Amasa, who fled with the Israelis, and who, for reasons I can’t even begin to understand, David had earlier promised to put over Joab if he played ball with him. So, while they were walking towards each other, Joab did the prison yard thing and secretly took his knife from its sheath and “took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him.” Then, he disemboweled him. They moved on and came to a city where Sheba was holed up. They were battering down the wall when a woman came to it and called for Joab, asking him to relent. He said they would if they threw down the head of Sheba. Next thing you know, over the wall comes Sheba’s head, and, they all went home. That’s how business was sometimes handled back then, and, frankly, as horrific as it sounds, it spared a lot of lives – probably the life of every person in that city, for example - save Sheba, naturally.
Here’s another good example. God brought famine to Israel because Saul, long dead himself, had put the Gibeonites – who were not Israelis, but lived around there too – to death. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. God could have said "you know what, live and let live," but, who can see the ways of the Lord? David asked the Gibeonites how to make it right with them. They asked to be given seven Israelis to put to death. So David gave them seven of his subjects, Saul’s descendants, and the Gibeonites put them to death and exposed their corpses. Then David exposed the bones of Saul and Jonathan, the latter who was, of course, his own good friend. Famine over, just like that. If only it was really that easy.
David was getting older. His men killed some more Philistines, but they decided, no more war for David. He was too old and valuable. Now David had many warriors, and frankly, it gets tedious when the Bible lists them, which it does to some extent. But, then David called for Joab – good old Joab – who should have been king if you ask me, and had him, against his will, go through the land and count all the fighting men. There were 800,000 in Israel and 500,000 in Judah. For some reason that again defies reason, this was a sin. God spoke to David’s seer and gave him three choices, three years of famine, three months fleeing his enemies or three days of plague, to atone for his sin. David liked the last one best and God’s angel wiped out 70,000 Israelis with plague. But, God stopped him before he wiped out Jerusalem.
The seer then came to David and told him to go build an altar to God on the threshing floor belonging to so and so. David did so, insisting on buying the place, rather than just accepting it as a gift, and, God then stopped the plague entirely. Don’t ask me what happened to God stopping it at the end of three days, which was the original deal. The Bible is often not very consistent.
As David became very old he couldn’t stay warm. So, his attendants got him a beautiful young virgin to keep him warm. Lucky her, though she took care of David, he did not sleep with her – I presume this is what it was like with Hugh Hefner in his last days.
David’s son, Adonijah, a handsome and spoiled brat, tried to become king and threw a big party. But, he didn’t invite Nathan – you remember Nathan – or David’s son Solomon, who was promised the kingship. Bathsheba and then Nathan went to David and said – hey, what about your promise to Solomon? So, David, having nearly run his race, made Solomon king.
The big wrap up where I wax ineloquent and think about life, death and other such things.
And I could go on and on with Solomon. All this brutality I have related to you was in 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel of the Old Testament. Samuel himself, who I didn’t mention until now, was probably the last important prophet of Israel. He anointed both Saul and David earlier on, but was barely mentioned in the very books named for him. Nevertheless, they are two of my favorite books in the Bible, which I’ve read more than once, because I like the stories. You can see that there is more to it than you learned in temple or church, but it doesn’t exactly put David in a good light. That is supposed to be the moral lesson – David’s sins and God’s rebuke him and then forgives him. Personally, I don’t see it. It seems to me that the lesson of the Bible is, whether you are good or bad, life isn't fair. You could say that's just my opinion, and it is, but it is also real life.
Reading the Bible is not a religious thing for me, although there are what I think are spiritual aspects to it.* One reason I like reading it is much the same reason some people like The Game of Thrones (“TGOT”). It’s entertaining, particularly if you like gratuitous sex and violence. But, there are literate, historical and lingual reasons I like it too.
*Years ago I came up with my own definition of spirituality, which resonated for some people I tried it out on. I still like it, though I’ve tinkered with the original - Spirituality is a pleasant feeling of connection to the universe that some people identify with one or more supernatural beings.
I tried reading TGOT but couldn’t get through it. I’ve never watched the show on television. A friend of mine mocks me because I like made up stories from thousands of years ago but not ones someone made up now. He’s got a point, but it’s really an overstatement. I love a lot of modern fiction and even fantasy for various reasons, and don’t feel obligated to like or dislike any of it, without regard to some rational. But there is also no doubt I rarely like fantasy except when it invokes stories or myths from long ago and the mythology, names and places have meaning to me separate and apart from the story I’m reading. It’s as broad as the differences among The Once and Future King, Peter Pan and Beatrix Potter. Stories by authors who share these interests gives me the feeling of a connection to history and through it to the universe. I realize that is a feeling, not a physical manifestation, at least outside my brain. I accept it without being able to fully explain it. And it is important to me, for reasons I can’t explain either. At some point our ability to explain these things ends with a closed door. Some people think they know why they are this way or that, but they - we - really don’t. I’m very comfortable with uncertainty. So, I’ll just finish the story -
And soon David died, going to rest with his ancestors, but not before giving instructions to Solomon to kill Joab – because, well, as I said, these people were just crazy. If anyone deserved David’s friendship and to be King of Israel and Judah himself, it was Joab, in my modern view. David was 70 when he died, which was a long natural life. I, his namesake, am now 58, only 12 years younger than he was when he died. Of course, my life and death is not linked to David's because of a name and I don’t know when I will die (though for some bizarre reason, I frequently tell people I will die at 66). I hope it is a long time from now, until pain makes life more some imaginary duty instead of pleasure, but you never know. 72-73 is an average, not a given.
I live – we live - in a different place and time than David did -- a much, much better one in my view, though one built on the foundation of his time, if he actually lived. There is no direct proof or strong circumstantial evidence that he did, whatever you may have been told, though the name and story has come down through history, never having lapsed. Whether there was a King David or not, the heritage is there, even if we can only name our grandparents or great grandparents and have to stop there. Because of reading and writing, we are not just products of those we are genetically descended from, but innumerable other peoples and civilizations, some of which we know and some we don’t. Some people don’t even care about why they feel a connection to their ethnic ancestors. Maybe most people. They just want to be told that they are this nationality or that religion, even if they literally know nothing about it. Whatever story, true or not, they’ve been told as children is good enough for them and that is what they preserve.
I may sound all judgy in the above rendition of the Bible. I have a 21st century perspective, of course. But, I’m really not picking on the Jews at all. Find a group at that period of time, or for thousands of years, that didn’t behave in a similar barbaric way, at least to our eyes, and survived for long when they came in contact with other fierce people. If you do find one, good chances you are relying on their own legends and not the truth. There are snippets in the Bible and the Jewish culture that has come down to us which are far superior to other cultures, but it was a culture in its infancy compared to what we know today. No one should base their ethics upon the behavior of Biblical characters because often they were examples of human failures, frailty, cruelty and sin. Humanity, like a single human, had to start somewhere. It's like carving a jack-o-lantern. It's beautiful when you finish, but every carve out the inside of a pumpkin? Ycccccch.
The Bible itself is a collection of stories, real or imagined, laws and poetry emblematic of a continuing tradition. It tells us of a fairly substantial period of time, roughly a millennium to a millennium and a half, and may be fairly said to be a significant part of the reason we now live in what seems to us an enlightened, if highly imperfect culture, though no doubt future cultures will find us barbaric too. I hope so, at least. It is a step by step thing, but the Jews have been evolving for thousands of years in a more intact way than most other groups. The fact that Bibles are printed by the millions today in hundreds of languages, even if rarely read in their entirety in any of them, alone tells you of the impact of this early and continuing culture. Nevertheless, each of us is a product not just of one strand of people, but many peoples, particularly in the modern age, who though out history have influenced one another, merged and split off from one another in innumerable ways. I feel as much an heir to the Greeks and to the American founders, just as they were children of each other and many other groups.
We know from watching tv and reading the news that life can still be filled with horrors of Biblical proportions and there are people who wish to still live with laws and mores like those of earlier centuries, butchering or enslaving others. As we know from recent events there are people in America with full access to our diversity, enlightenment ideas and technology, who murder and destroy with no clear rationale and many more who would if they could. But, overall, not so much either, and when I leave my home to go get a sandwich, there is never a thought in my mind that someone is coming to kill me. It is not for nothing I like to say to people almost every day – We are not only the luckiest people in the world – we are the luckiest people in the history of the world. Some days it is harder to believe than in others, but nevertheless, I still think it is true.