7. David Becomes King and Conquers Jerusalem (2 Samuel 2-5)

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James J. Tissot, 'The Valiant of Gibeon' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'The Valiant of Gibeon' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

If you think national politics are nasty in our day, then take a look at the political intrigue going on behind the scenes that finally resulted in David becoming king of all Israel. Politics was bloody!

David Is Anointed King over Judah at Hebron (2:1-7)

It has been at least 15 years since David has been anointed by Samuel. Finally, it is time for God's plan for David to be king to come to pass.

Life has changed for David. He has been a fugitive for probably more than five years. Now no one is hunting him down to take his life! It is time to move from the desert town of Ziklag on the perimeter of Judah. But before he does anything, he seeks the Lord.

"1 In the course of time, David inquired of the LORD. 'Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?' he asked. The LORD said, 'Go up.' David asked, 'Where shall I go?' 'To Hebron,' the LORD answered." (2:1-2)

Apparently, David is consulting the Lord through the Urim and Thummim. We think that these cast lots work with answers that could be yes, no, or maybe. The choice of Hebron could have been through asking the Lord about various possible cities one by one, or by a prophetic word, either through the prophet Gad or through David himself. We're not told.

So David and his wives and men and their families settle in the ancient city of Hebron and its surrounding villages, probably with the Philistines' consent, since David is still Achish's vassal.[140] His final break with the Philistines doesn't seem to come until later (5:17).

Hebron was a walled city dating back to Early Bronze Age. It was a Canaanite royal city. In Abraham's time it was populated by Hittites. During the Conquest, Caleb led the Israelites who conquered the city (Joshua 11:21; 14:6-15). Later, David's son Absalom will be crowned king in this city. But for now, it serves as David's capital city for seven and a half years (2:11).

"Then the men of Judah came to Hebron and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah." (2:4a)

This is David's second anointing of three. First, by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 16:13), and finally by the elders of the Israelite tribes (5:3), prior to moving his capital to Jerusalem.

As a new king of Judah, David graciously honors the men of Jabesh Gilead for burying Saul's body, even though he is not king over their tribe. In reaching out, David is seeking friends that will eventually make him king over all Israel. (2:5-7)

Now that he can settle down, David begins to raise a family in Hebron by his various wives. (See Appendix 3. Genealogy of the House of David.)

"2b His firstborn was Amnon the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Kileab the son of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom the son of Maacah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream the son of David's wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron." (3:2-5)

(See the discussion of Polygamy in the Bible in Lesson 5 above.)

Ish-Bosheth Reigns over the Northern Tribes (2 Samuel 2:8-11)

However, at this point, Saul's only remaining son, Ish-Bosheth, reigns over the northern tribes.

"8 Meanwhile, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul's army, had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim. 9 He made him king over Gilead, Ashuri [or Asher] and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel.... The house of Judah, however, followed David." (2:8-9, 10b)

Abner has been Saul's military commander, and the real power in the kingdom now that Saul is dead. Abner is Saul's uncle and Ish-Bosheth's great-uncle (1 Samuel 14:50).[141] Thus Ish-Bosheth is blood, he is family. And so, in loyalty to his family's house, Abner sets Ish-Bosheth on the throne, he "made him king." (see Appendix 2. Genealogy of the House of Saul.)

Ish-Bosheth (elsewhere called Esh-Baal; 1 Chronicles 8:33; 9:39),[142] seems like a weak king, kept in power only by Abner's influence and military clout. For fear of the Philistines who now control much of the hill country, perhaps even Gibeah itself, Abner has moved Ish-Bosheth from Saul's capital of Gibeah to Mahanaim[143] on the east side of the Jordan, the place where Jacob had wrestled with the angel 800 years before (Genesis 32:1). Here the monarchy of Saul's house might be reestablished in relative safety.[144] Ish-Bosheth's territory, however, is substantially diminished. Though Gilead, east of the Jordan, is fairly secure, Asher and Jezreel, plus part of Ephraim and Benjamin are now under the control of the Philistines.

 The chronology isn't clear to us at this point, since Ish-Bosheth reigns in Mahanaim for only two years, while David reigns in Hebron for 7-1/2 years before becoming king over all Israel (2:10-11). What is going on among the northern tribes during this interval, we just don't know.

However, David is working to heal his relationship with Saul's followers. Bright notes that:

"[David] made overtures to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, whose loyalty to Saul he knew (2:4b-7). He also took in marriage (3:3) the daughter of the king of Geshur, an Aramean state east of the Sea of Galilee, presumably to gain an ally in Eshbaal's (Ishbosheth's) rear. He also -- and probably at this time -- entered into friendly relations with Ammon (10:2), doubtless for the same purpose."[145] 

Map: Kingdoms of David (Judah) and Ish-Bosheth (Israel) (2 Samuel 2-5). Larger map.

War at the Pool of Gibeon (2 Samuel 2:12-17)

Now the level of conflict increases between David's kingdom of Judah and Ish-Bosheth's kingdom of Israel. Abner, Ish-Bosheth's general, moves his troops from Mahanaim closer to Judah at Gibeon, though still within Israel's territory. Joab, David's general, brings David's army to confront them, though all-out war has not broken out. The two generals sit down at the pool of Gibeon to talk.

Abner suggests a kind of hand-to-hand combat contest between a dozen men on each side. Perhaps this is more than just a game or mock battle. It may have been "a serious representative battle involving twelve pairs of chosen warriors."[146] The conclusion, however, is indecisive, as each of the contestants kills his opponent, leaving 24 dead bodies. As soon as this happens, the armies engage each other in a major skirmish.

"The battle that day was very fierce, and Abner and the men of Israel were defeated by David's men." (2:17)

Abner's army retreats back to Mahanaim, but not before losing 360 men, compared to only 19 losses for David's army (2:30-31).

Abner Slays Asahel (2:18-3:1)

Joab's army pursues the retreating soldiers. Joab's brother Asahel is intent on killing Abner, Ish-Bosheth's general. If he can do so, Ish-Bosheth's kingdom will crumble, since it is utterly dependent upon Abner's support. Asahel draws on his greatest gift, his speed, "as fleet-footed as a wild gazelle" (2:18).

Asahel chases Abner to the point that he is so close that he is in danger of Abner killing him. Abner warns him. He doesn't want to kill him, he says. Asahel is young and fast, but Abner is a skilled warrior; he knows Asahel is no match for him, so he suggests Asahel fight one of the younger warriors. Abner knows the family; these brothers, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel have been his friends. But Asahel won't stop.

Finally, his life at risk, Abner apparently stops suddenly and Asahel impales himself on Abner's spear.[147] Defending himself in war, Abner's killing of Asahel wouldn't constitute bloodguilt by any objective judge.[148] But all Joab is able to see is that Abner has killed his brother, and seeks revenge when he gets a chance (3:27).

For now, however, Abner calls on Joab to restrain his army from this internecine conflict.

"Must the sword devour forever? Don't you realize that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their brothers?" (2:26)

Abner had started it by moving his troops close to Judah, but now he calls for a halt. Joab agrees and sounds the trumpet or shofar to signal his army to halt. Now both armies march throughout the night to their respective capitals.

But the conflict continues. The narrator tells us:

"The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time. David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker." (3:1)

Ish-Bosheth Angers Abner (2 Samuel 3:6-11)

Finally, Ish-Bosheth does something stupid. He rebukes Abner who is the only reason he remains as king. Ish-Bosheth is justified, of course. Abner had been sleeping with Saul's concubine[149] Rizpah, which was probably construed (perhaps correctly) as Abner asserting a claim to the kingship himself. Elsewhere in the David saga, taking a king's wife or concubine was a political act of asserting the rights of a king (2 Samuel 12:8; 16:21; 1 Kings 2:13-22).[150] This act immediately follows the narrator's observation: "Abner had been strengthening his own position in the house of Saul" (3:6).

Although Abner is clearly guilty of overreaching, he deeply resents Ish-Bosheth's rebuke. "You owe your very life to me," Abner is thinking, "and you accuse me of something so petty?" Abner has probably been looking for some kind of provocation and Ish-Bosheth provides it. Abner says:

"Am I a dog's head[151] -- on Judah's side? This very day I am loyal to the house of your father Saul and to his family and friends. I haven't handed you over to David. Yet now you accuse me of an offense involving this woman! May God deal with Abner, be it ever so severely, if I do not do for David what the LORD promised him on oath and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David's throne over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beersheba."[152] (3:8-10)

Ish-Bosheth is afraid to say another word.

David Demands the Return of His Wife Michal (2 Samuel 3:12-16)

Abner, who had just sworn in his anger to establish David on the throne, sends a delegation to David to work out terms to transfer the kingdom to him. Abner has had enough of Ish-Bosheth! The message is:

"Whose land is it? Make an agreement with me, and I will help you bring all Israel over to you." (3:12)

The question, "Whose land is it?" is difficult. Abner could mean either:

  1. The land is David's. Yahweh has already promised the kingdom and its land to David when Samuel anointed him, as Abner had just said: "what the LORD promised [David] on oath" (3:9b).
  2. The land is Abner's. Though Ish-Bosheth is king in name, Abner is "the de facto lord of the land,"[153] and he is the one with whom David will have to deal.

I think it's more likely that Abner sees himself fulfilling Yahweh's destiny for David, not placing himself in the role of acting ruler. Clearly, however, the land is not Ish-Bosheth's, in Abner's view.

David is happy to discuss a peaceful transfer of the kingdom to him. But he makes a precondition to talks.

"Do not come into my presence unless you bring Michal daughter of Saul when you come to see me." (3:13)

If you remember, when David had fled, Michal's father Saul had arbitrarily (and unjustly) annulled the marriage and given Michal instead to Paltiel, son of Laish (1 Samuel 25:44).[154]

David's demand could be construed as David's desire to assert and strengthen his own claim to the kingship as Saul's rightful son-in-law. But John Bright says:

"His reason for demanding the return of Michal was certainly the hope that a male issue would unite the claims of his house and Saul's -- a vain hope as it turned out."[155] 

This isn't love; this is politics.

Abner apparently agrees to David's precondition, so David sends a demand for his legal wife directly to Ish-Bosheth, who has no choice. Ish-Bosheth gives orders for her to be returned to David. When her grieving husband Paltiel follows her, Abner orders him to go home. Affairs of state take precedence over affairs of the heart.

No doubt, Ish-Bosheth sees the transfer of the kingdom to David as inevitable now, since Abner has decided to move in that direction. Both Ish-Bosheth and Abner expect mercy from David. After all, David had publicly pledged to Saul not to kill Saul's sons (1 Samuel 24:21-22). This is likely to be better future than what could result by holding out and being defeated by David in war.

Abner Meets with David in Hebron (2 Samuel 3:17-22)

Abner actively works to negotiate the peace. Now that both David and Ish-Bosheth are in agreement, Abner needs to convince the elders of Israel and the leaders of the tribe of Benjamin -- Saul's tribe. He recognizes that they yearn for David to lead them to victory over their Philistine oppressors rather than to continue in a losing war against David for the kingdom. Abner says:

"For some time you have wanted to make David your king. Now do it! For the LORD promised David, 'By my servant David I will rescue my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines and from the hand of all their enemies.'" (3:17b-18)

Abner seems to be referring to some prophetic word, known to the elders, that isn't recorded elsewhere in the Bible.

Now that all the stakeholders are in agreement to make David king, Abner himself travels to Hebron to seal the agreement with David face-to-face. David puts on a feast in Abner's honor, then David sends Abner home "in peace" to finalize arrangements by means of "a compact." "Compact" (NIV), "covenant" (NRSV), "league" (KJV) is berît, the word for covenant used throughout the Pentateuch. Here it connotes a "treaty." We don't know the exact terms, but it might involve making Ish-Bosheth a vassal of David's or, at least, an honored place at David's table.

Joab Slays Abner in Hebron (2 Samuel 3:22-27)

But Joab, who has been away during these final negotiations, returns to Hebron, and realizes that his blood enemy Abner isn't far away. It doesn't seem to matter to Joab that Abner has diplomatic status and the promise of peaceful transit from David, and that Abner is just about to consummate a peace that will end a war simmering for years. All that matters to Joab is revenge for his brother Asahel's death.

Joab is livid. He goes to the king and rebukes David for the agreement, accusing Abner of deception and spying, rather than seeking true peace. David is unconvinced.

So Joab takes matters into his own hands. He sends messengers deceitfully in the name of the king to intercept Abner on his journey home, and ask him to return to Hebron for some last-minute clarifications. When Abner returns, Joab acts with treachery:

"Joab took him aside into the gateway, as though to speak with him privately. And there, to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel, Joab stabbed him in the stomach, and he died." (3:27)

This is the equivalent of stabbing a person in the back without warning. It is clearly murder, not a righteous avenging. Later, he does something similar to Absalom's general Amasa (2 Samuel 20:9-12). Years later on his deathbed, David instructs his son Solomon to punish Joab for this, and indicts him as follows:

"[Joab] killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet." (1 Kings 2:5)

David Laments Abner (2 Samuel 3:28-39)

When David hears what Joab has done, he publicly disassociates himself from it, and pronounces a terrible curse upon Joab and his descendants:

"I and my kingdom are forever innocent before the LORD concerning the blood of Abner son of Ner. May his blood fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father's house! May Joab's house never be without someone who has a running sore or leprosy or who leans on a crutch or who falls by the sword or who lacks food." (3:28b-30)

Then David instructs his courtiers to publicly mourn Abner with fasting and wearing sackcloth, instead of their fine garments. David himself weeps as he follows Abner's body in procession to his tomb. Then he composes a special song for the occasion -- in this case a special kind of psalm, a lament:

"Should Abner have died as the lawless die?
Your hands were not bound,
your feet were not fettered.
You fell as one falls before wicked men." (3:34)

"Do you not realize that a prince and a great man has fallen in Israel this day?" (3:38)

The narrator observes:

"So on that day all the people and all Israel knew that the king had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner." (3:37)

Q1. (2 Samuel 3:22-39) Why does Joab slay Abner? Is he justified in doing so? How does this affect his king's unification plans? Why do you think Joab is so blind? How can our spiritual blindness get in the way of God working out His plan in our lives?

Why Doesn't David Punish Joab?

What I find hard to understand is why David doesn't punish Joab for his treacherous murder. On the surface, David's public explanation seems lame:

"And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak (rak), and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong (qāsheh) for me. May the LORD repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!" (3:39)

Key to understanding this is to look at the pair of Hebrew opposites translated "weak" and "strong." David characterizes himself as rak, meaning "tender, soft, delicate, sensitive." It can also be used of "soft" words.[156] This doesn't seem to refer to political or moral weakness, but perhaps refers to his tendency towards restraint,[157] rather than going off "half-cocked." On the other hand, Joab and his brother Abishai are qāsheh, that is, "hard, cruel, obstinate, stiff, severe,"[158] rash and rough, ruthless! David is tender, while they are harsh and cruel. Rather than try to punish them himself, David calls on Yahweh to repay them for their evil deeds.

That is David's explanation of his actions. But I still wonder why David doesn't punish Joab's treachery and treason? There are several possibilities:

  1. Politics. Though Ish-Bosheth is utterly dependent upon his general Abner, David doesn't seem beholden to Joab in the same way -- at least at this point in his life. David is his own man and has a lot of support from the elders of Judah who have anointed him king. I think David had the political clout to have Joab punished.
  2. Legality. It seems more likely to me that David doesn't believe his legal grounds are clear-cut enough to take action. Even though Joab murdered Abner with treachery, Joab's action is understandable enough -- and perhaps marginally legal as "justifiable homicide." The Torah created cities of refuge where a person guilty of manslaughter could be protected. But if he ventured outside the city, the "avenger of blood" could kill him without being guilty of murder (Numbers 35: 9-8; Deuteronomy 19:6; Joshua 20:1-6). This may be so, but Joab is guilty of going directly against his king's desire to bring peace between these two kingdoms. Why can't David enforce his will upon his closest lieutenant?
  3. Family. David is constrained by his kinship ties with Joab. Perhaps he throws up his hands and says, "He's family, and you can't be responsible for what your relatives do. Joab and his brothers are headstrong! But since Joab is a relative, I can't punish him." When David became a fugitive, his father's family was hunted too (1 Samuel 22:1). Indeed, Joab and his brothers had been loyal to David through his very hardest times.

David has a technical right to punish Joab for murder and treason, but he feels somehow constrained, perhaps for some of the reasons above. So he says, I'll let the Lord repay him. He not only fails to punish Joab, he doesn't remove him from his position as head general of the army, even though he can't be trusted to carry out David's wishes. He continues to allow him to serve as a top advisor and officer.

I think this represents a serious character flaw and a severe leadership weakness. David can't seem to punish the crimes of those close to him, even though they deserve it. We'll see several examples in the future. David fails to punish Amnon for his rape, Absalom for murdering Amnon, and Joab for murdering both Abner and (later) Amasa. Finally, he can't seem to take decisive action against his son Absalom who usurps his throne and seeks to kill him.

We'll continue to ponder this as we consider David's life as king. We need to ask ourselves: What is the appropriate balance between justice and mercy and faithfulness?

Ish-Bosheth Is Assassinated (2 Samuel 4:1-12)

Joab's murder of Abner destroys the hoped-for peace between the two kingdoms. The narrator tells us:

"When Ish-Bosheth son of Saul heard that Abner had died in Hebron, he lost courage, and all Israel became alarmed." (4:1)

Abner is the essential support of Ish-Bosheth's throne. Now that he is gone, the future looks dim.

At this point, the narrator introduces two brothers, Baanah and Recab, military leaders under Ish-Bosheth from Saul's tribe of Benjamin. They decide to take advantage of the power vacuum to gain favor with the new power -- David. They are opportunists, and completely unscrupulous. The brothers gain access to Ish-Bosheth's house, stab him in his bed during a noonday rest, cut off his head, and bring it to David as proof that they have killed David's enemy for him. They are hoping for a big reward. The problem is, they don't know David very well.

David is outraged! He had slain the Amalekite opportunist who had claimed to kill Saul. He said:

"How much more -- when wicked men have killed an innocent man in his own house and on his own bed -- should I not now demand his blood from your hand and rid the earth of you!" (4:11)

The brothers are guilty of treason against their king. This is not blood shed in war, but blood shed in treachery and is by no means innocent. The men are slain, and their bodies are mutilated and exposed publicly in the capital city. But Ish-Bosheth's head is buried with honor in Abner's tomb.

David has a keen sense of righteousness when it involves the kingship. He would not raise his hand against Saul out of respect for the Lord who appointed him as king, and he punishes anyone else who takes it upon himself to kill the Lord's anointed. It doesn't  matter that Ish-Bosheth hadn't been anointed king by a prophet. He is an innocent son of the true king and one David had vowed to protect (1 Samuel 24:21-22).

Other Tribes Support David's Claim to the Kingdom (2 Samuel 5:1-5)

We are not told much about the process of David being made king over all Israel. But the Chronicler gives us some clues.

"These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul's kingdom over to him, as the LORD had said." (1 Chronicles 12:23)

Then he lists the numbers of armed warriors that come to Hebron to swear loyalty to David from all the tribes: Judah, Simeon, Levi, Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, men of Issachar "who understood the times and knew what Israel should do," Zebulun, Naphtali, Dan, Asher, Reuben, and Gad. All the tribes are represented.

"They came to Hebron fully determined to make David king over all Israel. All the rest of the Israelites were also of one mind to make David king." (1 Chronicles 12:38)

It may have taken some time for this to occur, as the various tribal elders decide what to do in the absence of a king from Saul's house. But finally they gather at Hebron. The narrator describes the formality as follows:

"All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, 'We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the LORD said to you, "You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler." 'When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a compact with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel." (5:1-3)

They spoke what they had concluded in their tribal councils, that David should be king because:

  1. Identity. David is one of them, a true Israelite.

  2. Military prowess. David has led Saul's troops against the Philistines.

  3. God's approval. God has spoken prophetically that David should be their king.

We don't have a record of this prophecy, but Samuel may have spoken publicly before he died of what God had shown him. So a compact or covenant (berît) is made between the people and their king, and he is formally anointed king for the third time, now over all Israel.

Notice the words of the prophecy quoted: "You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler" (5:2b). The image evoked by the verb "to shepherd" (NIV, NRSV), "to feed" (KJV) is common in the ancient Near East, where this figure for the king is found in Sumerian king lists, in Babylonian court documents, and in Egyptian pyramid texts.[159] The concept of shepherd is used to illustrate God's care for his people in the early poetry of Genesis (48:15; 49:24), as well as in the poetry of the Psalms (23, 74:1; 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; 95:7). The image of shepherd carries a high model of faithfulness, justice, and loving kindness.

Then the assembled tribes enjoy a three-day party:

"The men spent three days there with David, eating and drinking, for their families had supplied provisions for them. Also, their neighbors from as far away as Issachar, Zebulun and Naphtali came bringing food on donkeys, camels, mules and oxen. There were plentiful supplies of flour, fig cakes, raisin cakes, wine, oil, cattle and sheep, for there was joy in Israel." (1 Chronicles 12:39-40)

The narrator now informs us of the duration of David's reign:

"David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years." (5:4-5)

Q2. (2 Samuel 5:1-5) Approximately how long has it been since David had been anointed king by Samuel? (See Appendix 4. Chronology of the Life of David.) Why did the fulfillment of God's word take so long? How would you evaluate David's patience concerning this prophecy that he would be king? How would you measure your own patience concerning what you believe God has promised you?

Jerusalem (5:6-8)

David's kingdom is now secure. One of the first things he does is to move his capital from the city of Hebron in the center of Judah's territory to a new site that isn't really identified with any tribe -- Jerusalem. Bright observes: "The new capital undoubtedly served to elevate the government to a degree above tribal jealousy."[160]

The city is known by various names in the Bible:

  • Jerusalem is the most-frequently mentioned name. It appears in Egyptian Execration texts of nineteenth-eighteenth centuries BC, in diplomatic correspondence from Tell el-Amana in Egypt, and in the Assyrian account of Sennacherib's 701 BC siege of the city.[161]
  • Salem is probably a shortened form of this (Genesis 14:18; Psalm 76:2).

  • Jebus recalls the Jebusites that lived there (Joshua 18:28; Judges 19:10-11; 1 Chronicles 11:4-5).
  • Zion refers to the stronghold[162] taken by David (2 Samuel 5:7; 1 Kings 8:1). The term "Zion" has some etymological connection with Arabic terms for "ridge," or perhaps "fortified ridge."[163] Later Zion comes to refer to the whole city, not just the east ridge.
  • City of David is used to name the city after its conqueror (2 Samuel 5:7), though the term sometimes refers specifically to the original city David captured (2 Chronicles 32:5).[164]

Map: Zion, Jebusite city of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6-8).
Map: Zion, Jebusite city of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6-8). Larger map.

Jerusalem had its origins in the late fourth or early third millennium BC, with small settlements in the Chalcolithic and early Bronze I and II periods. By the early second millennium BC (Middle Bronze II), archaeologists have found evidence of a sizeable 12 acre walled town with a three foot thick wall with towers to protect the Gihon spring, as well as an underground water channel bringing water from the spring into the settlement at times when the city was under siege. The city also begins to show up in Egyptian texts as a small and minor part of Egyptian colonial rule, governed by a mayor rather than a king.

A "stepped stone structure" as part of the citadel apparently dates from the time of Jebusite rule in the late thirteenth to early twelfth centuries BC, at the end of the Late Bronze Age.[165]

During the time of the Conquest under Joshua, Jerusalem had remained in Jebusite hands. Neither the tribe of Judah nor the tribe of Benjamin could dislodge[166] them (Joshua 15:63; Judges 1:21), though at one point Judah had a successful raid against it (Judges 1:8). In David's time, the Jebusites and Israelites probably coexisted with some kind of state of truce between them, the Jebusites controlling the city and Judah controlling the land around the city.

We don't know much about the Jebusites, members of the Canaanite clan of Jebus. While they were considered Canaanites because they lived in Canaan (Genesis 10:16), they may have been a non-Semitic people related to the Hurrians or the Hittites.[167] We may see a trace of this in Ezekiel's prophecy:

"Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: 'Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite.'" (Ezekiel 16:3)

Conquering Jerusalem through the Water Shaft (5:6-8)

Because of the Jerusalem citadel's natural strength as a fortress, defended by walls as well as a steep slope on either side, the city felt impervious to attack. The narrator records that the Jebusites had taunted David's men:

"You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off." (5:6b)

We might say something like, "Resisting you will be like child's play."

You can also read David's words to his men as a response to this taunt, as he laid out his strategy:

"Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft[168] to reach those 'lame and blind' who are David's enemies." (5:8a)

Trying to piece together David's strategy is hindered because the noun ṣinnôr,  has been translated variously as "water shaft" (NIV, NRSV), "gutter" (KJV), and "grappling iron" (New English Bible).[169] But I think that "water shaft" or "water supply"[170] is probably correct, since the use of grappling hooks would mean scaling the impregnable fortress in full view of its defenders.

Ancient walled cities needed access to a water supply in order to survive in time of siege. Jerusalem relied on a single source, the Gihon spring, which was outside the Canaanite city walls, near the bottom of the Kidron Valley to the east of the city.

In 1998, excavations by Israeli archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron demonstrated that the Gihon spring outside the city had been heavily fortified by the Canaanites with a massive tower (termed the "Spring Tower"). A complex system of underground passages,  entered from within the city walls, took people to the edge of a pool fed by the spring, where they could draw water by letting down a bucket.[171]

Of course, we don't know exactly how Joab and his men got into the city, but I expect that it reads like an episode from "Mission Impossible." Here's my attempt at a possible scenario, based on what we've learned from Reich's and Shukron's excavations:

Joab and his men somehow breach the massive Spring Tower and overcome its guards. They creep along a narrow water-filled channel (Channel II), then move up a narrow water-filled tunnel (Tunnel III) to get into the large underground water-storage pool. Here, they scale its walls to get to the cave-tunnel above, creep along a curved tunnel, its pitch blackness lit only by flickering lamps. Now they climb the tunnel's steep steps into a guard tower inside the city and overcome the guards. From there they creep out secretly, overcome more guards, and open the city gates so that David's troops can flood into the city and overwhelm it.

David laid out the strategy, and Joab volunteered for the assignment, with the promise that, if he succeeded, he would become David's commander (1 Chronicles 11:6).[172]

Of course, we can only speculate on how the city fortress was entered. Perhaps they simply forced the city to surrender because they were able to cut off its water supply.[173] But we know that David indeed captured it. Apparently, the existing Jebusite population was neither slaughtered nor displaced, for later David purchased a threshing floor from a Jebusite named Araunah (24:18-25), land that eventually became the site of Solomon's temple.

David's Palace in Jerusalem (5:9-16)

In addition to "Zion," its Canaanite name, Jerusalem is now called "The City of David," probably because David captured it with his own personal troops, rather than with an army gathered from levies on the various tribes. It becomes David's capital.

"David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David. He built up the area around it, from the supporting terraces inward. And he became more and more powerful, because the LORD God Almighty was with him." (5:9-10)

The narrator explains that David "built up the area around it, from the supporting terraces inward." The word translated "supporting terraces" (NIV) or "the Millo" (NRSV, KJV, from Hebrew millōʾ), apparently means "what is full" or "what fills the gap," or both. British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon contends that this complex of terracing on the eastern slope of Ophel[174] is a Jebusite structure built to support houses on the incline of the hill,[175] retaining walls with leveled filling. David, Solomon, and later kings repair and extend these terraces.

David's palace is built by Hiram, king of Tyre, who sends timber from the cedars of Lebanon, as well as skilled carpenters and stonemasons. This aid no doubt represents a treaty that David has made with the descendants of the Phoenicians, Israel's neighbors to the northwest along the coast.

The children born to David in Jerusalem are mentioned here also.

The First Battle with the Philistines (5:17-21)

Now that David is king over all Israel and established in the fortress city of Jerusalem, the Philistines become alarmed.

 "When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, but David heard about it and went down to the stronghold." (5:17)

David has been a Philistine vassal for nearly nine years -- nearly 1-1/2 years in Ziklag and another 7-1/2 years as king of Judah in Hebron. But now that David has become king over all Israel, the Philistines realize that David has become too powerful. He not only refuses to send tribute to Gath. He now poses a substantial threat to his Philistines overlords themselves.

By taking Jerusalem, David is able to "eliminate the foreign wedge between the northern and southern tribes."[176] Bright observes:

"The Philistines understood perfectly that David's acclamation constituted a declaration of independence on the part of a reunited Israel. And this they could not tolerate. They knew that they would have to destroy David, and destroy him at once."[177]

"All the Philistines," that is, the combined armies of the five Philistine city-states, go out to find David and crush him. Probably, David's army is greatly outnumbered by the determined Philistines. The Philistine armies have assembled in the Valley of Rephaim, an agricultural plain just southwest of Jerusalem.[178]

Map: Defeating the Philistines (2 Samuel 5-6). Larger map.

But David doesn't stay within Jerusalem to await a Philistine siege. He "went down to the stronghold," probably referring to the stronghold at Adullam (cf. 1 Samuel 22:1, 4).[179] This time he went to the stronghold as a tactical move, rather than to hide or escape. Here he inquires of the Lord using the Urim and Thummim from the ephod. He asks,

"'Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you hand them over to me?' The LORD answered him, "Go, for I will surely hand the Philistines over to you." (5:19)

Now David moves his troops to nearby Baal Perazim,[180] attacks the Philistine forces, and defeats them. The narrator quotes David's exclamation lauding what Yahweh has done:

"'As waters break out, the LORD has broken out against my enemies before me.' So that place was called Baal Perazim." (5:20)

Baal Perazim means "lord of the breakings through." Though we're not told the details of the battle, Anderson speculates,

"It is possible that David and his men rushed down Mount Perazim and attacked the surprised enemy in the valley, sweeping them away like raging floodwaters."[181] 

The Second Battle with the Philistines (5:22-25)5)

"Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the LORD has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army." (5:23-24)4)

"So David did as the LORD commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer." (5:25)5)

I find it fascinating that David inquires of the Lord the second time. So often, we seek the Lord the first time we have a problem. But then we think we have it figured out and don't need to seek God's wisdom again. Part of David's genius is that he seeks the Lord for every major crisis that he faces. What's more, he is obedient. He doesn't think he knows better than the Lord.

Conditions change. The Philistines perhaps expected David to do what he had done before. But this time David is to come around behind the Philistine army and only come when the wind comes up to rustle the leaves of the balsam trees in this valley. David's attack results in a rout, in which his troops slaughter the retreating Philistines all the way to their walled city of Gezer. In this second battle -- because he did it God's way -- David breaks the back of Philistine dominance of the entire region.

Q3. (2 Samuel 5:17-25) Why does David inquire of the Lord before he attacks the Philistines the first time? What would have happened if he thought he knew how to attack the Philistines, and didn't inquire of the Lord the second time? Why do we often want to figure out the process so we can act independently, rather than wait on God as a way of life? What does that say about God? What does that say about us?

David Comes to Dominate the Philistines

Later, we read:

"In the course of time, David defeated the Philistines and subdued them, and he took Metheg Ammah [a title for Gath] from the control of the Philistines" (8:1).

According to Bright, David eventually:

  1. Occupies the coastal plain to a point south of Joppa (1 Kings 4:9-11).

  2. Clears Philistines from Israelite soil in the south (including, at one time, Bethlehem, 2 Samuel 23:14), and thrusts his frontiers deep into their territory.

  3. Captures Gath,[182] the city to which David was once a vassal (8:1; 2 Chronicles 18:1). David incorporates mercenaries from Gath into his army -- the Gittites -- who are personally loyal to him (15:18), as well as other Philistine military contingents, the Cherethites and the Pelethites.[183]

  4. Reduces the territory of Ekron if not occupying it altogether.

David, however, does not seize the Canaanite cities of Gezer, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza, perhaps knowing that Egypt still claims suzerainty over them.[184]4] Under David, the Philistines are obliged to recognize Israelite supremacy in the region and some become his vassals and bring him tribute (8:12).

Discipleship Lessons

  1. Patience. Samuel had anointed David as king when he was perhaps 15, but he doesn't become king over Judah until he is 30, and doesn't become king over all Israel until he is 37. We have to be patient as God works out His will in His time.
  2. Diplomacy. Sometimes we have a very simplistic view of doing God's will. Sometimes our efforts on God's behalf look like "a bull in a china shop." Just as David developed relationships and worked through careful diplomacy to bring about a united kingdom, so our ministries must be characterized by grace, wisdom, and love in the way that we work with people and groups as agents of God's Kingdom. Knowing God's will isn't enough; how we facilitate it is important, too.
  3. Seeking God. David inquires of the Lord on three occasions in these chapters: (1) Where to settle after his exile, (2) How to attack the Philistine troops, and (3) How to attack the Philistines when they come again. If we think we know it all and stop seeking God, we get in a lot of trouble.
  4. Self-interest. One of David's biggest obstacles to uniting all Israel is Joab's single-minded intention to avenge Abner's killing of his brother Asahel. Joab not only lacked the right to extract blood vengeance, but by his actions he delayed David's peace initiative by months or years. We have to surrender our own priorities if we are to serve the King.
Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

David has established Jerusalem as the political and civic capital of a united Israel. In the next lesson we'll see how he seeks to make Jerusalem the center of worship for Yahweh, his beloved King.


Father, sometimes we discount politics as unspiritual and dirty. And it often is! But we know that wise and just governing is what you desire. You are the just Judge and the righteous King. We pray for our country and for our leaders, that you would bring out of your church, righteous leaders who can cause our nation to be blessed. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Then the men of Judah came to Hebron and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah." (2 Samuel 2:4a)

"All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, 'We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the LORD said to you, "You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler." 'When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a compact with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel." (2 Samuel 5:1-3)

[140] "That [David] did this with the Philistines' consent is certain, for he was their vassal and could hardly have taken such a step without their approval. The Philistines, however, whose policy was 'divide and rule,' desired it" (Bright, History of Israel, p. 196).

[141] Ner could be interpreted as Kish's brother in 1 Chronicles 9:36, thus Saul's cousin. However, in 1 Chronicles 8:33 and 9:39, Ner is clearly the father of Kish. Thus Abner is Saul's uncle (1 Samuel 14:50-51). The word is dôd, "beloved uncle." The word is used in the Old Testament 58 times -- 38 are "beloved" (all in Song of Solomon), 8 are "love," and 17 are "uncle" (Earl S. Kalland, dwd, TWOT #410a). It is possible, however, that there may have been two men named Kish, one being Ner's brother and the other his son -- we just don't know ("Ner," ISBE 3:519-520; M.L. Margolis, "Abner," ISBE 1:12-13).

[142] Ish-Bosheth means literally "man of shame," though elsewhere he is called Esh-Baal, "fire of Baal" or perhaps "man of Baal" (1 Chronicles 8:33; 9:39). Probably it was offensive for the editor of 2 Samuel to use the name of Baal, a Canaanite god, in the name of the king, so the word bōshet, "shame," was substituted for Baal. We see the same kind of substitution in 1 and 2 Samuel of Mephibosheth ("exterminator of shame," 2 Samuel 9:6) for Meribbaal ("contender with Baal," 1 Chronicles 8:34) (John N. Oswalt, bosh, TWOT #222c).

[143] Mahanaim is a city in Gilead, which lies somewhat east of the Jordan, perhaps on the north bank of the Jabbok River, in the territory of Gad, a city assigned to the Merarite clan of the Levites (Joshua 21:38). Two possible suggestions for its location are Tell edh-Dhahab el Gharbi or Tell Hajjaj, but we just don't know (W.D. Mounce, "Mahanaim," ISBE 3:222-223; Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 33).

[144] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 32.

[145] Bright, History of Israel, p. 197.

[146] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 43, citing similar trials at arms in the ancient Near East.

[147] "Butt end" (NIV, NRSV), "hinder part" (KJV) is ʾaḥar, "after, behind" (TWOT #68b). Whether this is the butt end of the spear, or Abner points his spear backwards isn't clear.

[148] See my discussion of bloodguilt in Lesson 5.

[149] Though we're not sure of the status of a concubine during this period, it probably refers here to "a legitimate wife of second rank" (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 56).

[150] Anderson (2 Samuel, p. 56) questions this interpretation. "This is possible, but far from certain. There is no clear indication of it in the text itself; if anything, Abner's protestation of loyalty seems to exclude this interpretation." I disagree.

[151] The probable meaning is "worthless dog" (2 Kings 6:25), not some reference to a dog's proverbial promiscuity.

[152] Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south represent the extremes of Israel's territory -- from north to south!

[153] Anderson (2 Samuel, p. 57) cites Kirkpatrick, Kennedy, and Hertzberg as holding this view, though Anderson himself sees the first interpretation as the most probable.

[154] Saul's annulment was unjust since David had not initiated the divorce nor had the bride's price of 100 Philistine foreskins been returned to him, as would have been required. There is precedent from ancient Near East law of a remarriage after a husband's return from captivity or exile, even though the wife had in the meantime married another man and had children by him. Anderson (2 Samuel, p. 58) cites Z. Ben-Barak, "The Legal Background of the Restoration of Michal to David," Vetis Testamentum Supplements 30 [1979] 21-25.

[155] Bright, History of Israel, p. 198.

[156] William White, rak, TWOT #2164a; Holladay, p. 339, 2.

[157] So Bergen, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 318.

[158] Leonard J. Coppes, qāsheh, TWOT #2085a; Holladay, p. 327, 2.

[159] E. Beyreuther, "Shepherd," New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 3:564.

[160] Bright, History of Israel, p. 200.

[161] The name "Jerusalem" apparently derives from West Semitic words meaning "foundation of [the god] Shalem," a Canaanite deity mentioned in the Ugaritic texts, though in Hebrew times this part of the name was identified with the Hebrew word shālôm, "peace" (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 82).

[162] Meṣûdâ, "fastness, stronghold." Masada, the fortress-palace plateau of Herod near the Dead Sea, is related to this word (John E. Hartley, meṣûdâ, TWOT #1885i).

[163] Carol Meyers, "Jerusalem," DOTHB 547-556, especially p. 549.

[164] Meyers, DOTHB, p. 549.

[165] Meyers, DOTHB, p. 550.

[166] Yārash, Hiphil stem, "inherit, drive out, cast out, dispossess, destroy, make poor" (John E. Hartley, TWOT #920).

[167] Meyers, DOTHB, p. 550; R.K. Harrison, "Jebus, Jebusite," ISBE 2:973-974.

[168] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 196; In 1922, W.F. Albright argued that the word probably referred to a grappling hook (W.F. Albright, "The ṣinnôr in the Story of David's Capture of Jerusalem," Journal of Palestine Oriental Society (JPOS), 2 (1922), pp. 286-290.)

[169] ṣinnôr, "pipe, spout, conduit" (BDB 857), based on Psalm 42:7 and a related word in Zechariah 4:12.

[170] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 84.

[171] Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, "Light at the End of the Tunnel: Warren's Shaft Theory of David's Conquests Shattered," Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 25, January/February 1999, pp. 22-33, 72. They determined that Warren's Shaft, discovered in 1867 by Sir Charles Warren, long thought to be the water shaft, was never used for drawing water, but was a widening of a natural fissure in the rock.

[172] This is the author's reconstruction of events -- purely speculation -- but it would make a great scene in an adventure movie!

[173] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 84.

[174] Ophel is another name for the original City of David, a narrow promontory beyond the southern edge of Jerusalem's Temple Mount and Old City, with the Tyropoeon Valley on its west, the Hinnom valley to the south, and the Kidron Valley on the east.

[175] Anderson (2 Samuel, p. 85) cites Kathleen Kenyon, Digging Up Jerusalem (1974), p. 100.

[176] Aharoni and Avi-Yonah, Macmillan Bible Atlas, p. 66, map 100.

[177] Bright, History of Israel, p. 198.

[178] The Valley of Rephaim appears to be the plain immediately southwest of Jerusalem, the modern el Baq'a, now a quarter of Jerusalem. It was once the main agricultural area for Jerusalem (Isaiah 17:5), and at one time belonged to the Jebusites (Joshua 15:8; 18:16. A. van Selms, "Rephaim, Valley of," ISBE 4:137-138).

[179] One can scarcely go "down" to the stronghold at Jerusalem! In Bible language always go "up" to Jerusalem, due to its elevation.

[180] The location of Baal Perazim is uncertain, but may refer to the mountains to the east of the Valley of Rephaim, or perhaps refer to Mt. Perazim near the valley of Gibeon (Isaiah 28:21), possibly Sheikh Bedr, about 3 miles northwest of Jerusalem (R.E.W. Bason, "Baal-Perazim," ISBE 1:380; Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 93).

[181] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 93.

[182] In 2 Samuel 8:1 Gath is termed Metheg Ammah, "bridle of the mother" = "mother city" of the Philistines. The NASB renders the term "chief city."

[183] 2 Samuel 8:18; 15:18; 20:7, 23.

[184] Bright, History of Israel, p. 199.

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