David’s Final Years – 2 Samuel 21
Read the Passage: 2 Samuel 21
Gibeonites’ Covenant (21:1–9)
The last four chapters of the book of 2 Samuel narrate several events that mostly transpired during the final years of David’s reign. These events are not necessarily presented chronologically. 2 Sam. 21:1–14 describes an otherwise unknown 3-year famine that occurred in Israel. Here we learn that this famine happened on account of Saul’s earlier murder of the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites were a group of Canaanites who dwelt in Palestine prior to the exodus event. When Israel entered the Promised Land, the Gibeonites deceived them into making a covenant of protection, which resulted in these Canaanites becoming servants in the land. These events transpired some 400 years prior to David’s time, and are recorded in Joshua 9. While the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites was made deceitfully and was contrary to God’s command (cf. Exod. 34:12–15), it nevertheless was a covenant.
When David inquired of the Lord concerning the reason for the famine, which was the result of a lengthy drought, he learned that God had brought about the famine because earlier Saul had killed some of the Gibeonites. While earlier Scripture does not narrate Saul’s ethnic cleansing of the Gibeonites, here it is reported that “Saul sought to kill them in his zeal for the children of Israel and Judah” (2 Sam. 21:2). Upon learning this, David summoned the Gibeonites, who presumably approached with fear, and asked what could be done to atone for Saul’s error. Interestingly, the Gibeonites’ response was that they did not desire silver or gold as restitution, nor did they desire that David kill any Israelites. Rather, as we’ll see below, the Gibeonites desired to be given seven of Saul’s descendants to put to death themselves. Note that Saul had likely been dead many years at this point in time.
The death of seven of Saul’s descendants at the hands of the Gibeonites is a reminder that the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites was national in scope—that is, all citizens of both nations were included. The corporate nature of covenants is foreign to many in the contemporary church. Here we learn that, at the Gibeonites’ request, David gave over two sons of Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines, and five sons of Merab, one of Saul’s daughters. The text notes that David did not surrender Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, on account of the covenant between David and Jonathan (cf. 1 Sam. 20:14–15). Note, too, that David had sworn to Saul not to cut off his name from Israel, which also helps to explain why David did not give over Saul’s direct male heir (cf. 1 Sam. 24:21–22). These seven descendants were put to death by the Gibeonites via hanging.
Rizpah’s Devotion (21:10–14)
Apart from this chapter, Saul’s concubine Rizpah is only mentioned at 2 Sam. 3:7 where Saul’s son Ishbosheth accused Abner of having an affair with her. Given that she had two sons by Saul, and in light of Ishbosheth’s charge, it seems likely Rizpah was a favored concubine of Saul. Here in 2 Sam. 21:10–14 we see her devotion to her sons, as she spent many weeks guarding the dead bodies of her two sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth. Note that as foreigners the Gibeonites were not bound by the law at Deut. 21:22–23, which stated that dead bodies were not to be exposed after their execution. Perhaps David allowed the Gibeonites to leave the bodies outside until the drought ended. 2 Sam. 21:11–14 records that David seems to have been inspired by Rizpah’s devotion to her sons, and commanded that the bones of Saul and his descendants be buried in the family tomb.
Giants’ Death (21:15–22)
2 Samuel 21:15–22 records a different event in David’s reign, which is his vicarious victories over four Philistine giants. So-called giants are described in several Old Testament passages (cf. Gen. 15:19–21; Num. 13:33; Deut. 2:11; 3:11–13) being referred to as Rephaim and Anakim. Little is known about these giants, other than that they were large in size and related to one another. Some suggest that these giants were the result of human–angelic cohabitation (cf. Gen. 6:1–4; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6), which seems to be a likely possibility. In this passage we learn that David fought Ishbi-Benob but had to be rescued by Abishai (cf. 2 Sam. 21:15–17). The other giants killed by David’s men were: Saph, who was killed by Sibbechai; Goliath’s unnamed brother, who was killed by Elhanan; and a giant with six fingers and toes on each limb, who was killed by Shimea, David’s brother.
- How important are covenants in the Bible? Was the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites a valid covenant (cf. Josh. 9)?
- Why would God send a lengthy famine upon the land, surely impacting many of the citizens, when the sin of killing the Gibeonites was Saul’s error?
- Given that Scripture teaches that sons shall not be put to death for their fathers’ sins (cf. Deut. 24:16), how do we explain the execution of Saul’s descendants?
- How ought we to treat the bodies of those who have passed away? What aspects of Christian doctrine ought to shape our treatment of a corpse?
- How do we explain the existence of giants in the Bible? Where did these giants come from and why do they have no descendants today?