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Bible Commentaries
2 Samuel 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Some of the problems and questions that confront us in this chapter are undoubtedly due to the imperfection of the text as it has come down to us. “There are many places in this chapter which have suffered much from the ignorance or carelessness of transcribers; and, indeed, I suspect that the whole has suffered so materially as to distort, if not misrepresent the principal facts.”(F1) Many other scholars have also mentioned the “corruption” of certain passages in this chapter; and, in all candor, how else could we possibly explain passages that stand in direct contradiction of God’s Word as revealed in other passages?

True to the genius of the critical community of scholars, a defective chapter of the the Hebrew text of the O.T. is quickly chosen by them and labeled as an especially instructive section of God’s Word! For example, Smith in the International Critical Commentary wrote that, “Few sections of the O.T. show more clearly the religious ideas of the times. Here we see God as the Avenger of a broken covenant requiring from the children (grandchildren) of the offender the blood that had been shed.”(F2) On the other hand, what we shall really see, as explained below, is another one of David’s tragic mistakes!

With regard to the time when the events mentioned in this chapter occurred, it is unknown, there being not the slightest clue upon which an intelligent guess may be founded.(F3) Still, some suppose that these things occurred, “In the beginning of the reign of David.”(F4)

Verses 1-6


“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, `There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.’ So the king called the Gibeonites. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; although the Israelites had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to slay them in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. And David said to the Gibeonites, `What shall I do for you, and how shall I make expiation, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’ The Gibeonites said to him, `It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.’ And he said, `What shall I do for you?’ They said to the king, `The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given unto us, so that we might hang them up before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord.’ And the king said, `I will give them.’“

This episode recounts another of the shameful sins of David. In the first place, why should he have waited three whole years to seek the face of the Lord? What hindered him from seeking to know God’s will after two full years instead of waiting three?

“There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” Saul, by reason of his excessive zeal, attempted to exterminate the whole race of the Gibeonites, evidently thinking that God’s instructions to Israel regarding their putting the nations of Canaan to death might still be implemented (Joshua 9:24). Of course, God’s commandment in that instance was to Joshua, not to Saul. It was far too late for Israel to attempt to do that. Furthermore, Saul also ignored a very important fact. The Israelites had made a solemn covenant with the Gibeonites that they would not be harmed and that the Gibeonites would be slaves to Israel (Joshua 9:22). It was therefore a crime of maximum guilt when Saul wantonly violated that covenant.

“So the king called the Gibeonites” David here made the same mistake that Joshua and the elders had made during the Conquest in that, “They did not ask direction from the Lord (Joshua 9:14).” It is simply amazing that David would have asked the pagan Gibeonites what should be done; there was not a chance in a million that they would have, or even could have given him a correct answer.

“And David said to the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? And how shall I make expiation?” David was here asking the pagan slaves of Israel what he should do instead of “asking direction of the Lord.” Furthermore, God had legislated on this matter through Moses; and, in this case, David, like any other Oriental despot, was himself making the decision on what to do.

“The Gibeonites were not… of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites” These people were actually Hivites (Joshua 9:7); but their being called Amorites here is no problem, because, “That is a common O.T. name for (any or) all of the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Canaan (as in Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 1:37; Joshua 5:1; Joshua 24:15 and 1 Samuel 7:14).”(F5)

A number of scholars appeal to the fact that, “Bloodguilt rests on the murderer until it is expiated properly,”(F6) but the Lord specifically stated that, “No expiation for the land can be made, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him that shed it” (Numbers 35:34). Furthermore, in certain cases, the ashes of a red heifer were involved (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). It is difficult to see how any of this can be applied to the case of the Gibeonites. Saul, the man who had attempted to destroy them, was already dead, and presumably the seven sons whom the Gibeonites requested David to deliver to them were innocent of any outrage whatever against the Gibeonites. Nowhere does this text say that God commanded David to grant any such hateful and vengeful request as that of the Gibeonites, and this writer simply cannot believe that it was right for him to do it.

“The Gibeonites said, Let seven of his sons be given to us that we may hang them” “The meaning of the word hang here is unknown.”(F7) It is generally believed to be some brutal, inhuman torturing death often practiced among heathen people. Furthermore, they left the bodies exposed from March 21 to the time of the autumn rains, directly contrary to and a wanton violation of God’s Word (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Of course, the radical critics seize upon this sinful action as an excuse to claim, “That law must have been of later origin.”(F8) Indeed! Indeed! It would be just as reasonable to affirm that because David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah that “the Ten Commandments had not been written at that time”! The critical canard that affirms a fifth- or sixth-century date for the Pentateuch is so weak and untrustworthy that those who have foolishly accepted it must never overlook an opportunity to re-assert their false allegation!

The nineteenth-century scholar Adam Clarke has a very discerning comment on this episode:(F9)


Before leaving this vengeful request of the Gibeonites, we should point out what a foolish request it was from their own viewpoint. Having been condemned by Israel to perpetual slavery, why did they not ask for an end of that? Instead, they wished to torture the sons of Saul! Not until the request of Salome who turned down half a kingdom to choose instead the head of John the Baptist is there anything in the Bible that matches this insane request of the Gibeonites. As Matthew Henry said, “They had a fair opportunity to get rid of their servitude, but they did not take it.”(F10)

God indeed promised that the sins of one generation might indeed be the reason for punishment of succeeding generations, but there is no record where God ever extended this privilege of executing innocents for the crimes of their ancestors into the hands of mortal and fallible men. These men David turned over to the Gibeonites were not sons of Saul in the ordinary sense, but grandsons, and there never was a Divine law that allowed men to execute grandsons for the crimes of their grandfather.

The scholars who excuse this outrage by relating it to the ancient custom of blood-vengeance (for which the cities of refuge were provided as a deterrent) which allowed the next of kin to kill the murderer have simply failed to see that this case resembles that custom in no manner whatever. Here we have, not the next of kin but a racial contingent murdering all of the offender’s next of kin! There is no correspondence whatever in the two cases. In the case of the scriptural avenger of blood, the next of kin (singular) murdered the offender (singular) (and if the manslayer sought refuge in an appointed city, even that was allowed only after a judicial hearing); here we have, not the next of kin, but mere members (plural) of the same race murdering all the descendants (plural) of the offender.

Oh yes, ONLY SEVEN OF SAUL’S GRANDSONS WERE SLAIN, but that seven (a perfect number) was a token of all of Saul’s whole generation, and the only reason the Gibeonites did not make their request include all of them was probably their knowledge that David would NOT have granted it, as indicated by his sparing Mephibosheth.

Thus, we see that what was in operation here was the old pagan system that, “If you kill some of us, we will wipe out your whole generation.” That is exactly the system that the Biblical system regarding the avenger of blood (and its relation to the cities of refuge) was designed to supplant. We have never found in the Holy Bible one line that approves of the execution of members of a third generation to expiate the crimes of one who lived in the first generation. If anything like that is in God’s Word, “Where is it”?

Verses 7-9


“But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord which was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them there on the mountain before the Lord, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.”

“The two sons of Rizpah” This was one of Saul’s concubines, concerning whom the quarrel between Abner and Mephibosheth occurred, resulting in Abner’s defection to the cause of David (2 Samuel 3:7-11). It is of interest that one of her sons was named Mephibosheth. Thus, Saul had two sons with the same name.

“And the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel” The corrupt Hebrew text here has Michal instead of Merab, an error which the KJV translators avoided by rendering the place, “which she brought up for Adriel.” That also is an adequate solution of what is obviously a corrupt text. The solution by the translators of the RSV simply changed the name Michal to Merab. To us, it appears that one solution is just as good as the other one. If Merab and Adriel were deceased, Michal, as a member of the king’s harem, would have had both the opportunity and the means to have brought up their five orphaned sons. Guessing at the true meaning of a damaged and corrupt text is, at best, a very precarious business.

“Barzillai” “This man is not the same as the Barzillai who helped David at Mahanaim (2 Samuel 19:31-40).(F11)

“And he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them” Mercifully, we are not told any of the cruel and disgusting details of this pagan execution of the grandsons of Saul. The assertion of Matthew Henry that, “Those executions must not be complained of as cruel which have become necessary to the public welfare,”(F12) while true enough if his assumption that these executions were necessary is allowed, is nevertheless founded upon what this writer believes to be a false premise. Nowhere did God declare that these executions were necessary. David alone, acting upon the bloody request of the Gibeonites, ordered these killings.

Jamieson noted that, “The practice of gibbeting men with a view of appeasing the anger of the gods in seasons of famine was a heathen custom; and the Gibeonites, who were a remnant of the Canaanite pagans, although brought to a knowledge of the true God, were not free from that superstition.”(F13) Willis also tells us that, “Several scholars have suggested that the Gibeonites sacrificed these seven descendants of Saul at this time as a sacrifice to their (pagan) god of fertility.”(F14) And this writer finds no fault with that viewpoint. These murders cannot be made to fit anything else.

“They were put to death at the beginning of the barley harvest” “The barley harvest began about the first of April at the time of the Passover; and the wheat harvest began fifty days later at the time of Pentecost. Adam Clarke identified the beginning of the barley harvest with the vernal equinox on March 21st.(F15)

Verses 10-14


“Then Rizpah the daughter of Ahiah took sackcloth, and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest till the rain fell on them from 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. When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Ahiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa; and he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. And they buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father; and they did all that the king commanded. And after that God heeded supplications for the land.”

No greater and inspiring example of mother love is to be found anywhere in the literature of all nations and generations. Willis also commented on this and gave us these lines from Rudyard Kipling’s immortal poem:

“If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother of mine, O mother of mine!
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother of mine, O mother of mine!”(F16)

“Until the rain fell upon them from the heavens” “The rains usually came in late November or early December, so Rizpah must have kept a six-months vigil over the bodies.”(F17)

If left unattended an exposed corpse, whether of a man or an animal, would soon be nothing but bones. “A strict order of priority is followed by carrion eating birds and beasts. The vultures come first… the jackals wait in a circle until the vultures are satisfied, and the crows wait for the jackals.”(F18) Since only the bones of those who were hanged are mentioned (2 Samuel 21:13). it may be that Rizpah’s long vigil might not have been completely successful. Then too, “the bones of those who were hanged” could merely be a euphemism for “their decaying bodies.”

Although the text does not say so, it is likely that these seven grandsons of Saul were likewise buried in the tomb of Kish.

It appears to this writer as very significant that the rains did not come promptly after this brutal and inhuman sacrifice of the sons of Saul, which indeed may be viewed as God’s displeasure with the whole episode. Yes, the rains finally came over six months later AT THE USUAL TIME WHEN THE RAINS GENERALLY CAME.

We have already noted that this long-time exposure of dead bodies to public view was a direct violation of God’s Law in Deuteronomy 21:23. We find no agreement whatever with the scholars who fail to note this sinful action allowed by the king. Smith’s assertion that, “That God was propitiated toward the land after that is the conclusion of the narrative,”(F19) but the sacred text does not say that God was propitiated, but merely that it finally rained! All efforts to identify the action of this section as the will of God and as something that God was pleased with are a failure for the want of one thing. That lack is the total absence of any line in the Bible that says so!

Verses 15-17


“The Philistines had war again with Israel, and David went down together with his servants, and they fought against the Philistines; and David grew weary. And Ishbibenob, one of the descendants of the giants, whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze, and who was girded with a new sword, thought to kill David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid, and attacked the Philistine and killed him. Then David”s men adjured him, `You shall no more go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.’“

Here again the exact time of this episode is unknown; and, “Part of the text here is corrupt.”(F20) David was often critical of his nephews, the sons of Zeruiah, but on this occasion Abishai saved his life. Josephus tells us that, “David was totally exhausted and that he had fallen to the ground at the time the giant turned back to slay him, but Abishai covered David with his shield as he lay down and slew the enemy.”(F21)

“Three hundred shekels of bronze” The scholars who mention this generally agree that the weight indicated is between 7 and one-half pounds and 8 pounds. “The Hebrew word here rendered `giants’ is a collective noun denoting a giant race that inhabited Canaan in the pre-Israelite times. The word is [~rapha`], rendered by the Vulgate Arapha; and from it comes Harapha the name of the giant in Milton’s Samson Agonistes.”(F22)

Verses 18-22


“After this there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; then Sibbecai the Hushathite slew Saph, who was one of the descendants of the giants. And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, the Bethlehemire, slew Goliath the Gitrite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. And there was war again at Gath, where there was a man of great stature, who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty four in number; and he also was descended from the giants. And when he taunted Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David’s brother slew him. These four were descended from the giants in Gath; and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants.”

“Elhanan killed Goliath” The great difficulty here is that the Hebrew text is apparently a flat contradiction of 1 Samuel 17, where it is stated that David killed Goliath. For any who might be interested in a more detailed discussion of this, D. F. Payne in The New Bible Commentary (Revised) devotes a special appendix to the problem,(F23) Bearing in mind the admitted corruption evident in this chapter, the Christian should have no difficulty with the problem. There are a number of ways to resolve the matter: (1) The parallel account in 1 Chronicles 20:5 states that, “Elhanan… slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath.” (2) Elhanan and David were names of the same individual, just as Solomon was also named Jedidiah (2 Samuel 12:24 d). (3) “It is also possible that Goliath was a name worn by more than one Philistine giant, or that it was a Philistine title, or that it described a certain type of Philistine soldier.”(F24) It is perfectly silly for any Christian to be upset about this type of difficulty. “There is simply not enough information for anyone to be dogmatic about the problem.”(F25) As Payne stated it, “In view of the textual problems, it is a precarious argument to insist that 2 Samuel 21:19 contradicts 1 Samuel 17.”(F26)

“These four were descended from the giants in Gath, and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants” It is significant that David is here mentioned as one who had a hand in killing these giants, and that certainly harmonizes with 1 Samuel 17.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/2-samuel-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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