Upon learning of Saul’s defeat by the Philistines, David
sings a song lamenting the deaths of Saul and his friend, Jonathan.
David goes to Hebron, where his followers and the southern tribe
of Judah anoint him as king. Meanwhile, Saul’s chief commander,
Abner, garners the support of the northern tribes and instates Saul’s
son, Ish-Bosheth, as king of Israel. A war ensues between the conflicting
regimes, played out in a series of small hand-to-hand contests between Abner’s
men and the army of Joab, David’s general.
When Ish-Bosheth falsely accuses Abner of sleeping with
one of the royal concubines, Abner defects to David’s court. David
welcomes Abner’s support. Abner convinces the other tribes to recognize
David’s claim to the throne. Joab, however, seeks revenge for his
brother’s earlier death at Abner’s hands, and he stabs Abner in secret.
David’s public censure of Joab and mourning for Abner wins Israel’s
respect, and two of Ish-Bosheth’s men betray their ruler by presenting
David with the severed head of the northern king. David is horrified
that they have killed an innocent man, and he publicly executes
these men. The united tribes declare David king of Israel.
David leads the Israelites in conquering the city of
Jerusalem, a Canaanite stronghold lingering in the heart of Israel’s
territory. He erects his palace there and calls it “The City of
David” or “Zion.” Growing in power, David quells the ever-present
Philistine threat in a decisive military victory. With the help
of thirty thousand Israelites, David brings the Ark of the Covenant
to Jerusalem in an elaborate procession. Amidst shouting and music,
David dances and leaps in front of the Ark, to the embarrassment
of his wife Michal. David rebukes her, claiming that he will humiliate
himself as much as he wants so long as it pleases God. God is pleased
that David has made a permanent home for the Ark and reveals a message
to David’s prophet, Nathan. God vows to grant Israel rest from foreign opposition
and promises that the kingdom of David will last forever. With Joab’s
services, David subdues the nations of the surrounding area, expanding
Israel’s borders while developing diplomatic relations with the
One day, David watches a woman bathing from the rooftop
of his palace. He summons the woman, Bathsheba, and has sex with her,
and the woman becomes pregnant. Unable to disguise his indiscretion,
David sends her husband, Uriah, to die on the battlefield. David
marries Bathsheba, but Nathan confronts the king about his wrongdoing.
Nathan tells a parable about a wealthy man who steals a poor man’s
only prized sheep. David is outraged by such selfishness, and Nathan
informs David that the parable is about him. Nathan predicts that
God will bring calamity on David’s household. David repents for
his wrongdoing, but, despite his fasting and praying, Bathsheba’s
son dies during childbirth. Afterward, David and Bathsheba have
another son, Solomon.
David’s older son Amnon falls in love with his half-sister
Tamar and rapes her. David is furious but does nothing. Instead,
Tamar’s brother Absalom invites Amnon out to the country, where he
and David’s other sons murder Amnon. Absalom flees to a remote city for
three years, but David, after mourning for Amnon, allows his son
Absalom back to Jerusalem.
Absalom plots a conspiracy, forming an army and winning
the hearts of the Israelite people through displays of warmth and
kindness. Supported by David’s chief counselor, Absalom goes to Hebron
where his followers pronounce him king. Informed of this event,
David flees from Jerusalem with his men, and the people of the countryside
weep as he marches by. One of Saul’s relatives, however, curses
and throws stones at the band, gloating over David’s demise. David
forbids his attendants to punish the man.
Absalom enters Jerusalem where, in a display of defiance,
he has sex with David’s concubines. Absalom’s aides advise him to
attack David immediately, but one of David’s officials, pretending
to support Absalom, persuades Absalom to wait. This delay gives
David time to muster an army, and his forces kill twenty thousand
of Absalom’s followers in the forests of Ephraim. Riding along, Absalom
catches his head in the branches of a tree. Joab ignores David’s
instructions to treat Absalom gently and drives three spears into
Absalom’s hanging body. When David is notified of Absalom’s death,
he weeps, screaming repeatedly, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my
son, my son!” (19:4).
To the frustration of his officials, David shows mercy
to all of Absalom’s supporters who approach him for forgiveness,
especially Absalom’s commander Amasa. David sends messengers to
the leaders of Judah, and the tribe welcomes him back to Jerusalem.
The remaining tribes—Absalom’s chief supporters—fear that David
will be angry at them. An uprising ensues, but Joab traps the rebels
in a city and the city’s residents hand over the severed head of
the rebel leader. Angered that David has shown mercy to Amasa, Joab
stabs Amasa one day while pretending to greet him.
David rebuilds his throne with continued acts of local
diplomacy and with military victories over the Philistines. He composes
a song praising God as a loving and kind deliverer, and the narrator
briefly recounts the feats of David’s most famous fighting men.
The major scholarly debate over 2 Samuel
involves whether or not the book describes David in a negative or
positive light. Chapters 9–20 of 2 Samuel
are not necessarily complimentary. David commits adultery, tries
to have his mistress’s husband killed, and loses control of his
sons. At the same time, however, the narrator explains how each
of these incidents actually proves David’s righteousness. Not only
are David’s sons blamed for their own actions, but David’s own repentance
for his misdeeds is described as exemplary. The circumstances surrounding David’s
reign suggest that God approves of David’s actions. David’s kingdom
in Zion represents the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham,
Jacob, and Moses. It establishes the unified tribes of Israel in
the promised land under the rule of a divinely sanctioned leader.
David’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant
marks the story’s climax, symbolizing the ideal combination of religion
and politics in Israel and the peaceful unification of God and man
in one city. The image of an organized procession of song and dance
around a symbol of God suggests that the people have, temporarily,
reconciled their earthly aspirations with their religious commitments. 2 Samuel
is characterized by the contrast between joyful images and images
of civil conflict and confusion. All of the challengers to David’s
throne in Samuel lose their heads, symbolizing their thwarted attempts
to become the head of Israel. David’s retreat from Jerusalem to
the sound of weeping and cursing contrasts with his earlier celebratory
march into the city. Geographical motifs further reinforce this
sense of division and loss. Ish-Bosheth’s challenge to the throne
divides Israel into two halves, northern and southern. Absalom is
declared king outside of Jerusalem in Hebron, a symbol of his dissent
from David, while his exhibition at the top of the palace represents
his ascent to power. David, meanwhile, must move out from the center
of Israel and across the Jordan River—the chief mark of one’s exile
from the promised land.
Individual characters express differing opinions
about David’s method of ruling. In one sense, David’s mercy shows
great prudence, for his tolerance of Ish-Bosheth eventually earns
the respect of Ish-Bosheth’s subjects. However, David’s reluctance
to punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar seems more permissive than
just, and only fosters Absalom’s rage. Joab similarly believes that
David’s kindness to Abner and Amasa is the result of oversight.
Joab’s decision to take matters into his own hands makes Joab a
foil to David. While Joab is suspicious of others and concerned
with end results, David is trusting and believes that an earnest
response in the present moment is more important than outcomes.
David’s trust in the impulses of the present moment is the source
of his greatest failing, his lust for Bathsheba. David’s immediate impulses
are also the source of the narrative’s greatest moment of pathos—David’s
desperate cries for Absalom. Nevertheless, his mercy stabilizes
Israel by providing second chances, not only to political rebels,
but to some of the nation’s most intriguing characters, such as Saul’s