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As David neared the end of his life, he calls Solomon to himself and gives him some final instructions recorded in 1 Kings 2:1-10. It starts out how you'd maybe expect, with David admonishing Solomon to be careful to keep God's commands as written in the Law of Moses. In verse 5, however, it takes a kind of unexpected course and David begins telling Solomon which guys to bump off and which guys to eat with.

What's going on? Is David settling old scores? Cleaning house? How can he in one breath say, "Obey God", and in the next, "Make sure you kill the guys who cursed me?"

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This is an interesting question and I asked a related question about the second half of the chapter. +1 (I imagine the downvote came from the title, which might be too clever for its own good.) –  Jon Ericson May 2 '12 at 22:32
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@JonEricson Probably right about the title, but I couldn't resist :) –  Soldarnal May 2 '12 at 23:15
    
Maybe it's just David imparting the wisdom he'd gained about whom Solomon could trust and whom he could not. An interesting question would be, did Solomon heed this advice? That may go a long way in answering, particularly from a literary perspective. –  swasheck May 3 '12 at 21:30
    
@swasheck Solomon gives the order to kill Joab in 2:31 and then to kill Shimei in 2:46. –  Soldarnal May 3 '12 at 21:53
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Title appropriate, question is difficult. –  Eli Rosencruft May 4 '12 at 16:19
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3 Answers

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The portrayal of David in the books of Samuel and Kings is ambivalent. In the current idiom we might say "conflicted". There is much positive material, but also a vast amount of negative material. The ambivalence is consistent throughout the narrative, almost from David's first appearance. This last picture we get of David epitomizes the ambivalence, and it is indeed jarring.

So, we might rephrase the question, "Why are Samuel and Kings so ambivalent about David?". And another question, "Why are we surprised by this?"

One possible answer to the first question can be found by making some presumptions about the authorship of these books and the time that they were written. If we assume that the books were written by prophets who were closely associated with Samuel, perhaps after his death but pre-exilic, then we could also assume that these authors would have a strong anti-monarchical ideology, in line with the view expressed in I Samuel 8:7-21. These prophets would have preferred a continuation of the tribal confederacy without a central government, led, when external circumstances required, by a charismatic personality, and united by a theocracy whose representatives on earth we these very prophets. When confronted with overwhelming popular demand for centralized government, the prophets acquiesced in practice, but did not give up their negative view of the effects of monarchy.

If you accept this view about the authorship, then you can understand the portrayal. The author acquiesces to the popular traditions about David's greatness, acknowledges David's devotion, but at the same time does not give any ground on the when it comes to portraying the darker side of David, of kings in general and especially of the people who become officials in the monarchy. In fact none of the kings come off well in the writings of the later prophets. There is at best grudging acknowledgement of their accomplishments. And not long after David's reign, the prophets began a long period of conflict with the central government.

The message that the prophet is giving in this passage from Kings is, to paraphrase John Godfrey Saxe, "Monarchies, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." The intrigue is unavoidable and it exists side-by-side with the most sincere piety.

We are surprised by this complex message because our view of David is colored by a) the idealized picture portrayed in Chronicles and later writers, and by b) the way David was portrayed to us in our youth. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Chronicles grouped with the later "Writings", not with the "Prophets". They were probably written at some distance from the events, perhaps in early second temple times, when circumstances required a glorious national narrative with a strong theme of centralized power and especially centralized worship.

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Thanks; this is a good and well-argued answer. –  Soldarnal May 9 '12 at 21:47
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Joab was a threat to Solomon's authority and the continued dynasty of the house of David.

In Joab's establishing his loyalty, David could not ethically eliminate Joab by killing him. Joab's loyalty was disingenuous. He acted strategically to prove David wrong, actions which appear to be mistakes but are not. But those strategic moves tied David down in the public opinion of Israel that made it impossible to ethically get rid of Joab.

David saw thro Joab's strategy.

However, Joab would have seen that his loyalty should be rewarded feudalistically. Joab's agenda would divide Israel and allow Joab to establish a fiefdom for his descendants, threatening the tribal allocation and unity of Israel. Perhaps, Joab wanted to establish his own dynasty to replace that of David's.

Why David could not eliminate Joab himself

There are two possibilities concerning the role of Joab.

  1. He was a politically ambitious disingenuous hero. Solomon was not beholden to Israeli public opinion and therefore had the freehand to eliminate Joab.

  2. He was a prophet with a task to accomplish, and everything Joab did was for the preservation of the house of Israel. Joab never made a mistake. It was David who made mistakes.

    OTOH, David recognized the Divine purpose of Joab and therefore was constrained from killing Joab. But Solomon was outside the plan the LORD had for Israel.

Joab was an agent to terminate the house of David

Joab could have been an agent of Divine purposes to terminate the house of David to preempt all the problems that the house of David subsequent rulers would cause. Just as Jacob defeated the Divine wrestler, so did David wrestled and won but consequently hurt the future of Israel.

Joab was to restore the representative Democracy advocated by Jethro to Moses.

The hand of the LORD was on David. The LORD would not let David build the temple because He did not want that temple. Building the 1st temple would contaminate and dilute the legacy of David and render meaningless all the blood that David had shed. That is, rather than the blood on David's hands contaminating the temple, building the temple would contaminate the David's having shed blood to establish the unity of Israel. The only Temple to be built was the one blueprinted in Ezekiel.

But Solomon was outside the plan of the LORD and the by-product of an illegitimate relation, so he was unconstrained to build the temple or eliminate Joab. Like Eve, David saw the leeway of being given a choice and ate of the fruit. His choice of continuing his personal dynasty brought travails, trials and tribulation to the house of Israel for thousands of years.

The futility of having a king

Recalling 1Samuel chap 8, When Israel desired for a king "like other nations", Samuel warned and urged Israel not to have a king. He warned Israel of all the bad things that a King would do to Israel.

Joab was supposed to terminate the dynasty of David and his task abrogated by David's advice to Solomon.

The futility of having a messiah

Unfortunately, for more than 2000 years, we did not pay attention to the significance of the prophecy laid out by Samuel in 1Samuel 8. No one takes this prophecy seriously. But so far its consequences have been disastrous.

For thousands of years, Jews had desired for an idolistic annointed-king dictator, just "like the other peoples". Fulfillment of the Sabbath is the only contract, interface and path to salvation - not a messiah.

So, as Samuel was consoled by the LORD, "the people have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me" in choosing to have a King.

Instead of choosing representative Democracy, we clamour for a king and messiah.

Just look back at history and see all the divisiveness, disasters and massacres upon the Jewish people every time someone claims to be the messiah-king, just as David made a bad choice of continuing his personal dynasty by having Joab killed.

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No, David is not The Godfather - at least not in the Don Corleone sense of a family head establishing his dynasty through corruption and murder. A dynasty is established - the chapter indeed concludes: "The kingdom was now firmly established in Solomon's hands." But the previous commands of David are introduced to explain that Solomon's rise to power is not the result of an unjust power grab like the attempts by Absalom or Adonijah.

Instead, Solomon establishes his power through executing justice consistent with the very Law that David commends to him. David tells Solomon to deal with two individuals, Joab and Shimei, neither of whom are to be considered innocent men.

Joab:

Now you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me — what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He 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. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.

1 Kings 2:5 NIV (emphasis mine)

Joab was guilty of shedding innocent blood, which the Law makes clear is a capital offense. As king, it was Solomon's duty to administer justice, and David prompts him to do this. Thus Solomon in striking down Joab, sees that he is God's servant repaying Joab for what he had done:

Then the king commanded Benaiah, "Do as he says. Strike him down and bury him, and so clear me and my father’s house of the guilt of the innocent blood that Joab shed. The Lord will repay him for the blood he shed, because without the knowledge of my father David he attacked two men and killed them with the sword."

Shimei:

"And remember, you have with you Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, who called down bitter curses on me the day I went to Mahanaim. When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the Lord: 'I will not put you to death by the sword.' But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood."

1 Kings 2:8-9 NIV (emphasis mine)

Shimei had opposed David during Absalom's rebellion, cursing him. David was mericiful at the time, staying the hand of Abishai who was zealous for the king and wanted to kill Shimei then. Yet it was a wicked thing to attack the Lord's anointed (See 1 Samuel 24:9-10, 2 Samuel 1:14-16). And, given that cursing one's father or mother warranted death under the law, it is not a leap to think that cursing the Lord's anointed could incur a similar penalty.

Initially Solomon is also merciful towards Shimei and essentially sets probationary terms, to which Shimei agrees. Only after Shimei disobeys the king does Solomon order him to death, saying, "You know in your heart all the wrong you did to my father David. Now the Lord will repay you for your wrongdoing."


It is possible that David and Solomon are both being portrayed as hypocrites that presume to speak for the LORD while carrying out their murderous ways. However this portrait does not mesh well with the surrounding text which shows, for example, Solomon praying for wisdom to discern right and wrong and administer justly.

I think the reason we might see this passage as a contradiction is because we have trouble with the idea of a king putting to death guilty men, while the author of this text probably saw no contradiction in that - after all, as was shown above, it was in accordance with the Law.

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