Tough Passages: 2 Samuel 21 – God’s Sense of Justice

During the conquest of Canaan, one group – the Gibeonites – had tricked the Israelites into an alliance. By virtue of that alliance, Israel was not supposed to harm them. But Saul broke that rule. In response, God sent a famine to Israel during David’s reign

  • Even though David and a good number of the Israelites had not been part to breaking the treaty, God still punished all of them. It seems to be a trend in the Bible – shared punishment for wrongs done. In the same way that the blessing God gave Israel when a good king ruled were shared by everyone.  (He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Mt 5:45)

In order to end the famine, David sought to make things up to the Gibeonites. They requested the death of seven of Saul’s male descendants and David obliged. Then  God sent rain.

  • The law required that children not be put to death for the crimes of their parents. But David did it anyway and somehow, the death of seven people was compensation enough for the death of a lot more Gibeonites.
  • God sent rain, indicating that he considered restitution given for the harm done to the Gibeonites. Restitution had been given. The question was whether the cure was not worse than the disease. It is as if I killed your son and then offered my son as restitution. If you’re into that sort of thing you will no doubt be satisfied; it’s a fair trade. It sufficiently does for the victim everything that justice should do.
    • It acknowledges that a wrong was done to them.
    • It acknowledges that the wrong should not have been done, thereby acknowledging the worth of the victims.
    • It takes steps to restore the balance that the wrong act disrupted (something that an apology could not have done).
  • But it did not provide justice to the descendants of Saul that were killed. One can say that God sent the famine for the Gibeonites and when their needs were met, there was no more need for it. But I would think that God would care about the descendants of Saul too.
  • On the other hand, we just talked about a God who sends rain on both the just and the unjust and sends a famine on a whole nation whose King acted wrongly. Something is definitely funky about the idea of justice here.
  • So, David broke one law in keeping another and God did nothing about it.

In conclusion, we can say that God approved of David’s making things up to the Gibeonites because he ended the famine. But we cannot say that he approved of the means by which this rift was sealed. He simply did not react to it.

Skeptical response 1:

Isn’t God’s response in this case a sign of approval? He sent rain in response to David’s actions. That’s basically a thumbs up sign.

Response:

You’re making leaps in your logic. God sent the famine in response to the injustice done to Gibeon. When that injustice was righted, he withdrew the famine. In righting, the first injustice, though, another injustice is committed. The famine had nothing to do with that second injustice so withdrawing the famine says nothing about it.

Skeptical response 2:

Even if I grant that, God still did something wrong here. Seven innocent people were killed and he did nothing. At the very least he should have told David of his wrong actions.

Response:

If you’re going to stand in judgment against God, I might as well give you more ammunition. Innocent people are killed all the time and God does nothing – right from the times of Noah and Abraham, right up till the centuries long rampage of the Amorites. If he spent every moment dishing out punishment, we would all be dust. His technique had always been to let them accumulate, and give the person(s) responsible time to come to their senses. If they did, he forgave them – like he has done to us in Christ. If they didn’t, he eventually visited punishment – like in Noah’s flood (Genesis 6).

Yes, justice should be served for all wrongs done, but there is no law that says it must be served immediately. There is such a thing as mercy in God’s legal system.

Finally, we don’t know what God did or did not tell David following this encounter. These books do not record every single event that ever occured. They can’t. Like all historical texts, they must pick what to include. But if God did not chastise David for this, that’s hardly an issue – like the fact that you don’t get a call every time you run a red light telling you that you’re wrong. If you don’t know that it’s against the law tot run a red light, something is seriously wrong. David was the king, and as such, he was commanded to have a copy of the law and read it everyday. If he was still uninformed, then he had more important problems.

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