“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year” (2 Samuel 21:1a). Since the text mentions “in the days of David” it isn’t to be thought to take place right after the rebellion of Sheba (see 2 Sam. 20). We know it was after the events of 2 Samuel 9, David and Mephibosheth, but beyond that the point is a famine was in the land during David’s reign as king. Why would there be a famine in the land?
What does Torah say about famines? Torah means “law” but it can also refer to the first five books of the Bible. These are also referred to as the Pentateuch or The Five Books of Moses. We read in Deuteronomy 28 of blessings for obeying the covenant and curses for disobeying the covenant. One of those curses included, “And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. Yahweh will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed” (Deut. 28:23-24). Famine was a sign of Israel suffering the covenant curses. Is this the reason? David seeks Yahweh’s face to understand why there is this perpetual (three years remember) famine. As Dale Ralph Davis says, “David was in the dark, so he began to seek the face of Yahweh (v. 1b), which always brings light” (2 Samuel Out of Every Adversity, 264). Jeremiah 29:13 comes to mind, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” It is in God’s word that we are to seek Him so it is fitting that Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
Contrasted for us in this narrative is David’s covenant faithfulness compared to Saul’s covenant unfaithfulness. Saul, the king of Israel, and leader of the people, “put the Gibeonites to death” (v. 1b). It was Joshua and the leaders of Israel who had guaranteed their safety, entering into covenant with the Gibeonites, in the name of Yahweh. You could reason, they were deceived (lied to) and therefore shouldn’t be held to their word. However, invoking the name of God is no light matter, and while they should have inquired of Him in the manner once “Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them” (Joshua 9:15) it was settled. Even in Joshua’s day some of the people wanted to attack the Gibeonites but the leaders said, “We have sworn to them by Yahweh, the God of Israel, and now we may not touch them. This we will do to them: let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath that we swore to them” (Joshua 9:19b-20). That settled it in Joshua’s day, but evidently not in Saul’s day. We aren’t given the account of this in 1 Samuel so we cannot be certain what motivated Saul to break covenant, if he even thought he was doing so, or if he was just being zealous for Judah and Israel in his own eyes (2 Sam. 20:2). In any case, it is God’s mercy which reveals to David the reason for the famine.
How it is dealt with leaves many readers a bit uncomfortable? But atonement is messy business. The Gibeonites are not interested in destroying or attacking the people of Israel, but only in seven sons of “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us…” (v. 5a). Remember above when I mentioned David’s covenant faithfulness? Here it is. David will hand over the seven sons, and this is not because he wanted to wipe out the descendants of Saul, that is ridiculous given the pains he has gone to throughout 2 Samuel as we have seen. One of those examples including his warm reception of Mephibosheth to the king’s table, treating him not as a servant (or a dead man), but as a son (see 2 Samuel 9). And because David made an oath to Jonathan, Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan is spared (2 Sam. 21:7a). We too are spared the wrath of God when united to David’s Son and Lord, Jesus Christ in faith.
But being spared cannot be said of the two sons of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine (v. 8a), or the five sons of Merab, Saul’s grandsons (v. 8b, see 1 Sam. 18:17-20). Here the KJV says, “the five sons of Michal.” Most Hebrew manuscripts in fact say “Michal” but this is one of the few, and easily explained, textual variants where a scribe miscopied the original text. Easily explained? Read the text of 1 Samuel 18:17-20 and you will see Merab, not Michal, was married to Adriel. Michal was married to David, then to Pailtiel (2 Sam. 3:14-15), and brought back to David where she remained and eventually died childless (2 Sam. 6:23). Merab is the correct reading.
These seven sons (including grandsons) are hanged on the mountain before Yahweh from the start of the barley harvest (v. 9b) “until rain fell upon them from the heavens” (v. 10). God’s wrath has been satisfied, for the rains are coming upon Israel again. We must remember that when Saul spilled the blood of the Gibeonites, the land was polluted and would cry out against Israel (see Genesis 4:10), for God’s justice demands blood to atone for the land and for people. Numbers 35:33 says, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.” Saul is dead and cannot bear the penalty, but isn’t Deuteronomy 24:16 violated which says, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin”? How do we explain this? Two thoughts, first, Saul is representative of the people of Israel as their king. He is to act for the benefit of Israel (see 2 Sam. 5:2), and since he has not, all Israel suffers (2 Sam. 21:1a; see 2 Sam. 24). But the Gibeonites aren’t interested in money or putting just any man to death in Israel. Only seven sons of the one who sought their destruction (vv. 4-6). The second thought is that David carried out eye-for-eye justice (see Exodus 21:22-24; Deut. 19:16). Saul sought to destroy the Gibeonites, perhaps like holy war, and so “David justly carries out holy war (symbolically) against the ‘house of blood’” (Peter Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel, 270). I lean more toward the first view.
Rizpah’s devotion is commendable, and David recognizes this (vv. 12-14). Rizpah stayed with the bodies of her two sons, and of the five grandsons of Saul, to ensure that birds and wild beast did not feast upon their flesh (v. 10). If we simply try to moralize the text we would likely miss the sadness and sorrow of it all. Consider Golgotha, a mother there at the cross, looking upon her Son who is being crucified as a guilty criminal (John 19:16-27). So you begin to take in the gravity of atonement. Atonement is also messy, and the wrath of God is great against sinners, so let us thank God that He is not only Just to punish sin, but also the Justifier in providing that much needed sacrifice in His Son, Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:21-26).