The Glory of Giant Killing

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We have concluded the main narrative of Samuel, and have now come to an a-chronological coda, tying up some loose ends from the David story. The fact that the “appendix” is deliberately thought through can we see in the fact that the coda is a chiasm. That chiasm is straightforward—we have A. deliverance from a natural disaster in Israel (21:1-14), B. giant-killing (21:15-22), C. then a song of David (22:1-51), C’ then David’s last words (23:1-7), B’ then the heroics of the 33 (23:8-39), and last A’ deliverance from another natural disaster (24:1-25).

The Text:

“Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites . . .” (2 Sam. 21:1-22)

Summary of the Text:

There was a three-year famine in the land, and when David inquired of the Lord, he was told that it was because of bloodguilt that Saul had incurred against the Gibeonites (v. 1). So David summoned the Gibeonites (v. 2), and asked them what he could do (v. 3). The Gibeonites did not ask for money, but did hint about the need for blood (v. 4). They charged Saul with a crime (v. 5), and asked for seven of his descendants to be killed (v. 6). David spared Mephibosheth from this (v. 7). But the king turned over two sons of Rizpah, and five sons of Merab (vv. 8-9), and they were all hanged. Rizpah made a lean-to out of sackcloth and stayed near the bodies from April to the following fall (v. 10), protecting them from birds. When David heard of this (v. 11), he arranged for an honorable burial (vv. 12-14).

We now are reading exploits off the giant-killer plaque. So another time, the Philistines went to war with Israel, and David grew weak in the fight (v. 15). Ishbi-benob, a giant, almost killed David (v. 16), but Abishai saved him (v. 17). As a result, the men of David said that he would not go out to fight with them anymore. Another time Sibbechai killed Saph, another giant (v. 18). Yet another time Elhanan killed Goliath the Gittite (v. 19). Elhanan is likely another name for David. There was another giant from Gath, and Jonathan, David’s nephew, killed him (vv. 20-21). In sum, these four were born to “the giant in Gath,” and were all dispatched by David and his men (v. 22).

That Bloody House:

The Gibeonites were that Canaanite tribe that tricked Joshua (Josh. 9:15), and Joshua plainly said that to violate this covenant would result in wrath upon Israel (Josh. 9:20). At first blush, the whole episode feels like scapegoating, plain and simple. This does not appear to be a simple criminal justice case because the language of expiation and atonement is used (v. 3, 6).

At the same time, the text plainly commends David for what he does here. A famine afflicts Israel for three years, and God says that it is because of Saul’s treatment of the Gibeonites (v. 1). We don’t have the record of what particularly Saul did to the Gibeonites, but presumably he did not do it single-handed. The most reasonable explanation here is that the men who were killed were complicit in whatever it was that Saul had done. God calls Saul’s house a bloody house (v. 1). The law explicitly forbids punishing a son for his father’s crime (Dt. 24:16), and so this means that these men were apparently not innocent bystanders. Since the Gibeonites were “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23), it is possible that they were massacred when Saul attacked Ahimelech at Nob (1 Sam. 21).

Nevertheless the Gibeonites took their vengeance far beyond appropriate bounds by refusing an honorable burial to the executed men—which in the ancient world was an appalling thing to do. Because of this, Rizpah acts the part of a Hebrew Antigone, and takes care of the bodies. When David hears of this, he has the remains of Saul and Jonathan brought back to the tomb of Kish, and he buries these men together with them. At this point, God relieves the land from the blight of famine.

A Quick Side Note:

The Authorized Version says that five of the men were sons of Michal, David’s wife. The manuscripts are divided on this, some saying Michal and some referring to her sister Merab. But Merab is the one who married Adriel (1 Sam. 18:19), and Michal is said to have had no children (2 Sam 6:23). So we should go with Merab here.

The Glory of Giant Killing:

Just as one of the themes of Scripture is dragon-slaying, as we saw last week, so also another theme is the theme of giant-killing. The fact that both of these motifs are common in our folklore, from St. George to Jack and the Beanstalk, indicates that more is going on than over-active imaginations. Just as the gospel is the good news of the dragon-slayer, so also is the gospel the good news of the giant killer.

Incidentally, because it is easy to dismiss this kind of thing as the stuff of fairy tales, it is important to note that we know more about this than we think we do. One Robert Wadlow of Illinois (d. 1940) was 8 feet 11 inches. He is the tallest person on record about whose height there is no dispute.

The rebellion that God quelled at the Flood was a rebellion of giants (Gen. 6:4). When the children of Israel were first confronted with the task of conquering Canaan, they were confronted with the fact that the land was filled with giants (Num. 13:33). Great giants of the Bible were Anak (Josh. 15:14), Goliath (1 Sam. 17), and Og (Josh. 12:4; Deut. 3:10).

David first made his mark in the history of Israel by killing Goliath of Gath with his sling and a stone. Because a cubit varies, Goliath was somewhere between 9 and 11 feet. Incidentally, this was not a little rubber band slingshot, but was rather a weapon of war (Judg. 20:16), the stone of which was about the size of a modern softball. Here, at the end of David’s career, we see that he and his men were conducting the final mop-up operations. They killed these last four giants.

What about the New Testament? The gospel of Luke compares the Lord Jesus with a strong champion who defeats the strong man, and who takes his panoply (his armor). The language is strongly reminiscent of David’s defeat over Goliath.

And so what does this mean for us? The invasion of Canaan is a type for the antitype of the Great Commission. Canaan was full of giants, and so is the unbelieving world today. The greatness of the opposition is part of the point. This must never be used as an excuse on our part for whining about how big they are. They are supposed to be big. They are giants. Instead of worrying about how big they are—too big to fight—we should be rejoicing in the fact that they are too big to miss.

The Panoply of God

“Yea, truth faileth; And he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: And the Lord saw it, and it displeased him That there was no judgment. And he saw that there was no man, And wondered that there was no intercessor: Therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; And his righteousness, it sustained him. For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, And an helmet of salvation upon his head; And he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, And was clad with zeal as a cloke” (Is. 59:15–17).

This theme is picked up by Paul in Ephesians . . .

“Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Ephesians 6:13–18).

We are told to put on the armor of God, but we are also told to put on Jesus Himself.

“But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:14).

Tie truth around your waist—and the Lord Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). Strap on the breastplate of righteousness—and the Lord Jesus is our righteousness (Jer. 33:16). Put gospel shoes on your feet—and the Lord Jesus is the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8). Take up the shield of faith, and the Lord Jesus is our faith (Gal. 3:22). Put the helmet of salvation on your head—and the Lord Jesus is your salvation (1 Thess. 5:9). Take the sword of the Spirit into your hand, which is the word of God—and the Lord Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1).

When we put on the Lord Jesus, we are not doing it for a fashion show. We put on the Lord Jesus at the armory of God, which is the gospel of grace. And we do it because there are giants in the land.

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Valerie (Kyriosity)
8 years ago

“The most reasonable explanation here is that the men who were killed were complicit in whatever it was that Saul had done. God calls Saul’s house a bloody house (v. 1). The law explicitly forbids punishing a son for his father’s crime (Dt. 24:16), and so this means that these men were apparently not innocent bystanders.” This almost satisfies my puzzlement over this passage, but why, then, the explicit mention of sparing “Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the Lord’s oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul”? Doesn’t that… Read more »