When Kings Normally Go To War: Addressing A Potentially Unjustified Criticism of David

alba_bible_224v-sThis article used to be in included in Did King David Have Diabetes? It is a connected issue, but it has become sensible to split the topics, as my study is constantly leading me to enlarge on this area.

2 Samuel 11:1 says: ”In the spring of the year, a when kings normally go out to war, David sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites.” This is typically taken as a criticism of David, and used as a means to warn us that idle hands make the Devil’s work. However, there is also a strong possibility that this verse is a time marker, rather than a criticism.

While we look back on life in David’s time as being far simpler, we know that the work of a King was as demanding as it is in modern times. 1000 BC was not the stone age. Kings didn’t only look after the security of their country, striding into war to fight heroic battles. Archaeology tells us that from at the very least, 1500 years before David, administration, record keeping, civil works and diplomatic activity was well established in David’s area of the world. He did not have the luxury of being an idle King, and if the records of the Kings of Judah were still in existence, there would be mountains of ‘paperwork’ to back that up.

It was not King David’s custom to attend to smaller battles and as a king, it was his right to choose not to at his discretion. Delegation is considered a wise leadership strategy and handing smaller military actions off to Joab, does not immediately make David’s actions erroneous. Unless he was needed for morale or strategy, his time may have been better used in Jerusalem; David may have been more derelict of duty to go to war than keep the country in order, depending on what was happening in Isra’el at that time.

ftufuygfuThere are also other possibilities. We do not have the full details of how his army was ordered. Was he waiting to be called in with a reinforcement division? Was he needed for security within the Jerusalem area? Or could David staying home have been because because he was ill and thus, too greater liability on the battlefield at that time? [Several years later, his men force him off the battlefield permanently, as he is weak and tired. Ref: 2 Samuel 21:15-17]

A realistic view of David’s involvements in battle is presented in the introduction to Psalm 60. At times, Joab and the army went out without David to begin or finish a battle, and this was normal and acceptable. “…and Joab returned and killed 12,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” Again, in 2 Samuel 2:12-17, Joab takes the army of Judah (David’s forces) into battle against northern Isra’el without David. I have not found any Biblical criticism of these actions.

The battle which the text is focussed on, had started in 2 Samuel 10. Joab took command of the first part, then in 10:6,7 when the Ammonites called in more reinforcements, David left for battle with more of his men. Cleaning up the entire mess took some time.

From Albert Barne’s commentary: “The language in the title “when Joab returned,” would seem to imply that these conquests were achieved not by David in person, but by Joab – a circumstance not at all improbable, as he was the leader of the armies of David; 2 Samuel 20:23, “Now Joab was over all the host of Israel.” …in the title to the psalm where it is ascribed to Joab, for though the battle may have been fought by Joab, yet it was really one of the victories of David, as Joab acted under him and by his orders – as we speak of the conquests of Napoleon, attributing to him the conquests which were secured by the armies under his command.”

12988ebNelsons New Illustrated Bible Manners and Customs: “Critics sometimes charge that David’s remaining in Jerusalem during the Ammonite war constituted a dereliction of duty. And he got into trouble with Bathsheba for shirking that duty. But that is not necessarily true. Kings did not always lead their forces into war… Moreover, the autocratic kings of the ancient Near East had so much administrative detail to attend to at home that they could not always handle both military and domestic affairs adequately.”

The biggest problem in understanding King David’s life is that there is so much detail and not enough detail! Explanations are housed in words which are easily missed in the text; plus as chapters sit end to end, timing is lost. The initial main purpose of writing this article was to encourage you to think outside the box on what circumstances and influences affected David. Human behaviour is complex, and from observing the events in our own life, we know that nothing is ever as cut and dried as it seems. One innocent incident can lead us into trouble, or we can cut a hard path to sin for ourselves by making poor choices. In the same way that we would want to be given the benefit of the doubt in regards to what led to our mistakes, David deserves the same open-minded treatment.

– King David’s Health: Diabetes, VD and his Probable Cause of Death
– Notes on the Bible by Albert Barnes, © 1834
– Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Manners and Customs, Dr Howard E Vos, © 1999


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