God Speaks: Direct Divine Speech in 2 Samuel — Conclusion

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In 2 Samuel, the direct speech of God is rare and at some points perhaps manipulated, but nevertheless the reader sees that God is indeed a character in the plot, acting both behind the scenes and in the spotlight. An exilic perspective of hearing this narrative would understand that, though Israel has brought on this situation by rejecting God and demanding a king (1 Samuel 8), God does not abandon his promises or his people. The hope is that, even in exile, God is working behind the scenes, and will at some point make a dramatic entrance and once again take centre stage with his divine speech and actions.

The modern reader should be attentive to the manner in which God speaks in the narrative, in that it can be unsolicited, and in that it is very often less frequent than we pretend it to be. We have perhaps become like David, attempting to manipulate God’s word to suit our purposes. The modern reader can be struck by the long chapters of silence, but be comforted and humbled to know that God is indeed at work despite our manipulations.

God, as has been demonstrated through an examination of his speaking, is a character in the narrative of 2 Samuel, alongside David, Nathan and the others. Indeed, “the whole story pertains to God…God is everywhere involved and God…ultimately prevails in all that goes on.”(1)

(1) Wharton, 348.

God Speaks: Direct Divine Speech in 2 Samuel — Part Six

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The second time God speaks through the prophet, it again is unsolicited and in this case, God’s speech dramatically alters David’s position of power. In committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then killing her husband to cover up his indiscretion, David is able to manipulate the situation so that he is in control. No one needs to know what David has done. He is king and as such there is a range of latitude. Without being sought, God reappears and, through the prophet Nathan, confronts David with his sin (12:1-12). While David thought he was in control of the situation, he was not. God is the one who is in control and because of David’s sin, God would “raise up evil from his own household” (12:10).

It is interesting to watch the progression of God’s dealings with David. In chapter five it is a mild rebuke for not understanding that God is the battle-fighter. In chapter seven it is a harsher rebuke followed by a fantastic and unmerited promise. Here in chapter twelve the rebuke is severe. So severe is the rebuke that David repents for sinning against God in all that he has done, not merely for sinning against Bathsheba and Uriah.(1)

The shift from God speaking through the ephod to speaking through the prophet is indicative of how God would continue to interact with Israel. Nathan then is the prototype of the later prophets. In both cases in 2 Samuel when God speaks through the prophet it is unsolicited and plot altering. When God speaks through prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Amos, it is unsolicited but crucial to changing the path Israel is on, if only they choose to listen.

Speaking as Action

The idea that the narrator of 2 Samuel has a theology that suggests God is “working in a hidden way through the hearts and minds of men” would be inconsistent with the magnitude of his speaking in 2 Samuel. It is true that God’s speaking is rare, and it is true that God is working behind the scenes, but that God shows up and speaks unsolicitedly and in surprising ways to up-end the plot and its characters (namely David), suggests a different theology of God wherein God’s speaking is action, action that is just as important and effective (though possibly more dramatic) than only working through the “hearts and minds of men.”(2)

Indeed, throughout the Old Testament narrative there is a tension between God being both hidden and present in Israel. This is seen in the Mosaic narrative, for example, in that the author balances the access Israel has to God with the understanding that at the same time God is free from Israel and does ultimately what he chooses.(3) God can and does choose to act and interact with Israel, as he deems necessary, whether it is behind the scenes or in the foreground.

God’s presence is not just affirmed by characters, or even the narrator attributing victory or blessing to God (e.g., 2 Samuel 5:12). God’s presence is affirmed by his word, and his word is indicative of God actively participating in the life of Israel (and David). From Genesis onward, God’s speaking involves action. The word of God is therefore the act of God. Thus, it is God’s speaking, rather than his working behind the scenes, that propels a theological understanding of the history of Israel.(4) In God speaking, Israel and the reader learn that divine speech is “the power behind his historical identity which is that of a judging yet desisting, forbearing self.”(5)

In the five instances of God speaking in 2 Samuel, God is by his speech actively affecting and effecting the history of Israel. In affirming David’s request (however manipulated) via the ephod to go up to Hebron, God is actively establishing a united Israel under David. In telling David how to fight the Philistines, God is actively taking on the role of king. He has declared himself to be in battle on behalf of Israel; because of God’s action, the Philistines do not stand a chance against Israel. In promising to build and uphold the Davidic dynasty, God is actively establishing Israel’s future in that moment, regardless of how sinful and disobedient the nation of Israel would behave.

God’s word of promise is fulfilled in the Word, who is Jesus (John 1:1). And in speaking to David’s sin, God is confronting, judging and yet still being faithful to his promise. In his speaking, God is actively the one who is all-powerful and unwavering. The character of God is unchanging, and it is his speeches that demonstrate that he is active and will continue to be active in the life and faith of Israel.

Tomorrow: The Conclusion

(1) Hamilton, 334.
(2) Whybray, 7.
(3) Walter Bruggemann, Old Testament Theology: Essays on Structure, Theme and Text. (Minneapolis: Fortress, Press, 1992), 150.
(4) MacDonald for example, using Karl Barth’s argument that “the sole creative force by which God creates the world is divine speech” argues that God’s speaking is a demonstration of God being “an active personal self.” Neil MacDonald, “Divine Speaking as Godly Action in Old Testament Narrative” in Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation. Ed. Craig Bartholomew, C. Stephen Evans and Mary Healy. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 471.
(5) Neil MacDonald, Metaphysics and the God of Israel. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 161.

God Speaks: Direct Divine Speech in 2 Samuel — Part Five

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God Speaks Through The Prophet:

The other two instances of God speaking in 2 Samuel occur unsolicitedly, and through a person as opposed to an artifact, and as will be seen, both times his speaking alters the plot of the Samuel narrative.

The first is when David seeks Nathan the prophet’s blessing to build a temple for God, without actually mentioning the temple (7:1-3). The prophet, if he knows that David is referring to a temple, does not use the word in his response, but says that David is free to do as he sees fit. It is interesting that this is the first time that is recorded that David seeks out the guidance of a prophet. Craig, for example, asks why David is now going to Nathan rather than to the ephod.(1) Perhaps in this moment David is not playing to an audience, as he was in 2:1 and 5:19. Or perhaps he is indeed playing to audience, the audience being Nathan. If, as has been theorized, Nathan is a prophet from the northern tribes,(2) then perhaps David is attempting to see how loyal this northern prophet would be to a southern king. Nevertheless, it is striking the difference between Saul and David. Saul was more often seeking advice from prophets (1 Samuel 9:9-10; 28:6, 15) than David.(3)

David, having the prophet’s blessing, is set to build the temple. However, unannounced and unexpected, God dramatically reappears, and his speech not only alters the plot of 2 Samuel, but of the entire future narrative of Israel. God proclaims and calls out David’s plans for a temple. If 5:23 was a gentle rebuke reminding David of his position in relation to God, then this speech in chapter 7 is more pronounced. Five times God uses the word “I” in describing all that he has done, and Fokkelman suggests that God’s tone is at times indignant.(4) God is rebuking David because David has forgotten God’s authority and that ultimately God is the king of Israel.

In the short time of God’s silence between 5:23 and 7:4, David’s relationship with God had changed. In attempting to move the ark improperly and seeing the wrath of God, David is no longer eager, but reluctant to confide in and seek the will of God.(5) At question is David’s motivation for building the temple. Matthews has suggested that because of the powerful imagery and authority of the ark, it was in David’s best interest to house the ark away from the public’s immediate view so that it not “compete with his public role as the sole leader of the Israelites…so that from now on they will focus only on the person of the king.”(6)

God will have none of that, and in reappearing in the narrative, God’s speech demonstrates that God is neither acquiescent or complacent to David’s plans. God will not be tucked away in a temple away from his people, or in the shadow of a king he placed in power. Indeed God wishes to dwell in the presence of his people (7:7). But God does not end his speech with rebuke. Instead, he extends his promise that he made to David in such a way that unconditionally God will continue David’s line into eternity. God will not withdraw his favour forever, as he did with Saul (7:15).

It is significant that scholars see this chapter as the theological centre of the Samuel narrative.(7) It is God’s speech and his covenantal promise with David that is the dramatic turning point of the narrative, as well as the ultimate hope for the nation of Israel in the centuries following, ultimately being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In a narrative where God rarely speaks, it is ironic that his speech is that focal point.

To Be Continued…

(1) Kenneth Craig, “The Character(ization) of God in 2 Samuel 7:1-17” Semeia 63 (1993), 164
(2) Anderson, 117.
(3) Craig, “Characterization”, 164.
(4) Fokkelman, 84.
(5) Murray, 129.
(6) Victor Matthews, Old Testament Turning Points: The Narratives That Shaped a Nation. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 90.
(7) Anderson, 112

God Speaks: Direct Divine Speech in 2 Samuel — Part Four

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But God is not always complacent and subservient to David when he inquires. For instance, after the Philistines were defeated in battle, and their idols captured, they returned for a second attempt. David once again inquires of the Lord, and this time gets a dramatic answer with very specific instructions. It is as if God is correcting David’s plan. David is not to go directly up against the Philistines, but rather is to circle around behind them (5:23). This battle would not be David’s, it would be God’s. God would strike the Philistines for David. David in this battle would be dependent on God, and would be God’s support rather than God being the support for David.

In directing David through this divine speech, God is rebalancing and perhaps even gently rebuking David. The role of the king in God’s economy was to be a servant to God, and God in turn is the warrior-king for Israel who protects and defends his people. That God is saying he will go out and slay the Philistines is a speech that should remind the reader of God’s promise and action in the past; in particular of God leading Israel as they crossed the Jordan river into the Promised Land, land that was given into their hands by God.(1)

While initially God is swift to answer David to demonstrate that David is the chosen one, David, like Saul, ends up facing God’s silent treatment. After David’s indiscretion with Bathsheba, and God’s confrontation through the prophet Nathan (to be discussed in the next section), the child borne out of David’s transgression is afflicted by God. David, having already admitted his sin, inquires of the Lord on behalf of the child (12:16). Here, though, there is no immediate response. In fact God does not say anything. David is faced with the ultimate silent treatment.

That God chooses to be silent, especially after his long speech confronting David, is glaring to the reader. In his silence, God is demonstrating that actions have consequences, and now David must decide how to react. That God does not speak again for the rest of the narrative demonstrates not that he has abandoned David, but that he is once again working behind the scenes. Perhaps, even, the reason that God does not speak again is that nowhere in the rest of the narrative (through chapter 20) does David inquire of the Lord.

True, David worships the Lord immediately after the death of his son is announced (12:20), which would demonstrate that he has accepted God’s decision,(2) but as Whybray notes, “not once – not even when he took the momentous decision to abandon Jerusalem to Absalom – are we told that David inquired of Yahweh.”(3)

Tomorrow’s Post: God Speaks Through the Prophet

(1) Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 275.
(2) J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel: A Full Interpretation Based on Stylistic and Structural Analysis. Vol 1. (Netherlands: Van Gorcum & Company, 1981), 90.
(3) Whybray, 68.

God Speaks: Direct Divine Speech in 2 Samuel — Part Two

{This is part two in a series. For the introductory post see here}


The Ephod:

Of the five direct speeches of God, order the first three occur when David inquires of the Lord, view and it is most likely that David does so using the priestly ephod. David came into possession of the artifact while being pursued by Saul. Abiathar brought David the ephod, doctor and David used the ephod to discover whether or not the Keilahlites would turn him over to Saul (1 Samuel 23:6-12). In total, David uses the ephod to inquire of God eight times in the Samuel narrative, four of which occur in 2 Samuel.(1)

It is not exactly clear how the use of the ephod elicited an answer from God, though it is most likely some kind of system of lots.(2) The ephod, as described in Exodus 28, is a vestment worn by the High Priest (originally Aaron). On the breastplate worn by the priest were two gems, Urim and Tummim.

The ephod was most likely worn with the breastplate and it has been suggested that when someone inquired of the Lord, the ephod would either fall so that one of the two stones would show, or the gems behind the ephod would flash.(3) The ephod may have had pockets or openings for the two stones, and the priest may have drawn out a stone to determine the answer to the question.(4) The stones most likely each had markings on them that were interpreted to represent either a yes or a no answer.(5) Of course, someone had to interpret whether the stone gave one answer or the other, and this was the role of the priest who wore it.

In the case of David inquiring of the Lord, it is unclear if he was going to a priest, who would interpret the lots,(6) or if David was himself doing the interpreting. Yes, Abiathar brought David the ephod in 1 Samuel 23, but further passages make no reference to a priest being present or speaking the answer to David.

The first instance of God speaking through the ephod occurs just after David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan. David inquires of the Lord as to where to go now that Saul is no longer pursuing him. David asks two questions, “Shall I go up to Judah?” and “Where shall I go?” (2:1). The first question is not a problem, because it elicits a yes or no answer. The second question does not. “Where shall I go?” requires a more specific answer.

The second instance of God speaking through the ephod occurs after David has been proclaimed King over all the tribes of Israel. The Philistines, having heard the news, seek out David. David asks God two yes or no questions. “Shall I go up against the Philistines?” and “Will you give them into my hand?” (5:19). Despite the clarity of the questions, the answer from God is longer than a simple yes. It is a seven-word yes.

How is it that the ephod, assuming it uses a lots system, is able to provide answers beyond yes and no? Murray suggests that David is actually asking a series of questions and the narrator simplifies the answers from God into one long response.(7) Thus, in 2:1 when David asks, “Where shall I go?” he may have asked a series of questions, such as “Shall I go to Bethlehem?” “Shall I go to Shiloh?” “Shall I go to Hebron?” etc, and eventually the lot was cast yes, confirming he was to indeed go up to Hebron.

More on the Ephod in tomorrow’s post.

(1) Whybray, 68. (If you include 21:1 it is five times, but Whybray, like other scholars look at chapters 21-24 as a separate entity from the Samuel narrative).
(2) Donald Murray, Divine Prerogative and Royal Pretension: Pragmatics, Poetics and Polemics in a Narrative Sequence about David. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 92.
(3) Edward Robertson, “Urim and Tummim: What were They?” Vetus Testamentum 14 (1964), 73.
(4) Johannes Lindblom, “Lot-Casting in the Old Testament” Vetus Testamentum 12 (1962), 166.
(5) Robertson, 71.
(6) A.A. Anderson, 2nd Samuel. (Waco: Word Books, 1989), 22.
(7) Murray, 94-100.