Abarbanel’s Discomfort with the Apparent Plain Meaning of David’s Dying Orders
The medieval sage, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) expresses very strong criticism against David’s apparent unfair behavior. Abarbanel, living during the renaissance, is often innovative in his interpretation and style. Rather than glossing individual verses or phrases, he opens each unit with a set of questions, which he then answers in a synthetic fashion. His questions on this unit include one about Joab and another about Shimei.
במה שצוה דוד לשלמה בנו על יואב שלא יוריד שיבתו בשלום שאולה, ויקשה זה מאד מצדדים. אם למה שיואב היה לדוד עבד נאמן ועצם מעצמיו ובשר מבשרו, ועשה על דבר כבוד שמו מעשים גדולי המעלה, ולמה גמלהו רעה תחת טובה? וכל שכן לפני מותו שהיה יותר ראוי שיהיה מוחל וסולח למי אשר חטא לו ושלא יקום וינטור את שריו ועבדיו.
With regard to David’s command to Solomon concerning Joab, that Solomon not allow Joab’s gray hair to go down peacefully to the grave; this is difficult from many angles. Inasmuch as Joab was David’s faithful servant and blood relative and performed many great deeds for David’s honor, why did David repay him good with evil? And all the more so before his own death, when it would have been more appropriate to forgive anyone who sinned against him rather than taking vengeance and bearing a grudge against his officers and servants.
Abarbanel goes on to query that even if Joab was worthy of death for having killed Abner and Amasa, considering that David feared the consequences of bringing Joab to justice himself (though he was well within his right to do so), how could David have delegated the task to young Solomon, who was in an even more precarious position politically than David had been? In Abarbanel’s words,
ולמה לא חשש על בנו מה שחשש על עצמו?
Why wasn’t he [i.e., David] concerned for his son the way that he was concerned for himself?
במה שצוהו גם כן שימית את שמעי בן גרא, כמו שאמר והורדת את שיבתו בדם שאולה, והנה היה דוד בזה עובר על השבועה אשר נשבע לו כאשר ירד שמעי לפניו הירדן, ואין לנו שנאמר שנשבע דוד שלא ימיתהו בעצמו… והמאמר הזה כולל שלא ימות על זה בשום צד ובשום זמן לא על ידו ולא על ידי אחרים.
With regard to what David commanded Solomon that he should put Shimei to death by saying “You shall bring his gray head violently down to the grave,” David was thus breaking the oath that he swore when Shimei came to greet him by the Jordan River, for it doesn’t say [in 2 Samuel 19] that David only swore not to kill Shimei himself … rather David’s statement to Shimei that he will not die (2 Sam 19:24) was inclusive, namely that Shimei would not die on account of this by anyone or at any time – not by David’s hand nor at the hand of others.
Abarbanel then adds that:
ואם כל ישראל מחוייב לכפר פשעי קברו ובפרט בשעת מיתתו, כל שכן שהיה ראוי לצדיק יסוד עולם דוד עבד ה’ שיכפר לאשר חטאו נגדו ולפושעים יפגיע וכל שכן כנגד שבועתו.
If any Israelite is required to atone for his own sins particularly as he is dying, certainly it would have been appropriate for a righteous person, the foundation of the world, David the servant of God, to forgive one who had sinned against him, and certainly so on account of his oath.”
Abarbanel’s points can be summarized:
- David’s death sentence against Joab seems both inappropriate and cowardly.
- David’s death sentence against Shimei appears to violate the oath that David himself swore to Shimei.
Abarbanel then proceeds to reinterpret David’s words not as a command to Solomon to kill them, but as a general exhortation to deal decisively with them in the future, should they ever commit similar acts during Solomon’s reign that would threaten his kingdom.
Regarding the command about Joab that Solomon not let his gray head go to the grave “in peace,” Abarbanel suggests that David only means that Solomon should not make peace with him:
אמר לשלמה בנו ועשית בחכמתך, רצה לומר אל תתנהג בעצתו ואל תחשוב שהוא חכם חרשים ושהיה שר צבאי ואתה נער ורך ושתצדק בהיותך נמשך אחריו, לא תעשה כן, אבל התחזק והיית לאיש ועשית הדברים כלם כחכמתך ולא כחכמתו, וכדי להשמר ממנו איעצך ויהי אלקים עמך שלא יהיה עמך בשלום… אבל תגרשהו, ואז לא ימשול בך כאשר משל בי, ולפי זה לא צוה דוד את שלמה שיהרגהו…
He said to Solomon his son “do according to your wisdom,” meaning, do not follow his advice and do not say to yourself that he is wise and crafty, and was a general, while I am a young lad, and that it would be right if you followed his advice. Do not do that, but “be strong, and be a man,” and do everything according to your own wisdom and not his. And in order to protect yourself from him, I suggest—and may God be with you—that you not be at peace with him… but send him away, and thus he will not dominate you the way he dominated me. According to this, David never commanded Solomon to kill [Joab]…
Regarding Shimei, where the imperative וְהוֹרַדְתָּ אֶת שֵׂיבָתוֹ בְּדָם שְׁאוֹל “bring his gray head down to the grave” is used, Abarbanel suggests that David merely meant for Solomon to kill Shimei if Shimei crosses him (=Solomon) in the future:
ואם יקרה לך עתה עמו כאשר קרה לי עמו אל תכפר בעד חטאתו כאשר עשיתי אני, אחרי אשר מפאת ההכרח עשיתיו ולא ברצוני ולא כפי הדין, אבל אתה אל תנקהו אם יחטא לך כאשר חטא לי כי איש חכם אתה וידעת את אשר תעשה לו אם יחטא לך באופן שאז תוריד שיבתו בדם שאולה… אם כן, לא צוה דוד לשלמה שיהרוג עתה את שמעי על מה שקללו בעבר.
If something happens to you with him like what happened to me, do not forgive his sin the way I did, since I did it out of necessity, not because I wanted to or because it was right, but you will not forgive him if he sins against you the way he did against me since you are a wise man and you will know what to do to him if he sins against you, such that you will bring his gray head down in blood to the grave… If this is the meaning, the David did not command Solomon to kill Shimei now, because of what he did in the past.
By reinterpreting the biblical text, Abarbanel’s explanation absolves David on two levels – first, David was not acting vengefully at an inappropriate time, i.e., close to death, toward those who wronged him, and second, David was not passing on the execution of his own unfinished business to Solomon. Abarbanel’s clear departure from the plain meaning of the text underscores how troubled he was by it.
Transforming David’s Final Words
Although certain scholars argue (in my opinion, correctly) that the biblical authors seem not to have been especially bothered by David’s deathbed commands, this did not stop later readers from expressing reservations toward David’s final instructions. The rabbis did this obliquely, by bringing in the Bathsheba story, reminding the readers that David is fallible. A more extreme approach was taken by Abarbanel, who is so bothered by David’s commands that he rereads the text to make them disappear.View FootnotesDr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of C… Read more