We are faced with a complex instance of loyalty, and perhaps also justice, in 2 Samuel 9:1-12, our text for Sunday, December 12. This is the story of David’s seeking out Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, and installing him as a permanent guest at the king’s table in Jerusalem. [Here are a few questions on this text.] Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Narratively, we are right at the beginning of a section of the larger Deuteronomistic History known as the “Court History of David.” The “Court History” is a stylistically and thematically distinct section of the last part of the book of Samuel. This part of the story seems to be told by a court insider who knows the personalities, and the ins and outs of court politics, “up close and personal.” [My teacher Johanna Bos has proposed David’s daughter Tamar as the author, which imaginatively has a lot to recommend it. Although, maybe obviously, we have no specific evidence for any particular ancient person as the author.]
David is settling in as king. He has outlasted Saul and his forces, and then the forces of Saul’s son Ishbosheth or Ishbaal, in the struggle for the throne. He’s consolidated his capital in Jerusalem, and has transported and installed the Ark there as well. His plan to build a temple is on hold, but God has reassured him that his dynasty will last long and prosper. And he has defeated enemies on all sides – Philistines, Moabites, Arameans, etc. (2 Samuel 8). He is poised to administer “justice and equity to all his people” (2 Samuel 8:15). So we pick up the thread of the story at the high point of David’s story, as he is flush with success, and before the disasters recounted in the rest of the court history.
Commentators suggest that the story told in 2 Samuel 21 once came before this one. In that story, David executes the remaining members of Saul’s family, to avenge Saul’s “zealous” killing of the Gibeonites. That “zealous” action is reported nowhere else, by the way. Positioning this story right after that one would make a different kind of sense of David’s question in v1, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul …” And it would, perhaps, subtly alter our reading of the entire narrative. We have the Bible we have, but we could still wonder about how these two different versions – the one we have, and the one as people imagine it might have been – might affect us differently as readers.
Whether or not that liquidation of the dynastic opposition is part of the immediate context for our text, David’s original covenant of friendship and peace with Jonathan is part of this story’s larger context. (1 Samuel 18:1-5; 1 Samuel 20:42.) David will make specific references to his motivation being “for the sake of Jonathan.”
This story is not in the lectionary, making it another one of those things you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.
CLOSER READING: In v1 (and again in v3, and again in v7) the words translated “show kindness” are, in Hebrew, literally “do kindness.” Kindness here is the chesed that also means covenant loyalty, or “steadfast love.” Chesed is what God shows (or, does) to people.
The wording emphasizes “the house of Saul,” a phrase which also repeats three times in the opening part of the story. It’s ominous, and suspenseful, because of what we know about kings and how they handle succession issues in the ancient world – namely, murderously. Even though at this point we are dealing with “David.” In the next verses, his identity as “the king” will be emphasized – those words repeat six times in the next four verses. But then, the narrator will switch back to calling him “David,” in his conversation with Mephibosheth. Then, when “the king” talks again with Ziba, the “servant of Saul,” the narrative will go back to referring to him (David) as “the king.”
The narrative seems to be playing with, and calling to our attention, the distinction between David’s position as “the king,” and David’s identity as the person, David. We might expect different things from those two figures. So – who are we dealing with in this story?
Verses 2-4 are, it seems to me, form a particularly dramatic exchange. If this were a Netflix drama, the “ominous” or “tense” music would be playing in the background. Because Ziba – whose name means, probably, something like “stand” or “ally” – has to make a decision here. Where do his loyalties lie, and what information is he going to share with this king? David says he wants to “do the kindness of God” for any last one of the relatives of Saul. What is Ziba supposed to think that means?
[Especially if that little narrative about the executions at the beginning of the barley harvest is anything to go by.]
So at this moment in the narrative, everything depends upon Ziba trusting David’s candor and good will – which he actually has every reason to doubt – and telling the truth – which depending on how he interprets his situation, is either an act of loyalty on his part, or an act of disloyalty, or anyhow, an indicator of where his own loyalties lie.
The narrative itself emphasizes his ties to Saul right at this point, drawing out his identity as a member of “the house of Saul, a servant, his name Ziba.” And then there is a whole dialogue, of several lines, right here – again, focusing our attention on this exchange between Ziba and “the king.” In which Ziba tells the king everything: the identity of the remaining member of Saul’s house, and his location, down to the last detail.
If this were that Netflix drama, Ziba would be the personal confidential informant par excellence.
And he makes sure to include the bit about Mephibosheth being “lame in both his feet.” As in – he’s no one to worry about. Or – he is not in great shape. Or – he could really use someone to show / do him a kindness by way of covenant loyalty. The word translated “lame” or “crippled” is in the lexicon as “smitten,” the adjective form of that famous Biblical verb “to smite.”
Also, he lives in “Lo-debar,” which may be a real place name, but which means something like “Nowhere” or “Nothing.” “This place is nowheresville.” “Stuck in Lodi again.”
We don’t yet know, for sure, how this story is going to go. There’s suspense.
The suspense intensifies through the next couple of verses, as king David – a tense combination of identifies right here, and the transition from king to David in the story, in v5 – sends and brings this last remaining member of the Saul dynasty, and this person, Mephibosheth, comes in, also identified in all his ambivalence as son of Jonathan [whom David famously loved] son of Saul [with whom David had so much conflict].
Mephibosheth falls on his face and prostrates himself before David, perhaps with help as he is lame in both his feet, and calls himself “your servant.” It’s a conventional formality, but in this story it also sets him on a level with Ziba from v2.
Then David has a long speech. Don’t be afraid he begins – as he may know he needs to. He emphasizes that he wants to do, really do chesed to Mephibosheth “for the sake of Jonathan your father.”
The word translated “restore,” which David uses of Saul’s fields, which he will restore to Mephibosheth, is related – same root, different form – to the word “return” or we sometimes say “repent.”
So the kindness David will do is that Mephibosheth will no longer live in Lo-debar, but Jerusalem, and will eat with the king “continually.” We might say, “for good.”
V8, which is left out of our select text [why??] is Mephibosheth’s deeply self-deprecatory response: “what is your servant, that you should look on a dead dog like me.” It’s not a simple “thank you,” but Mephibosheth’s situation is probably too complex for a simple thank you. This response incorporates gratitude, along with a minimization of his own position and of the threat he poses, and a recognition of David’s preeminence. It has an element of “I know you know I know I’m abjectly dependent on your good graces and at your mercy and incidentally pose no threat at all to you.” Although … this is the second time in this larger narrative the phrase “dead dog” has come up. David refers to himself as a “dead dog” when he spares Saul’s life in the cave (1 Samuel 24 – another story you won’t know is in the Bible if all you know is the lectionary). So, in the larger story, dead dogs are not automatically nothing to worry about.
Verses 9-12 set out the terms of David the king’s arrangement with Ziba, who we now learn is a substantial retainer, with a potential force of 35 men, who will from now on be working Saul’s fields for the benefit of Mephibosheth, who will be staying in Jerusalem and eating with the king.
Presumably along with his “young son Mica.” (v12) And we’re reminded that Mephibosheth is lame in both his feet. If he ever decided to run away, he wouldn’t get far.
Please forgive me for feeling that this whole story is not ONLY the tender expression of gracious covenant loyalty some commentators make this out to be, with David practically a stand-in for the steadfastly loving God of Israel here. I’m not saying David is not honoring that earlier covenant with Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:42), even though the text has only ever placed that covenant in the mouth of Jonathan. I’m just saying that the oriental monarchic bureaucratic wisdom of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” doesn’t not apply to this situation as well.
Besides, I have read ahead. (2 Samuel 16:1-4 and 2 Samuel 19:24-30. More stories you won’t know are in the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned. Especially about coming up with simplistic platitudes based on simplistic readings of the Biblical characters.)
Still – the covenant loyalty aspect of the story surely merits celebration. Especially in a world as messy as the Biblical one. Like ours.