The Famine

Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites. 

II Samuel 21:1

There are certain events recorded in the Bible which jar uncomfortably against our modern sense of propriety and even of justice: but these also have their continuing purpose. They are reminders for us of the fact that our world is not the only world, there have been places and days when people’s values and attitudes have been far different from what they are now. But even more, because these events are recorded in the Bible with divine approval, they form an occasion for us to stop and remember that everything that we assume today is not necessarily as final and normative as we often think. 

One such an event is the account of the famine in David’s day recorded for us toward the end of the second book of Samuel. In all likelihood the chronological time of this event was much earlier, perhaps soon after David first became king over all Israel. The event is not given us, however, just to fill out a historical record. It is given to us, along with the account of the pestilence which follows, to assure us that in Israel God did not allow those who ruled as kings to do whatsoever they willed. For that which they did they were held responsible; and, when such things were evil, He exacted punishment even unto the succeeding generations. 

The famine struck the kingdom of David suddenly and unexpectedly. In fact, it appears to have been taken first as a mere natural and normal event. At least, David did not think to inquire with the Lord concerning it until the third year of famine was upon them and the situation for this kingdom was becoming extremely critical. Then only did David inquire, and the answer was given to him, “It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.” 

The Gibeonites were a strange people within the over all design of the land of Canaan. They were the one people who thought to try to make peace with Israel in the days of Joshua when the land of Canaan was given to them according to promise by the hand of God. They alone sent messengers to Joshua pleading for a treaty of peace between them and the nation of Israel, which treaty was also granted. The only trouble was that they obtained this agreement by deceit, by claiming and pretending to be much farther removed from the heart of the land of Canaan than they really were. Nevertheless, the promise was given in the name of the Lord and was not to be broken. The only thing was that the reservation was made that the Gibeonites would serve as servants to the Israelites forever. 

Actually, there was a particularly significant place which the Gibeonites filled in the typical pattern set forth by God in Canaan. They were the proof of the fact that God is no respecter of persons nor of nationality in His elective grace. Although His covenant was established with Abraham and his generations in a very special way, there was no one, not even in the Old Testament age, who seeking peace with Him would be refused. All of the other nations were given to destruction because of their sins and also because they refused to recognize the greatness and authority of Israel’s God when Israel entered the promised land. The Gibeonites were the one exception, and they were not refused but were given a place within the nation even though they had sought it in weakness and deceit. They were the demonstration of the fact that God would refuse His peace to no one who sought it in sincerity no matter what the age of time. They were a foretaste of the gathering of the Gentile nations fulfilled with the coming of Christ.

There was a danger here, however, particularly from those who were not spiritually sensitive to the divine design behind those things which happened within God’s chosen nation. These were the carnal in Israel who found great satisfaction in their earthly, physical characteristics. Their pride was in the fact that they were physical descendents of Abraham. To them the Gibeonites were a corrupting force within the nation, an impurity among those who boasted in their blood descent. They were a people to be despised and mistreated, a people always to be reminded of the wretched deceit by which they had gained the ear of Joshua, a people to be scorned and disparaged at every opportunity. They actually took the attitude that to persecute these people was in some way defending Israel and doing its God a service. 

Of such a kind was king Saul, particularly in his latter days. His respect and influence in the land was slipping badly and he knew it. He blamed it, of course, to David accusing him of treachery. Actually it was due to inane raging. But it came to the point where he became desperate in his determination to regain favor with his people. That in those days he should set his eyes upon the Gibeonites was not surprising. A more hapless, helpless people could not be found anywhere. For a man of a basically cowardly nature, such as Saul’s, they were an ideal victim. With self-righteous arrogance he set himself upon them, working havoc and destruction among them, Thousands were defenselessly slain, and this gave to Saul the opportunity for which he was looking. The lands which the Gibeonites had possessed, as limited as they were, became his to do with what he wanted, to keep for himself and his family or to distribute among his favorites. It enabled him to say to his own tribe, in defense of himself against the popularity of David, “Hear now, ye Benjamites; will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards.” It was an abominable perversion of righteousness and justice, but they were only Gibeonites and no one was about to exert himself in their defense. 

But God in heaven was watching, and He always remembers even though at times He bears things with much longsuffering. It was not just Saul that was to be blamed; it was the whole nation. They were all responsible to defend the poor and helpless and surely not to co-operate in the destruction of an innocent people or to stand by without protest or objection. Of particular blame were those who consented to take of the spoil of the Gibeonites for their own advancement. Even David, when he came to the throne many years later, was not to be exempted. He knew what had happened and he should have responded immediately to restore and correct as far as he could the injustice that had been done to these poor and afflicted people. But even he remained unmindful of them. 

Thus it was that rather soon after David became king over the whole of Israel, a severe famine beset the land. At first David looked upon it as merely a natural event and thought little of it. However, time went on and there came no relief. One whole year passed and then another. Finally the third year was upon them and the situation in Israel was becoming desperate. At last David thought to go to the Lord and inquire into the matter. Immediately the answer came back to him, “It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.” 

There was a reason why in Israel this matter could not be forgotten. Israel was a nation under God and to whom had been given His law. Never might it be thought that even the king was free to do whatever he willed. God always stood in judgment over them, and His justice had to be maintained in the land. Moreover, because they formed one nation, there was always a corporate responsibility among them. Even though the king who had perpetrated this great injustice over the Gibeonites was now dead and gone, the responsibility for the deed still rested upon the nation. For it to be forgotten would be as much as to say that it didn’t matter, and this the Lord would never do. 

David realized immediately the validity of this position. Before the nation could be justified it had to turn in repentance and proclaim its rejection of what had happened in an act of expiation. The world must be made to know that in Israel the law of God was more important than the wiles of any man, even though he be king. 

Thus David went to the Gibeonites which remained and simply laid the matter before them. As the ones who had been sinned against, it was they who could best determine what would be sufficient recompense. Therefore David asked them, “What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the LORD?” 

At first the Gibeonites rejected any recompense whatsoever. They answered, “We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel.” They did not want it to appear that they were eager to gather earthly gain from the death of their brethren, nor even that they had any desire to revenge. 

With this, however, David could not be satisfied. It was God that was demanding that expiation should be publicly made for this sin. It might not be merely passed over and ignored. Thus David insisted, “What ye shall say, that will I do for you.” 

It was what came back which is so shocking to our modern sense of justice. The Gibeonites finally answered, “The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coast of Israel, let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, whom the LORD did choose.” Neither did David object to this. He made only one qualification. Those who so died might not be of the sons of Jonathan whom he had promised to keep safely forever. For the rest, he simply went out and took seven of the descendants of Saul, two sons of his concubine Rizpah and five of Michal from the second husband Saul had given her, and he gave them to the Gibeonites. These men the Gibeonites killed and hung up their bodies on the walls of Gibeah from the barley harvest in April to the early rains of fall—a sign to all the world of the repentance of Israel from the sin of king Saul. 

To our day, of course, the whole thing appears repugnant and repulsive. We have no feeling for “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” Our day would rather err on the side of mercy. 

We need not assume, however, that our modem feelings in such matters are necessarily so virtuous. They may well arise not so much out of a love for mercy as out of a lack of feeling of moral indignation for a terrible moral atrocity as well as our lack of feeling for the reality of corporate responsibility. Nor is it necessarily true that these sons of Saul were actually so very far removed from his crime. They may well have been actual participants in the sin against the Gibeonites, and it is altogether likely that they may still have been benefiting from if not living upon lands which had been taken so unjustly away from the Gibeonites. If the principle of justice was to remain in the land, punishment had to be exacted lest Israel should become engulfed in the very kind of lawlessness which fills the world of our day. 

Nevertheless, there was a tinge of bitter sorrow in what happened. We find it in Rizpah, the mother of two of the men that perished. She could not interfere with the execution of justice; but she would do what she could to soften the shame of it. Her sons were dead and their bodies would rot; but she would not leave them prey to the scavenger birds and animals. As long as they hung upon the wall, she sat beneath them exposed to the weather, with nothing but mourner’s rags for a bed. It was a touching move of tender sorrow that finally was told of even in the court of the king. David was moved and ordered that the bones of these should be taken down and together with those of Saul and Jonathan which had hung in disgrace on the Philistine walls of Bethshan buried in honor in the sepulchre of Kish in Benjamin.