Monday, February 13, 2012

Mission Impossible: Abishai (I Samuel 26:6)

Who went with David by night to Saul’s tent and took his spear and water jug? Abishai (I Samuel 26:6)

Before David was a king, he was an outlaw (I Samuel 19:1-31:6). A paranoid king Saul relentlessly pursued him throughout Israel (I Samuel 19:1-26:25). Even in David’s exile, a loyal band of mercenaries stood by the refugee future king.

While a fugitive, David’s spies divulged Saul’s position at the hill of Hachilah (I Samuel 26:4). After confirming the location, David undertook a covert mission to break Saul’s camp (I Samuel 26:5-6). The mission might be perceived as a suicide mission as the “plan” was to go to the heart of the camp to the king himself (I Samuel 26:6). Saul was flanked by 3000+ armed and dangerous men (I Samuel 24:2, 26:2) including his commander Abner (I Samuel 26:5).

David asked two from his militia if they would accompany him. Only Abishai chooses to accept the mission.

Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” (I Samuel 26:6 NASB)
David offers no objective for the mission, only the option to go. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) speculates:
Under the cloak of darkness, David may have been going there to gather additional information about the one who threatened him (cf. Judges 7:10-15). His covert efforts were rewarded, for he was able to identify the key personnel leading the forces as well as the exact location and arrangement of the camp: on this expedition Saul was accompanied by his cousin Abner. The arrangement of Saul’s camp, combined with the location of the camp at the top of the hill, would have provided Saul with maximum protection. (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7), 255)
Ahimelech the Hittite, the soldier who by his silence tacitly refused the mission, is not mentioned again in Scripture. In contrast, Abishai’s bravery (or perhaps foolishness) portends his later importance.

This incident marks the Bible’s first reference to the sons of Zeruiah, David’s sister’s children (I Chronicles 2:16). Robert Alter (b. 1935) characterizes, “David the warrior chieftain is surrounded by his three nephews, the three bloody-minded sons of Zeruiah: two of them impetuous (Abishai and Asahel), the third, who is David’s commander, ruthlessly calculating (Joab) (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 163).”

The bloodthirsty brothers were fiercely loyal to David (more so than Israel). As such, they have been viewed as the counterpart to Jesus and the sons of Zebedee (Mark 3:17, 9:38-41, 10:35-40). A comparable modern fighting family might be the Gracie family. The sons of Zeruiah were the type of men anyone would want on their side in a fight.

Abishai had a decorated military career. He served in the elite corps of “mighty men” of David’s army (II Samuel 23:18,19; I Chronicles 11:20, 21) and proved a brilliant field commander who headed one of the three divisions of David’s army in his battle with Absalom (II Samuel 18:2, 5, 12). In one legendary battle, the famed warrior slew three hundred men with his spear (II Samuel 23:18; I Chronicles 11:20).

Who is your most loyal friend? What is the objective of David’s covert mission? Why does David take Abishai: protector, witness, other? Why does Abishai consent? What does he hope to gain from the experience?

Inexplicably, Abishai and David broke Saul’s camp undetected and came to the sleeping Saul (I Samuel 26:7). Abishai offered to off the vulnerable king (I Samuel 26:8).

Then Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.” (I Samuel 26:8 NASB)
In an instant, the prey became the hunter. In requesting the honor of killing Saul, the confident warrior offered to eliminate David’s rival with one swift lethal blow, pinning the king to the ground with his spear. Ronald F. Youngblood (b. 1931) notes, “Abishai’s sense of conveyed by his ‘today’ and his ‘now’ (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952], 1 Samuel-2 Kings (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 256).” This is not surprising as Abishai is always quick to act (II Samuel 16:9-10, 19:21-23).

This was the second opportunity David had to eliminate his rival (I Samuel 24:1-22, 26:6-12). Abishai verbalizes the temptation, even agreeing to do David’s dirty work for him. Abishai’s proposal echoes the words of David’s men at the time when he previously spared the king (I Samuel 24:4, 26:8).

As he had before, David refused to kill Saul (I Samuel 26:9-11). God might deal with Saul but David would not interfere. Instead, he confiscated Saul’s spear and water jug as evidence of his mercy (I Samuel 26:12). Saul’s spear, which had narrowly missed David’s head three times (I Samuel 18:11, 19:10, 20:33), was the visible sign of Saul’s power and rank. The jug was indicative of sustenance, the source of life. The seized spear would later serve as evidence of David’s goodwill (I Samuel 26:22).

Though it is not surprising that a son of Zeruiah would seek a violent resolution, Abishai’s response is the natural one. Surely the risk of the mission was not taken simply to procure souvenirs. In Abishai’s mind, God had given him the opportunity to instantaneously end the conflict and he ought to seize it. It is David’s response that is counter-cultural. Francesca Aran Murphy (b. 1960) explains:

Abishai thinks of murder; David does not. The single, deadly spear thrust proposed by Abishai is more redolent of death than anything that happened at En-gedi [I Samuel 24:1-22] or even in the Nabal story [I Samuel 25:1-25]. Somewhat as he had restrained his toughs as they mingled with Nabal’s shepherds, so now David restrains Abishai...God is alive, David tells Abishai, and has given him two providential signs, the spear and the water jug, Saul’s weapon and water carrier. These iron and bronze implements of life and death are a sign to David that Saul’s life is spent. (Murphy, 1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 245)
A presumably dumbfounded Abishai offers no response to David. The young warrior would not see battle in this encounter. Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) notes:
Abishai has no opportunity of assisting David in action. The Lord himself has taken care that no one wakes by means of a stupefying sleep (tardēmā) which he has spread over everyone...Abishai is merely...the tempter, through whom the theological concern of the narrative is brought out. (Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 209-210)
In the heart of Saul’s camp, David’s temptation came in the form of one of his most loyal subjects.

Why does David resist the temptation to eliminate his competition? What well-meaning friend has tempted you?

“There are many devils...the one which is tempting you now is not the least of all to be feared...Beware of it; it is a demon more beautiful than Apollo — liberty, patriotism, men’s happiness, all these words vibrate like harp-strings at its approach; it is the sound of the silver scales of its flaming wings.” - Alfred De Musset (1810-1857), Lorenzaccio, 1833, p. 94

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