Sunday, February 23, 2014

Cold War and a Desperate Strategy in 2 Samuel 10

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 2 Sam 10 has an interesting story in it about Israel’s relations with the children of Ammon.  (The children of Ammon were descendants of Lot.) 

1 And it came to pass after this, that the king of the children of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his stead.
2 Then said David, I will shew kindness unto Hanun the son of Nahash, as his father shewed kindness unto me. And David sent to comfort him by the hand of his servants for his father. And David’s servants came into the land of the children of Ammon.

David wants to show his gratitude to Hanun for what his father did to help him when David had been running from Saul.  Nahash had given David refuge, though probably not out of real friendship; most likely it was to spite Saul.

3 And the princes of the children of Ammon said unto Hanun their lord, Thinkest thou that David doth honour thy father, that he hath sent comforters unto thee? hath not David rather sent his servants unto thee, to search the city, and to spy it out, and to overthrow it?

David’s gesture must have seemed too nice to the children of Ammon.  They couldn’t believe that David would take the trouble to send ambassadors to condole over the death of Nahash.  So, looking for ulterior motives, they conclude that David’s ambassadors must really be spying out the best way to conquer the Ammonite city.

I kind of get the idea that with David as king and the fighting he did, Israel was gradually gaining greater military power.  It was up-and-coming on the world stage and this would undoubtedly make other cultures and peoples nervous.  The Ammonites thought that David would naturally start trying to build an empire.

If they thought this, they would want to send some sort of symbolic message that they were not going to pretend to be friends just to get swallowed up later.  They don’t want a sneaky takeover.  So they craft a gesture of defiance, intended to embarrass and show their own dominance. 

4 Wherefore Hanun took David’s servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away.

It’s not an outright act of war; they didn’t mutilate or kill David’s servants or directly attack Israel’s borders.  But what they do is pretty humiliating.  Shaving off half a person’s beard sounds to us today like a really lame way to humiliate. But back then, the beard was sign of manhood and wisdom.  Slaves were shaved.  Half-shaving the beard sent the message that David’s servants (and by extension David himself) were considered half-slaves and not completely free.  Perhaps it was an insulting reference to Israel’s slavery in Egypt so many years ago, saying they hadn’t made much progress since then. 

The other thing the Ammonites did to David’s servants was to cut their clothes so short that their bottoms were naked and send them back home that way.   That would be pretty awful to Israelites very concerned about preserving their modesty. 

To treat David’s messengers like that wasn’t just disrespectful, it was breaking the rules of hospitality, which were very important in the middle east.

5 When they told it unto David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed: and the king said, Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown, and then return.

David was kind to his humiliated servants.  He doesn’t make them come back into Jerusalem society looking such a fright with half their beards gone.  He lets them re-grow their hair in privacy.  If it were a bad haircut they could were a hat or something, but problems with facial hair?  What could they do, wear a scarf around their face?

6 ¶And when the children of Ammon saw that they stank before David, the children of Ammon sent and hired the Syrians of Beth-rehob, and the Syrians of Zoba, twenty thousand footmen, and of king Maacah a thousand men, and of Ish-tob twelve thousand men.

This is when the Ammonites realize that they have just hurt their own cause with David, rather than helping it.  They have made themselves odious, abhorred, repulsive.  So what do they do?  You’d think they would try to make some sort of gesture of peace, but no.  They decide that if David thinks they stink, then that means now he’s really going to attack them. 

So they go and hire Syrian mercenaries to help them fight the Israelites, about 33K soldiers worth because they are afraid they can’t handle the Israelites alone. 

You can really get the sense that the Ammonites are very very afraid and everything they do in international diplomacy in relation to Israel arises out of that fear, even when there was nothing to be afraid of.  In the end, listening to their fears ended up bringing upon them the very thing they feared would happen.

Next we get a neat account of the battle and how the Israelite general Joab dealt with the threat of these Syrian mercenaries.

7 And when David heard of it, he sent Joab, and all the host of the mighty men.
8 And the children of Ammon came out, and put the battle in array at the entering in of the gate: and the Syrians of Zoba, and of Rehob, and Ish-tob, and Maacah, were by themselves in the field.

Notice, the children of Ammon have the Israelite army almost surrounded.  The Ammonites are fighting from the gate in front, and those 33K Syrian mercenaries, who are supposed to be excellent fighters, are pressing the Israelites from the rear.  This is a very dangerous situation for the Israelites.  We don’t know how many men the Israelites had, but the Ammonites seem to have anticipated 33K mercenaries would be more than enough to squash them.  What is Joah going to do?

 9 When Joab saw that the front of the battle was against him before and behind, he chose of all the choice men of Israel, and put them in array against the Syrians:
10 And the rest of the people he delivered into the hand of Abishai his brother, that he might put them in array against the children of Ammon.
11 And he said, If the Syrians be too strong for me, then thou shalt help me: but if the children of Ammon be too strong for thee, then I will come and help thee.

Joab decides to distribute his men according to their ability and the level of opposition.  Those 33K Syrian mercenaries were going to be the biggest threat, so he decided he’d take all the “choice men of Israel” (today these would be your toughest troops--your SEALS and Marines) and put them against that 33K.  We don’t know how many Israelites were “choice men.”  It could have been 10K.  It could have been 5K.  Or even less.  All the other Israelite soldiers would be put against the Ammonites.  Those other men weren’t necessarily weaklings though.  Verse 7 calls the whole group “all the host of the mighty men.”

Then, he makes this arrangement with his brother Abishai who will command the Israelite soldiers.  If the Syrians are too strong for Joab, Abishai and a portion of the Israelites will turn around and support them, and if Abishai’s army is having troubles, some of Joab’s people will turn around and support them.  Joab anticipates this arrangement will ensure no Israelite gets cut down from behind, which is always a concern when the enemy is in front and behind. 

These arrangements really give you the sense that it was a desperate situation for the Israelites.  Joab’s final instructions might make us think of Captain Moroni:

12 Be of good courage, and let us play the men for our people, and for the cities of our God: and the Lord do that which seemeth him good.

Joab is an experienced soldier and so is Abishai.  Yet it must have been so alarming for them that Joab felt a need to remind Abishai to be of good courage.  Courage is not the absence of fear, but acting in spite of it.  “Play the men for our people” makes me think that sometimes you just have to pretend to be brave for the sake of the people who depend on you; put a good face on things.  I love that Joab makes this statement that the Lord will do what seems good.  He’s made the preparations to the best of his ability, but ultimately the survival or success of the Israelite army depended on the Lord.  It seems Joab accepted that.  It almost sounds like he was ready to die if he had to.

So Joab and his few choice men (toughest of the tough) go into battle against 33K Syrian mercenaries.  What’s going to happen here?
13 And Joab drew nigh, and the people that were with him, unto the battle against the Syrians: and they fled before him.
14 And when the children of Ammon saw that the Syrians were fled, then fled they also before Abishai, and entered into the city. So Joab returned from the children of Ammon, and came to Jerusalem.
BOOYA!  The Syrians were totally intimidated by Joab’s men and retreated instead of fighting.  Then, the Ammonites fled back to the protection of their city when they saw they had lost their mercenary support. 

What a victory!  There was no way that Joab or Abishai could have known that the Syrians would just run away.  What if the Israelites had just given up thinking that defeat was inevitable?  It was because they stood firm and determined that the Lord was able to bless them.

But this isn’t the end of the story.  The Syrians think they need more men, so they gather reinforcements!
15 ¶And when the Syrians saw that they were smitten before Israel, they gathered themselves together.
16 And Hadarezer sent, and brought out the Syrians that were beyond the river: and they came to Helam; and Shobach the captain of the host of Hadarezer went before them.
17 And when it was told David, he gathered all Israel together, and passed over Jordan, and came to Helam. And the Syrians set themselves in array against David, and fought with him.
18 And the Syrians fled before Israel; and David slew the men of seven hundred chariots of the Syrians, and forty thousand horsemen, and smote Shobach the captain of their host, who died there.
19 And when all the kings that were servants to Hadarezer saw that they were smitten before Israel, they made peace with Israel, and served them. So the Syrians feared to help the children of Ammon any more.
When the Syrians get their reinforcements, David knows they need more men too, so he gathers all Israelites men of fighting age together.  It’s not just the standing army now.  We don’t have many details about how this battle went except that David was able to beat the Syrians and secure peace agreements with them.  If the Ammonites want to stir up trouble with Israel, they weren't going to get any help from the Syrians any more.

There’s a great lesson in this story about the importance of standing strong and being courageous, even when the odds and the numbers are against you.  It’s also about doing your best planning and then leaving the results in the hands in the Lord.  Things may appear desperate, but with the Lord on your side, your influence can be magnified.

This chapter is also the chapter before the one in which David commits adultery with Bathsheba--2 Samuel 11.  That chapter starts out mentioning how David was in Jerusalem at the time when kings go out to battle.  If David had been where he was supposed to be--with his armies--he wouldn't have seen Bathsheba at all.  We learn from this that doing our duty tends to keep us out of trouble.