Saturday, December 10, 2011

The LORD Liveth: 2 Samuel 22, Pt. 2

The following is the second of two posts, separated for length.  It is an exegetical take on 2 Samuel 22.  Thanks for reading and please leave comments!
There are functionally three characters in 2 Samuel 22: David, his enemies, and the LORD.  How is each portrayed?  As stated above David is characterized as militarily triumphant and almost invincibly supported by God in the latter portion of the song: “Foreigners are powerless before me; when they hear of my exploits, they submit to me” (2 Samuel 22:45).  David is similarly idealized in the middle Deuteronomistic bridge as a blameless, perfect character.  In the first portion of the song however, David is portrayed as weak and weathered by life.  In verses five and six four different construct phrases describing death are followed by four different verbs in quick succession.  The four verbs PApDa “to surround,” tAoD;b “to fall upon or terrify,” bAbDs “to surround or besiege” and MAd∂q “to anticipate” when used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible typically indicate a sense of the direct object’s powerlessness (in this case David).[1]  The actions of death and his enemies have rårDx or “bound/ tied up” David in verse seven and he is in need of swønDm or “retreat/ refuge” in verse three.[2]  While David did indeed experience many individual triumphs in life, his portrayal as helpless without God and in need of refuge in the first portion of 2 Samuel 22 seems to better reflect overall experience.
            David’s enemies and death are accordingly described quite differently in each half of 2 Samuel 22.  As mentioned above, in the first portion David’s enemies seem to have complete control… they are portrayed very actively, forcefully ensnaring and drowning David.  For example t‰w¡Dm_yérV;bVvIm, translated as “wave of death” in the NET, is derived from the primitive root rAbÎv, which involves a sense of birthing, bursting, crushing or destroying when used throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible, predominantly in the Psalms.[3]  Except for mention of Saul in the introductory verse, David’s enemies are never characterized as human opponents in the first half of 2 Samuel 22.  They rather have a more abstract characterization: t…wm or “death,” lwäøaVv or “Sheol” and lAo¥ÅyIl;Vb or “being without worth.”[4]  In the second half of the song David’s enemies are in fact portrayed as human or at least as military opponents.  They are also represented as weak, inconsequential and especially passive to the LORD’s power working through David: “I grind them as fine as the dust of the ground; I crush them and stomp on them like clay in the streets” (2 Samuel 22: 43).
            In stark contrast to characterizations of both and David and his enemies in 2 Samuel 22, the song’s portrayal of the God is remarkably consistent.  Despite this being David’s song of Thanksgiving, God is in fact the main character and chief subject of the text.  hwhy is mentioned eighteen times while y¶EhølTa is alluded to eleven times; taken together these names alone refer to God more than once every other verse.  The song features many other ‘names’ for God as well:
… the piling up of divine appellatives is imposing. The deity is the psalmist's 'strength', 'rock' (sela' and sur both appear), 'fortress', 'deliverer', 'shield', 'horn of salvation', and 'stronghold'… Suffice it to say that the poet appears to have moved in a deliberate and artful manner as he incorporated several divine appellatives of high antiquity that were available to him.  He thereby fashioned a rhetorically strong introductory element capable of serving the entire lengthy poem that would ensue.[5]

A strong ‘naming’ section near the beginning of 2 Samuel 22 combined with the frequent naming of God throughout the song frames David’s savior as always present and worthy to be praised.  In the powerful theophany section of the song, verses eight to seventeen or eighteen, the LORD is described as a brave, righteously angry warrior.  One can almost picture God swooping down from a heavenly temple to pull David from the surging waters of chaos.  This ‘warrior God’ is also intentionally hidden while still visibly and auditorially manifest, thundering and shooting arrows from his shroud of darkness and rain clouds.
            Taken together, our extrinsic and intrinsic exegetical observations can tell us a great deal about the meaning of David’s song of thanksgiving.  Given both the form and distinct nature of both halves of 2 Samuel 22, it seems likely that a Deuteronomistic editor combined two well known earlier traditions with new material at the beginning, middle and end of the song.  This fact, coupled with the presence of a nearly identical song in Psalm 18 suggests 2 Samuel 22 was added to the narrative material of earlier chapters in Samuel to make a specific or to (as Polzin puts it) be a “message to the exiles” in Babylon.  Many scholars, including Brevard Childs, have argued this point in observing how David’s song of thanksgiving bookends with the song of Hannah at the beginning of 1 Samuel:
Both the hymnic introduction of ch. 2 and the thanksgiving psalm at the book's conclusion (ch. 22) establish a dominant eschatological, messianic perspective for the whole. Israel's history reflects the ways of God in the world which typologizes events into patterns of divine response.  God exalts the poor and debases the proud.[6]

Despite being portrayed as a victorious warrior king, David suffers greatly in much of 1 and 2 Samuel: he faces the rape of his daughter Tamar, the death of his friend Jonathan and the betrayal of his own son Absalom.  The Deuteronomistic editor’s audience while living under the oppression of Babylon would likely have related well to this story.  The characterization of a helpless David and an overwhelming, abstract enemy in the first half of 2 Samuel 22 would further speak to an exilic Jewish context.  However, it is the always present yet mysteriously hidden portrayal of God throughout David’s song of Thanksgiving that reminds both the original audience and us that no matter how difficult life gets, God is there and at work.
            We now arrive back at our original question: did the triumphant message of my favorite childhood hymn accurately represent the true meaning of 2 Samuel 22?  It seems that answer could be yes or no, depending on one’s perspective.  As we have shown, David’s song of thanksgiving functions as an interpretive frame for God’s actions throughout the book of Samuel, perhaps working in tandem with the song of Hannah.  For it’s original exilic audience, this frame communicated that God was still at work in the face of overwhelming adversity and oppression.  For the perspective of poorly behaving, apathetic little boy like I was, 2 Samuel 22 could indeed convey a message of celebration, but not of triumph.  Rather, it confirms that we can celebrate how God is present, supporting and rescuing us, in the messiness of everyday life.


[1] Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament, s.v. “PApDa,” “tAoD;b,” “bAbDs,” and “MAd∂q” in Accordance Bible Software.
[2] Ibid, s.v. “rårDx” and “swønDm.”
[3] Ibid, s.v. “rAbÎv.”
[4] Ibid, s.v. “t…wm,”lAo¥ÅyIl;Vb” and “lwäøaVv.”
[5] Kuntz, “Psalm 18,” 9.
[6] Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1979), 273.
 

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