The Making of a Reader: Part Six

The Incident by the Pool of Giv'on

by David Hawkinson

I have been reading and teaching from within the magnificent texts of First and Second Samuel for the past several years. Recently, I encountered the incident at the Pool of Giv'on found in II Sam. 2:12-16. I offer this reading into this strange event in order to explore some of its implications, as well as an example to further our inquiry into becoming better readers of the diverse biblical landscape. Here is the text:

(12) And Avner son of Ner went-out, along with the servants of Ish-Boshet son of Sha'ul, from Mahanayim to Giv'on, (13) while Yo'av son of Tzeruya and David's servants went-out (as well). They met them by the pool of Giv'on together, and they sat down, these by the pool on one-side, and those by the pool on one-side.
(14) And Avner said to Yo'av: Pray let the fighting lads arise and do-a-war-dance before us! Yo'av said: Let them arise! (15) So they arose and crossed-over by number: twelve for Binyamin and for Ish-Boshet son of Sha'ul, and twelve of David's servants.
(16) And each man took hold of his neighbors head, while his sword (he thrust) into his neighbors side, and they fell together. So that place was called: Helkat ha-Tzurim, Field of the Sword-edges, which is in Giv'on. (Trans. Everett Fox)

It is important, first, to find our bearings in the story. We do this by reading backwards in order to set the passage in the context of the larger narrative. Here is a brief summary of what has just occurred in the first chapter and the opening verses of the chapter two. Second Samuel begins with David hearing the news that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead, the first king of Israel and his heir apparent. Jonathan dies wielding his sword in battle against the Philistines; Saul facing his inevitable defeat, avoids capture and humiliation by falling on his own sword (even though the Amalikite lad tells David a different version than the one we witnessed (I Sam 31.1 ff). When David hears the report he sings the great lament: "How the mighty have fallen." It is a poem that picks up several themes found in the opening prayer of Hannah at the beginning of I Samuel 2: "The bow of the mighty is shattered…YHWH…brings low and, yes, lifts up." (David's song is complex and multi-layered, filled with politics and grief, but we cannot pause here to explore its many textures.) The death of the king, tragic as it is, sets the stage for David's ascent to the throne, the underlying plot of the history since I Samuel 16. However, as the second chapter begins, David is named king by the elders of Hebron in Judah. David is the leader of only one tribe, his own family tribe. In opposition to David's move into Hebron, Saul's great general Abner installs Saul's surviving son, Ish-Bosheth, on the throne. We are uncertain of his motives at this time, or if he knows that David is supposed to be the next king. Regardless, Abner spends about five years consolidating support behind Saul's house, building a coalition of 11 tribes. Judah alone stands with David.

We cannot, as readers, imagine that the story will be content with such a resolution. It would be like watching a weak ending to a engaging movie. How could we accept a nation ruled by two separate monarchies? Is this what God intended when he rejected Saul's reign, including all his descendants? What is David thinking down in Hebron? After all he has been through, when and how does he get to be king of the whole nation? The plot slows considerably, as the two camps make various alliances. We wait as the characters in the drama occupy themselves with their present concerns and we are left to wait and wonder when and how the matter will finally be solved. It is at this point that we begin reading at the 12th verse.

12. And Avner son of Ner went-out, along with the servants of Ish-Boshet son of Sha'ul, from Mahanayim to Giv'on,

I imagine the scene as if I were sitting in the great theater of the Guthrie in the Twin Cities. I practice this technique often as I read through biblical narrative. This helps to highlight the dramatic art that structures the scene while breathing life and dimension into the story. I see the lights dim as the audience settles into anticipation of the coming act. Silently the troops march out onto the stage, each soldier finding his place on either side of a pool, without orders or direction, their choreography rehearsed and executed with precision. Two generals face each other across the still water, reflecting the faces of ne'arim, the young warriors. No words pass between them. The choreography has been rehearsed. Some scholars conclude that we are watching a ritualized encounter—something like a gladiatorial contest. Perhaps the actors know what is about to happen. We are not told. However, tension fills the silence with taut bands of restrained energy. From the day David was anointed by the reluctant Samuel, this tension has been building. Since Saul's death, we have been waiting for the two sides to come together. Still, this is a strange scene. We have not been prepared for this kind of gathering. Neither is it explained to us. The narrator might have given us this information but chooses to withhold it. Because we do not know what will happen next, we are forced to sit back and watch with a greater vulnerability as the drama unfolds.

Avner speaks: "Let the young men do a war dance before us!"

A single line breaks the silence. The words are carefully chosen. Literally, Abner suggests that "the lads 'play' before us." The word for play in the Hebrew is sahaq. The Hebrew ear hears this word and remembers that it is the root for the name, Isaac, which means, to play or to laugh. Then we might recall the moment when Sarah sees Ishmael "playing" with Isaac, (sahaq). Something about Ishmael's playing sets her to demand that Abraham send the boy and his mother away. It may be that Ishmael is getting too close to acting as an Isaac. Whatever association is made within Sarah's mind, she forces them out, and Hagar and Ishmael narrowly escape death in the wilderness.

Later, in Judges 16:27, we witness the Philistines watching as Samson is forced to "play" before his tormentors, his hands chained to opposing pillars. Again the word sahaq is used, an act followed by the humiliated man regaining his strength and pulling the pillars of the temple down upon himself and the crowd he was entertaining.

Perhaps if we tuned our hearing to the sounds of the Hebrew, we might have been prepared for what follows Abner's strange request, for surely the word sahaq has been chosen to describe moments fraught with irony and danger.

Twelve young men are chosen from each side, adding to the sense of ritual combat, the number twelve representing the whole of Israel. Perhaps they will fight like David and Goliath once did, as repre-sentatives of both sides. To the victor go the spoils! This time, the winning team becomes the reigning House over a united Israel.

However, in the horror that follows, all twenty-four fighting lads fall victim to the sword as each thrusts it into the body of their neighbor. Listen to the description of Robert Polzin from his literary reading of this scene in David and the Deuteronomist:

…had any soldier present at the ceremony ever witnessed a real battle ending in such a manner? Twenty-four men enter combat and each simultaneously kills his opponent, leaving twenty-four corpses upon Flint's Field. We almost get a picture of Abner's and Joab's men waiting in puzzlement for their colleagues to arise after whatever the ancient version of applause had died down. The choreography of the joust at the beginning may very well have temporarily masked the absence of jest at the end. (p. 27)

What is it like to be in the audience now, as we wait for the actors to stand up and take a bow. Time passes, but they do not rise. An abhorrent thought begins to gather strength within us. This is not a contest or game! We must sustain this shock until we can no longer hold our breath, until the horror overcomes the disbelief. As the scene ends, the stage bursts into violence and open warfare. The careful and deliberate action of the twenty-four soldiers dissolves into a free for all. The narrator tells us the details in one swift announcement: "Now the battle was rough—exceedingly so—on that day, and Avner and the men of Israel were smitten-hard before David's servants" (verse 17). Indeed, we learn that at the end of the bloody day, Avner has lost 360 men and David 19 soldiers, along with Asa'el, the brother of Joab. Now we are standing on familiar ground again. We have been prepared for this. After all, Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands. David is winning because "Yahweh is with him." Once again, the plot is under way, and we are relieved of the tension that comes from waiting and excited as we head toward resolution.

However, the scene by the pool of Giv'on remains vivid. What can it mean? How shall we read it? Ganze Little, the expositor for II Samuel in the Interpreter's Bible, Volume 2 suggests a provocative possibility:

"Let the young men arise and play before us" (vs 14). This challenge of Abner represents the ancient employment of the time-honored cause célèbre. Blood lust must be evoked before the people will fight. Not always is the spark which starts the conflagration so consciously struck with overt agreement on both sides, but the pattern is closely adhered to—it is one of the Marquis of Queensbury rules for the "art of war." The British cannot fight the Boer War until white women have been ravished and white men slain; the United States cannot wrest territory from Mexico until the Alamo is there to be remembered. We simply cannot fight until the blood of our own has been shed; no matter how convinced we are that justice is being raped and liberty slaughtered, the incident must be provided which nerves the people to plunge over the cliff of war. (But), must we insist upon saying to one another over and over again in human history, "Let the young men arise and play before us." (pp. 1052-1053)

He startles us to recall the endless cycles of incidents which serve to provoke the resulting carnage: Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin and now perhaps the bombing of the two towers in New York and the Pentagon. The incident at the Pool of Giv'on reminds us that across the bitter landscape, it is the young men who are always sent out to satisfy the demands of the provocation. Even at the end of the long day of battle following the incident, Abner, who first called the young men forward will shout back toward Joab the deeper verdict imbedded in the text: "Is it forever that the sword must devour? Don't you know that it will be bitter afterwards? How long won't you bid the fighting-people to turn-back from (going) after their brothers?" (vs. 26). It seems too late. Already Joab's brother Asa'el is dead by Abner's hand and Joab is bound by "ge'ulat hadam," redemption of the blood to pursue him in order so set things right. In the next chapter, Abner will be slain by Joab, and there will be no end to the cycle of violence required to even the score.

This is perhaps the deeper wisdom in forcing us to watch the incident by the Pool of Giv'on. The historian who is authoring this account wants us to carry into the story the conviction that, in the death of the twenty-four young men, there are no winners. Even if David's team gets a greater body count, even if David sits on the throne, even if the plot is satisfied and we feel that God has finally gotten his way, there can be no victory under such conditions. All of Israel suffers, the streets are filled with the lament of mothers and fathers. In this way, the scene of the twenty-four young men representing all of Israel, lying by the pool, will serve as a warning for the fledgling nation or, perhaps, a preview of what is to come unless something changes. As it happens, Israel will not be able to save itself from its own self-destructive course, a course filled with family strife, murder, civil war, usurpation, an invasion by Assyria, and finally the Babylonian deportation.

The question is raised. Can it be different? Is another outcome possible. Ganze Little raises this concern by bringing us to the words of Jesus, enjoining us to turn the other cheek. Ganze concludes his comments on the Pool of Giv'on with these words:

How about turning the other cheek in advance of the sword-plunging? The forbearance, patience, sacrifice, mutual aid, repeated attempts to understand, honest analysis of our own national pride and prejudice—all these are the urgent necessities of planning for peace. Cheek-turning is the only form of face saving that counts—but to count at all, it must be timed. The time is now! (p. 1053)

I read these comments as one hears the words of a prophet, speaking to the present moment with words almost fifty years old. It seems too late to draw back. We watch the towers dissolve on our television screens over and over, holding the provocation ever before us as we pursue our enemies. Perhaps, in the reality of our condition we must respond to terrorist attack of our land in the way we are. However, the historian of Israel who writes the books of Samuel reminds us that even a just cause does not result in the kind of victory our national leaders are declaring we will find. I would like to believe otherwise. But we are not shown otherwise from by those who gathered by the Pool of Giv'on. "Is it forever that the sword must devour?" cries Abner. "Don't you know that it will be bitter afterwards?" And, as it happens, one of the young men called out to attend to the bloodlust will be my own son. It makes a difference when it isn't someone else's. I am sitting in the front row of this unfolding drama.

The incident at the Pool of Giv'on urges us to begin each of the coming days not with news conferences that list our triumphs but, rather, with confession, since all violence, necessary or not, is a failure of the human commonwealth to find another way. With broken hearts we can only cry out with Elijah, "I am not better than my fathers" (I kings 19.4). May God have mercy on us and on our enemies.