The story begins with a mystery: a bizarre famine has parched Israel for three years. Then the Lord reveals the problem: “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (v. 1). By this time, Saul is history. Yet the Lord’s judgment remains over the land as God’s people continue to ignore previous injustices perpetrated against a specific people.
Who were the Gibeonites? Their history is complex. They had first appeared in the Bible’s storyline many generations earlier, when they had tricked Israel into a covenant of peace with them. But God still expected the Israelites to honor their commitment of peace (Josh. 9)
As the generations passed, the Gibeonites maintained their ethnic identity. Did they have physical features that made them distinct from the Israelites? Did the Israelites think the Gibeonites spoke with an accent? Even after many generations, this group was still recognized as Gibeonites.
Why did Saul put the Gibeonites to death? The narrator tells us, “Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down.” His motivation was disturbing: he did this “in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah” (v. 5). However God-honoring his motives may have sounded (“for the people of Israel and Judah!”), the result was simply evil.
I wish this were a historical anomaly. It’s not.
My Own Family Tree
On one side of my family tree, my grandmother was Armenian. Her family narrowly escaped death under the Turkish regime in the Ottoman Empire. Before 1915, there were perhaps more than 2 million Armenian people living in modern-day Turkey. Nine years after their government turned against them, there were only about 500,000. Seventy-five percent of the entire people group died, disappeared, or fled for their lives. To this day, the Turkish government denies accusations (and the proofs) of genocide. As you might imagine, this denial has done nothing to foster healing or reconciliation.
On the other side of my family tree, my grandfather was born in 1919 to a Jewish family in Poland. While he was a child, his mother immigrated to the United Sates with two children and without all of the proper paperwork. I assume you’re familiar with the history of what happened to millions of Jewish people who remained in Europe.
All five of my kids come from family trees that survived brutal opposition and inhumane evil that was endorsed, executed, and enabled by government policies.
Back to King David
We don’t know the extent of Saul’s atrocities against the Gibeonites. The Bible tells us starkly that Saul had “planned to destroy” them (v. 5). Under King David’s reign, perhaps the Israelites were “ready to move on” from that part of their history. To be sure, there’s no record that David’s administration ever passed or upheld any racist policy against the Gibeonites. Perhaps the Israelites had begun to forget.
But do you know who hadn’t forgotten? The Gibeonites (vv. 3–5). If no one has tried to kill you today, it doesn’t erase the memory of how your grandfather was killed or how your grandmother was mistreated. Simply changing government policies doesn’t create a culture of trust. Imagine if it had been your mother or father—would you simply trust your violent neighbors?
The Lord hadn’t forgotten either. Even years later, when official government policy had changed, the Lord didn’t want this evil to go unaddressed.
How would David respond to this moment of conviction? The unfolding story is complex and multifaceted (as justice is often is today). I’ll highlight three elements of David’s response:
- David listened. He didn’t start with self-defense. He took time to hear from the Gibeonite minority group (vv. 3–6). Listening is where compassion and wisdom begin. “A fool,” however, “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his own opinion” (Prov. 18:2).
- David did something. The goal wasn’t to simply placate the agitated minority group and then just go back to the way things were. He sought justice related to the evils of the past (vv. 8–9). This is no doubt where some of the complexity was felt in David’s day; it’s disputable even on the grounds of the Mosaic law whether David should’ve allowed for seven members of Saul’s household to be hanged in this instance. But that is what he ordered.
- David cared about the condemned. Justice is multifaceted. This chapter describes the grief of the mother of Saul’s executed sons. We watch her peaceful protest, which lasted for months in the desert at the site where her two sons were hanged. Then we watch David—his heart is moved by a mother’s grief—show honor to Saul’s sons (vv. 10–14). In David’s kingdom, however imperfect it was, even the condemned were treated with a measure of dignity.
Finally, the rain of God’s blessing begins to fall anew across the land (v. 14).
Why is the rain finally free to fall? A simplistic reading might lead us to think that the seven men, hanged for the sins of the people, were an atoning sacrifice. I don’t see that. First, remember that it’s questionable whether David should have allowed their execution, and, second, that even after their execution the drought continued for months.
From a human perspective, what was the tipping point in the story? I suggest that it was not seven more dead bodies that made the difference. Instead, it was a heart of repentance.
David discovered this truth: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
A prophet from a later generation put it like this:
With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:6–8)
What pleased the Lord was brokenhearted humility. David could have insisted, “But I wasn’t there!” Instead, when reminded of the pain and guilt of the past, he chose to humble himself, listen, and do something.
Today, the church of Jesus Christ has an atoning sacrifice that has already removed the guilt and shame of the past. We have an atoning sacrifice that reconciles us to God. This same atoning sacrifice “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) that otherwise exists between Jews and Gibeonites (and Armenians, and Turks, and white- and black- and brown-skinned people). That atoning sacrifice has been made, forgiveness is our inheritance, and the dividing wall is demolished by grace.
David could have insisted, ‘But I wasn’t there!’ Instead, when reminded of the pain and guilt of the past, he chose to humble himself, listen, and do something.
But we also have history. Not long ago in America we literally built brick walls so that white Christians wouldn’t have to sing about amazing grace in the same room as black Christians. To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened in my lifetime. But it did happen in my father’s, only one generation ago.
How will we respond? The cheap response insists, “But I wasn’t there!” I’m convinced there’s a better path forward. This is vital for our mission, for our unity, and for the glory of our Redeemer. In 2020, God is giving us a unique opportunity to say, “We care about what has happened. We care about what is happening. We want to humble ourselves, and listen, and do something. We don’t want to go back to the way things were before. As people who serve the God of all justice, we want to seek justice for all.”