Justice: Kings and Case Laws

 

Janet Shafner, ‘The Wise Woman of Tekoa’
In 2 Samuel 14, we read about the Wise Woman of Tekoa coming to King David to seek justice for her unusual situation. There, were read:
When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and paid homage and said, “Save me, O king.” And the king said to her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. And your servant had two sons, and they quarreled with one another in the field. There was no one to separate them, and one struck the other and killed him. And now the whole clan has risen against your servant, and they say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed.’ And so they would destroy the heir also. Thus they would quench my coal that is left and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth” (2 Sam 14.4–7)
 
This situation is a tragedy for a number of reasons, and it is no surprise that it might come before the king, who answers: 
 
Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.” And the woman of Tekoa said to the king, “On me be the guilt, my lord the king, and on my father’s house; let the king and his throne be guiltless.” The king said, “If anyone says anything to you, bring him to me, and he shall never touch you again.” Then she said, “Please let the king invoke the LORD your God, that the avenger of blood kill no more, and my son be not destroyed.” He said, “As the LORD lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground” (2 Sam 14.8–11),
 
Perceptive readers will have already noted incredible similarities to an earlier tale of fratricide. Indeed, a close analysis reveals the considerable intertextuality of these two narratives as in both cases:
  • There are two sons (Gen 4.1; 2 Sam 14.6)
  • The incident occurs when they were alone in the field (Gen 4.8; 2 Sam 14.6)
  • One brother killed the other (Gen 4.8; 2 Sam 14.6)
  • There is concern that the murderous brother will be killed (Gen 4.14; 2 Sam 14.7)
  • A higher power intervenes (Gen 4.15; 2 Sam 14.8)
  • A preventative curse is placed to protect the living brother (Gen 4.15; 2 Sam 14.10)
There is a lot to unpack in this seemingly simple narrative. Regardless of what you think about the historicity of this episode (although I see no reason to doubt it), its presence illustrates that people could and did approach the king seeking special compensation of justice under certain occasions. The provision of justice was a key component in the portrayal of “the righteous king” throughout the ancient Near East, and the hearing of such cases was a time-honored tradition, although probably not common to every day life!

There are a lot of questions that this short pericope raises, and it’ll be in focus for the next few blog posts where we delve a bit into the topic of ancient Israel’s legal system (how it / its laws developed, who could change them, how was it enforced, etc!). But, for now, I just wanted to raise a few questions for everyone to think about and showcase a piece of incredible modern art on this passage.

First, do we think David is right to commute the sentence of the murderous brother? The cultural background to this text is focused on the understanding that this woman’s (and her husband’s) “inheritance/name” would be cut off if the brother did not survive. This is an incredibly important issue in the Hebrew Bible and provides the key area of stress for numerous texts as diverse as the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) or the book of Ruth, let alone numerous New Testament echoes (e.g., Heb 3–4). Are there any laws which might influence our thoughts on this?
 
Second, if David can change the law, who else can change the law? And, a follow up, how were changes to the law recorded? 
 
Third, what influences David to commute the sentence on this brother? What, exactly, does the woman ask for David to do? Are there any laws that might help make sense of the background to this narrative?
 
But, lastly, I want to return to the passage itself, because we know that this whole situation is a farce. Joab had hired this woman to (like Nathan had, before her) convict David of a mistake he had made and to reconcile David and his exiled son, Absalom. So, when David said “not one hair of his head would strike the ground,” we are to understand that David is providing his kingly protection to Absalom. This is the same Absalom who would, just a few years later, revolt against his father in open rebellion and–going to war with him–die struck in a tree, suspended between heaven and earth and not touching the ground (2 Sam 18.9) by his mane of magnificent hair (2 Sam 14.26). The point, it seems, of the author in this text is that David is that–regardless of what everyone thinks–David is not “like an angel of God,” who can provide protection or punishment to whomever he will. This is a complex and subtle intertext, and one that can be difficult to portray, And yet, good art is excellent exegesis.

  • The incident occurs when they were alone in the field (Gen 4.8; 2 Sam 14.6)

  • One brother killed the other (Gen 4.8; 2 Sam 14.6)
  • There is concern that the murderous brother will be killed (Gen 4.14; 2 Sam 14.7)
  • A higher power intervenes (Gen 4.15; 2 Sam 14.8)
  • A preventative curse is placed to protect the living brother (Gen 4.15; 2 Sam 14.10)

There is a lot to unpack in this seemingly simple narrative. Regardless of what you think about the historicity of this episode (although I see no reason to doubt it), its presence illustrates that people could and did approach the king seeking special compensation of justice under certain occasions. The provision of justice was a key component in the portrayal of “the righteous king” throughout the ancient Near East, and the hearing of such cases was a time-honored tradition, although probably not common to every day life!

There are a lot of questions that this short pericope raises, and it’ll be in focus for the next few blog posts where we delve a bit into the topic of ancient Israel’s legal system (how it / its laws developed, who could change them, how was it enforced, etc!). But, for now, I just wanted to raise a few questions for everyone to think about and showcase a piece of incredible modern art on this passage.

First, do we think David is right to commute the sentence of the murderous brother? The cultural background to this text is focused on the understanding that this woman’s (and her husband’s) “inheritance/name” would be cut off if the brother did not survive. This is an incredibly important issue in the Hebrew Bible and provides the key area of stress for numerous texts as diverse as the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) or the book of Ruth, let alone numerous New Testament echoes (e.g., Heb 3–4). Are there any laws which might influence our thoughts on this?
 Second, if David can change the law, who else can change the law? And, a follow up, how were changes to the law recorded? 
Third, what influences David to commute the sentence on this brother? What, exactly, does the woman ask for David to do? Are there any laws that might help make sense of the background to this narrative?
But, lastly, I want to return to the passage itself, because we know that this whole situation is a farce. Joab had hired this woman to (like Nathan had, before her) convict David of a mistake he had made and to reconcile David and his exiled son, Absalom. So, when David said “not one hair of his head would strike the ground,” we are to understand that David is providing his kingly protection to Absalom. This is the same Absalom who would, just a few years later, revolt against his father in open rebellion and–going to war with him–die struck in a tree, suspended between heaven and earth and not touching the ground (2 Sam 18.9) by his mane of magnificent hair (2 Sam 14.26). The point, it seems, of the author in this text is that David is that–regardless of what everyone thinks–David is not “like an angel of God,” who can provide protection or punishment to whomever he will. This is a complex and subtle intertext, and one that can be difficult to portray, And yet, good art is excellent exegesis.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

One thought on “Justice: Kings and Case Laws

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