What About the Blind and the Lame? - Reflections on 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, July 1, 2024

What About the Blind and the Lame?

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          It is occasionally necessary to look closely at the omissions that appear in the lectionary collector’s choice of texts. In this Sunday’s text, there is a small series of verses that have been left out: 2 Sam.5:6-8. To be sure, they are certainly odd and troubling lines, difficult to translate and understand. And yet, there is something about those omitted verses that are intriguing and potentially important. Hence, I will focus my attention there in the essay and see why they may be worth a second look.

          First, the immediate context. David continues his inexorable rise to the kingship of Israel. In the preceding chapter 4, he has once again murdered people who themselves have killed persons who are “YHWH’s anointed.” This time it is Ishbosheth, an astoundingly inappropriate name which means in the language, “man of shame.” Exactly why anyone would name a child such we are not told, but he is still an heir to the throne of Saul, and David is well aware of his existence near Saul’s ancestral home in the north of the land. Two commanders of Saul’s raiding parties, Rechab and Baanah, hardened killers, decided that they would murder Ishbosheth, and bring his severed head to David at Hebron, imagining quite foolishly that the rising king would reward them handsomely for the deed, ridding David of a potential rival. 

          The two obviously are ignorant of the ways David treats those who try to win his favor by killing rivals; he invariably kills the killers! When the two present the bloody head of the pathetic Ishbosheth to David, he works up a grand moral rage against the two, but also reminds them of how he dealt with the man who had claimed to kill Saul on Gilboa (2 Sam.1), and immediately deals with them in the same way. In short, he has them both murdered forthwith. It appears that rather than be morally repulsed by their murder of Ishbosheth, he is in reality acting in his usual political fashion. He wants no one to think that he, David, had anything to do with the killing, and what better way to distance himself from the deed than to have the men executed on the spot? Of course, after this murder there is only one heir left for Saul, the lame son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, and David will deal with him later in the tale.

          So now David can consolidate his power base in Hebron, a city in his own land of Judah. The people of the city say that they have long known that David has been the real leader of the land and that YHWH has named him “shepherd of my people Israel” (2 Sam.5:2). Precisely how they have reached this conclusion is not made clear, but perhaps the actions of Samuel on Jesse’s farm near Bethlehem are a story widely told in Judah. They quickly make him king of Judah, but his eyes are on the bigger prize of the entire land of Israel. 

          But he needs an appropriate capital city, and his gaze falls on Jerusalem. It is about perfect in every way. It is near the midpoint of the land; it has no connection to either the north or the south, having been long populated by Jebusites; it is fixed on a high promontory, surrounded on three sides by deep valleys and on the fourth by an easily defended forest of olive trees. David sets out to capture the city. This brings us to the verses omitted in our lectionary text. 

          6) “And the king went, and his men with him, to Jerusalem, to a Jebusite, an inhabitant of the land, who said to David, ‘You shall not enter here unless you can remove the blind and the lame,’ which is to say, ‘David shall not enter!’ 7) But David captured the stronghold of Zion, which is the City of David. 8) And David said on that day, ‘Whoever strikes down the Jebusite and reaches the conduit, and the lame and the blind utterly despised by David… (the missing reward clause is supplied in the parallel verse in Chronicles—“will become a chief and commander”)’ That is why it is said, ‘No blind man nor lame one shall enter the House.’” 

          The meaning of these strange verses has been the subject of much conjecture. It may be that the suggestion of the Israeli commentator Yigael Yadin is the most helpful one. He cites an old Hittite text, some hundreds of years older than this one, that describes a scene in which fresh troops are sworn into the army by presenting before them a blind woman and a lame man, warning the troops that if they fail in their duty they will end up like these two unfortunate ones. Thus, it may be that in the story the Jebusites displayed those lame and blind on the ramparts of their city, thus cursing any who would attack the place to become blind and lame in their inevitable defeat. This would also explain why David is said to “despise” them. 

          Also, the reference to the “conduit” has caused much confusion. It may be best to assume that it refers to a tunnel as a way into the city. In 1867, a possible candidate for this conduit was discovered and named Warren’s Shaft, an underground tunnel running in from Gihon Spring on the slope outside the ancient city wall to the east. It may well be that David used this shaft as a surprise entry into the city. 

          Then verse 8 returns to the blind and the lame problem. The reason for the old taboo against disabled people’s access to the Temple, but perhaps also to David’s palace (his “house”), is grounded in this tale. However we are to uncover the historical and literary roots of the narrative, the problem remains for David, described here as hateful toward blind and lame. It might well be that any hardened and hale soldier at the time would feel most uncomfortable around those who are handicapped in various ways. Since they obviously could find no easy place in society, let alone in David’s emerging army, it may well be easy to “despise” them. If this slight on David’s honor has any truth, it may also help us understand his calloused murder of those who thought to gain from him reward, and his later repulsive slaughter of Uriah, his own faithful general, in order to steal the man’s wife. It is thus not unlikely that David did indeed despise the blind and the lame; it is apparently well within his canckered spirit to do so. 

          Thus again our literary guide warns us about his “hero,” however great a general he may be, however grand a king. The man is deeply flawed, he says over and again, and we would do well to watch him carefully as his life plays out to its tragic end.       

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