1 Kings 2: 1-12 Final Words and Death of David
1 When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying: 2 “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, 3 and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. 4 Then the LORD will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’
5 “Moreover you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, and putting the blood of war on the belt around his waist, and on the sandals on his feet. 6 Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace. 7 Deal loyally, however, with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table; for with such loyalty they met me when I fled from your brother Absalom. 8 There is also with you Shimei son of Gera, the Benjaminite from Bahurim, who cursed me with a terrible curse on the day when I went to Mahanaim; but when he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the LORD, ‘I will not put you to death with the sword.’ 9 Therefore do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man; you will know what you ought to do to him, and you must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.”
10 Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. 11 The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. 12 So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.
Many people when they were growing up were taught a romanticized version of King David and King Solomon, almost like a pre-medieval King Arthur. Yet, the narratives of the bible are often far less romantic than the Sunday school stories that were taught to children. It would be problematic to attempt to use this period at the end of David’s life and the beginning of the reign of King Solomon to teach some type of moralistic lesson. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that woven in with the assumption of the need for a king to provide leadership for the people is the prophetic critique of the places where that leadership does not keep the statues, commandments, ordinances, and testimonies as outlined in the law of Moses. Yet, even in this chapter where the requirements of the law are met and the reactions of Solomon are coherent within the cultural expectations of his time, his actions would not be viewed as acceptable in our very different cultural space.
The final words of David begin in a manner that highlights that this is a narration of history from the perspective of the law and David’s final words can be read in a similar way to Moses’ and Joshua’s final charges to the people. They all are concerned with obedience to the law of God, presumably similar in form to Deuteronomy. David’s charge to Solomon echoes to the recurring words at the beginning of Joshua where the LORD and the people charge Joshua to, “Only be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1:6,7, 9, 18). Solomon is charged to walk in the way of wisdom, a way that conforms to the vision of God’s commandments and is promised that the reward for that fidelity will be God’s continual provision and protection of the line of Solomon.
Yet, the world that David and Solomon navigate is morally ambiguous. David was a warrior king who consolidated his reign through military might and political maneuvering. As Brueggemann deftly states, “It is enough to recognize that David on his deathbed is a person of deep contradiction and incongruity, caught between the clear claims of faith and the obvious requirements of raw power.” (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 39) A cynical reading of this passage hears David asking Solomon to enact the revenge for political reasons he may have been unable to enact. A more favorable reading hears David alerting Solomon to potential dangers to power early in his reign. The truth may lie somewhere between these perspectives.
Joab son of Zeruiah is a frequent player in David’s narrative as a fierce fighter and commander of the forces of David. Yet, Joab has previously aligned himself with Solomon’s rival Adonijah and although he has always been a supporter of David he has often exercised his own judgment, often neglecting David’s stated desires. Joab was a man of bloodshed and the two incidents listed in David’s final words are times when Joab counteracted David’s negotiations to bring peace after conflict. The narrative of Abner and Joab takes place in 2 Samuel 2-3 where Abner, as the commander of the Saul’s army remains a significant opponent who ends up killing Joab’s brother Asahel. As David becomes stronger and the house of Saul becomes weaker there is a loss of trust between Ishbaal, Saul’s heir, and Abner. Abner’s action to make a covenant with David allows for David to consolidate control over Israel. Yet, when Joab learns of this peace he seeks Abner out and executes him. Amasa son of Jether was appointed over the army of Israel by Absalom when he rebels against his father David and seizes the kingdom for a time. Yet, after the death of Absalom, Amasa is still given a position in the military until Joab kills him. Joab was a man of war and David may have believed that without his removal Solomon would not have known peace. Yet, it is morally ambiguous at best for David to leave this vengeance to his son to enact on a military ally from throughout his lifetime.
Shimei son of Gera may have represented the continued threat of the kingdom splitting apart from loyalists to King Saul, David’s predecessor. This is another instance where David in a moment of military and political vulnerability is forced to make an uneasy peace rather than enact revenge. During the time of Absalom’s rebellion while David and those loyal to him flee Jerusalem, Shimei curses David and throws stones at him. Yet, David at this moment believes this curse may be from the LORD (2: Samuel 16: 10-11). After the death of Absalom, Shimei comes with a thousand men from Benjamin and appeals to the king for forgiveness. David promises Shimei he shall not die, but the presence of one thousand Benjaminites prompts the reader to question if this forgiveness is an act of political necessity which David feels compelled to keep throughout his lifetime. Upon the death of David a cynical reader sees this as revenge delayed where a more compassionate reader might see David pointing out a potential political threat to Solomon’s new rule. Regardless the advice to eliminate two political enemies and the identification of one who Solomon should bestow loyalty to sets the stage for a consolidation of power that is bloody. The peaceful death of King David will not lead to a peaceful beginning for the reign of Solomon.
1 Kings 2: 13-25 The Elimination of Adonijah
13 Then Adonijah son of Haggith came to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. She asked, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably.” 14 Then he said, “May I have a word with you?” She said, “Go on.” 15 He said, “You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel expected me to reign; however, the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the LORD. 16 And now I have one request to make of you; do not refuse me.” She said to him, “Go on.” 17 He said, “Please ask King Solomon — he will not refuse you — to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife.” 18 Bathsheba said, “Very well; I will speak to the king on your behalf.”
19 So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right. 20 Then she said, “I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me.” And the king said to her, “Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you.” 21 She said, “Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to your brother Adonijah as his wife.” 22 King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! For he is my elder brother; ask not only for him but also for the priest Abiathar and for Joab son of Zeruiah!” 23 Then King Solomon swore by the LORD, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! 24 Now therefore as the LORD lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as he promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death.” 25 So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died.
Adonijah escaped death in the first chapter when he, Abiathar, and Joab along with the other royal sons and many of the people of standing in Judah proclaimed him king by paying obeisance. He is still a person who is a potential threat to the reign of Solomon. This short political drama between Adonijah, Bathsheba, and Solomon sets in motion a chain of events which removes the participants in the earlier plot to declare Adonijah king while David was still alive. Perhaps the placing of this event after the death of David makes it easier for Solomon to act in a manner that is more ruthless, but it is also a point in Solomon’s reign where his power has not been consolidated and he may be viewed as vulnerable.
Adonijah’s request for Abishag the Shunammite would not be heard primarily in this culture as a man wanting a beautiful woman as a consolation prize for losing the crown. Marriages were economic and political transactions. Although there is perhaps some difference between Abishag’s position and concubines there is still the reality that Abishag was brought in to lay with the king. There are a number of parallels between Adonijah and Absalom as mentioned in the previous chapter, but one of the actions that Absalom did to consolidate his power was to demonstrate his virility by laying with his father’s concubines. Absalom’s act of sexual politics was an act of claiming all that was his father’s. Adonijah’s request may not be as blatant as Absalom’s action but it is an act which would be viewed symbolically as claiming the beautiful woman that belonged to his father, and by extension his father’s household.
Bathsheba’s actions are shrewder in Hebrew than they are often portrayed in English. When approached by Adonijah with this bold request she does not promise to relay the petition, but only that she will speak to the king about you (‘aleyka). The NRSV’s translation that she will speak on Adonijah’s behalf gives a positive spin to her answer, but the Hebrew is more neutral. Bathsheba has already demonstrated in the previous chapter the ability to navigate the political world of the court of King David, and now as the queen mother she is likely shrewd enough to see the implications of Adonijah’s request. It is plausible that her action of making Adonijah’s one request into ‘one small request’ that she is speaking ironically (NIB III: 32). Unfortunately, the ironic tone is not something that the scriptures often communicate in their telling of a narrative. Regardless of how it is communicated Solomon immediately sees the danger in this position and the political import of the requested act.
Solomon understands that his claim is still challenged, and that there are still those with power who are invested in Adonijah’s bid for the crown. Solomon acts quickly and dispatches his commander to kill Adonijah for his audacious request. Solomon’s wisdom is used for power politics as he acts in a bloody matter to consolidate his power. In Solomon’s view Adonijah’s request has proven that he is not a worthy man, but a wicked agitator and his response is without mercy.
The ancient world was violent. This is not the Solomon you may have encountered in the Sunday school lessons at your church, but the scriptures are written in a world of wars, assassinations, and threats. Solomons name is derived from the Hebrew Shalom, and while his reign would be more peaceful than his father David’s it does not begin in a peaceful manner. Solomon claims power by eliminating his potential rivals. Even though modern readers may have idealized the reign of Solomon, there is a prophetic critique written into the narrative of 1 Kings. The narrator of 1 Kings does not indicate either approval or disapproval of these individual acts and this is probably viewed as the narration of the reality into which Solomon entered. Yet, its presence in the scriptures does not indicate that this should be a normative practice for those who still claim this story as a part of their scriptures.
1 Kings 2: 26-27 The Removal of Abiathar the Priest
26 The king said to the priest Abiathar, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate; for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord GOD before my father David, and because you shared in all the hardships my father endured.” 27 So Solomon banished Abiathar from being priest to the LORD, thus fulfilling the word of the LORD that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh.
Abiathar the priest was a loyal servant of King David but he also had aligned himself with Adonijah in his attempt to seize the crown while David was alive. Abiathar is the sole survivor of the murder of the priests at Nob by King Saul and Doeg the Edomite (1 Samuel 22: 6-23) in retribution for giving David the sword of Goliath and the altar bread when he flees. David takes Abiathar into his household and he is loyal to David, even during the rebellion of Absalom. At the same time Abiathar has backed the wrong contender and in light of Adonijah’s recent request King Solomon probably sees Abiathar and Joab continuing to advise Adonijah. In King Solomon’s view Abiathar is deserving of death, but in recognition of his role as priest and his previous allegiance to his father he exiles him to his house in Anathoth. The banishment of Abiathar is also linked to the prophecies against the household of Eli by the man of God in 1 Samuel 2: 27-36 and through Samuel in 1 Samuel 3: 10-14. The removal of Abiathar is the last of the old guard of priests from Shiloh who minister before the LORD in Jerusalem.
1 Kings 2: 28-35 The Elimination of Joab
28 When the news came to Joab — for Joab had supported Adonijah though he had not supported Absalom — Joab fled to the tent of the LORD and grasped the horns of the altar. 29 When it was told King Solomon, “Joab has fled to the tent of the LORD and now is beside the altar,” Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada, saying, “Go, strike him down.” 30 So Benaiah came to the tent of the LORD and said to him, “The king commands, ‘Come out.'” But he said, “No, I will die here.” Then Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.” 31 The king replied to him, “Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him; and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. 32 The LORD will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because, without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah. 33 So shall their blood come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore.” 34 Then Benaiah son of Jehoiada went up and struck him down and killed him; and he was buried at his own house near the wilderness. 35 The king put Benaiah son of Jehoiada over the army in his place, and the king put the priest Zadok in the place of Abiathar.
Previously King David encouraged his son to use his wisdom to eliminate Joab. Joab, on seeing the elimination of Adonijah and the exile of Abiathar knows that he is probably the next target of Solomon’s regime. Solomon commands the striking down of Joab even though he has fled to the tent of the LORD seeking sanctuary. Benaiah, on Solomon’s orders, goes to the tent of the LORD to confront Joab but when Joab refuses to emerge Beniah seeks the king’s instructions before entering the tent of God and killing Joab.
There is provision in the law for a person to flee to a place of refuge (in Deuteronomy 19: 1-13 and Joshua 20 there are cities designated as places of refuge) in the event of an accidental death to allow the tribal elders or judges to discern the viability of the case. Yet, Solomon, as instructed by David, knows that Joab is guilty of the murder of Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether. Although Solomon’s immediate issue is probably with his support of Adonijah (and perhaps continued advisement of Adonijah until Solomon has him executed) the knowledge of his being a killer enables Solomon to order Benaiah to strike Joab down while still conforming to the letter of the law as stated in Exodus 21: 12-14:
12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.
With the central figures that supported Adonijah now dealt with Solomon is able to place his allies Benaiah and Zadok over the military and the priesthood respectively. We can acknowledge the cultural conditions and the reading of the law that make this execution of a bloody justice possible without endorsing this as the type of actions we would want our leaders to take in our own cultural conditions.
1 Kings 2: 36-46 The Confinement and Death of Shimei
36 Then the king sent and summoned Shimei, and said to him, “Build yourself a house in Jerusalem, and live there, and do not go out from there to any place whatever. 37 For on the day you go out, and cross the Wadi Kidron, know for certain that you shall die; your blood shall be on your own head.” 38 And Shimei said to the king, “The sentence is fair; as my lord the king has said, so will your servant do.” So Shimei lived in Jerusalem many days.
39 But it happened at the end of three years that two of Shimei’s slaves ran away to King Achish son of Maacah of Gath. When it was told Shimei, “Your slaves are in Gath,” 40 Shimei arose and saddled a donkey, and went to Achish in Gath, to search for his slaves; Shimei went and brought his slaves from Gath. 41 When Solomon was told that Shimei had gone from Jerusalem to Gath and returned, 42 the king sent and summoned Shimei, and said to him, “Did I not make you swear by the LORD, and solemnly adjure you, saying, ‘Know for certain that on the day you go out and go to any place whatever, you shall die’? And you said to me, ‘The sentence is fair; I accept.’ 43 Why then have you not kept your oath to the LORD and the commandment with which I charged you?” 44 The king also said to Shimei, “You know in your own heart all the evil that you did to my father David; so the LORD will bring back your evil on your own head. 45 But King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the LORD forever.” 46 Then the king commanded Benaiah son of Jehoiada; and he went out and struck him down, and he died.
So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.
Shimei was the second person that King David told Solomon to use his wisdom to bring about his death. Solomon confines Shimei to his property in Jerusalem and Shimei assents to this house arrest. Shimei remains alive for three years while Solomon reigns but departs to capture two slaves who fled his household. The mention of Achish the King of Gath who Shimei goes to in the search of his slaves may suggest that there is some larger political play in Shimei’s plans, and that may be a part of Solomon’s harsh enforcement of his threat, but it is also possible that Solomon uses this transgression as a way to eliminate one final opponent to his rule. 1 Kings 2 remains a story of Solomon eliminating his rivals. In our modern world we may debate if based upon the witness of 1 Kings 2 whether the situations Solomon uses to eliminate these potential threats is dubious or justified. Either way this chapter is a “fairly sordid story of power politics” (Cogan, 2001, p. 180). Although the actions of Solomon may be permissible under the law of Moses I doubt many modern readers would want to apply this type of ethics to modern politics.