Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that Joab led out the army and ravaged the land of the sons of Ammon, and came and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem. And Joab struck Rabbah and overthrew it.
— 1 Chronicles 20:1
That phrase, “when kings go out to battle”, sparked a memory in me. I knew I had remarked on it before, so I went hunting through my notes. Sure enough, here it is:
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
—2 Samuel 11:1
They sound almost identical. The Chronicles cover the same period as Samuel and Kings, so we should expect a little overlap—or in this case wholesale repetition.
Do you remember what comes next?
Strangely, it depends on which version of the story you’re reading. If you keep going in 1 Chronicles, you see Joab defeat the Ammonites. David takes the Ammonite king’s extravagant crown, plunders the city of Rabbah, and sets its people to manual labor. Apparently he conquers the rest of the Ammonite cities the same way, and eventually returns to Jerusalem.
It stands to reason that if kings go out to battle, they must also return home. David returns a conquering hero, having defeated more of Israel’s enemies and increased the peace and prosperity of God’s chosen nation.
But if you finish the story in 2 Samuel, it sounds a bit different.
David stays behind in Jerusalem, as before, but then he goes for a walk on the roof, sees a woman bathing, invites her to the palace for, um, a casual chat, and ends up getting her pregnant, murdering her husband (a mighty warrior of some repute), and—after Nathan the prophet confronts him with his sin and the child dies—marrying her and having yet more children.
Sound familiar yet?
Her name was Bathsheba, and one of those children is King Solomon.
But in Chronicles, none of this happens. The author just skips past this whole story and goes on to talk about David’s victory, and then about fighting Goliath’s brother, who was also a giant. You may remember that David came to fame originally by killing Goliath in single combat, so this new story of defeating his brother recalls David’s military prowess, confirming his suitability as a king.
What’s going on?
Why is it okay for the chronicler to leave out this story of one of David’s greatest failings? Especially one that leads to the birth of Solomon, the last good king of Israel1.
One possibility is that the chronicler is making David out to be a mythical hero, the kind of guy Israel could rally behind. They are in exile as he writes, and it would be nice to have something to believe in. Other cultures have their ancient myths of epic warrior kings; why not Israel?
But the chronicler isn’t interested in making David out to be a mythical hero. Just one chapter later, we get the story of David taking a census of Israel’s armies because “Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1)2. Not something you write about a man you want others to unquestioningly admire.
I briefly wondered if maybe the author didn’t think the event with Bathsheba was important. After all, he’s telling war stories—even the census story is actually a war story—and the weird adultery/murder interlude isn’t really the right genre. Why would you talk about the people who aren’t fighting, when you could tell another story about the men who are?
But we do get histories about non-war events. We get the triumphant entry of the ark into Jerusalem. Well, halfway to Jerusalem, and then the rest of the way a while later. We get the appointment of priests and Levites (1 Chronicles 23:2–6).
So he’s not leaving it out to keep David from looking bad, and he’s not leaving it out because stories that aren’t about war bore him. And it’s not like it’s a minor story in the history of Israel: this is King Solomon’s mother we’re talking about.
What’s going on?
To answer, we should ask ourselves what’s similar about the stories the chronicler does tell. Start with the main story of this passage, the siege of Rabbah.
Israel vs. the Ammonites
This war against the Ammonites isn’t a new thing. Their history with Israel is literally older than Israel.
Abraham, the father of Isaac, the father of Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, had a nephew named Lot. Lot was kind of a screw-up: he quarreled with Abraham about whose shepherds got the fertile land (he chose the land around Sodom, a city you may have heard of) (Genesis 13:8–13); he got himself kidnapped during the war of the nine kings, and Abraham had to rescue him (actually a cool story in which we first meet King Melchizedek) (Genesis 14:12–24); and he ended up actually living in Sodom when God decided to firebomb it because of its corruption (Genesis 19:12–14).
Thanks to Abraham’s intercession with God, Lot escapes from Sodom with his wife and daughters—well, his daughters, because his wife became a pillar of salt—and they camp outside a small town called Zoar. His daughters suddenly realize that everybody is dead3, and their chances at a husband are, as a result, not great. But conveniently, their father is a man, and, as I said, a bit of a screw-up, so they take turns getting him drunk and sleeping with him until they’re both pregnant (Genesis 19:37–38).
The older daughter gives birth to a man named Moab, father of the Moabites, a tribe Israel has some issues with later on. And the younger daughter gives birth to a man named Ben-Ammi, father of—you guessed it—the Ammonites.
So Ben-Ammi is born out of the conflict of Abraham, Israel’s grandfather, and Lot; these two nations haven’t seen peace since before either of them was born.
Anyway, time goes by, and the Ammonites (and the Moabites) settle in that south-Jordan area, and several centuries later when the Israelites are on their way north from Egypt, they remember these cousins and ask for help. The Ammonites are not exactly receptive; they lift a total of zero fingers to assist Israel. In fact, they get together with the Moabites and hire a prophet named Balaam to curse them and make them go away (Numbers 22–24).
God does not permit the Ammonites into the tabernacle, even though they are closely related to the Israelites, because of this lack of help (Deuteronomy 23:3–4). On the other hand, He also doesn’t permit Israel to destroy them on their way through, because He had promised that land to Lot (Deuteronomy 2:19).
Over the years, they kept at it. During the time of the judges, the Ammonites claimed the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manasseh had taken their land, even though they explicitly had avoided it (Judges 11:1–28).
Later, during the time of Saul, the Ammonites attacked, and they responded to Israel’s request for a peace treaty with a demand that the Israelites of Jabesh-Gilead cut out their right eyes (1 Samuel 11:1–2).
David tried again to make peace when the Ammonite leader Nahash died, but Nahash’s son Hanun, the new king, shaved off the messengers’ beards and sent them back in disgrace (2 Samuel 10:1–4).
Finally, David is done with this. He sends Joab out against the Ammonite capital Rabbah, and Joab takes the city, and David basically enslaves the Ammonite people, thinking he will finally have peace. That’s almost true! Except Solomon goes and marries an Ammonite named Naamah, and her son Rehoboam puts the final nail in the coffin of Israelite unity. Sigh.
So that’s the story of the Ammonites. We have two more stories to look at, my two counterexamples above: the census of Israel and the appointment of priests and Levites.
Taking A Military Census
The census, even though God didn’t appreciate David not just trusting Him regardless of the size of his army4, shows that Israel’s army is massive. Joab reports that, if needed, David could raise an army of 1,570,000 men. For comparison, the U.S. military has fewer than 1,300,000 members across all services (although the total eligible population of the U.S. is estimated at 17,000,0005).
See, I told you the census story was really a war story.
Appointment of Priests and Levites
The appointment of priests and Levites serves a similar purpose on the religious side of the nation. David appoints a total of 38,000 men to serve (1 Chronicles 23:2–6), a crazy amount of servants for the tabernacle.
How do we even begin to understand a temple staff so large? There are four thousand musicians! And you thought Arcade Fire had a lot of members6.
Here’s one way. There are also four thousand gatekeepers. That’s enough that if a new guard came on duty every two hours, the rotation wouldn’t repeat for an entire year.
Just as the army is well-equipped, the house of God has more than enough servants.
I think we can finally see what these three stories have in common. They do not paint a picture of a strong man, they depict a strong nation.
That’s what I was missing when I started. The chronicler doesn’t want to make David look like a mythical priest-prophet-poet-warrior-king (although David is in fact all of those things except mythical), he wants to make Israel look like the powerful, unique, chosen nation that it is. That feels like the same kind of hubris that got David in trouble, doesn’t it? But by emphasizing the role of God in each of these aspects, the chronicler demonstrates again and again that Israel’s victories, all her strengths, were given by God. And, by implication, God will restore Israel again in His own time.
That makes Chronicles, a book that many of us would prefer to skip over because of its tiresome genealogies and record keeping, a powerful message of hope for a nation in exile from its home, its land, and its God. An Israelite in Assyria or Babylon wouldn’t be bored by these dry records; he would be stirred to pride and courage, like, say, an American watching Top Gun.
Other Hearts, In Other Lands
Which brings me to a thought I have almost every Veterans’ Day (and Memorial Day, and Independence Day, three U.S. holidays about patriotism and national pride).
In the Old Testament, Israelite nationalism was based on the worship of God.
He built His people from a man (Abraham) to a family (Jacob) to a nation (Moses) to a kingdom (David). At each step, God was the driving force, and God was the focus of the government (or, He was supposed to be).
In short, in Israel, Yahweh worship and national pride went hand-in-hand. Indeed, when they got out of step, as they often did, the nation had military or economic or political problems until the leaders or the people or both turned back to God.
But Jesus changed all that by His ministry, by His life, by His death, and by His resurrection. And the ministries of Peter and Paul confirmed the astonishing expansion of the kingdom of God outward from Abraham’s biological children to his children of the faith (Galatians 3:7).
As a consequence, there is no longer Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28). No “native” and “foreigner.” No nation has a monopoly on God, and certainly no modern nation. Neither America of 1776 nor Israel of 1948 nor any other country can claim a single mote of preference in the eyes of our Creator.
All of which makes it uncomfortable at best to see American celebrations in church worship services, even on days like Veterans’ Day. I think most can agree that some churches go massively overboard and slide into American idolatry—some, to their shame, dive into it headlong—but even otherwise well-intentioned celebrations of brave, selfless men and women who elected to serve their country in the military instead of elsewhere make me squirm a bit.
It should be the case, I think, that any Christian can walk into any Christian worship service in the world and find God-hearted folks worshiping in a common way. Not that the service has to look the same, or even similar, but that God should be always at the center.
And that means that every national flourish, even down to an American flag in the corner or “America the Beautiful” in the hymnal7, suggests that, in this particular house of God, there is a little Jew-versus-Greek going on; sorry, Paul.
And that’s a shame.
We are no longer the nation of Israel, a theocracy chosen and created by God to be His representatives in a land of unbelievers. Or rather, we are exactly that, but our borders are defined by the body of Christ, not by lines on a map and certainly not by human governments, appointed by God though they may be (Romans 13:1).
If we have a flag, it is the banner of Christ, and if an anthem, it is not “Battle Hymn of the Republic”8, but perhaps, allow me to suggest, “This Is My Song”:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is,
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
You know, to the extent that Israel even had good kings. Solomon marries foreign women and builds temples to their foreign gods and excessively punishes the people his father David conquered and begins the schism that eventually results in Israel splitting into two kingdoms. But… that’s later. ↩
In 2 Samuel 24:1, David’s hubris is attributed to God’s anger instead of Satan’s work; either way, it doesn’t make David look good. ↩
If God firebombed your city and all the surrounding cities and the countryside and only you and your family escaped, you would also question whether you were the only people left on Earth. That thought isn’t theor problem. ↩
It’s not obvious that God’s displeasure is based on David’s hubris, but other explanations don’t ring true to me. God has defeated entire armies with as few as 300 soldiers (Judges 7:7), so David shouldn’t care how many men he has, as long as he has God. ↩
This is just the number of people ages 18–25, but I think it’s a reasonable analog to David’s “all who drew the sword.” ↩
Polyphonic Spree has even more, but they’re way more obscure, and they still only have like twenty members, not four thousand. ↩
My church is not immune; that’s UMC Hymnal #696. ↩
An American Civil War hymn from 1861, UMC Hymnal #717. Written by an abolitionist (good!) about the Union army (wait…), it was called by the editor of the UMC Hymnal Rev. Dr. Carlton Young, “the USA’s second and more singable national anthem” (whoops!). Sorry, global UMC. ↩