THE DEATH OF SAUL and his three eldest sons triggered a power struggle among the tribes of Israel, as you’d expect anytime humans and politics are involved.
The chapters we study this week summarize the 7-1/2 years that David ruled as king over Judah from the city of Hebron. During that time, the two youngest sons of Saul, Ish-bosheth and Mephiboseth, ruled the northern tribes from Mahanaim, east of the Jordan River. We dig into the conflict between David and the sons of Saul, and a few details that seem inconsistent in the biblical account.
Specifically, If Ish-bosheth was 40 years old when he began to reign, why wasn’t he with the army when his father and older brothers were killed by the Philistines? David and Ish-bosheth’s older brother, Jonathan, were presumably about the same age, and David was just 23 when he became king of Judah, so how could Ish-bosheth be 40 at the time of Saul’s death? (Answer: “40” in the ancient Near East represented an age of maturity, not his chronological age. Since the age of military service in Israel was 20, it’s probably that Ish-bosheth was in his teens when Abner, head of Saul’s army, made him king over the northern tribes.)
Then we wrestle with the missing Mephibosheth. There were two male descendants of Saul with that name—his youngest son, who apparently succeeded Ish-bosheth after two years, and the young son of David’s friend Jonathan, who was five years old at the time of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths. It appears the Jewish scribes who preserved the Masoretic text on which our English Old Testaments are based thought it was too confusing to have two Mephibosheths in the story, so the account of Abner’s defection to David from the House of Saul in 2 Samuel 3 and 4 was changed so that Mephibosheth was replaced by Ish-bosheth.
Of course, that raises the confusion of how Ish-bosheth became king at the same time as David, reigned for two years (2 Sam. 2:10), and was killed seven years into David’s reign (2 Sam. 4). Answer: The Septuagint translation records that it was Ish-bosheth’s younger brother, Mephibosheth, who was killed after Abner abandoned his cause, so Ish-bosheth presumably died five years earlier, possibly during the civil war between Judah and the other tribes of Israel.
Bottom line: After seven years of rule at Hebron, and war with the sons of Saul, David was in position to finally become king over all Israel.
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