“God does not take away life”: a case of confirmation bias?

by Steve Douglas

December 22nd, 2010 | 4 Comments

To get much out of this post, you need to read or already be familiar with the following story from 2 Samuel 14.1-14:

Now Joab son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s mind was on Absalom. Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman. He said to her, ‘Pretend to be in mourning; put on mourning garments, do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. Go to the king and speak to him as follows.’ And Joab put the words into her mouth.

When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and did obeisance, and said, ‘Help, O king!’ The king asked her, ‘What is your trouble?’ She answered, ‘Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. Your servant had two sons, and they fought with one another in the field; there was no one to part them, and one struck the other and killed him. Now the whole family has risen against your servant. They say, “Give up the man who struck his brother, so that we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he murdered, even if we destroy the heir as well.” Thus they would quench my one remaining ember, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.’

Then the king said to the woman, ‘Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.’ 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, may the king keep the Lord your God in mind, so that the avenger of blood may kill no more, and my son not be destroyed.’ He said, ‘As the Lord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.’

Then the woman said, ‘Please let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.’ He said, ‘Speak.’ The woman said, ‘Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again. We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up. But God will not take away a life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished for ever from his presence.’ [NRSV]

David was heartsick over his son’s estrangement, but apparently he believed that accepting Absalom would be an unjust response to his son’s violent revenge. After all, Absalom had had his half-brother killed.

Nathan advises King David

Nathan advises King David (image via Wikipedia)

Joab did not try to argue that there was a problem with “banishing” or somehow punishing a wrongdoer. But by appealing to David’s nature as a good king and as a loving father, traits of God that Christians would later emphasize, Joab suggested through the Tekoan woman’s charade that making any such punishment final without the ultimate intent to restore was in contradiction to something David believed about God’s own nature. Two chapters earlier, David had learned through a similar ruse by the prophet Nathan that God would go through drastic measures to restore David to righteousness. So in the end, Joab revises David’s opinion that his justice must exist in tension with forgiveness — and he does so by appealing to the nature of God Himself.

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My arguments above are fairly convincing, I think. At least I was convinced when I first wrote it all down.

But then things broke down for me. I looked back at ch. 12 (Nathan the prophet’s indictment of David’s sin), which is obviously linked to ch. 14 here: in both chapters, David is tricked by one of his advisors into making a judgment against his own instincts, etc. The thing that destroyed it for me was “God does not take away life”: in ch. 12, that’s exactly what God did with Bathsheba’s first son! This made it look for all the world as though David was actually getting duped by Joab, tricked into ignoring the lesson in the Uriah/Bathsheba incident, the lesson that God punishes life for life. By this logic, the brother in the “widow’s” fake story should have been killed. Moreover, the heeding of Joab’s counsel here appears to have had the deleterious effect of enabling Absalom’s treason in the next chapter. This made my take on the passage look like a classic case of confirmation bias: I had liked Joab’s message because I agreed with it. And so this post you’re reading languished in the scrap heap for three months.

Today, however, when I began thinking over it again, I began to revert to my original interpretation. I might personally believe that “what God did with Bathsheba’s first son” amounted to “taking away life” – but would an ANE writer/reader have put an infant in the same category as a mature adult?  I really don’t think so; children were no doubt doted on as they grew, but in such societies they were viewed much more as objects, commodities, and hence as signs of blessing. Read in this light, it appears that Joab may actually be appealing to (exploiting, perhaps) the example of the Uriah/Bathsheba incident accurately: God did not take away David’s life in compensation for his killing of Uriah, but “devised a plan” to restore David without taking [what the original audience would have considered] a full-fledged person’s life away. Punishment was necessary, but God would be satisfied with less than equal compensation in the interests of restoring “an outcast” into “His presence.” This would mean that here we have another voice in the Old Testament crying out that God’s punishment is restorative, not retributive.

The other misgiving I had on my second reading, that Joab’s counsel was proved wrong by Absalom’s later traitorous actions, is actually answered somewhat easily by the context. Absalom’s treacherous behavior should probably be seen as the result of David’s failure to adequately implement the plan of restoration, which should necessarily have included addressing the issue rather than ignoring the problem: when Absalom returned, David gave the order that the two should not come into one another’s presence, which in essence was only a superficial amendment of the policy of estrangement that Joab was trying to change. Things remained this way for two more years (vv. 24, 28), and the situation was finally resolved only by Absalom’s desperate scheming, which again went unpunished. We are left to infer that Absalom’s discontentedness with David’s rule and desire to reign in his stead were at least exacerbated, if not caused (we see no political ambitions on Absalom’s part before the Amnon/Tamar incident), by David’s unwillingness to address problems, which should be seen as a recurring criticism of David’s administration by the author: consider that Absalom’s revenge on Amnon for raping Tamar was only necessary because David refused to punish him (2 Sam 14.21).

How do you interpret Joab’s message to David? Was the audience supposed to view it as essentially correct? Or am I merely guilty of confirmation bias?

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December 22nd, 2010

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  • Dan W.

    I think you have me convinced! Well, at least until your next re-reading ;-)

    In all seriousness, I believe the heart of God comes shining through in passages such as these.

  • http://www.godfearingheretic.org SkepticHeretic

    I really need to unsubscribe from all these blogs I follow as I like to comment too much. Anyway, a few thoughts sprang to mind.

    1.) I think death and existence were viewed much differently by the Israelites of this time period. The continuance of life often seems to be related to God’s forbearance or lack thereof. That is, they seem very fatalistic in many respects so that if God chose to take people’s lives, then so be it because humans are just clay – so to speak. Also children according to the deuteronomistic law code “know no evil” prior to a certain age that is not given. (Deut 1:39) So, viewed in this context, the taking of the child’s life is actually beneficial to the child, but not to the parent. (Well, assuming they believed in an afterlife of some sort which may or may not be true)

    2.) Joab confuses me. There are parts of his counsel that seem wise and parts not as much. But the part that really confuses me is 1 Kings 2 and David’s instructions to Solomon regarding Joab: “…and do not let his gray hair go down to Sheol in peace.” Joab was David’s nephew and there seems to be a lot of tension between the two. In some places the writer(s) of 2 Samuel and 1 Kings seem pro Joab and others they seem anti-Joab.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve Douglas

      SkepticHeretic (that’s quite a handle!),

      Yes, death was viewed differently at this time in history. Their view of the afterlife was at best nascent, so life and death were very much WYSIWYG. How do you think this impacts the pericope at hand?

      And yes, Joab is a fascinating character, shown in conflicting lights. He was obviously an important but divisive figure. In fact, my initial misgivings with the interpretation I ultimately decided upon were based upon a realization of his manipulative nature. I still think his motives at reconciling David and Absalom are highly suspect, but I think the author puts an argument in his mouth that is not inconsistent with the moral of the Uriah/Bathsheba story the author had already painted.

  • http://www.godfearingheretic.org SkepticHeretic

    How do you think this impacts the pericope at hand?

    I think (though I don’t remember if this is what I had in mind at the time) that I was writing that to address the relation of God taking away a life in relation to the earlier story about the child. So, technically it doesn’t really go with this present section although….

    If there is no view of afterlife [an eternal life if you will] in the writer’s mind, then “for ever” just means for a very long time here on earth, while alive. But, if the writer [and the audience] have a view of an afterlife, an eternal life, then the idea of “for ever” takes on a much deeper meaning I think.