King David’s Troubling Deathbed Instructions
King David’s parting charge to his son and heir, King Solomon (1 Kgs 2:1–12) is read as the haftarah for Parashat Vayechi. The link between the two texts lies in their similar openings; Jacob makes his dying wish known to his son Joseph, and David imparts his final instructions to his son Solomon:
בראשית מז:כט וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָמוּת וַיִּקְרָא לִבְנוֹ לְיוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ...
Gen 47:29 When Israel’s life was drawing to a close, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him…
מלכים א ב:א וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי דָוִד לָמוּת וַיְצַו אֶת שְׁלֹמֹה בְנוֹ לֵאמֹר.
1 Kgs 2:1 When David's life was drawing to a close, he instructed his son Solomon, saying.
David to Solomon: “Be a Man”
David’s instructions to Solomon begin with a general exhortation to the young, recently anointed co-regent:
מלכים א ב:ב אָנֹכִי הֹלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ כָּל הָאָרֶץ וְחָזַקְתָּ וְהָיִיתָ לְאִישׁ.
1 Kgs 2:2 I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man.
The phrase in bold has martial import, as is clear from other biblical usages. For example, according to the biblical narrative in 1 Sam 4, when the Philistine army faced off against the Israelites who had brought the ark of YHWH into battle, the Philistines raised their morale by declaring:
שמואל א ד:ט הִתְחַזְּקוּ וִהְיוּ לַאֲנָשִׁים פְּלִשְׁתִּים פֶּן תַּעַבְדוּ לָעִבְרִים כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ לָכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לַאֲנָשִׁים וְנִלְחַמְתֶּם.
1 Sam 4:9 Be strong and be men, O Philistines! Or you will become slaves to the Hebrews as they were slaves to you. Be men and fight!
David, therefore, is advising Solomon to take full control of the throne, if necessary, by violent means.
Eliminating Joab and Shimei
David continues with more specific instructions to Solomon to eliminate two men. The first is Joab, David’s former general and lifelong ally:
מלכים א ב:ה וְגַם אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִי יוֹאָב בֶּן צְרוּיָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִשְׁנֵי שָׂרֵי צִבְאוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְאַבְנֵר בֶּן נֵר וְלַעֲמָשָׂא בֶן יֶתֶר וַיַּהַרְגֵם וַיָּשֶׂם דְּמֵי מִלְחָמָה בְּשָׁלֹם וַיִּתֵּן דְּמֵי מִלְחָמָה בַּחֲגֹרָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר בְּמָתְנָיו וּבְנַעֲלוֹ אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלָיו. ב:ו וְעָשִׂיתָ כְּחָכְמָתֶךָ וְלֹא תוֹרֵד שֵׂיבָתוֹ בְּשָׁלֹם שְׁאֹל.
1 Kgs 2:5 Further, you know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s forces, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether: he killed them, shedding blood of war in peacetime, staining the girdle of his loins and the sandals on his feet with blood of war. 2:6 So act in accordance with your wisdom, and see that his white hair does not go down to Sheol in peace.
David next tells Solomon to treat well the family of Barzilai (v. 7), who proved himself an ally; David then turns to yet another person whom Solomon should dispatch:
מלכים א ב:ח וְהִנֵּה עִמְּךָ שִׁמְעִי בֶן גֵּרָא בֶן הַיְמִינִי מִבַּחֻרִים וְהוּא קִלְלַנִי קְלָלָה נִמְרֶצֶת בְּיוֹם לֶכְתִּי מַחֲנָיִם וְהוּא יָרַד לִקְרָאתִי הַיַּרְדֵּן וָאֶשָּׁבַע לוֹ בַי־הוָה לֵאמֹר אִם אֲמִיתְךָ בֶּחָרֶב. ב:ט וְעַתָּה אַל תְּנַקֵּהוּ כִּי אִישׁ חָכָם אָתָּה וְיָדַעְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה לּוֹ וְהוֹרַדְתָּ אֶת שֵׂיבָתוֹ בְּדָם שְׁאוֹל.
1 Kgs 2:8 You must also deal with Shimei son of Gera, the Benjaminite from Bahurim. He insulted me outrageously when I was on my way to Mahanaim; but he came down to meet me at the Jordan, and I swore to him by YHWH: ‘I will not put you to the sword.’ 2:9 So do not let him go unpunished; for you are a wise man and you will know how to deal with him and send his gray hair down to Sheol in blood.
Like Joab, Shimei once crossed David, but David cannot kill Shimei himself, because of an oath he swore. Nevertheless, Shimei offended David, so Solomon needs to be wise, and figure out a pretext for killing him. Thus, David’s final words have a simple thrust: Be strong by supporting your friends and eliminating your enemies.
Keep the Torah: A Deuteronomistic Addition
Two verses with a distinctly pious character intervene between David’s exhortation to Solomon to be strong and the specific instructions about Joab, Barzilai, and Shimei:
מלכים א ב:ג וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו לִשְׁמֹר חֻקֹּתָיו מִצְוֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְעֵדְוֹתָיו כַּכָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה לְמַעַן תַּשְׂכִּיל אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה וְאֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר תִּפְנֶה שָׁם. ב:ד לְמַעַן יָקִים יְ־הוָה אֶת דְּבָרוֹ אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלַי לֵאמֹר אִם יִשְׁמְרוּ בָנֶיךָ אֶת דַּרְכָּם לָלֶכֶת לְפָנַי בֶּאֱמֶת בְּכָל לְבָבָם וּבְכָל נַפְשָׁם לֵאמֹר לֹא יִכָּרֵת לְךָ אִישׁ מֵעַל כִּסֵּא יִשְׂרָאֵל.
1 Kgs 2:3 Keep the charge of YHWH your God, walking in His ways and following His laws, His commandments, His rules, and His admonitions as recorded in the Teaching of Moses, in order that you may succeed in whatever you undertake and wherever you turn. 2:4 Then YHWH will fulfill the promise that He made concerning me: “If your descendants are scrupulous in their conduct, and walk before Me faithfully, with all their heart and with all their soul, your line on the throne of Israel shall never end!”
It is not at all difficult to hear echoes of Deuteronomy in these verses:
- תוֹרַת מֹשֶׁה “the Torah of Moses”—As I noted in my “Deuteronomy: The First Torah” (TheTorah 2015), this phrase here and in similar passages refers to the Deuteronomic Law Collection.
- לְמַעַן תַּשְׂכִּיל אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה, “in order that you may succeed in whatever you undertake” appears almost verbatim towards the end of Deuteronomy:
דברים כט:ח וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם לְמַעַן תַּשְׂכִּילוּ אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּן.
Deut 29:8 Therefore observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant, that you may succeed in all that you undertake.
- בְּכָל לְבָבָם וּבְכָל נַפְשָׁם “with all their heart and with all their soul”—This phrase is found multiple times in Deuteronomy (4:29; 10:12, etc.).
Thus most scholars see these verses as a pietistic Deuteronomistic expansion of David’s final instructions. The original, pre-Deuteronomistic core focused solely on real-politik issues.
David’s Instructions or Solomon’s Apology?
Some scholars have suggested that David’s deathbed speech (vv. 2, 5–9) was invented by Solomon, or his supporters, as a convenient legitimizing smokescreen for Solomon’s own political decision to eliminate Joab and Shimei.
While Joab was David’s lifelong ally and supporter, Joab joined forces with Adonijah (1 Kgs 1:7), Solomon’s half-brother and rival claimant to the throne, thus presenting a threat to Solomon’s rule. Shimei was from King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin, and thus surely objected to David’s successor.
Thus, some scholars refer to David’s final instructions as forming part of a Solomonic “apology,” i.e., a text written on behalf of a new king to prop up his legitimacy and to account for his dubious behavior in acceptable fashion.
Reservations about David’s Final Instructions
Scholars are divided on the question to what extent David’s dying charge to Solomon to execute Joab and Shimei troubled the author of Kings. On the surface, David’s instructions appear harsh, particularly since one of those men (Joab) served David loyally for many years, and the other (Shimei) received David’s vow that no harm would come to him (2 Sam 19:24). These issues did not escape the attention of the classical rabbis or the medieval Jewish interpreters, many of whom grapple with the problem. We will look at just a few examples.
David’s Treatment of Joab (Numbers Rabbah)
Classical rabbinic texts do not explicitly critique David’s final instructions to Solomon, although some texts understand his actions in an ambivalent fashion. For example, Numbers Rabbah 23:13, picking up on David’s unusual phrasing אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לִי יוֹאָב בֶּן צְרוּיָה “you know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me” (1 Kgs 2:5), suggests that David has an offence of a personal nature in mind:
מה עשה לו? את מוצא בשעה שכתב דוד ליואב (שמואל ב יא:טו) הבו את אוריה אל מול פני המלחמה החזקה ושבתם מאחריו (ונקה) [ונכה] ומת, עשה כך ונהרג. נתקבצו כל ראשי החילים על יואב להרגו שהיה ראש הגבורים שכך כתיב בו (שמואל ב כג:לט) אוריה החתי על שלשים ושבעה. הראה להם את הכתב. לפיכך כתיב את אשר עשה לי יואב בן צרויה.
What had he done to him? You find that on the occasion when David wrote to Joab “Place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed” (2 Sam 11:15), Joab did so and Uriah was slain. All the army chiefs then assembled against Joab to kill him, for he (Uriah) had been the chief of [David’s] mighty men, for thus is written of him “Uriah the Hittite: thirty-seven in all” (2 Sam 23:39). [To save himself,] Joab showed them the king’s letter. This is why it is written “what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me.”
According to this, David wanted Joab killed to settle scores with him for having publicized David’s secret orders to bring about the death of Uriah the Hittite on the battlefield (following David’s adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba).
Although this midrash may be claiming that Joab should have protected David’s honor even at the expense of his own life, it may also be taking David to task for having created the circumstances that brought about Joab’s dilemma in the first place.
At the same time, the midrash later suggests that David wanted Joab killed for his own good:
וצוה לשלמה בנו שיהרוג אותו שהיה יואב בן אחותו של דוד והיה מבקש להביאו לעולם הבא
David commanded his son Solomon to slay him [Joab], for Joab was the son of David’s sister (1 Chr 2:16) and he desired to qualify him for the world to come.
This midrash follows the rabbinic principle that punishments in this world can remove the stain of a sin that otherwise would prevent a person from entering the next world. David here is, bizarrely, just a concerned uncle looking out for his sister’s son.
Midrashic Ambivalence toward David’s Treatment of Shimei
The post-Talmudic commentary on Psalms, Midrash Shocher Tov (=Midrash Tehillim), expresses ambivalence about the killing of Shimei in its gloss on Psalm 3, which opens
תהלים ג:א מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד בְּבָרְחוֹ מִפְּנֵי אַבְשָׁלוֹם בְּנוֹ.
Ps 3:1 A psalm of David when he fled from his son Absalom.
The midrash therefore justly understands the psalm as being about Absalom’s rebellion, and elaborates on the events surrounding it, including Shimei son of Gera’s outburst at King David (see 2 Sam 16:5–8).
ושמעי הולך בצלע ההר (שמואל ב טז:יג)—שהזכיר מעשה הצלע.
“And Shimei was walking on the ridge (lit. “rib”) of the mountain” (2 Sam 16:13)—he mentioned what happened with “the rib.”
The rabbis understand the use of the word “rib” here as a subtle reference to Bathsheba, David’s mate, who like Eve, the first woman, can be likened to her man’s missing rib (see Gen 2:21–23). Thus, the midrash suggests, Shimei was harassing David about the affair he had with Bathsheba.
Then, in a homiletical tour de force, the midrash continues with David responding to Shimei’s attack with a creative interpretation of yet another verse from Psalms containing the word צלע:
תהלים לח:יח כִּי אֲנִי לְצֶלַע נָכוֹן וּמַכְאוֹבִי נֶגְדִּי תָמִיד.
Ps 38:18 For I am on the verge of collapse (צ.ל.ע); my pain is always with me.
The word צלע here is related to limping, and does not mean rib. Nevertheless, the midrash seizes upon the unusual use of the root here, and interprets it as a reference to Bathsheba:
והוא שדוד אמר כי אני לצלע נכון (תהלים לח יח), אמר דוד לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם גלוי וידוע לפניך, שנכונה היתה לי בת שבע מששת ימי בראשית, אבל ניתנה לי למכאוב, שנאמר ומכאובי נגדי תמיד (שם),
And so David said (Ps 38:18): “I was destined for the rib”—David declared to the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the Universe! It is revealed and known to you that Bathsheba was held ready for me from the six days of Creation, yet she was given to me for sorrow,” as it says, “and my pain is always with me.”
David here defends himself, saying that he and Bathsheba were a match made in heaven, but does this exculpate him entirely?
The text continues with David explaining to Solomon how abusively Shimei mocked him. It then returns to the Bathsheba theme:
ואמר לו הנך ברעתך (שמואל ב טז:ח), מהו הנך ברעתך, אמר ר' אבא בר כהנא איסקופסי של בת שבע היתה מהלכת לפני דוד,
And he (Shimei) said to him (David) [when he was cursing him] (2 Sam 16:8): “Behold you are in a bad state”—what does it mean “you are in a bad state?” Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: “Bathsheba’s litter was travelling in front of David.”
By bringing Bathsheba into a story in which she has no place, the text casts David in a bad light. Certainly, Shimei is overdoing it with his insults, but David bringing this up to Solomon implies that David may be killing Shimei out of embarrassment.
Not Forgiving Like Joseph
Later in the midrash, David is again painted in a questionable light. The text begins when R. Samuel bar Naḥmani, who comes from Babylon to Israel, asks a local scholar R. Jonathan, how he interprets Shimei’s comment that he “of all the house of Joseph” arrived first to greet David (2 Sam 19:21). Before giving his own answer, R. Jonathan asks how the Babylonian scholars understand the comment, to which R. Samuel bar Naḥmani answers:
כך אנו אומרים, כיון שבא שמעי אצל דוד, אמר ליה ומה יוסף הצדיק אחיו גמלוהו רעה, והוא גמלם טובה, כך אני גמלתיך רעה, גמול עמי טובה כיוסף,
This is how we explain it: When Shimei came before David, he said to him, “As the righteous Joseph, whose brothers treated him badly, rewarded them with kindness, so do, though I treated you badly, reward me with kindness, like Joseph did.”
Before offering a different interpretation, R. Jonathan admits that the Babylonian reading is a good one. This comparison casts a shadow over David’s harsh disposition of Shimei: While Joseph—Shimei’s own ancestor—forgave his brothers an even worse betrayal, David only pretends to follow this path. In reality, David gives his son a deathbed command to kill Shimei.
Abarbanel’s Discomfort with the Apparent Plain Meaning of David’s Dying Orders
The medieval sage, Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508) expresses very strong criticism against David’s apparent unfair behavior. Abarbanel, living during the renaissance, is often innovative in his interpretation and style. Rather than glossing individual verses or phrases, he opens each unit with a set of questions, which he then answers in a synthetic fashion. His questions on this unit include one about Joab and another about Shimei.
במה שצוה דוד לשלמה בנו על יואב שלא יוריד שיבתו בשלום שאולה, ויקשה זה מאד מצדדים. אם למה שיואב היה לדוד עבד נאמן ועצם מעצמיו ובשר מבשרו, ועשה על דבר כבוד שמו מעשים גדולי המעלה, ולמה גמלהו רעה תחת טובה? וכל שכן לפני מותו שהיה יותר ראוי שיהיה מוחל וסולח למי אשר חטא לו ושלא יקום וינטור את שריו ועבדיו.
With regard to David’s command to Solomon concerning Joab, that Solomon not allow Joab’s gray hair to go down peacefully to the grave; this is difficult from many angles. Inasmuch as Joab was David’s faithful servant and blood relative and performed many great deeds for David’s honor, why did David repay him good with evil? And all the more so before his own death, when it would have been more appropriate to forgive anyone who sinned against him rather than taking vengeance and bearing a grudge against his officers and servants.
Abarbanel goes on to query that even if Joab was worthy of death for having killed Abner and Amasa, considering that David feared the consequences of bringing Joab to justice himself (though he was well within his right to do so), how could David have delegated the task to young Solomon, who was in an even more precarious position politically than David had been? In Abarbanel’s words,
ולמה לא חשש על בנו מה שחשש על עצמו?
Why wasn’t he [i.e., David] concerned for his son the way that he was concerned for himself?
במה שצוהו גם כן שימית את שמעי בן גרא, כמו שאמר והורדת את שיבתו בדם שאולה, והנה היה דוד בזה עובר על השבועה אשר נשבע לו כאשר ירד שמעי לפניו הירדן, ואין לנו שנאמר שנשבע דוד שלא ימיתהו בעצמו... והמאמר הזה כולל שלא ימות על זה בשום צד ובשום זמן לא על ידו ולא על ידי אחרים.
With regard to what David commanded Solomon that he should put Shimei to death by saying “You shall bring his gray head violently down to the grave,” David was thus breaking the oath that he swore when Shimei came to greet him by the Jordan River, for it doesn’t say [in 2 Samuel 19] that David only swore not to kill Shimei himself … rather David’s statement to Shimei that he will not die (2 Sam 19:24) was inclusive, namely that Shimei would not die on account of this by anyone or at any time – not by David’s hand nor at the hand of others.
Abarbanel then adds that:
ואם כל ישראל מחוייב לכפר פשעי קברו ובפרט בשעת מיתתו, כל שכן שהיה ראוי לצדיק יסוד עולם דוד עבד ה' שיכפר לאשר חטאו נגדו ולפושעים יפגיע וכל שכן כנגד שבועתו.
If any Israelite is required to atone for his own sins particularly as he is dying, certainly it would have been appropriate for a righteous person, the foundation of the world, David the servant of God, to forgive one who had sinned against him, and certainly so on account of his oath.”
Abarbanel’s points can be summarized:
- David’s death sentence against Joab seems both inappropriate and cowardly.
- David’s death sentence against Shimei appears to violate the oath that David himself swore to Shimei.
Abarbanel then proceeds to reinterpret David’s words not as a command to Solomon to kill them, but as a general exhortation to deal decisively with them in the future, should they ever commit similar acts during Solomon’s reign that would threaten his kingdom.
Regarding the command about Joab that Solomon not let his gray head go to the grave “in peace,” Abarbanel suggests that David only means that Solomon should not make peace with him:
אמר לשלמה בנו ועשית בחכמתך, רצה לומר אל תתנהג בעצתו ואל תחשוב שהוא חכם חרשים ושהיה שר צבאי ואתה נער ורך ושתצדק בהיותך נמשך אחריו, לא תעשה כן, אבל התחזק והיית לאיש ועשית הדברים כלם כחכמתך ולא כחכמתו, וכדי להשמר ממנו איעצך ויהי אלקים עמך שלא יהיה עמך בשלום... אבל תגרשהו, ואז לא ימשול בך כאשר משל בי, ולפי זה לא צוה דוד את שלמה שיהרגהו...
He said to Solomon his son “do according to your wisdom,” meaning, do not follow his advice and do not say to yourself that he is wise and crafty, and was a general, while I am a young lad, and that it would be right if you followed his advice. Do not do that, but “be strong, and be a man,” and do everything according to your own wisdom and not his. And in order to protect yourself from him, I suggest—and may God be with you—that you not be at peace with him… but send him away, and thus he will not dominate you the way he dominated me. According to this, David never commanded Solomon to kill [Joab]…
Regarding Shimei, where the imperative וְהוֹרַדְתָּ אֶת שֵׂיבָתוֹ בְּדָם שְׁאוֹל “bring his gray head down to the grave” is used, Abarbanel suggests that David merely meant for Solomon to kill Shimei if Shimei crosses him (=Solomon) in the future:
ואם יקרה לך עתה עמו כאשר קרה לי עמו אל תכפר בעד חטאתו כאשר עשיתי אני, אחרי אשר מפאת ההכרח עשיתיו ולא ברצוני ולא כפי הדין, אבל אתה אל תנקהו אם יחטא לך כאשר חטא לי כי איש חכם אתה וידעת את אשר תעשה לו אם יחטא לך באופן שאז תוריד שיבתו בדם שאולה... אם כן, לא צוה דוד לשלמה שיהרוג עתה את שמעי על מה שקללו בעבר.
If something happens to you with him like what happened to me, do not forgive his sin the way I did, since I did it out of necessity, not because I wanted to or because it was right, but you will not forgive him if he sins against you the way he did against me since you are a wise man and you will know what to do to him if he sins against you, such that you will bring his gray head down in blood to the grave… If this is the meaning, the David did not command Solomon to kill Shimei now, because of what he did in the past.
By reinterpreting the biblical text, Abarbanel’s explanation absolves David on two levels – first, David was not acting vengefully at an inappropriate time, i.e., close to death, toward those who wronged him, and second, David was not passing on the execution of his own unfinished business to Solomon. Abarbanel’s clear departure from the plain meaning of the text underscores how troubled he was by it.
Transforming David’s Final Words
Although certain scholars argue (in my opinion, correctly) that the biblical authors seem not to have been especially bothered by David’s deathbed commands, this did not stop later readers from expressing reservations toward David’s final instructions. The rabbis did this obliquely, by bringing in the Bathsheba story, reminding the readers that David is fallible. A more extreme approach was taken by Abarbanel, who is so bothered by David’s commands that he rereads the text to make them disappear.
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December 31, 2020
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Dr. David Glatt-Gilad is a senior lecturer in the Department of Bible, Archaeology, and the Ancient Near East at Ben-Gurion University. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Chronological Displacement in Biblical and Related Literatures.
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