Crime and Punishment

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

Why did David support the request of the Gibeonites to kill Saul’s seven sons in 2 Samuel 21:1-9?

The text provides an answer, but it does not explicitly state the legal ground for the decision. In order to answer your question, we have to understand the nature of Saul’s crime, and the law that applied in such a case. This requires reviewing some background information and discussing legal materials.

1. Some Background: The Gibeonites were Canaanites who, during the Israelite conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua, resorted to a ruse out of fear of extermination. After telling Joshua they had heard about the fame of his God, they expressed their desire to make a peace treaty with the Israelites. When asked where they were from, they deceived the Israelites by telling them that they came from a distant country and that they simply wanted to be their servants (Joshua 9:7-11). In fact, they lived a few miles northwest of Jerusalem. Without inquiring from the Lord, the Israelites made a covenant of peace with the Gibeonites that preserved their lives (verses 14, 15). Three days later the Israelites discovered the deception. But they could do nothing about it, because, as part of the covenant ceremony, they had taken an oath before the Lord that they would spare the Gibeonites, who dwelt among the Israelites as their servants.

2. Nature of the Crime: Several centuries later Saul decided to rescind the covenant of peace with the Gibeonites. According to the Gibeonites, Saul was the man who “consumed [kālah] us and who planned to exterminate [shāmad] us” (2 Sam. 21:5, NASB).1 The Hebrew verb kālah means “to bring to an end,” which in context expresses the idea of attempting to finish them. The verb shāmad strengthens that idea by emphasizing the attempt to totally destroy them. The biblical writer confirms this charge by stating that Saul “tried to annihilate [nākah, to inflict a dead blow] them” (2 Sam. 21:2, NIV).2 Saul did this “in his zeal for Israel and Judah.” So for nationalistic reasons Saul was guilty of attempted genocide. David became aware of this situation after consulting the Lord concerning a famine in Israel that had lasted for three years. He called the Gibeonites and asked them what could be done to expiate the sin of Saul and his family. This was a case of bloodguilt.

3. Legal Basis: In the Bible bloodguilt occurs when life is illegally taken from someone. Unjustified killing was often premeditated murder. In such cases the blood of the victim was on the hands or the head of the perpetrator—he or she was legally responsible for it. This illicit spilling of blood contaminated the land, and the only way to cleanse it from this stain was through the blood of the culprit (Num. 35:33). In some cases a blood avenger would legally request that the crime be redressed. But the Gibeonites’ lack of power made it impossible for them to bring the king of Israel to justice, and the crime was consequently ignored (see 2 Sam. 21:4). That’s when the Lord took their case in His own hands and allowed the bloodguilt to fall on the land in the form of a prolonged famine.

The crime committed by Saul was illegal not only in that there was no justifiable reason for it, but particularly because he violated an oath made before the Lord that protected the Gibeonites. His nationalism was more important to him than obeying the Lord. In cases of bloodguilt the verdict was clear: Retribution in kind—the punishment should correspond to the crime (cf. Lev. 24:21, 22). Attempted genocide could have resulted in the extermination of Saul’s family. But the Gibeonites and David agreed in limiting the extent of the enforcement of the law to the execution of seven descendants of Saul. Justice was done.

Abuse of power is not overlooked by the Lord, who in His goodness, love, and justice has appointed a day of judgment when the crimes of the human race will be addressed in righteousness. Meanwhile, we should practice justice and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

1Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission.

2Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.