Question: In 2 Samuel 21, is God approving of David’s actions in the killing of Saul’s seven sons?
The first fourteen verses of 2 Samuel 21 records king David asking God to reveal the cause of a 3 years famine. God reveals that “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house…because he put the Gibeonites to death” (v.1). So David asks the Gibeonites what he can do to rectify the injustice done to them years before (2-3). The Gibeonites, who had been nearly wiped out as a people by Saul (5), understood the Law of Moses on this matter and requested that seven of Saul’s sons be executed, and David agrees to their terms (5-7).
There are several key points of background that help makes sense of this tragic event:
• The Gibeonites should not have been in the land of Israel at all at this time. All the Canaanite tribes were supposed to have been utterly destroyed when Joshua led the Hebrews into the Promised Land (Dt. 7:1-6). The reason for this was—
Dt. 7:4 …for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’S anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.
• Joshua failed in this directive:
Josh. 9:15 Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.
Consequently, when king “Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah…tried to annihilate them” (v. 2), he was breaking a generations-old treaty with the unsuspecting Gibeonites, thereby shedding innocent blood.
• The Promised Land was granted to Israel, tribe by tribe, as an inheritance from God (Dt. 19:10). God considered both His people Israel, and the land itself, to be holy, His “treasured possession” (Dt. 7:6; Lev. 27:30). Consequently, innocent blood shed on His land had to be atoned for:
Num. 35:33 Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it.
As God had forewarned, destruction (in the form of a famine) came upon Israel for ignoring His command to rid the land of the Canaanites in the first place, but also for breaking the covenant that had been made with the Gibeonites, slaughtering an innocent people.
According to Israel’s own legal system, the Gibeonites knew they were within their rights to ask for the guilty to be punished for the innocent. And even though king Saul was already dead, his family survived and thrived while the Gibeonite people had been nearly exterminated. The request for “seven” of Saul’s sons represented the ancient Semitic concept of “completeness”—7 sons for the whole decimated tribe of Gibeonites.
David realizes he is obligated to remove the “blood-guilt” from God’s holy land and restore justice, which kicks in Israel’s own God-given legal system of justice.
As is so often the case in spiritual things, the trouble that rains down on our heads is often of our own making.