The first of the appendices to ספר שמואל is a tragic story that starts “בימי דוד”:
Who were the Givonim?
It’s not clear what המית את הגבענים means; there is no recorded death of Givonim in תנ״ך. But (spoiler alert!) the story gets worse from here. Whatever the crime was, the Givonim want revenge, and David hands over almost all of Saul’s surviving descendants. The Givonim kill them all.
It’s a terrible story. You could read this story as David’s Machiavellian plan to eliminate any competition for the throne:
And this is how Yochi Brandes presents the story in The Secret Book of Kings. In fact, one of my complaints about The Secret Book of Kings is that it doesn’t give much time to this story; if you want to portray King David as a heartless monster, you couldn’t do better than this perek. But Brandes only gives two pages to it.
Be that as it may, I think it’s the wrong way to read this perek (as we will see). I would read it as the story of “David and the Trolley”.
David will be faced with a choice, between a nation in the grip of a multi-year drought, and seven innocent men. There are wrong ways to approach the question:
But there is no right way. We will look at this perek with the approach of Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings.
Levinas was a French philosopher who emphasized our ethical responsibility to “the Other”; we cannot treat others as objects but must respect their own subjective identity. He actually did learn from a mysterious “authentic Talmudic master”:
But first we need to look at the story itself. It takes place בימי דוד; it doesn’t say ויהי אחרי כן. It is not part of the narrative sequence of the previous chapters. We have a similar expression in the beginnings of other books:
This perek is its own little book, merged into the larger ספר שמואל.
When d0es this story take place? סדר עולם reads ספר שמואל chronologically, taking this story as happening after פרק כ, in the last years of David’s life. But it is hard to understand why Israel would be punished for Saul’s sin (which we will have to figure out), 30+ years later. So Rabbi Shulman assumes this takes place at the beginning of David’s reign, soon after Saul’s death (we still would have to understand why Saul himself wasn’t punished, and why the nation as a whole was punished). This is the opinion of the פרקי דרבי אליעזר:
But Abarbanel quotes this same פרקי דרבי אליעזר to support the סדר עולם:
There is internal evidence that this רעב took place before Avshalom’s rebellion; as David is running away from Jerusalem, he is cursed by שמעי בן גרא:
Why would שמעי blame David for דמי בית שאול? And David doesn’t protest; he says שמעי is right. David wasn’t responsible for the death of Saul and his sons in battle; that was the Philistines. And Saul’s son Ishboshet was killed by his own men; David had the assassins publicly killed. But (spoiler alert!) in this story, שמואל ב פרק כא, David will tragically be directly responsible for the death of almost all Saul’s descendants.
I presented my opinion about the chronology of this רעב שלש שנים when we looked at שמואל ב פרק ט in Once Upon a Midnight Dreary. I will restate that here.
There is a paragraph break in our pasuk: ויבקש דוד את פני ה׳, then a break, then ויאמר ה׳. There was a gap between the time David started looking for a reason for the drought, and ה׳'s final answer.
But the אורים ותומים don’t necessarily give explicit responses. ה׳ wants us to think about the consequences of our own behavior, not look for magical answers. We have multiple examples when the אורים ותומים are misleading:
And this seems to be another example of this: even when he gets an answer, it’s not clear: אל שאול ואל בית הדמים, ”Look at Saul and the house of blood“, על אשר המית את הגבענים, ”because he killed the Givonim“. What does that mean?
The gemara says that the process of looking for an answer was just that, a process:
Rabbi Yehonasan Eybeschutz connected this to two other midrashim:
There was a point in time when, every morning, the leaders of the people would tell David, עמך ישראל צריכין פרנסה. And he would tell them: לכו ופשטו ידיכם בגדוד. Go out to war; plunder other nations. Don’t ask me for money. That point in time must have been a time of famine, a time of drought. And the only drought we know about is the one in our perek.
So Rabbi Eybeschutz claims the drought of our perek is contemporary with David’s מלחמות רשות, which are described in פרק ח. And this makes sense, since after the drought we will see (שמואל ב כא:ז) ויחמל המלך על מפיבשת בן יהונתן בן שאול; על שבעת ה׳ אשר בינתם בין דוד ובין יהונתן בן שאול, and after the wars of פרק ח the text has the story of מפיבשת in פרק ט: ויאמר המלך האפס עוד איש לבית שאול ואעשה עמו חסד אלקים…ויבא מפיבשת בן יהונתן בן שאול אל דוד.
So I would place the רעב שלש שנים in the period of time before the affair with Bat Sheva, when David is engaged in expanding his empire. He is focused not on his glory but on כבוד ה׳, planning for the future בית המקדש. But he is not thinking about what the people need. As he is seeking the possible spiritual causes for the drought, he narrows it down to a problem of צדקה…ואין נותנין, then אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי. And he is given an answer: אל שאול ואל בית הדמים על אשר המית את הגבענים.
So the question we need to answer now is, what did Saul to to the Givonim, why was Israel punished in the time of David, and what does that have to do with פרנסה?
Note the paragraph break in the middle of the pasuk. There is a pause before ויאמר המלך אני אתן. David is aware of the trolley problem here: does he sacrifice seven apparently innocent men (the descendants of Saul, who presumably were not involved in הכתם בקנאתו) to end the drought and save the nation? I would even give David the benefit of the doubt here; the Givonim say אין לנו איש להמית בישראל. Maybe והוקענום לה׳ בגבעת שאול just means to hang them in stocks, to humiliate them? הוקע occurs one other time in תנ״ך check this!:
The case seems similar: there is ויחר אף ה׳ בישראל, and someone needs to be hanged publicly—הוקע אותם לה׳ נגד השמש—to assuage חרון אף ה׳.
So maybe David told himself that the Givonim wouldn’t kill anyone. Human beings are good at denial.
What did Saul do, that the Givonim wanted revenge? The Yerushalmi says he literally killed them:
The Givonim were חטבי עצים ושאבי מים לעדה ולמזבח ה׳. When Saul had his קנאתו לבני ישראל ויהודה (and read that not as “his zealotry on behalf of Israel” but “his jealousy about Israel”) and wiped out the city of נב, the place of the משכן, he also killed some of the Givonim who were there. And Malbim goes further, to explain נשמדנו מהתיצב בכל גבל ישראל:
But why would Saul not be punished himself for such a terrible crime? In addition, I would imagine that we should have some reference to a genocidal war. So the Talmud Bavli proposes a more subtle answer:
And the Malbim expands on that (Malbim thinks Saul literally killed Givonim, but his analysis applies even more if Saul impoverished them):
That is why all of בני ישארל were punished. The Givonim were a despised underclass, oppressed and abused by the Jews. It’s an ugly way to look at our history, but all too realistic. And that injustice continued to the early days of David, at which time ה׳ decides it has been too long:
ה׳ doesn’t bring this famine in the times of Saul, because the people aren’t strong enough to handle it. I don’t think שפופים and גבורים refer to physical strength—in the time of David they could handle hunger better—but in resources. בימי דוד Israel as a nation was rich. They could have taken care of the outcasts, the lowest echelons of society, the Givonim. But they didn’t. In Saul’s time they had an excuse: there was constant war and poverty. But David had (Joseph Heller, God Knows, p. 256) “taken a kingdom the size of Vermont, and created an empire as large as the state of Maine”. And his reaction was not to support the people, but to focus on building the בית המקדש:
But there are two parts of the condition: הניח לכם מכל איביכם מסביב and ישבתם בטח. And as Rabbi Eybeschutz said, ישבתם בטח is connected to פרנסה:
יותר טוב צדקה מבנין בית ה׳. And so ויהי רעב בימי דוד…על אשר המית את הגבענים.
(I would read כי אהבת נפשו אהבו not as “because of his love” but “despite his love”; Yonatan wanted an oath that David would never break and did not rely on their friendship alone).
The contrast here is with Saul: David keeps his שבועה, where Saul breaks the שבועה that בני ישראל had made with the Givonim. But that oath was only with Yonatan and his descendants; the rest of Saul’s family are not under David’s protection. Our perek puts a very different spin on the story that is told in פרק ט:
insert intelligent comment here
We have to make a few minor points. First, Michal had no sons:
And she wasn’t married to עדריאל בן ברזלי; her sister was:
So the gemara says that Michal had adopted them:
Second, רצפה בת איה wasn’t Saul’s wife; she was a concubine:
So none of these seven men were in line to inherit the throne from Saul. The only person who was in the line of succession was Yonatan’s son Mephiboshet. The fact that David goes out of his way to save Mephiboshet proves that David isn’t using this famine as an excuse to eliminate the competition.
But major point is the injustice: how could the Givonim demand revenge on the family of Saul, and how could הקב״ה allow that to happen?
Abarbanel gives the איוב answer: we can’t understand ה׳'s reasons:
Levinas looks at it differently. ה׳ didn’t command the death of Saul’s descendants. ה׳ commanded that the injustice done to the Givonim be remedied. How it is remedied is up to the human beings involved, especially the victims themselves. He starts with the gemara in Yoma, about the requirement to ask forgiveness when we offend another, and the requirement to forgive when asked. There is a story about Rav:
shiur on reparations
back to the gemara about eulogizing Saul
See Torah temima on hukat;
מיתת צדיקים מכפרים
Connected to burial of Saul