After David’s wars in Aram, with all the miracles implied in תהילים סח, the text sums up:
There are five wars mentioned here; ארם (of which הדדעזר מלך צובה is part), פלשתים and מואב we just saw in our perek. עמלק was actually a war from back in שמואל א:
עמון we haven’t seen yet. The war with עמון is intimately tied to the story of Batsheva and will occupy a good part of the next section of שמואל ב.
There’s a war missing here, that is mentioned in the parallel verse in דברי הימים:
What’s the story with אדום? That’s where the text goes next.
Two questions arise: what are the Arameans doing in “the Valley of Salt” which is presumably the Dead Sea valley? And where does Edom fit in? If the Valley of Salt is in fact in Aram (and is not the Dead Sea) then Edom is far away.
The 1985 JPS translation takes its cue from the Septuagint:
They emend the text from אֲרָם to אֱדֹם. This solves the textual questions, and corresponds to the parallel text in דברי הימים:
(I don’t have a problem with the change from דוד to אבשי בן צרויה; David was the king and אבשי was one of his generals)
But I don’t like emendations that are proposed only to solve our lack of understanding.
And we know (מגילה ט,א) that חז״ל edited the Septuagint specifically to eliminate textual difficulties. So I’d rather read ספר שמואל as written, and put a comma in there: “And David made a name for himself, when he returned from smiting the Arameans, in the Valley of Salt”. He didn’t smite the Arameans in גיא מלח. The battle of גיא מלח happened after the battle of ארם. David’s army did not return home, but headed south:
So according to the Midrash, the southern campaign was fundamentally יואב's idea (even though he only appears in the account in תהילים, not דברי הימים or שמואל). And he assumes that he needs to attack Edom. I think that there was a “Manifest Destiny” mindset in David’s army. Israel was destined to rule over all the surrounding lands:
And the order of the wars (פלשת, מואב, ארם then אדום) reflects this:
So we can understand why the summary pasuk of הכסף והזהב אשר הקדיש מכל הגוים doesn’t include Edom: this was a different sort of war.
But now we need to look at the corresponding פרק תהילים:
Here the general is יואב , not אבשי, and the number dead is 12,000, not 18,000.
The Midrash suggests that these are describing two separate wars:
Similarly the Malbim (as his second suggestion):
Most commentators try to combine the three accounts, with an alliance of ארם and אדום:
That’s telling a very complicated story. I want to tell a different one, that focuses on תהילים.
The perek starts:
This was a song on a “shoshan”, presumably a musical instrument:
And it is an עדות and ללמד:
And that is critical for understanding the perek. It’s not a song of victory; it’s a lament and a prayer for salvation after defeat:
And that connects to this perek as addressed למנצח:
What happened in the battle of גיא מלח?
I think to answer that we have to look at the Targum on this perek. But first we have to understand what the תרגום תהילים is (and what it is not). There are two “authorized” translations of תנ״ך, from the time of the תנאים:
So there is no “official” targum on כתובים. But people certainly translated them, and we have a number of תרגומים on תנ״ך, many of which contain more aggadic expansions than the standard תרגום אונקלוס and תרגום יונתן. As an aside, one of these, called תרגום ירושלמי, is often printed in מקראות גדולות. But it was labelled in early printings as ת״י, which was read as תרגום יונתן and often called that today. So smart people who want you to know how smart they are, will cite the “תרגום יונתן על התורה”as “Targum Pseudo-Jonathan”. The Bar Ilan database calls it “התרגום המיוחס ליונתן”.
The original מקראות גדולות by Daniel Bomberg has a targum on תהילים, called תרגום רב יוסף, attributed to the blind third-generation Amora,רב יוסף בר חייא:
That would put it in the fourth century CE. There’s one interesting bit of internal evidence for its date.
But the Bomberg version explicits mentions Rome and Constantinople:
So the תרגום תהילים isn’t as “authoritative” as תרגום אונקלוס, but it has some historic validity.
So how does the Targum render our perek?
The twelve thousand were the Israelite soldiers who died. Yoav attacked Edom after the glorious victory in Aram, and lost. That’s why תהילים ס is a lament. Avishai and his victory, with the eighteen thousand enemy casualties, came after. And it goes further:
So when David finally takes Edom, Yoav slaughters all the men over the course of six months. The Yerushalmi notes this as a failure of David and Yoav:
Another point. ספר שמואל says וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד שֵׁם, David made a name (presumably meaning “became famous”). What was that fame? He was already famous:
Rashi (and many others) says David became famous for his חסד:
But I would propose that the שם here is the opposite: this was the first defeat of David’s army. This was the Yom Kippur War to מלחמת הר הבשן's Six Day War. The שם was that, even though they eked out a victory in the end, the Israelites could be defeated. And that will affect the war with Amon that is coming in chapter 10.
The perek describes how ה׳ abandoned us in His anger; הרעשתה ארץ, ”You made the land quake“ is in contrast to מלכמת הר הבשן, where the land also quaked:
This is hard to deal with (הראית עמך קשה) and we’ve become numb:
But אוטם לב usually means “insensitive”, applying to the feelings of others. That’s the “numbness” that David refers to.
Hirsch points out that קשט means “truth” in Aramaic, but it only appears in תנ״ך twice, here and in משלי, and analyzes it in context:
So I would read our psukim as “You have given us Your moral truth as our banner; that is why You will save us”. We need to come back to the morality of Torah.
David then retells ה׳'s promise to him: he would rule all of Israel, including the גלעד (east of the Jordan) and מנשה ואפרים (the children of Rachel), ruling from יהודה. And I (David) will rule over מואב, אדום and פלשת. (Note that ארם isn’t listed; we discussed that the Sifrei says of the invasion of ארם, ”דוד עשה שלא כתורה“)
But that’s not how it worked out:
We quoted the version of פסוק יא in תהילים קח above, translating it as a reference to גלות, ”who has brought me to the fortified city“? This is David’s request: after the loss in battle, “who will lead me to besiege Edom if ה׳ has abandoned us?”
If we depend on our own strength, then we will lose. David learns that lesson; אבשי בן צרויה הכה את אדום בגיא המלח שמונה עשר אלף. But it was an expensive lesson.