Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Smith, Richard G., The Fate of Justice and Righteousness During David's Reign: Narrative Ethics and Rereading the Court History According to 2 Samuel 8:15–20:26 (LHBOTS, 508; New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2009). Pp. xv+271. Hardcover. US$135.00. ISBN 978-0-567-02684-2.

Smith's three-fold goal is to identify “(1) the ethical norms and values of the narrative's implied author, (2) the ethical norms and values which this implied author attributes to the characters portrayed, and (3) how these diverse perspectives may serve understandings of literary boundaries, characterization, plot, theme and [intentionality] of 2 Sam 9–20” (p. 5).

Smith roots his thesis in the idea that a primary goal of ancient Near Eastern communities (Israel included) was to establish justice and righteousness, which is realized by “a well ordered and peaceful society where freedom and equality prevail” (p. 63). In this pursuit every individual—and society at large—was charged to participate and was held accountable. The king featured prominent in this endeavour as a guardian and promoter of justice and righteousness through his god-given wisdom, acts of kindness, and abilities as a warlord. As Smith writes, “Kings and nations which failed to promote justice and righteousness were thought to be punished by the gods through internal social dissolution, loss of kingship and other national calamities” (p. 63). Accordingly, the concepts of justice and righteousness and kingship are interrelated, forming a complicated political, philosophical, moral, and religious web.

Smith convincingly argues that the Succession Narrative proposed by Rost is better understood by its older title, Court History (CH). He then proceeds to establish the CH's literary boundaries from 2 Sam 8:15b to 2 Sam 20:26, suggesting that the main theme of this unit is “the fate of justice and righteousness during David's reign” (p. 106). With persuasive steps Smith posits that the CH highlights: (1) David's failure to establish the expected justice and righteousness; (2) David's actual participation in and promotion of moral decline; and (3) David's institutionalization of oppression (p. 106).

To support his hypothesis Smith analyzes a series of episodes to demonstrate the faltering hesed of David. The first two episodes illustrate good intentions on the part of the king. According to Smith, however, the implied author critiques David's efforts as half-hearted and bungled. In the first episode (9:1–13) Smith highlights that though David bestows charity on Mephibosheth, in so doing he relegates Zibah, a prominent Saulide steward, along with Zibah's fifteen sons and twenty servants, to the status of enslaved field-hands; clearly a failure of justice and righteousness. In the second episode (10:1–19) Smith suggests that David's hesed is misunderstood for espionage by Hanun the Ammonite, perhaps for good reason. Regardless of David's potentially good intent, Smith focuses on the king's reluctance to “take up the cause of his subjects when they have been wronged” (p. 112), a reference to the public shaming and shaving of his gift-bearing servants. In Smith's view, this reticence demonstrates David's failure to establish justice and righteousness through the quick and appropriate use of military force against Hanun and the Ammonites.

Smith then transitions from his treatment of David's failed good intentions, to investigate the fullness of royal corruption in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. He identifies David's aggressor status in the campaign against the Ammonites, his absence from battle, his adultery with Bathsheba, his attempted cover-up of the affair, his coldblooded murder of Uriah, his quickly-concluded mourning for Bathsheba's dead son, and his oppressive conquest of Rabbah, as clear indicators that the king has not only failed to establish justice and righteousness for his people, but that he actually has begun to flaunt the antithesis of justice and righteousness in his court. At the heart of David's sin, argues Smith, is the “traditional motif of the rich oppressing the poor” (p. 144).

The third plank in Smith's treatment of justice and righteousness in the CH is a careful analysis of the perversion of justice and righteousness in 2 Sam 13:1–19:9[8]. As Smith writes, “The implied author presents several incidents to justify this perspective: the rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon; David's refusal to punish Amnon for this incestuous rape; David's prolonged refusal to acknowledge the justice of Absalom in executing Amnon; the use of wisdom by Joab and the woman from Tekoa in persuading David to overlook what he thinks is blood-guilt for the sake of having all the people of Yahweh together in Yahweh's estate with none in exile; Absalom's duping of Israel into thinking he was a righteous judge; Absalom's usurpation of the king's throne; and the wicked use of wisdom by Jonadab and Ahithophel to aid in the rape of Tamar and a coup d'etat respectively; Absalom's appropriation of David's concubines; and David's order to deal gently with Absalom during the battle in the forest of Ephraim” (p. 146). Smith suggests that the implied author retells these events in order to illustrate that David's mismanagement results in the erosion of justice and righteousness, which is itself the result of Yahweh's judgment against him because of his sin. The obvious tension between the anthropological and theological causality is never fully resolved.

Smith finishes his investigation by examining 2 Sam 19:10[9]–20:26. In this section he suggests that “the implied author describes fundamental breakdowns in relationships at virtually all levels of the kingdom” and that “David is presented as less pious, more secular and more spiteful than perhaps anywhere in chs. 13–20” (p. 205). In these closing chapters of the CH, Smith argues that any progresses made to establish justice and righteousness in the kingdom are undone and quashed. Smith identifies both individual and corporate moral decline that is the result of David's squandered reign and the institutionalization of oppression in his court.

Smith has done a very effective job in his examination of the fate of justice and righteousness throughout David's reign as king. He consistently reminds the reader that the ethical norms and values of the narrative's implied author require the king to promote and protect justice and righteousness to the benefit of his subjects. Smith also conducts a series of character studies, all of which orbit around the crucial characterization of the king, making use of every opportunity to demonstrate that the ethics and values of the implied author are besmirched by David and his cohorts. In his synthesis of these diverse perspectives Smith persuasively outlines the literary boundaries of the CH from 2 Sam 8:15b to 2 Sam 20:26. The main thrust of this literary block is the failure of David to establish justice and righteousness in Israel in accordance with the implied author's ethic. Instead of justice and righteousness, David has institutionalized oppression and moral depravity.

This is a brilliant and convincing work. Smith tends to his topic with all the enthusiasm and vigour of a prosecuting attorney. Without question he hammers home David's failure as a monarch charged to establish justice and righteousness for his people. This study would be strengthened, however, by conducting a broader contextual discussion. For example, it is important to address why the CH follows on the heels of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7. Furthermore, if David is so thoroughly corrupt, why does he have such a prominent position in salvation history, even as early as 1 and 2 Kings? In addressing these questions, among others of this nature, further study is sure to reveal that in addition to a theme of divine judgment in the CH is the theme of Yahweh's grace toward David. Indeed, this latter theme is just as present in the life of David and just as necessary for a full appreciation of the CH. Since Smith has focused exclusively on the judgment of Yahweh, a follow-up study on Yahweh's grace would, in my opinion, complete his task.

Adam Brown, McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton Ontario