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King David's life was drawing to a close, and he gave his final instructions to (Solomon), his sonů (Kings I 2:1).
Parashat Vayechi relates the details of Jacob's final words and blessings to his children, which assigned each son their respective ultimate roles in shaping the Israelite nation. The Haftara recalls King David's final words.
They differ from Jacob's in three fundamental ways. Firstly, unlike Jacob, he communicated his message to one son only - Solomon. Secondly, he stressed that his future success would be dependent in his 'following the right path' - Jacob, by contrast, seems to have taken the future good deeds of his progeny for granted. Thirdly, he left his son some 'unfinished business' to take care of, and most of it was of a highly unpleasant nature.
That unfinished business was to liquidate certain individuals who caused David great distress. They were Joab, his chief general, and Shimi ben Geira, who, according to the Talmud (Berachot 17a) was David's teacher, and also confidante and advisor.
Joab killed Abner and Amasa - two military commanders. Abner, as the text relates, had originally been Saul's premier general, but after his death and some unseemly 'goings-on' at the court of his successor, decided to leave that household and move over to David. Joab knew nothing about David's acceptance of Abner, and on his first meeting with him stabbed him to death 'in the fifth rib'. In so doing, Joab assumed that Abner was David's deadly enemy - as he had been in the time of Saul.
Near the end of his life, David wished to replace Joab with Amasa. That was because he was furious that Joab had dealt the final deathblow to his son Absalom following Absalom's almost successful rebellion against David. On a later campaign, Joab met Amasa and stabbed him to death - again 'in the fifth rib'. In both cases the text implies that he murdered them in a cowardly and treacherous way after gaining their confidence.
Shimi ben Geira had sided with Absalom in his rebellion against David, and, in so doing, publicly execrated him with vile curses. Although he profusely apologized to him after Absalom's rebellion proved to have failed, and later on sided with David and Solomon during Adonijah's rebellion, David nevertheless told Solomon to 'put him on the list' to be 'dealt with'.
On a kindlier note, David urged Solomon to show special kindness to the family of Barzilai of Gilead - who in his old age had gone out of his way to supply David with board and lodging during the hardest time of his life. That was when his and his followers' lives were in grave danger as he fled from his patricidal son, Absalom. Solomon was to include Barzilai's family amongst 'those who sat at his table'. His loyalty to David was to be rewarded publicly, so that people would draw proper lessons for their own behavior.
The obvious question: why did King David leave those unpleasant tasks for his son? Why did he not issue the royal decree for Joab's removal from office after he murdered Abner - or Amasa? And why did he promise on oath to spare Shimi's life after his apology, instead of putting him to death under the royal privilege?
In answering this question, it is essential to look at the stages of David's life as king, and at his relationship with G-d during those respective stages.
When Abner moved over to David's side and Joab murdered him, David himself was in a very vulnerable situation. He was not king over all Israel - Israel was a divided kingdom, and he ruled, rather tenuously, over Judah only. The northern part of the country was until then loyal to the ruling house of Saul, which at that time was 'becoming weaker and weaker'.
Thus David had to establish his credibility to those loyal to the House of Saul - Saul himself had been his murderous enemy. He did this by publicly mourning Abner, who was their beloved commander, and in joining his funeral procession. At the same time his position in the south of the country was not yet strong enough to demand Joab's removal from office. His own position as king was not well established, and Joab seems to have already been enjoying public confidence and popularity. In short, David needed him.
David's lament for Abner finished with the words: 'I am tender, and anointed as king. These men (Joab and his family) are too strong for me. May G-d pay he that did this act of wickedness in a manner commensurate with his wickedness.' (Sam. II 3:39) In other words he handed the matter over to G-d, requesting Him to intervene personally.
In having to please both parts of the country, David used his skills as a political tightrope walker. In fact, subsequent events suggest that David never ruled over a united Israelite kingdom in the same way as his son, but rather, he ruled over two separate entities - each having entered into a separate personal contract with him.
But the words 'I am tender' may also mean tender in faith. Deep down, David felt that he should have removed Joab in some way or other, but his faith was too 'tender' to hand his own need for popular acclaim over to G-d. That was his test from G-d. And in saying that he was tender, he expressed regret that he was spiritually too weak at that early stage of his monarchy to place more faith in G-d by taking more decisive action.
Later on he probably wished to take action against Joab, but could not - for a different reason. Not because of lack of faith, but because G-d had withdrawn His protection from him. The circumstances in which he came to marry Bathsheba - the woman who was to be the mother of his successor, Solomon, were stated in the text to be 'evil in the eyes of G-d'. (ibid 11:27) As a result, Nathan the Prophet brought the G-d's sentence on him saying:
And now the sword shall never depart from your House - because you despised Me by taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite (Bathsheba) for yourself as a wife. (ibid 12:10)
It seems that from then onwards David regarded his many misfortunes as G-d's punishment. That explains why he took Amnon's murder, Absalom's rebellion, and later on Adonijah's rebellion (sons one, three, and four respectively) with comparative stoicism. In addition he initially shrugged off Shimi ben Geira's curses - the fact that his teacher and mentor turned against him were part and parcel of having to take what was due to him. David's relating to his misfortunes in that way showed spiritual progression. Instead of doing the human thing of wreaking revenge on those threatening his monarchy, he saw the Hand of G-d in everything that happened to him - he had sinned, and he had to pay the price with as much good grace as possible. Thus the distress brought to him by Shimi's curses and Joab's murder of Amasa was a product of the negative spiritual emanations of his sin. It was his sin, rather than his enemies, that were the root of the tensions and suffering of his last years.
By the time he was about to die, he entered his third final stage in his relationship with G-d. As Job would have put it (c.f. Job 3:17): 'The wicked had ceased from troubling, and the weary were at rest.' David's opponents were no longer a threat. He knew then that he was forgiven. And that he was blessed.
At that stage he could not give an execution order in his own right because these people had done G-d's bidding by ensuring that the sword should not depart from his house. That does not mean that they did not exercise free will and that they had not attacked the monarchy. They were guilty. Had they been worthier, G-d would have executed his judgment through other, less worthy people. As the Talmud puts it: 'G-d brings good through worthy people and bad through guilty people.'
It was left to Solomon to give the monarchy a clean slate by 'observing the commandments of G-d'. (Kings I 2:3) However Solomon was not told to murder Joab and Shimi gratuitously, or in vengeance for the trouble they gave to his father. Nevertheless, David was shrewd enough to see the underlying deep character flaws in both of them, to the degree that both were dangers to Solomon's monarchy. Joab's aggression and impulsiveness were already established. Shimi, as Abarbanel explains, had let David down to such a degree in the capacity of his former mentor, that he could no longer be trusted at the royal court. He might win Solomon's confidence and then betray him.
Solomon needed a reason to order their execution independent of anything that they did to David. That is why David told did not tell Solomon to execute them, but to 'act wisely' against them. Thus Joab's ordered assassination followed his challenging Solomon's monarchy by backing Adonijah. And Shimi's soon followed because he defied King Solomon's initial order that put him under house arrest.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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