Once, there was a national leader who, though the country had sworn to protect a population of natives, had in nationalistic, ethnocentric zeal instead sought to exterminate them.
Years after his death, his actions brought misery upon all the people in the country, causing the new administration to investigate the source of their cultural ailments.
When the cause was identified, the new leader undertook true reconciliation measures—not sweeping cultural overgeneralizations, but direct measures aimed at the extant perpetrators of the actual crimes. In the end, the land was preserved from ethnic strife.
Make of it what you will, this little parable isn’t taken from the civil rights movement or any other modern incident. It’s straight from the pages of Scripture.
So, About That Execution (the Reason You Clicked)…
“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death’” (2 Samuel 21:1).
One year of famine is unfortunate; two years are disastrous. Three years qualify as outright judgment. So King David seeks Yahweh, and Yahweh reveals the reason for the famine: Saul’s attempted ethnic cleansing against the Gibeonites, a tribe of Amorite natives left in the land after Joshua’s conquest.
“So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah” (v. 2).
Israel had sworn, albeit hastily, to spare the Gibeonites back in Joshua 9. Right or wrong, they were now bound to protect this people group. But Saul, a native of Gibeah with some sort of racial axe to grind, had no problem reneging on that promise in the name of his jingoistic crusade against the Amorite remnant (cf. 1 Chronicles 9:35-39).
“And David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’” (v. 3). David knew that the famine covering the land wouldn’t be lifted unless the root sin was addressed. He couldn’t undo Saul’s actions. Saul himself was dead. So David went to those who had been directly wronged and pursued peace.
The Gibeonites’ response is striking: “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel’” (v. 4a). Reparations wouldn’t cut it. In fact, it would be unjust under the Mosaic code to accept a monetary bribe where actual bloodguilt was involved (cf. Number 35:31). Neither, the Gibeonites observe, was it their place to engage in vigilantism.
David, seeking justice, presses them: “What do you say that I shall do for you?” (v. 4b). They reply, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord” (vv. 5-6a).
David grants their request and executes the men, God accepts his plea, and the famine is lifted.
Who’s Dying for What Now?
What’s going on here? Who’s responsible? All of Israel is cursed with a famine, yet Saul was the one guilty, and so seven of his sons are slain to make atonement—is this mere ancient Near Eastern barbarism smuggled into inspired Scripture?
Not at all. Saul’s sons evidently participated in the transgression somehow because God said that “there is bloodguilt on… [Saul’s] house” (v. 1). Since God, who is unchanging, makes it clear that he does not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents (“The soul that sins shall die,” Ezekiel 18:20), we can infer that Saul’s sons were accomplices.
Notice also the specificity of the charge. The Gibeonites don’t impute Saul’s guilt to the whole people; they ask for biblical justice to be done to the household of Saul himself. The request for seven sons marks the completeness and finality of this legal penalty; injustice is not to linger for generations, but justice will be complete and reconciliation will thus follow.
What can we draw from David’s decision to avenge the Gibeonites?
Application—Justice and Grace
Our contemporary situation in the U.S. is far-removed from Israel, geographically, historically, and culturally. Faithful readers of the Bible know we aren’t to take descriptive passages such as this and prescriptively drop them into our post-Calvary context. But God’s law is always abiding and valid, and here we see four of its principles illustrated:
First, humility. David doesn’t obstinately defend his kingdom against God’s hand of discipline. He seeks the Lord. When divine chastisement falls upon an individual or culture, it’s our cue to slow down and ask why—not to glibly dismiss it, nor immediately cave to the loudest unbelievers pushing their own agenda on us. Before our own Lord we will each stand or fall (cf. Romans 14:4), so we ask him first. The corporate effects of sin are real, and they should provoke our examination.
Second, grace. The Gibeonites, by contrast with Saul’s house, actually seemed to grasp God’s law: “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:15a, 18a).
When wronged—really wronged—they didn’t sharpen their swords for revenge. They appealed to David to do what was right and refused to take the law into their own hands, just as we Christians are enjoined to “leave” the injustices we suffer “to the wrath of God” (cf. Romans 12:19).
Yes, we must advocate the cause of biblical justice in society—but not in a vengeful spirit since, after all, we all enjoy the privilege of common grace, and in point of fact we all deserve Hell.
Third, justice. This is not a modern, socio-political permutation of the term “justice” which equates any disparity with culpable oppression; this is actual justice. Saul and his house were guilty; in turn, Saul and his house were punished.
Saul’s guilt couldn’t be diffused across the entire Hebrew nation and collectively atoned for through an Amorite welfare program. The original, root sins committed against the Gibeonites had to be addressed eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Though in our sinful nature we tend to demand a head for an eye, the divine standard of justice is equity and restoration of what was lost.
Those of us fond of the term “social justice” might consider justice in terms of biblical categories. How might U.S. history have played out if, after the Civil War, chattel slave owners and traders were executed in accord with the Old Testament standard of justice set forth in Exodus 21:16? Granted, that’s a pipe dream, historically speaking. But it at least would have been just. Under the Mosaic code, if you treated someone’s life as mere property to be stolen and expended, your life was to be essentially treated the same.
Can we not conclude that execution for enslavers would have more just than a social media-driven cultural proxy war generations later (and more productive than the white guilt wallowing happening now)? Racism is real and evil. Here, David and the oppressed Gibeonites sat down together to address it by holding those with demonstrable bloodguilt responsible.
Of course, the danger in digging biblically at the term “social justice” is that we realize, under the lex talionis, we are all condemned. The Law condemns racists and non-racists equally. Romans 3:23 levels the playing field. We all have blood on our hands, from ourselves to Adam and all the ancestral sins in between. We can never repent enough to be clean.
Which bring us to the fourth takeaway, where we finally see gospel. This whole account of the Gibeonites points away from the historic situation and to Christ.
We, like the starving Israelites, find ourselves suffering—and rightly so—because the head of our race, Adam, broke his covenant and brought guilt upon us all. And he, like Saul, is long gone. He can’t help us unscramble the egg.
But by God’s grace, a new King ascends the throne. The true and better Son of David identifies the real sin in our midst, makes atonement for the sins of the old federal head, and heals the land. Yet this King’s atonement isn’t made by executing us rebels but by himself submitting to the death penalty and rising victoriously.
Christ alone—no social plan or political strategy—breaks down all the walls of ethnic separation through his own execution (Ephesians 2:14-15), creating a new human race in his own flesh. He swallows all our ancestral sin spanning back to Adam, leaving us with scandalously clean consciences washed by grace (Romans 8:1). He renews people of all ethnicities by fixing their gaze on his glory, unifying them in the church (Colossians 3:9-11) and making them one in him (Galatians 3:28). He builds an adoptive family of all nations, tribes, and tongues, who spend eternity not entranced by their differences but transfixed on him and harmoniously extolling his sacrifice (Revelation 5:9, 7:9).
Let us somberly, mournfully recognize that racism exists and continues to divide. For those guilty of the sin of racism: repent. Let’s also recognize that there is a form of social justice being proffered which falls short of biblical justice. Finally, let’s agree that even embracing biblical justice can only get us as far as recognizing our own massive need for a sin-bearing, equal-opportunity Savior.
We are dangerously close to underestimate the potency of the gospel in bringing reconciliation—between God and man, Israelite and Gibeonite, Jew and Gentile, black and white. This King—Jesus—is the only King who can heal us.