Biblical Short Story: David and the Death of Ishbosheth

The sweltering heat of the midday had given way and cool evening breezes from the west were beginning. David, now girded in some of his light armor, wandered over to a window, hearing some tumult outside. Two men with full, thick beards, one of whom had obvious reddish-brown stains below chest level on his garments, were riding black horses into the camp and headed straight for David’s headquarters. “We have some visitors. Let’s meet them outside.”

The two bearded men dismounted when they saw David and his men approaching on foot. David was in the middle, with Abishai and Joab to his right and left, some of his seasoned warriors next to them, and the younger men to the outside, including Benaiah son of Jehoiada. One of the two bearded men removed a bag with contents the size of a large melon from the side of his horse, and said “Hail, my Lord the King!” He walked up to David, about two spears’ lengths away, knelt, and said, “Behold, the head of Ishbosheth the son of Saul your enemy!” He then stood, removed a bloodied, severed head from the bag, flung the bag carelessly behind him, and held it by the hair as high as his left arm could hold it in front of him, with a wide, full-toothed grin. For a moment, he breathed heavily through his teeth.

With a careful eye, David sized up the usurper. The white of his teeth shone brightly in the sun through the blackness of his beard, dark complexion, and bloodied garments. All the marks of a Benjamite were there, complete with preference for the left hand, a marker as honest and shameless as the fact that he held the head of his own monarch by the hair. A few women in the assembled crowd gasped, scurrying away.

The few wavelike perturbations along David’s jawline and his narrowed eyes were the only visible changes in his appearance. A brief eternity passed as David stared into the vacant, already sunken eyes of the decapitated Benjamite monarch and the man’s breathing returned to a normal cadence and intensity. As if David was as removed from the situation as Ishbosheth’s head was from his body, David then lowered his eyes to the ground, turned around, and began to walk away, while the head suspended in midair descended slowly to the man’s side, synchronized with the calm of David’s movements and pace.

Four of David’s men on the periphery responded to the situation with the same deliberate calm, slowly reaching their hands closer to their belt-sheathed swords. After David had gone about 5 paces alone, he stopped, tilted his head slightly upward, and said with the quiet reverence of a priest at an altar, “As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my soul from all adversity…” He then turned to face the two men, whose bushy eyebrows and foreheads were now furrowed at the odd behavior of the king they believed they had just crowned. “How did you do this, sons of Benjamin?” David’s indifferent tone was a stark contrast to the bodyless piece of bone and flesh gifted to him.

“I am Rechab and my brother is Baanah. We came upon Ishbosheth at midday, when he was resting upon his bed, and smote him under the fifth rib. We have avenged my Lord the King of Saul’s seed. We have ridden all night to reach you and bring you these tidings.”

He nodded as if he had received precisely the answer he expected and took a step behind and to his right, taking a defensive stance. The four men who had reached to their swords quietly unsheathed them as Rechab and Baanah were fixated on the ruddy son of Jesse. David’s voice boomed as a series of sledgehammer blows, with cold, matter-of-fact confidence, striking their targets precisely, their impact stunning them into paralysis. “When I was in Ziklag after the death of Saul, a man came to me, saying he had slain Saul, thinking he had done me a favor. That man was slain where he stood. How much more, when a righteous man is slain in his own bed by his own kindred.” David finished walking back to his headquarters, a few of his men joining him, only hearing the short-lived pleading of the two men before the sounds of metal crushing and slashing into bone and flesh began and ended. “Make sure Ishbosheth’s head is buried with Abner in the place of honor here in Hebron. Do as you see fit with the others,” he ordered one of his younger men, who went to clean up.

***

David and his men reconvened at his headquarters. David’s men were elated, never having believed their long struggle against the Benjamites would conclude so decisively and abruptly. David’s brooding disposition in the face of such an effortless triumph was typical David – like snow in Summer or rain during harvest, his moods were often contrary to expectations. Great victories usually meant David would warn the men how close they were to catastrophe and upbraid them for carelessness. Yet when David and his men were plundered by the Amalekites, they found him singing songs of conquest and encouragement. Losses or retreats resulted in unmitigated enthusiasm about their planned counterattack or nearness to victory. David’s reactions could suck the air out of a room during times of triumph or provide a critical backstop to the morale of his men. His men had just dealt with his reaction to Abner’s death; now this.

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