Did David 'torture' the Ammonites, as the King James headings suggest, or is the NIV correct?


'And he brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes. Even so dealt David with all the cities of the children of Ammon. And David and all the people returned to Jerusalem.' 1 Chron. 20.3

 וְאֶת-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-בָּהּ הוֹצִיא, וַיָּשַׂר בַּמְּגֵרָה וּבַחֲרִיצֵי הַבַּרְזֶל וּבַמְּגֵרוֹת, וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה דָוִיד, לְכֹל עָרֵי בְנֵי-עַמּוֹן

וַיָּשָׁב דָּוִיד וְכָל-הָעָם, יְרוּשָׁלִָם

και τον λαον τον εν αυτη εξηγαγεν και διεπρισεν πριοσιν και εν σκεπαρνοις σιδηροις και ουτως εποιησεν δαυιδ τοις πασιν υιοις αμμων

και ανεστρεψεν δαυιδ και πας ο λαος αυτου εις ιερουσαλημ. (LXX)

'Rabbah is taken and spoiled, and the people thereof tortured.' KJV chapter heading in Westminster Reference Bible.

Comment on a severely critical site about David's wartime record.

Mass executions were and still are commonplace in the Middle East, and of course also apply to the Divinely authorised actions of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Saul and the judges as much as to David.

Precisely the same penalty was applied to Israel itself when it fell into sin, as it will be for us and our cities under an even greater burden of sin now. Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim are set forth as patterns of judgement, and our condemnation for sinning against light is likely, like Capernaum and Bethsaida, to be greater.

As to the issue of torture, I agree that your interpretation is plausible, it agrees with the Septuagint and that many older Christian commentators hold it, whilst blaming David. It is noteworthy it took place at the time of David's greatest dual sins of murder and adultery, and betrays an episode of unique callousness in Israel's history.

The word used for cut is unique and derives from שׂור which can also mean 'to rule, contend, have power, prevail over'. Of the 24 Bible uses of הֶעֱבִיר to cause to pass, only 3 others have evil sense of killing by passing through a fire, the first two examples are of separating to or dedicating to a specific function. Whilst it is a minority position, this may mean David's act was to separate the Ammonites to humiliating forced labour as some modern translations like the NIV have assumed. 'Consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking.' 

Torture was commonplace in the region, see Amos.1.3 and Ammon's involvement in brutalities in Amos 1.13, which are indeed treated as crimes. The brick kilns emulate the sin of Malcon (מלכן or Molech) and which the Ammonites like many others inflicted on their children. 2 Kings 16.3; Lev.18.21,27; 20.2; Deut. 18.10. This would not justify David's action, [indeed we consider it reprehensible]. He was indeed a man of blood (2Sa 16:8, 1Ch 28:3), as indeed will be the avenging Messiah, Whom David depicts at His return (Isa.63.1-3, Rev.14.20, 1 Thess.1.7-8), though this time in perfect and unimpeachable justice, which is His right alone. 

However there are strong Biblical grounds to doubt that David's armies did torture the Ammonites, even though it was plain that they had engaged in mass executions for example of the Moabites and others before as you've mentioned (2 Sa 8:2), sometimes even after a victory was concluded. 

First there is the practical issue of using harrows to cut people with. It is hardly an efficient means of execution or of torture. What would the armies do, ask the Ammonites to lie in the field and then treat them like a crop? When one studies an image of a harrow, it looks clumsy and inefficient.


Secondly, there was the reputation of Israelite kings, even in the apostate Northern Kingdom, when Benhadad was cornered by a man he had recently grievously insulted, he knew that Israeli kings had a soft spot for mercy and compassion, 'we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings'(1 Ki 20.31). Where did he get this idea from, especially if the greatest king of the undivided Kingdom was the greatest war criminal in history, as you've depicted him? Did Ahab have such an impressive personal reputation for clemency, after slaughtering hundreds of his own citizens?

Thirdly, there is a very remarkable event that takes place during David's escape from his murderous son Absalom. At a time when David's situation is at its lowest, when his enemies are revealing themselves, when one enemy feels free to stone and curse him, a party of loyalists show remarkable loyalty and affection for him. They could not have done so for personal advantage, for Absalom might well have been expected to wreak revenge, but out of a sense of debt and deep compassion.

Out of this party is a remarkable figure, Shobi the son of Nahash of Rabbah of the children of Ammon (2 Sam 17.27-8). Along with the gracious Barzillai the Gileadite, they bring the king, 'beds, and basons, and earthen vessels, and wheat, and barley, and flour, and parched corn, and beans, and lentiles, and parched pulse, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine, for David, and for the people that were with him, to eat: for they said, The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness'. Lavish provision then - but this Shobi is none other than the son of the Nahash who insulted David in the first place, and whose generation suffered the things described in the text at hand (1 Chron. 20.3). How could this be? Even if he was as seems likely now a Jewish proselyte, would Shobi have forgiven and forgotten such brutal atrocities against his own family and his own people? It seems very unlikely.

For once, I think the NIV is right.

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