House of God or House of David: The Rhetoric of 2 Samuel 7 (JSOTSS 164)

Written by Lyle Eslinger Reviewed By P.E. Satterthwaite

One of the more obvious tensions in the books of Samuel and Kings concerns the royal line of David. In 2 Samuel 7 God gives David a promise, seemingly unconditional, that ‘your house and your kingdom shall be sure for ever before me’ (v. 16). However, later developments progressively call in question God’s commitment to David’s line: restatements of the promise in which conditions are attached (1 Ki. 2:2–4; 9:4–5); the split into Northern and Southern Kingdoms after Solomon’s death; and the final catastrophes of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

One strand in contemporary biblical scholarship essentially dissolves the tension by ascribing unconditional and conditional views of the Davidic covenant to different editorial layers in Samuel and Kings. Eslinger’s study of 2 Samuel 7 follows a different tack altogether: God never made an unconditional promise to David. Previous scholarship, he argues, has largely ignored the rhetorical texture of 2 Samuel 7. First and foremost, the chapter is an extended dialogue, an exchange of viewpoints: David proposes building a temple for God, hoping to secure his descendants’ future (v. 2); God rejects the proposal and instead makes a promise to David which appears to give him all the security he wanted but is really as rigidly conditional on human obedience as the Sinai covenant (vv. 5–16); David’s response (vv. 18–29) attempts to reinterpret God’s words in his favour, as a promise with eternal validity (unconditional, therefore), but he succeeds in deceiving only himself. There are parallels, Eslinger argues, between this chapter and 1 Samuel 8, where the Israelites first request a king: both passages describe an attempt to seek protection from the terms of the Sinai covenant, and in both passages God seems to give in, but in fact concedes only what he intended all along.

Eslinger mounts an intricate case, based on a close reading of 2 Samuel 7. He finds a pervasive slipperiness in God’s and David’s words, reflecting the basically deceptive intent of both parties: God seems to offer David much more than he in fact does; David appears to accept God’s terms, but then attempts to persuade God that he has committed himself further than he in fact has. Both God’s and David’s words (which Eslinger analyses by means of numerous diagrams) prove, on closer examination, to be honeycombed with devious redefinitions and qualifications, saying one thing and intending another. Neither God nor David emerges in a flattering light from this study: God blends authoritarian pronouncements with deceit; David is self-seeking and fawning.

This book evoked a mixed response in me. Eslinger is good on the question of synchronic versus diachronic readings: an unusual feature of the book is that it includes an exchange of views on this point between Eslinger and A. Campbell. He is also right to point to echoes of the Sinai traditions in 2 Samuel 7: perhaps previous approaches which spoke of a Davidic covenant standing over against the Sinaitic covenant were misguided. But the detailed argumentation underlying Eslinger’s characterization of God and David in 2 Samuel 7 generally left me unconvinced. Reviewing the chapter, I do not find intent to deceive in either party: David makes a proposal; God responds, replacing David’s proposal with his own; David responds with thanks, nowhere going beyond what God has himself said. In general, rather than seeing 2 Samuel 7 as a rerun of 1 Samuel 8, I find considerable contrasts between the two episodes: the tone of 2 Samuel 7 and the preceding chapters seems to me more optimistic than 1 Samuel 8; and 2 Samuel 7:15 explicitly contrasts Saul’s fate and that of David’s descendants, a point Eslinger attempts to minimize (pp. 59–63), but in my view unsuccessfully.

In short, a skilful presentation of an implausible case.

P.E. Satterthwaite

Tyndale House, Cambridge