What the Last King Saw
Samuel 2 24:20
Looming over Jerusalem today, is the golden Dome of the Rock, a magnificent Muslim shrine and compound in a site that was once a Christian church, a Roman temple to Jupiter, and the Jewish temple of YHWH, rebuilt twice.
And before that? While the rock that is below the dome is reputed to be the ancient rockbottom building block of the cosmos there is no clear information (or ability to let archaeologists dig) about what existed on this hilltop before David, according to tradition, dedicated it as the future site of the temple in the 9th century BCE. It will be his son Solomon who will actually build it. But why did David choose that site?
In today’s chapter, the final one in the Book of Samuel, we get a hidden clue as to original owner of this summit and its and possible previous purpose. No surprise, the authors of Samuel had good reason to obscure some of this information though they also felt compelled to disclose at least a bit of it.
This final chapter begins with one of two times in the Bible that a census goes wrong. In general, counting how many people are in the nation is considered bad luck and frowned upon, although several such large scale national projects are known from as early as the one conducted by Moses in the wilderness. But towards the end of his days, David demands one, and despite his resistance, Yoav the General agrees and goes out to survey the land. As soon as Yoav returns with the numbers, nine months later, David regrets his decision to do so. It’s not the data that upsets him: 800,000 soldiers in Israel, 300,000 in Judah - all men 20 and up.
(On a side-note, save this information for when we plunge deeper into the growing drama of rupture between the much larger Northern Israel and the smaller Southern Judah.)
What’s wrong is simply the temerity to count the people, and indeed, the prophet Gad comes back on the scene to offer David one of three options of divine punishment: Seven years of famine, three months on the run as an exile, or a plague of pestilence upon the land.
This is, oddly, the only time in the Bible that such a choice is given and David chooses what supposedly is the least damaging. But the plague is fierce and 70,000 are dead by the time it reaches Jerusalem.
That’s when the intervention happens.
Either David prays hard enough or YHWH relents, but when the destroyer reaches the hilltop of Jerusalem where Arvana the Jebusite had a thrashing floor - the plague ends. The angel of death stops in his tracks, there and then.
David and his entourage make their way there, to build an altar in gratitude.
The man whose land this is looks on at this scene and there’s just one word in this sentence that gives away what the chapter is not telling us - who this person is, why he is so important and what’s he’s really feeling about what’s going on:
וַיַּשְׁקֵ֣ף אֲרַ֗וְנָה וַיַּ֤רְא אֶת־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וְאֶת־עֲבָדָ֔יו עֹבְרִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֲרַ֔וְנָה וַיִּשְׁתַּ֧חוּ לַמֶּ֛לֶךְ אַפָּ֖יו אָֽרְצָה׃
“Arvanah looked out and saw the king and his courtiers approaching him. So Araunah went out and bowed low to the king, with his face to the ground.”
So first of all - his name. Four different versions are names within these few verses, although you wouldn’t know it from most English translation that went with single spelling - Arvana, Arauna, Ornan or Aranaya.
Second -his title. In the next verses, King David offers to buy the land from Arvana, and the man first refuses, offering it all as a gift. He ends up selling it, and throwing in a side-note in verse 23- “as a king to a king.”
And the Hebrew word “Va’Yaskhef’ used for ‘He looked out’ to describe the moment when this man saw David reaching him is unique - and shows up throughout the Hebrew Bible when a glance means trouble. It’s used when YHWH looks down at Sodom before destroying it, or when Michal looks out through the window at David dancing naked in the streets of Jerusalem. So when is this man mad?
modern scholarship proves that Araunah the Jebusite was the last pre-Israelite ruler of Jesus, the city that will be renamed Jerusalem. His name is Hurrian, from the people of the North, nowadays Turkey, who migrated to the region in the 10th century BCE or earlier.
In his book ‘Canaan and Israel ‘ Prof. Mazar wrote:
“ In the story of the building of an altar on Mount Zion by David, the last Jebusite governor of Jerusalem is called by the name Arawnah, and once as Ha-Awarnah (with the definite article) the Jebusite, showing that Arawnah-Awarnah is not a personal name, but rather the title of the ruler of Jebus: Aravnah - the king.”
Today, modern scholars have realized that the term closely fits in with a common noun in Hurrian, a language that went extinct in the course of the Iron Age, but was still spoken in Syria and northern Mesopotamia around the year 1000 b.c.
So by the time the authors of this story write it down they don’t know that the man who sold David the land on which the temple will be built was the last king of the city now occupied by new rulers. They misspell his name and title several times either because of scribal errors or lack of regard.
But they kept the one word that betrayed his wrath, and kept his dignity, even as he had no choice but to hand over his hilltop, where most likely sacred worship on a hallowed rock was already established to the new king in town.
Today, Jerusalem, so torn by war and conflict, having changed hands more times than can be counted on so many hands, once again lands are sold and bought as ownership and occupation causes as much hardship as plagues, exiles and famines put together. The City of David, in the middle of the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, right where so much of this biblical drama once took place, is a daily site of contention between Jewish settlers and local Palestinian families.
The dome of the rock looms above the city today.
The memory of the temple that Solomon would build, and Herod after him, echoes everywhere.
The book of Samuel started in the shrine in Shilo, a temporary scared tent where the Ark of the Covenant rested. After many generations it was brought to Jerusalem. And now it’s about to get a lavish home. It will be built and destroyed twice. So far.
And our book ends with the altar one king build on a this hilltop as another king, with no realm left, looks on.
And thus we are ready to enter the Book of Kings.
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Of course all through the historical books the resonances with the events within Israel have been eerily striking. And here is another one, David chooses to have his own people die rather than facing personal loss of power (even for only 3 months!) but then its all OK because he prays and God forgives him. David=Bibi?