“305. TORTURES—2 SAMUEL 12:26-31”


To bring the crime and punishment of David into one view, we omitted an intermediate circumstance of much interest. It was stated, that at the time of David’s two-fold sin, Joab was engaged in reducing the metropolis of the Ammonites. The siege must have been of some duration, for Bathsheba, who was not known to David till after it had been commenced, had borne to him two children before it was taken. The first of these, the child of their infamy, died soon after its birth, just subsequent to the rebuke from the prophet; the other, begotten and born in the days of his contrition—was Solomon. This cannot well mark a shorter interval than two and a half or three years.

Soon after the birth of this son, David received a message from Joab stating that he had taken the lower city of Rabbah, distinguished as “the city of waters,” from its situation among the streams, and that as the upper city, or citadel, could not hold out much longer, the king had better come in person, with fresh troops, and secure the honor of closing the war. This has the appearance, and probably the reality, of magnanimity on the part of Joab, in thus devolving the actual capture upon the king; but he also knew that David was somewhat covetous of military renown, and that it might not be prudent to awaken his jealousy by adding the glory of the conquest of Amnion to that which he had won as the conqueror of Edom; and it appears that sovereigns had not yet reached the refinement of appropriating the glory of the exploits performed by their generals in their absence. The phrase is remarkable, “Lest I take the city, and it be called after my name.” This alludes to a custom which frequently occurs in ancient history, of giving a name to a city with regard to particular occasions, or changing it with reference to some extraordinary event. This we find instanced in the names of Alexandria, Constantinople, and other places. The same practice is prevalent in India, where such names as Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, and Arungabad, perpetuate the memory of the founder or conqueror.

The city of Rabbah was easily taken when David reached the camp. The crown of the Ammonitish kingdom was with all due form set upon his head, and the treasures of the city made public spoil. It would appear that by causing himself to be crowned, David meant to assume the direct sovereignty of the Ammonites, which was not his usual policy, although the peculiar circumstances of this war seemed to call for and justify it. This crown is stated to have been of gold enriched with jewels, and seems to have been the most splendid thing of the kind that had yet been seen by the Israelites. It is said to have weighed a talent of gold. This would be equal to 114 pounds, and as this seems to be too great a ponderosity for mortal head to bear, it has been suggested that the worth of the crown was equivalent to, rather than the crown was actually equipollent with, or contained, a talent of gold. We object to the former interpretation, chiefly for two reasons—that not gold but silver was the measure of value in the time of David, so that the mere value of anything in gold was not likely to be stated; and that the value of a talent in gold seems scarcely adequate for a crown of gold set with precious stones. It would not have been more than £5,475, which would seem but a small sum when we recollect that (as we happen to know) our George IV gave £10,000, being ten percent on its value, for the mere making and temporary use of the crown used at his coronation—the crown being immediately after the ceremony returned to the jewelers. If, therefore, we assume the weight only to be intended, we must conclude that it was used only for a short time on great state ceremonials. Crowns are only so used in the East, or indeed anywhere else; and they are generally of such weight that they cannot long be borne without inconvenience. The “weight of a crown” is not only a figurative truth, but a material fact. Sir Harford Jones Brydges, who had an opportunity of examining the Persian regalia at leisure, describes the crown of state as excessively heavy. The same ambassador relates, that, happening to look back, on quitting the audience chamber, he saw the king lifting his crown from his head, as if anxious to relieve himself from its oppressive weight. But the ponderous ancient crowns were not always even worn upon the head, but were sometimes suspended over it, or attached to the top of the throne. Several crowns, of great size and weight, thus used, are mentioned by Athenaeus and by Pliny. Among them one is described by the former writer, as being composed of 10,000 pieces of gold, and placed on the throne of king Ptolemy. Benjamin of Tudela speaks of a crown of gold and gems suspended over the throne of the emperor Commenes. Some of the Rabbis have a curious conceit, that the Ammonitish crown was kept in suspension by a loadstone, as if the loadstone attracted gold as well as iron.

The question respecting the crown is, however, of less interest than that regarding the treatment to which the Ammonites themselves were subjected. It is said, “He put them under saws, and under barrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick kiln.” And it is added that he did this, not only to the defenders of Rabbah, but “thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon.”

The common, and as it seems to us the true, interpretation of this is, that they were put to deaths of torture. We would very gladly, were it in our power, agree with Dantz, Note: In his Dissertation De Mitigata Davidis in Ammonitas Crudelitate. who, followed by Delany, Chandler, and other writers, contends that David merely condemned his Ammonitish captives to severe bodily labors, to hewing and sawing wood, to burning of bricks, and to working in iron mines. But this interpretation has little real foundation. It does much violence to the Hebrew words, which it takes in an unusual and previously unimagined acceptation. Some of the alleged labors are also wholly unsuited to the age and country, or the people. Firewood is, for instance, so scarce in Palestine, that the people of so many cities could not have found employment as hewers and sawyers of wood; and the only public want in this respect, that of the tabernacle and its altar, was already provided for by the services of the Gibeonites; while the people generally used stubble and dried dung for fuel. Then, for building, stone has always been more used than brick in Palestine, and it is therefore marvellous that the more, laborious work of quarrying stone is not named, if penal labors were really intended; and as to iron mines, there is not the least evidence that any were ever worked in the territories over which David had sway.

Besides, if David thus dealt with the Ammonites, he would have been far less severe to them than the war law of the age authorized, and far less so than to the Moabites and Edomites, of whom a large proportion of the males in the first case, and all who could be caught in the other, were destroyed. And is this credible in regard to a people whose aggravations had been so much greater?

The practice of putting prisoners to death has lately been explained. Note: Thirty-Seventh Week—Thursday. The only question, therefore, is, why the Ammonites should be handled with such peculiar severity? To ascertain this, the special circumstances of the war should be considered. Without going back to ancient enmities, it is to be understood how flagrantly the Ammonites had, in the first instance, violated the law of nations, by their treatment of David’s friendly ambassadors; how they had once and again striven to organize a coalition of the nations against him—and had even brought troops from the far-off regions beyond the Euphrates; and finally, how obstinately they had held out to the last extremity, which alone was, by the war laws of the age, a sufficient cause for putting them to death. A “vexatious defence” is to this day punishable upon an enemy both by military and by civil law.

Still, we incline to think that these causes alone would not have led the king of Israel to put the Ammonite captives to death with torture, for this was not a war custom of the Hebrews, whose legislation is remarkable beyond that of any other people for the absence of torturing punishments. We have, therefore, no doubt, these punishments were retaliatory for similar treatment of Jewish and other prisoners, taken by the Ammonites. It is like the case of Adonizedek, the mutilation of whom would have come down to us as a gratuitous barbarity, had it not accidentally transpired from the lips of the man himself, that he had been in the habit of so treating his prisoners. That case has a distinct bearing upon this, because it shows that the Hebrews were accustomed to deal out to their enemies the same measure which they received from them. And this was quite necessary, it being the only way in which other nations could coerce such offenders into an adherence to the established usages of war. Although the fact is not stated (as it is only incidentally done in the case of Adonizedek), that the present severity was retributive, the certainty that it was so is sufficiently indicated by sundry dispersed facts, which bring out the peculiarly savage character of this people. Look, for instance, at their refusal of any other terms than the loss of their right eyes, to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who were inclined to surrender without resistance. This is quite of a piece with their treatment of David’s ambassadors; and the character thus manifested they still show in a later age, when they are reproached by the prophet for ripping up the pregnant women of Israel, not in the heat of a storm, but deliberately, in order to lessen the number of the Israelites, and thus to enlarge their own borders, Amo_1:13.

Now, to an enemy of this description, it could not have appeared unjust to treat them according to their dealings with others. Severe that treatment was, no doubt, and was meant to be so; but to call it more than this, is to confound the ancient with the modern law of nation, or with the law of nature itself. This severity has, however, always appeared as a stain upon the character of David, in the view of those who are unable to discern the arbitrary character of the law of nations, and who judge of it according to the comparatively mild war laws of modern times. We are not competent to pass judgment in this matter, until we have carefully considered whether, considering the times in which David lived, the character of the enemy, and the proof they had given of the atrocities to which their malignant disposition against the Israelites would have carried them had they been victorious, he was not justified by the public opinion of his own time, for his treatment of the Ammonites. Why, after all, should we judge this ancient Hebrew king by a different measure from that which we apply to the comparatively more modern, and professedly more civilized, Romans? We call Titus just and humane, and yet he, at Jerusalem itself, crucified his prisoners around the city until crosses enough could not be found for the bodies, nor places on which the crosses could stand. Thousands, also, were after the close of the war thrown to wild beasts, for the amusement of the people, and thousands compelled to slay each other in the amphitheaters. These “just” Romans were also wont, even to the days of Caesar, to massacre their prisoners in cold blood, whenever they happened to survive the disgrace of the triumph; and they very frequently put to death the magistrates and citizens of conquered cities, after making them undergo a flagellation, the slow torture of which was probably greater in physical pain than that which the Hebrews on this peculiar and exceptional occasion inflicted. It may also not be inappropriate to remark, that it is not long ago that, throughout the continent of Europe, the sentiment of public justice was not satisfied with the simple death of robbers and other offenders, but they were broken alive upon the wheel.