Marching in Spring?

“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle…” (2 Samuel 11:1, ESV).

The opening of 2 Samuel 11 looks simple enough in most English translations, but a closer look at the Hebrew reveals some interpretative assumptions have been made. In the Hebrew, the word for the season of ‘Spring’ is not there.

Young’s more literal translation is: ‘And it cometh to pass, at the revolution of the year – at the time of the going out of the messengers…’

Bill Arnold comments: ‘The NIV and most other translations are not entirely wrong, though somewhat misleading. Instead, the ‘return of the year’ refers most likely to the coming around of the one year anniversary of the time when the Aramean kings marched against Israel (2 Samuel 10:6-19).’ But as Bill notes this was most likely in Spring – March was the time when conditions were favourable for armies to travel and provisions were able to be supplied. (Arnold, 1 & 2 Samuel, pp 522-23.)

But what of Young’s translation ‘messengers’? This reflects a textual variant (‘messengers’ instead of ‘kings’) and just throws a little more into the mix of a seemingly uncontroversial opening to the chapter. And there is still more – should this verse be a new chapter opening? John Woodhouse also notes that some of the confusion comes from the fact that a new chapter division has been inserted here and it disrupts the flow; though, strangely enough, he himself makes 2 Samuel 11 the start of a new section in his commentary (Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, footnote 5, p 616. See also his footnote 2 on p 611.)

Personally, I think that the ESV translation does capture the essence of 2 Samuel 11:1 which is to highlight that the Ammonite war is on again. In the Northern Hemisphere, March is the time of the Spring equinox, and the very name of the month ‘March’ comes from Mars, the Roman God of War. And this war theme will be played upon by the narrator with respect to the king asking about ‘peace’ or the welfare of others in verse 7. Three times the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ is used there though this ‘peace connection’ is not easy to convey in English translations:

“When Uriah came to him, David asked how [leshalom] Joab was doing and how [leshalom] the people were doing and how [leshalom] the war was going.” (2 Samuel 11:7, ESV).

Of course, while the king is asking about the ‘shalom’ of others, the reader is well aware that there is anything but ‘shalom’ in his own heart. There is no peace in the heart of David who has remained in Jerusalem, indeed, we will watch the warfare increase in his heart in his dealings with Uriah the Hittite.

This theme of ‘peace’ (shalom) will be picked up in 2 Samuel 15:9 (and it also casts back to the murder of Abner by Joab in 2 Samuel 3:22-30.) The city of Hebron features on both occasions (3:20, 15:7), and it is intriguing to note that the Hittites in Canaan (generally) resided in the Hebron region (Genesis 23).

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