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Why Such Brutality? (2 Samuel 8-9; 1 Chronicles 18)

In 1 Chronicles 18 and 2 Samuel 8, we see a montage of military victories that God enables David to achieve over the enemies of Israel. In the brief account of David’s victory over the Moabites, we see a seemingly harsh treatment of the survivors. David had them lie down on the ground where the survivors were measured off, and two-thirds of them were put to the sword, while the survivors were subjugated under David’s rule.

Thinking through the sheer brutality of this event can raise an eyebrow. Given the context, it appears that God had given David the victory, and it does not seem that David suffered any discipline for his actions. The question is, why did he treat the Moabites so harshly? We can chalk this up, at least in part, to differences in culture and time. While war is always costly and nasty, it was general practice throughout the ancient world to simply pursue war with much greater brutality than we do today. Defeated enemies were often put to the sword to prevent them from recovering and seeking revenge. This was just a practical measure used to protect the victor from the next generation of the vanquished.

Still, David’s treatment of the Moabites seems unusually harsh, especially when we consider that David was connected to Moab through more than one thread. His great-grandmother, Ruth, was a Moabite. That meant David had Moabite blood flowing through his veins. In 1 Samuel 22:3-4, David left his parents with the king of Moab while he was tied up with other matters. By all accounts, it seemed that David’s relationship with the Moabites was good. So why did he kill so many of them? Unfortunately, the Bible is silent on this detail. Jewish rabbinic literature states that David’s parents were killed by Moabites and the outpouring of his wrath in 2 Samuel 8 was a consequence of that action. We will probably never know the truth on this side of Heaven, but this explanation would make sense if it’s correct.

Regardless of motivation, there is at least one practical lesson that we can learn from this passage, and that is: don’t become an enemy of God. The land that God had promised to the descendants of Abraham was not empty. It was full of wicked pagans that the Lord wiped out or displaced so that Israel could take possession of it. They lived for generations in their sinful ways until the time of God’s wrath was at hand and then He used Israel to wipe them out (with some notable exceptions). Today our world is filled to the brim with wicked pagans. And while they may be living out generation after generation in their sinful ways, a time is coming when God’s wrath will be at hand against them, and they will be wiped out too. Since all of us started out as enemies of God, we would be well advised to fix that problem as soon as we possibly can and put our faith in Jesus Christ. We simply don’t know when God’s building wrath will be poured out on a wicked and disobedient people. We should make sure we repent while we still have time. Hebrews 10:31 states, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

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