I Chronicles 18 is the Chronicler’s version of II Samuel 8. In both, David defeats and conquers other countries. The Chronicler omits a piece of David’s brutality, however. II Samuel 8:2 states: “And he smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And so the Moabites became David’s servants, and brought gifts” (KJV). The Chronicler does not have that. Maybe it was because he thought that it reflected negatively on David’s character.
The Jewish commentator Rashi wondered why David was so hard on Moab. Was not David descended from a Moabitess, Ruth? And did not David’s father and mother take refuge in Moab when David was on the run from King Saul of Israel (I Samuel 22:3)? According to Rashi, the reason that David had an ax to grind against Moab was that, when his family was there taking refuge, the Moabites slaughtered all but one of David’s brothers (the one survivor being Elihu, who is mentioned in I Chronicles 27:18).
But don’t think that all of David’s aggressions were retaliatory. As the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary acknowledges, David was attacking nations who had not attacked him. But the Artscroll says that David did so because it was not yet the Messianic era. The implication is probably that it was not a time of peace, that these nations could still pose a threat to Israel, since some of them had been a threat in the past. David was taking preemptive action for Israel’s security, for good or for bad.
There are Jewish commentators who regard events in I Chronicles 18 as a foreshadowing of the Messianic era. David sets up governors over Edom, and one Jewish work, Ran, quotes Obadiah and contends that the Messiah will do the same. Is there any indication, though, that David in II Samuel 8 and I Chronicles 18 was a benevolent ruler of these nations? What is interesting to me is that, after listing these conquests, I Chronicles 18:14 states: “So David reigned over all Israel, and executed judgment and justice among all his people” (KJV). It does not say that David executed judgment and justice among these conquered nations, but that he did so over his people Israel. The Jewish commentator Radak states that this verse serves to demonstrate that no one doubted David’s legitimacy as king after his military victories: David had clearly demonstrated that he was the right man for the job. Perhaps. Of course, in contrast to the Books of Samuel, the Chronicler depicts all of Israel as behind David at the outset, but perhaps there was still lingering doubt in some Israelites’ minds, or there was still room for them to be convinced further. Alternatively, maybe the point of v 14 is that David could finally devote his energies to reigning now that he had subdued any external threats to Israel’s security.
I wish that there was some indication in the text that David ruled the conquered countries with judgment, justice, and benevolence. According to the Jewish Psalms of Solomon 17:32-36, the Messiah will have compassion on all nations. Did David have this compassion, or did he simply view these countries as potential threats that he needed to keep down?
Rashi’s explanation for why David was so harsh on Moab appealed to me, because it was so raw, so honest. People kill David’s family, so David retaliates against those people. There’s no “turn the other cheek,” or denying the existence of pain or injustice in the name of forgiveness. Still, there is something to be said for being above the fray and pursuing righteousness, whatever one’s hurts, and even for loving one’s enemies.