The Reopened Wounds of Jacob

In A Voyage Around the World, George Anson recounts the effects of scurvy upon an unfortunate man:

But a most extraordinary circumstance, and what would be scarcely credible upon any single evidence, is, that the scars of wounds which had been for many years healed, were forced open again by this virulent distemper. Of this, there was a remarkable instance in one of the invalids on board the Centurion, who had been wounded above fifty years before at the battle of the Boyne; for though he was cured soon after, and had continued well for a great number of years past, yet on his being attacked by the scurvy, his wounds, in the progress of his disease, broke out afresh, and appeared as if they had never been healed. Nay, what is still more astonishing, the callous of a broken bone, which had been completely formed for a long time, was found to be hereby dissolved, and the fracture seemed as if it had never been consolidated.

A particularly horrific symptom of scurvy, wound dehiscence is an effect of the body’s failure to produce the collagen needed to maintain scar tissue and healed bones. A new threat to the body can unwork the body’s history of healing.

Reading the story of David in Samuel, the attentive reader should rapidly become alert to the fact that David and his story frequently and strongly recall the stories of Genesis, especially that of Jacob.[1]David is the younger son, who is chosen by God over his older brothers, is opposed by his father-in-law, and eventually flees from the father-in-law’s house. David’s pronounced Jacob-likeness also serves typologically to characterize other characters in their relationship to him. As Peter Leithart observes,

Throughout the story of David, the story of Jacob has been lurking in the background. At times, the parallels have worked like this: David = Jacob, Saul = Isaac, and Jonathan = Esau’s good twin. At other times, the story has been more like this: David = Jacob, Saul = Laban, Michal = Rachel. To this point [1 Samuel 27], whatever the shufflings of other characters, David has always stood in the role of Jacob.[2]

Saul is like Isaac in preferring the crown prince, Jonathan, over David, the Lord’s anointed. Like Isaac, he is deceived by a woman of his house using a disguise of goat’s skin to deceive him concerning the absence of his son (19:11-17; cf. Genesis 27:15-16). As I have suggested in the past, the encounter between Saul and David in the darkness of the cave also recalls the story of Isaac and Jacob. Saul’s words, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’ echo those of Isaac and the chapter concludes with Saul acknowledging that David is the son who will receive the blessing of the kingdom.

Immediately after this encounter in the narrative, as David leaves the presence of Saul-Isaac, he has dealings with Nabal and his household—Laban backwards in name, albeit not in character. David and his men protect the flocks and shepherds of Nabal, as Jacob kept the flocks of his father-in-law, Laban. However, like Jacob, David was ungratefully dismissed by Nabal. He goes on to marry Abigail, who has an appearance like that of Rachel (25:3; cf. Genesis 29:17).

Earlier on, Saul had played the part of Laban. He had promised David his oldest daughter, Merab, only to switch her with her younger sister Michal (18:17-21). When David leaves his house, Saul pursues him and, like Laban, is deceived by his daughter in a narrative involving teraphim (19:13; cf. Genesis 31:33-35).

In addition to the Jacob associations, there are also multiple connections with the character of Joseph. Like Joseph, he shepherds the flock of his father (16:11; 17:34; cf. Genesis 37:2) and is sent on an errand by his father to bring back news of his brothers. Like Joseph, David is resented by his brothers for supposedly having ideas above his station (17:28). Like Joseph, David is handsome, is made successful in everything that he does, has the Spirit of God with him, and rises in the court of the king. Like Joseph, he is thirty years when he comes to power (2 Samuel 5:3; cf. Genesis 41:46).

During the period of David’s rise to power, the resemblances between his life and that of both Jacob and his favoured son, Joseph, are overwhelmingly positive ones. They mark David out as peculiarly blessed and appointed for rule. While the narrative of Jacob is profoundly scarred by tragedy and sorrow, in the life of David it is as if the motifs of Jacob’s life are overwhelmingly transposed into a major key. David faces many obstacles, but overcomes and is not scarred by them, as Jacob is. When David has an encounter with Saul and receives an acknowledgement that he is the blessed son who will inherit, there is no need for anything resembling the tragic act of trickery that cast a fateful shadow over the rest of Jacob’s life.

Indeed, any antagonism between Esau and Jacob seems to be resolved in the David narrative. Jonathan, who fills the role of the Esau character in 1 Samuel, loves David and willingly surrenders his birthright and blessing. David’s encounter with Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:41, while it reminds us of Jacob’s similar encounter with Esau in Genesis 33:3-4, with its bowing, kissing, and weeping, is the Jacob-Esau relationship drained of any residual animosity.

The healing of old wounds in the family of Jacob may even be seen in the chimerical appearance of David, who is described for us in terms redolent of an unusual collection of characters from Jacob’s family. He has a fair appearance, like Rachel and her son Joseph (Genesis 29:17; 39:6; 1 Samuel 17:42). However, his eyes are beautiful as Leah’s were tender and he shares the ruddiness of Esau (Genesis 25:25; 29:17; 1 Samuel 16:12—David and Esau are the only characters described as ‘ruddy’ in Scripture). In his very appearance, David is the reconciliation of a broken family.

There is one noteworthy point where an old negative trait threatens to reappear, but even there it is arrested. David is accompanied by four hundred men, as Esau was as he went out to meet Jacob (Genesis 32:6; 1 Samuel 22:2) and, when slighted by Nabal, sets out to attack him with his four hundred (1 Samuel 25:13). However, Esau’s vengefulness is overcome in David, much as it was in Esau himself, through Abigail’s shrewd actions, for which she took a page from Jacob’s book (Genesis 32:13-21; 1 Samuel 25:18-19). It would seem that David is living a charmed life.

It is against this background that the events that occur in David’s life following his taking of Bathsheba and killing of Uriah can be seen in their most tragic aspect. David’s actions are a new Fall. He sees that the woman looks good and takes her, though she is forbidden to him. Then, as he sees the danger of exposure through Bathsheba’s pregnancy, he desperately tries to cover up his nakedness, compounding his initial sin with a conspired murder. As in Eden, God confronts and pronounces sentence upon the sinful man, this time through Nathan the prophet.

After the prophet Nathan’s confrontation with him, it is as if the old family scars burst open once more, exposing deep and festering wounds in King David’s household. Jacob’s life was marked by mourning for a lost son and now David’s life is similarly defined. In fulfilment of the sentence he cast on himself in 2 Samuel 12:6, he goes on to suffer the loss of four of his own sons: the unnamed son of Bathsheba, Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah. Like Jacob after the loss of Joseph, David’s life from this point is one of mourning and impotence. Like Judah after his involvement in selling Joseph into slavery, his story is a litany of deaths of wicked sons, in a course of events catalysed by a character called Tamar (Genesis 38:6-10).

In 2 Samuel 13, the chapter which follows, a cluster of familiar details surface: there is a character called Tamar who is sexually wronged (cf. Genesis 38), a rape in the household of ‘Jacob’ (cf. Genesis 34:2), followed by a vicious premeditated act of vengeance by a brother that appears to wipe out an entire royal house (2 Samuel 13:30; cf. Genesis 34:25-31), a robe of many colours that bears testimony to the evil committed against its owner by a brother (2 Samuel 13:18-19; cf. Genesis 37:31-33), a comeuppance at the time of sheepshearing (2 Samuel 13:23-31; cf. Genesis 38:12ff.), a reference to an abominable act as a ‘disgraceful thing in Israel’ (2 Samuel 13:12; cf. Genesis 34:7), and a father who, though angry, fails to act on behalf of his raped daughter (2 Samuel 13:21; cf. Genesis 34). A chilling sense of recognition stalks the reader of these chapters, as the putrefying stench of the reopened wounds of the house of Jacob lingers like a pall over the whole course of events.

In chapter 14, we see another confrontation with David in the form of a parable, this time orchestrated by the serpent in David’s garden, Joab. Instructed by Joab, the wise woman of Tekoa tells a tale of two sons, who fought in a field, one slaying the other. Now the murderer was going to be killed by the avenger of blood and her husband’s name and her life would be thoroughly extinguished. She pleads for the life of her remaining son to be spared. David rules in favour of her plea, but she then springs the trap of the parable: the widow was Israel and the ‘son’ for whose life she pleaded was Absalom. 

There are various echoes of Eden here. Joab was a snake in the garden of David’s house, a shrewd and vicious operator who was one of the most insidious threats to David and the integrity of his kingdom, making David complicit in his wickedness. And David himself, by entrusting Joab with the execution of his plot against Uriah, had given Joab considerable leverage over him.

Employing deception, the serpent Joab used a woman to get to David, the new Adam. The woman’s account of her two sons closely paralleled the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and the woman was implicitly aligning herself with Eve. Significantly, just as she springs the trap of the parable, she speaks of the discerning of good and evil, recalling the tree in the garden (14:17). David hearkened to the voice of the woman and to the voice of the snake behind her. Absalom was brought back to Jerusalem. Perhaps David also heard a faint whisper of his own sin within the woman’s parable. Why did Cain kill Abel? Because he was envious of God’s pleasure in the firstlings of Abel’s flock. But as the parable of Nathan had revealed, David had slain Uriah for his ewe lamb.

Then follows the account of the rebellion of Absalom, a rebellion that reaches its nauseating nadir as Absalom openly goes into his father’s concubines in the sight of Israel (2 Samuel 16:22). Part of the power of the story of Absalom can be seen in how closely David is knit to the son that seeks to usurp him. David’s love for his rebellious son is not the only bond between them, for Absalom resembles no one so much as his father. Like David himself in his prime, Absalom is remarkably handsome (14:25-27), courageous, cunning, and gifted with the charm necessary to estrange the hearts of the people from David as ably as David won the hearts of the people from Saul (15:6; cf. 1 Samuel 18:1-16).

David was forgiven for his sin in chapter 12, but if you sow evil seeds, you will reap a terrible harvest. In the lives of his sons, David’s own sin mutates into even uglier forms and ravages his house. Seeing his sons, David should be able to recognize himself in their actions. The unnamed son of Bathsheba dies in his stead. In seeming contrast to David’s sin with Bathsheba, Amnon’s rape of Tamar is an act of violence coercion (13:14). However, as Leithart observes:

Crudely, verse 14 records that Amnon “laid her,” rather than the more common idiom, “lay with her,” which makes it clear that this was not consensual. …[A] parallel with David is being drawn: Though David did not force Bathsheba, Amnon’s use of his superior strength provides an unexpurgated view of what David actually did. Just like Amnon, David had used his superior “strength” to take a woman. In the more shameless actions of his sons, Yahweh was bringing to light the truth of David’s sin.[3]

In the story of Amnon, Jonadab acts as Joab did with David, with the craftiness of a serpent. He makes David’s unwittingly complicit in the rape of Tamar, much as David himself had formed a web of complicity around his sin (2 Samuel 13:3-7). Jonadab is a nephew of David, just as Joab was (cf. 1 Chronicles 2:13-17). Amnon’s feigning illness and remaining in bed, David himself being sent as a messenger to Tamar, Tamar’s mourning, and the movement between houses, all hearken back to David’s own sin. David himself had played the part of the ill king in 11:2, neglecting his duty to defend his country when it was under threat. He had sent messengers to get Bathsheba and had made her a mourner by killing her husband. David was made to feel some of the anger and disgust that God felt at his sin (11:27; 13:21).

Later, in Absalom’s violation of his father’s concubines we see further ugly symmetries with David’s own sin. Absalom’s actions occurred on the roof of the palace (2 Samuel 16:20-22), on the very site of the inception of David’s own sin (11:2). David had violated the wife of another, now the same wrong is done against him. God had entrusted him with Saul’s harem and the nation as a bride (12:8), but David had exploited and violated those he was charged to protect. David’s sin metastasized in his offspring, steadily eating the flesh of his own house—leading to the rape of his daughter and concubines and the destruction of his sons. And David was both physically, politically, and morally impotent to prevent it.

Jacob’s experience with his sons is bitter and David’s is likewise. Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, had lain with his father’s concubine in Genesis 35:22. Jacob’s next two sons, Simeon and Levi, had conspired to destroy a people whose leader had raped their sister, when their father failed to act in Genesis 34. Jacob’s fourth son, Judah, is involved in a plot against another son, seeming to result in his death. Judah is then separated from his other brothers and alienated from the family. Jacob’s favoured son, Joseph, is lost to him in a foreign country and he mourns for him, thinking him dead.

Every single one of these sorrows is both recapitulated and amplified in the life of David. Absalom, like Reuben, sleeps with his father’s concubines. Absalom, like Simeon and Levi, is a calculating, vengeful, and violent son, who avenges a rape in a manner that initially appears to have cost David all his sons, as Simeon and Levi had wiped out the males of Hamor’s house, following Shechem’s rape of Dinah. Absalom, like Judah, conspires against a brother and kills him, becoming estranged from the rest of the family. Further strengthening the Judah association, the text alerts us to the fact that Absalom had three sons and a daughter named Tamar in 14:27, much as Genesis 38 tells us that Judah had three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah, and a daughter-in-law, Tamar. As Jacob for Joseph, David bitterly mourns the loss of Absalom, first through exile, and later through death.

Just as the beginning of David’s life is a powerful illustration of the capacity of a blessed and righteous man to restore a people to its full health and vigour, as David epitomizes the spirit of Jacob raised to its true stature, in the latter days of David we see the sins of the house of Jacob returning to David’s bosom and the old family wounds bursting open once more. David is Jacob throughout, wrestling with both the promises and the warnings of its deep historical destiny. Will it decay as it exacerbates the sins found at its origins, or ascend into the realization of the divine purpose held out to and intimated to it from the beginning?

Much as David might have fancied that he could compartmentalize his sin in the privacy of his own life, as human beings we are not detached individuals. The poison that David introduced into his house exacted its greatest toll from his children. He lived to see in his own sons the reflection and exacerbation of his own wickedness, and in his wives, daughter, and slain sons the true cost of actions that he once lightly committed. Despite forgiveness and a measure of restoration, David was never the same man again. He remained Jacob, but experienced but the tragic shadow of an identity that was once glorious in him. Sin exacts its bitter price.

Proverbs 6:27 asks concerning the act of taking another man’s wife, “Can a man take fire to his bosom, and his clothes not be burned?” The Apostle declares in Galatians 6:7-8: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” If we narrow our attention merely to questions of forgiveness and blind ourselves to the reality of the horrific consequences of sin—both in our lives and in those of people around us—we are fools. David, though he remains a hero of the faith, is a salutary warning to us not to entertain sin in our lives, but zealously and diligently to root it out, constantly seeking God’s aid, lest we fall prey to the serpents in our gardens, the prowling lions on our paths.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged


[1]See Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel(Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) for further exploration of this connection.

[2]A Son to Me, 148. I will later suggest that the association of David with Jacob to that point, while pronounced, is not quite as straightforward or as constant as Leithart suggests.

[3]A Son to Me, 256