David and the Slaughter of the Gibeonites

by Tom Terry

Read: II Samuel 21:1-14



Understanding this episode in David’s life requires us to know something about the Gibeonites. Verse 1 says, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” The Gibeonites were an Amorite tribe of people who lived in the promised land when Joshua and Israel were taking possession of it in Joshua 9. The Gibeonites tricked Joshua into making a covenant with them, not to destroy them. Because the covenant was made in good faith on Israel’s part, Israel was obligated to keep the covenant and preserve the Gibeonite people. 

We must also understand something about covenants. Biblical covenants are not like modern contracts. Contracts are negotiated between two or more parties, compromise is made, and terms are drawn up. A modern contract can be canceled. Biblical covenants are not negotiated but are imposed and cannot be canceled. Biblical covenants are binding forever. Thus, David’s kingdom was bound to protect the Gibeonites because he was bound by the covenant, even though it was imposed over 200 years prior.

We are not sure of when this episode takes place in David’s life. Some commentators think it was before David met Mephibosheth. Some say it was later in his life. Some point to David’s statement in II Samuel 9:1, “Is there anyone left in the house of Saul…” indicating that he had already turned over Saul’s family to be killed by the Gibeonites. Additionally, the famine mentioned here may have taken place in David’s earlier years, for why would God wait until 30 or more years later to call for a famine because of Saul’s breach of covenant? However, I think this happened later because the text says David spared Mephibosheth because of his promise to Jonathan. When Johnathan died, Mephibosheth was a small child. But when David met him, he was an adult with a son of his own. Thus, it’s likely that this episode of the famine happened at a later date. 

(V.1) “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 

After David seeks the Lord about the famine, we see the Revealing of sin

Some translations say, “bloody house.” The Lord held this against Saul’s family because they may have all been involved in the slaughter of the Gibeonites, though we are not told so specifically. Remember that kings usually gave members of the royal family powers and privileges. Saul’s family may have been empowered to destroy the Gibeonites, though this is partly speculation. 

(V.3) “David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?’”

Now we see the beginning of repentance of David on behalf of his people. His question, “What shall I do for you” indicates that he wanted to do whatever was necessary to make the situation right. There needed to be some kind of atonement. This is why David asks, “What can I do for you?” I.E., what can I do to make this right?

(V.4) “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.”

These are two interesting statements. First the Gibeonites state, “It is not a matter of silver or gold.” It was common in those days that when a sin was committed, sometimes people would pay something to make it right (Exodus 22:7-9II Samuel 12:6Luke 19:8). We have similar practices, don’t we? We use insurance companies and the law to negotiate a settlement or sue to get payment. It doesn’t necessarily make something right, but it exacts a toll on the offending party. This is similar to scripture. The Gibeonites are saying that financial payment is not enough to make it right.

Then there is the second statement. “Neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” This means that as a second-class people group in Israel, they had no legal right to put anyone to death for their sin. They were essentially saying to David, “Someone needs to die for this, but we don’t have the authority to put anyone to death.” Can you think of anyone who said something similar? How about the Jewish leaders who told Pilate they didn’t have the authority to put anyone to death? In the case of the Gibeonites, atonement needed to be made in blood by the offending party.

(V.6) “‘Let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.’ And the king said, ‘I will give them.’”

Now we see the request for justice. The number seven indicates that the Gibeonites knew who the surviving descendants of Saul were. Interestingly, they did not call for the death of Mephibosheth because everyone knew that David had a special relationship with Mephibosheth, so he was off limits. Additionally, Mephibosheth was not alive yet when Saul committed the breach of the covenant. So, Mephibosheth was not a guilty party. 

The surprising part was how quickly David said, “I will give them.” Remember that David made a promise to Saul not to destroy his family in I Samuel 24:20-22. David seeks justice by turning over Saul’s family and keeps his promise not to utterly destroy his family by sparing Mephibosheth. 

(V.7) “But the king spared Mephibosheth…”

Thus, Saul’s family is preserved through Mephibosheth. 

(V.9) “[David] gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the Lord, and the seven of them perished together.”

Now we come to reconciliation. It may be hard to see, but it’s there. David is attempting to make things right between Israel and the Gibeonites, with whom they had a covenant. By doing this, he is trying to reconcile the two parties together. But why did David give over people who did not, as far as we know, actually commit the sin of slaughtering the Gibeonites?

There are multiple examples in the Bible of people falling under punishment who were not guilty of the specific sin that people were charged with. David and Bathsheba’s son is one example. The infant died just days after birth, as God said would happen in II Samuel 12:14

During the exile, thousands of Israeli children were taken into Babylon, even though they had not committed the sins of their fathers. We also see this with Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were godly young men but were taken away in exile. Of course, their trial led them to become rulers in Babylon. 

God says in Exodus 20:5, “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Jesus said in Matthew 23:35-36, “On you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” 

What we learn from these passages is that if a person keeps his sin or repeats the sins of his parents or ancestors, his guilt is manifold. He approves of and takes the sins of those before him and lives in him. Thus, his judgment is more severe. It may be that Saul’s family were involved in the slaughter and thus were held accountable. We will touch on this further. 

(V.10) “Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens.”

This gives us a hint of how long this process took place. From the beginning of harvest until the rains came was six months. I.E., Rizpah guarded the remains of her dead relatives for six months. Can you image guarding the decomposing bodies of your family for six months so vultures or other animals would not get them? Rizpah was in deep mourning. We can’t blame her. But this is what sin sometimes does. It has terrible consequences. If we don’t mourn over our sin as she mourned over her family, then we’re really not repenting of it. 

(V.12-14) “David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father.”

At the end of this time, David takes action to collect the remains of Saul and his family and give them a proper burial. He turned over the family of Saul for destruction, but he still had a tender heart toward Saul and his family and wanted to honor them because Saul was still the chosen of the Lord in David’s eyes.

(V.14) “…after that God responded to the plea for the land.”

This is a hard statement. Essentially, God responded to the death of Saul’s family like he would respond in forgiveness to an animal sacrifice. Why would God do this? For one reason: restoration. God wanted to restore the relationship between Israel and the Gibeonites. 

There is every indication that between the covenant in Joshua 9 and the kingship of David, the Gibeonites became followers of the Lord. Notice their language in II Samuel 21:6, “Let seven of [Saul’s] sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” So, after justice was meted out, God responded because David had handled the matter by having the guilty destroyed and making things right with the Gibeonites.


For many people, this is a difficult passage to understand. Let’s ask some questions of the text.

Why would God send a three-year famine against Israel when Israel was not guilty of slaughtering the Gibeonites?

Why was Saul’s punishment meted out to his family?

Here are some possible answers:

  1. The military likely carried out the slaughter. That would involve Israel’s people and make them guilty of the breach of covenant. Thus, the famine was sent because Israel was guilty.
  2. Like royal families in that day, the king’s family likely held important positions in the royal house, including military roles. That would make Saul’s family guilty of the breach of covenant. 
  3. Whole Gibeonite families were likely killed; thus, the punishment may be Saul’s family in exchange for the Gibeonite families that were slaughtered.

Why would God respond to the death of Saul’s family like a sin sacrifice of an animal?

The answer to this last question may be found in the progression of events that took place, which we’ve already highlighted. But I don’t want you to miss this as it has important implications for us.

Notice the progression in this passage. 

  • Revealing sin (V.1) “There is bloodguilt.”
  • Repentance (V.3) “How shall I make atonement?”
    There is precedent for nonguilty parties to repent on behalf of a nation. Daniel did this.
  • Reconciliation (V.9) “He gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites.”
  • Restoration (V.14) “And God responded to the plea for the land.”

This is the process that we all go through when we come to faith in Christ, or when we commit sin that needs to be confessed and forgiven. First, our sin is revealed. Then we repent of what we have done. Then we are reconciled to God. Then he restores our relationship and makes us whole. 

We don’t know why God waited so long to have David address this wrong. It may be that he waited for David and Mephibosheth’s relationship to be established so that Mephibosheth and his son, Mica, would not be killed. God’s patience often waits until the last moment for a sin to be addressed. 

As to why God responded to the killing of the Gibeonites, I think the answer is found in the progression we’ve just noted. David went through the process of revealingrepentancereconciliation, and restoration as God desired to make things right. Interestingly, if David had not responded the way he did, then he would have been excusing the sin of Saul and his family, and then he, too, would have been guilty of sin. Thankfully, he addressed it as needed. 


Do you have something in your life that needs this process of confession and restoration? When we first come to faith in Christ, we all go through this:

  • Revealing sin 
  • Repentance 
  • Reconciliation 
  • Restoration 

But as we live by faith in Christ, we must sometimes engage in this process again when we sin so that we can make things right with God. 

Interestingly, when we are in the process of repentance, we may need to cut something out of our lives in order to complete this process. David, through the Gibeonites, had to rid Israel of Saul’s family to expunge the guilt. 

Think of the times when you have had to confess your sin to the Lord. Did you keep that thing that was a cause for sin, or did you expunge it from your life?


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