II Samuel 12 is primarily about Nathan confronting David over sin with Bathsheba. Easily overlooked are the closing verses concerning the capture of the Ammonite capital of Rabbah by Joab and David. It is a fairly straightforward account: Joab has besieged the city and it is ready to fall, he sends for David to be there for the final assault, Rabbah falls to David’s forces, and David spoils the city including taking the king’s unwieldly crown that weighed over 100 pounds. The fate of the prisoners (likely the males of age to fight) in verse 31 is what is debated. The same events are covered in I Chronicles 20:1-3.
Depending on the translation or commentary you will find two opinions on what happened to the Ammonite prisoners. These are:
1. They are killed in a brutal manner.
2. They are enslaved and made to labor.
Which is correct? How can each be supported? What can we learn from about Bible interpretation in the process?
1. The Hebrew Verbs
In II Samuel 12:31, the word that is most important in this study is the root sim [H7760], translated as “put under” in the KJV. Englishman’s Greek Concordance shows it appears 583 times in the Old Testament. It is a simple verb with a many possible meanings based on its setting, but the basic definition is “to put, place, or set”. Basically this verb connects the Ammonites to the axes and iron implements. They were “put to” them.
But how were they “put to” those implements? A cursory look like above does not give a clear answer because the verb can be used in so many ways. We do find the same verb used to denote violence in Judges 7:22, where we find “…the LORD set [H7760] every man’s sword against his fellow…”. So we do have at least one example of the verb being used in a manner that would find with a violent interpretation of II Samuel 12:31.
In I Chronicles 20:3, we have another interesting verb – sur [H7787], translated as “cut” in the KJV. Strong’s defines it as: “A primitive root (identical with suwr through the idea of reducing to pieces; compare massowr); to saw – cut.” Some scholars speculate (with no textual evidence that I can find) that this word is perhaps a corruption of the verb from II Samuel 12:31 since only the last letter differs (see Jamieson-Fausset-Brown on I Chronicles 20:3). Just because the words are similar does not mean that a mistake was made, especially since the two passages do not perfectly mirror each other in all other details.
2. Regarding Brickkilns
Another important section of II Samuel 12:31 concerns the brickkilns. The Ammonites were made to “pass through” (KJV) them – the Hebrew verb root is abar [H5674]. This verb means “to cross over” or to “transition through”. Here the Ammonites are not “put to” something, but rather “put through” it.
Of note is that this verb is found in the exact same tense in II Kings 21:6 when it says that Manasseh “…made his son pass through the fire…”, which will be readily understood by an student of Bible history as a reference to child sacrifice to a pagan deity. To save time, I will refer those interested in more information on Molech to this article from GotQuestions.org.
Also of note is the word used for brickkiln – malben [H4404]. Some see this is not as the kiln itself but of a brick mold or shape, and they then make it a military formation that the Ammonites would have passed through as gauntlet (see John Gill’s commentary on this verse). I personally prefer a more literal than figurative approach to this word and believe it is the brickkiln itself.
3. Other References to Forced Labor
The idea of enslavement or forced labor is not unknown in the Old Testament. Let us look a few passages and see if we can shed light on our study.
Deuteronomy 20:11 – “And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be [H1961] tributaries [H4522] unto thee, and they shall serve thee.”
I Kings 9:21 – “Their children that were left after them in the land, whom the children of Israel also were not able utterly to destroy, upon those did Solomon levy a tribute of bondservice [H4522] [H5647] unto this day.”
So we see in these verses above that specific words can be used to denote force labor, but the words and phrases used in these verses are not the same as in II Samuel 12:31 or I Chronicles 20:3. This may not be conclusive in the settling the matter, but it does appear that if the Ammonites were forced into slavery the much clearer language seen above could or possibly should have been used.
4. What about the Gibeonites?
Joshua chapter 9 contains the story of the Gibeonites who deceived Joshua and Israel into making a treaty with them. They were spared destruction but were made made slaves, specifically “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (Joshua 9:21,23,27).
Some point to this case as proving the Ammonites were enslaved and not killed. However, closer inspection proves these two cases are very different. For instance, Joshua was being forced to honor a treaty with the Gibeonites. David had no such things limiting his actions.
The only bearing the case of the Gibeonites has on our present topic is that it could be seen as an historical precedent that David could follow. But we have no indication that David was under any obligation to do so. A much better precedent to examine would be David’s previous military campaigns in II Samuel 8. In these David is seen conquering, spoiling, and even performing executions (II Samuel 8:2).
5. Could the implements mentioned be used in torture?
Let us turn our attention to the implements mentioned in II Samuel 12:31 and I Chronicles 20:3. Are these best understood as tools or weapons?
Concerning saws it is pretty straight forward what they are and that historically they were used in executions. We have the tradition that Isaiah was killed through sawing and the reference in Hebrews 11:37 to saints that had been killed by such means.
The harrows are bit more clouded. We find the same Hebrew word used to describe the cheeses David took to his brothers in I Samuel 17:18, probably highlighting the idea of “something cut into pieces”. These could be agricultural threshing instruments (see Isaiah 28:7 and 41:15 which use a similar Hebrew word [H2742]) repurposed as instruments of war. Such devices would have used to separate grain from harvest plants by grinding, cutting, or beating. We find a reference in Amos 1:3 to the Syrians cruelly using such instruments on the people of Gilead.
The word for axes only appears in these two verses. It is generally understood to be a generic term for a cutting instrument. I am not sure we can dogmatically describe it beyond that.
Last, brickkilns will likely remind the reader of the fiery furnace of Daniel chapter 3. Executions by burning are abundantly common in history so such an idea as this is perfectly plausible.
So, we find that the four implements mentioned can be used both as work or military implements. Their appearances by themselves do not necessarily prove either of our proposed interpretations correct.
6. Jewish Code of War
I think the most relevant passage of Scripture to our inquiry is Deuteronomy 20:10-14 which gives instruction on what the Israelites were supposed to do when besieging a city. We find that they are first to offer a chance of peaceful surrender and if the city surrenders its people are to be work for or pay tribute to Israel (vs. 10-11). If this offer is refused then the city is to be besieged (vs. 12). When the city falls, every male inhabitant is to be killed (vs. 13) and the women, children, and all cattle are to be the spoils of war (vs. 14).
If David was following this prescribed order then he would have to kill all the adult males when the city fell, not enslave them.
Of note in this is that the adult males were to be slain and the women and children were left alive. This can explain how the Ammon was not annihilated in David’s campaign and continuing to exist as the rest of Scripture testifies.
6. The Character of David
We must address the question as to whether it was in David’s character to torture or execute the Ammonite prisoners. Those that favor him enslaving them may refer to David being a “man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22) and would be incapable of such an atrocity.
However, when we look at the history of David it is clear that was “man of war” (I Chronicles 28:3). The reason given for God not allowing him to build the Temple was that he had “shed blood abundantly, and hast made great wars ” (I Chronicles 22:8).
Even as a warrior his actions at times may startle modern sensibilities. After slaying Goliath he kept the giant’s severed head as war trophy (I Samuel 17:54,57). He slew two hundred Philistines and gave their foreskins to Saul as a dowry to marry Michal (I Samuel 18:27). It seems to have performed some sort of systematic execution of the Moabites in II Samuel 8:2.
If David enslaved the Ammonites it would also be an aberration from his other wars. We see in the accounts of II Samuel 8 and 10 that David fought many battles and slew thousands of men. We see that he carried away great riches as the spoils of war. Even with kingdoms that he subdued into servitude (see Moab in II Samuel 8:2 or Edom in II Samuel 8:14 for examples) the language used is very different that that concerning the Ammonites.
It also worth considering the possible spiritual state of David at this time. It is difficult to say exactly when David conquered Rabbah but we do know that it coincides with his sin with Bathsheba (II Samuel 11:1). It possible that the fall of Rabbah occurred before Solomon was born (II Samuel 12:24) if the account is arranged thematically around David’s in and not strictly chronological. So there is a possibility that Rabbah fell when David was in one of the lowest spiritual states of his life, between his affair with Bathsheba and Nathan’s confrontation. I suggest merely that it is possible that David’s aggressive behavior toward the Ammonites may have been fueled his weak spiritual state.
7. Lex Talionis
Another consideration is that justice at this period in the ancient world was typically performed according to the law of retribution, or lex talionis. The Scripture famously summarizes this as “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24-25).
If David was following this judicial reckoning, would the Ammonites have committed some sort of heinous crimes to bring about their execution? There is evidence in the Scripture that they were an unusually cruel people. Nahash the Ammonite had demanded that the men of Jabeshgilead to not only surrender, but to also remove their right eyes as as symbol of reproach (I Samuel 11:1-2). Hanun, king of the Ammonites, cruelly mistreated peaceful envoys that David sent after the death of Hanun’s father (II Samuel 10:1-3). Some 250 years later, the prophet Amos denounced them because “they have ripped up the women with child of Gilead” (Amos 1:13).
The Old Testament world is quite different in some areas when compared to New Testament Christianity . We are today compelled to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) but that was not the law of the land in David’s time. We must remember that he was a man of his time and for his time, and as such would have acted in ways we simply cannot understand.
8. What Do Others Say?
Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews – “…but as for the men, he tormented them, and then destroyed them; and when he had taken the other cities of the Ammonites by force, he treated them after the same manner.”
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers – “In the infliction of these cruelties on his enemies David acted in accordance with the customs and the knowledge of his time. Abhorrent as they may be to the spirit of Christianity, David and his contemporaries took them as matters of course, without a suspicion that they were not in accordance with God’s will.”
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary – “To be thus severe in putting the children of Ammon to slavery was a sign that David’s heart was not yet made soft by repentance, at the time when this took place. We shall be most compassionate, kind, and forgiving to others, when we most feel our need of the Lord’s forgiving love, and taste the sweetness of it in our own souls.”
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary – “he brought forth the people … and put them under saws, &c.—This excessive severity and employment of tortures, which the Hebrews on no other occasion are recorded to have practised, was an act of retributive justice on a people who were infamous for their cruelties (1Sa 11:2; Am 1:13).”
Matthew Poole’s Commentary – “Put them under saws: he sawed them to death; of which punishment we have examples, both in Scripture, Hebrews 11:37, and in other authors. Under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron; he caused them to be laid down upon the ground, and torn by sharp iron harrows drawn over them, and hewed in pieces by keen axes. Made them pass through the brick-kiln, i.e. to be burnt in brickkilns. Or, made them to pass through the furnace of Malchen, i.e. of Moloch, called also Milchom, and here Malchen; punishing them with their own sin, and with the same kind of punishment which they inflicted upon their own children: see 2 Kings 16:3 23:10 Leviticus 18:21 20:2 Deu 18:10.”
Geneva Study Bible – “Signifying that as they were malicious enemies of God, so he put them to cruel death.”
Pulpit Commentary – “We cannot defend these cruelties, but they unhappily were the rule in Oriental warfare, and would have been inflicted on their enemies by the Ammonites. We have proof in l 1 Samuel 11:2 and Amos 1:13 that they were a barbarous race; but this did not justify barbarous retaliation.”
Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge – “Rather,… ‘And he put them to saws, and to harrows, and to axes,’ etc., as we say, to put a person to the plough, to the anvil, to the last, etc.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary – “The meaning therefore is, He made the people slaves, and employed them in sawing, making iron harrows, or mining, (for the word means both), and in hewing of wood, and making of brick. Sawing asunder, hacking, chopping, and hewing human beings, have no place in this text, no more than they had in David’s conduct towards the Ammonites.”
A.C. Gaebelein’s Annotated Bible – “What is recorded in verse 31 was cruel and barbarous. (However, there is a doubt about the translation. It has been rendered in the following way: ‘And he set them to saws and iron picks and iron axes and made them labor at the brick kiln.’) Ammon did horrible things to the women of Israel. (See Amos 1:13.) A fearful retribution came upon them. How often it has been repeated in history, even down to the 20th century with all its boasted civilization, now collapsed in the greatest and most awful war the world has ever witnessed. And thus it will continue to the end, till the true King comes.”
B.H. Carroll’s Interpretation of the English Bible – “The weight of authority seems to favor the ‘torture’ interpretation, and yet how readily does a humane mind turn in preference to Murhpy’s rendering [of enslavement].” Note – Carroll deals with this subject in greater depth than most commentaries and his assessment is worth reading in full.
Alfred Edersheim’s Bible History Old Testament – “The punishment meted out to those who had resisted was of the most cruel, we had almost said, un-Israelitish character, not justified even by the terrible war which the Ammonites had raised, nor by the cruelties which they seem to have practiced against helpless Israelitish mothers (Amos 1:13), and savoring more of the ferocity of Joab than of the bearing of David – at least before his conscience had been hardened by his terrible sin. And so David returned triumphant to his royal city!”
Further notes on this:
An observation that has been made by others is that ancient Jewish rabbis almost universally taught that David tortured and killed the Ammonites. I do not have access to many of these, but you can see this represented in the last post of this conversation on Reddit.
I would also like to say that in general the older commentaries and author favor the execution interpretation. There seems to be a transition around end of the 19th century and today’s newest commentaries and authors seem to favor the enslavement interpretation. This is just a personal observation.
As far as translations go, many newer ones favor the enslavement interpretation unless they are very literal translation. For an overview of different translation, check out Bible Hub’s pages on II Samuel 12:31 and I Chronicles 20:3.
9. My Conclusion
I feel confident in interpreting the information in II Samuel 12:31 and I Chronicles 20:3 as referring to the brutal executions of the adult male Ammonite prisoners. I believe that this interpretation stands best when examined under scrutiny. I think the language when taken literally supports it. I think it is fitting for the culture of the time. I think it fits in the consistency of Scripture.
I do find this as in interesting case study in how we interpret the Bible. I think the main argument against the execution interpretation is that appears inhuman to the modern Christian’s mind. If we are not careful, we then project our own philosophies into the words of Scripture. It is a classic case of exegesis vs. eisegesis.
10. Further Reading Online