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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 62, 2014

NIU ZHIXIONG, ‘The King Lifted up His Voice and Wept.’ David’s Mourning in the Second Book of Samuel (Tesi Gregoriana, Serie Teologia 200; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute; Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2013). Pp. xii + 312. Paperback. ISBN 887839260. €25.00 RRP.

This is a “slightly revised version” of a doctoral thesis from the Gregorian University, Rome, in June 2013. It claims to be the first monograph to examine all the accounts of David mourning the dead in 2 Samuel; namely Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1:1–27), Abner (2 Sam 3:26–39), David and Bathsheba’s child (2 Sam 11:27b–12:25), Amnon (2 Sam 13:23–39), and Absalom (2 Sam 18:19–19:9). These are read through the lens of Hebrew mourning rituals reconstructed from a synchronic study of texts, from analysis of Hebrew terminology associated with mourning and from ANE parallels. The book is divided into an Introduction and Two Parts. The first is entitled “Mourning for the Dead from the Saulide Camp,” namely Saul, Jonathan and Abner, the second “Mourning for the Davidic Sons,” namely, the infant child, Amnon (and the princes) and Absalom.

Because, apart from the Bible, there are no extant texts that describe mourning rituals in ancient Israel, Niu is obliged to reconstruct them primarily from the biblical text. He then employs the reconstructions to discern the meaning of an account and the portrait of David it conveys. This involves a certain circularity of argument that is probably unavoidable in the circumstances. Niu is aware of this and is circumspect in his conclusions. Overall Niu judges that the author(s) have constructed a subtle and complex portrait of David. For example, David’s mourning for Saul and Jonathan, though sincere enough, “serves above all his own interests and concerns” (83).

According to Niu, 2 Sam 3:26–39 is the only biblical text that “records a complete ancient Hebrew funeral” (20). Given this one wonders how he can claim it is “complete.” The text is significant for the way David’s comments about Joab’s murder of Abner (2 Sam 3:28–29, 38–39) frame the account of David and the people at the funeral (3:31–32, 34b–37), with David’s dirge at the centre (3:33–34a). Niu sees a contrast between the dirges over Saul and Abner: the former is eulogistic on the surface but in reality condescending, the latter initially seems mocking but in fact proclaims David’s innocence. In this way the dirge relates to the framing passages on Joab and serves to promote David’s agenda.

The most complex and ambiguous account is David’s response to the sickness and death of his child in 11:27b–12:25. What is striking about this text is David’s apparent refusal to mourn the child once it has died. In seeking an explanation for this Niu sees some parallel with Jeremiah and Ezekiel who are both commanded or forbidden to mourn the dead. Their obedience to this difficult and even shocking command serves as a sign of their solidarity with God and God’s purpose. David does not receive such a command but Nathan’s prophecy of the child's death implies that if David laments his son’s death then he has not accepted God’s judgement and the reality of his sin. His ritual abstention from mourning is a sign of his acceptance and recognition that the child is “the scapegoat, bearing David's sin and its corresponding punishment” (159). In presenting this interpretation Niu is careful to note its provisional nature in relation to the “rich ambivalence” of the text (161). What marks the mourning for Amnon is not so much his murder but the fate of Absalom. This leads in to the final mourning text that portrays a David no longer in control of events or able to manipulate them to his advantage. In contrast to the funeral for Abner, 19:1–8 the roles of Joab and David in 19:1–8 are reversed. This leads Niu to propose an overall concentric structure for 2 Samuel 1–19 with the death of the child in 11:27b–12:25 as the central point within a larger narrative that portrays the gradual decline of the figure of David—artistic creation or a reflection of the reality of David’s kingship?

Niu has made a valuable contribution to our appreciation of the portrait of David in 2 Samuel. This achievement is all the more impressive for one born and raised in China who had to make the transition to modern western methods of biblical study and write in a foreign language. Unfortunately, the proof reading, for which he had assistance, is not good, particularly in the early chapters. Footnote numbers are in varying sizes and there are a number of typographical errors. It would be worthwhile reissuing the book at some stage with these attended to.

Review by
Catholic Theological College