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An Exegesis

 2 Samuel 12: 29, 31 (King James Version)


And David gathered all the people together, and went to Rabbah, and fought against it, and took it. . . . . And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon.


1 Chronicles 20: 3 (King James Version)

And [David] brought out the people that were in [Rabbah], and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes. Even so dealt David with all the cities of the children of Ammon.



IT IS UNREMARKABLE these days to hear the Christian God faulted for His indifference to the suffering of the human condition. In addition, upon this accusation most of the criticisms levelled by atheists against Christianity itself are founded, the charge being that Jehovah is capricious at best, vindictive at worst. The conclusion they lead up to, however, is not merely that He does not exist, but that a Creator of such harsh disposition is untenable. In an odd way, this is an admission by the atheist that if there was a God, He would have to be better than He is portrayed in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. To some extent, the disrepute into which God has fallen is a result of misrepresentation by misunderstanding on the part of those who profess to be His friends.


The Bible texts quoted above describe the siege of Rabbah, a city of the Ammonites. King David’s general, Joab, had set up against the garrison city and eventually it was taken. According to these verses, David exterminated the residents by chopping them up with axes, saws, and harrows, burning many of them in the brick ovens. One recent book, The Harrowing, by Robert Dinsdale, implicitly fosters this assertion by its title and tale of carnage in the First World War.


Various Renderings

In the Roman Catholic Douay version of 1609 the relevant portions of the texts under study are given this way:


2 Samuel 12: 29, 31 [listed in the Douay as 2 Kings 12: 29, 31]


Then David gathered all the people together, and went out against Rabbath: and after fighting he took it. . . . And bringing forth the people thereof, he sawed them, and drove over them chariots armed with iron: and divided them with knives, and made them pass through brick-kilns. So did he to all the cities of the children of Ammon.


1 Chronicles 20: 3 [listed in the Douay as 1 Paralipomenon 20: 3]


And the people that were therein he brought out: and made harrows, and sleds, and chariots of iron to go over them, so that they were cut and bruised to pieces. In this manner David dealt with all the cities of the children of Ammon.


Matthew Henry (1662-1714) comments on the account in the King James Version of 2 Samuel 12: 31 thus:


[David] seems to have been too harsh with his prisoners of war, v. 31, taking the city by storm, after it had obstinately held out against a long and expensive siege; if he had put all to the sword in the heat of battle, whom he found in arms, it had been severe enough; but to kill them afterward, in cold blood, and by cruel tortures, with saws and harrows, tearing them to pieces, did not become him, who, when he entered upon the government, promised to sing of mercy as well as judgment, Ps. ci. 1. Had he made examples of those only who had abused his ambassadors, advised or assisted in it, that being a violation of the law of nations, it might be looked upon as a piece of necessary justice for terror to other nations; but to be thus severe with all the cities of the children of Ammon, (that is, the garrisons or soldiers of the cities,) was extremely rigorous, and a sign that David’s heart was not yet made soft by repentance, else the bowels of his compassion would not have been thus shut up; a sign that he had not yet found mercy, else he would have been more ready to show mercy.


(Henry’s commentary on 1 Chronicles 20: 3 refers back to this place.)


The Natural Reaction

It is probably safe to say that most Christians today would be appalled at such treatment of prisoners of war. The Geneva Convention has established certain rules which stipulate that prisoners taken in combat must be treated humanely. Slaughter and genocide are dirty words and most people, believers and unbelievers alike, abhor such actions. It is not recorded in the text that David was rebuked by God on this occasion, as he had been over his adultery with Bath-sheba, prior to this siege at Rabbah (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).


The King James Version (KJV) is one of the most beautiful and revered works of literature ever created in the English language. As a fundamental component of British education for centuries it has been quoted and commented upon in massive tomes, and chanted in church services up and down the land. Yet it would be safe to say that not all those who love it or cite it always understand what it says. And probably most are unaware of the verses quoted at the beginning of this article; or, if they are, they choose to brush them under the carpet.


Fidelity to Text

The art of translation transcends merely a literal substitution of words in one language with words in another. Context, culture, choice of words all must combine to render a translation which faithfully re-creates the original. Success varies.


The Bible was centuries in the making. Originally composed, for the most part, in Hebrew and Greek respectively, the Old and New Testaments were assembled from a wide variety and age of manuscripts, all copies of the originals. In the tedious process of translation and transposition numerous errors were introduced, of varying degrees of importance. By diligent study scholars have compared and contrasted the versions, aiming for an ‘authoritative’ whole. But even today there are disputes over what is and what is not correct, leading to the many translations available. Broadly stated, there is sufficient correlation between the various manuscripts to settle authenticity on many fundamental Biblical truths, though some dispute this. Some renderings have been modified as a result of archaeological discoveries, or the discovery of a later or more complete manuscript.[fn1]


For comparison with the KJV, see these more recent translations:

New International Version (UK edition; 1979)

2 Samuel 12: 29, 31

So David mustered the entire army and went to Rabbah, and attacked and captured it. . . . [David] brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labour with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking. He did this to all the Ammonite towns.

1 Chronicles 20: 3

and brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labour with saws and with iron picks and axes. David did this to all the Ammonite towns.

The Jerusalem Bible (1968)

2 Samuel 12: 29, 31

So David mustered the whole army and marched on Rabbah; he stormed the town and captured it. . . . He brought away its population and set them to work with saws, iron picks and iron axes, and employed them in brickmaking. He treated all the Ammonite towns in the same way.

1 Chronicles 20: 3

He brought away its population and set them to work with saws, iron picks and axes. David treated all the Ammonite towns in the same way.


In his Commentary Adam Clarke (1760/1762–1832) writes of 2 Samuel 12: 31:


From this representation a great cry has been raised against ‘David’s unparalleled, if not diabolic, cruelty’. I believe this interpretation was chiefly taken from the parallel place, 1 Chron. xx. 3, where it is said, he cut them with saws, and with axes, &c. Instead of vaiyasar, ‘he sawed’, we have here (in Samuel) vaiyasem, ‘he put them’; and these two words differ from each other only in a part of a single letter, resh formem. And it is worthy of remark, that instead of vaiyasar, ‘he sawed’, in 1 Chron. xx. 3, six or seven MSS. collated by Dr. Kennicott have vaiyasem, ‘he put them’; nor is there found any various reading in all the MSS. yet collated for the text in this chapter, that favours the common reading in Chronicles. 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.[fn2]


It is surprising, and a thing to be deplored, that in this and similar cases our translators had not been more careful to sift the sense of the original words by which they would have avoided a profusion of exceptionable meanings with which they have clothed many passages of the sacred writings. Though I believe our translation to be by far the best in any language, ancient or modern, yet I am satisfied it stands much in need of revision. Most of the advantages which our unbelievers have appeared to have over certain passages of Scripture, have arisen from an inaccurate or false translation of the terms in the original; and an appeal to this has generally silenced the gainsayers. But in the time in which our translation was made, Biblical criticism was in its infancy, if indeed it did exist; and we may rather wonder that we find things so well, than be surprised that they are no better.


(Clarke’s commentary on 1 Chronicles 20: 3 refers back to this place.)


In the French courant (current) version (1986), 2 Samuel 12: 31 has David conscripting the captives into his work force (‘des travaux forcés’). The rendering of 1 Chronicles 20: 3 is similar.

Old Habits Die Hard

One may wonder why the translators of the KJV chose to render these verses in such an uncomplimentary fashion. From the fact they did so, we may infer that, a) they were scrupulously faithful to the original as they understood it a commendable approach, preferable to tinkering with the text; or, b) they were prompted by an instinct to illustrate a warning to the unbelievers.


Mistreatment of prisoners in Britain and Europe in the 14th to the 18th centuries was often vile, unmentionable tortures being applied to the person to force a political or religious confession or recantation of a perceived infraction. It may be no coincidence that a belief on the part of the interrogators that eternal torment awaited the recalcitrant in the next life, justified as a lesser evil any tortures applied in this life, on the basis that anything which ‘saved a soul’ was beneficial.


King David was guilty of no such transgression.




[fn1] The Codex Sinaiticus is now available online at:

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[fn2] Joshua impressed the Gibeonites into (permanent) service as ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ (Joshua 9: 1-27).

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Copyright November 2009

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