I’m a bit confused about 2 Samuel 21 and need more clarification.  David’s oath to Saul is to not kill off his descendants or wipe out his name from his father’s family (1 Samuel 24:21-22). David’s oath to Jonathan is to not ever cut off his kindness from his family (1 Samuel 20:15). Both oaths are similar in that each are binding David to not harm the family of Saul & Jonathan.  In 2 Samuel 21, David wants to atone for Saul’s attempt to annihilate the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites say they don’t have the right to put anyone in Israel to death but ask that 7 of Saul’s male descendants be given to them to kill. David agrees and “gives them” to the Gibeonites. I assume this happens because he has the right to do so. In 2 Samuel 21:7 David remembers his oath to Jonathan but it seems that he forgets his oath to Saul.

Here are my questions:

1. Is Jonathan’s “family” not considered his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews? Or when the bible says “family” is it just his son and daughter (direct descendants)?

2. Wouldn’t an pure animal sacrifice be sufficient to atone for the sin of Saul?

3. Why does Saul’s descendants have to pay for the sins of his father as an atonement?

4. How does this scene relate to Jesus’ atonement for our sins?

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. 


First of all, the promise was not to do absolutely no harm to his family.  It was not to wipe out his descendants and to not completely cut of kindness to his family.  This did not mean that the direct conspirators against David’s kingship would all be forgiven, but that there would be at least a remnant toward which David would show kindness and sympathy.  We should remember that in ancient times, when a new regime took over from an old one, it was common practice to wipe out all male descendants so as to make it impossible for the old regal line to reassert power.  This is what Jonathan feared and it is what  David was promising not to do. 

1. In ancient times, the “family” would have included an extended family, including uncles, cousins, grandchildren and the like.

2. According to the Bible, animal sacrifice never removed sin.  Hebrews 9:13 tells us that such animal sacrifices only made people ceremonially clean so that they could worship God, but “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4)

3. There are two separate aspects here. 

One is our eternal destiny before God.  We are individually accountable to God and we certainly are only responsible for our own sins—not for the sins of others.  If you read Ezekiel 18 (the whole thing) you will see unambiguous statements that on judgment day we are accountable only for our own sins.  The son does not bear the guilt of the father and the father does not share the guilt of the son.

The other aspect is the consequences of our sins IN THIS LIFE.  There is a moral law which says that sin produces consequences in this life.  Exodus 20:4 describes this principle, that, in this life (not in the afterlife!), the son shares the consequences for the sin of the father, down to the fourth generation.  This is about what happens in this world, not in eternity.   Here is the bottom line.  The violence of Saul and his rejection of God had consequences which fell upon his entire family.  This is only “natural” and it reflects God moral law of cause and effect with regard to sin in this life.  For yourself personally, although God has forgiven you of your sin (praise the Lord!), this does not entirely remove the consequences in this life for your sins.

4. Jonathan was a righteous man.  He was not perfect, obviously, but he was a faithful and godly man.  He may very well be in heaven with us.  I certainly hope so.  The blood of Jesus can apply even to those who were faithful to God but never heard the gospel—such as Moses, Abraham, Sarah and David.  Jonathan may be with God for eternity, but in this life, he was caught up into the consequences of his father’s sin and was killed, along with many other members of his family.  David promised to partially mitigate these consequences for the sake of his dear friend Jonathan, but even David could not prevent the death of Jonathan himself and others in his family.  David did, however, show favor to Mephibosheth in fulfillment of his promise to Jonathan.

Jesus’ atonement for our sin is a separate matter.  This happens one person at a time and is not based on the actions of others.  We are saved or lost based on our own faith or lack of faith to God, relying, of course, on the blood of Jesus.

I hope this helps.

John Oakes

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