Ittai, David’s Philistine Commander

Israelite warrior, google

Israelite soldier from Google.

Bible References: I Samuel 27:1-7; 2 Samuel 21:20-22; 2 Samuel 15:13-23; 2 Samuel 18:1-18.

Heart of the Story Loyal Ittai helped David survive a civil war. He was commander in a battle in which David’s forces were outnumbered 10:1.

Back Story: When David was about 29-30 years or age, he lived near Gath in Philistine territory for 16 months. People of Gath were known as Gittites; some were giants, e.g., Goliath and five other descendants of Rapha.

About 30 years later when David was king, Prince Absalom led a rebellion against him. Not knowing the extent of the rebellion, David left Jerusalem with the palace guard including David’s his personal body guard. These men were professional soldiers composed of Cherethites (Kerethites) and Pelethites. Both groups were Philistines. In ancient times it was usual for a king to employ foreign soldiers for his personal body guard. Soldiers from his own kingdom had regional or tribal loyalties that could compromise their loyalty to the king.

The day before King David fled Jerusalem, a group of mercenaries came to Jerusalem. The group was composed of their leader Ittai, 600 fighting men, and their families. They were exiles from Gath. They came to Jerusalem to be part of David’s personal and palace guards. Probably some Gittite soldiers or  family members remembered David from when he lived near Gath. They knew him as an ethical leader who cared for his fighting men and their families.

Story Line: King David led the exodus from Jerusalem. Some distance from the city, David halted and allowed his men to march past him. David stopped Ittai when he saw the Gittite soldiers and their families. David suggested that Ittai go back to Jerusalem and stay with King Absalom. The Gittites only arrived in Jerusalem yesterday. Why should they undertake the hardship of going into exile with him?

Ittai’s response was reminiscent of Ruth to Naomi when Naomi tried to send Ruth back to her people. Ittai averred, “As surely as the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be” (2 Samuel 15:21, NIV 2002).

In this dark hour when family members, trusted counselors, and David’s nation deserted him, here was a foreigner who declared his loyalty. Uttai put his life and the lives of his men and their families into peril for David. David could hardly speak; he said simply, “Go ahead, march on” (2 Samuel 15:22). David remained while Ittai and his families went forward; thus putting himself between Ittai’s company and any armed pursuit from Jerusalem.

Absalom assembled soldiers from the 12 tribes, an estimated 40,000 troops. His cousin Amaza was war commander. The army marched east across the Jordan River to confront King David’s army. According to Josephus, David had about 4,000 soldiers. David determined to attack the Israelite army where the terrain would give his men maximum advantage. David sent his troops out – 1/3 under the command of Joab, 1/3 under the command of Abishai (Joab’s brother), and 1/3 under the command of Ittai.

David’s force attacked the massive Israelite army in the forest of Ephraim. Different from a forest with tall trees, the forest (Hebrew word ya’ar) indicates a rough country, abounding in rocks, stones and scrub, with occasional trees. The battle spread out over the whole countryside. The forest claimed more lives that day than the sword. Absalom was killed along with 20,000 Israelite soldiers.

Pondering Relationships: It makes sense that Uttai went to King David for work when he was exiled from Gath. David was the strongest regent living in proximity to Gath. David acted honorably when he lived in Gath. He had no prejudices against Philistines; his personal and palace guards were Philistines. On the other hand, he was the Philistines’ enemy. David killed Goliath a mighty man from Gath. His men killed four other giants from Gath. As king his armies defeated the Philistines which included Gath.

From the time Uttai arrived in Jerusalem, he was fully committed to King David. Ittai’s name provides insight into his personality. Ittai made decision – in this case to support King David – and stuck with it. He was with David regardless of what and where David was; e.g., king in a plush palace in Jerusalem or a deposed ruler in a country town east of the Jordan River. The name Ittai meant “with me.” I wonder if David took consolation from having “with me” with him.

Along with Joab and Abishai, Ittai recommended that David remain within the walls of  Mahanaim during their attack on the Israelites. Ittai was a loyal but canny leader. He was unwilling to compromise David’s life or compromise the battle by allowing David presence on the battle field. David was in his early 60s, no longer a young man who could sustain sword play for a prolonged period of time. David life was pivotal to the battle effort. If he was killed, his followers would have no reason to fight. Further, his presence would put his men in danger; the minute Israelite soldiers saw King David on the battle field, they would attack him in massive numbers. Perhaps to make David feel better and have him accept their recommendation, the commanders said that David’s personal guard could provide support from Mahanaim as needed.

Some scholars suggested that David appointed Ittai as a commander because Ittai’s men wouldn’t fight under an Israelite commander or that Joab and Abishai didn’t trust the Philistines to be part of their forces. That argument has validity, e.g., Joab and Abishai didn’t know Ittai’s mercenaries and they had little time to integrate with David’s fighting force. An alternative view point is that David made Ittai commander of a third of his army because he recognized both Ittai’s loyalty and competence.

As the three commanders left Mahanaim, David requested that they show mercy on Absalom. Ittai played no part in killing Absalom or in taking word of his death to King David.

Reflection: The last time the Bible mentions Ittai at the battle of the forest of Ephraim. There is no reason to expect that he was killed in the battle; probably, he returned to Jerusalem with David and became an integral part of his palace guard or his army.

If you have an interest in military men in the Bible, there is an entire chapter on this topic in my book Lesser Known Bible Characters at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com.

Copyright: Carolyn A. Roth 3/14.

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