Questions From Readers
No. David merely consigned the Ammonite captives to forced labor. David’s actions have been misunderstood because of the way some Bible translations render these verses.
Describing the treatment meted out to the Ammonites, those Bible versions portray David as barbaric and cruel. For example, 2 Samuel 12:31, according to the King James Version, reads: “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 brickkiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon.” The account at 1 Chronicles 20:3 is rendered similarly.
However, as noted by Bible scholar Samuel Rolles Driver, cruelty “is alien to all that we know of the personal character and temper of David.” Thus, a comment in The Anchor Bible states: “David is setting up work crews of captives for the economic exploitation of the conquered territory, evidently standard practice for victorious kings.” Along the same line, Adam Clarke comments: “The meaning therefore is, He made the people slaves, and employed them in sawing, making iron harrows, or mining, . . . 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.”
Reflecting this more accurate understanding, various modern translations make it clear that David should not be charged with inhumane treatment.* Note the rendering of the New English Translation (2003): “He removed the people who were in it and made them do hard labor with saws, iron picks, and iron axes, putting them to work at the brick kiln. This was his policy with all the Ammonite cities.” (2 Samuel 12:31) “He took the city’s residents and made them work with saws, iron picks, and axes. David did this to all the cities of the Ammonites.” (1 Chronicles 20:3) The rendering of the New World Translation is also in keeping with the latest scholarship: “The people that were in it, he brought out that he might put them at sawing stones and at sharp instruments of iron and at axes of iron, and he made them serve at brickmaking.” (2 Samuel 12:31) “The people that were in it he brought out, and he kept them employed at sawing stones and at sharp instruments of iron and at axes; and that was the way David proceeded to do to all the cities of the sons of Ammon.”—1 Chronicles 20:3.
David did not subject the defeated Ammonites to barbarous torture and gruesome massacres. He did not copy the sadistic and brutal war customs of his day.
By a difference of one letter, the Hebrew text can read “he put them into the saw” or “he cut (sawed) them in pieces.” Moreover, the word for “brick kiln” can also mean “brick mold.” Such a mold would be too narrow for anyone to pass through.