In the face of his son Absalom’s insurrection, David’s flight to the desert is the stage upon which a colorful handful of characters display, respectively, deepest loyalty, most loathsome self-interest, and opportunistic vengeance. It seems that David’s prior sojourn in Gath has won him the loyalty of a considerable number of Gittites. One of them, Ittai by name, now articulates what love means when it links one warrior to another:
All his officials passed by him; and all the Cherethites, and all the Pelethites, and all the six hundred Gittites who had followed him from Gath, passed on before the king. Then the king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why are you also coming with us? Go back, and stay with the king; for you are a foreigner, and also an exile from your home. You came only yesterday, and shall I today make you wander about with us, while I go wherever I can? Go back, and take your kinsfolk with you; and may the LORD show steadfast love and faithfulness to you.” But Ittai answered the king, “As the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.” David said to Ittai, “Go then, march on.” So Ittai the Gittite marched on, with all his men and all the little ones who were with him.
Blind loyalty is perhaps always wrong. Yet there is a sighted fidelity that looks almost like it, and it is a very good thing indeed. Ittai’s unexplained solidarity with a deposed Israelite monarch puts even his own men and his ‘little ones’ at risk for the sake of its beloved object. It is the glue that makes history something nobler than iron filings duly lining up around the strongest magnetic force. When circumstance stretch men’s chesed to its breaking point, some find it thicker than blood, more enduring than the tribe, more compelling than all alternatives. The biblical anthology is capable of recognizing the nobility of this sentiment, indeed of elevating it among the virtues as the achievement of men and women under stress who might have acted more pragmatically and saved themselves hardship and calamity.
Life shaped and accelerated by nothing but market forces and ‘reality’ deified can find no space for this kind of horizontal chesed. For this reason, the dynamics of the tribe seem brutal and primitive to us, for we cannot understand where their energy comes from. One step beyond the centipretal forces of blood loyalty lies the uncommon fealty of an Ittai. His self-exposing, anti-protective moral heroism seems almost absurd. Not only is he possessed of loyalties like those of the tribe but he steps beyond even these to proclaim a kind of tribal solidarity with one who shares neither his blood nor his dialect.
David urges him to return to his own, where such love finds its natural place. Gittai proclaims a deeper truth. David, at this stage in his troubled, richly-nuanced life, recognizes Gittai’s truth for what it is. Unencumbered by the leveling of life to self-interest and greed, David can speak his dusty, stumbling ‘so be it, then’ to Gittai’s truth. He will walk, humiliated by his son and his own paternal failure, into a kind of exile writ small. Yet he will not go alone. Gittai and his little ones go too.