Category Archives: Biblical names

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Artistic rendering of Joab, son of Zeruiah, King David's military commander
Artistic rendering of Joab, son of Zeruiah, King David’s military commander

Joab, the “Mama’s Boy”?

However one evaluates Joab, there can be no doubt that 2 Samuel characterizes him as one of the toughest men in David’s court. Given this “tough-guy” image, it might seem surprising to describe Joab as a “mama’s boy”; yet the author frequently refers to him and his brothers as the “son(s) of Zeruiah.” Of course, the modern expression “mama’s boy” and Joab’s actual demeanor are worlds apart: Joab is no “sissy”! Still, the author’s repeated use of this label (fifteen times in 1 and 2 Samuel) deserves consideration. (The passages are 1 Sam. 26:6; 2 Sam. 2:13, 18; 3:39; 8:16; 14:1; 16:9, 10; 17:25–here Zeruiah is described as the mother of Joab– 2 Sam. 18:2; 19:21, 22; 21:17; 23:18, and 37.)

David’s Sister Zeruiah

1 Chronicles 2:16 reveals that Zeruiah is a sister of David, thus making Joab and her other sons David’s nephews. If “son(s) of Zeruiah” was used by the author to establish a family connection with David, surely once, or at most a few times, would have been sufficient. Like the designation “son of Ner” that frequently accompanies Abner (see my article The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner), one wonders whether the phrase “son(s) of Zeruiah” has another function in the narrative. While Joab’s father might have died prematurely (2 Sam. 2:32), or perhaps “the ancient custom of tracing descent by the female line [has] been preserved in this case,” (see note 1 below) it does not explain the frequency of this description. David’s use of this expression suggests a deeper meaning. For example, he uses it several times in a derogatory manner (2 Sam. 3:39; 16:10; 19:22). Presumably, David is not reminding himself of a family connection in all these contexts. His disparaging remarks suggest there is more to this designation than meets the eye.

The Meaning of Zeruiah

In a painting by Tissot, Joab & Abner oversee a contest in Gibeon between the soldiers of Israel and Judah in which 24 die.
In a painting by Tissot, Joab & Abner oversee a contest in Gibeon between the soldiers of Israel and Judah in which 24 die.

The meaning of “Zeruiah” has not received much attention from scholars; thus, I am treading on virgin territory here. Part of the difficulty is that there are several possible Hebrew roots from which the name could be derived. It is thought that the basic meaning is “balm.” (see note 2 below) If this is accurate, then “Zeruiah” would refer to a balm often used for medicinal purposes (cf. Jer. 8:22). This would associate her name with the positive qualities of healing. David’s use of the name could be considered ironic, since he uses it in contexts where the “sons of Zeruiah” have either murdered, or desire to kill, someone. These men want no “balm” for healing others; their spirit is quite the opposite!

Another feature of Hebrew names is that they often play off the meaning of other words with similar sounds. This is true of such names as Peninnah, Hophni, Phinehas, and Samuel (see my article Peninnah: The Other Woman). The consonants in the name Zeruiah are similar to two words that can mean: “showing hostility,” “distress,” “adversary,” “foe,” “hard,” and “rock” (see note 3 below). These meanings are apropos to the actions and demeanor of Joab and his brothers. In fact, several contexts in 2 Samuel link words with these meanings to the expression “sons of Zeruiah.”

In 2 Samuel 2:14, as the armies of Israel and Judah meet, Abner proposes to Joab a combat involving twelve men from each side. After all are killed in the combat, the field is named “Field of Flints.” The word “flint” comes from a word that means “rock” or “hard.” It is sometimes used to describe a knife or sword (Exod. 4:25; Josh. 5:2, 3). The reference to the “Field of Flints” is surrounded by references to the “son(s) of Zeruiah” (vv. 13, 18). The words “flint” and “Zeruiah” sound similar, and this would catch the ear of someone reading in Hebrew. Furthermore, there is a conceptual link between these words, as the sons of Zeruiah are well known for their use of the sword.

Another passage which associates the sons of Zeruiah with “hardness” is 2 Samuel 3:39. Following the murder of Abner, David declares, “and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are harder than me” (my translation). A different Hebrew word is used here to describe the “hardness” of Joab and Abishai. The important point here is that David connects the expression “sons of Zeruiah” with the quality of hardness.

Finally, in 2 Samuel 19:22 David rebukes Abishai by referring to him as an “adversary” or “accuser” (satan). In this context, satan is parallel to the expression “sons of Zeruiah.” Although 2 Samuel 3:39 and 19:22 express David’s point of view, this phrase suggests a certain “hardness” or “adversarial” role that characterizes Joab and his brother, in contrast to David.

In summary, the description “son(s) of Zeruiah” may originally have had a connotation of “healing,” but its relationship to similar-sounding words, as well as the actions and demeanor of the brothers themselves, suggests the meaning of “hard” or “adversary” in some contexts. Joab’s characterization throughout 2 Samuel shows him to be a ruthless individual, thus “hard” is an appropriate description of him. Furthermore, he is constantly pictured in an adversarial role to David. Therefore, the use of “son(s) of Zeruiah” throughout the narrative of 2 Samuel seems to lend itself to these meanings.

(The above article is an excerpt [with minor editorial changes] from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.)

 Family Portraits photoFamily Portraits is available through Amazon USA / UK and WestBow Press, as well as Logos.com

Footnotes

1. D. Harvey, “Zeruiah,” IDB, vol. 4, p. 956. F. H. Cryer, “David’s Rise to Power and the Death of Abner: and Analysis of 1 Samuel 26:14–16 and Its Redaction-Critical Implications,” VT 35, (1985), pp. 388-389, n. 9, supposes the probable death of Zeruiah’s husband and states, “It is thus likely that Zeruiah then returned to live in her father’s house (cf. Gen. xxxviii 11), and her children will then have assumed her name in acknowledgement of their special status. It may further be pointed out, with R. R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven, Conn., 1977), that Semitic genealogies have a habit of shifting in order to align their members towards the centres of political power, so it is possible that the ‘Zeruiah connexion’ was an effort in this direction.”

2. Harvey, “Zeruiah,” and Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB), p. 863.

3. The words are tsur and tsrr. See BDB, pp. 849 and pp. 864-866, respectively.

Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names

Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names

When Saul slaughtered the priests at Nob, Abiathar managed to escape with the ephod and flee to David (1 Sam. 23:6)
When Saul slaughtered the priests at Nob, Abiathar managed to escape with the ephod and flee to David (1 Sam. 23:6)

Abiathar was a high priest during the reign of David (2 Sam. 20:25). Although he appears frequently in the narratives of 1&2 Samuel, he is a minor character. He never speaks in the narrative, except once indirectly when it is said that he informed David of Saul’s slaughter of the priests (1 Sam. 22:21). The main importance of Abiathar is that he provides a way for David to communicate with God. When he escapes from the slaughter of the priests, we are informed that he brought the ephod with him (1 Sam. 23:6). The ephod was a priestly garment which contained pockets in which the Urim and Thummim were kept (Exod. 28:28-30). In some way, not exactly clear to us, the high priest used these items to determine God’s will.

 

Family Portraits photoAlthough no particular attention is drawn to the meaning of Abiathar’s name in the narrative, its various meanings fit the context of 1&2 Samuel quite nicely. The following is an excerpt on the meanings of Abiathar’s name from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1&2 Samuelincluding a few explanatory comments in parentheses.

One of the most intriguing things about Abiathar is his name, which has an interesting range of meaning. “āḇ” means “father” in Hebrew. The second part of his name comes from the Hebrew word yāṯār meaning “remainder,” or “what is left over,” and is also related to the idea of “abundance.” Therefore, his name can mean “the father’s (God’s) abundance,” or “the father’s remnant.”

Both of these meanings have an important relationship to what we have learned about Eli’s family in 1 Samuel (see Family Portraits here for more detail). When yāṯār is translated as “abundance,” it can be used as “a technical sacrificial term that always occurs in conjunction with the liver” (cf. Exod. 29:13, 22; Lev. 3:4, 10, 15). It refers to an appendage or covering of fat that is to be sacrificed along with the liver” (emphasis mine).

It might be recalled that Eli’s family has a notorious history concerning “fat” (1 Sam. 2:16, 29; 4:18). In addition, the word for “liver” is from the word kāḇēḏ (the word “heavy” in the Eli story). This is not to suggest that Abiathar is guilty of stealing the fat as Eli and his sons did, at least not literally (I explore the potential ramifications for this later in the chapter however). Rather, his name may be a celebration of the “abundance” that his family had experienced since the destruction at Shiloh. In spite of the fact that people like Ichabod, Ahitub, and Ahijah may have died prematurely, 1 Samuel 22:18 tells us that the house of Eli consisted of 85 men before the destruction at Nob. Therefore, “Abiathar” may be an expression of thanks for God’s “abundance,” in spite of the prophecy of doom which hung over the family. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to note that the idea of “fat” continues to follow the family of Eli. However, this “fatness” becomes “leanness” when Saul kills all the priests at Nob except Abiathar, which leads to a consideration of the second meaning of Abiathar’s name.

Because the word yāṯār carries the meaning “what is left over” it can refer to “excess” (hence “fat”), or to “what remains,” which invokes the idea of scarcity. This word is sometimes used interchangeably with another Hebrew word which means “remnant” (shaʾar). Therefore, yāṯār can be used in the sense of “few,” or even “none” (e.g., Exod. 10:15; 2 Kgs. 4:43-44). This meaning is, of course, very applicable to the name “Abiathar” after the destruction of the priests at Nob, since he alone escapes (1 Sam. 22:20).

Abiathar’s “aloneness” is confirmation of the prophetic word of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-35), but it is also a word of grace. The concept of “remnant” in Scripture is set within the context of grace. The idea is that, in spite of mankind’s wickedness, God does not utterly destroy, but always leaves himself a remnant. In the days of Ahab and Jezebel, God tells Elijah that he has reserved for himself a remnant of 7,000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). The concept of a godly remnant is also very important to the book of Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 7:3). Discussing the biblical principle of the remnant, Paul writes, “Even so at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). So while Abiathar’s name is a reminder of the judgment that fell on the house of Eli, it is also a reminder of God’s grace. (Family Portraits, pp. 89-91).

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK and WestBow Press and Logos.com

The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner

The Importance of Biblical Names

Biblical names frequently have significance to the story in which they occur.
Biblical names frequently have significance to the story in which they occur.

Although, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” the same cannot be said for biblical names. Most who study the Scripture are aware that biblical names have significance. A name may say something about a character’s personality, or contribute in some way to the narrative in which that person appears. One of the most obvious examples of this is the name Jesus. Matthew relates the following instructions by the angel of the Lord to Joseph: “You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Of course the name, Jesus, or in Hebrew, Yeshua, comes from the word “to save,” and means “He will save.” On a few occasions, names are purposely changed in Scripture to suggest that person’s destiny, as in the case of Abram’s name being changed to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), or Jacob’s name being changed to Israel (Gen. 32:27-28). The same is true in the New Testament, where Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (Matt. 16:17-18).

I have found in my own experience in Bible study that names usually have some significance for the narrative in which they are found. Sometimes the biblical authors draw attention to the significance of the name (as in the cases above), but more frequently, the reader is left to see the significance for him or herself. For those who would have originally read these texts in Hebrew or Greek, the meanings of these names and how they relate to a particular story, or carry a particular significance, would have been more obvious. But since all of us are separated from the original culture of the Bible–being some two-to-three thousand years removed from it–and since a majority don’t read the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek, the significance of many biblical names goes unnoticed.

From time to time on this website I’ll be posting articles on biblical names whose significance might not always be clear to those reading an English Bible. I’ve decided to launch this series by looking at the biblical character Abner, and the meaning of his name. Abner was the cousin or uncle of Saul (it’s not quite clear which he was), and commander of Israel’s army. The following information consists of several excerpts from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel (the excerpts are placed in italics with a few minor alterations for the sake of this article). The excerpts are taken from the chapter entitled: “Abner: Strong Man in a Weak House.”

Abner: The King-maker

The biblical name, Abner, means, "My father is a lamp." The photo above is an example of an ancient Hebrew lamp.
The biblical name, Abner, means, “My father is a lamp.”

Abner’s name means, “my father is Ner,” (the first time Abner’s name occurs in the Hebrew text, it is spelled “Abiner.” Abi = “my father”). On nine occasions he is called “the son of Ner” (the passages are: 1 Sam. 14:50; 26:5, 14; 2 Sam. 2:8, 12; 3:23, 25, 28, 37). The name Ner, however, means “lamp,” and thus “Abner” means, “my father is a lamp.” In my opinion, it is interesting that “ner” is found in the name “Abner,” and also that he is called the “son of Ner” nine times! This seems excessive by any stretch, and suggests that the author has a deliberate reason for including it so many times. The word “lamp” is used on several occasions in the books of Samuel and Kings to refer to kingship (2 Sam. 21:17; 1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19), and several verses hint at the fact that Saul’s family was desirous of the kingship from the beginning (1 Sam. 9:20–21; 10:14–16). Abner is not only a powerful man, but, as we shall see, also a man who likes to wield power. Therefore, it is no accident that this man (whose name means “My father is a lamp”—think “king”) is introduced as the king’s right-hand-man, and later will fancy himself as a king-maker (2 Sam. 2:8; 3:12). The story of Abner is intimately connected with the story of the “ner ” (lamp/kingship) of Israel. (Family Portraits, pp. 136-137)

Abner Makes Ish-bosheth King (2 Samuel 2:8-9)

Following the death of Saul, David is anointed king in Hebron over Judah (2 Sam. 2:1–3). This could have been an opportunity for the entire nation to unite under David’s leadership, but instead we are informed that “Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim; and he made him king” (vv. 8– 9a). Note the two ways Abner is identified in verse 8. First, Abner is called the “son of Ner”—as if we need reminding! This is the first of six uses of this appellative in 2 Samuel 2–3, its high concentration suggesting its connection with kingship. As “son of Ner” Abner acts as king-maker. Second, Abner is identified as “commander of Saul’s army.” It is his rank and the loyalty of his troops that give him the ability to make Ish-bosheth king. (Family Portraits, pp. 139-140)

Abner Seeks to Make David King of All Israel (2 Samuel 3:12-21)

After agreeing to bring Israel to David, Abner departs in peace only to be murdered by Joab.
After agreeing to bring Israel to David, Abner departs in peace only to be murdered by Joab.

Following a break with Ish-bosheth (probably because Abner realizes that David is much stronger and will soon rule all of Israel), Abner seeks to bring all Israel under David’s rule. After rallying the support of Benjamin, Saul’s own tribe, Abner sets off with a delegation to seal the deal (v. 19). Once again Abner regards himself as a king-maker, as he says, “I will arise and I will go, and I will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires” (my translation—v. 21). Note the triple “I” with Abner as subject, balanced by the triple “you” referring to David. Abner is proclaiming that he is the one who will make David’s dreams of kingship come true. Furthermore, it is probably not accidental that the appellative “son of Ner” is found on people’s lips four times in this section (v. 23, a soldier; v. 25, Joab; v. 28, David; v. 37, the narrator), reminding us that the “lamp man” is at work once again, attempting to put his own stamp on the kingship of Israel (Family Portraits, pp. 148-149).

Conclusion: Biblical Names Can Enhance the Meaning of a Character or Passage

In conclusion, Abner’s name contributes to his actions in the story. Just as he is constantly seeking to have a say in who will be king, so his name, Abner son of Ner, declares that he sees himself as a king-maker. The irony in Abner’s name is that he resists the real king (David) and when he finally reconciles himself to David’s kingship, it is too late. Joab’s sword puts an end to any hopes that Abner might have had of being second-in-command, or perhaps of manipulating David the way he had Ish-bosheth. Abner always backed the wrong horse. First it was Saul, then it was Ish-bosheth. This so-called “king-maker” did not recognize the real king until it was too late. And thus, Abner’s own name reveals that he is not the man he, and perhaps others, thought he was.

For more information on Abner, pick up a copy of Family Portraits. Family Portraits is available through Amazon USA / UK and WestBow Press, as well as Logos.com