Category Archives: Character Studies

Who Was Bathsheba? How Intertextuality helps

Who Was Bathsheba? How Intertextuality helps

Bathsheba
Bathsheba

Discerning Bathsheba’s character has proven to be challenging to Bible readers and scholars. Today’s Western culture has also made any evaluation of Bathsheba, an extremely sensitive issue. Note these two contrasting posts I discovered on the internet (David, Bathsheba, and Woke Exegesis, and Bathsheba Naked).  Scholars have assigned various labels to Bathsheba. She has been characterized as a clever and calculating woman by some and a naive, or foolish woman by others. Still others would characterize her as a victim of the abusive power of kingship.

What makes an evaluation of Bathsheba so difficult is that the text offers very little information about her. The following array of questions taken from my book Family Portraits, illustrates how little we know.

“Did Bathsheba position herself in a place where she knew David would be able to see her or does his vantage point on the roof of the palace allow him viewing access into the privacy of her home or courtyard? Is Bathsheba’s bath in verse 2 connected to the statement of her purifying herself in verse 4? Does the statement, “she was cleansed from her impurity” (v. 4) refer to the end of her menstrual cycle, or to bathing after having intercourse with David? Is Bathsheba a foreigner or an Israelite? Why does David send for her knowing that she is a trusted soldier’s wife? Why does Bathsheba come? Does David take her by force, or does she come willingly?” (p. 231)

Intertextuality to the Rescue

The above subtitle probably promises more than it is able to deliver, but nonetheless, intertextuality is an important resource that provides insight. In last week’s post (Allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel), I noted how intertextuality (sometimes referred to as typology) can be a fruitful avenue that allows Scripture to interpret Scripture. In Bathsheba’s case, there are two important texts within the Books of Samuel that provide fertile ground for better understanding this enigmatic person. Both texts share similar themes, motifs, and words with the David and Bathsheba story in 2 Samuel 11. The two texts also involve two other women. The first, 1 Samuel 25, is the story of Abigail, another of David’s wives acquired from another man. The second, 2 Samuel 13, the story of Tamar, David’s daughter, follows immediately upon the story of David and Bathsheba.

Bathsheba Through the Eyes of Abigail (1 Sam. 25; 2 Sam. 11)

(The following paragraphs on Abigail and Tamar are excerpted from my book Family Portraits, pp. 239-243, with a few minor changes.)

Abigail intercedes with David to save the life of her household.

Many scholars have noted the connection between the stories of Abigail and Bathsheba. In some ways Abigail’s account is a mirror image of Bathsheba’s story with a few interesting twists (This observation, and some of the insights that follow, are from Adele Berlin, “Characterization in Biblical Narrative: David’s Wives, JSOT, 23, 1982, pp. 69-85). Both are married when David meets them and both become his wife after the death of their respective husbands. Abigail’s husband is an evil man, Bathsheba’s a good one. Abigail’s words that the one who fights the Lord’s battles should not be guilty of “evil” (1 Sam. 25:28–31), anticipate David’s actions in 2 Samuel 11 (see esp. v. 27).  At the nadir of his power, a woman saves him; at the height of his power, he is imperiled by a woman (Joel Rosenberg, King and Kin, p. 152). Nabal commits a foolish act potentially leading to his death at the hands of David, but Abigail intercedes and saves him thus saving David from shedding innocent blood. Uriah is innocent, yet Bathsheba commits (or is coerced into committing) a foolish act which leads to his death. David becomes guilty of shedding innocent blood and she does nothing (perhaps can do nothing) to prevent it. When a crisis strikes, Abigail knows what to do, Bathsheba does not. Nabal refuses to take from his abundant flocks and so does David (2 Sam. 12:1-6). Both Abigail and Bathsheba are said to be beautiful women (different Hebrew words).

A survey of these stories also demonstrates that they share a host of similar vocabulary. The following list is a sample of these similarities with Scripture references to Abigail’s story occurring first (1 Sam. 25), followed by those in the Bathsheba story (2 Sam. 11–12):

David sends and inquires (25:5; 11:4, 6–7)

David sends messengers (25:14, 42; 11:4)

David takes (25:40; 11:4)

Nabal is evil in his doings; David does evil (25:3; 11:27)

evil should not be found in David; David commits evil (25:28; 11:27)

threefold use of “peace” (25:6; 11:7)

sword (25:13; 11:25; 12:9, 10)

dead or died (25:37, 38, 39; 11:15, 17, 21, 24, 26)

wash the feet (25:41; 11:8)

descend (25:23; 11:8–13)

morning (25:22, 34, 37; 11:14)

drinking and being drunk (25:36; 11:11, 13)

swearing an oath, “As the Lord lives…” (25:26, 34; 11:11)

wall (25:16; 11:20, 21, 24)

“hasten” and “tomorrow”—same letters in Hebrew (25:18, 23; 11:12)

Although words are often used in different ways between the two stories, and some occurrences may be coincidental, the similarities are striking. In particular, David’s sending messengers, the threefold use of the word “peace,” the words “sword” and “dead,” the description of Nabal and David doing “evil,” and the phrase “wash the feet” (which only occurs in these two passages in the books of Samuel), strongly suggest correspondences between these two accounts. The correlation of theme and vocabulary indicates that a comparison between Abigail and Bathsheba would be fruitful and might unveil some of the ambiguity present in Bathsheba’s character in 2 Samuel 11.

Carole Fontaine has noted “the clustering of typical wisdom motifs in vocabulary and theme” found in 2 Samuel 11–12 (The Bearing of Wisdom on the Shape of 2 Samuel 11-12, and 1 Kings 3, JSOT, 34, 1986, pp. 61-77). In a previous chapter we observed that the story of Abigail also contains vocabulary and motifs consistent with the themes of wisdom and folly (Chapter 18 of Family Portraits). This recognition creates yet another link between the stories of Abigail and Bathsheba. The most ironic contrast between the two is that Abigail’s action saves her “good-for-nothing” husband Nabal from death, while Bathsheba’s action sends her good husband Uriah to his death. This contrast highlights the wisdom motif of the woman who brings death. Fontaine notes the similarity of language in Proverbs 6:22 with the opening of the story in 2 Samuel 11. Speaking of the commandments and teachings of one’s parents (which ultimately derive from the Lord), Proverbs 6:22 states, “When you walk they will lead you; when you lie down they will watch over you” (ESV). I have highlighted the words “walk” and “lie down” because they are precisely the words that characterize David’s action in 2 Samuel 11:2, 4. The proverb goes on to warn that the commandment will “preserve you from the evil woman, from the smooth tongue of the adulteress. Do not desire her beauty in your heart” (Prov. 6:24–25a). The proverb continues,

Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes into his neighbor’s wife; None who touches her will go unpunished. (Prov. 6:27–29, ESV)

The correspondences, though not exact, cannot help but make one think of the David and Bathsheba affair. While Bathsheba may not have intentionally seduced David she is, nonetheless, the woman who brings death, not to her fellow adulterer in this case, but to her husband. The counterpart of the adulteress in Proverbs 6 is “Woman Wisdom” in Proverbs 9. Similarly, Bathsheba’s act foolishly puts her husband in harm’s way while Abigail acts wisely in saving her husband. When one adds up Bathsheba’s naiveté and passivity the sum total is foolishness.

It is not just these similarities, however, that associate Bathsheba with the woman who brings death; a reference within the story of chapter 11 also suggests this equation. When Joab sends a messenger back to David with the news of Uriah’s death, he refers to the story of Abimelech in Judges 9 (2 Sam. 11:21). Uriah has just died because the Israelite army got too close to the city wall. Similarly, Abimelech, the petty tyrant king of Shechem, died when he got too close to the city wall and a woman cast a millstone on his head (Judg. 9:50–54). This may have become a proverbial story in Israel about the dangers of getting too close to an enemy’s wall and may explain why Joab anticipates David citing it. Within the context of the story, however, it takes on a deeper meaning, for it was Bathsheba’s act of lying with David that directly resulted in Uriah’s death at the foot of the wall in Rabbah. Like the other correspondences, this one is not exact. It is simply one more nail in the coffin that convicts Bathsheba of a foolish action.

Bathsheba Through the Eyes of Tamar (2 Sam. 11 and 13)

Tamar and Amnon
The terrible story of Tamar and Amnon provides a comparison for evaluating Bathsheba’s character.

The story of Amnon and Tamar in 2 Samuel 13 is the sequel to the story of David and Bathsheba. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Lord’s word of judgment in 2 Samuel 12:11: “Behold I will raise up evil against you from your own house” (my translation). Just as David has illicit sex in his house, so too does his son Amnon. Verbs once again draw a parallel between the actions of father and son. Just as David “sent” for Bathsheba, so he innocently “sends” his daughter Tamar to Amnon’s house (13:7). Ironically Amnon “lies down” on his “bed” (13:5), the posture David was in at the beginning of 2 Samuel 11:2. The word “lie” also describes Amnon’s sin (13:11, 14), as it does David’s (11:4). Wisdom motifs and vocabulary are once again prevalent in 2 Samuel 13, indicating a further link with chapters 11–12. These parallels once again suggest that we may profit from a comparison between Bathsheba and Tamar in order to gain a clearer understanding of her character.

Like Bathsheba, Tamar is said to be beautiful (13:1, although a different Hebrew word is used). Tamar is sent by David to Amnon’s house in order to make him some food so that he might recover from his “illness” (13:6–8). She remains unsuspecting of any ulterior motive, even when Amnon orders everyone else out of the house and tells her to come into his bedroom (13:9–10). Our portrait of Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 proposed that she was naive (not included in this post but explored earlier in my examination of 2 Sam. 11); may we suggest that the parallel with Tamar adds weight to that proposal? We also inferred the possibility that Bathsheba may not have known why she was sent for. The same is true of Tamar. She believes she was sent to minister to her sick brother; the true purpose of her visit has been concealed from her. Here, however, the similarities end. When Amnon forcefully expresses his intentions, Tamar protests (13:12–13). Her language invokes the words “fool” and “folly” as she tries to dissuade her brother from his predetermined course of action. We note an important difference here between Tamar and Bathsheba. The words describing Bathsheba’s actions in 11:4–5 gave no hint of resistance, and certainly the text records no words of protest. Tamar protests the foolish act being forced upon her; Bathsheba acquiesces. Once again a comparison of stories yields a verdict of foolishness in regard to Bathsheba.

Scripture affirms the importance of more than one witness in determining a conviction (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Although Bathsheba’s portrait in 2 Samuel 11 is ambiguous, there is enough circumstantial evidence to suggest a certain understanding of her character. The witness of Abigail and Tamar seems to solidify our suggestion that Bathsheba is a naive and passive woman who does not have the wisdom or strength to extricate herself from a dangerous situation. If we were to hold court on Bathsheba’s character, based on the evidence of 2 Samuel 11 and our two witnesses, we would have to conclude she is not a cunning, manipulative, or malicious person. She is simply foolish. (end of section from Family Portraits)

As I noted parenthetically above, the chapter on Bathsheba in my book also explores the scene in 2 Samuel 11 which is not included here. The point here is to demonstrate the insights that can be gained from investigating texts with similar themes, motifs, and words. Hopefully, this post has demonstrated that a look at the stories of Abigail and Tamar can provide insight into the, otherwise, ambiguous character of Bathsheba.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.Family Portraits

 

Allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel

Allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel

Meeting of Jacob and Rachel
“The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel” by William Dyce (mid-nineteenth century).

Rachel is one of the matriarchs of Israel. As such, she plays an important role in the unfolding story of the Book of Genesis. Rachel is best known as the beloved wife of Jacob (Gen. 29:18-20), and the mother of Joseph (Gen. 30:22-24). Other famous episodes in her life include the rivalry between her and her sister Leah (Gen. 30:8), her stealing the household gods of her father Laban (Gen. 31:19), and the birth of her second born son Benjamin which results in her death (Gen. 35:16-20). Many readers of 1 Samuel may be unaware of the numerous allusions to Rachel in its pages. Since Rachel lived approximately 800 years before the events recorded in 1 Samuel, what is the significance of the constant allusions to her? A brief discussion of typology, or intertextuality, as it is frequently referred to, is necessary to answer this question. Then we will look at each occurrence in 1 Samuel that alludes to Rachel and seek to understand its significance.

Typology, or Intertextuality in the Bible

I have written more extensively on the topic of typology elsewhere (see here). Peter Leithart provides a good succinct definition. He writes, “Typology means that earlier characters and events are understood as figures of later characters and events, and the text is written in a way that brings out the connection” (Peter Leithart, “A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1&2 Samuel,” p. 13). As I explained in my post on typology: “Biblical authors intentionally recall earlier stories, characters, and events as a way of commenting on the story, character, or event they are relating. The student of the Bible is being invited to compare the stories or characters in order to notice these similarities and differences. Through this comparison, the reader gains insight into what the biblical author is communicating. This is especially helpful when one is trying to understand a particular biblical character.” This practice or technique is what is meant by intertextuality. To put it simply, it is using Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Texts Alluding to Rachel in 1 Samuel and Their Meaning

Hannah and Rachel

Hannah and Peninnah
The conflict between Hannah and Peninnah recalls the conflict between Rachel and Leah.

1 Samuel begins with an immediate allusion to Rachel. Elkanah’s marriage to Hannah and Peninnah recalls Jacob’s marriage to Rachel and Leah (1 Sam. 1:1-6). This allusion is further solidified by the fact that one woman is barren (Hannah/Rachel) and one is fertile (Leah/Peninnah), which leads to conflict between them. Robert Polzin (Samuel and the Deuteronomist), followed by Keith Bodner (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary), suggests that the birth story of Samuel (the kingmaker) looks forward to the birth of kingship in Israel. There are a number of connections in 1 Sam. 1 with 1 Sam. 8-9. The conflict between the women leads Bodner to conclude: “The advent of kingship in Israel will also produce conflict, and at this point in the story this conflict is symbolically represented in Hannah and Peninnah” (p. 16).

Ichabod and Rachel

Rachel dies giving birth
The Birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel by D. Chiesura.

The birth of Ichabod in 1 Samuel 4:19-22 contains the next allusion to Rachel. When the daughter-in-law of Eli hears of his death, the death of her husband (Phinehas), and the capture of the ark, she is overcome with premature labor and gives birth. The birth is difficult and results in her death. Before dying, however, she gives her son a strange name–Ichabod–which means, “the glory has departed.” These circumstances bear some resemblance to the story of Rachel giving birth to Benjamin. It should also be noted that the man who delivers the bad tidings in 1 Sam. 4 is “a man from Benjamin” (1 Sam. 4:12). When Rachel gives birth, she too dies, and in the process, she also gives her son an unusual name with a sad meaning. Benjamin’s original name as given by Rachel is Ben-Oni which means “son of my sorrow.” Apparently Jacob did not wish his son to be stuck with such a negative legacy and so changed his name to Benjamin (Gen. 35:18). In my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, I suggest the following application: “The parallel between the two birth stories may lie in the contrast they provide to one another. Ben-Oni does not properly reflect the future of Jacob’s family, and so Jacob changes his son’s name to Benjamin. However, the name, Ichabod, stands because it is a true reflection of the situation—“the glory has departed” (p. 77). It should be remembered that Saul is a Benjamite. Barbara Green (How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, p. 145) points out that the news the man from Benjamin brings leads to the mother’s death and the outcry of the people. Is this perhaps a harbinger of the problems that Saul’s kingship will bring upon Israel? It is interesting that a few of the ancient Rabbis even identified this Benjamite as the young man Saul!

Saul and Rachel

Samuel anoints Saul
When Samuel anoints Saul, he gives him 3 signs. The first concerns Rachel’s tomb.

While the previous story of Ichabod’s birth alludes to Rachel’s death, the next story expressly mentions her tomb. After Saul is anointed by Samuel, he is given three signs to confirm his appointment. The first sign involves encountering two men by Rachel’s tomb (1 Sam. 10:2). As Saul arrives at the tomb of the matriarch of his tribe, he will receive news that the donkeys he went to seek have been found, and that his father is concerned about what has happened to him. While the immediate context confirms Samuel’s word that the Lord has anointed him, some suggest that in the bigger picture of Saul’s story the mention of Rachel’s tomb and the words of his father, may sound an ominous note. A tomb quite naturally speaks of death. Peter Miscall (1 Samuel: A Literary Reading) remarks, “…’tomb’ tips the ambiguous symbol of Benjamin toward the pole of misfortune and death” (p. 55). Regarding the father’s words, Bodner comments, “…the words of Saul’s father Kish mean more than the speaker(s) may realize. Kish says, ‘What will I do about my son?, suggesting that uncertainty clouds the future of his son” (p. 94).

Michal and Rachel

Michal's idol recalls Rachel
Michal hiding an idol in David’s bed is reminiscent of Rachel hiding idols in her saddlebag.

When Saul threatens David’s life, Michal seeks to protect him. Michal helps David out through a window in the house and then does something very interesting. She takes an idol (one wonders where she gets it), puts it in David’s bed and covers the head with goat’s hair (1 Sam. 19:11-17). When Saul’s soldiers come to take him, she claims that David is sick which allows David extra time to escape. Several features of this story recall incidents in the lives of both Jacob and Rachel. Bodner sums up the similarities: “Both of these episodes feature deceptive father-in-laws (Laban and Saul), younger daughters (Rachel and Michal), fugitive husbands (Jacob and David), and hidden idols (author’s italics, p. 206). In Family Portraits, my conclusion is: “Although Rachel is one of the matriarchs of Israel, the comparison here is not flattering. It serves to confirm that Michal’s religious devotion is misplaced” (p. 127). Michal’s possession of an idol, and lying to her father that David threatened to kill her, places her in a negative light, in spite of the fact that she saved David’s life on this occasion.

Saul and David, Rachel and Leah

In the larger picture of 1&2 Samuel we learn that Saul ,the first king, is a member of the Tribe of Benjamin. David, of course, is from the Tribe of Judah. Genesis reveals that Rachel had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. The first king of Israel is, therefore, a descendant of Rachel’s. The Tribe of Judah, however, is descended through Leah and Judah becomes the preeminent son among Leah’s progeny (Gen. 49:8-12). The conflict between David (Judah) and Saul (Benjamin) is reminiscent of the conflict between the two matriarchal mothers and sisters, Rachel and Leah. Interestingly, although Rachel was the most loved by Jacob, it was Leah who rested by him in the end, as she and Jacob were both buried in the ancestral cave at Machpelah purchased by Abraham (Gen. 49:29-31). Similarly, it was David, the descendant of Leah, persecuted by Saul, the descendant of Rachel, who triumphed in the  end.

Conclusion

Rachel is one of the revered matriarchs of Israel and deserves her place among the great women of the nation. Yet, it must be said, that her character description in Genesis, like that of her husband Jacob, is less than ideal. She is remembered for being beautiful (Gen. 29:17) and to her credit, she seeks the Lord in her barrenness and is granted a son (Gen. 30:22-24). However, she also has a fiery temper and a competitive nature driven, at least at times, by envy (Gen. 30:1-2). Rachel, like Jacob, can also be deceptive. As illustrated when she steals her father’s gods and lies about it (Gen. 31:19, 34-35).

When we turn to the allusions of Rachel in 1 Samuel, once again negativity dominates. Rachel’s comparison with Hannah is indeed a positive (both are the loved wife who is barren), but the similarity also extends to the conflict and rivalry represented in both families. The allusion between Benjamin’s birth and Ichabod’s is foreboding of difficult times ahead. If “the glory has departed” at the birth of Ichabod and he is the “new Benjamin,” then what does that forecast for the future of the tribe of Benjamin? We have already noted above that Saul’s first sign of kingship being confirmed in the vicinity of Rachel’s tomb does not seem to suggest a bright future. Finally, the similarities between Rachel and Michal are not complimentary to either, but, in the end, Rachel certainly fares better than Michal in biblical history.

Except for some aspects in the comparison with Hannah, it must be said that all of the allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel are designed to communicate a negative message. Perhaps this relates to our final point above that the kingship was ultimately not destined for a descendant of Rachel from the Tribe of Benjamin, but for a descendant of Leah from the Tribe of Judah, and this may be one of the main reasons that the inspired author draws so many allusions to her in 1 Samuel.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.Family Portraits

 

Why Abiathar Chose Adonijah and not Solomon

Why Abiathar Chose Adonijah and not Solomon

In a previous post on “gaps” (see Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives), I wrote about the importance of recognizing gaps in biblical literature. Some gaps exist because the inspired author had no interest in filling in the information. At other times, however, gaps are an artistic way in which the author draws us more deeply into the story by providing tantalizing clues which we are expected to investigate and draw conclusions about. I believe that such is the case regarding the High Priest Abiathar’s defection to David’s son Adonijah just before Solomon is crowned king (1 Kings 1-2). Although Abiathar had always been loyal to David, when David was on his deathbed he chose to side with Joab and Adonijah against Solomon, the prophet Nathan, and Benaiah (one of David’s captains). The obvious question is “Why?” I believe some of the gaps in the story can be filled in to successfully answer this question. In my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, I seek to do that. Below is an excerpt from my book which seeks to provide an answer to the mysterious actions of Abiathar. If you’d like to follow along in your Bible, some of the key verses for the following story are: 1 Kings 1:7, 19, 25, 42; 2:26–27, 35.

Excerpt From “Family Portraits”

In the chess game for Solomon’s throne, Abiathar lined up on the wrong side.

In his old age Abiathar makes the fateful error of aligning himself with the wrong man for the throne. It appears from 1 Kings 1–2 that Solomon was the choice of (both) David and God for the throne (1:17, 29–30; 2:15, 45). A look at other characters [in 1&2 Samuel] teaches us that, not only does God honor those who honor him (1 Sam. 2:30), but those who go against his anointed experience the consequences. Abiathar is an example of this. His association with God’s anointed, David, brought him blessing, but his association with Adonijah and his rejection of Solomon, the Lord’s chosen, brought judgment down on his head (1 Kings 2:26–27).

To understand why Abiathar joins Adonijah’s attempt to gain the throne from Solomon involves a little reading between the lines (due to gaps!). The text does not explicitly state Abiathar’s motive, and yet, by examining the passages that speak about him, it is possible to suggest a motive. Other passages which speak of Abiathar show him to be a loyal follower of David, who carries the ark of God (2 Sam. 15:24–36; 19:11). However, these passages also reveal that Abiathar was not the only high priest in David’s service. Zadok is also mentioned as high priest along with Abiathar, and seems to have eclipsed him in importance. Not only does Zadok’s name always appear before Abiathar’s in these texts, but when David flees from Jerusalem, it is striking that David directly addresses Zadok but never speaks to Abiathar (2 Sam. 15:24–29). It seems that Abiathar went from being David’s only high priest (during his fugitive days–see 1 Sam. 23), to playing second fiddle to Zadok during the kingdom years. It is natural to suppose that, under such circumstances, Abiathar could easily succumb to envy.

Scripture provides meager information regarding this dual high priesthood. Zadok’s first appearance in the narrative follows the conquest of Jerusalem, where he is mentioned among David’s officials (2 Sam. 8:17). Textual evidence suggests that he joined David when the kingdom was unified following Ish-bosheth’s death (1 Chron. 12:23, 28). Zadok may have been appointed high priest to appease the northern tribes and strengthen the fragile unity between north and south. Thus, this unusual situation may have resulted in the anomaly of having two high priests during David’s reign. Whether David preferred Zadok for political, religious, or other reasons, we are not told. Since Zadok was a “newcomer” to David’s regime, having formerly shown loyalty to “the kingdom of Saul” (1 Chron. 12:23), it is possible that Abiathar resented his growing importance. Abiathar’s loyal ties to Judah and Zadok’s ties to the northern tribes provide a further plausible explanation for their different allegiances at the time of Solomon’s accession.

It seems likely that Abiathar was aware of David’s oath to make Solomon king in his place (1 Kings 1:17). Yet it is clear that Solomon’s inner circle of power consisted of Nathan, Benaiah and Zadok. For Abiathar this would have meant that he, and his son Jonathan, would continue to be subordinate to Zadok. Perhaps he even feared that Zadok would become sole high priest. As a result, it is easy to see how siding with Adonijah and the “old Judahite regime”—which would recognize him as sole high priest—would be extremely tempting. And it seems he succumbed to this temptation. With Joab and David’s eldest living son, Adonijah, it must have seemed like a foolproof plan.

From this small exercise of reading between the lines, we learn an important lesson about accepting the role that God has assigned us. Grasping for power and importance is a pitfall for many. It is particularly sad to see power and status pursued within the church, and yet, as fallible human beings, like Abiathar, we sometimes succumb to this temptation. Abiathar’s example teaches us the importance of contentment. It is far better to have less power and importance and be in the will and blessing of God, than to strive for what God has not ordained for us. Abiathar’s striving took him out of God’s will and brought God’s judgment down on him. Ironically, in his desire to be the only high priest, he lost his position totally. He and his family were relegated to obscurity as he was forced to retire to his hometown of Anathoth. Like the others involved in the attempted coup, Abiathar was deserving of death. It was only the restraint of Solomon and the mercy of God that kept him from that fate (1 Kings 2:26). God is merciful, and will even show mercy when we step outside his will, but in our selfishness we can lose his best for our lives and must experience the consequences of our choices, like Abiathar.

Order Your Copy of “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel” today at Amazon USA / UK,  WestBow Press or Barnes and Noble

For other excerpts from Family Portraits, check out the articles below.

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

Anti-Trump protest in Portland erupts in violence.
Anti-Trump protest in Portland erupts in violence.

It’s been a difficult few years for America. The lines of division have been drawn sharply and the recent Presidential campaign has accentuated that division. Sadly, hateful rhetoric from a bitterly fought campaign, has now spilled out into the streets of America in the form of protests and violence. We are all aware, however, that this violence is not new. The riots sparked by the shootings of black men and the deadly assault on police officers provide the terrible proof that America was already deeply divided. Does division originate from the bottom up or the top down? In other words, what is the source of division? Some maintain that it comes from divided families and communities only to explode on a national level. Others attribute it to leaders. Perhaps apathetic leaders only concerned with keeping the status quo. Or perhaps leadership that uses harsh divisive rhetoric. Interestingly, the story of King Saul in 1 Samuel addresses this question.

A case can be made that division comes from the top and the bottom of society. In fact, the books of Samuel testify to this truth. When values are forsaken, families are damaged and when families are damaged, communities, and eventually the nation, is damaged. However, corrupt leadership also has a profound effect. “As goes the king, so goes the nation,” could be one way of summing up the stories contained in both Samuel and Kings. These truths were brought home to me a number of years ago as I researched and wrote a book on 1&2 Samuel entitled, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. I was struck through my study that a book about leadership (i.e., kingship) was also a book about families. These two themes interact so closely in 1&2 Samuel that it is impossible to separate them.

What follows is an excerpt from my book Family Portraits. This excerpt is taken from the introduction of Saul’s family (pp. 100-102). It was written long before the recent election but some of the principles in it point to lessons that are timely. What I seek to do here is provide my original words (in italics) which I will then reflect on at the end of this post in light of the recent election.

The Divisiveness of King Saul

Saul's kingship further divided the people of Israel.
Saul’s kingship further divided the people of Israel.

Saul’s family is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:1 with a four-person genealogy, reminiscent of the introduction of Samuel’s family in 1 Samuel 1:1. This similarity, as well as the narrator’s glowing introduction of Saul and his family, leads the reader to expect great things. Saul’s father, Kish, is described as a “man of valor” (“a mighty man of power”—NKJV), while Saul is twice described in positive terms—“handsome” (literally, “good”) and “taller than any of the people” (9:2). If outward appearance can be trusted, then 1 Samuel 9:1–2 holds out great hope. The discerning reader, however, has learned from Eli not to jump to conclusions too quickly.

While there are some storm clouds on the horizon, the story of Saul seems to get off to a good start (1 Sam. 9–11) before things go wrong (1 Sam. 13–31). Saul inspired the fierce loyalty of many, such as the Ziphites (23:19–24) and the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead (31:11–13). On the other hand, he could strike out violently against his own people (the priests of Nob—chap. 22), including members of his family (Jonathan, 20:30–32). As a result, even Saul’s children are torn between loyalty to their father and the “beloved” David (18:1–4, 20). Both Jonathan and Michal struggle with remaining true to their father while protecting David (19:11–17; 20:31–32). However, it must be said that Jonathan remains with his father even in death (1 Sam. 31:2); and, in spite of everything, David’s eulogy is a moving tribute of his loyalty to Saul (2 Sam. 1:19–27). Even those whom Saul pushes away are drawn to him! This tug-of-war, which results in great tensions, is an important theme in the story of Saul. Consequent divisions are not only evident in his family, but also in the nation he ruled. With the death of Saul the nation erupts in civil war (2 Sam. 3:1).

A reader can find him or herself with conflicting emotions about Saul. In spite of his failings, he evokes sympathy. Saul is not so much the sort of character you “love to hate” as the kind you “hate to love.” Interestingly, commentators are as divided over Saul as his own nation was. Some see him as a victim of a predetermined fate, while others see him as a man whose disobedience cost him a kingdom. Saul remains a divisive character to this day! Any treatment of his family must therefore reflect this truth. Saul’s ability to polarize not only extends to Jonathan, Michal and David; division follows his family even after his death. Abner and Ish-bosheth become alienated from one another (2 Sam. 3:6–11), as do Mephibosheth and Ziba (2 Sam. 19:24–27). Another descendant of Saul, Shimei, is a vocal supporter of the division caused by Absalom’s civil war (2 Sam. 16:5–13).

Jesus said, “every…house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt. 12:25). This truth is part of the reason that the house of Saul deteriorates from strength (1 Sam. 9:1) to weakness (2 Sam. 3:1). The main reason, however, is Saul’s failure to honor the Lord.

(2 paragraphs omitted from original)

family portraitsAlong with David, Saul and his family dominate the narrative of 1 Samuel chapters 9–31. David and his family are the main focus of 2 Samuel, yet Saul’s family continues to play an important role. Although a lot of material is devoted to the reign of Saul, we learn of God’s rejection of his kingship and dynasty rather quickly (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:28). This means that a major portion of the story focuses on how Saul and his family deal with this rejection, and how they treat his future replacement. This theme raises an important question that everyone must confront at sometime. How should we respond when someone is chosen or favored over us, especially when that person ends up in the position we once occupied? In Saul’s case it is not simply a matter of David being favored over him, but one in which he disqualified himself through sin. The narrative teaches us that a response of pride, envy, and a refusal to repent, leads to a dead end for Saul—quite literally!

This kind of attitude can lead one to strike out blindly against his own family (1 Sam. 20:33), contributing to its breakdown and destruction. Not only can such a mindset affect an individual, it can permeate a family. Thus all those who follow in Saul’s footsteps—Abner, Ish-bosheth, Michal, Shimei, and other descendants of Saul—meet a similar fate. Saul’s obsession to destroy David leads to the destruction of many in his family, not to mention the political chaos and destruction that accompanies it. How true it is that the one consumed with hatred ends up destroying him or herself as well as the ones he or she loves.

Hatred and bitterness will destroy a family (and a nation); but just because a family becomes consumed with animosity does not mean that every member must conform. The books of Samuel continually affirm our freedom to choose. No matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves, our attitude and response are still our choice. While Samuel has godly parents and follows the Lord, and David’s sons have a godly father but do not follow the Lord, Jonathan stands alone in these books as a godly son with an ungodly father. Ungodly parents are no excuse for children to continue down the same path. Each must make his or her own choice. Jonathan is an example to all that the cycle of ungodliness can be broken. This beautiful example, followed by his son Mephibosheth, is the silver lining in a family clouded with self-assertion and pride. While it is true that Jonathan’s loyalty leads him to die beside his father, his humility and selflessness point the way to a future for Saul’s family. Jonathan’s love and devotion to David turn the family’s fortunes from a path of hatred and death to one of life and hope. Jonathan’s example points the way for us as well.

Reflections

Unlike King Saul, America has a tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.
Unlike King Saul, America has a tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.

Although I certainly have strong political opinions like most Americans regarding the recent election, my aim here is to note some of the principles enunciated above. These biblical principles can help guide our response to, not only this election, but future behavior.

  1. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Saul looked good for the nation but turned out to be a disaster. The lesson of not being deceived by first impressions is an important message in 1&2 Samuel (I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. See HERE). Just because someone “looks good,” doesn’t mean they are. Conversely, sometimes people who make unfavorable impressions can surprise us. Admittedly, neither candidate in this recent election made a good impression. It was frequently stated that no matter which candidate won the presidency, they would go down in history as the most unpopular president ever elected. Now that the election is over, I suggest that we not jump to conclusions, but allow our judgment on the future president to be based on his performance. Does he keep his campaign promises? Does he treat others fairly? Does he seek justice? Does he promote the welfare of the country? Only the days ahead can give us clear answers to these questions.
  2. There are two reactions to losing power. One reaction is the Saul reaction–cling to power no matter what the cost. Even with a divine word to the contrary, Saul held tenaciously to power. The result was violence against individuals (David) and families (the high-priestly family), and eventual civil war among the nation. One of America’s great traditions is the peaceful transfer of power. We were reminded of this the day after the election in President Barak Obama’s speech congratulating President-elect Trump on his victory (if you haven’t seen it or need a reminder, click HERE). This peaceful transfer of power was further symbolized by President Obama’s invitation to Donald Trump to visit him at the White House the following day. For those who believe Scripture, we know that God puts kings (or leaders) in positions of power (e.g., Daniel 4:17). The books of Samuel clearly announce this at the outset in the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:6-8. A peaceful transfer of power is best for all. It is far superior to Saul’s way, and it recognizes that a Greater Power has ordained the earthly powers. America would do well to continue this tradition.
  3. Corrupt government harms a nation (I know how obvious this statement is, but you wouldn’t know it was obvious by the way most governments are run!). Saul is pictured as a leader who begins humbly and achieves a certain amount of success (1 Sam. 11). However, as Saul becomes more self-consumed his actions and policies prove detrimental to the nation of Israel. No human government is perfect, this is why Christians look forward to the rule of Christ. However, leaders should strive for “justice for all” as the America pledge of allegiance puts it. In fact, it is likely this American slogan is derived from biblical statements about the just king (e.g., 2 Sam. 8:15; Ps. 72).
  4. We need more Jonathan’s! Jonathan wasn’t worried about “what he deserved.” His humble approach was more about what was best for the nation. He was content with the position God had placed him in. His concern wasn’t winning or losing, but seeing justice and righteousness prevail. Americans would do well to follow this example and relinquish the “entitlement mentality.” As John Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” As a Christian, it goes beyond even this, asking ourselves how we can reflect God in our attitudes and actions.
  5. Beware of hateful intentions, words, and actions. Saul’s hateful response to those around him destroyed his family and caused havoc and destruction within the nation. Ironically, Saul struck out in hatred even toward those who were on his side! David was a loyal follower but became public enemy number one. Saul even threw a spear at his own son because Jonathan refused to condemn an innocent David (1 Sam. 20:32-33). All of this is evidence that hatred blinds people to the truth. Hatred destroys all in its path. If our nation is to survive, then we must be a nation that puts hatred behind us, seeking reconciliation and peace.

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Jephthah’s Daughter (Part 2): Was She Sacrificed?

 

Jephthah’s Daughter (Part 2): Was She Sacrificed?

Was Jephthah's daughter offered up as a burnt sacrifice?
Was Jephthah’s daughter offered up as a burnt sacrifice?

In my last post entitled “Jephthah’s Vow: What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?,” I noted that there are two views regarding the fate of Jephthah’s daughter: 1) He offered her as a burnt offering; or, 2) She became a lifelong virgin. In that post, I argued that he really did offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, and I sought to show the weaknesses of the arguments for the other interpretation. In this post, I will examine the strengths for the first proposal, which also happens to be the view of ancient interpreters.

Jephthah’s Daughter Was Offered as a Burnt Offering

The theme of Judges, not only a cycle, but a downward spiral, supports the reading that Jephthah's daughter was offered as a burnt sacrifice.
The theme of Judges, not only a cycle, but a downward spiral, supports the reading that Jephthah’s daughter was offered as a burnt sacrifice.

Context–The interpretation that Jephthah’s daughter was offered as a burnt offering best fits the context of the Book of Judges. Judges 2:11-19 sets forth the theme of the Book which involves, not just a cycle of apostasy, but a downward spiral of apostasy. This is clearly conveyed in Judges 2:19 which states, “And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers….” Those, like Hugenberger, who take a more positive view of the Judges, note that it is the people who are portrayed as corrupt, not the judges themselves, in this opening statement. While there is some truth to this observation, especially with the earlier judges, the later judges clearly show evidence of both spiritual and moral degeneration. I will illustrate this degeneration in the character of the judges by noting important parallels and contrasts between Gideon and Jephthah in my second argument below.

The characters in the Book of Judges should be compared and contrasted to understand the message of the book.
The characters in the Book of Judges should be compared and contrasted to understand the message of the book.

Character parallels and contrasts–This is actually a subcategory of Context, but I have set it apart to illustrate one of the techniques used by the inspired author in showing the degeneration of the judges themselves. Using Jephthah as an example, the reader is clearly expected to compare Gideon’s treatment of the Ephraimites (Judg. 8:1-3) with Jephthah’s (Judg. 12:1-7). Each of these passages share a number of similarities including, the theme of contention, the fact that it is the tribe of Ephraim which confronts the judge/deliverer in both instances, and the importance of the expression “the fords of the Jordan.” When Gideon’s diplomatic response is compared to Jephthah’s savage treatment of the Ephraimites, it becomes obvious that Jephthah is no Gideon. Of course this does not mean that Gideon is any model of morality. Gideon also kills Israelites, but instead of nearly wiping out whole tribes, he only wipes out towns! (Judg. 8:14-17). Ironically, the towns that Gideon wipes out are in the territory that Jephthah will later exercise leadership over, thus making another connection between the two. The upshot of this comparison is: if Gideon’s actions were bad, Jephthah’s were much worse.

Jephthah's daughter by Rombout Van Troyen (1643)
Jephthah’s daughter by Rombout Van Troyen (1643)

In spite of the good that both men are capable of, they not only show the effects of moral degeneration, but also of spiritual degeneration. When Gideon is first called by the Lord, he destroys the altar of Baal and the Asherah in his hometown (Judg. 6:25-32). However, toward the latter stages of his judgeship, he leads Israel back into idolatry (Judg. 8:27) and by the time of his death, Israel has come full-circle and is once again worshipping the Baals (Judg. 8:33). This same pattern can be found in Jephthah’s story. Jephthah’s deliverance from the Ammonites begins with a stirring rendition of Israel’s history, demonstrating that he has a good grasp of what God has accomplished for His people. However, Jephthah’s vow to offer “whatever comes out of the doors of my house” (Judg. 11:31–see below for more on this), shows that he has been influenced by the religious ideas of his enemies. The Ammonites and Moabites (both mentioned in Jephthah’s historical recital), whose gods were, respectively, Molech and Chemosh, were well-known for offering up human sacrifice (e.g., Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; 2 Kgs. 3:26-27). Just as Canaanite culture rubbed off on Gideon, leading him back into idolatry, so, it appears, Ammonite/Moabite culture had an effect on Jephthah. Both Gideon and Jephthah worshipped Yahweh, but both allowed their worship of Him to become corrupted by the influence of the surrounding culture.

Although the language is ambiguous, the words "to meet" more likely suggest a person, than an animal.
Although the language is ambiguous, the words “to meet” more likely suggest a person, than an animal.

Human more likely than animal–Since animals were usually kept on the bottom floor of Israelite houses, it has been asserted that Jephthah was thinking of an animal when he stated, “Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). While it is true that “whatever” is ambiguous and can refer to an animal or human being, a number of scholars note that the words “to meet me,” are “more applicable to a human being than an animal” (Barry Webb, The Book of Judges, NICOT, p. 329). Furthermore, it was customary in the ancient world for people to greet the returning victors. In Israel this was frequently done with song (Exod. 15; 1 Sam. 18:6-7). McCann sums up the content of Jephthah’s vow when he writes, “While animals may have lived in the house in those days, so did people! Jephthah, the smart and skilled negotiator of 11:12-28, surely should have foreseen all the possibilities. Thus, given the literary context, the attempt to give Jephthah the benefit of the doubt only makes him look worse–stupid and thoughtless, as well as unfaithful” (J. Clinton McCann, Judges, Interpretation Commentary, pp. 82-83). In my previous post, I have dealt with the argument that Jephthah’s statement might be translated with the conjunction “or” rather than “and.” In other words, Jephthah says “and I will offer it up,” not “or I will offer it up” (Judg. 11:31–see the link above to my previous post for a fuller discussion). Therefore, on no level whatsoever can Jephthah’s vow be thought of as innocent, virtuous, or perfect (contrary to the post “Jephthah’s Perfect Vow“) .

syntax-glog-jpgLanguage, repetition and syntax–A careful examination of the language of the vow and the subsequent events that follow, show that the author uses repetition to drive home the tragic point that Jephthah offered his daughter up as a burnt offering. If we render the first part of Jephthah’s vow literally, he says, “The one going out who goes out of the doors of my house to meet me…” (Judg. 11:31). When Jephthah returns from the battle, we are told, “Look, his daughter was going out to meet him…” (Judg. 11:34). The repetition of words is the first clue that the daughter has become the object of the vow. Part of Jephthah’s response to his daughter is, “I have opened my mouth to Yahweh and I cannot take it back” (Judg. 11:35). Jephthah’s daughter responds saying, “My father, you have opened your mouth to Yahweh, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth” (Judg. 11:36). This repetition further confirms the wrong-headed nature of his vow and the horror it has led to. Through the use of  repetition, the biblical author communicates a horrible truth in the most delicate way possible. As Phyllis Trible states, “The ambiguity of Jephthah’s vow disappears. His daughter is his sacrifice; she must die for his unfaithfulness” (Trible, Texts of Terror, p. 100).

It has been argued that the author never explicitly states that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead the author states, “he did to her, his vow which he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39). First, we have already noted above that the author treats the outcome of Jephthah’s vow as delicately as possible. Should we have expected the author to say, “And Jephthah slit the throat of his daughter and burned her body as a sacrifice to the Lord”? It would seem that the inspired author had no desire to speak so blatantly of an Israelite leader offering up a human sacrifice. To speak of such an  unspeakable act is to give it a voice that it does not deserve. But perhaps the most important observation is in regards to the syntax of the sentence, “he did to her, his vow which he had vowed.” This is a common way of expressing in Hebrew that someone did what they were expected to do. For example, this same sentence structure is found in Genesis 21:1: “And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken.” Another example, from the Book of Judges itself reads, “So Gideon took ten men from among his servants and did as the Lord had said to him” (Judg. 6:27). Therefore, the syntax itself clearly communicates that Jephthah offered his daughter without the author having to state it so bluntly.

Jephthah’s attitude–Finally, I would argue that Jephthah’s attitude, when his daughter comes out the door, betrays his self-absorbtion, which further suggests the wrongness of his vow. As many have noted, rather than Jephthah being concerned for his daughter, his reaction is “Alas my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot go back on it” (Judg. 11:35). Notice the “you” and “me/I” language in these statements, demonstrating Jephthah’s egocentricity. “You are among those who trouble me”…really? It seems like it’s the other way around! The negative comparisons with Gideon, along with this selfish outburst, clearly portray Jephthah as the kind of person who could make such an incredibly foolish vow.

Conclusion: Jephthah’s Vow / Jephthah’s Daughter

When one adds up the weaknesses of the one position (celibacy), versus the strengths of the other position (burnt offering), it seems that the only correct conclusion can be that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a burnt offering.

RelentlessGeneralPromothumbWhat happened to Jephthah’s daughter is more than an academic question. It involves the very purpose of the inspired writer which was to show that when God’s people forsake Him and compromise with the culture around them, chaos and violence are the results. The problem with those who want to redeem the reputation of Judges like Jephthah and Samson is that it distorts one of the powerful messages of the Book of Judges. Along with God’s mercy, the Canaanization of Israel (to use Daniel I. Block’s term), is the main theme of the book. This is a message that is much needed in our world today. The world revels in the idea that everyone should “do what is right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). The church in  many places has compromised the message of the truth. It has bowed to the culture and has decided that living among the Canaanites is not so bad. Consequently, the distinct message of the church that there is one true and living God has also been compromised. Ethics, and morality, both in and outside of the church, have also taken a severe hit. The result is a world that continues to become more and more violent and chaotic. Like the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19), we are no longer safe at home. We are living out the Book of Judges in our own day. This is why we dare not water down its message just because that message makes us uncomfortable with some of its heroes. There are plenty of Gideon’s, Jephthah’s, and Samson’s in the leadership of the church today and all of God’s people need to hear what the outcome of such leadership will be–both good and bad. Like the days of the Judges, we would do well to humbly submit to God’s correction, repent, and seek his forgiveness. Thank God that the Book of Judges also teaches that He is incredibly patient and merciful toward His people!