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 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.
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 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)
Along 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Consider Purchasing Family Portraits as a Gift This Christmas. Available at WestBow Press, Amazon USA / UK and various other internet outlets.
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
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.
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.
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.
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“) .
Language, 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 mouthto 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.
What 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!
Jephthah’s Vow (Part 1): What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?
The Book of Judges frequently gets a lot of negative press. Stories like the gang rape of a concubine (Judg. 19:25-30), and graphic descriptions of an overweight king having a dagger plunged into his belly (Judg. 3:21-25), or an enemy general having a tent peg driven through his skull (Judg. 4:21; 5:26-27), make many people, understandably, uneasy. Jephthah’s vow concerning his only daughter seems to be another example of the barbarity described in this book (Judg. 11:30-40). But is it? What exactly did Jephthah vow, and what did he do to his daughter? There are two proposed interpretations:
Jephthah offered up his daughter as a whole burnt offering.
Jephthah devoted his daughter to the sanctuary of the Lord as a perpetual virgin, or secluded her away with no hope of marrying and bearing children.
It should be noted at the outset that proponents of both of these views are genuinely seeking to understand and communicate the message of the text. While a majority of commentators opt for proposal number 1 above, there are some who ardently argue for the second proposal. It is suggested that some of the Judges, in particular, Jephthah and Samson, have received a bad rap by recent commentators. I have blogged about an example of this in my article: Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?. Scholars such as Gordon P. Hugenberger, Miles Van Pelt, and Rikk Watts, argue for a more positive understanding of Samson, and the role played by the judges in the Book of Judges. One can also find various blogs on the internet defending, what some consider, the questionable actions of Jephthah and Samson (e.g., Miles Van Pelt’s article: What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza? at thegospelcoalition.org.; or David Murray’s article: Jephthah’s Perfect Vow at headhearthand.org).
I have no illusions of solving the controversy that has raged over this passage for many centuries, but having studied and taught the Book of Judges for a number of years, my desire is to provide a response to those who look more positively on Jephthah’s vow and actions (proposal number 2 above). So the cat is out of the bag! I am among those who understand Jephthah’s vow and actions as comforming to the first proposal. Based on the language and context, I firmly believe that Jephthah did, misguidedly, offer his daughter up as a whole burnt offering. In this post, I will look at what I perceive to be the weaknesses of proposal 2. I will then follow up with another post suggesting the strengths of proposal 1.
Jephthah’s Vow: Weaknesses of Proposal 2
I will begin with what I believe to be one of the greatest weaknesses of the proposal that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Ancient testimony is uniform (both rabbinic and church fathers) in understanding that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. It was only in the Middle Ages that an alternative was first suggested by the respected rabbi, David Kimchi (1160-1235 AD). The following lengthy quote is taken from Keil and Delitzsch’s Old Testament commentary on Judges:”With regard to Jephthah’s vow, the view expressed so distinctly by Josephus and the Chaldee was the one which generally prevailed in the earlier times among both Rabbins and fathers of the church, viz., that Jephthah put his daughter to death and burned her upon the altar as a bleeding sacrifice to Jehovah. It was not till the middle ages that Mos. and Dav. Kimchi and certain other Rabbins endeavoured to establish the view, that Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to the service of the sanctuary of Jehovah in a lifelong virginity” (Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F., 1996, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 2, p. 280).
The argument I consider the strongest for proposal 2 suggests that the Hebrew conjunction (waw) can be translated as “or” rather than “and” in Jephthah’s vow. Here then are the 2 possible ways of translating Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:31: a. “Whatever comes out of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering”; or, b. “Whatever comes out of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s or I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” The biggest problem with accepting the translation “or” instead of “and” is related to the previous argument above. No one in the ancient world (who arguably knew ancient Hebrew better than we do) understood Jephthah to be saying “or.” Furthermore, Trent Butler points out that Jephthah’s vow has 2 presuppositions: 1) God will give Ammon into Jephthah’s hand; and 2) Jephthah will return in peace. Butler then comments, “To the two presuppositions are attached two promises: whatever comes from Jephthah’s house to meet him will be given ‘to Yahweh,’ and such gift will be given by means of a burnt offering” (Trent C. Butler, Judges, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 287). Therefore, the translation “and” makes more linguistic sense as it shows how the 2 promises made by Jephthah fit the 2 presuppositions he requests from the Lord.
Those who advocate proposal 2 note that when Jephthah’s daughter asks for 2 months, it is in regard to weeping for her virginity (Judg. 11:37), not weeping because she will be put to death. This argument, however, overlooks the fact that one of the greatest tragedies in the ancient world was not death itself, but the inability to have chidren, and even more so, the extinction of the family line. Thus mourning her virginity is an understandable response. Furthermore, long ago Matthew Henry had one of the greatest rebuttals for this argument when he stated, “Besides, had she only been confined to a single life, she needed not to have desired these two months to bewail it in: she had her whole life before her to do that, if she saw cause” (quoted in Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 147).
It is sometimes argued that Jephthah had the Spirit and therefore he would not have made such an ungodly vow. This statement is clearly incorrect, as many people who have the Spirit continue to commit sin. The Spirit does not automatically make us perfect people, nor does the Spirit take our free will away from us. Examples of this include Gideon, who in spite of being filled with the Spirit, did not trust God but asked for further confirmation (Judg. 6:34-40); Samson, who received the Spirit on numerous occasions, but frequently ignored his Nazirite vow (Judg. 14-16); Saul, who received the Spirit (1 Sam. 10:10) but continually disobeyed the Lord (1 Sam. 13:13; 15:11) until God finally removed His Spirit (1 Sam. 16:14); and David who committed adultery and murder, but pleaded with the Lord not to remove His Spirit (Ps. 51:11). Those of us who are Christians could also testify to the fact that, although we have the Holy Spirit, we are capable of doing terrible things.
This view also argues that people (men and women) could be devoted to the Lord and serve at the sanctuary. Exodus 38:8 mentions women serving at the sanctuary, as does 1 Samuel 2:22, and the young Samuel is an example of someone who was dedicated to God’s service through the pronouncement of a vow (1 Sam. 1:11). The problem with this assertion is that none of these passages state that virginity was a part of this service. Samuel certainly did not remain celebate all of his life (see 1 Sam. 8:1-3), and the women mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:22 were far from paragons of virtue! Leviticus 27:1-8 is also mentioned as an example of vows concerning people, but as Dale Ralph Davis points out, this passage “has nothing to do with serving at the sanctuary” (Judges: Such a Great Salavation, p. 146), and I would add, it says nothing about celibacy either.
Because Jepthah is mentioned in a positive light in both 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32, it is therefore argued that he could not possibly have committed such a despicable sin. In my opinion (you’re free to disagree), I believe that this is what motivates and underlies the proposal that Jephthah did not offer up his daughter as a burnt offering. Out of a desire to either defend Jephthah, the Scripture, or both, a misguided attempt is made to explain away the clear meaning of the text. There seems to be a certain amount of embarassment that the Bible would record such an incident, and that a person of faith could be capable of such a thing. Although unintentional, this view presents the unrealistic argument that people of faith can’t make serious mistakes. I have addressed this to a certain extent in argument 4 above regarding the Spirit, but I will expound on it a bit further here. Abraham is also lauded for his faith in Hebrews 11, but this does not mean he is without serious sin. Genesis records 2 occasions when Abraham puts his wife Sarah, as well as God’s promise, in serious jeopardy by lying about her to foreign dignitaries (Gen. 12:10-20; chapter 20). Lot is an excellent example of one who is called righteous in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7-8), but an examination of his character in Genesis leaves only a little room for this evaluation. Finally, I have already cited David (see #4 above), a man after God’s own heart, and yet guilty of adultery and murder. Considering these examples (and many others which could be added), to speak of Jephthah’s faith in Hebrews 11, no more acquits him of committing a terrible sin, than it does anyone else. In fact, Judges 12:1-7 demonstrates that Jephthah is capable of the worst kind of sin. Which is worse, to offer one’s daughter as a burnt offering or to slaughter 42,000 fellow-Israelites (from Ephraim)? Clearly, both acts are alarming, but Judges 12 is evidence that “godly” Jephthah is capable of great sin.
In my opinion, every argument employed to explain away Jephthah’s vow as a pious, or at worst, slightly misguided vow, falls apart upon closer examination. In the next post, I will look at the reasons why we should understand the story to clearly teach that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. I will not only argue that this is the correct interpretation, but that to substitute an incorrect interpretation (i.e., the one we have been scrutinizing here), does damage to the inspired message of the Book of Judges–a message desperately needed in the age in which we live.
One of the interesting, but admittedly gruesome, features of 2 Samuel concerns the stabbing of 4 different men in the stomach. The stories are tied together by this (un)common theme. The first two killings occur between rival houses for the throne–i.e. members of Saul’s and David’s house killing one another. The first incident involves Abner of the house of Saul killing Asahel, the nephew of David (2 Sam. 2:18-23). For a more indepth treatment of this incident see my post entitled: “Asahel: Running into Trouble.” The second incident involves Joab and his brother Abishai of the house of David (and brothers of Asahel) killing Abner of the house of Saul (2 Sam. 3:26-27). The first killing happens during a time of battle, and in spite of Abner’s pleadings for Asahel to stop pursuing him. The second killing is more treacherous as Joab lures the unsuspecting Abner into a trap and murders him. Although these killings are both tragic because they involve rival houses during a time of hostility, they are, to some extent, understandable.
The second set of killings, however, are more shocking. They are “in-house” killings. Ish-bosheth is stabbed by fellow Benjamites, captains of his own army (2 Sam. 4). Amasa, another nephew of David, is brutally dispatched by Joab, who is not only a nephew of David, but a cousin of Amasa (2 Sam. 20:8-13). Thus there is a steady progression of brutality and violence as we read through the story in 2 Samuel tracing this theme of 4 men who “get it” in the belly. The writer seems to linger a little longer over the death of Amasa. It is the last in this gory chain of stabbings and provides a climax in several ways. First, Joab’s killing of a fellow cousin through the deception of a kiss, and the callous treatment of Asahel as he lies “wallowing in his blood in the middle of the highway” (2 Sam. 20:12), presents the most tragic and gruesome scene of any of the 4 accounts. Second this scene intentionally recalls the other 3 accounts. In my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, my concluding thoughts on Amasa’s character study provides a summary of the similarities and differences between these accounts and some of the lessons to be learned from them. That conclusion is reproduced below.
Conclusion: Amasa and His “Blood Brothers”
One cannot read the account of Amasa’s death without recalling the violent deaths of other men in 2 Samuel. As Polzin notes, “2 Samuel makes it clear that Joab’s smiting of Amasa in the belly looks backward to the murders of Ishbosheth in 4:6, Abner in 3:27, and Asahel in 2:23. Moreover, these instances of ‘smiting in the belly’ occur only here in 2 Samuel, and always in the context of an explicit reference to ‘brother.’ ” These similarities invite the reader to compare and contrast the four different stories.
Parallels between the deaths of Abner and Amasa are especially noteworthy. They both share the same murderer: Joab. In both cases Joab deceived the men he murdered by catching them off guard and striking them in the stomach (3:27; 20:10). Both were commanders over their respective armies, who fought and lost a civil war against David (2 Sam. 2:12–17; 17:25). Joab perceived the reconciliation of both men to David as a threat, and both were killed in an atmosphere of “peace” (3:21–23; 20:9). Joab’s murder of these men threatened to disrupt the tenuous unity recently forged in both situations. Finally, David himself drew a parallel between these two murders, advising Solomon to deal with Joab accordingly (1 Kings 2:5–6).
These similarities provide the backdrop for the contrast between the two deaths. Although the narrative makes it clear that Joab was wrong in murdering Abner, at least the author provided him with some motivation: Abner’s killing of Joab’s brother Asahel (3:30). No such explanation is provided for the murder of Amasa; indeed, none can be. The silence of the text convicts Joab. Perhaps the text’s silence also suggests that Joab had reached such a hard-hearted state in his killing of others that he no longer felt the need to justify his actions.
A final contrast that highlights the heinous nature of Amasa’s murder is that he was a blood relative of Joab from the house of David, whereas Abner belonged to the rival house of Saul. The murder of Amasa sounds a climactic note in 2 Samuel on the consequences of the abuse of power. Joab’s unrestrained lust for power begins with killing his fellow-countryman (Abner) and ends with killing his own kinsman (Amasa).
Besides the act of “smiting in the belly,” a number of other similarities also connect Amasa’s death with Asahel’s. Both stories center on Gibeon (2:12; 20:8). Each story speaks of “pursuing” an enemy, and in each case the battle ends by Joab blowing the trumpet (2:28; 20:23). The root ʾaḥar (“after”) occurs frequently (11 times) in the account of Amasa’s death, as it does in the story of Asahel. Furthermore, in both accounts the author vividly relates the gruesome nature of the death and comments that those who came upon the scene “stood still” (2:23; 20:12).
The difference between Asahel’s death and Amasa’s highlights again the brutality of Joab’s action. Since Asahel and Abner are on opposite sides in the battle, it is not surprising that one would kill the other. Amasa and Joab, however, are on the same side. Abner warns Asahel twice (2:21–22) before delivering the deadly blow, whereas Joab lulls Amasa into a false sense of security, and then kills him without warning (20:9–10).
The similarities of Amasa with Abner and Asahel also suggest certain character traits that they share. Both Abner and Amasa are caught unaware and “die as a fool” (3:33). Asahel’s inexperience contrasts with Amasa’s experience, but both prove to be naive in their own way.
Sadly, there is not much of a positive nature that can be said of Amasa. He was the nephew that betrayed his uncle the king. He was the general who lost a war, and the ineffective commander of David’s troops who could not fulfill his commission. In the end he dies the death of a fool, his body disgraced by being dumped in a field, ultimately forgotten by his men, and by the narrator as the story continues without him. Amasa, as commander of the army (both David’s and Absalom’s), has all the outward trappings of success, but his life is a dismal failure. His cruel death evokes sympathy, but his betrayal of the Lord’s anointed appears to reap consequences that go beyond the civil war. His under-achieving seems to be related to his lack of true perception (he did not recognize the Lord’s anointed or the sword in Joab’s hand). As such, he becomes a warning to all who might “dress for success” and look the part, but inwardly lack the real quality of greatness: a quality that comes only by aligning oneself with the Lord and His purposes.
Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?
Samson’s visit to the prostitute in Gaza has usually been considered as one example, among many, of his misadventures. Recently, several scholars have questioned this interpretation, suggesting that Samson has been misunderstood. How should the brief episode between Samson and the Gaza Prostitute be read? Is Samson a “good guy” whose intentions at the prostitute’s house have been misrepresented, or is this story just another example of his “bad boy” behavior?
Before beginning, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to two of my colleagues for introducing me to this debate. They have both written about it on their blogs. Lindsay Kennedy has summarized an article written by Gordon P. Hugenberger entitled, “Samson and the Harlot at Gaza (Judges 16:1-3)” contained in the volume From Creation to New Creation. You can read his post at “Why Samson May Have Not Visited a Prostitute” at mydigitalseminary.com. Spencer Robinson has joined in the conversation by noting what Rikk Watts has to say on this topic. You can read his post at “Was Samson a Good Judge?” at spoiledmilks.wordpress.com. Besides Hugenberger and Watts, Miles Van Pelt has also joined the discussion with his post “What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza?” at thegospelcoalition.org. Having read Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post, my purpose is to lay out their arguments for Samson as a “good guy.” However, while many of us would like to believe that Samson’s visit to the prostitute at Gaza has some “redeeming social value,” in the second part of this post I will attempt to explain why I disagree with Hugenberger’s and Van Pelt’s arguments. Although I’m using the “good guy/bad guy” vocabulary, I must caution that neither I, nor any scholar I am familiar with, thinks that Samson is all bad or all good. Like all of us, he is a mixture of both.
Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Positive Interpretation
The following list is a summary of Hugenberger’s arguments regarding a positive reading of the Samson story as a whole, as well as the story of Samson and the Gaza prostitute:
1.”The biblical text nowhere states why Samson went down to Gaza” (p. 63) and, therefore, the reader should not be influenced by speculations that he was lonely or had an “irrepressible libido.”
2. The expression “he came to her,” is ambiguous and, “In the vast majority of cases the expression refers to one entering into the company of another without any sexual implication” (p. 64).
3. 16:1-3 “offers no hint of moral rebuke,” and the feat of removing the doors, doorposts, and bar from the city gates implies, “if anything, divine approbation” (p. 65).
4. The progammatic text of Judges 2:6-23 suggests a “positive view of the judges” (p. 67). Hugenberger argues that, “many of the texts assumed to offer incontrivertible proof of egregious moral failure or infidelity toward God on the part of the judges are often susceptible to less negative interpretations” (p. 67).
6&7. Hugenberger’s two main proofs that the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode should be read positively are based on the parallels between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2, and the contrasts between Judges 16:1-3 and Judges 18. For a more detailed look at the comparisons between these stories, click the link to Kennedy’s post above.
7. Hugenberger also questions why God hears Samson’s prayers after the Delilah episode if he is the bad character that some paint him to be.
Van Pelt shares some similarities with Hugenberger’s arguments for a more positive interpretation of the Samson and Gaza prostitute story. He adds that Samson may have visited a prostitute to mask his true intent. He also notes that the similarities between Judges 16:1-3 and Joshua 2 may be “the author’s way of preparing us for the eventual destruction of that town.” He questions what the author’s point would be in recording that Samson had a one night stand and argues that “Samson goes to Gaza to do what Israel was failing to do.”
Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: The Argument for a Negative Interpretation
In this section I will respond to the arguments cited above made by Hugenberger and Van Pelt and demonstrate why, despite their reasonings, I continue to view the episode in Judges 16:1-3 negatively. The numbers in parenthesis below correspond to the arguments laid out above.
(1) I am in agreement with Hugenberger’s statement that the biblical text does not state why Samson went to Gaza. This is not an argument for a positive or negative interpretation, however. It is simply an assertion that we should remain open-minded as we approach the text.
(2) It is true that the expression “he came in(to) her” is used in various ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and that in a majority of cases it does not have any reference to sexual activity. However, when this expression is accompanied by other sexual references in the text it is certainly suggestive of sexual intimacy. Hugenberger notes that this phrase occurs 15 other times in Judges and, with the possible exception of Judges 15:1, it never refers to sexual intimacy. He also states, “a majority of modern English translations and commentaries do not favor this option” for 15:1. This is a bit of a “straw man” however. If I were to argue that “came (in)to” in a majority of cases throughout the Hebrew Bible does not refer to sexual intimacy (which is true, as noted above), therefore, it probably doesn’t refer to sexual intimacy in Genesis 38:16, I would be wrong. Just because a word doesn’t mean something in a majority of cases, does not rule out that it could carry that meaning in a context that specifically suggests such a meaning. For example, “came (in)to” has the regular meaning of approaching in the context of the Angel of the Lord “coming to” Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13:6, 9, 10). That is its natural meaning and there is nothing in the context to suggest otherwise. However, throw in the word “prostitute,” or other sexually charged words, and “came (in)to” quite naturally carries a sexual connotation. Whether Samson did or didn’t engage in sexual activity with the prostitute may be debated, but the atmosphere of the text is certainly sexually charged by the language used. We will return to this phrase when discussing Joshua 2 below, but for now I note that Hugenberger’s argument regarding “the usual meaning based on number of occurrences makes the less usual meaning doubtful,” as erroneous.
(3) I agree, as Hugenberger points out, that this episode “offers no hint of moral rebuke.” But this doesn’t mean that we should automatically conclude that it demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation.” One of the characteristics of Hebrew narrative is to tell the story and leave the judgment up to the reader’s perception. For example, there is no moral rebuke for Abram’s action in taking Hagar and conceiving through her (Gen. 16). In fact, God protects Hagar and the child and commands them to return to Abram and Sarai after they had been driven away. Yet every reader knows that Abram’s actions are wrong. Closer to home in the Book of Judges, we could cite numerous examples. Whether one thinks Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice, or simply doomed her to perpetual virginity, it can not be argued that his vow was anything except foolish. However, no moral censure is recorded and God still gives Jephthah victory. To argue that God blesses Jephthah with victory and that this demonstrates “if anything, divine approbation” of his vow, is clearly nonsensical.
(4) There is certainly truth to the contention that Judges 2:6-23 puts the judges in a more positive light than the rest of Israel. However, this does not mean that the judges are shining examples of virtue. The judges exercise faith and they are God’s instruments to deliver his people, but the evidence shows that they were very human and were affected by the environment they were a part of. Most, if not all, commentators will give high marks to the first few judges–Othniel, Ehud, and Barak & Deborah. Even here some raise their eyebrows at Ehud’s methods and Barak’s unwillingness to go to battle without Deborah; but, largely, these judges are positive role models. While there are good qualities in all of the judges, there does seem to be a turning point for the worse with Gideon and those who follow after him in the book. In spite of the good that Gideon accomplishes, are we really expected to cheer him for torturing and slaughtering fellow-Israelites (Judg. 8:13-17), or creating a golden ephod that leads Israel back into idolatry? (Judg. 8:27). We have already noticed the problem of Jephthah’s vow; should we also congratulate him for his civil war against the Ephraimites where he is said to slaughter 42,000? (Judg. 12:1-6). The point is, although the judges are capable of great good, they are also capable of great evil, and this includes Samson.
(5&6) Hugenberger, as well as Van Pelt, are quite correct to notice the similarities of Judges 16:1-3 with Joshua 2 and Judges 18. However, how one interprets the relationship between these passages is up for debate. Both Hugenberger and Van Pelt see Joshua 2 comparing favorably with Judges 16, and thus presenting a positive picture of Samson. A number of commentators on Joshua would disagree. For example regarding Joshua 2, J. Gordon Harris states, “Note how the narrator reports that God ordered Joshua to arise and cross the Jordan, but instead Joshua orders spies to go to Jericho and Canaan. By sending spies, Joshua risked the success of the mission” (Joshua, Judges, Ruth, NIBC, p. 27). Robert Polzin is even more direct when he says, “In reponse, Joshua timidly sends out spies to reconnoiter the country, and we are immediately alerted that Joshua may not be as strong and resolute as God and the people had encouraged him to be” (Moses and the Deuteronomist, p. 86). If these commentators are corrrect, the spy story in Joshua 2 is actually a negative comment on the faith of Joshua and the Israelites. The fact of the matter is, it seems that most spy stories in the Hebrew Bible have a negative bent to them (Num. 13; Deut. 1:21-32; Josh. 7:2-5; Judg. 1:22-26.
It is also argued that the sexually charged language of Joshua 2 raises suspicions about the rightness of this mission. Creach states, “Sexual innuendo permeates the story and is a driving force in its plot” (Joshua, Interpretation Commentary, p. 32). Hugenberger argues strenuously that the spies did not engage in sexual promiscuity (pp. 71-73). I agree with him, but this misses the point. The sexually charged language of Joshua 2 is not meant to suggest that the spies had sexual relations with Rahab; it is meant to color the narrative so that the dubious nature of this mission is exposed. In other words, it is one more way that the narrator suggests that Joshua made a mistake in sending out the spies. Based on the assertion that the spies were not guilty of sexual misconduct in Joshua 2, Hugenberger makes a huge leap when he states, “it seems plausible that the same presumption of innocence should obtain for Samson at Gaza” (p. 72). Not only is this a huge jump in the interpretive process, but I would make two observations: 1) Early in his article, Hugenberger states “It is hardly persuasive to build an argument on what an author or editor ‘did not say'” (p. 66). Yet Hugenberger seeks to argue that if the spies didn’t, then Samson didn’t! 2) Hugenberger is also assuming that the spy story of Joshua 2 is positive. If it is negative, however, as noted above, then, using Hugenberger’s logic, the negative qualities of Joshua 2 color the narrative in Judges 16:1-3 making a negative interpretation of Samson’s actions more likely.
There is a further problem with Hugenberger’s application of both Joshua 2 and Judges 18 to the episode in Judges 16:1-3. Because Hugenberger interprets the story in Joshua 2 positively, he sees the similarity in language with Judges 16 as evidence for a positive interpretation of the Samson story. Again, there are two problems: 1) Even if, for the sake of argument, we agree that Joshua 2 is a positive story about the spies, how do we know that the Samson story is not a parody on the spy story of Joshua 2? In other words, in Joshua 2 the spies don’t have sex with Rahab, but in Judges 16 Samson does what the spies didn’t do! It’s all a matter of perspective as to whether the story is a parallel to Joshua 2 or an anti-parallel. 2) If the story in Joshua 2 is a negative story, then the parallel that Hugenberger argues for must be seen as a negative for the Samson and the Gaza prostitute episode. Otherwise, Hugenberger must change his intepretation and say Joshua 2 is an anti-parallel story! My point is this process, although helpful, is also very subjective. The same can be said of the similarities between Judges 16 and 18. Here, Hugenberger sees the story in Judges 18 as a contrast to Judges 16:1-3, whereas, I would argue that it is a parallel. One of the reasons I would argue for it being parallel is that the story in Judges 18 is the second half of a story that begins in chapter 17 with the words “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6). This is a familiar refrain repeated throughout the end of the book (Judg. 21:25). In the Samson narrative (Judg. 13-16), the first words out of his mouth are when he demands his parents to get him the woman from Timnah as a wife for, “she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This statement suggests that Samson has a lot in common with the people of Judges 17-21.
(7) I also believe that Hugenberger’s and Van Pelt’s argument for a positive Samson overlooks an important motif in the story. The author is clear that Samson has a “seeing” problem. As just noted, Samson has an eye for the ladies and the first words he utters include, “I have seen a woman” (Judg. 14:2), “Get her for me because she is right in my eyes” (Judg. 14:3). This “seeing” problem is what leads Samson to the house of the Gaza prostitute. Judges 16:1 begins, “Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (NKJV). Ironically, Samson’s eye problem is cured when he is blinded by the Philistines. It is only when he is blind, that he truly begins to see (as the hymn says!). While blind, Samson seeks the Lord and prays for strength to avenge himself for his two eyes (Judg. 16:28). It is Samson’s dependence on the Lord that renews his strength, not his upright character (as Hugenberger suggests) in relation to the prostitute or anyone else. An important mistake made by Van Pelt, along these lines, is that he argues that Samson went to the prostitute’s house so that he would not be detected, and so that he might mask his true intent. This is wrong on two counts: 1) As Hugenberger notes, the house of a prostitute did not guarantee masking your intentions–both Samson and the spies are found out by the people in the city (so much for masking one’s intent!). 2) Hugenberger also notes that Samson’s original destination in Gaza was not the prostitute’s house. This is made clear in 16:1 when it says that Samson only went to the prostitute’s house after he “saw” her. As Barry Webb states, “What the text clearly implies, however, is that he did not go to Gaza with the express intention of visiting a prostitute” (Judges, NICOT, p. 393). Thus, Van Pelt’s supposition that Samson went to the prostitute’s house to spy out the town (like the spies of Joshua 2) is incorrect. Although Hugenberger’s comments help to undermine Van Pelt’s supposition, he comes to the same conclusion that Samson’s visit to the prostitute, like the spies of Jericho, is an “appropriate step that would enable the divinely approved work of dispossession to begin” (p. 79). From an authorial perspective of the Book of Judges, I can see how the biblical author’s parallels to Jericho might suggest this, but from a historical or practical viewpoint, I find it hard to understand how visiting the house of a prostitute announces the dispossession of a city! Again, from a literary point of view I can understand how Samson’s visit to a prostitute would recall the story of Joshua 2, and thus prepare the reader for Gaza’s destruction. However, to suggest that this was Samson’s motive, not only rings hollow to me, it doesn’t fit reality.
Finally, the Conclusion!
To make a long post, longer, let me conclude by saying that Hugenberger’s article and Van Pelt’s post are well worth reading. Not only should one read it for him/herself to judge whether I have represented them fairly, but also one should read it because, like Samson himself, there is good as well as bad in them (ha!). I also want to say that I greatly look forward to Hugenberger’s forthcoming commentary on Judges in the Apollos series (Judges Commentary in the Apollos series). I’m confident that, not only will this commentary be full of insight, but it will also give Hugenberger more space to develop and defend his thesis about Samson and the rest of the judges. Meanwhile, I remain convinced that the overall structure of Judges consists of a downward spiral where the spiritual life of the people of Israel and the judges themselves continues to deteriorate to the end of the book. For an excellent treatment and defense of this thesis see the commentaries by Daniel Block in the NAC series and Barry Webb in the NICOT (see link above). Since this topic seems to be a lively debate at the moment, I would welcome all comments that any readers might want to share. After all, it is in the give and take of exchanging our understanding of a biblical passage that we sharpen each other and strive to get at the real meaning of the text.
Jeremiah, descendant of Eli Prophesies Hope for the Future
Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope,” is one of the most popular Bible verses among evangelicals. In its original context, God, through Jeremiah, is speaking hope to the wayward citizens of Judah who had been taken captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 29:1). This word of hope which resonates with so many today, may have been born out of Jeremiah’s own personal family history and experience. It appears that Jeremiah’s own family history was acquainted with rejection, while his own call confirms that God does not give up on those who were once rejected. What do we know about Jeremiah’s family history and how does this rejection/acceptance theology play out in his own life?
Jeremiah 1:1 introduces Jeremiah as “the son of Hilkiah of the priests who were in Anathoth.” This brief statement has convinced many scholars that Jeremiah was a descendant of Eli, the high priest whose story is recorded in 1 Samuel 1-4. There are a number of good reasons for such a connection. Abiathar, a descendant of Eli, was one of the high priests during the reigns of David and Solomon (2 Sam. 20:25). Shortly before Solomon’s accession to the throne, Abiathar joined a coup headed by David’s son Adonijah (1 Kgs. 1:7). As a result Solomon, deposed Abiathar from the high priesthood and sent him packing to the town of Anathoth where Abiathar owned land (1 Kgs. 2:26-27). Since Anathoth was a small village (only about 3 miles northeast of Jerusalem), it is unlikely that there would have been more than one priestly family living there. Thus, the fact that Jeremiah is from a priestly family from the town of Anathoth makes it very likely that he was a descendant of Abiathar, and thus also a descendant of Eli. During the priesthood of Eli, God had warned him that the priesthood would be taken from his family and given to another (1 Sam. 2:27-36). That prophesy was fulfilled during the high priesthood of Abiathar (1 Kgs. 2:27, 35). Therefore it seems that Jeremiah’s family history was a legacy of failure and rejection.
There are other hints from the Book of Jeremiah that strengthen his ties to the priestly family of Eli and Abiathar. Jeremiah is the only prophet to speak about the destruction of God’s sanctuary in Shiloh during the days of Eli (Jer. 7:12-14; 26:6; 1 Sam. 4). This may well suggest a vivid family memory that was passed down from generation to generation. Since Shiloh was a part of the northern tribes, some suggest that this might explain Jeremiah’s concern for Israel. Regarding Jeremiah’s connection to Abiathar and the sanctuary at Shiloh, Thompson writes, “Such an ancestry would explain Jeremiah’s deep feeling for Israel’s ancient traditions, his special interest in Shiloh and its fate, his genuine concern for the people of Northern Israel, and his affinity with Hosea, the great prophet to the people of Northern Israel in the eighth century B.C.” (Thompson, NICOT, p. 140). Jeremiah is also the only prophet to mention Samuel. In Jeremiah 15:1 the Lord tells Jeremiah that “Even if Moses and Samuel stood before Me, My mind would not be favourable toward this people.” Samuel, of course, had a very special relationship with the family of Eli (1 Sam. 1:24-28; 2:11, 18-20; chapter 3).
In spite of this family history of failure and rejection, Jeremiah was a specially chosen mouthpiece for God. The call of Jeremiah to the prophetic ministry begins in Jeremiah 1:4 with these words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” In many ways, Jeremiah’s family history made him the perfect individual to speak about God’s ability to transform former failures into new beginnings. On one occasion when Jeremiah visited a potter’s house, he was given the following message: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter. . . .The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it” (Jer. 18:6-10). The message continues with a warning that when God speaks about building and planting a kingdom, if that kingdom does evil, He will relent concerning the good He said He would do. Although the nation of Judah did not respond positively to Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry, and God eventually sent them into exile, Jeremiah was led to proclaim words of hope, such as the words in Jeremiah 29:11. Perhaps Jeremiah’s most famous utterance of hope, however, was the proclamation that God would make a new covenant with His people (Jer. 31:31-34). One way in which Jeremiah was commanded by God to act out this hope for the future was by buying his uncle’s field in none other than the town of Anathoth (Jer. 32:7-15). This real estate transaction took place while Jeremiah was in prison and while the Babylonian army was besieging the city of Jerusalem! Even in the face of judgment, God holds out hope for people from a rejected family or nation. No one knew this better than Jeremiah.
Do your family’s failures haunt you? Does the past seem to have an ironclad hold on you? Take heart in the example and message of Jeremiah, a man from a family with a legacy of failure, who rose above it by God’s grace. Jeremiah 18:7-8 sends the clear message that God does not hold the failures of the past against anyone who has a repentant heart. Even the judgment of the exile, could not hold back God’s desire to begin again. In the midst of that judgment, God was already promising His people a new start by announcing a new covenant. His spokesperson was from a rejected house with a legacy of family failure. It was Jeremiah, descendant of Eli, whom God called to proclaim words of hope for the future.
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, a popular slogan was coined which said, “Jesus ‘Yes,’ the Church, ‘No.'” This statement spoke of what some saw as the irrelevancy of the church. Some people were relating to what they learned of Jesus, but they were turned off by what was referred to as the “institutional church.” For some, the church conjured up images of monotonous rituals with no relevancy to daily life, cold, unfeeling, and hypocrital people, lavish buildings, and money-hungry preachers. There was much in this negative portrayal of the church that had a basis in reality, and certainly needed to be addressed. While some have sought to address these and other issues facing the church, new issues continue to arise and some continue to reject the church or the need for going to church.
What Do We Mean By “Going to Church?”
The statement “going to church” is, in certain ways, a misnomer. It is an expression that has developed over the centuries meaning the building where people meet. Of course, biblically, it refers to the body of believers for whom Christ died–those who are “called out” and saved by the blood of Christ. While many Christians understand this difference, our use of the phrase “going to church” waters down the true meaning of “church.” I wonder if Christians revived the biblical meaning of church if we would be as quick to dispense with the church. When I determine that, “I’m not going to church anymore,” it can have a very impersonal ring to it. By it I may mean, “I don’t need an institution or building to worship God in,” which is true enough. But if I understand “church” to mean “the family of God,” “the people for whom Christ died,” “the body of Christ,” etc., then my statement takes on a different meaning. Is it true that I don’t need the family of God, or that it’s alright for me to separate myself from fellow believers for whom Christ died? It’s much easier to disassociate myself from a building or institution, but do I have the right to disassociate myself from worshipping with fellow believers?
God’s People Have Always Worshipped as a Community
From the day of Pentecost onward, believers in Jesus have gathered together to worship. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, NKJV). The early believers did this quite naturally because it was their heritage as the people of God to meet together to worship God. Whether meeting at the tabernacle, the temple, or later in synagogues, the people of God had always gathered together to worship, celebrate, fellowship, and learn of God. While the Scripture focuses on individuals who displayed great faith in God in their own personal lives, the context of their story is always the community of God’s people. In other words, the Bible never entertains a solitary believer who is not a part of the community of God’s people. My point here is not to denigrate home bible studies; after all, the early church usually met in homes. But I do have a concern with those who intentionally isolate (and insulate) themselves from the church body by “doing church” at home in the form of listening to Cds, or the radio or TV (I am not speaking of the elderly or those who are physically incapable). My concern is also with “drive-in” churches or similar arrangements where it is not necessary to fellowship or interact with the body of Christ.
Our Western World, and this is especially true of America, has promoted the value of Individualism. Americans are especially proud of “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps,” or singing “I Did It My Way.” However, this focus on the individual alone is contrary to biblical values which, not only focus on the significance of community, but the interdependence of God’s people on one another. Try reading Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11-14 with an individualistic mindset. Statements such as, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:20); “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:26-27), become nonsensical. Our individualistic spirit might consider the writer of Hebrews exhortation “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another and so much the more as you see the Day approaching,” (Heb. 10:24-25) as being a bit melodramatic. “C’mon, I can do this Christian thing on my own. I don’t need others to stir me up to love and good works. I don’t need others to encourage my walk with the Lord. I don’t need others to help me keep a correct perspective on doctrine and belief.” Seriously? I doubt any one would word it this way, but in practice this is what it boils down to. Not only does “forsaking the assembly” of believers rob me of many good things that God intends for me, it also prevents God from using my gifts for the benefit of the body.
Going to Church: The Example of Elkanah (1 Samuel 1-2)
While the New Testament is filled with good reasons for “going to church,” my inspiration for faithfulness in worshipping God with His people comes from an unusual place. It’s through the example of Elkanah (Samuel’s father) in 1 Samuel 1-2, that God spoke to me the most clearly about “going to church.” While Elkanah is far from a perfect man, one of the things stressed in 1 Samuel 1-2 is his commitment to worship God with his family at the place where God had commanded. Elkanah’s commitment to worship God at Shiloh (where the tabernacle was in those days) is emphasized 4 times in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 1:3, 7, 21; 2:19-20). This may not seem remarkable at first glance, but the writer notes a number of obstacles that Elkanah faces which makes his commitment all the more remarkable. The first obstacle is the corrupt priesthood of Eli and his sons. The first statement of Elkanah’s commitment to worship God is found in 1 Samuel 1:3, which also notes that the sons of Eli are the priests at Shiloh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 reveals the wickedness of these men and how they steal the sacrificial offerings of the people. Next we learn that there is rivalry and bitterness between Elkanah’s two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. We are specifically told that this rivalry rears its ugly head each year when the family is making its pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship the Lord (1 Sam. 1:6-7). Corrupt leadership alone would seem a good enough reason for Elkanah to dispense with the yearly visits to Shiloh. Add to that the dysfunction of his own family, and Elkanah has multiple reasons not to make the yearly trek to Shiloh. The devil has always been good at discouraging people from worshipping God due to our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of others. He whispers, “Why do you want to go church? There’s no one there but a bunch of hypocrites!” Or, “Who do you think you are to take your family to church when it is in such a mess?” Or, “Look at the problems that develop everytime you try to go to church. It’s too much trouble, why don’t you just stay home?” These ploys have proven very effective over the centuries and the devil has, apparently, seen no need to change his strategy.
Elkanah and Micah: Going to Church vs. Homemade Religion
Elkanah’s example is particularly powerful when contrasted with a story found in Judges 17. In fact, I believe Elkanah is deliberately contrasted with Micah and the Levite in Judges 17. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of Judges immediately preceeds the Books of Samuel (Ruth is found among “the Writings” in the Hebrew division of the Bible). Both stories begin with the story of certain men who are living in “the mountains of Ephraim” (Judg. 17:1; 1 Sam. 1). Both stories deal with corrupt priests and corrupt worship (Judg. 17:4-13; 1 Sam. 2:12-17). Finally, both stories include levites. Judges 17 clearly speaks about a Levite who comes to dwell with Micah in the mountains of Ephraim (Judg. 17:6-10). The author of 1 Samuel never tells us that Elkanah is a Levite. However, this may have been obvious to the readers of his day based on the genealogy given in 1 Samuel 1:1 (Elkanah is also called “an Ephrathite,” but levites lived throughout the tribes of Israel). The writer of Chronicles clarifies Elkanah’s lineage as being from the levitical family known as the Kohathites (1 Chron. 6:33-35). The point of the contrast between Micah and Elkanah suggests that, even though Elkanah may seem to have many “legitimate” reasons to start his own homemade religion, he refuses to do what Micah and the Levite had done. In spite of all the obstacles, Elkanah remains faithful to the command to worship God in the place God had chosen (Deut. 12:5-8). Elkanah’s example of faithfulness in worship, in spite of many difficult obstacles, stands as a testimony to modern believers who often forsake “going to church” (i.e., worshipping God with fellow believers) for less trivial reasons (I got my feelings hurt; I don’t like the pastor; I don’t like the music; etc.). In fact, Micah’s homemade religion suggests the dangers inherent in forsaking the worship of God with His people in favor of a “I’ll do what is right in my own eyes, thank you very much” spirituality.
Does the modern Church have problems? Do I really need to answer that? The Church, and the people of God of all ages, have always had problems. That’s precisely why we need the Lord and each other! God knows that and so He has created a community, a family, which He has purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). We forsake that blood-bought community at our own peril. No, the Church is not perfect, and as has often been said, if it were and we attended it, we would ruin its perfection! However, it is God’s gift to us, and we honor God and the sacrifice of Christ when we participate in it and assemble together to worship our God and Savior.
This article was inspired by the research in my book–Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Please check it out at westbowpress.com or at Amazon USA / UK. Available in hardback, softcover, or e-book.
The impressive introduction of Eli in 1 Samuel 1:9b often goes unnoticed by English readers. The reason is that many of the Hebrew words are capable of more than one translation. The NKJV represents a typical translation: “Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the Lord.” Eli’s name means “exalted” and the “seat” he is sitting on is the usual word for “throne.” The fact that Eli sits by the “doorpost of the tabernacle,” may recall the command in Deuteronomy 6:9 to write the commandments “on the doorposts of your house.” This might suggest that Eli sits by the doorpost of the tabernacle as one who oversees the keeping of the Law. Finally, the word translated “tabernacle” is better translated “temple” or “palace.” Keeping in mind the double-meaning of these words, we could translate 1 Samuel 1:9b as “Now Exalted the priest was sitting on the throne by the doorpost (as law-enforcer) of the palace of the Lord.” This translation leaves us with a very different impression of Eli! The words “throne” and “palace” also introduce the theme of kingship and demonstrate that 1 Samuel 1 anticipates this important theme in the books of Samuel.
Saul is also introduced with glowing words. After learning that Saul’s father Kish is a “mighty man of power,” 1 Samuel 9:2-3 describes Saul as “choice” and “good.” In fact, he is described as “better than all the children of Israel,” and taller than all the people from his shoulders upwards. English versions often translate the word “good/better” as “handsome.” I have used a more literal translation because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity. Is Saul “good/better” in only a physical sense, or is he perhaps “good/better” in a spiritual or moral sense as well? The reason this is important is because later in the story when the Lord rejects Saul as king, Saul is told, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (emphasis mine). Later when Saul is pursuing David and David spares his life, Saul acknowledges that David has done “good” to him (1 Sam. 24:16-20). By this point in the story, we have come to know that Saul’s “goodness” is only related to his physical looks, not to his spirituality. However, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 9 all of this awaits discovery. All we know at the beginning of Saul’s introduction leaves us with a good impression of him. Thus Saul and Eli both have positive introductions, leaving the reader impressed with their good qualities. Both introductions leave the reader hopeful that God has found a good and competent leader. The negative qualities of each are only discovered as one continues reading.
Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God
Just as Eli and Saul both present initial favourable impressions as leaders, their character flaws come into sharpest focus in the same way–through corrupt worship of Yahweh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 describes the corrupt practice of Eli’s sons regarding the abuse of the sacrifices brought to the tabernacle. Not only do they steal from the worshipper (1 Sam. 2:13-14), they steal from God (1 Sam. 2:15-16)! Eli’s crime is twofold: 1) He does not effectively discipline his sons for their sacrilege (1 Sam. 2:22-25; 3:13); and 2) He participates in eating the stolen sacrifices (1 Sam. 2:29). When God accuses Eli of honoring his sons above Him, He says that Eli and his sons have made themselves fat with the “head of every offering of My people Israel.” I have highligted the word “head” because of its importance in the story of Saul’s sin below.
Similarly, Saul is also convicted of sin in regards to sacrifice. In 1 Samuel 13:7-10, Saul succombs to the pressure of events and offers sacrifice, instead of waiting for Samuel as directed. When God commands Saul to destroy the Amalekites, Saul again fails by sparing Agag, “along with the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good” (1 Sam. 15:9). According to Saul, the purpose was to bring them back and sacrifice them to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:15, 21). When Saul speaks of the people sparing the “best” of the animals in 15:21, the word he chooses is “head,” the same one used in describing the sin of Eli! Samuel’s response is classic and announces a key theme of 1&2 Samuel: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams”(1 Sam. 15:22).
In Search of Better Leaders
When the Lord sends a Man of God to pronounce judgment on Eli and his sons, he states, “Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever” (1 Sam. 2:35). Similarly, when God rebukes Saul for his disobedience Samuel says, “The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Furthermore, this man after God’s heart (David) will receive a “sure house” (1 Sam. 25:28; 2 Sam. 7:16), like that promised to the faithful priest of 1 Samuel 2:35. The parallels extend beyond the wording. Eli receives two words of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-35; 3:11-14), and so does Saul (1 Sam. 13:11-14; 15:13-29). In each case it is the first words of judgment that contain the similar language about one “after God’s heart.”
Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment
Part of the judgment visited upon Eli is that he is told that both of his sons will die on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). In 1 Samuel 4 Israel is attacked by the Philistines. Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas are both killed on the same day as prophesied (1 Sam. 4:11). But the tragedy doesn’t end there. Eli himself dies when he hears the news that the ark of God was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:18). Ironically we are told that when Eli heard the news, he “fell off the seat backward,” broke his neck and died. This seat is the same one mentioned in 1 Samuel 1:9b which is usually translated “throne.” In other words, just as God will later dethrone Saul, here he dethrones Eli. Along with the deaths of Eli and his sons, his daughter-in-law also dies giving birth (1 Sam. 4:19-20). Most importantly, Israel experiences a devastating defeat at the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:10).
Drawing attention to the details surrounding Eli’s death may cause the reader to recall that the circumstances surrounding Saul’s death are eerily similar. Note that, like Eli and his sons, Saul and his sons die on the same day (1 Sam. 31:2-5). The battle is not only against the same foe–the Philistines–but the Philistines are said to gather at Aphek (1 Sam. 29:1), just as they did in the days of Eli (1 Sam. 4:1)! As in the days of Eli, Israel experiences an overwhelming defeat (1 Sam. 31:7). As Saul’s end nears the narrator informs us, “The battle was heavy against Saul” (1 Sam. 31:3, my translation). When Eli dies, the narrator states that he was “old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18). Finally, just as Eli falls from his “throne” (a sign of his leadership), so an Amalekite brings David Saul’s crown and arm bracelet (symbols of his leadership–2 Sam. 1:10).
Better Leaders and Better Days
If you haven’t noticed these similarities before, you may be wondering about their significance. At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Hannah offers a song of praise to Yahweh (1 Sam. 2:1-10). In this song she praises the Lord’s sovereignty and describes how He operates among people. We could sum up the words of Hannah’s song in the words of James 4:6, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Through their disobedience both Eli and Saul bring judgment down upon themselves and their houses. Their rebellion is similar and so their judgment is similar. God had raised both them and their houses to positions of supreme authority and leadership in Israel, but their sin brought ruin on them and their houses. Just as Hannah had said, the Lord “brings low and lifts up” (1 Sam. 2:7). In each case, however, the Lord doesn’t leave His people leaderless. In place of Eli, He raised up Samuel (and later the priesthood of Zadok–see 1 Kings 2:27, 35), and in the place of Saul, the Lord raised up David.
For more information on Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at Amazon UK / USA and WestBow Press.
In a previous post I looked at a possible way in which David may have slain Goliath (How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?). In this post I would like to explore more carefully some of the theology behind Goliath’s death, especially as it is related in 1 Samuel 17:41-51. Although the entire chapter of 1 Samuel 17 builds toward the contest between David and Goliath, these verses focus on the confrontation between the two of them.
As Goliath approaches David we are told, “And when the Philistine gazed and saw David, he despised him because he was a youth, ruddy, and beautiful in appearance” (1 Sam. 17:42, my translation). Several of the words used in this verse are found previously in key contexts in 1 Samuel, and I have italicized and underlined them in order to highlight their importance. Notice that three of the words concern “seeing” (gaze, saw, appearance). Each of these words occur in 1 Samuel 16:7, a key verse in the story of David’s anointing. The Lord tells Samuel not to gaze at Eliab’s appearance because he has rejected him. The Lord continues by stating that he does not seeas a man sees but he sees the heart. The repetition of these words in the current story demonstrates that Goliath is making the same mistake that Samuel made in the previous chapter, but with deadlier consequences. Goliath is judging by appearance. Goliath is not the only one to make this mistake, however. Israel and Saul have also judged by appearance, and thus they have feared Goliath, and Saul has thought David incapable of killing him. Saul’s doubt, along these lines, is recalled in Goliath’s observation that David was a youth. This is the same word Saul had used when trying to discourage David from fighting Goliath: “For you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (1 Sam. 17:33). David is the only one in this story who truly “sees” correctly, and this is because he “walks by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
How Despising, Cursing, and Reproaching Lead to Goliath’s Death
As Goliath makes the mistake of judging David by his appearance, we are informed that he despised him (v. 42), and “cursed David by his gods” (1 Sam. 17:43). In the bigger picture of 1&2 Samuel, for someone to despise and curse (also translated “lightly esteem”) either God, or his representative, is to invite judgment. A key passage in the story of judgment on Eli’s house also includes these key words. God says to Eli, “Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (1 Sam. 2:30). This statement, found at the beginning of 1 Samuel, provides a key for understanding why certain people in 1&2 Samuel are honored (raised up), while others are brought low (destroyed or dishonored–For a more indepth look at this theme see my book Family Portraits). However, not only does Goliath despise and curse David, we are told 6 times that he reproaches (defies) God and his army (1 Sam. 17:10, 25, 26 [2x], 36, 45). “Reproach” is a word depicitng the heaping of shame on another. Once again, 1 Samuel 2:30 reminds us what happens to those who do not honor God. Anyone attuned to this theme is aware that Goliath is toast!
Goliath’s Death Brings Honor to God
It is clear that David’s speech in 1 Samuel 17:45-47 is at the heart of the theology of this chapter. Victory isn’t about who is the biggest, strongest, or best armed, it is about whose god is the true God. The story that began with an intimidating look at Goliath, his weapons, and his armor (1 Sam. 17:4-7), comes full-circle with David’s declaration that “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword or spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hands” (v. 45). As Davis states, “The focus of the chapter is not on David’s courage but on Yahweh’s adequacy in David’s weakness. David himself has told us this (vv. 37, 45, 47). An interpretation that refuses to see this steals the glory from God which in this Scripture he has designed to receive for himself” (Davis, D. R., 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, 2000, p. 189).
As noted in my previous post, each item of Goliath’s armor is mentioned throughout the story and shown to be inadequate (see link above). David’s victory with “a sling and a stone” substantiates his words in 1 Samuel 17:45-47. The significance of this truth is further emphasized by Goliath falling “on his face to the earth” (1 Sam. 17:49), which is an ironic way of speaking of his submission. People fall on their face when they approach a king (e.g., 2 Sam. 9:6), or when they are worshipping a deity. After reproaching, despising, and cursing, Goliath now shows the proper respect for the true king of Israel (David), and the true God! This verse also echoes a similar incident found in 1 Samuel 5:3-4. After judgment was brought on Eli’s house, and Israel (1 Sam. 4), the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to Ashdod. Once there they put it in the temple of Dagon their god, in order to show their god’s superiority over the God of Israel. The next day, however, Dagon was bowing face down before the ark! The following day, after having been put back in his place (a little Hebrew humor about a god who can’t help himself!), the priests not only find Dagon face down before the ark, but with his hands and head cut off. Goliath, who lays prone before David, and the God of Israel, suffers the same fate as his god when David removes his head (1 Sam. 17:51).
Thus the story of Goliath’s death at the hands of a shepherd boy serves several functions within the narrative. In the immediate context it begins to confirm that God has chosen David (1 Sam. 16:1-14). Unlike Saul, David trusts God. Like God, David “sees” differently (1 Sam. 16:7). Within the larger narrative context it operates as another example of the importance of honoring the true God. Why is David raised up and Saul rejected? Because Saul reacts in fear (1 Sam. 17:11) and trusts in the physical realm (1 Sam. 17:38-39), whereas David defends God’s honor and trusts him for the victory over his foes (1 Sam. 17:26, 37, 45-47).