Category Archives: Insights from Family Portraits

Why Abiathar Chose Adonijah and not Solomon

Why Abiathar Chose Adonijah and not Solomon

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

Excerpt From “Family Portraits”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

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

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

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

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

The Divisiveness of King Saul

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

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

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

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

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

(2 paragraphs omitted from original)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

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

Joab, the “Mama’s Boy”?

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

David’s Sister Zeruiah

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

The Meaning of Zeruiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names

Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner

The Importance of Biblical Names

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

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

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

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

Abner: The King-maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Joab murdered his own cousin Amasa in order to hold on to his position as commander
Joab murdered his own cousin Amasa in order to hold on to his position as commander

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.

Ish-bosheth's own captains murdered him while he slept.
Ish-bosheth’s own captains murdered him while he slept.

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”

family portraitsOne 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.

Amasa and Joab were cousins. Both were sons of David's sisters.
Amasa and Joab were cousins. Both were sons of David’s sisters.

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.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Sometimes the "looks can be deceiving" trap can have deadly consequences.
Sometimes the “looks can be deceiving” trap can have deadly consequences.

We’re all aware that “what you see is not always what you get.” In spite of the fact that we know we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover,” we still do. Although this is a very human problem, modern advertising, along with the entertainment industry, has trained us to trust what we see. Appearance is often everything! Sometimes falling prey to the “looks can be deceiving,” trap is relatively harmless. There are times when appearances suggest that we shouldn’t expect too much. So we are pleasantly surprised when we actually get more than we bargained for. Of course, the opposite can be just as true, and we find ourselves disappointed that things are not what they were “cracked up to be.” While getting caught up in the trap of “looks can be deceiving” is not always a life or death situation, there are times when it does have serious, and even deadly, consequences as the picture on the right illustrates. Apparently the Lord sees this as such an important human problem that he included examples of it over and over again in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. This article looks at three examples from 1 and 2 Samuel (although there are many more!). Each example illustrates an important aspect of the “looks can be deceiving” trap that we all should seek to avoid.

Looks Can Be Deceiving: Hannah and the Problem of Judging Too Quickly

Desperate Hannah appeared to be drunk to Eli, demonstrating that looks can be deceiving!
Desperate Hannah appeared to be drunk to Eli, demonstrating that looks can be deceiving!

Hannah is introduced in 1 Samuel 1 as part of the dysfunctional family of Elkanah. She is one of two wives (1 Sam. 1:2), and is unable to have children. The other wife, Peninnah, is described as her “rival” (1 Sam. 1:6), and has a number of children (1 Sam. 1:2, 4). We are informed that Peninnah constantly provokes her, probably due to the fact that Elkanah “loved Hannah” (1 Sam. 1:5). This difficult situation goes on year after year (1 Sam. 1:7), until on one occasion Hannah rushes to the tabernacle to poor out her grief before the Lord. She is described as being “in bitterness of soul,” and weeping “in anguish” (1 Sam. 1:10). Although the reader is privy to all of this information about Hannah, Eli the priest knows only what he observes. He sees a desperate woman who’s mouth is moving but saying no words. The author tells us that Hannah was praying, but it was unusual in the ancient world to pray silently. Based on appearance, Eli jumps to the conclusion that Hannah is drunk and issues a strong rebuke saying, “How long will you be drunk? Put your wine away from you!” (1 Sam. 13-14). The reader is immediately aware of how wrong Eli is, and Hannah seeks to set the record straight immediately: “No my lord, I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink, but have poured out my soul before the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:16). To Eli’s credit, he recognizes his mistake and seeks to reverse his harsh rebuke with words of blessing (1 Sam. 1:17).

It is true that a quick harsh judgment without the facts, often says more about us than the other person.
It is true that a quick harsh judgment without the facts, often says more about us than the other person.

Thus, in the very first story of 1 Samuel we are introduced to the theme of “looks can be deceiving.” Here the purpose is clearly to warn readers against jumping too quickly to the wrong conclusion and thus misjudging someone. Harsh and unfounded judgments often result in the disruption of a relationship. Of course leaders of God’s people need to make judgments. Leaders are to be concerned for God’s flock and to protect them from harm. This involves discerning a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Acts 20:28-31), or exercising discipline when necessary (1 Cor. 5:1-13). When Jesus warns, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), he is not talking about the wise exercise of leadership that seeks to protect the people of God. Rather, he is speaking of the same sort of error made by Eli, who, not knowing the real facts, simply jumped to the wrong conclusions and then acted on them. This story affirms how important it is that people not judge others merely based on appearances. Fortunately, Eli admitted his mistake and was able to form a warm, lasting bond with Hannah and her family (1 Sam. 2:19-20).

Looks Can Be Deceiving: Playing the Hypocrite

eliInterestingly, 1 Samuel 1 gives us not one, but two examples of the theme, “looks can be deceiving.” A closer look at Eli reveals another aspect to this theme. Eli is introduced to us in 1 Samuel 1:9. In our English Bibles the introduction seems normal enough and is probably passed over without much thought by most readers. However, a number of the words in the original language have more than one meaning. When the other meaning of these words are applied, Eli’s introduction is totally transformed. For starters, Eli’s name means “exalted.” We’re not used to meeting many people who introduce themselves as “Mr. Exalted.” The meaning of Eli’s name provokes certain expectations. Are you really “exalted?” Next, we are told that Eli was “sitting on the seat.” The word translated “seat” is the normal Hebrew word for “throne,” used, of course, when speaking of kings. We are then told that Eli sits “by the doorpost.” The use of “doorpost,” particularly in a cultic situation (Eli is at the tabernacle), associates Eli with the greatest commandment in the Law. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Moses exhorts Israel to love the Lord and to teach his law “diligently to your children.” This includes writing the words “on the doorposts of your house.” Thus the “doorpost” associates Eli, Israel’s leader, with the task of seeing that others observe the Law. Perhaps now we have a better understanding of why he comes off so forceful to Hannah when he misinterprets her actions. The doorpost is still significant in modern Judaism. This word in Hebrew is mezuzah and it is used to refer to a small rectangular receptacle which many Jewish people place on their doorposts. The receptacle includes a rolled up scroll with a copy of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) and is a reminder to keep God’s Law. The last significant word in Eli’s introduction is the word translated as “house” (NIV) or “tabernacle” (NKJV). This is another unusual selection of terms. Normally this word is translated “temple,” or in the context of kingship as “palace.” If we step back now and reread Eli’s introduction with these other words in mind, it reads something like this: “Now Exalted was sitting on a throne by the doorpost (being a loyal follower and enforcer of God’s Law) of the palace of the Lord.” This is a lofty introduction for Eli and leads the reader to wonder exactly who it is that is being introduced here? Is this the savior Israel has been waiting for? Will he lead Israel back on the path of righteousness? Our appetites are certainly whet by this impressive introduction.

hypocritSadly, our initial impression of Eli proves to be a mirage. Over the next few chapters (1 Sam. 2-4), the biblical author begins to reveal another image of Eli which proves to be more accurate. 1 Samuel 2-4 reveals three physical flaws regarding Eli. The reader is told 3 times that Eli is old (1 Sam. 2:22; 4:15, 18), twice that he is blind (1 Sam. 3:2; 4:15), and twice that he has a weight problem (1 Sam. 2:29; 4:18). If we wonder why the inspired author chooses to dwell on these unflattering physical flaws of Eli, the answer lies in the fact that these physical imperfections suggest spiritual imperfections. One example will have to suffice for the sake of brevity. In 1 Samuel 2:12-17 the reader learns that Eli’s sons are wicked and steal the sacrificial meat that belongs to the people and to God. In 1 Samuel 2:29, we also learn that Eli partakes in these stolen sacrifices. The result is that he and his sons are “fat.” In other words, the spiritual wickedness of Eli and his sons (stealing and eating sacrificial meat that does not belong to them), manifests itself in a real physical way. The consumption of stolen meat makes Eli fat. Thus Eli’s weight problem becomes a symptom of a much more serious spiritual failing. What we learn from this revelation is that Eli comes off very impressively when first meeting him, but upon closer inspection, we learn that he is not like anything he appears to be. Eli, Mr. Exalted, may project an image of royalty and law-keeping, but upon closer inspection, he is nothing but a blind and fat old man. Eli’s example contrasts strongly with Hannah’s. Hannah is not concerned with image or putting up a false front. She is real and authentic. It may not be a pretty picture, but she is honest before God. As a result, God is able to do a great work in her life. Unfortunately, Eli keeps the pretense up until the very end, and as a result, he meets a tragic end. God literally knocks Eli off of his throne (the same word as in 1 Sam. 1:9) when he dies (1 Sam. 4:18). The lesson is simple, but harder to live out. God’s people are not to put up false fronts and pretend to be someone that they are not. God desires honesty. He’s not worried about how messy we might look. When we are real and truthful, God can and will do a great work in our lives.

Looks Can Be Deceiving: David vs. Goliath and Walking By Faith

David did not fall into the "looks can be deceiving" trap when he faced Goliath.
David did not fall into the “looks can be deceiving” trap when he faced Goliath.

Our final example takes us to 1 Samuel 17, the famous story of David’s defeat of Goliath. Although we did see a short physical description of Eli in our last example, it is very rare that the Bible gives a detailed description of anyone. Think about it. Wouldn’t you love to have a chapter, or even 5-10 verses dedicated to a physical description of David, Paul, or Jesus? That’s why the lengthy description of Goliath found in 1 Samuel 17:4-7 is so unusual. Why such a lengthy and detailed description of one of Israel’s enemies? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the author wants us to experience the same fear and intimidation factor that Saul and the Israelites experienced. With our gaze fully focused on this gigantic, intimidating bully, we are left to wonder who could possibly defeat such a well-equipped physical specimen? While everyone in Israel, including Saul, cowers on their side of the battlefield, we are reintroduced to the shepherd boy David (1 Sam. 17:12-22), who upon hearing the taunts of this giant Philistine, completely overlooks his intimidating looks and only sees an enemy to be killed because he has defied “the armies of the living God” (1 Sam. 17:23-26). As he confronts Goliath, David not only believes that God will overcome his foe, but that there will be a lesson in this victory for all. In his speech before killing Goliath, David says, “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” (1 Sam. 17:47–emphasis mine). This statement makes clear that David is not looking at the physical, but rather at spiritual realities. As Paul would later encourage believers to do, David “walks by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Once again we are confronted with the theme “looks can be deceiving.” This time, however, the theme exhorts God’s people not to fear intimidating circumstances, but to trust the outcome to the Lord.

Walking by faith will keep us from falling into the "looks can be deceiving" trap.
Walking by faith will keep us from falling into the “looks can be deceiving” trap.

Fear easily overcomes us when the physical obstacle in front of us looms large. It could be a lost job, a divorce, or a diagnosis of cancer. The natural response is one of fear, anxiety, and depression, but the message of God’s Word is to trust in him and not allow whatever enemy we are facing to intimidate us into losing our faith. Looks can be deceiving! This was an important enough message that God wrote it across the pages of 1 and 2 Samuel. We have only looked at 3 examples, but there are many more. So important was this theme, in fact, that God spoke it out clearly to Samuel when he began to fall prey to the trap of “looks can be deceiving.” When God called Samuel to go anoint a new king among the sons of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:1), Samuel quickly concluded upon seeing Eliab, Jesse’s firstborn, that he was “surely the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 16:6). God quickly rebuked Samuel with the familiar words, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). In other words Samuel, “looks can be deceiving!”

Family Portraits photoThis article was inspired by my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.

If you have not bought a copy of Family Portraits it is available in hardback, paperback or ebook at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and other internet outlets. For Logos users it is also available on prepub at

Free EBook Giveaway

Free EBook Giveaway

Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow
Get a free ebook copy of Family Portraits  from westbow by letting me know in the comment section below.

As a way of saying “thank you” to those of you who visit this blog and read the articles posted here, I would like to offer you a free ebook of my recently published book entitled, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. To obtain your free ebook simply post a comment below. I will email you a number that will enable you to receive a copy of Family Portraits from WestBow Press. My one request is that you commit to writing a review on Amazon when you have read the book. If you’d like to read an interview about Family Portraits click here. I have also posted a short video (click here) where my friend Mike Neglia from Calvary Chapel Cork does a short interview with me about the book. Alternatively, you can read sample pages of Family Portraits at Amazon USA / UK or at the WestBow press link above (or order a hardcopy of Family Portraits if you prefer!). There are also a number of excerpts directly from Family Portraits in various posts on this website. Click here to scroll through the list to read some of them. Please help me spread the word by telling your friends about this free ebook offer. This offer is for a limited time or as long as supplies last. So please request your free ebook copy today.

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Jeremiah, descendant of Eli Prophesies Hope for the Future

Jeremiah, descendant of Eli Prophesies Hope for the Future

jer 29Jeremiah 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?

The evidence suggests that Jeremiah was a descendant of Eli.
The evidence suggests that Jeremiah was a descendant of Eli.

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.

When Eli heard the news of the ark's capture, he fell backwards off of his chair and died (1 Sam. 4:18). These stories about Shiloh's destruction were probably a part of Jeremiah's family history.
When Eli heard the news of the ark’s capture, he fell backwards off of his chair and died (1 Sam. 4:18). These stories about Shiloh’s destruction were probably a part of Jeremiah’s family history.

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).

Jeremiah's own family history mirrors the words that God spoke to him through his visit to the potter's house.
Jeremiah’s own family history mirrors the words that God spoke to him through his visit to the potter’s house.

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.

Family, or personal failure, does not disqualify you from God's grace.
Family, or personal failure, does not disqualify you from God’s grace.

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.


The following article of mine was recently published in the July-Sept 2015 issue of Bibliotheca Sacra. It is a more academic treatment of my post: “Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?” posted last year on this blog. Both articles are based on the research from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. This article is reprinted with the kind permission of Bibliotheca Sacra and Dallas Theological Seminary (© 2015 by Dallas Theological Seminary). Footnotes can be found following the article.



The apparent contradictory statements about Absalom’s sons, or lack thereof, in 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 have puzzled readers and scholars. This article seeks a new solution by proposing that the author of these texts deliberately created this ambiguity in order to communicate an important message about Absalom. Through the use of apparent contradiction, inclusion, and point of view, the author skillfully linked these two passages. The message communicated is a surprising reversal of Absalom’s image who is pictured before his rebellion as someone important, but by the rebellion’s end is portrayed as impotent.

Anyone reading the account of Absalom’s rebellion found in 2 Samuel 13–20 is struck by the apparent contradiction between 2 Samuel 14:27, which states that Absalom had 3 sons and 1 daughter, and 2 Samuel 18:18, which states that he had no sons.[1] This article seeks a new solution to this problem by proposing that the author[2] of these texts deliberately created this ambiguity in order to communicate an important message about Absalom. The message conveyed is a surprising reversal of Absalom’s portrayal. He is pictured before his rebellion as someone important, but by the rebellion’s end is portrayed as impotent. The conflict in these two passages is really not about how many sons Absalom had (although it is this apparent contradiction that invites the reader to compare the texts), but the contrast between the image that Absalom projected and the reality of who he was.


            In recent history, two solutions for the apparent contradiction of 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 have been proposed. Furthermore, scholars who propose one or the other of these solutions sometimes take different paths in arriving at their conclusions. The first solution, proposed by some literary critics, is that the two passages are from different sources (i.e., different authorial hands) and are therefore contradictory. For example, speaking of 2 Samuel 18:18, McCarter writes, “This parenthesis is evidently a late redactional notice introduced to identify a monument well known in the time of the redactor who added it.”[3] Thus, McCarter follows the reasoning of some before him who see 2 Samuel 18:18 as an etiology about Absalom’s monument.[4] According to this explanation, it would appear the redactor was more concerned with explaining the continued existence of Absalom’s monument in his own day, than he was with contradicting the earlier passage in 2 Samuel 14:27. Such a proposal, although theoretically possible, makes this supposed redactor very clumsy and myopic indeed.

            Not all scholars sharing this viewpoint, however, agree that 14:27 has priority. Smith, for example, speaking of 18:18 states, “Of the two, this seems more likely to be original, as it is quite in place to explain why Absalom had a monument in the king’s dale” (italics his).[5] Mauchline seems to be of the same opinion when he states, “There is no doubt that this section 25–27 has no relevance where it stands and interrupts the course of the narrative. This and the fact that 27 in its statement concerning Absalom’s family is in contradiction to 18.18 has convinced many scholars that these verses belong to a source other than that to which the bulk of chs. 9–20 belong.”[6] This highlights an important problem with this hypothetical solution. Because the passages appear to contradict one another, these scholars assume that two different authorial hands must be at work.

      However, the fact that it is impossible to be sure that the texts were added by two different hands (evidenced by the confusion over which text has priority) leaves open the possibility that both passages come from the same hand. If there is a plausible explanation for considering both passages to be from the same authorial hand, then such an explanation should be considered superior to the “two hands” theory. A second problem with this solution is that it may prevent the interpreter from seeking an alternate explanation and wrestling with the two apparently contradictory texts. They can be chalked up to a redactor (or even two redactors) with conflicting data or a conflicting viewpoint. A third problem is that it proposes an irreconcilable contradiction in Scripture. Robert Alter states, “The two reports can be harmonized only with considerable strain, and it is best to view them as contradictory traditions incorporated in the final text.”[7] This is a surprising concession from Alter who helped pioneer the contemporary literary approach to the Bible with its emphasis on viewing the text as a whole and discovering the art of the bib­lical authors.[8]

            The second proposed solution is that Absalom’s sons must have died in childhood. This solution is suggested by many recent commentators including Auld, Bergen, Chisholm, and Firth, to name only a few.[9] Some merely deduce this from the silence of the text and offer no corrobo­rating evidence. Bergen, however, suggests that Absalom’s childless state is a result of a curse that is placed upon children of the disobedient (Deut. 28:18). Leithart, on the other hand, proposes that Absalom’s loss of sons “shows a similarity to David, who also lost a series of sons.”[10] The suggestions of Bergen and Leithart at least take a more productive approach founded on factors in the wider context; nevertheless, an argument based on silence is at the very least precarious, and oftentimes mistakenly leads one in the wrong direction. The fact is that some are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and especially with texts that seem to contradict one another. The temptation is to find a quick answer to the problem and move on. However, it is possible that an apparent contradiction is an invitation to examine the text in greater detail. Could it be that by attempting to solve an ambiguity in the text too quickly or superficially, readers fail to see its intended function and, thereby, miss the intended meaning?[11] What follows will attempt to demonstrate that 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 are deliberately ambiguous in order to communicate a particular message. However, before looking at these texts, it is necessary to take a brief look at the meaning and function of ambiguity and whether it can be discerned as a device used in the books of Samuel.


            Recently Firth has examined the concept of biblical ambiguity.[12] He utilizes a definition of ambiguity as “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.”[13] Firth also notes three different types of ambiguity. First, ambiguities may be the result of an author’s intention. Second, ambiguities may occur in a text unintentionally (e.g., does Saul or Samuel tear Samuel’s robe in 1 Sam. 15:27?). Third, ambiguities occur due to a reader’s misunderstanding or lack of knowledge.[14] Firth’s focus, and the focus of this article are on the first type of ambiguity––that which is intentionally created by the author.

            Next, it is important to recognize the different types of ambiguity that an author may intentionally utilize. Firth proposes five different types. These include: 1) Details effective in multiple ways; 2) Multiple possibilities with a single resolution; 3) Simultaneous use of unconnected meanings; 4) Alternative meanings combine to clarify author’s intention; and 5) Apparent contradictions.[15] The fifth type of ambiguity “apparent contradictions” preoccupies the present discussion of 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18. Firth lays down what may be called “the ground rules” for this type of ambiguity.

The final type of ambiguity occurs when an author deliberately places together statements or concepts that appear to contradict one another so as to invite readers to see the ways in which they mutually interpret one another and cohere so as to create a single meaning. It is important to note that the contradictions employed in this type of ambiguity are apparent, not actual. . . . Where this type of ambiguity occurs, it is common for the apparent contradictions to be placed close to one another in order to highlight the paradox seemingly created by the contradiction, though it is not necessarily the case that this will happen.[16]

It is evident that 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 fall into the latter category of verses that are not deliberately placed together. However, because they share the theme of sons born or not born to Absalom, the apparent contradiction ties them together. They also share other connections.

            Before proceeding with an examination of 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 as an example of ambiguity through apparent contradiction, it is fair to ask if an authorial use of ambiguity can be found elsewhere in the books of Samuel. Firth maintains that one can not only find ambiguity in verbs (see the definition above), but that “it is also possible to create ambiguity through narrative techniques.”[17] As a test case for this idea, Firth turns to the books of Samuel admitting, “Such a studied use of ambiguity has not normally been attributed to [them].”[18] Examining three narratives involving Saul (1 Sam. 18:6–9; 20:24–34; 22–11-17), Firth demonstrates how category 1 (details effective in multiple ways) explains Saul’s actions, noting that “He is consistently portrayed as misunderstanding potentially ambiguous statements.” Furthermore Firth maintains that, “…through the ways in which Saul misunderstands, readers are brought to understand more clearly where his faults lie….”[19] Other examples supplement Firth’s find­ing and illustrate how common the literary technique of ambiguity is in 1 and 2 Samuel. Here are two examples, focusing on the use of apparent contradictions (category 5).

            Yahweh’s command for Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, followed by the appearance of Amalekites in the chapters surrounding Saul’s death (1 Sam. 28–2 Sam. 1), provides evidence of the author’s use of ambiguity. Following Yahweh’s command for Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:1-3), readers are informed that Saul utterly destroyed “all of the people with the edge of the sword” but “spared Agag” the king (vv. 8–9). Subsequently, Agag is put to death by Samuel (15:33), which seemingly puts an end to all of the Amalekites. However, in the chapters surrounding the death of Saul, readers are reminded that Saul was disobedient by not wiping out the Amalekites (1 Sam. 28:18), and Amalekites appear frequently (1 Sam. 27:8; 30:1-18; 2 Sam. 1:8, 13). The reappearance of Amalekites, long after it is assumed they have been “utterly destroyed,” often puzzles readers and appears contradictory. In fact, it is a masterful way of surprising readers and driving home the message that Saul was far more disobedient than it seemed at first.

            Another excellent example  of the use of ambiguity through apparent contradiction can be found in the accounts of Mephibosheth and his servant Ziba in 2 Samuel. In this case, the contradiction is placed in the mouths of the characters. Both men are introduced in 2 Samuel 9 where David is said to give Mephibosheth all the land that belonged to Saul (vv. 7, 9), while Ziba is commissioned to be his servant (vv. 9–11). Later, David is met by Ziba when the king is fleeing from his son Absalom. When David inquires about Mephibosheth’s whereabouts, Ziba tells him that he stayed behind to claim the kingdom (2 Sam. 16:1-4). This revelation comes as a shock to the reader who, at this point, has no reason to doubt Ziba’s assertion. After Absalom’s defeat, and upon David’s return to Jerusalem, Mephibosheth appears before the king. His appearance, and his words, contradict the words of Ziba whom he accuses of slander (2 Sam. 19:25–28). David’s decision of dividing Saul’s inheritance between Mephibosheth and Ziba (v. 29) emphasizes the ambiguity in the situation. On the surface, it can be hard to determine who the “good guy” is, or if either man can be classified as such. Indeed, scholars have come to different conclusions on this matter. If the ambiguity causes the reader to go back over the story and search the text more carefully, then the author’s technique has been successful. As Firth states, “…carefully constructed texts are able to draw readers in through various forms of ambiguity and in so doing enable them to engage more fully with the text.”[20] Among the insights that can be gained from a more careful investigation of the story of Mephibosheth and Ziba is the nature of servanthood. The recurring theme of servanthood, and the actions of Mephibosheth and Ziba, prompt the question, “What makes someone a real servant?” [21]

            Other illustrations of ambiguity could be cited from 1 and 2 Samuel,[22] but the above examples may be sufficient to establish that the books of Samuel use this technique. Now a close examination of 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 can demonstrate that the supposed contradiction between these two verses is only apparent, while also proposing a reason for the author’s use of ambiguity in the narrative of Absalom’s rebellion.


            As noted above, 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 immediately come together in the mind of the reader through the apparent contradictory information they offer. When one reads 2 Samuel 18:18 a “wait a minute” pause occurs as mental dissonance prompts the question, “But didn’t I read a few chapters earlier that Absalom had 3 sons?” Upon turning back and rereading 2 Samuel 14:27, dissonance turns to perplexity. At this point the interested reader (not to mention the sincere believer) is forced to grapple with these texts at a deeper level. While the apparent contradiction between these two verses might initially suggest a connection between them, further investigation reveals two other important links. First, the placement of these two verses is conspicuous. 2 Samuel 14:27 occurs immediately before the story of Absalom’s introduction to David’s court (2 Sam. 14:28–33), which preludes Absalom’s rebellion.[23] Correspondingly, 2 Samuel 18:18 occurs at the end of the story of Absalom’s rebellion, immediately following the notice of his burial in verse 17. Therefore, these verses form an inclusio around Absalom’s rebellion. Recognition of the position these verses occupy in the narrative also suggests there is more to their significance than simply an apparent contradiction. It is the ambiguity, however, that draws attention to the significant placement of these two verses in the story of Absalom’s rebellion.

            A second link between these verses concerns their function and viewpoint, in that both verses interrupt the flow of the narrative by using a flashback technique. In 14:27 this interruption in narrative flow is an effective way of creating suspense. After David’s harsh words that Absalom is not allowed to see his face, the reader wonders, “Will Absalom ever be allowed back into the court of David?” Then comes 14:25-27, interrupting the narrative with a description of Absalom’s physical beauty and his procreative ability. These verses serve the dual function of: 1) causing the reader to wait and wonder what David will do, just as Absalom had to wait and wonder;[24] and 2) introducing themes (vanity, sons) that will reappear in 18:18. In one sense, 14:25-27 and 18:18 could be omitted from the story and the reader would never miss them. They are an intrusion and this is why many scholars have viewed them as redactionary comments inserted into the story. On the other hand, their omission would dilute the powerful message of which they are an integral part. Rather than intrusions by a clumsy redactor, they are deliberate insertions by the author. They function together as part of the literary artistry of the narrative and contain an important message that the author wants the reader to understand about Absalom, as more detailed examination of both passages demonstrates.


            “Among all the various descriptions of beauty mentioned in the books of Samuel, none excels the description of Absalom who is beautiful ‘from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.’ Indeed, there is ‘no blemish in him'”[25] (2 Sam. 14:25). Verse 26 continues with a description of Absalom’s luxuriant head of hair. Physical descriptions are rare in biblical narrative. What should be made of Absalom’s beauty and the author’s focus on Absalom’s hair? Niditch has written about the significance of hair in ancient Israel. Her comments regarding Absalom are insightful: “It seems clear that Absalom is portrayed as trying to project a certain image with his hair. The long-haired man is special. It is no coincidence that this description is followed by the mention of offspring . . . the long hair is clearly associated with fertility and manly fecundity. . . . He looks as if he is meant to lead and as if God’s blessing is on his head. He will be an excellent warrior. . . . He is adept at projecting an image of power, an image to which the hair contributes.”[26] Similarly, Brueggemann states, “He is handsome, and his hair bespeaks his power and viril­ity.”[27] Thus, Absalom’s beautiful appearance, luxuriant hair, and ability to father children (espe­cially sons), indicate his eligibility for kingship. As noted above, it is not accidental that this description of Absalom is placed immediately before his reacceptance to the court of David which facilitates the rebellion.

            The description of Absalom’s beauty and power can work at several different levels. On the one hand, it might suggest that Absalom is the natural successor to David. Upon reading further, these verses could be read as an ominous warning that Absalom will usurp his father’s throne (2 Sam. 15:10–14). This concern is eventually alleviated by the statement in 2 Samuel 17:14b: “For the Lord had ordained to thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring calamity on Absalom,” and by the report of Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel 18:9–17. On the other hand, a discerning reader might also be mindful of the recurring theme that “looks can be deceiving,” which is reiterated throughout 1 and 2 Samuel (e.g., Eli, Saul, Eliab, etc.). In this case, the reader might anticipate Absalom’s demise, or be concerned that the kingdom is falling into the hands of an unsuitable candidate. Whatever the reader’s reaction might be, the statement that Absalom fathered three sons projects an image of power and future kingship, which is an important key to understanding the author’s purpose. Just as David had fathered many sons, demonstrating his ability to establish a dyn­asty (2 Sam. 3:2–5; 5:13–16), so Absalom also possessed the same trait.

            Once the author’s purpose is discerned regarding the insertion of 2 Samuel 14:25–27, the purpose for the insertion at 18:18 becomes clearer. Absalom’s death and burial related in 2 Samuel 18:9–17 reveals that he is not the strong virile man he appeared to be in 2 Samuel 14:27. 2 Samuel 18:18 drives this point home in several ways. First, the contrast between the heap of stones that make up Absalom’s hasty, dishonorable burial (v. 17),[28] stand in contrast to the monument he had earlier created for himself (v. 18). Although Absalom had created the monument so that his name would be remembered honorably, the heap of stones in the forest testified to his dishonorable memory by the nation. This contrast is further emphasized by the use of the words “took” and “erect/set” which are used in verse 17 to describe Absalom’s burial, and again in verse 18 to describe his monument.[29] Bar-Efrat captures the significance of this when he states, “The item of information concerning the erection of the monument is inserted here and not in its chronological place in order to create a sharp contrast between the imposing monu­ment in the Valley of the King and the ignoble pit in the forest, signifying the contrast between Absalom’s aspirations, pride and self-love, on the one hand, and the calamitous results to which these aspirations gave rise, on the other. The antithesis is given additional emphasis by the repetition of the same (Hebrew) roots.”[30]

            The irony that Absalom set up his monument in the “King’s Valley” also should not be overlooked. By this comment the author shows the reader that the monument set up long ago hinted at Absalom’s kingly aspirations. Now (in the author’s day) it had become a hollow memory. The books of Samuel only record one other individual erecting a monument to himself. In commemoration of his victory over the Amalekites, the act that would cost him his kingship due to disobedience, Saul had also erected a monument (1 Sam. 15:12). Thus, twice in the books of Samuel monument building (for one’s self) is connected with the loss of kingship. It turns out that Absalom shares a number of similarities with Saul besides monument building. Saul and Absalom were both “kingly” in their appearance (1 Sam. 9:2; 10:24), and both pursued David and tried to destroy him. Saul clung to a throne that had been given to David, while Absalom tried to take a throne that belonged to David. In the end, the Lord disposed of them both, while David lived on.

            Against this background the comment that Absalom had no son is very poignant. It is one more way that the author demonstrates Absalom’s failure. The man who looked so important in 2 Samuel 14:25-27, turns out to be impotent. Absalom’s celebrated virility turns to sterility in 18:17–18 as one stares at the heap of stones in the forest which have become his grave and hears him confess, “I have no son”! Far from a clumsy contradiction inserted by a later editor, the statements about Absalom’s sons, or lack thereof, become a powerful statement about one who appears to be something that he is not. The literary art of the author has unmasked Absalom’s true insignificance.


            Although the explanation above lauds the literary art of the author, there is still a problem. Did Absalom have sons or didn’t he? Even with allowances for literary art, it still seems as though there is a contradiction. Either the statement in 2 Samuel 14:27 must be true, or the statement in 18:18 must be true, but not both. Actually, this is where scholarly conclusions have gone astray, and where our previous discussion on apparent contradictions that create ambiguity becomes important. In fact,  both statements are true, and a careful examination of both passages reveals that the contradiction is more apparent than real.

            It is important to notice who is speaking in each passage. In 2 Samuel 14:27 it is the biblical narrator who says that Absalom had three sons. This information should be taken as factual and reliable. As Meir Sternberg has stated, “The Bible always tells the truth in that its narrator is absolutely and straightforwardly reliable.”[31] If this assertion is accepted, then there can be no doubt that Absalom did indeed have three sons. In 2 Samuel 18:18, the declaration “I have no son” is the narrator’s quote of a statement made by Absalom. Normally, if a character’s statement contradicts an assertion by the biblical narrator, then the character is either lying, deceived, or misinformed. But none of these can be the case with Absalom. Certainly Absalom would know whether he had any sons or not, so his statement should not be doubted. But could Absalom have been lying when he made this statement? The answer must be “No.” The monument that Absalom constructed was in a public place, and therefore, he gave a public explanation for its erection: “I have no son.” If Absalom said he had no sons, when in fact he had three sons, this would have been evident to others who knew him and, therefore, this statement would have exposed Absalom as a liar and a fraud.

            The solution to the dilemma is not who is speaking, but the timeframe in which these assertions occur. As noted, both passages are flashbacks. They do not take place at the time that other events in the narrative are happening. Both 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18 interrupt the flow of the narrative and take the reader back to a previous point of time in Absalom’s life. There is little doubt that Absalom’s three sons must have been born to him before the revolt. The revolt does not seem to have lasted very long, and in any case, it is unlikely that he could have given birth to three sons and a daughter during that time. Therefore Absalom’s children appear to have been born at some unspecified time in the past prior to his rebellion.

       So far, so good. Few, if any, would disagree with the explanation up to this point. The critical difference in interpretation is considering the time factor of Absalom’s statement in 18:18. Because the statement in 18:18 appears after the assertion in 14:27, many commentators assume that Absalom made the statement “I have no son” after his three sons were born, and therefore conclude that his sons must have died, or that there must be a contradiction. But such an assumption fails to take into account what is known about ancient historical writing, not to mention biblical narrative. Why must it be assumed that these statements stand in chronological order?[32] In fact, the biblical author is very vague regarding the time of Absalom’s statement about having no son. The text simply states, “Now Absalom in his lifetime.” This could well mean that Absalom made this statement before he had any sons, especially since lifting an event from its chronological context is a common technique in the books of Samuel (e.g., 2 Sam. 4:4; 21:1–14). The author has simply pulled a statement from Absalom’s past that precedes the assertion of 14:27. The positioning of this statement here reveals that having no son was just a convenient reason for Absalom to erect a monument to himself in the King’s Valley. After all, he could not state the real reason (arrogance, self-indulgence, “I want to overthrow my father,” etc.). Therefore, the apparent contradiction (made possible by dischronologizing the statement) reveals Absalom’s hypocrisy in building a monument for himself and exposes him as the megalomaniac that he was.


            Readers have long noted the apparent contradiction between 2 Samuel 14:27 and 18:18. The discussion above has sought to demonstrate that the two usual solutions suggested to resolve this contradiction, (clumsy editor, Absalom’s sons must have died) are both inadequate explanations. Recognizing the art of intentional authorial ambiguity provides the best explanation for the apparent contradiction. The books of Samuel provide ample evidence of this technique. In attempting to solve this ambiguity, scholars have asked the wrong question. The question is not, “How many sons did Absalom have?,” but “At what point in time were these two assertions made?” Once modern presuppositions concerning chronological order are dispensed with, the solution becomes obvious. The writer’s imprecise language in 18:18 provides a further hint via the vague expression “in his lifetime.” The purpose of the ambiguity is to contrast what appears to be a strong, virile Absalom before the rebellion (14:27) with a true picture of the man evidenced by his weakness and impotency. Absalom’s monument is shown for what it really was: a testament to his vanity and pride. Through this contrast, the author highlights one of the key messages of the books of Samuel contained in the statement: “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

[1] The following article is a more in-depth treatment of a conclusion reached in my recent book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, (Bloomington: WestBow, 2013), 364–365, 379–380.

[2] I am interested in looking at the final form of the text. Therefore by author I mean the person or people responsible for putting 1&2 Samuel in its final form, which most likely took place during the exile. Among recent commentators who take a similar view see, Robert B. Chisholm Jr., 1&2 Samuel, Teach the Text Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 6.

[3] P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel, The Anchor Bible, vol. 9, (Garden City: Doubleday & Com­pany, Inc., 1984), 407.

[4] For example, Peter R. Ackroyd, The Second Book of Samuel, The Cambridge Bible Commen­tary, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 169, and Charles Conroy, Absalom Absalom! Narrative and Language in 2 Sam 13–20, Analecta Biblica 81, (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1978), 65.

[5] H. P. Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, International Critical Commentary, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1899), 359.

[6] John Mauchline, 1 and 2 Samuel, New Century Bible, (London: Oliphants, 1971), 268.

[7] Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999), 281.

[8] J. P. Fokkelman, King David: Narrative art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, vol. I, (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1981), 150, n. 35, makes the same admission.

[9] A. Graeme Auld, I & II Samuel, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville: John Knox, 2011), 544; Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 394; Chisholm, 1&2 Samuel, 321; David G. Firth, 1&2 Samuel, Apollos Old Testament Commentary, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 447.

[10] Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1&2 Samuel, (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003), 280, n. 27.

[11] I am aware that some (e.g., post-structuralists) would argue that we cannot discern an author’s meaning of a given text. However, Grant R. Osborne, “Literary Theory and Biblical Interpretation,” in, Words and the Word: Explorations in Biblical Interpretation and Literary Theory, eds. David G. Firth and Jamie A. Grant, (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 17–50, has effectively challenged this position. See also David G. Firth, “Ambiguity,” in, Words and the Word: Explorations in Biblical Interpretation and Literary Theory, 156, who states, “Provided one works only by criteria established by the text itself, then there is no problem with seeking the author’s intention, if it is recognized that it is only the intention as this can be reconstructed on the basis of the evidence of the text itself.”

[12] Firth, ibid. 151-186. Firth bases his insights on the work of William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960). Empson’s work examines ambiguity as it is found in literature in general. Firth refines some of Empson’s categories and applies the insights to the biblical text. This article focuses on Firth’s contribution, while acknowledging the prior work of Empson.

[13] Ibid., 157.

[14] Ibid., 155.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid., 169.

[17] Ibid., 172.

[18] Ibid., 173.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 172.

[21] For my assessment of Mephibosheth and Ziba see Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, 165–182.

[22] For example, the contradictory accounts of Saul’s death as told by the biblical narrator in 1 Samuel 31 and the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1.

[23] Similarly, R. N. Whybray, The Succession Narrative, (London: SCM Press, 1968), 27, notes the link between 14:25-27 and 15:1–6 (especially v. 6).

[24] Conroy, Absalom Absalom!, 110, states, “the presence of the non-temporal material of vv. 25–27 between v. 24 and v. 28 serves to fill out this interval of time, to suggest its length, and so to make Absalom’s subsequent actions (vv. 28–32) more understandable.”

[25] McCracken, Family Portraits, 363. The comments which follow are adapted from my book.

[26] Susan Niditch, ‘My Brother Esau is a Hairy Man’: Hair and Identity in Ancient Israel, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 79-80.

[27] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation Bible Commentary, (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 296.

[28] The dishonorable nature of Absalom’s death and burial is seen in the way it parallels the death and burial of the Canaanite kings that Joshua conquered . Like Absalom, the kings were hanged on a tree, thrown into a grave and covered with “a great heap of stones” (Josh. 8:29; 10:26–27).

[29] This repetition is obscured by the NASB which uses the word “erected” in v. 17 and “set” in v. 18.

[30] Shimon Bar-Efrat, Narrative Art in the Bible, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 178–179.

[31] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 51.

[32] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 222, states, “Important elements to the ancient understanding of time and history were recurrence and endurance. This perspective is not without linear aspects, but the linear element is not the default mode.”