Category Archives: Insights from Family Portraits


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.”

My Musings About Going to Church

My Musings About Going to Church

What comes to our mind when we speak of "going to church?"
What comes to our mind when we speak of “going to church?”

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, a popular slogan was coined which said, “Jesus ‘Yes,’ the Church, ‘No.'” This statement spoke of what some saw as the irrelevancy of the church. Some people were relating to what they learned of Jesus, but they were turned off by what was referred to as the “institutional church.” For some, the church conjured up images of monotonous rituals with no relevancy to daily life, cold, unfeeling, and hypocrital people, lavish buildings, and money-hungry preachers. There was much in this negative portrayal of the church that had a basis in reality, and certainly needed to be addressed. While some have sought to address these and other issues facing the church, new issues continue to arise and some continue to reject the church or the need for going to church.

What Do We Mean By “Going to Church?”

How would you identify the church in this picture? Is it the building or the people?
How would you identify the church in this picture? Is it the building or the people?

The statement “going to church” is, in certain ways, a misnomer. It is an expression that has developed over the centuries meaning the building where people meet. Of course, biblically, it refers to the body of believers for whom Christ died–those who are “called out” and saved by the blood of Christ. While many Christians understand this difference, our use of the phrase “going to church” waters down the true meaning of “church.” I wonder if Christians revived the biblical meaning of church if we would be as quick to dispense with the church. When I determine that, “I’m not going to church anymore,” it can have a very impersonal ring to it. By it I may mean, “I don’t need an institution or building to worship God in,” which is true enough. But if I understand “church” to mean “the family of God,” “the people  for whom Christ died,” “the body of Christ,” etc., then my statement takes on a different meaning. Is it true that I don’t need the family of God, or that it’s alright for me to separate myself from fellow believers for whom Christ died? It’s much easier to disassociate myself from a building or institution, but do I have the right to disassociate myself from worshipping with fellow believers?

God’s People Have Always Worshipped as a Community

moodyFrom the day of Pentecost onward, believers in Jesus have gathered together to worship. “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42, NKJV). The early believers did this quite naturally because it was their heritage as the people of God to meet together to worship God. Whether meeting at the tabernacle, the temple, or later in synagogues, the people of God had always gathered together to worship, celebrate, fellowship, and learn of God. While the Scripture focuses on individuals who displayed great faith in God in their own personal lives, the context of their story is always the community of God’s people. In other words, the Bible never entertains a solitary believer who is not a part of the community of God’s people. My point here is not to denigrate home bible studies; after all, the early church usually met in homes. But I do have a concern with those who intentionally isolate (and insulate) themselves from the church body by “doing church” at home in the form of listening to Cds, or the radio or TV (I am not speaking of the elderly or those who are physically incapable). My concern is also with “drive-in” churches or similar arrangements where it is not necessary to fellowship or interact with the body of Christ.

When a Christian's attitude is, "It's all about me," we can dispense with going to church.
When a Christian’s attitude is, “It’s all about me,” we can dispense with going to church.

Our Western World, and this is especially true of America, has promoted the value of Individualism. Americans are especially proud of “pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps,” or singing “I Did It My Way.” However, this focus on the individual alone is contrary to biblical values which, not only focus on the significance of community, but the interdependence of God’s people on one another. Try reading Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 11-14 with an individualistic mindset. Statements such as, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:20); “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Cor. 12:26-27), become nonsensical. Our individualistic spirit might consider the writer of Hebrews exhortation “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another and so much the more as you see the Day approaching,” (Heb. 10:24-25) as being a bit melodramatic. “C’mon, I can do this Christian thing on my own. I don’t need others to stir me up to love and good works. I don’t need others to encourage my walk with the Lord. I don’t need others to help me keep a correct perspective on doctrine and belief.” Seriously? I doubt any one would word it this way, but in practice this is what it boils down to. Not only does “forsaking the assembly” of believers rob me of many good things that God intends for me, it also prevents God from using my gifts for the benefit of the body.

Going to Church: The Example of Elkanah (1 Samuel 1-2)

1 Samuel 1-2 pictures Elkanah as a godly man who consistently takes his family to worship God in Shiloh.
1 Samuel 1-2 pictures Elkanah as a godly man who consistently takes his family to worship God in Shiloh.

While the New Testament is filled with good reasons for “going to church,” my inspiration for faithfulness in worshipping God with His people comes from an unusual place. It’s through the example of Elkanah (Samuel’s father) in 1 Samuel 1-2, that God spoke to me the most clearly about “going to church.” While Elkanah is far from a perfect man, one of the things stressed in 1 Samuel 1-2 is his commitment to worship God with his family at the place where God had commanded. Elkanah’s commitment to worship God at Shiloh (where the tabernacle was in those days) is emphasized 4 times in the first two chapters of 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 1:3, 7, 21; 2:19-20). This may not seem remarkable at first glance, but the writer notes a number of obstacles that Elkanah faces which makes his commitment all the more remarkable. The first obstacle is the corrupt priesthood of Eli and his sons. The first statement of Elkanah’s commitment to worship God is found in 1 Samuel 1:3, which also notes that the sons of Eli are the priests at Shiloh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 reveals the wickedness of these men and how they steal the sacrificial offerings of the people. Next we learn that there is rivalry and bitterness between Elkanah’s two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. We are specifically told that this rivalry rears its ugly head each year when the family is making its pilgrimage to Shiloh to worship the Lord (1 Sam. 1:6-7). Corrupt leadership alone would seem a good enough reason for Elkanah to dispense with the yearly visits to Shiloh. Add to that the dysfunction of his own family, and Elkanah has multiple reasons not to make the yearly trek to Shiloh. The devil has always been good at discouraging people from worshipping God due to our own hypocrisy or the hypocrisy of others. He whispers, “Why do you want to go church? There’s no one there but a bunch of hypocrites!” Or, “Who do you think you are to take your family to church when it is in such a mess?” Or, “Look at the problems that develop everytime you try to go to church. It’s too much trouble, why don’t you just stay home?” These ploys have proven very effective over the centuries and the devil has, apparently, seen no need to change his strategy.

Elkanah and Micah: Going to Church vs. Homemade Religion

Instead of "going to church" Micah opted for his own brand of homemade religion in Judges 17.
Instead of “going to church” Micah opted for his own brand of homemade religion in Judges 17.

Elkanah’s example is particularly powerful when contrasted with a story found in Judges 17. In fact, I believe Elkanah is deliberately contrasted with Micah and the Levite in Judges 17. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of Judges immediately preceeds the Books of Samuel (Ruth is found among “the Writings” in the Hebrew division of the Bible). Both stories begin with the story of certain men who are living in “the mountains of Ephraim” (Judg. 17:1; 1 Sam. 1). Both stories deal with corrupt priests and corrupt worship (Judg. 17:4-13; 1 Sam. 2:12-17). Finally, both stories include levites. Judges 17 clearly speaks about a Levite who comes to dwell with Micah in the mountains of Ephraim (Judg. 17:6-10). The author of 1 Samuel never tells us that Elkanah is a Levite. However, this may have been obvious to the readers of his day based on the genealogy given in 1 Samuel 1:1 (Elkanah is also called “an Ephrathite,” but levites lived throughout the tribes of Israel). The writer of Chronicles clarifies Elkanah’s lineage as being from the levitical family known as the Kohathites (1 Chron. 6:33-35). The point of the contrast between Micah and Elkanah suggests that, even though Elkanah may seem to have many “legitimate” reasons to start his own homemade religion, he refuses to do what Micah and the Levite had done. In spite of all the obstacles, Elkanah remains faithful to the command to worship God in the place God had chosen (Deut. 12:5-8). Elkanah’s example of faithfulness in worship, in spite of many difficult obstacles, stands as a testimony to modern believers who often forsake “going to church” (i.e., worshipping God with fellow believers) for less trivial reasons (I got my feelings hurt; I don’t like the pastor; I don’t like the music; etc.). In fact, Micah’s homemade religion suggests the dangers inherent in forsaking the worship of God with His people in favor of a “I’ll do what is right in my own eyes, thank you very much” spirituality.

Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow
Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow

Does the modern Church have problems? Do I really need to answer that? The Church, and the people of God of all ages, have always had problems. That’s precisely why we need the Lord and each other! God knows that and so He has created a community, a family, which He has purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). We forsake that blood-bought community at our own peril. No, the Church is not perfect, and as has often been said, if it were and we attended it, we would ruin its perfection! However, it is God’s gift to us, and we honor God and the sacrifice of Christ when we participate in it and assemble together to worship our God and Savior.

This article was inspired by the research in my book–Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Please check it out at or at Amazon USA / UK. Available in hardback, softcover, or e-book.

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Looking Like a Leader

1 Sam. 1:9 offers a very impressive introduction of Eli as leader.
1 Sam. 1:9 offers a very impressive introduction of Eli as leader.

The impressive introduction of Eli in 1 Samuel 1:9b often goes unnoticed by English readers. The reason is that many of the Hebrew words are capable of more than one translation. The NKJV represents a typical translation: “Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the tabernacle of the Lord.” Eli’s name means “exalted” and the “seat” he is sitting on is the usual word for “throne.” The fact that Eli sits by the “doorpost of the tabernacle,” may recall the command in Deuteronomy 6:9 to write the commandments “on the doorposts of your house.” This might suggest that Eli sits by the doorpost of the tabernacle as one who oversees the keeping of the Law. Finally, the word translated “tabernacle” is better translated “temple” or “palace.” Keeping in mind the double-meaning of these words, we could translate 1 Samuel 1:9b as “Now Exalted the priest was sitting on the throne by the doorpost (as law-enforcer) of the palace of the Lord.” This translation leaves us with a very different impression of Eli! The words “throne” and “palace” also introduce the theme of kingship and demonstrate that 1 Samuel 1 anticipates this important theme in the books of Samuel.

Ancient kings were often depicted as taller than the people. Hence the significance of Samuel's words in 1 Sam. 10:23-24.
Ancient kings were often depicted as taller than the people. Hence the significance of Samuel’s words in 1 Sam. 10:23-24.

Saul is also introduced with glowing words. After learning that Saul’s father Kish is a “mighty man of power,” 1 Samuel 9:2-3 describes Saul as “choice” and “good.” In fact, he is described as “better than all the children of Israel,” and taller than all the people from his shoulders upwards. English versions often translate the word “good/better” as “handsome.” I have used a more literal translation because it allows for a certain amount of ambiguity. Is Saul “good/better” in only a physical sense, or is he perhaps “good/better” in a spiritual or moral sense as well? The reason this is important is because later in the story when the Lord rejects Saul as king, Saul is told, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (emphasis mine). Later when Saul is pursuing David and David spares his life, Saul acknowledges that David has done “good” to him (1 Sam. 24:16-20). By this point in the story, we have come to know that Saul’s “goodness” is only related to his physical looks, not to his spirituality. However, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 9 all of this awaits discovery. All we know at the beginning of Saul’s introduction leaves us with a good impression of him. Thus Saul and Eli both have positive introductions, leaving the reader impressed with their good qualities. Both introductions leave the reader hopeful that God has found a good and competent leader. The negative qualities of each are only discovered as one continues reading.

Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God

Eli and his sons were corrupt leaders who stole from the people and from God. Picture taken from
Eli and his sons were corrupt leaders who stole from the people and from God. Picture taken from

Just as Eli and Saul both present initial favourable impressions as leaders, their character flaws come into sharpest focus in the same way–through corrupt worship of Yahweh. 1 Samuel 2:12-17 describes the corrupt practice of Eli’s sons regarding the abuse of the sacrifices brought to the tabernacle. Not only do they steal from the worshipper (1 Sam. 2:13-14), they steal from God (1 Sam. 2:15-16)! Eli’s crime is twofold: 1) He does not effectively discipline his sons for their sacrilege (1 Sam. 2:22-25; 3:13); and 2) He participates in eating the stolen sacrifices (1 Sam. 2:29). When God accuses Eli of honoring his sons above Him, He says that Eli and his sons have made themselves fat with the “head of every offering of My people Israel.” I have highligted the word “head” because of its importance in the story of Saul’s sin below.

Similarly, Saul is also convicted of sin in regards to sacrifice. In 1 Samuel 13:7-10, Saul succombs to the pressure of events and offers sacrifice, instead of waiting for Samuel as directed. When God commands Saul to destroy the Amalekites, Saul again fails by sparing Agag, “along with the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good” (1 Sam. 15:9). According to Saul, the purpose was to bring them back and sacrifice them to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:15, 21). When Saul speaks of the people sparing the “best” of the animals in 15:21, the word he chooses is “head,” the same one used in describing the sin of Eli! Samuel’s response is classic and announces a key theme of 1&2 Samuel: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams”(1 Sam. 15:22).

In Search of Better Leaders

Both Eli and Saul are rejected with two separate words of judgment. Both men are told that God will seek for a leader "after His own heart."
Both Eli and Saul are rejected with two separate words of judgment. Both men are told that God will seek for leaders “after His own heart.”

When the Lord sends a Man of God to pronounce judgment on Eli and his sons, he states, “Then I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever” (1 Sam. 2:35). Similarly, when God rebukes Saul for his disobedience Samuel says, “The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Furthermore, this man after God’s heart (David) will receive a “sure house” (1 Sam. 25:28; 2 Sam. 7:16), like that promised to the faithful priest of 1 Samuel 2:35. The parallels extend beyond the wording. Eli receives two words of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-35; 3:11-14), and so does Saul (1 Sam. 13:11-14; 15:13-29). In each case it is the first words of judgment that contain the similar language about one “after God’s heart.”

Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment

God disposes of the leaders Eli and Saul in similar ways.
God disposes of the leaders Eli and Saul in similar ways.

Part of the judgment visited upon Eli is that he is told that both of his sons will die on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). In 1 Samuel 4 Israel is attacked by the Philistines. Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas are both killed on the same day as prophesied (1 Sam. 4:11). But the tragedy doesn’t end there. Eli himself dies when he hears the news that the ark of God was taken by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:18). Ironically we are told that when Eli heard the news, he “fell off the seat backward,” broke his neck and died. This seat is the same one mentioned in 1 Samuel 1:9b which is usually translated “throne.” In other words, just as God will later dethrone Saul, here he dethrones Eli. Along with the deaths of Eli and his sons, his daughter-in-law also dies giving birth (1 Sam. 4:19-20). Most importantly, Israel experiences a devastating defeat at the hands of the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:10).

Drawing attention to the details surrounding Eli’s death may cause the reader to recall that the circumstances surrounding Saul’s death are eerily similar. Note that, like Eli and his sons, Saul and his sons die on the same day (1 Sam. 31:2-5). The battle is not only against the same foe–the Philistines–but the Philistines are said to gather at Aphek (1 Sam. 29:1), just as they did in the days of Eli (1 Sam. 4:1)! As in the days of Eli, Israel experiences an overwhelming defeat (1 Sam. 31:7). As Saul’s end nears the narrator informs us, “The battle was heavy against Saul” (1 Sam. 31:3, my translation). When Eli dies, the narrator states that he was “old and heavy” (1 Sam. 4:18). Finally, just as Eli falls from his “throne” (a sign of his leadership), so an Amalekite brings David Saul’s crown and arm bracelet (symbols of his leadership–2 Sam. 1:10).

Better Leaders and Better Days

God replaces ungodly leaders with godly ones. Samuel replaced Eli and David replaced Saul.
God replaces ungodly leaders with godly ones. Samuel replaced Eli and David replaced Saul.

If you haven’t noticed these similarities before, you may be wondering about their significance. At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Hannah offers a song of praise to Yahweh (1 Sam. 2:1-10). In this song she praises the Lord’s sovereignty and describes how He operates among people. We could sum up the words of Hannah’s song in the words of James 4:6, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Through their disobedience both Eli and Saul bring judgment down upon themselves and their houses. Their rebellion is similar and so their judgment is similar. God had raised both them and their houses to positions of supreme authority and leadership in Israel, but their sin brought ruin on them and their houses. Just as Hannah had said, the Lord “brings low and lifts up” (1 Sam. 2:7). In each case, however, the Lord doesn’t leave His people leaderless. In place of Eli, He raised up Samuel (and later the priesthood of Zadok–see 1 Kings 2:27, 35), and in the place of Saul, the Lord raised up David.

For more information on Eli, Samuel, Saul, and David see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at Amazon UK / USA and WestBow Press.

David and Bathsheba: Sending, Taking, Laying

David and Bathsheba: Sending, Taking, Laying

David and Bathsheba: The Sin

Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward starred in one of Hollywood's versions of the David and Bathsheba story.
Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward starred in one of Hollywood’s versions of the David and Bathsheba story.

When David commits adultery with Bathsheba the reader looks in vain for any psychological insight into what David and Bathsheba are thinking or what motivates their actions. Unlike the following story describing Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13), words of emotion (lust, desire, love, anger, hate) are totally absent from the description of the deed committed by David and Bathsheba. Three words–all words of action–control the description of David’s sin. We are told, “Then David sent messengers and took her; and she came to him and he lay with her…” (2 Sam. 11:4). These 3 words not only leave the encounter between David and Bathsheba surrounded in ambiguity (why did David send for her?, why did she come?, etc.), they become the keywords which provide the movement of the story from sin, to judgment, and, finally, to forgiveness. In other words, through the recurring words “send,” “take,” and “lay,” the reader is able to follow the fate of David and Bathsheba. Furthermore, with each new context, these words experience a transformation of meaning giving deeper insight into how God is able to deal with David and Bathsheba’s sin by bringing judgment that ultimately results in redemption.

David and Bathsheba: The Judgment

The Lord "sends" Nathan to convict David of his sin.
The Lord “sends” Nathan to convict David of his sin.

Following David’s adultery where he “sent” for Bathsheba, we are told that “she sent and told David and said ‘I am with child'” (2 Sam. 11:5). Ironically, David’s sending results in Bathsheba’s sending. But while the first sending was, presumably, for pleasure, the second brings news of a serious nature. As I state in my book Family Portraits, “David’s sending resulted in the planting of a seed which was now growing in the womb of Bathsheba. Bathsheba’s sending teaches us that David now reaps what he has sown” (p. 236). Sadly, this news only prompts more sending on David’s part as he “sends” for Uriah (2 Sam. 11:6), hoping to induce him to sleep with his wife. When this tactic fails, David “sends” a letter with Uriah to Joab–a death warrant that seals Uriah’s fate (1 Sam. 11:14-15). All of this sending finally culminates in the Lord’s judgment on David when we are told: “Then the Lord sent Nathan to David” (2 Sam. 12:1). Although we have been following the significance of the word “send,” at this point in the story all 3 keywords reappear. In Nathan’s story about the rich man and the poor man (told to convict David of his sin), he uses the word “lay” to describe the action of the ewe lamb (representing Bathsheba–2 Sam. 12:3), while employing the verb “take” twice in 2 Samuel 12:4 in describing the transgression of the rich man. Once Nathan confronts David as the man he is indicting (“You are the man!”–2 Sam. 12:7), he describes David’s sin as “you have taken his wife to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:9, 10). As a result, Nathan says the Lord will “take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun” (2 Sam. 12:11). The word “lay” also occurs in the sad scene of David pleading for the life of the child born to this adulterous relationship. We are told that “David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground” (2 Sam. 12:16). Note that Nathan uses 2 of the 3 keywords in describing the consequences that David will face, plus David’s “laying all night on the ground” presents a vivid picture of the consequences of his sin. Thus all 3 words come together in this scene where the Lord, through his prophet Nathan, “sends” and convicts David of his sin. In this scene, the keywords, “send,” “take,” and “lay” take on a nuance they did not previously have in the story. Although they still describe David’s sin, they also now describe his judgment. By using the same 3 words, the author shows that David has indeed reaped what he has sowed.

David and Bathsheba: Forgiveness

David and Bathsheba give birth to Solomon. Drawing by Arlene Karnes from taken from
David and Bathsheba give birth to Solomon. Drawing by Arlene Karnes from taken from

Thankfully the Bible teaches that in spite of the worst kind of sin (even adultery and murder), God’s purpose in punishment is not to destroy, but to redeem. This truth is evident in the conclusion of the story. After the death of David and Bathsheba’s child we are told, “Then David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in to her and lay with her.” The result is the birth of Solomon. The birth of a child is one way in which the Old Testament demonstrates God’s blessing. This blessing is emphasized by the statement, “Now the Lord loved him and He sent word by the hand of Nathan the prophet: So he called his name Jedidiah [beloved of the Lord], because of the Lord” (2 Sam. 12:24-25). In this scene, 2 of the keywords reappear, but here the context is one of grace and acceptance. The word “lay” which once characterized David’s sin and judgment, now leads to the birth of a beloved child. Notice also that the Lord once again “sends” Nathan, but this time it is with a word of grace, stating his love for the child and even giving Solomon a nickname meaning “beloved.” It should also be noted that the word “comfort” suggests an act of kindness on David’s part, the first time we have seen David treat Bathsheba with any kind of compassion. But what of the third keyword? It actually occurs in the final scene of this story. The context of David and Bathsheba’s adultery is the war with Ammon (2 Sam. 10), which finally comes to a climax in 2 Samuel 12:26-31. It should be recalled that the event which precipitated David and Bathsheba’s sin was David staying in Jerusalem, rather than going with the army to besiege Rabbah (2 Sam. 11:1). In the final scene, Joab “sends” for David (2 Sam. 12:27). After David’s arrival at the battle front, we are informed, “So David gathered all the people together and went to Rabbah, fought against it, and took it” (2 Sam. 12:29). Following his victory we are told that David then “took their king’s crown from his head” (2 Sam. 12:30). This scene demonstrates that God gives David victory in spite of his sin. Once again, the picture is one of forgiveness and restoration and 2 of the three keywords appear in this final scene. Including the scene with the birth of Solomon, all 3 words occur in the context of grace and forgiveness at the end of the story. The repetition of these same 3 keywords at the end of the story emphasizes that God is able to take the worst situation and redeem it. The words that once characterized David’s sin and God’s judgment, in the end characterize his forgiveness!

Sovereignty and Free Will in 1&2 Samuel

Sovereignty and Free Will

Calvin and Arminius disagreed over the Bible's teaching of Sovereignty and Free Will
Calvin and Arminius disagreed over the Bible’s teaching of Sovereignty and Free Will

The debate between sovereignty and freewill will probably continue until the Lord returns. This is part of the classic controversy between what is known as Calvinism and Arminianism (for a comparison of these two belief systems click here). Simply put, the issue is, does God’s sovereignty overrule people’s ultimate freedom to choose, or can there be freedom of choice while maintaining that God is sovereign? The traditional Calvinistic position maintains that complete freedom to choose negates God’s sovereignty. Therefore within reformed theological circles (i.e., those who espouse a Calvinistic theology) it is affirmed that people have choice, but that choice is ultimately controlled by God’s sovereignty (For a fuller explanation click here for Wikipedia on Calvinism or click on the link above). The classic Arminian position advocates that it is possible for human beings to have complete freedom of choice without impinging on God’s sovereignty (for a defense of this position click here to read Jack Cottrell’s article entitled, “Sovereignty and Free Will”).

Piper's "FIve Points" is a contemporary look at the 5 points of Calvinism including sovereignty and free will.
Piper’s “FIve Points” is a contemporary look at the 5 points of Calvinism including sovereignty and free will.

Sovereignty and free will has been a hotly contested issue for many centuries and continues to be passionately debated within the church today (the popularity of books by John Piper, among others, has created renewed interest in this topic). It has been my experience that the topic of sovereignty and free will is often discussed in an atmosphere where each side pulls out their favorite scriptures supporting their viewpoint. It becomes a “prooftext” debate. I think a more productive approach is to look at this topic through the lens of a biblical book. Understanding the overall message(s) of a biblical book helps to fit the topic of sovereignty and free will within its biblical context. This post is not an attempt to solve the debate “once and for all,” but to look at how these ideas are addressed within the canonical context of 1&2 Samuel.

Sovereignty and Free Will in 1&2 Samuel

Hannah's prayer/song celebrates God's sovereignty
Hannah’s prayer/song celebrates God’s sovereignty

The Books of Samuel begin with a very strong statement regarding God’s sovereignty. Hannah’s prayer/song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 repeatedly emphasizes God’s power over His Creation and creatures. In the heart of this passage Hannah utters the following words: “The Lord kills and makes alive’ He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up (1 Sam. 2:6-7). Chapter 2 continues by contrasting the wickedness of Eli’s sons (Hophni & Phinehas) with the godly growth of Samuel. After Hopni & Phinehas reject their father’s rebuke, we are told, “Nevertheless they did not heed the voice of their father, because the Lord desired to kill them” (1 Sam. 2:25). This statement reaffirms the words of Hannah’s prayer, “The Lord kills and makes alive.” Such strong statements at the beginning of 1 Samuel may lead the reader to conclude that the sovereignty of God determines a person’s destiny without any regard to their free will. However, this understanding is immediately balanced in the text by the words of an unknown prophet who comes to Eli and rebukes him and his sons for their disobedience (1 Sam. 2:27-36). In the midst of this prophetic utterance, the man of God enunciates a principle which holds sway over all of the characters mentioned in 1&2 Samuel. Speaking as the Lord’s mouthpiece he proclaims, “‘I said indeed that your house and the house of your father would walk before Me forever,’ But now the Lord says, ‘Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed‘” (1 Sam. 2:30–my emphasis). This significant statement demonstrates that the Lord’s decisions to “kill and make alive,” or “bring low and lift up,” are not arbitrary decisions, but are based on people’s response to Him. This pattern of lifting up or bringing low is evidenced throughout 1&2 Samuel (e.g., Eli and Samuel, Saul and David, David and Absalom), and is consistently based on the actions of people who either honor or despise the Lord. What follows is an excerpt from my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” Sovereignty and free will are significant issues in the discussion of Absalom’s revolt. This excerpt (with a small amount of editing) is taken from the introduction to chapter 24 entitled, “Absalom: The Rebel.”

Absalom’s Rebellion in the Context of 1 and 2 Samuel (2 Sam. 13-20)

Purchase at Amazon USA / UK, or get the ebook from westbow
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In 2 Samuel chapters 13–20 the “strong” house of David (2 Sam. 3:1–5) unravels in fulfillment of the prophetic word announced in 2 Samuel 12:10–11. There the prophet Nathan, who formerly had announced to David an enduring house (2 Sam. 7:11–16), proclaims that the sword will never depart from his house, and that God will also raise up “evil” from his own house.
Within this framework, the sinful actions of Absalom and others recounted in these chapters become viewed as the repercussions of David’s own sin with Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11). Viewed from this perspective, the events are a divine judgment. David recognizes this in his flight from Absalom, when he rebukes Abishai over Shimei’s cursing and says, “Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the LORD has ordered him” (2 Sam. 16:11b). One writer has even entitled these chapters: “David Under the Curse” (Carlson, David the Chosen King)

Although David suffers greatly in these chapters, he is ultimately vindicated. While one might be hard-pressed to describe this as a “happy ending,” nonetheless it is a positive ending for David. Paradoxically then, David’s road becomes one of blessing and curse in these chapters. How is this to be explained? Furthermore, does David’s sin provide an excuse for Absalom? Can Absalom say in defense, “It’s not my fault; daddy made me do it”? Can he blame his rebellion on divine determinism which had decreed problems in David’s house? The story will clearly show that Absalom is responsible for his own decisions and bears the weight of his own guilt, but how does the text perceive this interlocking of divine sovereignty and free will?

David flees Absalom while Shimei curses and throws stones at him.
David flees Absalom while Shimei curses and throws stones at him.

I suggest the answer to all of the questions above is found in the introductory chapters of 1 Samuel (here I explore in more depth comments I have made when introducing this post). In a key statement made to Eli in 1 Samuel 2:30 God declares, “Those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (cursed). In Nathan’s rebuke of David he asks, “Why have you despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in His sight?” (2 Sam. 12:9). We have already noted that David accepts Shimei’s “cursing” because he believes it comes from the Lord (2 Sam. 16:11). The word used for “curse” in this passage is the same word translated “lightly esteem” in 1 Samuel 2:30. Thus, following the logic of 1 Samuel 2:30, the reason for David’s divine punishment (curse) in these chapters is because he has despised the Lord. Likewise, the sin of Absalom dishonors both David (the Lord’s anointed) and the Lord Himself, as we shall see (this is examined later in the chapter). As a result, Absalom experiences divine punishment too (2 Sam. 17:14b).

Judgment, however, is only part of the story. As we have noted, David also receives blessing from the Lord. This is explained by David’s humble submission to the Lord throughout the ordeal of Absalom’s revolt (e.g., 2 Sam. 15:30–31; 16:11). In fact, 2 Samuel chapters 15–18 alternate between David and Absalom, contrasting their actions and words just as 1 Samuel 2:11–36 shifts the focus between Samuel and Eli and his sons, comparing them. This contrast highlights David’s humility which results in his vindication, and Absalom’s ungodliness which results in his defeat.

Although the biblical text says that Absalom caught his head in the tree, it is probably a reference to Absalom's hair.
Absalom’s defeat is decreed by the Lord (2 Sam. 17:14)

In conjunction with 1 Samuel 2:30, Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:1–10) also provides the proper background for understanding Absalom’s revolt and its outcome. 2 Samuel 17:14b: “For the LORD had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahithophel, to the intent that the LORD might bring disaster on Absalom,” is a direct reflection of Hannah’s words, “The LORD kills and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Sam. 2:6). Absalom’s self-exaltation resulted in the Lord bringing him down. Similarly, David’s low point was the result of his sin, but his final vindication was based on his humble response to the Lord’s discipline which, in turn, resulted in the Lord lifting him up (1 Sam. 2:7). Putting these two passages together from 1 Samuel 2 (vv. 1–10 and v. 30) helps us to understand the themes of divine sovereignty and free will and how these two seemingly contradictory principles work together. It also explains how David walks the road of cursing and blessing in these chapters. God is sovereign. It is he who “brings low and lifts up” but God’s actions are not arbitrary. They are based on the decisions of people who either choose to honor or despise him. (End of excerpt).

Hopefully this brief treatment of the David and Absalom story in 2 Samuel 13-20 provides an example of how sovereignty and free will work together to accomplish God’s purposes. For a further treatment of this subject see the rest of the chapter on Absalom in “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.”

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

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Many people are unfamiliar with Asahel. He was the youngest brother of the more famous Joab, David’s army commander. Asahel only appears in one narrative, found in 2 Samuel 2. The story is about his vain pursuit of Abner, commander of Saul’s army, during the civil war between David and the house of Saul, resulting in his premature death. Asahel’s death is told in gruesome detail in 2 Samuel 2 and often leaves readers wondering why this story was related by the writer in the first place. The following post is an excerpt from chapter 20 of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. In this chapter, I look at 3 men who shared several similarities: 1) they were all nephews of David and thus cousins; 2) they were all warriors; and 3) they all appear in limited roles in 2 Samuel. Although a first reading of Asahel’s death may leave the reader puzzled, a more careful examination reveals some important truths for all of us. I hope you enjoy this excerpt and consider purchasing a copy of Family Portraits for yourself or a friend. (For another excerpt from Family Portraits click here to read about Peninnah).

Asahel: Running into Trouble (2 Samuel 2:18–23, 30–32)

When the initial contest between 12 soldiers from Israel and Judah resulted in the death of all, a full-scale battle erupted resulting in a great victory for David's men, but at the expense of Asahel
In 2 Samuel 2:14-17, when an initial contest between 12 soldiers from Israel and Judah resulted in the death of all, a full-scale battle erupted resulting in a great victory for David’s men, but at the expense of Asahel (painting by James J. Tissot, 1896-1902).

“Brave, impetuous, and ready to kill,” are the words we used to describe Abishai’s introduction in 1 Samuel. These same words are perhaps even truer of Asahel, proving him to be Abishai’s brother and a genuine son of Zeruiah. Together with Joab, all three brothers appear in 2 Samuel 2:18 in the midst of a conflict between Israel and Judah. The conflict was precipitated by Abner, who had marched his troops to Gibeon where he was met by Joab and “the servants of David” (2 Samuel 2:12–13). When an initial competition, also proposed by Abner, failed to produce a victor, the confrontation erupted into a full-scale battle, with Abner’s troops experiencing a sound defeat at the hands of David’s men (2 Samuel 2:14–17).
The victory, however, was not without great cost to the men of Judah. In a flashback of the battle, the author follows Asahel as he pursues Abner. The outcome of this altercation not only results in the death of Asahel one of Judah’s valiant warriors, it also sets the stage for a blood feud between Abner and the two remaining brothers (Joab and Abishai), culminating in the murder of Abner (2 Samuel 3:27, 30).

Asahel is described “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle.”

Asahel is described as one who is “as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle” (2 Samuel 2:18). It is Asahel’s running ability that provides the setting for the chase scene described in verses 19–23. However, Asahel’s greatest asset will prove to be his greatest liability––a liability perhaps hinted at in his description as a “gazelle.” While gazelles are fast and nimble, they are not known for their strength or predatory nature. Gazelles are not usually “pursuers” (v. 19): they use their speed to flee from danger, not to run towards it! What chance does a gazelle have if it pursues a battle-hardened warrior like Abner?

Furthermore, the word “gazelle” sounds a note of familiarity with a statement found in the previous chapter: “The beauty (gazelle) of Israel is slain on your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). The gazelle that David laments is probably Jonathan (see 2 Samuel 1:25) but could also include Saul. While Asahel’s equation with Jonathan may seem complimentary, it has an ominous ring to it. The previous gazelle (Jonathan) had been slain and had fallen in battle; likewise, Asahel the gazelle will soon be slain and “fall” in battle (2 Samuel 2:23).

The chase begins in earnest in verse 19. Two expressions characterize the dogged determination of Asahel. The first expression, “he did not turn to the right hand or to the left (vv. 19, 21), is language frequently used in Deuteronomy–2 Kings in reference to not deviating from the path of the Lord (Deut. 5:32; 17:11, 20; 28:14; Josh. 1:7; 23:6; 2 Kings 22:2). The second term is ʾaḥarē, occurring seven times in verses 19–23 and variously translated as “after,” “behind,” or “back.” It is also used frequently to express following “after” the Lord, or not following “after” other gods (Deut. 4:3; 6:14; 13:4; 1 Kings 14:8; 18:21; 2 Kings 23:3). Thus, Asahel’s pursuit of Abner uses language that articulates the resolve Israel should have in following the Lord. While pursuing the Lord leads to life (Deut. 5:32–33), Asahel’s single-minded pursuit of Abner ironically leads to his death (v. 23). An outline of 2 Samuel 2:19–23 demonstrates Asahel’s determination as it alternates between his pursuit and Abner’s warnings: Asahel pursues (v. 19); Abner turns and speaks (20–21d); Asahel continues his pursuit (21e); Abner speaks and cautions (22); Asahel continues (23a); Abner finally strikes (23b–d).


Asahel pursues Abner. Painting by James Tissot

Still at some distance, Abner turns “behind him” to see Asahel hot on his trail (2 Samuel 2:20). Wishing to confirm the pursuer’s identity Abner calls out, “Are you Asahel?” to which Asahel responds with one breathless word, “I.” It is the only word he speaks in the entire narrative, highlighting his resolute focus on pursuing his prey. He is not interested in conversation; he is interested in catching Abner. As his name implies, Asahel is all about “doing” (“God has done,” or “made”) rather than talking. The doing, however, seems to have little to do with God and more to do with Asahel himself. Hence, Asahel’s answer, “I,” takes on a deeper significance.
Although the language is reminiscent of one pursuing God, the fact is that Asahel is in pursuit of his own glory. What could bring greater honor to a soldier than to kill the commander of the enemy’s army? This quest not only makes Asahel mute, but also deaf to the sound advice Abner tries to dispense. Using language that parallels the narrator’s, Abner says, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and lay hold on one of the young men and take his armor for yourself ” (2 Samuel 2:21). This is Abner’s way of telling Asahel to pick on someone his own size, or, in other words, to take on someone of his own skill level and not to tangle with a more experienced soldier like himself. Asahel is undeterred.

Next, Abner is more direct and makes Asahel aware of the deadly consequences he will face if he does not cease his pursuit: “Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I face your brother Joab?” (2 Samuel 2:22). Abner interjects an emotional element into his plea (“your brother Joab”), hoping it will slow down the fleet-footed Asahel. The advice, threats, and emotional pleas are all to no avail, however, as the narrator reports, “He refused to turn aside” (2 Samuel 2:23a). It is the last decision he will ever make, and it is a deadly one.

Winding Up on the Wrong End of the Stick!

Abner kills Asahel
When Asahel refuses to stop, Abner stops him with the back end of his spear (2 Samuel 2:23–painting by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695).

Asahel will not stop himself, so Abner must stop him. So far, Abner’s rhetoric has not caused his thick-headed opponent to “get the point.” Ironically, he will also not get the point of Abner’s weapon. Instead, with a thrust of the back end of his spear, Abner brings Asahel’s pursuit to an abrupt halt as the spear travels through his abdomen and proceeds out of his back (2 Samuel 2:23). It is ironic that with one blow of his spear, Abner did to Abishai’s brother what Abishai had wanted to do to Saul (1 Sam. 26:8). Asahel’s pursuit of glory causes him to “wind up on the wrong end of the stick.” Abner’s military prowess is so superior that it is not even necessary for him to assume the normal fighting posture of facing his adversary. This accords Asahel no respect. His death appears foolish and needless. Indeed, David’s lament over Abner in the next chapter (2 Samuel 3:33) could well have been sung over Asahel: “Should [Asahel] die as a fool dies?”
Asahel is the first of four characters to be stabbed in the abdomen in 2 Samuel. The first and the last (Amasa) to experience this fate are of the house of David, while the middle two (Abner and Ish-bosheth) are of the house of Saul, forming a deadly chiasm within 2 Samuel. Later in this chapter we will notice that the wording of Amasa’s death evokes images of Asahel’s, adding irony to the gruesome inclusio formed by their demise.

The conclusion of the battle underscores an important difference between Asahel and his brother Joab. After Abner pleads with Joab to, “return from following after his brothers” (2 Samuel 2:26—my translation), verse 30 informs the reader, “Then Joab returned from following after Abner.” The use of “after” reminds us of Asahel’s pursuit of Abner, and highlights Joab’s wisdom. Joab knows when to stop pursuing; he will wait for a more convenient opportunity. The contrast between the two brothers is stark. The body count for Judah says it all: nineteen men plus Asahel—the man who did not know when to quit. Asahel’s pursuit leads to a tomb in Bethlehem, while the wiser Joab lives to fight another day (2 Samuel 2:32).

Conclusion: Stop and Listen

The honor paid to Asahel by listing him first among David’s Thirty mighty men (2 Sam. 23:24) does not diminish the unnecessary tragedy of his death. Asahel proves himself to be much like his brothers: impetuous, hard, stubborn, and preferring violence to diplomacy. The one valuable quality of his brothers that he desperately lacks is discernment. McCarter rightly observes of Asahel that, “[He] appears in the present story as one so headstrong that he will not listen to reason even to save his own life.”
Stop-And-ListenThe Hebrew Scriptures frequently associate the act of listening with following the Lord. They are full of exhortations to listen, hear, heed, etc.; and the Scriptures record the consequences of those who do not (e.g., Exod. 15:26; Lev. 26:14–39; Judg. 2:17; 1 Sam. 15:22). Although Asahel’s story is not directly about listening to the Lord, the formulaic language used in the story recalls the frequent exhortation in Scripture to follow the Lord. Asahel’s wrong-headed pursuit took him down the enemy’s path and far from the safety of his comrades. Likewise, our pursuit of our own selfish goals can take us down the wrong path and lead us far from the safety of God’s people.

In one sense Asahel’s real-life tragedy becomes an analogy and warning to the nation of Israel, who often stubbornly chose to follow their own way (2 Kings 17:13–14) and closed their ears to God’s word and the way of wisdom (Isa. 6:10; Jer. 5:21). The same attitude is vividly portrayed in the New Testament, when members of the Sanhedrin refused to listen any longer to Stephen’s words. Luke reports: “Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord” (Acts 7:57).

Of course the story of Asahel is not just a warning to Israel, but to anyone who stubbornly pursues their own agenda while ignoring the wisdom of God and others. The grisly account of his death demonstrates how vain the all-out pursuit of glory is. If Asahel had stopped to consider Abner’s warnings, then he would not have been stopped by Abner’s spear. The message is clear: a stubborn refusal to stop and listen to good advice may have deadly consequences.

Peninnah: The Other Woman

Family-Portraits-CoverThe following article is an excerpt from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. It is taken from chapter 2 which is a character study on Peninnah, one of the wives of Elkanah, the father of Samuel. I chose this excerpt because the study on Peninnah is the shortest in the book. The article is essentially the same as the book with a few editorial comments added to help the reader who doesn’t have access to the book (the photos are not original to the book but are also added). If you enjoy this excerpt please consider purchasing a copy of Family Portraits. Clicking on the book icon (on the right or in the left margin below) or on the links at the end of the article will connect you to sites where the book can be purchased.

Peninnah: The Other Woman (Samuel’s Stepmother)

And her rival also provoked her severely, to make her miserable (1 Sam. 1:6) 

How Would You Want to Be Remembered?

thoughtfulPeninnah only appears in four verses in 1 Samuel chapter 1. It is hardly enough to gain a true portrait of the woman herself, but is enough to give us a negative impression of her. The writer of 1 and 2 Samuel cannot possibly develop fully the story of every person he mentions, but the question comes to mind, “If you were going to be remembered for only one thing, what would you want that to be?” Unfortunately for Peninnah, our only memory of her is that of a bitter and spiteful person. She is described as Hannah’s “rival” (1 Sam. 1:6). Birch notes that this is “a term seldom used in describing family relationships and often translated as ‘enemy’ or ‘adversary’ in describing relationships between peoples or nations.” (Bruce Birch, The First and Second Books of Samuel, The New Intepreter’s Bible, p. 975) In a book where family rivalries will sometimes turn into deadly national conflicts, perhaps this word intentionally suggests a “preview of coming attractions.” If it had been possible to take a photograph of Peninnah, like any good rival, she would have had a frown on her face and a scowl on her lips.

“Facing” the Facts: Peninnah’s Name (1 Sam. 1:2)

faceThe meaning of Peninnah’s name is obscure. It may be related to the word “ruby” or “pearl.” Fokkelman (Vow and Desire, p. 17) writes it “is a name which suggests a beautiful exterior,” which in the present context would be ironic (that is, beautiful on the outside but jealous and spiteful on the inside). It has also been suggested that her name means “prolific” which would correspond to her role as the childbearing wife in this story (Ralph Kline, 1 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 6). However, I would suggest the significance of Peninnah’s name lies more in its sound than in its meaning. Several of the names mentioned in chapters 1 and 2 have the letters “peni ” (or, “pheni ”) in them. In addition to Peninnah, these letters are also found in the names Hophni and Phinehas. While this easily goes unnoticed in English, it is more obvious in the original language. The word peni (or, pheni — the same consonant can be pronounced as a hard or soft “p”) in Hebrew means “face,” or “before” (ESV “in the presence of”); and is used frequently throughout the first and second chapters (1 Sam. 1:12, 15, 18, 19, 22; 2:11, 17, 18, 21).

This puts a spotlight on the word “face,” or “before.” It is important to note that this word is always connected with the Lord in this story. Perhaps the story is highlighting the importance of seeking the Lord’s “face” (or “presence”), or perhaps we are being reminded that all we do is done “before” the “face” of the Lord.

Seeking the Lord’s face is certainly important in understanding the change in Hannah’s countenance (1:12, 15, and 18). But the sin of Hophni and Phinehas is also done “before the LORD” (2:17), and so we may be justified in saying that this story is reminding us that all we do, whether good or evil, is done “before the LORD.” We have all experienced that the presence of certain people can be an encouragement to do what is right. This is one of the important aspects of Christian fellowship. If we are constantly aware of God’s presence in our life, setting our minds on heavenly things (Col. 3:2), and having fellowship with him (1 John 1:3), then we will act and think in a Christ-like way. An awareness that we are always “before the face” of the Lord is a great deterrent to sin.

Family Worship or “War”ship? (1 Sam. 1:4–7)

Peninnah hassled Hannah each year they went to the feast at Shiloh
Peninnah hassled Hannah each year they went to the feast at Shiloh

Would Peninnah’s actions have been different if she had been conscious of the fact that all she did was “before the LORD”? The only thing we know about Peninnah, besides the fact that she had several sons and daughters, is that she continually rubbed Hannah’s nose in this fact. Peninnah’s timing makes her actions even more reprehensible. She chooses the time of the yearly pilgrimage to Shiloh to hound Hannah about being barren. What should be a joyous time of celebrating and worshipping the Lord becomes a miserable family fiasco. It is interesting how everything can be alright until it is time to go to church. All of a sudden, husbands and wives have a fight, or the kids start fighting with one another, or mom and dad are yelling at the kids to behave. In the car, on the way to church, an otherwise godly family can become screaming lunatics!

Each year the pilgrimage to Shiloh for Elkanah’s family was the holiday from hell. Our admiration for Elkanah grows (Elkanah faces a number of challenges that I elaborate on in his character study in chapter 1). The easy thing to do would be to cancel the trip and save everyone the pain and misery. But Elkanah, this “God-bought” man (one of the possible meanings of Elkanah’s name, also discussed in chapter 1), knows the importance of worshipping the Lord together as a family.

When one considers the family obstacle, along with going to a sanctuary presided over by a corrupt priesthood, Elkanah’s commitment is quite extraordinary. Satan still uses the same methods of discouragement today.  He whispers, “If it is this much hassle for your family, you are better off not going to church.” Or he says, “Look at the mess your family is in. Who do you think you are, to be going to church!” If he can’t persuade us this way, he will turn our eyes to the leaders or other members of the church and say, “You are better off staying at home, look at those hypocrites. Do you really want to worship with them!” Elkanah’s response needs to be our response as well.

Worshipping God naturally leads to loving others! (This photos is from a worship service at Calvary Chapel York)
Worshipping God naturally leads to loving others! (This photos is from a worship service at Calvary Chapel York)

This painful scene portrays an important truth. 1 Samuel 1:7 states, “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, that she provoked her.” Peninnah fails to make the connection between worshipping the Lord and her treatment of others. It is while she is on her way to worship that she treats Hannah so spitefully! How is it that we can sit in a worship service and praise the Lord, yet immediately think or speak so cruelly of others made in God’s image? Speaking of the tongue, James writes, “With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  Or as John writes,  “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).

Conclusion: Should We Pity Peninnah?

helenIt is tempting to feel sorry for Peninnah. After all, she is Elkanah’s second choice and she knows it. The reason for her bitterness and spite is because she is not loved with the same measure as Hannah, if at all (1 Sam. 1:5). Elkanah was doubtless guilty of open favoritism, which in a family can be devastating—just ask Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob, who were guilty of the same thing (Gen. 27 and 37). There are two lessons here. First, Elkanah is ultimately responsible for the pain he and his family experienced. If he had trusted God in the first place, he would never have married Peninnah and thus they all would have been spared the grief caused by this less-than-ideal situation (This is further discussed in Elkanah’s character study in chapter 1). Despite the mistake of bigamy, if he had treated his wives more equitably there would have been less room for jealousy.

Second, Peninnah also bears responsibility for her actions. She was clearly seeking her security in the love of her husband rather than in the Lord she was supposedly worshipping. This is not to ignore her very real pain of being loved less; it is only to say that she still had a responsibility for the way she responded. We will not always be loved by others the way we would like to be. Sometimes the circumstances are of our own making, but sometimes they are not. Circumstances may influence attitudes, but they are not the only determining factor. God has given us an ability to choose. We choose to grow bitter or we choose to grow in grace. Circumstances may help or hinder, but the choice is still ours. Today’s society is quick to absolve people of responsibility. “It is my parents’ fault” or “my spouse’s fault” that I am the way I am. This kind of reasoning is foreign to the Bible. It is right to have empathy for people who are in difficult situations with much pain and suffering, but it is wrong for the person in that situation to allow those circumstances to mold their character in a negative way. God is the Potter and he can take any circumstance and use it for good, but we must yield our lives to his gracious, omnipotent hands.

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Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?

Important or Impotent: How Many Sons Did Absalom Have?

Did you know that 2 Samuel 14:27 states that Absalom had 3 sons, but in 2 Samuel 18:18 Absalom says that he has no son? In the previous article on Absalom’s hair I pointed out this apparent contradiction and promised to offer an explanation. The easiest way of explaining away the contradiction (frequently suggested by commentators) is that Absalom’s sons must have died prematurely. I believe this whitewashes the problem (the text gives no hint that the sons died) and obscures what the biblical author is seeking to accomplish.

Writing Technique in 1&2 Samuel

The author(s) of 1&2 Samuel seems to be fond of using inconsistencies in the story as a literary technique that causes the reader to pause and reconsider something stated earlier in the narrative. There are numerous examples of this, but perhaps the best is when Saul was commanded to wipe out Israel’s enemy, the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:1-3).

Samuel slays Agag
Samuel slays Agag

Although the story makes clear that Saul is disobedient in sparing the king of the Amalekites, Agag (15:9), he appears to be the only human survivor. Subsequently, he is put to death by Samuel (15:33), which seems to put an end to all of the Amalekites. However, in the chapters surrounding the death of Saul, we are not only reminded that he was disobedient by not wiping out the Amalekites (1 Sam. 28:18), but Amalekites appear all over the place! (1 Sam. 27:8; 30:1-18; 2 Sam. 1:8, 13). This often puzzles readers, and may appear contradictory. In fact, it is a masterful way of surprising the reader and driving home the message that Saul was far more disobedient than we realized!
This same writing technique is at work in the two statements about Absalom’s sons (or lack thereof). The first important observation is to notice where these statements occur. The author uses the two statements about Absalom’s children (2 Sam. 14:27; 18:18) to bracket the account of Absalom’s rebellion. As discussed in the last article, the notice about Absalom’s hair and children, is a statement of power and virility. It causes the reader to think of him as a mighty warrior and a formidable foe. The second statement (“I have no son”) occurs immediately after Absalom’s death and burial, and metaphorically reveals the truth of the matter: Absalom was not a mighty warrior, nor a real threat to the kingdom. He was not as important as he appeared; in fact, he was impotent.

Isn’t There Still a Contradiction About How Many Sons Absalom Had?

While this might seem like a plausible explanation as far as the literary technique goes, it still leaves the obvious questions: so exactly how many sons did Absalom have, and aren’t the two passages still contradictory? The answer to these questions is found in examining the two texts carefully. 2 Sam. 14:27 is an objective statement by the biblical narrator that Absalom had 3 sons and 1 daughter. A fundamental rule of biblical interpretation is: you can trust the biblical narrator because he always tells the truth (see my book Family Portraits, p. 9 for a brief discussion on this point). Therefore, we can be confident that Absalom did indeed have 3 sons and 1 daughter.
Notice, however, that the statement about having no son in 2 Sam. 18:18 is not made by the narrator, but by Absalom himself. Could Absalom be wrong? This hardly seems likely. Absalom would surely know how many sons he has, and so would all who know him, therefore, this too must be an accurate statement. But if the narrator and Absalom contradict each other, how can they both be right? I suggest we are asking the wrong question. The important question is not “how many sons,” but rather, at what time in his life did Absalom make this assertion? Although the narrator puts this statement after Absalom’s death and burial, it is clear that it happened  at some point in Absalom’s past. The author is merely reporting it posthumously. 2 Sam. 18:18 is actually very vague about when Absalom uttered these words. It simply says, “in his lifetime.” In other words, Absalom’s statement is taken from some unspecified time in his life. The statement should not be viewed chronologically, as if it had to have occurred after the observation in 2 Sam. 14:27. This can mean that when Absalom initially uttered it, it was true. In fact, it is obvious from this statement that Absalom used having no son as a justification for erecting a monument to himself. Later on, however, he fathers 3 sons and a daughter. So Absalom ends up with the best of both worlds: He gets a monument to himself plus, later on, 3 sons and a daughter!

Absalom appears important by having 50 men run alongside his chariot
Absalom appears important by having 50 men run alongside his chariot

This recognition reveals the hypocrisy of Absalom. A character study demonstrates that he is a master at making things appear other than they really are (see chapter 24 in Family Portraits).
The biblical author cleverly captures this by taking Absalom’s statement about not having a son out of its chronological context (which he tells us he is doing by the statement, “in his lifetime”) and putting it at the end of his life. The reader notices the contradiction between 14:27 and 18:18 and, by carefully examining the passages, concludes that Absalom is not what he appears to be. Absalom’s humiliating death and burial become conclusive proof of this fact, and all those who were beguiled by his charm and good looks now appear foolish. The message is sobering: we may be able to mask who we really are for awhile, but at some point, whether in life or in death, the truth will ultimately be revealed. Better to be honest and real while we live. Better to live with integrity, than to allow death to unmask the ugly truth about us. Thank heaven for a God who sees and accepts us just as we are, if we are only willing to remove the mask and let Him in.

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head With Hair!

Absalom's hair caught in a tree
Although the biblical text says that Absalom caught his head in the tree, it is probably a reference to Absalom’s hair.

Did you know that in the ancient Near East long hair was frequently a picture of a warrior’s prowess and strength? The most obvious example from the Bible is Samson whose long hair is explicitly connected with his strength (Judges 16:17). Samson’s long hair symbolized his separation to God (the true source of his strength––Judges 13:5) and when his hair disappeared, so did the Lord’s presence (Judges 16:20). But Samson is not the only long-haired warrior mentioned in Scripture. In fact, the man I have in mind is very Samson-like in some respects. He is spoiled, likes to burn other people’s fields (Judges 15:4-5; 2 Sam. 14:30), and is well-known for his long luxuriant hair (2 Sam. 14:26). His name is Absalom, one of David’s sons. Absalom had so much hair that when he cut it each year it was said to weigh between 4-5 pounds! (2 Sam. 14:26). We are familiar with Samson’s connection to hair, but why does the biblical author draw so much attention to Absalom’s hair? There are probably several reasons.

The Significance of Absalom’s Hair

The mention of Absalom’s hair prefaces the story of his rebellion against David. Since long hair was associated with strength, this could be considered an ominous sign, suggesting that Absalom will be successful in overthrowing his father. However, Absalom not only has a fertile head of hair, he is also quite fertile in other ways, having fathered 3 sons and 1 daughter (14:27). Earlier in the story, David’s potency as a father is also connected with the strength of his rule (see 2 Sam. 3:1-5). Therefore, the long-haired, and virile Absalom appears to pose a real threat to the kingdom of David. Add to this his good-looks and charming ways (2 Sam. 14:25; 15:2-6), and Absalom appears to be a winning candidate for the kingship. This is often the basis for choosing today’s politicians. If they look good, and have the ability to schmooze the people, then they are surely the right person for the job!

Looks Can Be Deceiving!

Absalom’s story is just one of many recounted in 1&2 Samuel that teaches us “looks can be deceiving.” In reality, Absalom is none of the things he appears to be. His desire to destroy his father tarnishes his good-looking image. In fact,  Absalom’s hair conspires with the branches of a tree to do him in (2 Sam. 18:9-10–the text reads “head” which in this case is another way of speaking of his hair). Far from being a strong warrior, Absalom proves to be quite inept. Even Absalom’s potency as a father is challenged at his death when we are told that he set up a monument for himself because he had no son (2 Sam. 18:18). Wait a minute! I thought Absalom had 3 sons? I will offer an explanation of this apparent contradiction in my next article, or, for a full treatment of this problem you can read the chapter on Absalom in my book Family Portraits (especially pages 364-365 and 379-380). Meanwhile, we should take the Bible’s advice seriously and not believe everything we see. Patience and discernment are important ingredients of wisdom, and time is a great revealer of the truth!

My Book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press and other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel
Available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and other sites

The following interview on my book “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel” was conducted by my friend and colleague Lindsay Kennedy who is a teacher at Calvary Chapel Bible College York, and an active blogger of all things biblical. You can find his blogs and book reviews, as well as other information, at

1. You (almost) exclusively teach OT history (Genesis, Josh-Kings) at CCBCY (Calvary Chapel Bible College York). What first sparked your interest in the Old Testament?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree in biblical studies, a man by the name of Gerald Vinther came to teach during my junior and senior years at the bible college I was attending. He taught OT and the Hebrew language. His classes totally revolutionized my view of God and of the OT. Whether looking at Genesis or the Prophets, he demonstrated the consistency of God’s character between the Old and New Testaments. I discovered a God of grace and love in the OT who desired to have a relationship with His people, just like the God of the NT. My particular church tradition had emphasized the judgmental nature of the God of the OT and de-emphasized the significance of the OT. When we saw the character of God revealed in the pages of the OT, one of my classmates described it as being born-again…again! Since then I have fallen in love with the study of the OT and the God revealed in its pages. Because many Christians don’t know the OT and often have misconceptions about it, and the God revealed in its pages, I have found great joy in assisting others in seeing its beauty and truth, much like I was introduced to it years ago. By the way, this is why I give a special “thank you” in the preface of Family Portraits to Gerald Vinther, and also to my graduate professor in OT, John T. Willis who also had an important influence on me.

2. For as long as I’ve known you, you have been working on this book. What drove you to write Family Portraits?

I was drawn to the books of Samuel in graduate school and have continued to study them for many years. One of the things I noticed in my study was the theme of family and the prominence of four families within 1&2 Samuel (Samuel’s, Eli’s, Saul’s, and David’s). None of the studies or commentaries I have read bring out the significance of this particular theme.  Also, although many character studies have been done on David, Saul, and Samuel, few have been done on the other members of their family, and no book has sought to tackle them all as I do in Family Portraits.

I was also intrigued by the fact that character studies, if done correctly, can assist the student of 1&2 Samuel in understanding its characters in a way that a commentary approach can’t. The sustained reflection on a certain character, noting all the places where they appear in the text, often reveals insights that can be overlooked in a commentary. This approach actually modified my understanding of certain characters like Abner and Joab.

3. This is a book of character studies in 1&2 Samuel, yet surprisingly you have omitted sections on Samuel, Saul, and David. What can we learn from investigating the supporting cast in this story?

As I mentioned in the last question, a number of studies have been done on these three major characters, but very little has been done on other members of the “supporting cast”. In the Preface to Family Portraits, I compare character studies with an artist who paints a portrait. Although the artist may seek to focus attention on a certain person or object within the painting in order to convey his or her message, the person or object is enhanced by everything else in the painting, which might include various colors, shapes, objects, or people. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, is an example of this. While Christ is the focal point of the painting, the expressions and actions of the 12 disciples surrounding him add depth and detail to the portrait and meaning of the painting.

One of the techniques that the author(s) of 1&2 Samuel uses is contrasting various characters with other characters. For example, Hannah is contrasted with Peninnah as well as Eli. Samuel is contrasted with Eli and his sons. Jonathan is contrasted with Saul, and David is contrasted with Saul and Absalom. These are only a few examples of the many comparisons and contrasts made between characters in 1&2 Samuel. By studying the lesser known characters and their interaction with God and the major characters, we are able to discern some of the important messages that the author(s) was seeking to convey to his readers.

4. Family Portraits is unique because it incorporates both academic and devotional material in one place. Who did you have in mind when writing this book?

First let me say that I believe it is extremely important to combine an academic and devotional approach (by which I mean making practical application to our daily lives). I am glad to see that this approach is beginning to catch on in evangelical circles. Far too often books are either academic in nature with no application, or devotional with no solid scholarly foundation. The academic approach runs the risk of being irrelevant and a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, while at the same time making the Bible appear irrelevant to a modern reader. The devotional/applicational approach can run the risk of a passage meaning whatever a particular author wants or thinks it means, if not backed up with solid research and exegesis.

To answer your question more directly, Family Portraits is written for the pastor, teacher, Bible College or seminary student, and Christian who is interested in a more in-depth treatment of 1&2 Samuel. While some pastors and Bible college students may be familiar with Hebrew and some of the more technical aspects of Bible study, I have tried to be aware of those who don’t have this expertise.  I seek to explain unfamiliar terms and methods and refer to the Hebrew only when it illuminates an important point in the text. Admittedly this can, at times, be a delicate balancing act. Part of my desire is to introduce ideas and methods that the average layperson is unfamiliar with, in hopes that they will be challenged to go to the next level in their own study of the Bible.

5. What do you hope your readers will take away from Family Portraits?

First, and foremost, I hope that Family Portraits helps people to develop a closer relationship with, and greater understanding of, the God of the Bible. Character studies are an excellent vehicle for helping us to see ourselves and how the Word of God applies to our lives. In the characters of 1&2 Samuel we find traits that we admire and abhor, and hopefully learning (or being reminded of) these truths causes us to examine our own lives and seek God’s help in becoming the people He desires us to be.

Second, there are a lot of great books that deal with various aspects of 1&2 Samuel that the average Christian layperson will never to exposed to. In fact, the average layperson may never even know that these resources exist! Some of these Bible study methods and scholars provide wonderful insights into God’s Word. I hope that Family Portraits, in some small way, introduces them to these resources and scholars and encourages them to pursue a deeper study of the Scripture.

Finally, I am hopeful that Family Portraits helps to provide a model for studying Scripture with an academic rigor, but at the same time, with a pastoral heart. As I mentioned in the previous question, and also emphasize in my Preface and Introduction, I believe it is imperative that academic research and devotional application go together. Having said this, I admit my own inadequacy in combining these approaches and don’t pretend to have achieved complete success. I certainly need to continue to grow in both of these areas. Yet it is my hope that Family Portraits is at least an attempt that demonstrates the fruitfulness of this kind of approach.

Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK, WestBow Press, and various internet outlets.