Category Archives: Motifs in Samuel

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

dead dogWe live in a dog lover’s world and so it should come as no surprise that we use many idioms related to our four-legged friends. The positive use of an idiom involving dogs is usually related to puppies. We talk about having “puppy dog eyes,” or when speaking of teenagers we say they have a case of “puppy love.” Of course there’s also the colloquial expression, “What’s up dog?,” or “Yo dawg!” As much as we love our dogs, it’s surprising how often we use them in idioms with a negative meaning. “It’s a dog-eat- dog world,” “I’m sick as a dog,” “I’m dog-tired,” “You work like a dog,” and many more (see How friendly are these 29 dog idioms–disclaimer, some of these aren’t the nicest of expressions!). When a woman is called “a dog,” or worse, a female version of a dog, it’s not a compliment! If someone pranks me, I might threaten them good-naturedly by saying, “You’re a dead dog!” When someone is wasting time we might say, “You’re beating a dead dog,” although admittedly I’ve heard “horse” used in this idiom more frequently.  Although we are talking about dead dogs in this post, hopefully we won’t be beating any (i.e., I hope you think the article is worth your time)!

“Dog” in Scripture

vicious dog
Enemies in Scripture can be pictured as menacing dogs.

While current idiom’s can use “dog” positively or negatively,  dog language in Scripture is always negative. “The psalmist’s enemies are presented as menacing dogs (Ps. 22:16 [17]), and dogs represent a fool in Prov. 26:11, where the folly or sins of the fool are compared to the filth of dog vomit. Israel’s sentinels are called ‘silent dogs’ who sleep rather than bark, while Israel’s enemy is described as a voracious, devouring dog (Isa. 56:10–11)” (M.E. Taylor, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 352). “Dogs were scavengers and kept towns clean by consuming garbage and unburied corpses (Ps. 59:14–15 [MT 15–16])” (Ibid.). The NT, like the OT, considers dogs to be an unclean animal (Matt. 15:26-27). In fact, in Revelation’s picture of the heavenly city, dogs are said to be on the outside along with other unsavory characters (Rev. 22:15).

“Dog” and “Dead Dog” in Samuel

There are 5 occurrences of dog language in Samuel with a possible sixth occurrence (which will be explained below). Three verses specifically use the words “dead dog” (1 Sam. 24:14 {MT 15]; 2 Sam. 9:8; 16:9). In the other two occurrences the speakers refer to themselves as “dogs” and later end up dead (1 Sam. 17:43; 2 Sam. 3:8). So it seems that we can legitimately label these as “dead dog” passages as well. These passages use the word “dog” in one of two ways: 1) When someone is called a “dead dog,” the person using the expression is speaking disparagingly of another. 2) When a person refers to themselves as a “dead dog,” it is usually a statement of humility, unless the context makes it clear that they do not see themselves as a “dog.”

Goliath and Abner: Dogs Who End Up Dead

Goliath becomes a dead dog
Goliath denies that he is a dog, nevertheless, he winds up eating the dust like a dead dog.

When David goes out to engage Goliath in battle, Goliath says, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Sam. 17:43). Goliath’s question is clearly rhetorical. He does not believe that he is a dog, and therefore, this is a derogatory use of the word. In other words, Goliath is not expressing humility by referring to himself as a dog. Ironically, a few verses later, Goliath winds up dead, proving he is, in fact, a “dead dog!”

When Ishbosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with Rizpah, his father’s concubine, Abner angrily retorts, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Once again, we have a rhetorical question. Clearly Abner does not think that he is a “dog’s head.” There are several interesting observations that can be made about this response. Anderson observes, “Since sexual promiscuity of dogs is nearly proverbial, Abner’s exclamation is fairly apposite” (A.A. Anderson, WBC, 2 Samuel, p. 56). It is also noted by some scholars that “dog’s head” may, in fact, be a euphemistic reference that actually refer’s to a dog’s backside! (See e.g., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel–Vol. 2, p. 424). Finally, the word for dog in Hebrew is keleb. The name Caleb comes from this word. It’s possible that Abner was making a wordplay here. Recall that at this time David was reigning over Judah from Hebron (2 Sam. 2:1-4). Hebron was the city given by Joshua to Caleb (Josh. 15:13). When Abner says, “Am I a dog’s head of Judah?,” some scholars take this to mean “Am I the chief of Caleb of Judah?” “Head” here would mean “leader” (see my post on the head motif in Samuel). The reference to Caleb (which means “dog”) would be a way of referencing Hebron. Therefore, Abner would be saying, “Do you think I’m loyal to David who rules over Caleb’s territory in Hebron?” (On this interpretation see, McCarter, 2 Samuel, Yale Anchor Bible, p. 106). At the same time, the expression carries the idea of being a dog’s head and thus it would have a double meaning. If this is the case, then this would be a clever retort indeed! By the end of the chapter (2 Sam. 3:27), the man who sarcastically referred to himself as a “dog’s head,” is dead.

Shimei, the Dead Dog

Shimei, the dead dog
Shimei’s cursing of David leads to his appellation as a “dead dog” by Abishai.

The clearest case of “dead dog” having a derogatory meaning is found in 2 Samuel 16:9. The context is a report of David’s flight from Jerusalem during the revolt of Absalom. As David is fleeing, Shimei throws rocks and dirt his way, while cursing him. Abishai, one of David’s commanders, gets fed up with this insulting behavior and says, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.” David refuses to allow him and later, following Absalom’s defeat, when Shimei begs for his life, David pardons him (2 Sam. 19:16-23). However, David never forgets Shimei’s treachery and on his death bed he tells Solomon to deal wisely with him and see that he does not go to the grave peacefully (1 Kgs. 2:8-9). Eventually, Shimei breaks an agreement that he had made with Solomon. The result is his execution (1 Kgs. 2:39-46). In the end, Shimei truly winds up as a “dead dog.”

David & Mephibosheth: Dead Dogs

David spares Saul
David spares Saul. Image courtesy of St-Takla.org

The final two occurrences of this expression in the books of Samuel are found on the lips of David and Mephibosheth respectively. On one occasion when Saul is pursuing David in the Wilderness, David spares his life. Later, David confronts Saul by showing a piece of Saul’s robe in his hand, demonstrating that he might have killed him. After pleading with Saul he states, “After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! (1 Sam. 24:14). David’s reference to himself as a “dead dog” is a statement of humility. He is claiming to be insignificant. This is also backed up by his reference to himself as a “flea.”

Mephibosheth the dead dog
Mephibosheth approaches King David with humility.

When Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s crippled son, is summoned to appear before David, he comes in fear. As he approaches the king, he falls on his face in reverence. David tells him not to fear, and promises that he will restore all of Saul’s land to him and have him eat at the king’s table as one of his sons. Mephibosheth responds by saying, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?” (2 Sam. 9:8). This statement certainly expresses Mephibosheth’s humility, but in most circumstances, these words would also be literally true. It was very common in the ancient world when a new dynasty was established, the new king would kill all of the remaining descendants of the former king.  This is why Mephibosheth was hiding out in a place called Lo-Debar (2 Sam. 9:4), and why David was unaware of whether Saul had any surviving descendants (2 Sam. 9:1). However, David proves to be true to his word to both Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:14-15) and Saul (1 Sam. 24:21-22) and does not destroy all of their descendants, but instead blesses Mephibosheth.

Is Nabal a Dog?

Is Nabal a dead dog?
Abigail pleads for David to forgive he foolish husband’s harsh words.

Having covered the 5 passages which clearly speak of a dead dog, we come to a sixth, questionable passage. The question has to do with how to translate the Hebrew. In 1 Samuel 25 we are introduced to a despicable man named Nabal, and his wise and beautiful wife, Abigail. Nabal is described in v. 3, along with his wife. Most English translations at the end of v. 3 read, “He was a Calebite.” We have already noted that the name Caleb means “dog.” Nabal, whose name means “fool” is introduced in a less than complimentary way–“the man was harsh and badly behaved.” This introduction looks especially bad when contrasted with his wife. Nabal lives in the area around Hebron. As we noted above, this is Calebite territory. The text could simply be telling us that Nabal was a descendant of Caleb. If so, he has failed to live up to his ancestor’s reputation! Some scholars, however, think that the designation, “he was a Calebite,” is meant to communicate, “he was dog-like.” This would certainly fit the negative description he is given, not to mention, the way he is depicted in the coming story.   To muddy the waters a bit, the Hebrew text, literally reads, “he was like his heart.” The difference between “he was like his heart,” and “he was a Calebite,” is one small letter. Also, although the text was written as “he was like his heart,” it was read as, “he was a Calebite.” For those who know Hebrew, this is the difference between the Kethib (what is written) and the Qere (what is read). This textual issue is why it is difficult to be sure that Nabal is being described as “dog-like.” Regardless, the rest of the story shows him to be a despised individual, and he dies in the end. Therefore, it is a strong possibility that Nabal should also be viewed as a “dead dog.”

Dog Language in the Ancient Near East

The Amarna Letters
There is a lot of “dog” language in the Amarna letters.

The discovery of ancient documents by archaeologists demonstrates that the dog language of 1&2 Samuel (as well as the rest of the OT) has a clear ancient Near Eastern (ANE) background. For example, among the Amarna letters (documents from the 14th century B.C. describing an invasion into Canaan) we find a number of expressions using dog language. The dog language is used either to speak derogatorily of an enemy, or in a self-deprecating manner evidencing humility. In other words, dog expressions in ANE literature are used the same way as they are in the books of Samuel. Here are two examples from the Amarna letters, showing the two meanings.

  1. “Who are the sons of ʿAbdi-Aširta, the servant and dog? Are they the king of Kaššu or the king of Mittani that they take the land of the king for themselves?” (EA 104:26). Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 177). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. “As I am a servant of the king and a dog of his house, I guard all Amurru for the king, my lord.” (EA 60:6-EA 60:9). Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters (English-language ed., p. 132). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Another example comes from Judah’s final days as they attempted to fight off the Babylonians. From the city of Lachish come some letters of desperation from the commander there, seeking help against the Babylonians. These letters, written on pieces of broken pottery, are known as the Lachish ostraca (see the link to the left, or my post on Tel Lachish). The dog language used in these letters is all of the humble variety since the commander is writing and addressing his superior. Because of the similarities, I have just listed one example below.

“To my lord Yaosh: May Yahweh cause my lord to hear tidings of peace this very day, this very day! Who is thy servant (but) a dog that my lord hath remembered his servant? May Yahweh afflict those who re[port] an (evil) rumor about which thou art not informed!” (Pritchard, J. B. (Ed.). (1969). The Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament  (3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 322 Princeton: Princeton University Press.)

Conclusion: Dead Dogs Do Tell Tales (or is it “Tails?)

dog's tailAs we have learned in earlier posts, the purpose of a motif is to accentuate one of the messages that the inspired author is seeking to communicate. The dead dog motif contributes to the theme of humility and pride, so prominent in Samuel. We saw this theme also emphasized in the motif of tallness (see last week’s post). One who is a dog, but doesn’t know it, like Goliath and Abner, are an example of pride. Pride always results in a fall in the books of Samuel. Shimei, who is correctly identified as a “dead dog,” is eventually executed. While there is some uncertainty as to whether Nabal is described as a dog, he certainly is dog-like in his words and actions. In the end, he succumbs to the Lord’s judgment and, therefore, might be regarded as yet another “dead dog” in Samuel. On the other hand, those who confess that they are a “dead dog” are an example of humility in the books of Samuel. In David’s case he is exalted to the kingship. In Mephibosheth’s case, he is lifted up to sit at the king’s table (1 Sam. 2:8; 2 Sam. 9:11-13). In the end, every dog has his day in the books of Samuel and gets his just desserts.

If you are interested in a more in-depth look at the various characters in the Book of Samuel, like those mentioned in this study (Abner, Shimei, or Abigail), please check out my book:

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

Family Portraits

Tallness: Motifs in Samuel

Tallness: Motifs in Samuel

Tallness
Robert Wadlow, the tallest man on record was considered a “gentle giant.”

Tallness has its advantages and disadvantages. A tall person will have less legroom on a plane or may have to duck their head when entering a doorway. Tallness is great for reaching things in high places or for being able to see above the crowd when watching a public event. Of course, these are all trivial advantages and disadvantages. On a more serious note, a recent study suggests that taller people (over 6 feet) may be more susceptible to COVID-19 (read here). Another study suggests that taller people are more susceptible to cancer, whereas shorter people are at a greater risk for diabetes. The article states, “For several years researchers have identified strange associations between height and disease” (Why Shorter People are at Greater Risk for Diabetes). At times, tall people may be considered intimidating (Why Tall People Feel So Intimidating). On the other hand, the tallest man on record, Robert Wadlow, was considered a “gentle giant” (see photo above).

Height in the Bible

In previous posts we have noted how the Bible uses physical language in a metaphorical way to communicate spiritual truth (e.g., feet, and head). The same is true with the ideas of height or tallness. Thus height can be literal, figurative, or both. Just as in real life, biblical imagery of tallness or things that are high, has both positive and negative connotations. For example, God is pictured as “high and exalted” (Isa. 6:1 ), or as “God Most High” (e.g., Gen. 14:22–Hebrew = El Elyon). The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states, “Implicit in this imagery is an implied vertical hierarchy in which God and the unseen spiritual world that he inhabits are qualitatively ‘above’ earthly experience. We should not ignore the physical basis of such imagery: the ‘heavens are high above the earth,’ as the psalmist puts it (Ps 103:11), and the human imagination has always pictured heaven as being ‘up.’ God is therefore named as being ‘high’ in the Bible. This is encapsulated in the epithet ‘Most High,’ which occurs well over fifty times (NRSV). God is ‘high and lofty’ (Is 6:1; 57:7, 15), the one who is ‘high above all nations’ (Ps 113:4), and he dwells ‘in the high and holy place’ (Is 57:15)” (p. 384).

Temple Mount
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern thought, God, or the gods, often met with people on mountains or high places (Deut. 12:2). For example, God reveals Himself to Israel at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:18-20), and later the temple is constructed on Mt. Zion (Ps. 48:1-2). Legitimate and illegitimate places of worship in the Old Testament are often described as “high places” (1 Sam. 9:12-14; 1 Kgs. 3:2-4; 11:7; 13:32). Not only is God “high” but he honors His people by lifting them up. The promise to Israel is, “. . . He will set you high above all nations which He has made, in praise, in name, and in honor, and that you may be a holy people to the Lord your God, just as He has spoken” (Deut. 26:19).

The Hebrew Root gbh (Tallness)

While the idea of height or tallness can be positive and negative throughout the OT, in 1 Samuel the picture is wholly negative. The Hebrew word we are looking at comes from the root gbh. It can be seen in the name of Saul’s hometown, Gibeah, which means, “hill” or “height.” Besides its occurrence in the name Gibeah, the root occurs 6 more times, all in 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 2:3 [2x]; 1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23; 16:7; 17:4). We will look at these passages in a moment, but first, more needs to be said about the negative connotations of this word in Scripture.

Tallness can equal arrogance
In the Bible when height is used in conjunction with the eyes or heart, it can be a reference to arrogance. Portrait–Leon Battista Alberti

Just as we might use the term “high” to refer to an arrogant person or attitude–“get off your highhorse,” “don’t be so high and mighty”–so too does the Bible. This negative aspect to the word is often connected with various parts of the body in Scripture. For example, the heart (Ps. 131:1), the eyes (Isa. 2:11), the spirit (Prov. 16:18), and the nose (Ps. 10:4), can all be said to be “high” (gbh). In all but one case (2 Chron. 17:6), this is a negative quality, variously translated as “proud,” “arrogant,” or “haughty.” Thus, while the word tallness, in and of itself, is a neutral term, context determines whether it carries the connotations of honor or arrogance.

Tallness in Samuel

Hannah's prayer
The words of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Sam. 2:3 set the tone for the meaning of “tallness” in 1 Samuel.

The first use of the Hebrew root gbh in Samuel is found in Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:3. It occurs twice in this verse and sets the tone for its usage in the rest of 1 Samuel. Most English versions translate the opening line of verse 3 similar to the NKJV which reads, “Talk no more so very proudly.” “Very proudly” is the English rendering of a double use of the word gebohah. When Hebrew uses a word two times in succession, it is for emphasis. Hence the use of “very” in English translations. We could translate Hannah’s words as “Talk no more proudly, proudly.” If we wanted to be very literal, however, we would translate these words as Robert Polzin does, “Do not multiply your words, ‘Tall! Tall!'” (Samuel and the Deuteronomist, p. 34). Another alternative is Keith Bodner’s translation, “Do not multiply your speech, ‘O Tall one! O Tall one!’” (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, p. 28). In other words, although the word here means “tall” it’s intended meaning is “proud,” thus the rendering by English translations. As noted by many, Hannah’s song enunciates many of the main themes of Samuel (see my post on the Theology of 1&2 Samuel). Therefore the allusion that tallness represents pride anticipates the introduction of certain people in 1 Samuel. To be precise, there are three people in 1 Samuel who are said to be tall–Saul, Eliab, and Goliath. Bodner sums up this same point with some clever wordplay of his own. He writes, “Even a cursory glance ahead in the story of 1 Samuel reveals that ‘tall’ is a big issue in this narrative. Physical height can be, at the very least, illusory, and breed a false sense of security. Saul’s outstanding attribute is that he is taller than all the people, and Goliath’s height instills great fear in the fighting ranks of Israel. Yet both will fall down (forward) at different times before the end of 1 Samuel” (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, p. 28).

Tall Saul

Tallness--Saul
Tall Saul was not all he appeared to be!

Saul is certainly the most significant figure of the above trio. From the moment we are introduced to Saul we are told, “From his shoulders upward, he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). This distinguishing characteristic, seems to be the one that most impresses Samuel. When Saul is chosen by lots to be king, we are reminded that, “he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward.” Samuel then continues by saying, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people” (1 Sam. 10:23-24). Ironically this “kingly” looking man was found “hiding among the supplies” (1 Sam. 10:22). This story already begins to hint that Saul is not all his physical appearance makes him out to be. This is confirmed later in the story in numerous ways. It is noteworthy that Saul, the tallest Israelite, cowers in fear when Goliath challenges Israel (1 Sam. 17:10-11). Saul’s lack of obedience (1 Sam. 15:11), his building of a monument for himself (1 Sam. 15:12), and his pleas for Samuel to honor him before the elders of his people (1 Sam. 15:30), all suggest a problem with pride.

Tall Eliab

David's anointing
David’s brothers, including tall Eliab are rejected in favor of him.

The next tall person we encounter in 1 Samuel is David’s brother, Eliab. After Saul’s rejection from being king, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king among the sons of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:1). As Samuel approaches Jesse’s sons, he comes to Eliab the firstborn and is convinced that the Lord’s anointed is standing before him (1 Sam. 16:6). Samuel is immediately rebuked by the Lord and told “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him” (1 Sam. 16:7). Once again Samuel is impressed by physical stature, but the Lord is not and offers a rebuke. Within the context, Eliab appears to be compared to Saul. He is said to be tall and that the Lord had rejected him–two things said of Saul as well. In the next chapter, Eliab opposes David’s inquiries about fighting Goliath (1 Sam. 17:28). In a subtle way, tall Eliab’s fear of fighting Goliath, once again compares him with Saul. Thus, for the second time in the narrative, tallness is rejected as a desirable quality. No doubt, the suggestion is once again that Eliab had a problem with pride (for more on Eliab, see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel).

Tall Goliath

Tallness--David vs Goliath
Tall Goliath did not intimidate David.

Obviously, the most famous, or infamous, tall person in 1 Samuel is Goliath. 1 Samuel 17:4-7 gives a detailed description of Goliath, including his height (see my other articles on Goliath, here, here, and here). Tallness appears in what is clearly a negative context here. Once again, the tall person doesn’t turn out to be what we thought he was. Goliath is cut down to size by the young shepherd boy David, proving he was not as intimidating as he looked. Goliath’s pride is evidenced in his defying the army of Israel and its God (1 Sam. 17:25-26). Finally, there is some irony in these stories involving David’s interaction with Saul, Eliab, and Goliath. When David is introduced in 1 Samuel 16:11 and 1 Samuel 17:14, a certain Hebrew word is used that most English versions translate as “young.” This is a correct translation, and no doubt the intended meaning. However, the Hebrew word also means “small,” and is used intentionally to create a contrast between “small” David and these other “tall” individuals.

Gibeah, Ramah, and Tallness

As noted above, Gibeah was the hometown of Saul, while Samuel’s hometown was Ramah (1 Sam. 15:34). We have pointed out that the word Gibeah comes from the Hebrew root gbh and thus means “height,” or “tall.” Since Gibeah means “height,” it is not unusual that this name could be used to refer to different cities in Israel that were on a hill. This, indeed, was the case. The Gibeahs mentioned in Joshua 15:57, Joshua 18:28, and Joshua 24:33, are all different places and none are to be equated with Saul’s Gibeah. Ramah is a word that also means “height” or “hill.” Just as there were a number of Gibeahs in ancient Israel, so there were also a number of places called Ramah. The verbal form of Ramah ִis rûm (pronounced “room”), and means “high” or “exalted.” It is obvious that rûm and gbh are synonyms. It is interesting that the verbal form rûm occurs 7 times in 1&2 Samuel and always has a positive meaning (1 Sam. 2:1, 7, 8, 10; 9:24; 2 Sam. 47, 49). Notice that it occurs 4 times in Hannah’s opening song. In fact, in its first appearance in 1 Samuel 2:1, it actually takes the form “ramah.” The point of this is that, although these words are synonyms, the root for the word Ramah, always has positive connotations, while the root for Gibeah always has negative connotations in the books of Samuel. Not only does the root word for Gibeah have negative connotations in Samuel, Gibeah itself is remembered as a place where a terrible crime took place that turned into a civil war in Israel (Judg. 19-21). In fact, the story of Saul chopping his oxen into 12 pieces and sending them throughout Israel (1 Sam. 11:7) is an echo of the story of the Levite chopping his concubine into 12 pieces in Judges 19:29. All of this seems to be a subtle way of communicating that godly Samuel comes from Ramah (a word referring to a good use of “height,” meaning “exalt”), while ungodly Saul comes from Gibeah (a word associated with a negative use of “height,” meaning “pride”).

Conclusion: The Motif of Tallness Brings a Heightened Awareness in Samuel

Tallness--Naram-Sin
The King of Akkad, Naram-Sin is depicted as towering over his enemies.

Once again by following a motif in the books of Samuel, we are given insight into the inspired author’s message. In her song, Hannah says that God will bring down the proud but lift up the humble (1 Sam. 2:6-8). The motif of tallness plays into this important theme of the book. Ancient people were smaller in stature and so a tall person would be impressive. Indeed, many of the portraits of ancient kings depict them as being taller than their subjects and enemies (the stele of Naram-Sin above is one example among others). The motif in Samuel turns this expectation on its head by stating that appearances can be deceiving (1 Sam. 16:7). Tallness becomes symptomatic of pride and arrogance. The books of Samuel teach, if you raise yourself up, be sure God will cut you down to size! But if you are lowly and humble, be encouraged for God will lift you up!

Sword and Spear Part 2: Motifs in Samuel

Sword and Spear Part 2: Motifs in Samuel

sword and spear
The motif of the spear is mostly negative, suggesting a trust in weapons and human strength.

In my previous post I introduced the sword and spear motif in Samuel (see here for Part 1). There I noted that this motif “…ranges from a proclamation of trust in God’s power to deliver, to a rejection of that trust.” In 2 places where the words “sword and spear” appear together, the motif is a neutral one, speaking of powerlessness (1 Sam. 13:19, 22). It is the stories that follow which define whether these verses are interpreted positively or negatively (see below). In two other occurrences the motif is positive suggesting trust in the Lord (1 Sam. 17:45, 47). In the fifth occurrence, the motif is negative, suggesting David’s lack of faith (1 Sam. 21:8). In Part 1 we noticed that when the word “sword” appears by itself, the motif has a mixture of positive and negative associations. As we examine the usages of the spear motif, we will see a similar mixture, but the negative aspects are more prevalent. Including the 5 passages that mention both sword and spear, the spear motif occurs a total of 29 times in the books of Samuel (20 in 1 Samuel and 9 in 2 Samuel). Perhaps the best, and most insightful way to examine the spear motif is to notice who it is associated with. The breakdown is as follows:

  1. Goliath (5 occurrences–1 Sam. 17:7 [2x], 45, 47; 2 Sam. 21:19)
  2. Saul (16 occurrences–1 Sam. 13:19, 22; 18:10, 11; 19:9, 10 [2x}; 20:33; 22:6; 26:7, 8, 11, 12, 16, 22; 2 Sam. 1:6)
  3. David (1 occurrence–1 Sam. 21:8–this passage was considered in Part 1 and so will not be covered here)
  4. Abner (2 occurrences, both in 2 Sam. 2:23)
  5. David’s mighty men (4 occurrences)
    • Abishai (2 Sam. 23:18)
    • Benaiah (2 Sam. 23:21 [3x])
  6. Unrighteous ruler(s) (1 occurrence–2 Sam. 23:7)

This breakdown demonstrates that the overwhelming number of occurrences of the spear motif (16 out of 29) are related to Saul. Below we will examine the significance of this, as well as its occurrence with other individuals.

Goliath’s Spear

sword and spear
Goliath’s trust is in his sword and spear. David’s is in the Lord.

One of the intimidating features of Goliath’s description in 1 Samuel 17:4-7 is his spear. The writer spends time describing its shaft (like a weaver’s beam), and the weight of its head (600 shekels = 15 lbs. or 6.8 kg.). As noted in the previous post, one of the points of the story is Goliath’s trust in his weaponry, while David’s trust is in the Lord. This point is driven home when Goliath’s spear is mentioned two more times in the account (1 Sam. 17:45, 47). Goliath’s spear is mentioned one final time in the perplexing passage which speaks of Elhanan killing him (2 Sam. 21:19). Its size, noted again in this passage, was clearly one of its distinguishing and well-remembered features. Yet it did Goliath no good, proving the truth of Hannah’s words in 1 Samuel 2:9 when she stated, “not by might shall a man prevail.”

Saul’s Spear

sword and spear
Saul’s spear is always at hand!

As noted above, the overwhelming number of occurrences of the spear motif in Samuel are associated with Saul. This association is sometimes seen as a symbol of his kingship (David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICOT, p. 479). If this means to communicate that Saul is a king like the nations (1 Sam. 8:5), then this observation is correct. The point is that Saul, like any worldly king, trusts in his spear more than he does in the Lord. This is emphasized in at least two ways. First, in the narrative immediately following the Goliath story, Saul hurls his spear twice at David (1 Sam. 18:10-11). Not only has the previous story declared that “the Lord does not save with sword and spear” (1 Sam. 17:47), but it is Saul’s jealousy concerning David’s victory over Goliath that prompts him to use it! Therefore, Saul shows himself to be cut out of the same cloth as Goliath. A second way in which this is demonstrated is that following the story of Goliath, Saul is never seen without his spear in hand or nearby. In fact, the next 5 verses that mention the spear involve Saul throwing it either at David (1 Sam. 18:10-11, 19:9-10) or his own son Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:33)!

sword and spear
David spares Saul’s life a second time.

Saul’s use of such weaponry also contrasts him with his son Jonathan. Recalling 1 Samuel 13:19, and 22 which introduces this motif, we are told there that only Jonathan and Saul had sword and spear. In our previous post, however, we have noted that Jonathan uses his sword in the context of trust in the Lord (1 Sam. 14:6-14). Furthermore, following the Goliath episode, Jonathan presents his sword to David as a gift (1 Sam. 18:4), whereas Saul presents his spear to David in a less supportive and friendly way (1 Sam. 18:10-11)! When Saul complains to his men that they are more loyal to David than to him, he does it with his spear in his hand (1 Sam. 22:6). This incident leads to the slaughter of Ahimelech and the priests of Nob. On one of the occasions when David has the opportunity to kill Saul, he chooses instead to take his water jug and spear (1 Sam. 26). With a sort of poetic justice, Abishai insists on using it to “pin” Saul to the ground (1 Sam. 26:8), the way Saul had attempted earlier to “pin” David to the wall (1 Sam. 18:11; 19:10). David refuses and insists only on taking it as evidence that they had been in the midst of the Saul’s camp. Saul’s spear is a major motif in this chapter, occurring six times (1 Sam. 26:7, 8, 11, 12, 16, 22). It reminds us that, given the chance, he would have used it against David, although David refuses to use it against him. It also demonstrates that, in spite of its presence by his head, it brings no protection for Saul, for the Lord is with David (1 Sam. 26:12). Once again we are reminded that “the Lord does not save with sword or spear.”

Given the prevalence of this motif in Saul’s story, one would almost expect Saul to die by the spear. If this were merely an imaginary story, this is surely what would have happened. But this is not what happened historically and so the inspired author records how he fell on his own sword (1 Sam. 31:4). This does not mean, however, that Saul’s spear is absent from the account of his death. In the retelling of Saul’s death by the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1, he states that when he came upon Saul, Saul was “leaning on his spear” (2 Sam. 1:6). It can be demonstrated that the Amalekite’s account of Saul’s death is fabricated as it conflicts with the author’s version recorded in 1 Samuel 31:1-5. Nevertheless, the mention of both sword and spear in the accounts of Saul’s death are an ironic reminder to the reader that the man who trusted in his weapons, ultimately died by one of them. When we consider the negative connotations of Saul’s spear in the narrative, it is no wonder that in David’s eulogy of Saul and Jonathan, it is Saul’s sword which is mentioned in a favorable light (2 Sam. 1:22). After all, how could David praise the spear of Saul that had been lifted against him on so many occasions?!

The Motif’s Mixed Reviews in 2 Samuel

sword and spear
Abner kills Asahel

Having already commented on 2 Samuel 1:6 and 2 Samuel 21:19, we will consider the other 7 references to the spear in 2 Samuel. Two of these references occur in the story of Asahel’s pursuit of Abner. In fact, they are both found in the same verse (2 Sam. 2:23). During the battle between Judah and Israel, Asahel pursues Abner in an attempt to kill him (2 Sam. 2:18-23). Although the spear motif has been largely negative up to this point, and Abner himself is an unsavory character, the motif is more tragic than evil here. It is clear from the story that Abner does not wish to kill Asahel. He warns him several times. However, as the hot breath of Asahel breathes down Abner’s neck, he is forced to defend himself. But rather than use the tip of his spear, as would be customary, with a backward thrust, using the butt end of his spear, Abner brings Asahel’s pursuit to a deadly halt. Abner’s persistent warnings, and the use of the backend of his spear, protest his desire to use it against Asahel. Nonetheless, whether back end or front end, the spear proves just as deadly. Unfortunately for Abner, his reluctant use of the spear results in his death by the sword at the hands of Asahel’s brothers, Joab and Abishai (2 Sam. 3:27, 30). For more on this incident see my post, “Asahel Running Into Trouble” (see also my book Family Portraits for this story and an evaluation of Abner’s character–see link below).

David's mighty men
David’s mighty men

There are other ambiguous uses of the spear in 2 Samuel. These concern David’s mighty men. In 2 Samuel 23:18, the aforementioned Abishai is praised for wielding his spear against three hundred men and killing them. Although the context is definitely positive, we should recall that this is the same Abishai who wanted to “pin” Saul to the ground with his own spear (1 Sam. 26:8). Furthermore, this is the same man who contributed to the death of Abner and was ready and willing to kill whenever he thought the occasion called for it (e.g., 2 Sam. 16:9). Therefore, although we have a positive reference to the spear, it is wielded by yet another unsavory character (see Abner above). Another one of David’s mighty men, Benaiah, fights an Egyptian with a spear (2 Sam. 23:21). In the Egyptian’s hand, the spear is clearly a negative motif, but Benaiah is able to wrest it from the Egyptian and kill him. This heroic deed turns a negative situation into a positive one.

We conclude our examination of this motif by looking at David’s last words recorded in 2 Samuel 23:1-7. This poem is a bit obscure and hard to translate in places. However, one thing that is clear is that David is contrasting the just ruler (himself), with an unjust ruler/rulers. In the concluding line (v. 7) he says of such a one that he “arms himself with iron and the shaft of a spear.” One can’t help but think that within the larger context of Samuel this contrast recalls Saul.

Concluding Summary

An examination of the spear motif leads to the conclusion that it is largely a negative commentary of the use and abuse of human power. This negative picture is largely associated with Goliath and Saul, who are the primary personages of this motif. While this negative picture is tempered somewhat in 2 Samuel, its association with unsavory characters still casts a shadow over it.

When we step back and sum up the overall motif of sword and spear in Samuel, we must conclude that the main function of the motif is to warn people about trusting in their own strength and the severe consequences that oftentimes follow. Trusting in weaponry and military might is a mistake made throughout the ages including down to the present time. There are many examples throughout history that show the undermanned and the under-equipped sometimes come out on top. This motif is not about the underdog coming out on top, however. It is a declaration that trust in God is superior to any human power or weapon. However, using sword and spear is the way that nations always have and always will conduct business. That is until the words of the prophet Isaiah are finally realized: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isa. 4:2).

Until that day, the question for God’s people is to ask what this motif in Samuel teaches us. How should we respond to our enemies based on the teaching of Scripture? Jesus’s answer was to “turn the other cheek,” and to “do good to those who persecute you.” Sadly, the first reaction of some Christians today is to physically arm themselves against their foes. We forget that the weapons of our warfare are spiritual (Eph. 6:10-18; 2 Cor. 10:4). We don’t give God the chance to defeat whatever Goliaths may come our way because we are too busy arming ourselves with “sword and spear.” This is a tough message to hear and the conclusion is not always a popular one even with believers. Shouldn’t the innocent be protected? We should certainly do everything in our power, short of violence, to protect the innocent. The fact remains that the New Testament nowhere sanctions a believer taking up the sword and spear for personal protection, and certainly never for revenge. The government is the one who bears the sword (Rom. 13:4). A Christian serving in the military, or serving in a local police force is a different matter, since they are serving the government whose job it is to protect its citizens and administer justice.  As individual believers, it is easy to overlook this teaching in the books of Samuel, not to mention the clear teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus may well have been referencing this motif in Samuel when he rebuked Peter in the garden and said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Christians do their best fighting on their knees, by returning good for evil, and by remembering that the real enemy is not flesh and blood.

For a more in depth study of the books of Samuel, purchase a copy of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

 

Sword and Spear Part 1: Motifs in Samuel

Sword and Spear: Motifs in Samuel

sword and spear
Sword and spear is an important motif in 1&2 Samuel.

The sword and spear motif in Samuel emphasizes a key theological teaching of this book. The use of this motif in Samuel ranges from a proclamation of trust in God’s power to deliver, to a rejection of that trust. Since Samuel is about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, this idea is at the heart of the book. Will people trust in God’s ability or in their own? What is the source of true power? Is it found in human strength and ingenuity, or in trusting in a power (i.e., God) greater than one’s own?

Occurrences of Sword or Spear in Samuel

The use of both words together, as in the expression, “sword and spear,” occurs only 5 times in Samuel (1 Sam. 13:19, 22; 17:45, 47; 21:8). However, by themselves, these words are prevalent throughout the book. Including the five passages where they occur together, the word “sword” occurs 38 times (24 in 1 Samuel and 14 in 2 Samuel), while the word “spear” occurs 29 times (20 in 1 Samuel and 9 in 2 Samuel). Because of the significance of this motif, and the number of occurrences, I will divide my treatment into two posts. In this post we will look at those passages in 1&2 Samuel that speak of the sword. In the next post, we will look at the motif of the spear.

Sword and Spear: David’s Confrontation with Goliath

sword and spear
Using Goliath’s own sword, David finishes the victory achieved by a sling and a stone.

The theological significance of these weapons is highlighted in David’s battle with Goliath. The story emphasizes how well Goliath is prepared for battle, at least humanly speaking, by giving an inventory of his armor and weaponry (1 Sam. 17:4-7–see my posts here and here). Saul attempts to clothe David similarly by giving him his armor and his “sword” (1 Sam. 17:38-39). David rejects these items and chooses instead a sling and 5 smooth stones. When Goliath sees David, he disdains him as an unworthy competitor. David’s response, which is now classic, highlights our motif. He replies to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied” (1 Sam. 17:45). In this first statement, David highlights the weaponry of Goliath. As he concludes his speech, David again uses our key words: “…the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hand” (1 Sam. 17:47).

David’s victory demonstrates the truth of his words. The point is unmistakeable. No amount of human technology or strength can overcome one who allows the Lord to do his/her fighting for him/her. This same theology is announced in Psalm 20:7 when the psalmist (David) says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” This is an important theme in the warfare of the Old Testament. It is emphasized in such stories as the parting of the Reed (or Red) Sea and the tumbling down of the walls of Jericho. David’s statement in 1 Samuel 17:47 sets the standard by which every other occurrence of the words sword and spear should be measured in 1&2 Samuel.

Use of “Sword”: The Big Picture in Samuel

When surveying the overall usage of these words in Samuel, there are several ways in which they could be categorized (the same is true of other motifs in this series). I have broken the use of the sword into 6 categories below. The number of occurrences are in parentheses. There is, of necessity, some overlap of categories.

  1. People’s relationship to the sword–Samuel (1), Jonathan (2), Saul (4), Saul’s armor-bearer (2), Doeg (2), David (15), Joab (1), and Absalom (1).
  2. Israelites killing enemies–Philistines, and Amalekites (5 occurrences)
  3. Enemies killing Israelites–Philistines, Doeg, David/Ammonites, Absalom (5 occurrences–the last 3 would, also fit category 1 as well).
  4. Israelites killing Israelites–(8 occurrences–more overlap here).
  5. Being powerless, trusting in the Lord, or a lack of trusting in the Lord (5 occurrences).
  6. A reference to the military (1 occurrence–“men who draw the sword”).

I will take up each of these categories below. Group 1 involves the most lengthy treatment. I will then group together categories 2-4. Since there is only 1 occurrence of category 6 and since it has an obvious meaning, I will not discuss it. That leaves category 5 as the final category I will examine.

sword and spear
Ancient Near Eastern sword.

People’s Relationship to the Sword

David

King David
David is associated with the sword more than any other person in Samuel.

By viewing the occurrences in this way, one thing which is immediately clear is that David is associated with the sword more than any other person in Samuel–a total of 15 times! Not all of these occurrences, however, are negative. For example, when David says, “the Lord doesn’t save by sword or spear,” or when the text says, “there was not a sword in David’s hand” (1 Sam. 17:50), these are obviously positive statements about David’s relationship to the sword. Of the 15 times David is associated with the sword, however, only 4 are in a positive context (all are in 1 Sam. 17–see vv. 45, 47, 50, 51). When David fled from Saul, he went to the high priest Ahimelech and asked, “Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand?” (1 Sam. 21:8). Ironically he is given the sword of Goliath (1 Sam. 21:9)! This request for a “spear or sword,” along with the slaughter of the priests in the next chapter (1 Sam. 22), demonstrates that David has allowed his fear, rather than his faith to guide him. Later when David is insulted by the no-good Nabal, it is revenge that associates him with the sword. In fact, we find this association 3 times in one verse: “And David said to his men, ‘Every man strap on his sword!’ And every man of them strapped on his sword. David also strapped on his sword” (1 Sam. 25:13). Although the wise Abigail prevents him from shedding innocent blood on this occasion, the opposite is true in his murder of Uriah the Hittite. When the prophet Nathan unveils David’s sin, he states, “You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:9-10). This is a sad ending for the man who declared, “The Lord saves not with sword and spear.”

Saul

Saul falls on sword
Saul’s own sword brings his life to an end.

Sometimes the sword has a positive association in spite of the fact that people are killed. For example, Saul is commanded to destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3). Therefore, when we are informed that he “devoted to destruction all of the people with the edge of the sword” (1 Sam. 15:8), this is in fulfillment to the Lord’s command. Of course, Saul wasn’t totally obedient, so in the same story we have Samuel hacking king Agag to pieces with the sword (1 Sam. 15:33). As chilling as this scene is to us, not only is it in fulfillment of God’s command (although perhaps excessive on Samuel’s part!), Samuel’s words demonstrate that Agag had been guilty of using his sword in a similar manner. David also eulogizes Saul and his sword when he sings, “From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty” (2 Sam. 1:22). This too is presented in the positive light of Saul killing the enemies of Israel. Unfortunately, Saul didn’t trust that the Lord could use him to defeat Goliath. His trust in weaponry rather than in God is made clear when he attempts to clothe David in his armor and give him his sword (1 Sam. 17:39).  The final appearance of Saul’s sword is ironically in his death scene.  With the Philistines following hard after him, Saul meets his ultimate demise at his own hand by falling on his sword (1 Sam. 31:4). This is fitting for one who trusted in sword and spear more than in the Lord. It is also a fitting end for one who used his servant Doeg the Edomite to slaughter the priests of the Lord with the sword (1 Sam. 22:19). In one sense, Saul’s sin is similar to David’s who used the sword of the Ammonites to kill Uriah. The difference–and it’s a major one–is that Saul slaughters a whole town of faithful followers who were holy to the Lord!

Joab and Absalom

Joab and Absalom
Joab and Absalom

It is surprising that the motif of sword and spear is not connected more frequently with Joab and Absalom, the worst villains in 2 Samuel (see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel for an evaluation of their character. See links below.). Only in the murder of Amasa, is Joab’s sword mentioned (2 Sam. 20:8). It is clear that Joab uses the same method on the unsuspecting Abner (2 Sam. 3:27), but his sword is not mentioned. David’s reaction, however, involves a curse on the house of Joab that includes those who “fall by the sword” (2 Sam. 3:29). As for Absalom, the only mention of a sword is connected to David’s fear that if he stays in Jerusalem, Absalom will strike the city with the edge of the sword (2 Sam. 15:14). Perhaps the lack of connection between Absalom and the sword is because he is all show and no substance.

Saul’s Armor-Bearer and Jonathan

Sword and spear--Jonathan
Jonathan and his armor-bearer defeat the Philistines.

There are two more individuals connected with the sword. Both are in 1 Samuel and both are, for the most part, positive associations. I will mention the last first. Saul’s armor-bearer is commanded by Saul to draw his sword and kill him. To the armor-bearer’s credit, he is afraid to lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed. As a result, Saul falls on his own sword (1 Sam. 31:4). Once the amor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell on his own sword. We might view this action negatively, as a suicide, but I believe the intent of the text is to demonstrate the loyalty of Saul’s armor-bearer. He was afraid to lift his sword and kill his master, but he was not afraid of death itself. Finally, there are two passages that associate Jonathan with the sword. The first is 1 Samuel 13:22. After noting that none of the people of Israel had sword or spear (1 Sam. 13:19), the text tells us that both Saul and Jonathan did. In light of the later text in 1 Samuel 17:45, 47, this could be viewed as a negative statement. Indeed, regarding Saul’s sword, 1 Samuel 17:39, does imply that Saul trusts his weapon more than God. The same, however, is not true of Jonathan. After noting that Jonathan had both sword and spear, the story continues by showing that Jonathan demonstrated great faith in God by going against the enemy even though he was greatly outnumbered (1 Sam. 14:6-14). Therefore, although Jonathan possessed sword and spear, his faith was in the Lord. The other occurrence of the sword in connection with Jonathan is when he surrenders his sword as a gift to David (1 Sam. 18:4). Jonathan’s surrender of his sword, as well as other royal items, is a sign of his friendship and covenant with David. Within the larger context of Samuel, it is also a sign of Jonathan’s acknowledgement of David’s future kingship (see 1 Sam. 23:17).

Israel and Its Enemies

An obvious usage of the sword motif involves Israel and its enemies. There are 5 occurrences of Israel’s enemies being struck with the sword. Some of these instances involve individuals we have already looked at above. These include Samuel striking Agag (1 Sam. 15:33), and David eulogizing the sword of Saul which did not return empty against his enemies (2 Sam. 1:22). A third occurrence involves one of David’s mighty men, Eleazar, striking the Philistines. The text says he fought so long and so hard that his hand clung to the sword (2 Sam. 23:10)! When Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the Amalekites, we are told that he (and the people) utterly destroyed Amalek with the edge of the sword (1 Sam. 15:8). In an unusual twist (although this phenomenon is seen elsewhere in Scripture), the Philistines turn their swords upon themselves in the panic and confusion of battle (1 Sam. 14:20). Although other battles and wars against other enemies are recorded in Samuel (e.g., 2 Sam. 8), the sword, as a weapon that defeats Israel’s enemies, is only mentioned in battles against the Philistines and Amalekites.

sword and spear
Saul defeats Amalek

Of course the books of Samuel also mention enemies slaying Israelites with the sword. Twice we are told that Doeg the Edomite slaughtered the priests of the Lord and the town of Nob with the edge of the sword (1 Sam. 22:19). 2 Samuel 1:12 reports the mourning of David and his men because Saul, his sons, and Israel had fallen by the sword at the hands of the Philistines. A fourth occurrence is a bit obscure. This involves David’s curse on the house of Joab that there would be those who would fall by the sword (2 Sam. 3:29). Presumably David means by an enemy’s sword, although this is not specified. Finally, David’s killing of Uriah by the sword, can also be put into this category. Nathan points out that he did it with “the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Sam. 12:9).

The saddest use of this motif are those passages which speak of fellow Israelites killing one another by the sword. The most prevalent occurrences of this motif  (4 out of 8) are found in the stories of the two civil wars recorded in 2 Samuel. In 2 Samuel 2:16 we have the infamous contest in which 12 from Israel are pitted against 12 from Judah and all fall dead as each stabs the other with their sword. This precipitates a battle which leads to Abner’s pleas to Joab at the end of the day, “Shall the sword devour forever?” (2 Sam. 2:26). In the battle triggered by Absalom’s rebellion, the narrator tells us that “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword” (2 Sam. 18:8). It is also within the context of Absalom’s rebellion that David flees Jerusalem because he fears Absalom will strike it with the edge of the sword (2 Sam. 15:14–see comments above). A particular expression used in 3 instances where Israelites kill Israelites is “the sword devours.” We have already looked at 2 of these (2 Sam. 2:26; 18:8). The third instance is, perhaps, the most disturbing of all. After David is informed of Uriah’s death, he callously replies, “The sword devours one as well as another” (2 Sam. 11:25).

When we look back over this survey of the sword motif of Israel versus its enemies, it seems that Israel comes out the worst. There are only 5 passages which speak of Israelites striking their enemy with the sword, whereas there are 13 passages which speak of Israel’s enemies striking them (5 times), or fellow-Israelites striking each other with the sword (8 times). Israel actually uses the sword against itself more (8 times), than against its enemies (5 times). A sad commentary indeed!

Sword and Spear: Powerlessness and Trusting in the Lord

Sword and spear
David obtains the sword of Goliath from Ahimelech, the High Priest.

Our final category of the sword motif involves all of the passages that mention sword and spear. As noted above, there are 5 verses that use both words. These passages communicate one of two themes. 1) The theme of powerlessness; or 2) the theme of trusting/not trusting in the Lord. These two themes are not necessarily at odds with each other, although they can be.

The first occurrence of the sword and spear motif occurs in 1 Samuel 13:19, 22. The purpose in this passage is to emphasize the powerlessness of Israel. Humanly speaking, they are outmatched by their foes the Philistines who have a monopoly on blacksmiths and weapons. Only Saul and Jonathan are said to have sword and spear. The people have only farming implements, and they must even go to the Philistines to have them sharpened! Although the verses emphasize the powerlessness of Israel militarily (also emphasized by the fact that they are outnumbered and surrounded), the verses set us up for the Israelite victory that occurs in 1 Samuel 14. This victory is achieved by the Lord acting through the faith of Jonathan and his armor-bearer. The point of the story then, is to emphasize that Israel (and the reader) should not trust in physical weapons, or fear the technological and numerical advantages of the enemy. Rather, trust in the Lord can overcome any disadvantage. This is a common theme in Scripture and a very common theme in the battles recorded in the Old Testament (see comments above).

The next occurrence of the sword and spear motif is found in 1 Samuel 17:45, 47, in the story of David’s defeat of Goliath. We have already looked at these verses above. Here, I will simply note again that these verses establish the meaning of the motif. David’s words teach that the bottom line is trust in the Lord. This brings us to the final passage that uses both of these words. In 1 Samuel 21:8, David is fleeing from Saul. He comes to the High Priest, Ahimelech, at Nob, requesting food and weapons. I have already noted above that David’s request for a “spear or a sword,” and his taking of the sword of Goliath demonstrate a lack of faith in this context. The man who boldly faced Goliath without a sword or spear, now feels the need to take the sword of Goliath to protect himself in his flight from Saul. In one sense, no one can condemn David for his desire to have a sword for protection. If any of us were in a similar circumstance, we would probably want the same. The point, however, is that the inspired author is clearly making the point that David’s faith has wavered and he is headed in a precarious direction. This is further confirmed by his flight to Achish King of Gath, where David’s life is endangered (1 Sam. 21:10-15).

In our next post, we will continue our look at the sword and spear motif in Samuel by focusing on the use of the spear. Until then, try not to cross swords with anyone!

For a more in depth study of the books of Samuel, purchase a copy of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

 

Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel

Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel

Head in a bookSomeone who has their “head in a book” is usually considered a studious person. Hopefully you have your head in various books of the Bible, including 1&2 Samuel. This post, however, is not about having your head in a book, but rather, the HEAD-motif in the BOOKS of Samuel. In our previous post, we looked at the significance of the motif of feet (see here). So now we’re moving from the bottom to the top. You could say we’re “headed in the right direction!”

The Use of Head in Modern Idioms

Like “feet,” “head” can be found in various expressions. We might have our “head in the clouds,” or have “a big head.” We could be a “hot head,” but hopefully “cooler heads will prevail.” How many phrases can you think of that use the word “head?” Before you “scratch your head,” trying to think of examples, let me give you a “heads up” and suggest you check out other idiomatic usages at The Free Dictionary. Because we use various idioms without “giving them a second thought,” it can be surprising how frequently we use words like, “head” or “feet” when communicating. The same is true in our reading of Scripture. We can easily pass over a motif being used by the inspired author because it seems so common-place to us. So let’s “put our heads together,” and see what we can learn by looking at the head motif in the books of Samuel.

R’osh in Samuel

heads
Two heads are better than one! Gloria and me in the English countryside.

The Hebrew word for “head” is r’osh. This word, or a word derived from this root, occurs sixty times in Samuel. There are twenty-seven occurrences in 1 Samuel and thirty-three in 2 Samuel. These occurrences are usually obvious in our English translations, but there are a few places where the word r’osh, or its derivatives, go undetected in our English Bibles. As was true of the foot motif, there is not just one meaning behind the usage of the head motif. I have discovered the use of r’osh in at least eight different ways in Samuel. I have used bold print to highlight the basic meaning in each usage. Here they are, in no particular order except for number 1.

  1. David and the Deuteronomist
    Polzin’s book is available at Amazon USA / UK.

    The most prevalent usage of the head motif in Samuel involves those who lose their head, or whose head is involved in their death. Out of the 60 uses of r’osh, 16 of them (27%) fall into this category. Notice the following quote by Robert Polzin in his book David and the Deuteronomist: ” …from the beginning of his career to the end, David’s character zone is intimately connected with the head as a locus of guilt and death. For one thing, David either wittingly or unwittingly, is constantly associated with the contemplated or actual beheading of his enemies” (p. 34). This includes Goliath (1 Sam. 17:46, 51, 54, 57), Saul (1 Sam. 31:9), Ishbosheth (2 Sam. 4:7, 8[2x], 12), Shimei (2 Sam. 16:9), and Sheba (2 Sam. 20:21-22). Not all of these are David’s doing (Saul and Ishbosheth), and in one instance (Shimei), he even prevents a beheading. Still Polzin’s conclusion is arresting as he states, “…blood flows upon and from the heads of David’s enemies more often than with any other character in the Bible” (p. 34). We should also point out that God does some beheading of his own. When the ark of God is placed in front of Dagon, the Philistines find their idol on the ground with his hands and head severed (1 Sam. 5:4)! Besides these instances, the Philistines worry about losing their heads if David and his men go to battle with them (1 Sam. 29:4–not obvious in the English translation), and twelve warriors of both Israel and Judah (24 in total), grab one another by the head and fall down dead together when each stabs the other in the side (2 Sam. 2:16). Finally, there is the story of Absalom whose head gets caught in a tree as he attempts to flee the battle against David’s men (2 Sam. 18:9). At least part of the answer to the significance of all of these beheadings and “head” problems can be answered by looking at the next usage of our motif.

  2. On seven occasions, the word r’osh is connected with kingship or leadership (1 Sam. 15:17; 19:20; 2 Sam. 10:16; 22:44; 23:8, 13, 18). It is quite natural for us to speak of a leader as the head of the government or of an organization. Polzin once again points out the significance of this language as he connects it to the usage in number 1 above. When commenting on the military contest of the 24 warriors who seize each others’ heads (2 Sam. 2:16), Polzin states, “This contest is about seizing headship over the tribes of Israel” (p. 34). This insight applies to Saul and Ishbosheth as well, who both lose their heads because they are not the legitimate head of Israel. The same can be said for Absalom who tries to usurp the throne of his father David and become head of Israel, but instead his head gets caught in a tree (2 Sam. 18:9).
  3. The books of Samuel also give voice to the familiar biblical theme of retribution found in the expression “return on your own head.” There are three occurrences of this phrase. When David hears of Nabal’s death, he says, “The Lord has returned the evil of Nabal on his own head” (1 Sam. 25:39). Similarly, when David executes the Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul, he says, “Your blood be on your head, for your own mouth has testified against you…” (2 Sam. 1:16). Finally, in his curse against Joab, David speaks of the blood of Abner and states, “May it fall upon the head of Joab…” (2 Sam. 3:29).
  4. Next I will look at what I will call the “literal” use of head, as referring to the physical body. This is a loose category because, technically all of the beheadings are literal and fit here as well. Furthermore, some of the literal uses also have other significances as we will see. Describing armament, we are told that Goliath had a helmet of bronze on his head (1 Sam. 17:5). The same story points out that Saul also possessed such protective gear (1 Sam. 17:38). The correspondence between Goliath’s and Saul’s helmet is important. It shows they both trust in their weapons and armor, rather than in God. When Michal deceives the troops of her father Saul in order to protect David, we are told twice that she takes an image and puts goat’s hair on its head and covers it up to make it look like David is lying in the bed (1 Sam. 19:13, 16). When David and Abishai sneak into Saul’s camp, we are told four times that the spear and the water jug they steal are by Saul’s head (1 Sam. 26:7, 11, 12, 16). The reference here is clearly to Saul’s vulnerability. Finally, we have the mention of the hair on Absalom’s head (2 Sam. 14:26 [2x]). This passage is designed to impress the reader with Absalom’s good looks and military prowess (see my article “Absalom’s Hair, or, Give Me a Head with Hair“).
  5. When someone wants to show honor, the head, or language about it, is common (see the episode on my podcast entitled: Honor & Shame for more details). In Samuel this is noted by Saul being placed at the “head” of the table (1 Sam. 9:22), or his anointing by Samuel (1 Sam. 10:1). Hannah’s request for a son includes her vow of consecration stating that “no razor shall touch his head” (1 Sam. 1:11). David conquers the king of Ammon and has his crown placed on his head (2 Sam. 12:30[2x]). The importance of giving the best part of an offering to the Lord is expressed in the phrase, “the head of the offering” (1 Sam. 2:29; 15:21). This one is easily missed in English translations which usually use a word like “best.” Finally, the Philistine king Achish says that he will make David, “the keeper of his head” (1 Sam. 28:2). This one is also easily missed in English and translates to being the king’s bodyguard, a position of honor and leadership.
  6. Ishbosheth loses his head
    When kings lose their head in the books of Samuel, it demonstrates that they are not the legitimate ruler!

    The opposite of honor, thus a reference to shame or mourning is intended in the passage about David’s flight from Absalom. There we are told that both David and the people with him “covered their heads” (2 Sam. 15:30 [2x], 32). The same is true in stories which speak of a person putting dust on their head. This is what messengers do when they are carrying a report of defeat from the battlefield (1 Sam 4:12; 2 Sam. 1:2). Saul’s loss of his crown in battle is also a symbol of dishonor (2 Sam. 1:10). Tamar’s act of putting ashes and her hand on her head, also speaks of her shame at what has happened to her (2 Sam. 13:19 [2x]). Beheading is the ultimate act of shaming a person. Thus, the passages in number 1 above also fit in this category.

  7. The Hebrew word r’osh is also missed in English translations which refer to the “top” of the spear (1 Sam. 17:7), the “top” of trees (2 Sam. 5:24), or the “top” of a mountain (1 Sam. 26:13; 2 Sam. 2:25; 15:32; 16:1). This might seem like an incidental use of the word, and indeed, it can be. However, our friend Polzin points out that its usage in 2 Sam. 15:32 and 16:1 contributes to the prevalence of this motif throughout 2 Samuel chapters 15-16 (pp. 161-163).
  8. The final way in which r’osh is used is in two idiomatic expressions. One of which is still in use today. When Saul threatens to kill Jonathan, the people rescue him and say, “There shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 14:45). In a different context, Abner says that he is not a “dog’s head” of Judah (2 Sam. 3:8). Clearly this is a derogatory expression and Abner is chiding Ishbosheth for treating him this way.

Headed Toward a Conclusion

As I noted in the conclusion of the foot motif, the categories I have suggested above are not set in stone. They merely point to ways in which this motif is used in the books of Samuel. The categories have a certain amount of fluidity as I have noted above. While this motif occurs in various ways and in different contexts, it is clear that one of its primary uses is in regard to kingship. After all, these are books about the establishment of the monarchy. All of the beheadings that surround David are one way of suggesting that he is Israel’s rightful king. It also suggests that, when it comes to power, people have a way of losing their heads! This motif also contributes to the theme of honor and shame which I have identified elsewhere as a significant theme in the books of Samuel (see The Theology of 1&2 Samuel, or my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel–see the link below). Finally, the biblical theme of “reaping what you sow,” also known as retribution (see #3 above), is emphasized through the use of this motif in Samuel. There are many motifs remaining in the books of Samuel. We will look at more in the future. Until then, keep your head up!

For a more in depth study of the books of Samuel, purchase a copy of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits

 

Getting Our Feet Wet: Motifs in Samuel

Getting Our Feet Wet: Motifs in Samuel

Getting one's feet wet
Accordind to Vappingo, getting one’s feet wet is an idiom that comes from the Book of Joshua. Picture taken from Vappingo.com

“Getting one’s feet wet,” according to The Free Dictionary means “a first-time experience with something,” or, “to venture into new territory.” According to vappingo.com, this idiom actually comes from the Book of Joshua where the priests were commanded to put their feet in the Jordan River and then it would part (Joshua 3:13-16). In this post I’m attempting to get our feet wet by looking at the use of “feet/foot/legs” as a recurring motif in the books of Samuel. For some reading this article the idea of motifs in Books of the Bible may be a new concept (see my posts here and here). Others, perhaps may have never noticed this prominent motif in Samuel, or never taken the time to consider what messages are being communicated through its usage.

The Use of “Feet” and Related Words in Modern Idioms

Feet
How many modern idioms about feet can you think of?

How many modern idioms can you think of that use the word “feet,” “foot” or “leg/legs?” On my own I can think of a few such as “you’re pulling my leg,” or “I really put my foot in my mouth on that one.” How about, “I just want to get my foot in the door,” or “stop dragging your feet?”How’s that for “thinking on my feet?” I recently Googled idioms using feet and here are a few others:

  1. To have “itchy feet”
  2. To have “two left feet”
  3. To have “one foot in the grave”
  4. To be “swift of foot” (we’ll actually see this one in Samuel!)
  5. To “pull the rug out from under one’s feet”
  6. To “put one’s feet up”

For these and a lot more, see 50 Idioms About Leg, Feet, and Toes. In the following examination of this motif in Samuel, I will try to put my best foot forward in order to keep you on your toes when looking for  other motifs in the books of Samuel.

The Motif of Feet and Legs in Samuel

Swift feet
Asahel, whom 2 Samuel 2:18 describes as “swift of foot as a wild gazelle,” pursues Abner.

In my search for this motif in Samuel I found 36 passages which use the Hebrew root rgl (the noun form of this root is written as regel),the basic meaning of which is “feet” or “legs.”  There are twelve occurrences of this root in 1 Samuel and twenty-four in 2 Samuel.  Although it should be remembered that 1&2 Samuel were originally one book, this breakdown illustrates that this Hebrew root occurs with greater frequency in the second half of the book. One of the functions of a motif is how it links various stories together. For example, the use of “foot” or “leg” should recall other stories where the word was recently utilized. This is especially true when it occurs many times so as to be an obvious motif.

One final point should be made regarding the use of motifs before proceeding: We are examining motifs in their literary setting, but they may also have served to link stories together when they were first told orally. It’s possible that any or all of the motifs in Samuel were originally part of the oral telling of the story. Whether they originated orally or when the stories were first committed to writing, these motifs would serve to keep the listener engaged while acting as devices that both entertain and teach.

A Survey of Rgl in Samuel

Because of the different ways in which English must translate various Hebrew words, it’s important when studying a motif to look at the original language. As this post will demonstrate, if only the English is consulted, other uses of a Hebrew root may be overlooked This is easily illustrated by the fact that rgl can be translated as feet or legs in English–two different, though related words. This also means, that the motif has its most profound affect in the original language since word plays are sometimes made which cannot be noticed in translation.

Deer feet
In 2 Samuel 22:34 David writes, “He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights.”

But what about the meaning of this motif? Is there a singular theme that is highlighted or is it used in various ways? As the survey below demonstrates the Hebrew root rgl has various meanings. The meaning is dependent on whether the noun or verbal form of the word is used, whether it occurs in a proper name, and whether it is used figuratively or literally. Besides a literal meaning, context may also indicate an additional meaning to the word (or phrase in which the word is used). I have discovered roughly twelve different ways in which the Hebrew root rgl is used (I have highlighted in bold the meanings or usages). In no particular order, here they are:

  1. As noted above, the root is used in two different place names, which appear to have special significance. Jonathan and Ahimaaz, the sons of the high priests Abiathar and Zadok, were staying at a place known as En-Rogel (2 Sam. 17:17). En-Rogel (notice the Hebrew root rgl in the word) is located where the three valleys of ancient Jerusalem (the Kidron, Tyropoeon, and Hinnom) come together. Ironically the place means, “Well of the Spy.” These young men were hiding out there so that they might deliver intelligence information to David during Absalom’s revolt. We are also told that during Absalom’s revolt a man named Barzillai came from Rogelim (plural form of rgl) to bring much needed supplies to David and his people (2 Sam. 17:27; 19:31).
  2. Since we have noted that En-Rogel means “Well of the Spy,” we should also note that the root rgl is used several times in Samuel to refer to a spy or spies (1 Sam. 26:4; 2 Sam. 10:3; 15:10). It is also used once in its verbal form meaning “to slander.” Mephibosheth, the man who is lame in his “feet,” ironically accuses his servant Ziba of “slandering” him to King David (2 Sam. 19:27). Ziba had earlier claimed that Mephibosheth wanted to reclaim the throne of his grandfather Saul (2 Sam. 16:1-4), and therefore had stayed behind in Jerusalem and not gone with David during Absalom’s revolt. The meaning of “spy” and “slander” is thought to come from the idea of a person who moves their feet too much! In other words, in the case of a spy, the movement of their feet suggests “shiftiness,” while the movement of a slanderer suggests a “busybody.”
  3. Speaking of Mephibosheth, it is noted on several occasions that he is “lame in his feet” (2 Sam 4:4; 9:3, 13). While this is, of course, a reference to his literal feet, there is also a meaning of weakness, or helplessness. David’s generosity of allowing Mephibosheth to come eat at his table as one of the king’s sons is a demonstration of how David imitates God by caring for those who are less fortunate (e.g., Micah 4:6-7; Zeph. 3:19). It may also be a way of suggesting that Mephibosheth is no threat to take the throne of his grandfather Saul. The context in 2 Samuel 4 (see v. 4 particularly) seems to suggest that with the death of Ishbosheth and the lameness of Mephibosheth the dynasty of Saul literally “doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
  4. When Mephibosheth appears before David, he exclaims “Here is your servant (2 Sam. 9:6). The concept of feet is also suggestive of servanthood and humility. When David marches with 400 men to destroy Nabal’s house, it is the action of Abigail who “falls at his feet” (1 Sam. 25:24), along with her wise words that dissuades David from his vengeful plan. Later when Nabal dies, David requests Abigail to become his wife. Her reply shows great humility as she says, “Behold your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord” (1 Sam. 25:41). Since feet were exposed to the dirt and filth of the streets, they were considered an unclean part of the body. Washing the feet was an action of a lowly slave. In this expression, Abigail once again demonstrates true humility.
  5. In contrast to weakness or humility, feet could also be a symbol of stability and power. The image of God making the king’s enemies a footstool (e.g., Ps. 110:1), or the conqueror placing his foot on the necks of his enemies (Josh. 10:24) evokes this meaning. Since 1&2 Samuel are books about power, it is surprising that we don’t see this meaning more often. Nevertheless, this image occurs twice in David’s psalm in 2 Samuel 22. In 2 Sam. 22:10 it refers to God as David says, “He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet.” David uses it of himself when, speaking of his enemies he says, “they fell under my feet” (2 Sam. 22:39). Once again the image of feet is a concrete one (referring to God’s and David’s), but the symbolism behind these expressions conveys a deeper, meaning.
  6. Speaking of a reference to a physical part of the body, Goliath is said to wear bronze grieves on his “legs” (1 Sam. 17:6). This statement, along with the rest of the description of Goliath, is clearly intended to intimidate and inspire fear. Absalom is said to be handsome, “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2 Sam. 14:25). This kind of expression is known as a “merism” where the words “foot” and “head” are a reference to the entire body. We still use this expression today.
  7. On a more mundane note, the root rgl is used to refer to infantry, or foot-soldiers on four occasions in Samuel (1 Sam. 4:10; 15:4; 2 Sam. 8:4; 10:6).
  8. “Following after one’s legs” is an idiom which communicates loyalty or faithfulness to the one being followed. The idea is following in someone’s footsteps. This expression is used of those who follow David (1 Sam. 25:27; 2 Sam. 15:15, 17, 18), and of the servants that follow Abigail (1 Sam. 25:42).
  9. Security, or protection is often the result of following after someone powerful. This is the idea in 1 Samuel 2:9 when Hannah says that God will “guard the feet of his faithful ones.”  In 2 Samuel 22:34, David voices the security he finds in God by comparing himself to a deer whose footing is sure on rocky heights (see the photo and caption above).
  10. Feet can take a person where they shouldn’t go  (e.g., Prov. 1:16; 4:26; 5:5). Asahel’s swiftness of foot should have been an asset to him, but instead it brought about his destruction (2 Sam. 2:18-23–see my expanded treatment of this here, or in my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel). The brothers who killed Ishbosheth allowed their feet to take them where they shouldn’t have gone. As a result, David had their hands and feet cut off when he executed them (2 Sam. 4:12).
  11. There is one example where the physical exertion of using one’s hands and feet point to stepping out (no pun intended) in faith. In 1 Samuel 14:13, Jonathan and his armor-bearer climb up a side of a mountain to defeat the Philistines.
  12. I will lump the final uses of rgl under the category of figurative usage. Among these are two euphemistic phrases. When David and his men are hiding from Saul in a cave, Saul is said to go in and “cover his feet,” which means he was using the toilet (1 Sam. 24:3). David wants Uriah to go down to his house and “wash his feet,” by which he means “have sex with your wife” (2 Sam. 11:8, see Uriah’s response in v. 11). We have here the same idiom of washing feet as we saw in the Abigail story above, but with a very different meaning! Another figurative usage is found in David’s lament of Abner’s death where he says, “your feet were not fettered” (2 Sam. 3:34). In other words, Abner wasn’t helpless and yet died a sad and foolish way. The idea of vulnerability is attached to this expression, as it is also in the story of Saul relieving himself in the cave. A final figurative use describes David’s hiding place when he is fleeing from Saul. Saul is told by the Ziphites that David is in their territory to which he replies, “know and see the place where his foot is” (1 Sam. 23:22).

A Footing…Uh, I Mean, Fitting Conclusion

The twelve categories above are a starting point. They are suggestive and not meant to be exhaustive. Furthermore, the use of rgl can, in certain instances, fit in several of the above categories. This survey demonstrates the pervasive nature of the foot motif in Samuel. It also demonstrates that this motif does not carry a single message. Context is the determining factor. The foot motif adds spice to the narrative of Samuel. In one sense, it is a running pun throughout the story. Once it is recognized, the reader might become intrigued on how the inspired author will use it next. Through its various shades of meaning it helps elucidate a given event, personality, or action. It is part of the glue that connects many of the stories together, particularly in the last half of Samuel. The foot motif is one of many that enriches, amuses, and informs God’s inspired message in the books of Samuel. We will look at another motif next time. Until then, keep your feet on the ground!

For a more in depth study of the books of Samuel, purchase a copy of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.Family Portraits

Motifs in Samuel: Meaning and Significance

Motifs in Samuel: Meaning and Significance

Motifs in Samuel. Samuel anointing David
Join me for a study of motifs in Samuel and see how following a motif can help with the interpretation of a biblical passage.

A number of years ago I wrote a post that pointed out how the recognition and study of motifs within a biblical narrative can contribute to its understanding (see here). In that post I surveyed motifs found in Genesis (the Jacob story), Judges (the Samson story), and Samuel (Saul’s story). I also noted a number of other motifs in Samuel with the promise of one day writing about them further. It’s been a long time coming but that day has finally arrived. This post is an introduction to the topic. I will briefly discuss what a motif is and then note various motifs in Samuel that will be the subject of future posts.

What is a Motif?

If you google a definition of what a motif is you will find this useful definition: “A motif is a recurring symbol which takes on a figurative meaning. … In fact, almost every text commonly uses the literary device of the motif. A motif can be almost anything: an idea, an object, a concept, a character archetype, the weather, a color, or even a statement” (study.com). Bernard Aubert defines a motif very simply as a “recognizable pattern or unit” (The Shepherd-flock Motif in the Miletus Discourse, p. 16–for an online version of this book click here).

Using rope to illustrate a motif
A motif is like different strands of a rope.

Brian A. Verrett points out that “A motif is to be distinguished from a theme. A motif is a thread, and a theme is the rope made of different threads” (The Serpent in Samuel, p. 8, n.54). Rachelle Gilmour states, “In each case the motif is a concrete image that points to an abstract meaning, even if this meaning changes over time or across types of literature. This is typical of the biblical narrative, which in general avoids explicit statements of abstract meaning, using instead a concrete image to represent it” (Gilmour, “Reading a Biblical Motif” p, 32). An example of what Gilmour is saying would be the use of “hand” in the biblical text. Hand is a very concrete image but it points to the abstract meaning of “power.” For example, when the Bible states that Israel was delivered into the hand of the Philistines, this means they were defeated by them and came under their control or power. “Hand” is, in fact, a motif in Samuel that we will be examining.

Motifs in Samuel

Bathsheba
Beauty is one example of a motif in Samuel.

Motifs Addressed by Biblical Scholars

Bible scholars have long recognized the use of motifs in Samuel. In my previous post I reviewed a book by Brian A. Verrett entitled, The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif (see my review here). In his book Verrett seeks to demonstrate that the Samuel narrative repeatedly casts characters as serpents (p. 8). Other motifs in Samuel that have been discussed by scholars include, the exodus, beauty, displaced husbands, food provision lists, and allusions to the patriarchal stories in Genesis. Several, or perhaps all of these motifs, have probably never occurred to a casual reader of the books of Samuel. The value of beginning to recognize these, and other motifs, is the way they enrich the meaning of the narrative. Being sensitive to motifs will also cause the reader to slow down and ask why a certain motif continues to recur. Thus creating a learning opportunity. Searching for motifs also increases the pleasure in reading.

Other Motifs in Samuel

There are many other motifs in Samuel. Here I offer a list which is not meant to be complete by any means. In future posts, I will be examining some of these motifs.

  1. Sword and spear
  2. Heads
  3. Hands
  4. Feet
  5. Eating and not eating
  6. Clothing, especially robes
  7. Dead dog
  8. Angel of God
  9. Seeking and (not) finding
  10. Asking (inquiring)
  11. Shepherd
  12. Rebellious sons

Some motifs found in the books of Samuel also occur in other books of the Bible. My purpose is to narrow the focus to only 1&2 Samuel. I will identify some of these motifs and ask how they function in Samuel. How is our reading of the text enhanced by noticing these motifs and inquiring about their significance? In my next post, we will start from the bottom up. I will be looking at the significance of the motif of “feet” in Samuel.

 

The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif

The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif

The Serpent in Samuel
The serpent in Samuel is available at Wipf & Stock, and Amazon USA / UK

As the title suggests, this recent book by author Brian A. Verrett, advocates that the messianic theme found in the books of Samuel is enhanced by tracing a serpent motif (on the subject of biblical motifs, see my post here). The serpent referred to is the serpent of Genesis 3. In particular Genesis 3:15, viewed by many as the first messianic prophecy in Scripture: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV).

This motif is not readily apparent to most readers of the English Bible, but by an examination of various Hebrew words, as well as looking at what the text of Genesis 3 might have in common with certain passages in the books of Samuel, Verrett seeks to establish his case. In Verrett’s own words, “This book has a two-fold purpose: (1) demonstrate that Samuel contains a serpent motif and (2) demonstrate that this motif’s significance within Samuel is to present the seed of David as the promised seed of the woman from Gen. 3:15 who will defeat the serpent and reign as king in the new creation” (p. 143).

In his introductory chapter, Verrett demonstrates that previous scholarship has suggested a serpent motif within the books of Samuel. He also notes that the books of Samuel utilize various motifs noticed by scholars (I myself am planning a series on this blog related to various motifs in the books of Samuel–click here for posts currently available).

The serpent tempts Adam & Eve
Verrett suggests that words like going on one’s belly, eating dust, trodden underfoot, or suffering a damaged head, may all be ways of alluding to the serpent.

In chapter two Verrett looks closely at Genesis 3, examining the story and its vocabulary. His main objectives are to “demonstrate that both the OT and NT contain a serpent motif that derives from Gen 3,” and to “develop a paradigm to determine allusions to the serpent by noting those words, images, and concepts that the text associates with the serpent in Gen 3” (p. 10). Some of his conclusions are (1) that the seed of the woman is a singular individual (i.e. the word “seed” is not used in a corporate sense); (2) by examining the words of judgment placed on the serpent, the woman, and the man, one can expect that a text using these images might be alluding to the serpent. Verrett concedes that the words referring to the serpent’s judgment have a “higher chance” that a biblical author is referring to the serpent. He does a convincing job establishing that there is a serpent motif that runs throughout the OT & NT, thus opening the door for the possibility that this motif occurs in Samuel as well.

David and Goliath
Is Goliath an image of the serpent? Verrett’s answer is “Yes!”

In chapters 3&4 Verrett seeks to establish that a serpent motif exists in Samuel. His primary focus is on Goliath (chapter 3) and passages dealing with Nahash (chapter 4). Verrett contends that several factors combine to demonstrate that Goliath represents the serpent. Words and images that suggest this include Goliath’s scaly armor and the four-fold mention of bronze (armor & weapons). The word “bronze” comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for snake. Finally, Goliath’s death suggests connections with the serpent. His falling face down suggests that he eats dust and his beheading parallels the serpent’s head being crushed. As an aside for those who read this blog, Verrett agrees that David struck Goliath in the knee, not the forehead, as I argue in most post “How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?

The Ammonite King Nahash seems to hold the most obvious potential for a serpent theme, since “nahash” in Hebrew means “snake.” Nahash is the king defeated by Saul in 1 Samuel 11. His opposition to Israel and Israel’s anointed one (Saul), along with his name make this a possibility. Nahash’s name also appears in 2 Samuel 10 which speaks of his death and the war created by his son Hanun when he insults David’s ambassadors. Verrett argues that Hanun is the “seed of the serpent,” since he is the son of Nahash. The theme of nakedness and shame and his opposition to David (Israel’s anointed) further suggests the serpent motif (pp. 84-85). Nahash is mentioned 2 final times in 2 Samuel 17:25 and 27. According to 2 Sam. 17:25, Nahash is the grandfather of Amasa. Amasa becomes the general of Absalom’s army in his revolt against David. Verrett argues that Amasa’s descent from Nahash and the description of his death, which includes him falling on his “belly” and writhing like a snake, suggests that he is a seed of the serpent (pp. 89-91). Verrett also suggests that Absalom is “serpentine” but doesn’t dwell on this identification, making only cursory observations (Absalom deceives people, he is opposed to David). I found this section dealing with Amasa and Absalom to be less than convincing and will speak of it in my critique below.

In chapters 5-7 Verrett deals with the second purpose of his book which is to demonstrate that the seed of David is the promised seed of the woman who will defeat the serpent and reign over a new creation. In chapter 5 he pulls together all the “serpent” material in Samuel explored in his earlier chapters (3&4) and seeks to show how they relate to one another. This is one of the most insightful chapters of the book. Verrett points out that Saul’s fall begins after his defeat of Nahash (which might have raised hopes that he was the promised seed), demonstrating that Saul is not the promised seed of the woman. David’s victory over the serpentine Goliath gives hope that he is the promised seed. But following his victory over Hanun (the son of Nahash), the story relates David’s fall, thus demonstrating that he is not the promised seed of the woman either. Therefore, the serpent motif in Samuel momentarily raises the reader’s hope that the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15 is on the horizon. However, hope turns to be disappointment when the reader learns that neither Saul nor David is the promised deliverer. This, in turn, leads Verrett to discuss 2 Sam. 7:11b-17 in chapter 6–a passage that promises David an eternal throne and a descendant who would sit upon it.

King David
When God promises David an eternal throne, who is the promised one who will build the Temple? According to Verrett, it’s not Solomon, but Jesus.

In chapter 6, Verrett carefully examines 2 Sam. 7:11b-17, concluding that Solomon is not the promised descendant who would build the Temple, but that it refers to a future priest-king (Jesus). Along with his discussion of 2 Sam 7, he also looks at whether 2 Chronicles pictures Solomon as the fulfillment (his answer is “no”). He also connects 1 Sam 2:35 and the prophecy of a faithful priest with 2 Sam 7, arguing that these passages share similar language and indicate that the promised priest is also the same person as the promised coming king. To bolster his argument, he examines Zechariah 6:9-15, stating that this passage too anticipates a priest-king who is the “Branch” of David (thus an allusion to the Davidic covenant in 2 Sam 7). Finally, he argues that “Hebrews 3:1-6 also understands the faithful priest of 1 Sam 2:35 to be the seed of David in 2 Samuel 7:11b-17” (133).

Chapter 7 is a close examination of David’s “last words” recorded in 2 Sam 23:1-7, and other passages that Verrett believes are dependent on it (Ps. 72, various passages in Isaiah, Jer. 23:5-6 and Zech. 6:9-15). His interpretation of 2 Sam 23:1-7 is that David is speaking of his seed who will reign in righteousness over a new creation (3-4) while defeating the serpent (6-7–he understands the mention of “Belial” to refer to the serpent of Gen. 3). Chapter 8 is a five-page summary bringing the study to a conclusion.

Evaluation

Teacher
Image courtesy of http://clipart-library.com/teacher-cartoon-images.html

Verrett is to be congratulated for a very thorough study of the serpent motif in Samuel. The book demonstrates a good working knowledge of the books of Samuel, as well as an acquaintance with the pertinent scholarly literature. The book is also well written and easy to understand. One does not have to be a scholar to appreciate the many insights offered, although this book is definitely for the more mature student, pastor, or teacher. Among the strengths of this book is an awareness of a serpent motif in Scripture, and a greater sensitivity toward the messianic theme of the books of Samuel.

While Verrett has convinced me of the possibility of a serpent motif in Samuel, I must say with some regret, I am not totally persuaded. At times I was left with the impression that Verrett wanted to prove his thesis so much that he may have gone overboard and found connections where there are none. One example is Verrett’s contention that Habakkuk 3:13-14 is “a poetic portrayal of the David and Goliath narrative” (p. 60). I had never read these verses and caught any notion of a reference, or even an allusion, to David and Goliath. After reading Verrett’s interpretation, I must still confess that I don’t see it. I have similar feelings about his connection of 2 Sam. 23:6-7 with 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1, although I see the parallels he is trying to make between these passages.

One glaring weakness in Verrett’s presentation, in my opinion, is regarding Absalom and Amasa. One would think that if the writer of Samuel was attempting to use the serpent motif in the story of Absalom’s rebellion, he would have used language and imagery much more obvious and convincing with regards to Absalom. Why would the writer focus on a relatively minor character like Amasa and picture him as the seed of the serpent, when a presentation of Absalom in this light would make a more profound impression? This doesn’t rule it out as a possibility, but there are other problems regarding Amasa. Although Verrett, to his credit, deals with the textual problem in 2 Sam. 17:25 which depicts Amasa as a descendant of Nahash, this Scripture is much disputed. It asks a lot to base your theory on a disputed passage. I must also take issue with Verrett’s interpretation of Joab. Joab is pictured as a very unsavory person in 2 Samuel. His murder of Amasa is vicious, deceitful, and cowardly. Yet in this passage Verrett pictures Joab as the hero and David as the villain! Quote: “At this point in the narrative, Joab appears more like the seed of the woman than David does” (p. 113). This is a misunderstanding of Joab’s portrayal in 2 Samuel. (For an in depth treatment of Joab’s character, check out my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel). One final problem with Verrett’s thesis is his assertion that the covenant promise of 2 Samuel 7 refers only to the promised seed of the woman. While this is clearly a messianic text and is interpreted this way in the NT, it’s hard to ignore 2 Sam. 7:14 which talks about David’s descendants committing sin. Again, to his credit, Verrett addresses this verse, but all that he can come up with (and it’s all that can be said) is that the Old Greek (OG) leaves open the possibility that David’s descendant might not sin (p. 127). This is not a strong argument and damages  his assertion that this passage only speaks about the coming messiah.

Concluding Remarks

In spite of my critique of what I perceive to be some shortcomings of The Serpent in Samuel, this is an excellent book. The reader will learn much from it. I am grateful for Verrett’s effort, and scholarship and I highly recommend it as a source that will inform and challenge the reader.

Many thanks to Wipf & Stock for this free review copy. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.

The Serpent in Samuel: A Messianic Motif is available at Wipf & Stock, and Amazon USA / UK

 

Biblical Narrative: How Motifs Enrich a Story

Biblical Narrative: The Use of Motifs

A Viking embroidery motif. Biblical narratives use a similar pattern of repetition.
A Viking embroidery motif. Biblical narratives often  use imagery with similar patterns of repetition.

A motif is a recurring pattern or design, or a familiar image that is repeated in a piece of writing such as a biblical narrative. In my last post on “Helpful Suggestions for Bible Study,” I focused on the importance of paying attention to the details of a story (you can read that post here). Another detail that is often overlooked in Bible study is the recurrence of motifs within a story, or even a whole book. Biblical narratives commonly use motifs. These motifs spice up a story and not only increase the “entertainment” value of the story, but usually contribute to the understanding of an important theme, message, or character within the narrative. This is a “detail” worth pondering, and so I would like to take the opportunity in this article to look at various stories and the motifs found in them. With some stories, the reason for the motif is obvious. With other stories, the reason for the motif is more obscure. In this article I will explore the meaning of some motifs while asking all of you who read this blog to offer insights and suggestions about others. I hope you’ll join me by sharing your comments. So let’s have some fun exploring various motifs in biblical narratives and see what we might learn from them.

A stone becomes Jacob's pillow and that night God appears to him in a dream.
A stone becomes Jacob’s pillow and that night God appears to him in a dream.

Stones are a common motif in some biblical narratives. For example, the story of Jacob, in the Book of Genesis, frequently refers to them. When Jacob has his famous dream of the “ladder” that reaches from heaven to earth, we are told that he uses a stone for his pillow (Gen. 28:11). The following morning he takes the same stone and sets it up as a sacred pillar (yes, his pillow becomes a pillar) for a memorial of the occasion (Gen. 28:18, 22). The stone here is obviously a motif that suggests God’s provision, protection, and blessing on Jacob, as he flees from his brother Esau and goes to Syria where he will meet his future wives (Leah and Rachel) and encounter his diabolical uncle Laban, but it also suggests Jacob’s lack of certainty about God. Upon Jacob’s arrival in Syria (Paddan Aram), he comes to a well which has a large stone that covers it (Gen. 29:2). The narrator spends several verses talking about this stone and the shepherds’ reluctance to remove it quickly (Gen. 29:3, 8). However, when Rachel arrives on the scene and Jacob sees her for the first time, we are informed that he rolls the stone away by himself and waters the flocks (Gen. 29:10)! The contrast between the lazy shepherds and the energetic Jacob, the heaviness of the stone and the appearance of Rachel, seems to suggest that Jacob is showing a little machismo and flexing his muscles for the little beauty he has just met! In this case, the stone represents Jacob acting in the flesh. Up to this point in the story it must be admitted that Jacob relies on himself, rather than on God. Jacob secures Rachel as a wife by showing off, working hard, and bargaining with Laban (Gen. 29:18-19). It is all done in his own strength. By contrast, his father Isaac had received his wife through the fervent prayer of Abraham’s servant who sought God’s guidance each step of the way (Gen. 24). Jacob never prays about a wife. He flexes his muscles, works hard, and negotiates.

Stones are a biblical narrative motif. The heap of witness (Gen. 31:44-55)
The heap of witness (Gen. 31:44-55) One example of the use of stones in the biblical narrative of Jacob

After years of mistreatment at the hands of his father-in-law, stones reappear again in the story of Jacob as he and his family flee from Laban. The stones in this story represent a covenant (Gen. 31:44-46), but the covenant is based on hostility and mutual mistrust (Gen. 31:51-52). For Jacob they also appear to have the deeper meaning of recognizing God’s protection over him (Gen. 31:53). In Genesis 35, Jacob finally returns to Bethel (where he had his original dream). God appears to him and reiterates all of the promises He had made to Jacob. When God is finished speaking, the Scripture tells us that Jacob set up a “pillar of stone” to commemorate where God had talked with him (Gen. 35:14). This scene brings the story full-circle demonstrating both God’s faithfulness to Jacob and Jacob’s trust in God. The first stone pillar at Bethel (Gen. 28) was set up by a lying and deceitful Jacob who trusted in his own wits and strength. The final stone pillar at Bethel (Gen. 35) is set up by a Jacob who has learned humility, trust, and dependence on God. Jacob’s trust in God is declared one final time through this “stone” imagery. On his deathbed, as he is blessing his son Joseph, Jacob refers to God as “the stone of Israel” (Gen. 49:24). Thus by following the “stone” motif in the story of Jacob we can not only discover significant insights into the personality of Jacob, but we can discover the message of how God transforms a self-sufficient man into one who depends on Him.

Saul's spear was his constant companion and is an example of another literary motif in a biblical narrative.
Saul’s spear was his constant companion and is an example of another literary motif in a biblical narrative.

Another motif that Bible commentators frequently draw attention to is the spear of Saul. Following the story of David and Goliath, a spear becomes Saul’s constant companion (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:9-10; 20:33; 22:6; 26:7-22). Some wonder about the frequent reference to Saul’s spear but have no explanation for it. Others suggest that it is a sign of his kingship. To a certain extent this is true, but this insight needs to be taken further. The real key to understanding the significance of Saul’s spear is found in David’s statement to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Sam. 17:45). Most significantly, David states, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam. 17:47). David’s statements to Goliath cast a shadow over one who puts his trust in a sword or a spear. As mentioned above, it is after these statements by David that the biblical narrative constantly draws attention to the spear that accompanies Saul. The spear becomes a symbol of Saul’s trust in the flesh and his lack of trust in God. This is especially clear when he attempts to use this spear to rid his kingdom of David, God’s anointed (1 Sam. 18:10-11; 19:9-10). Thus, Saul’s spear represents his conflict with God. By seeking to kill David, he is opposing God and God’s plan for the kingdom. This is part of the significance of David taking Saul’s spear (1 Sam. 26:7-22). God (through David) disarms Saul and demonstrates who the true king of Israel is. Reflecting on the people’s original request for a king (who turned out to be Saul), we are reminded that they asked for a king “to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). Saul’s trust in his spear rather than in God, suggests that he is a king “like all the nations” and, therefore, the people got the kind of king that they asked for!

Biblical narrative: Samson sets the Philistine fields on fire.
Samson sets the Philistine fields on fire. Fire is a frequent motif in the biblical narrative of Samson.

Samson’s name is from the Hebrew word for “sun” and fire is a recurring motif in his story. When Samson’s wedding guests are not able to solve his riddle, they threaten to burn his wife and father-in-law with fire (Judg. 14:15). The most famous incident involving fire in connection with Samson is when he captures 300 foxes, ties torches to their tails and releases them into the fields of the Philistines to destroy their harvest (Judg. 15:5). In retaliation for this incident, the Philistines fulfill their threat against his former wife and father-in-law by burning them with fire (Judg. 15:6). After Samson responds by attacking more Philistines, they demand that the tribe of Judah hand him over. Samson agrees to allow his fellow-Israelites to tie him up, but when he is handed over to the Philistines we are told, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him; and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that is burned with fire” (Judg. 15:14). Similarly, when Delilah ties Samson up with bowstrings and says “The Philistines are upon you Samson,” he breaks the bowstrings, “as a strand of yarn breaks when it touches fire” (Judg. 16:9). What we are to make of all of these references about fire, and Samson’s name (which actually means “little sun” or “sunny”) is uncertain. However, fire is clearly a motif of the story. Because many in the ancient world worshipped the sun, some see Samson’s name in a negative light (no pun intended!). Certainly, he was the worst of the Judges. But in spite of his self-indulgent ways, he does bring partial deliverance to Israel. The fire motif is connected with this theme of deliverance from the Philistines. So what should we make of this motif in the story of Samson? I would be interested in hearing what some of you think.

I find the motifs of various biblical narratives an interesting way to approach Bible study. I’ve even thought of one day writing a book on some of the motifs of 1&2 Samuel. We have already looked at the motif of the spear in 1 Samuel. Let me conclude this article by mentioning two more. The motif of feet and lameness appears in the early chapters of 2 Samuel. Asahel is said to be “fleet of foot” (2 Sam. 2:18), while David laments the death of Abner by stating, “Your hands were not bound; Nor your feet put into fetters” (2 Sam. 3:34). In 2 Samuel 4:4 we are introduced to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth who is “lame in both feet.” In 2 Samuel 5 when David attacks Jerusalem, the Jebusites taunt him by saying “You shall not come in here; but the blind and the lame will repel you” (2 Sam. 5:6). More talk about the blind and the lame continues in 2 Sam. 5:8. By the end of 2 Samuel 9, Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, is sitting at the king’s table (2 Sam. 9:13).

Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, eats at the king's table.
Mephibosheth, the man lame in both feet, eats at the king’s table.

Speaking of the king’s table, another very interesting motif that runs through the biblical narrative of 1&2 Samuel, is the motif of eating and not eating. This motif is so widespread that I will only mention a few examples (for a fun study, see how many others you can find!). In 1 Samuel 1:8 Hannah refuses to eat. In 1 Samuel 2, Eli and his sons cannot help but eat everything in sight, including the sacrificial meat that belongs to God (1 Sam. 2:12-17; 27-30). There is definitely a contrast being made between Hannah who refuses to eat what she is entitled to, and Eli and his sons, who eat what they are not entitled to. Other examples include: Saul putting the army under a vow of fasting until he defeats the Philistines, but Jonathan eats some honey unaware of Saul’s command (1 Sam. 14:24-30); Jonathan refusing to eat at the table with Saul because he is grieved over Saul’s desire to kill David (1 Sam. 20:34); Saul’s visit to the “witch” at Endor where he is persuaded to eat after initially refusing (1 Sam. 28:20-25); as noted above, Mephibosheth is invited to eat continually at King David’s table (2 Sam. 9:7-13); David refuses to eat as he prays for the child that Bathsheba has given birth to, but once the child dies, David eats (2 Sam. 12:16-23); and Amnon requests food from his sister Tamar, but then refuses to eat it (2 Sam. 13:5-11). These are only a few of the many stories that contain the theme of eating and not eating in 1&2 Samuel. This motif seems to have different meanings depending on the context and I look forward to exploring it in more depth in the future. Meanwhile, if you have any thoughts regarding this motif or others not mentioned in this article, I would welcome hearing them.

Hopefully this brief survey of a few of the motifs in biblical narrative will encourage you in your Bible study. The Bible speaks at many different levels and motifs can be an interesting way of entering into the meaning of a story.