Category Archives: The Book of Samuel

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

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

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

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

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

The Divisiveness of King Saul

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

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

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

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

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

(2 paragraphs omitted from original)

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

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

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

Reflections

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

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

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

Consider Purchasing Family Portraits as a Gift This Christmas. Available at WestBow Press, Amazon USA / UK and various other internet outlets.

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel
Available at logos.com

The 1&2 Samuel Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) is the final work of beloved and renowned scholar Harry A. Hoffner Jr. Hoffner, before his recent death in March 2015, was John A. Wilson Professor of Hittitology Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He was an expert on the ancient Near East and, as the above title suggests, specialized in the language, history and civilization of the Hittite empire. One of his greatest achievements was co-editing The Hittite Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Hoffner’s ancient Near Eastern expertise is one of the great strengths of the Evangelical Exegetical Commenatry on 1&2 Samuel. Nearly every page offers some parallel or insight from his extensive knowledge of Hittite, and ancient Mesopotamian literature. Such a statement might frighten off those less experienced in the study of the Old Testament, and indeed, it is not a commentary for beginners. However, the pastor, the graduate student, the professor, and the more advanced learner will benefit greatly from Hoffner’s exposition. Knowledge of Hebrew is presupposed as the commentary utilizes Hebrew in both its normal alphabetic and transliterated forms.

Before commenting further on Hoffner’s commentary on 1&2 Samuel, let me share the purpose behind the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series in the words of its creators. “The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary is a brand new, 44-volume commentary series which incorporates the latest critical biblical scholarship and is written from a distinctly evangelical perspective. Published by Lexham Press, the EEC is the next standard commentary on the entire Bible for evangelicals. . . .The publication of the EEC by Lexham Press marks the first time a major Bible commentary series has been published in digital form before its print counterpart—and the first time it has been published with a digital format in mind.” The purpose behind the creation of a digital commentary, in the words of one of the editors of the series H. Wayne House, is so that a commentary can be easily updated. If a new understanding of a word is discovered or some new archaeological information comes to light, it can be added immediately. This is indeed an extremely attractive feature of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series! (For a short video explaining the nature and purpose of the series click HERE).

The Introduction to the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Author of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.
Author of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.

The editors of the ECC have apparently put no restrictions on commentary length (another plus of a digital edition!) and Hoffner takes advantage of this by producing a voluminous commentary. Logos has yet to add page numbers to this particular volume (which makes citation challenging!) and so I can only hazard a guess on its size. It is certainly well over 1,000 pages, but how far over I can not tell. With no space limitations, Hoffner begins the commentary by launching into a thorough and lengthy Introduction. The Introduction includes the usual topics of title, authorship, date, historical context and scope, and structure, but it includes much more. Some of the other areas addressed (and there are too many to name them all) include genre, theme, sources, literary analysis (including a lengthy section that summarizes and evaluates many of the characters of 1&2 Samuel), and extrabiblical parallels (which, given Hoffner’s expertise, comes as no surprise).

There are two things that I would like to note from this introductory material that bear on a commentator’s interpretation of 1&2 Samuel. First, Hoffner is not a fan of using the term “Deuteronomistic History,” to describe the books of Joshua-Kings, noting that such language overlooks the many parallels and allusions to the other books of the Torah (Genesis-Numbers) found throughout Joshua-Kings. While he believes that much of the material regarding David and Saul could have been written and preserved in the palace archives, he has no difficulty in seeing a final author or editor putting 1&2 Samuel in its final form during the exilic period. Rather than state firm conclusions on this matter, Hoffner is content to make general observations. Second, Hoffner is not a fan of “the hermeneutic of suspicion.” In his comments on the characterization of Abner and how scholars frequently conclude that David was responsible for Abner’s death, Hoffner remarks, “Typical of this “Damned if you do—damned if you don’t” hermeneutic of suspicion is Paul Ash’s statement: “Although the text does not implicate David in Abner’s murder, some scholars believe that he may have ordered it since 2 Samuel tries so hard to say otherwise.” Obviously, the narrator denies David’s complicity in order to dispel rumors to the contrary—rumors spread by David’s Saulide opponents. Should not the text record this?” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 2015. 1 & 2 Samuel. H. W. House & W. Barrick, Eds. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press). Later on in his exposition of 2 Samuel 12:22-23, he takes another stab at the skeptics when he writes, “In the end, as is often the case, the scenarios of skeptics require more leaps of faith than belief in the tooth fairy. If one is permitted to simply ignore large chunks of the tradition and make up others, one can “prove” anything! . . . .We are wise not to second-guess the text.” Any who have read my reviews on 1&2 Samuel commentaries are aware of my own disdain for the hermeneutic of suspicion. I couldn’t be more pleased with these comments by Hoffner because they demonstrate that he takes the text seriously.

The Layout of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Sample page from the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel
Sample page from the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Hoffner breaks the commentary down into literary sections. Each section begins with an overall summary and introduction. This is followed by a more detailed outline of the section which provides the basis for the verse-by-verse commentary. A bibliography accompanies the detailed outline and is then followed by the Hebrew text itself with Hoffner’s accompanying notes on the text. Since the Hebrew text is noticeably absent from the Esther volume in this series (although there are notes on the text), it appears that it is up to the authors to determine the format of their commentary, at least to some extent. Hoffner’s english translation follows the textual notes which then leads to the verse-by-verse exposition. There is always a short summary of the portion of the text under examination followed by a discussion of the verses themselves. The commentary is frequently punctuated with other features such as sections entitled: “Exegetical note,” or charts comparing features of the text, gray panels that set apart a special discussion (e.g., one on siege warfare at the beginning of 1 Sam. 11), and from time to time a concluding section entitled, “Application and Devotional Implications.” Following each smaller section of exposition is yet another bibliography. One of the strengths of this commentary is its prolific bibliography, which of course can be updated as new works appear. The screen shot above shows a sample page of the commentary in which you can see the selected bibliography, Hebrew text, and textual notes features.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Lexham Press is the publisher of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary Series
Lexham Press is the publisher of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary Series

Among the many strengths of this commentary, I have already noted Hoffner’s knowledge of the ancient Near East (besides the many parallels he introduces, I would also include his fresh translation of the Hebrew text), the bibliographic resources, the comprehensive nature of the commentary, and its update-ability. Although the commentary may not suit a novice, I am also impressed with the attention that Hoffner pays to character development in 1&2 Samuel and his attempts at sharing application and devotional thoughts. Some examples of his devotional application include his comment on 1 Samuel 24:7-8 (David’s men are encouraging him to kill Saul), where he notes that we should not interpret things in our favor when they violate God’s law. Another timely example (considering the upcoming US election) are Hoffner’s introductory comments on 2 Samuel 13:39-14:33. He states, “As readers, we are invited to consider the full weight of sin, to see the social and public consequences of David’s personal adultery and murder.” This dimension is often lost sight of when media arguments are made against considering the personal sins of leaders in political debates. It is unwise to keep the personal and the public lives of leaders separate” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, 2 Sa 13:39–14:33). These types of applicational interpretation will certainly be welcome material for a pastor or Bible-study leader. The fact that this commentary series is published by Lexham Press and is available on Logos is yet another bonus. The ability to quickly read Scripture references, or footnotes by simply hovering over them with the mouse, or to pull up other commentaries or Bible Dictionary articles referred to by the author which are automatically linked to the resources in your Logos library, are just some of the wonderful benefits available to Logos users. As with any book, you can highlight important comments, take notes, or paste quotes into a folder for future use. Logos users will be familiar with all of these advantages, and many others, which make study easier and more profitable.

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The entire series of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary will consist of 44 volumes including both Old and New Testament. Many volumes are now available. See this link at logos.com

As with any commentary, there are going to be questions over particular interpretations. Some of my disagreements include the significance of Eli’s chair, which Hoffner sees as a sign of Eli’s old age, rather than (what I would interpret as) a clear allusion to royalty.  At times I quibble with his estimation of a character. For example, like many scholars Hoffner is aware of Joab’s brutality, but insists on his complete loyalty to David. I have written extensively elsewhere on my disagreement with this assessment of Joab (see Family Portraits, pp. 258-300). One shortcoming I note is that Hoffner sometimes seems reluctant to let the reader know where he stands on ambiguous or difficult passages. For example, he states that the longer text of 1 Samuel 11 (found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX) suggests “a long period of brutal oppression.” But his only comment is “if we accept the longer text.” There is no further discussion as to whether he accepts or rejects the longer text or what his reasons might be. The story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17) introduces an even more thorny textual issue (the LXX version is much shorter than MT) which Hoffner dismisses by stating that Chisholm has convinced him that the MT makes sense as it stands and is not hopelessly contradictory. Granted, not every textual issue can be discussed ad nauseam, but given the length of this commentary, and Hoffner’s expertise, it is surprising how frequently he opts for no discussion. Furthermore, he does not offer anything new on the interpretive difficulties of 1 Samuel 17:51-53, 55-58 and, in fact, dismisses these difficulties by simply stating, “There is no lack of competing explanations for what appears to be a jarring contradiction between this present passage and what has preceded” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Sa 17:55–58). Finally, once in awhile, Hoffner appears to contradict himself. For example, in 1 Samuel 13:3-4 Hoffner states that it is unlikely that Saul is stealing the glory from Jonathan by claiming victory over the Philistines. Yet in 1 Samuel 17:38 he states, “Previously, Saul had claimed some of the glory due to his son Jonathan’s courageous attack on the Philistine outpost.” Another example may be found in the commentary on 1 Samuel 25. In his introductory comments Hoffner disagrees with the theory of some that the Abigail mentioned here may be his sister by the same name. However, later (in the commentary on 25:3) he notes others who hold this view and quotes Youngblood at length. By not restating his disagreement with this view, one could get the impression he is agreeing.

The above may seem like quite a laundry list of “weaknesses” and yet, given the size of this volume, they are not serious threats to the value of this commentary. In fact, I have to admit I am being quite picky. For those desiring an in-depth look at the books of Samuel, Hoffner’s commentary offers plenty to chew on. The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel will be an indispensable resource for years to come for those who desire to delve deeply into the message of these books. I heartily recommend it for your library.

Purchase the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel at Logos/FaithLife

(Thanks to Logos for supplying a copy of this commentary in exchange for an unbiased review)

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

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

Joab, the “Mama’s Boy”?

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

David’s Sister Zeruiah

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

The Meaning of Zeruiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

God’s First King: The Story of Saul

God’s First King: The Story of Saul

God's First King by Shaul Bar is available through Cascade Books and Amazon. See the links below.
“God’s First King” by Shaul Bar is available through Cascade Books and Amazon. See the links below.

In God’s First King: The Story of Saul, author Shaul Bar, seeks to “rediscover Saul,” and “to have a better understanding of his achievements and failures as the first king of Israel” (p. xvii). Being a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis, one of the unique features of Bar’s approach is “to look at the subject from additional perspectives including those of the Talmud and the Midrashim [ancient Jewish commentaries] and the Jewish medieval commentators” (p. xvi). Of course Bar is also conversant with the modern scholarly literature on Saul and frequently interacts with it. His study of Saul’s kingship utilizes various approaches including literary, historical, and archaeological.

Since Bar’s ultimate goal is to rediscover the historical Saul, he takes a topical approach in God’s First King. His treatment is divided into the following chapters:

  1. The Search for a King–looks at the events of 1 Samuel 8-11 which includes Israel’s demand for a king, Samuel’s denunciation of kingship, and the story of how Saul becomes anointed as the first king.
  2. Saul’s Wars–focuses on Saul’s battles with the Philistines (including the Valley of Elah–1 Sam. 17), the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15), and his wars in the Trans-Jordan including especially the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11).
  3. Saul versus David–examines Saul’s troubled relationship with the future king of Israel. This chapter looks at various events from 1 Samuel 16-26.
  4. Feuds in the King’s Court–looks at Saul’s troubled relationship with other individuals including Samuel, Jonathan, his courtiers, and his daughters.
  5. Saul a State Builder–presents a convincing argument that the transformation from tribal confederation to state, legitimately began with Saul (others would argue it began with David).
  6. Saul and the Witch of En-dor–examines 1 Samuel 28
  7. The Last Battle–not only looks at the chapters describing Saul’s death (1 Sam. 31; 2 Sam. 1), it also examines the establishment of David’s kingship by looking at the fate of Saul’s house as recorded in 2 Samuel 2-4, and 9 (i.e., stories about Ish-bosheth, Michal, Abner, and Mephibosheth).
  8. Conclusion–provides a brief summary of Bar’s study on Saul.

God’s First King: Strengths

The author of "God's First King," Shaul Bar holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature from New York University, and serves as Director of the Bornblum Judaic Studies program.
The author of “God’s First King,” Shaul Bar holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature from New York University, and serves as Director of the Bornblum Judaic Studies program at the University of Memphis.

Bar’s familiarity with other Ancient Near Eastern sources, often provides parallels to the biblical account, or insights into it. For example, the statement that Saul was “head and shoulders” above everyone else in Israel (1 Sam. 10:23) suggests that height was an important consideration for kingship in the ancient world. Bar cites the story of Athtar who sits in “Balu’s seat.” Athtar’s problem is that his feet do not reach the footstool and his head does not reach the top of the seat. “Thus because he is too short, he was rejected as king” (p. 17, n. 65). In another example, Bar notes that Nahash’s action of gouging out the right eye of the Israelites (1 Sam. 11) “is attested to in the  Ugaritic literature, where it is classified as a curse” (p. 36). One final example is Saul’s statement to his courtiers that he had supplied them with fields and vineyards (1 Sam. 22:7). Ancient documents from both Ugarit and the Hittite empire demonstrate “that a king gave estates and land property to his officials as a reward for services or for ensuring their loyalty” (p. 101).

The comments from the Jewish sages are at times amusing. For example, when the women meet Saul and inform him how to find Samuel their comments are quite verbose (1 Sam. 9:11-13). Bar states, “The Gemara comments: ‘Because women are talkers’” (p. 12–apologies to the ladies reading this post. Remember the Gemara said it, I didn’t!).

My favorite chapter in God’s First King is chapter 5 entitled, “Saul a State Builder.” Some scholars argue that Saul’s kingdom was no more than a minor fiefdom. However, Bar argues convincingly that Saul was responsible for many of the elements necessary for establishing a kingdom. He looks at several words, easily overlooked by a less-informed reader, that demonstrate an organized military and political system. The expression, “servant of the king,” frequently appears in Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian sources, as well as Saul’s court, as a reference to officials and functionaries at court (p. 93). Doeg is not only a mercenary soldier who slaughters the Lord’s priests, he is also Saul’s “chief herdsman,” which designates an official who is in charge of the king’s property and herds (p. 94-95). The Hebrew word for “lad” in political contexts can be translated as “steward,” and this is its meaning when David calls Ziba “Saul’s steward” (p. 95).

Bar also notes that, “Taxation is one of the first signs of a monarchy,” and examines several words demonstrating that Saul collected taxes from the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam. 10:27; 17:9, pp. 95-97). Special terms for the military, plus mention of payment for soldiers (1 Sam. 22:7), demonstrate that Saul had a professional army (“chosen ones,” “those who obey, who answer the call,” and “runners” [who go before king’s chariots], are all technical military terms–pp. 97-103). Bar has an interesting discussion of Saul’s capital Gibeah. He notes that the establishment of a capital is a sign of monarchy and talks about the archaeological excavations that have uncovered a palace from Saul’s time there (pp. 103-106). Bar concludes that, “Saul was indeed a state builder. He transformed Israel from a loose federation of tribes into a state with a capital, religious center, army, and taxes.Saul laid the foundation for the monarchy that would ultimately be fully developed under David and Solomon” (p. 109).

God’s First King: Disagreements and Weaknesses

Saul's visit to the witch of En-dor
Saul’s visit to the witch of En-dor

While it is very interesting to see what the ancient Jewish sages, rabbis, and medieval commentators taught on a given passage, it is difficult to determine Bar’s stance toward many of these observations. Does he quote them for the purpose of agreement or disagreement, because they are traditional, or just because they are interesting? In a number of instances, it is hard to tell. For example, in the chapter on Saul’s visit to the Witch of En-dor, readers are often curious why the woman only recognizes Saul once Samuel appears (1 Sam. 28:12). Bar notes that, “According to the talmudic sages and traditional commentators, including Rashi and David Kim[c]hi, the dead rise feet first. Samuel, however, arose in the normal upright posture, out of respect for the king. Seeing this, the woman realized the identity of her visitor” (p. 111). This is certainly an imaginative interpretation! But Bar does not commit himself as to whether he agrees or disagrees. He continues by citing the view of Josephus and then a more modern German scholar, but we never learn whether Bar agrees with any of these interpretations. In another instance,  commenting on Michal’s possession of idols (1 Sam. 19:11-17), Bar notes that Rabbi Joseph Kara, says that it is alright to consult the teraphim when one’s life is in danger! (p. 80). This is a clear violation of the Scriptural injunction against idolatry, but Bar does not offer any disagreement with the statement.

My biggest disagreement with Bar is his utilization of the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Bar believes that since the author is sympathetic to David, his portrayal of certain circumstances cannot be trusted. He writes, “It is unlikely that David was behind the death of Saul as some scholars posit, since he could have accomplished this much earlier [so far, so good in my opinion]. Yet, he was behind the death of Abner and Ish-bosheth. . . .The sense is that the author wanted to whitewash David’s actions” (p. 139). Again, I refer readers to other posts on my blog (e.g., here, and here, or see my book Family Portraits, p. 265) for my disagreement on this issue (perhaps in the future I will devote a post to it).

In the “Conclusion” Bar drops the biggest bomb of all: “We believe that it was the hand of a sympathetic author from the Davidic circle that was responsible for all the negativity surrounding Saul’s portrayal” (p. 141). Really? All the negativity in Saul’s life can be attributed to a Davidic author? Apparently Saul was a paragon of virtue until that crafty author got ahold of his story! In the end, it seems that Bar agrees with some of the Jewish sages who sought to turn Saul’s negative qualities into positive ones. For example, Bar notes that the sages “changed their interpretation concerning his sin in the war against Amalek so that the sin is portrayed favorably” (p. xv). In another instance he points out that they portrayed Saul in a favorable light by giving a different interpretation to the murdering of the priests of Nob (p. 77). Again, it is not clear whether Bar accepts this interpretation or not. Based on his concluding statement, it appears that he sides more with the sages than with the biblical account. If he does, I am in strong disagreement. Even if he doesn’t I can’t agree with his interpretation of Saul’s (and David’s) story.

Conclusion and Evaluation

In spite of a number of disagreements, there is much to be learned from God’s First King. If one is aware of Bar’s presuppositions (and like myself disagrees with them), the fish can be enjoyed while spitting out the bones. If one is looking for a historical approach that utilizes insights from other ANE cultures to illuminate Israel’s history, Bar’s book provides some interesting insights. If one is more interested in getting at the message of how Saul is portrayed in 1 (&2) Samuel, then there are commentaries and other studies that would prove more beneficial.

Many thanks to Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock, for providing a review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.

God’s First King: The Story of Saul is available at Cascade Books and Amazon USA / UK

ISBN: 9781620324912
Pages: 180
Publication Date: 6/27/2013

Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names

Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brazos Theological Commentary: 2 Samuel

Brazos Theological Commentary: 2 Samuel

The Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK
The Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK

The Brazos Theological Commentary Series takes a different approach from most Bible Commentaries. Commentators are chosen on the basis of their knowledge and acquaintance with Church Doctrine over the past two thousand years. They are theologians (hence the title of the series), not necessarily historians or language experts, as is frequently the case with other commentary series. This does not mean that authors in this series are unfamiliar with the ancient languages or history, only that their expertise lies in the realm of theology. As such, they are expected to interact with the text through the medium of historical theology. Thus, in the Brazos series one will frequently see references to the great theologians and philosophers throughout the history of the Church. People like Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and a host of others frequent the pages of this series of commentaries.

This approach has its pluses and minuses. It’s fascinating, and quite often informative, to hear the reflections of these ancient theologians, as the Brazos commentator seeks to integrate their thoughts into an interpretation of the text. Depending on the commentator, however, it can at times be quite abstruse and esoteric (like the words I am using here!). With some of the commentaries in the Brazos series, I have found myself in deep water, wondering how I got there and if I would ever make it back safely to the land of biblical understanding. I must confess that with a few commentaries in this series it has been necessary to jettison them overboard because of the heavy, mind-bewildering theological freight they carry. Thankfully, that is not the case with the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel by Robert Barron. Although Barron engages with the great theological thinkers of the ages, his commentary is clear and easy to read, while often full of wonderful and surprising insights. As I noted in a previous post (Is King David a New Adam?), Barron’s typological/analogical approach to the David story provides some interesting food for thought.

Strengths of the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel

As noted in a previous post (NIV Application Commentary:1&2 Samuel), I have a mental checklist of things that I look for when reading any commentary on 1&2 Samuel. One of these items includes the commentator’s assessment of the various characters in Samuel, especially those whose character traits are somewhat ambiguous. I list here a sample of Barron’s thoughts on various characters:

Abner

  1. There are some who are preoccupied with power but not necessarily with honor, and Abner seems to be such” (p. 25).
  2. Abner evidently is not particularly interested in being king himself, but he is, like many behind-the-scenes players across the ages, deeply interested in holding the reins of power” (p. 32).

Joab

  1. Joab is speaking in the cadences and tones of the serpent (notice the allusion to the Garden of Eden, see my previous post), unduly planting suspicion and stirring up dissension without cause” (in reference to Joab’s negative response toward Abner’s peace proposal in 2 Sam. 3, p. 35).
  2. He is decidedly not someone who should be in a position of political leadership. He functions therefore as a symbol of the lethal violence that would plague Israel for centuries following the time of David” (p. 175).
  3. Regarding Joab’s protestations to the woman at Abel in 2 Samuel 20 that it is against his nature to destroy, Barron quotes Joab’s words and adds the response which follows. “‘Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up and destroy! That is not the case!’ (2 Sam. 20:20-21). As even the most inattententive reader of this story knows, it is indeed the case” (p. 176).

Ziba & Mephibosheth

  1. Commenting on Ziba’s words in 2 Samuel 16:1-4: “What becomes clear just a few chapters later is that this little speech by Mephibosheth’s slave amounts to Ziba’s rather pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself with the vulnerable king and to denigrate any potential rivals” (p. 148).
  2. Regarding Mephibosheth’s response to David in 2 Samuel 19:30: “It would be hard to construe this intervention as anything other than a sincere acknowledgment of joy and gratitude on the part of Mephibosheth and thus as a fairly clear indication that Ziba was lying” (p. 170).

In my opinion, these are astute character observations on the part of Barron. Bible commentators are not always as discerning in making these finer judgments on ambiguous characters, which demonstrates his careful reading of the text.

David’s Attitude Toward Saul According to Barron

Robert Barron is the author of the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel
Robert Barron is the author of the Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel

As any who have read anything I’ve written on 1&2 Samuel will be aware, I am not a fan of the school of interpretation known as “the hermeneutic of suspicion” (see  e.g., my book, Family Portraits, p. 265, n. 22) which suggests that the author’s insistence on David’s innocence regarding Saul and his family is all a carefully orchestrated ruse. I am glad to see that Barron does not fall into this camp of interpretation. Regarding David’s actions toward Saul Barron states, “A somewhat cynical reading would suggest that David wanted to advertise as far as possible his warm feelings toward the house of Saul so as to hold off the suspicion that he had been actively involved in causing the death of the king. Though attractive to postmodern interpreters, such a reading, in my view, does not shed the most light. Yes, Saul relentlessly pursued David, but nothing in a straightforward reading of 1 Samuel would justify the claim that David was harboring a hidden grudge against the king” (p. 18).

Weaknesses of The Brazos Theological Commentary on 2 Samuel

Barron’s outline of 2 Samuel is based on a thematic approach which doesn’t always take the structure of the text into consideration. The outline of his commentary is as follows:

  1. David Comes to Power (2 Samuel 1-2)
  2. Priest and King (2 Samuel 3-10)
  3. David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
  4. A Sword Will Never Leave Your House (2 Samuel 12-20)
  5. Toward the Temple (2 Samuel 21-24)

There are several problems with this division, no matter how convenient it might be for purposes of the commentary.

  1. It separates 2 Samuel 2 from chapters 3-4. 2 Samuel 2-4 is a unit held together by David’s kingship in Hebron, the civil war between David and Ish-bosheth, and the prominent place in the narrative given to Abner and Joab.
  2. 2 Samuel 5 clearly begins a new unit with David being anointed king of all Israel and his conquest of Jerusalem. This unit seems to end with a summary of David’s righteous rule and a list of David’s cabinet members in 2 Samuel 8:15-18
  3. Almost all scholars take 2 Samuel 9-20 as a unit. A second list of David’s cabinet members at the end of 2 Samuel 20:23-26 forms an inclusio with the list at the end of chapter 8, while the intervening material (chs. 9-20) is all about the circumstances that lead to various crises in David’s kingdom. (Barron seems to be aware of all of this. For example, even though he separates the story of David and Bathsheba by itself, he notes its intimate connection with chapter 12–p. 107).
  4. While all recognize that chapters 21-24 form the close of 2 Samuel, Barron’s title for this section seems a bit overstated. “Toward the Temple” may describe chapter 24, but I’m not sure how it fits with the other sections in the conclusion of the book.

In spite of my criticisms here, Barron’s divisions of the text (no doubt to emphasize the theological points he sees as most important), are not detrimental to his overall treatment of 2 Samuel.

In my opinion, the more serious weakness of this commentary lies in Barron’s acceptance of the judgments of critical scholarship regarding certain troublesome passages. For example, concerning whether Absalom had sons or not Barron states, “These irreconcilable accounts are the result, no doubt, of different traditions that the editor carelessly conflated” (p. 134). I have suggested elsewhere that there are good reasons for the seeming contradictory accounts of how many son’s Absalom had (see my articles here and here). My point is not that Barron should have checked with me (!), but that scholars are all too frequently ready to throw in the towel with textual problems such as this, by simply saying, “Oh well, that clumsy editor did it again!”

Another example is in regards to the infamous Elhanan passage in 2 Samuel 21:19. Throughout the commentary, Barron speaks as if David was the champion who killed Goliath. For example, speaking of David, Barron states, “We see here the typical cleverness of the one who had outmaneuvered Goliath” (p. 49). However, when commenting on the Elhanan passage, Barron states, “What seems most plausible in point of fact is that the account in the present chapter is the correct one, and that it was later associated with the young David and retold with particular literary flare by the final editor of the Samuel literature” (p. 185). There are two problems here in my opinion. First, Barron is contradicting himself. If David did not in fact slay Goliath, then he did not “outmaneuver” him as Barron claims on page 49. Second, I have a problem with claims that biblical authors or editors embellished stories and attributed them to others. This means that facts were deliberately distorted, which doesn’t jive with a conservative (and I would argue more biblical) understanding of inspiration.

Evaluation

Every fish has its bones, and in spite of my disagreements with some of Barron’s viewpoints, I found his commentary to be very helpful and insightful. I would recommend it, not only to pastors and teachers, but also to the mature Christian seeking to grow in his or her understanding of the books of Samuel. This is one Brazos commentary that doesn’t leave you lost at sea.

NIV Application Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

NIV Application Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK
The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK

The NIV Application Commentary series is aimed at providing the best scholarly insights into the text, while also providing contemporary application. To accomplish its purpose, The NIV Application Commentary series divides comment on the text into three parts: 1) Original Meaning (“All the elements of traditional exegesis–in concise form–are discussed here,” p. 9); 2) Bridging Contexts (distinguishing the timeless message(s) of the Bible from the time-bound text); and 3) Contemporary Significance (do I need to explain this one?) Arnold’s 1&2 Commentary begins, like others, with a brief 20-page introduction. The introduction includes topics such as how to read the historical books, authorship, an overview of the contents of 1&2 Samuel, theological themes, etc.

Central Themes of 1&2 Samuel According to the NIV Application Commentary

Arnold understands the overall theme of 1&2 Samuel to center around two questions:

1) “What is the acceptable nature of the Israelite monarchy?”

2)”Who can serve suitably as king?”

The first question is primarily addressed in 1 Samuel 1-15, while the second question occupies the material in 1 Samuel 16 — 2 Samuel 24 (p. 32). I found the second question concerning who is suitable as king to be a very insightful way of understanding the contrast between the kingships of Saul and David.

In the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Bill Arnold notes the key place that repentance plays in the overall storyline.
In the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Bill Arnold notes the key place that repentance plays in the overall storyline creating what I call a “repentance sandwich.”.

Arnold notes three main theological themes in 1&2 Samuel. The first concerns the  above question of who is suitable to be Israel’s king, or the messianic theme. Arnold states, “The concept of an ideal anointed one arises gradually and is sustained in the narrative” (p. 36). Another theme which grows out of the two main questions concerns the use and abuse of power. Arnold sees the messianic and power themes bound together by a third theme dealing with the nature of repentance. He insightfully points out that, “The books of Samuel . . . contribute graphic illustration to the Bible’s teaching on the precise nature of confession and repentance through the three portraits of Samuel, Saul, and David” (p. 38). The key passages are 1 Sam. 7:2-6; 1 Sam. 15; and 2 Sam. 12.

Through Samuel, the first story illustrates “the nature of true confession and repentance.” In the second account, Saul, “acknowledges wrongdoing instead of repudiating it; [He] regrets his actions because they leave him vulnerable, not because they were self-destructive and offensive to God” (p. 39, author’s emphasis). The third narrative concerning repentance involves David’s straightforward confession which illustrates true repentance, the kind of repentance that Samuel had urged upon Israel so many years before. The book also concludes with a fourth story of repentance (2 Sam. 24). On this occasion, David does not even need a prophet to convict him of wrongdoing, but confesses on his own, demonstrating growth in his relationship with God. Thus, these three characters form a “repentance sandwich” (my expression). The outer layers (Samuel and David) show what true repentance is, while the inner layer (Saul) demonstrates what it is not.

Agreements and Disagreements with the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

agree-or-disagree-1-638One way to evaluate a commentary is to examine how it treats important topics or controversial passages. I have a mental checklist that I go through when reading a commentary on Samuel. Some of the items on my checklist are important, others are a matter of curiosity (how is the commentator going to deal with this?). Below I have listed a few of the items on my mental checklist. This is not an exhaustive list, nor will I have space in this post to reflect on how Arnold deals with each of these. However, after sharing the list, I will examine Arnold’s interactions with some of the items on my list.

  1. How does the commentator approach the authorship of 1&2 Samuel? (How one perceives “Deuteronomistic authorship” often colors one’s interpretation of the text).
  2. Does the commentator consider Samuel to be a positive or negative influence on the narrative?
  3. Is Saul responsible for his sin, or is he a victim of a capricious God who decided from the outset that Saul would be condemned?
  4. Which reading does the author prefer concerning Goliath’s height? (this is just a matter of curiosity, but see my article Goliath’s Height).
  5. How does the author treat the problem of Saul not knowing who David’s father is in 1 Samuel 17:55-58? (Another matter of curiosity over a notoriously difficult passage).
  6. Is the commentator’s view of David wholly positive until his sin with Bathsheba, or does he see the narrative as reflecting faults earlier in David’s life?
  7. Does the commentator use a “hermeneutic of suspicion?” Which means, does he see the biblical author trying to defend a cunning David who manipulates circumstances regarding the deaths of Saul’s family members, or does he accept the author’s statements that David is innocent?
  8. Does the commentator view David and Jonathan’s relationship as homosexual?
  9. How does the commentator resolve the problem in 2 Sam. 21:19 which states that Elhanan killed Goliath?
  10. What is the commentator’s evaluation of certain characters whose actions are, at times, ambiguous? (e.g., Abner, Joab, Mephibosheth, or Ziba).

Concerning whether Saul is a victim or a free moral agent (#3 above), I believe Arnold is correct in stating, “[Saul] fails to accept the structure of authority established for him by Yahweh and his prophet Samuel at the time of his appointment (1 Sam. 13:14). . . .Thus, Saul’s guilt derives from his determination to usurp power rightly belonging only to Yahweh and his servant Samuel” (pp. 200-201). This is an important point in understanding the kind of person Yahweh is looking for as Israel’s king, and it is a point missed by those who accuse God of being either arbitrary in his forgiveness (Brueggemann), or showing his “dark side” (Gunn).

Contrary to Arnold's interpretation in the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, I believe David's request for a sword demonstrates a lack of faith.
Contrary to Arnold’s interpretation in the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, I believe David’s request for a sword demonstrates a lack of faith.

One point of disagreement I have with Arnold is his interpretation of certain stories of David’s flight from Saul (#6 above). For example, when David is fleeing from Saul, he goes to the high priest Ahimelech where he receives bread and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam. 21). Arnold’s take is that the sword reminds David of the victories of his youth while his contact with the priests show him turning to the faith of his childhood (p. 310). I believe that David is much more like Abraham. Both men show faith in God, but they have their ups and downs as they experience doubt and fear and occasionally step out in the flesh. I think that David’s lie to Ahimelech, along with his request for a sword (which contradicts his statement of faith in 1 Sam. 17:47), demonstrate a lack of faith on this occasion.

One of the things I appreciate about the NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is that Arnold listens to the voice of the narrator and takes his message seriously. In other words, Arnold does not get caught up in a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (#7 above). When David mourns over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1), or puts to death the men who murder Ish-bosheth (2 Sam. 4), or shows kindness to Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9), the narrator seeks to show that this is all in agreement with David’s stance toward not lifting a hand against the Lord’s anointed and honoring his covenant promises to the house of Saul. Arnold sees clearly that 1&2 Samuel is earnestly seeking to demonstrate David’s character and integrity. For example he states, “The narrator has been clear from the outset: This anointed one, unlike Saul, is driven only by the promises of Yahweh and takes action under Yahweh’s leadership” (p. 422). Furthermore, Arnold states, “David is celebrated in these texts as the ideal king, who willingly submits to God’s timing and direction and consistently repudiates the way of power politics and force” (pp. 445-446). A hermeneutic of suspicion destroys this key teaching of 1&2 Samuel, therefore, I believe that Arnold has done us a service by helping us to hear the text more clearly.

Evaluation of The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

There are many other areas of both agreement and disagreement I could cite, but the disagreements are minor and overall I have found Arnold’s commentary on 1&2 Samuel to be very informative and a delightful read. The NIV Application Commentary Series is designed for the teacher, pastor, and serious student. Someone new to the books of Samuel or to the study of the Old Testament might find themselves in deep water at times, but it’s well worth the effort. Thanks to Arnold, I discovered many new insights and perspectives on 1&2 Samuel and would highly recommend this commentary to anyone interested in an in-depth study of these books.

The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon (see links above) and Zondervan

The NIV Application Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available at Amazon USA / UK

Hardcover: 688 pages
Publisher: Zondervan; First Edition edition (February 1, 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310210860
ISBN-13: 978-0310210863

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath's height. Exactly how tall was he?
There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath’s height. Exactly how tall was he?

Did you know that there are two different biblical traditions for Goliath’s height? The Hebrew text (MT) of 1 Samuel 17:4 lists Goliath’s height at “six cubits and a span,” while a copy of the book of Samuel from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) along with copies of the Septuagint (LXX), list Goliath’s height at “4 cubits and a span.” For all you mathematicians that may be reading this, that is a two cubit difference. “Great,” you might say, “what exactly is a cubit?” A cubit is the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, or roughly, 18 inches. We have to add the word “roughly” because, quite obviously, the length from one person’s elbow to the tip of their middle finger may be shorter or longer than that of someone else. To add to the confusion, in the ancient Near East, some countries had what was known as the “royal cubit,” as well as the “common cubit,” which would be a bit shorter. Royal cubits varied from country to country. For example, the royal cubit in Egypt was 20.65 inches, while in Babylonia it was 19.8 inches (Clyde E. Billington, “GOLIATH AND THE EXODUS GIANTS: HOW TALL WERE THEY?,” JETS, 50/3, 2007, pp. 489-508). Depending on the size of an individual, the common cubit would be even less than the royal cubit. Given that the common height of an ancient Israelite was somewhere between 5 feet and 5 feet 3 inches, this could make the common cubit somewhere between 16-17 inches. Billington notes that an 18 inch cubit would mean the person was about 5 feet 8 inches (taller than most Israelites of this period).

Goliath's height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finer with the hand spread as far apart as possible.
Goliath’s height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finger with the hand spread as far apart as possible.

These various measurements of the cubit are only the beginning of the uncertainty regarding Goliath’s height, because we also must consider how long a “span” is. In the ancient world, a span was the distance between the tip of the thumb and the little finger when the hand was spread apart. Billington estimates that a person who is 5 feet tall would have a span of about 7 1/2 inches. At 6 feet tall, my own span measures 8 3/10 inches. Like a cubit, the length of a span depends on the size of the person. Two spans are usually considered to make a cubit, although they are in fact a little short of a cubit. By using the conventional 18 inch cubit and 9 inch span (both of which seem too large for an ancient Israelite), Goliath’s height either comes to 9 feet 9 inches (MT), or 6 feet 9 inches (4QSam[a] and LXX). These are the heights we frequently hear referenced by pastors and teachers when commenting on 1 Samuel 17:4. However, if we adjust the size of the cubit and span to what would be more likely for an ancient Israelite, then, according to Billing, 16.5 inches would be a reasonable cubit and 7.5 inches would equal a span. Some quick calculations make Goliath’s height, according to the MT, to be about 8 feet 9 inches (8.875), and according to 4QSam(a) and the LXX to be about 6 feet 1 inch (6.125). This second figure seems impossibly low for a “giant” like Goliath and we might be tempted to automatically throw it out as a possibility. However, two considerations should be borne in mind. First, we should not judge Goliath’s height based on modern standards, but rather on ancient Near Eastern standards. Today someone who is 6 feet or taller is a common occurrence, but remember, most people in the ancient world were nearly 9 inches to 1 foot smaller. Second, it is important to examine the textual evidence for each reading. In other words, which reading, “4 cubits and a span,” or “6 cubits and a span,” seems to have the most solid evidence for being the original reading?

Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber --- Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

To summarize, we have seen that Goliath’s height depends on the size of both the cubit and the span, and which reading of the text is the most reliable. This means that Goliath’s actual height could have been anywhere between 6 feet 1 inch and 9 feet 9 inches. Before continuing, when seeking the truth about Goliath’s height, we should caution ourselves concerning our own prejudices. For some, a person 9’9″ is out of the realm of reality, and they would therefore be inclined to the “more reasonable” reading of 6′ 9″ – 6’1″. Others, however, raised on the traditional story of David defeating the giant Goliath, would almost consider it a sacrilege to suggest that Goliath might be in the 6 foot range, as opposed to the 9 foot range. Whichever way our prejudices run, they do not help us get at the truth of Goliath’s height. Only by examining the evidence, which includes the height of people in the ancient world, the relative lengths of a cubit and span, and the textual evidence for the most reliable reading, will we be be able to come to a conclusion that seems plausible.

Which Reading of 1 Samuel 17:4 is the Most Reliable?

The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.
The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.

Our English Bibles traditionally follow the reading of the Hebrew manuscripts known as the Masoretic text (MT). As a result, I find myself partial to the MT. Anytime there is a suggested reading that is different, I want to hang on to the reading of the MT. Why? It is no doubt a very reliable tradition of the text so that’s one reason. But I must admit that the other is, because I’m used to the readings found in the MT (which admittedly is not a good reason). On this particular passage, however, bible scholar, J. Daniel Hays argues in a very convincing way for the reading found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) and the Septuagint (LXX). In other words, he argues that the text should read “4 cubits and a span” (you can find one of his articles, a response to Billington, here). His reasons are summarized below.

  1. The earliest Hebrew manuscript, 4QSam(a), which dates to the middle of the first century BC, reads “4 cubits and a span.” Hays points out that this particular manuscript is 1,000 years older than our earliest copy of the MT (935 AD), although he admits that the reading “6 cubits and a span” found in the MT goes back to at least 200 AD.
  2. “The major early Septuagint texts all have this reading.” Hays also notes that Josephus refers to Goliath’s height as “4 cubits and a span.”
  3. Hays points out the well-known fact that the MT of 1&2 Samuel has a number of scribal errors. Furthermore, although 1 Chronicles does not include the story of David and Goliath, he notes that where 1 Chronicles is parallel with 1&2 Samuel, Chronicles always agrees with the reading of 4QSam(a) and the LXX when it differs from the MT. Hays also argues that it is much easier to explain how “4 cubits” was changed to “6 cubits” rather than the other way around. The word for “cubit” in verse 4 and “hundred”in verse 7 look very similar in Hebrew. Hays says that a scribe copying the manuscript accidentally looked down at verse 7 and saw the number “6” (as in six hundred) and copied it into verse 4. This is a well-known copying mistake called “parablepsis” (“a looking by the side”).
  4. The story never refers to Goliath as a giant. This is an interesting observation frequently overlooked. Although the story clearly does reference Goliath’s size, which would be intimidating whether 4 or 6 cubits is the correct reading, it does not focus on it. I will have more to say about this below.
  5. Some argue that the weight of Goliath’s weaponry and armor better fits someone who is 6 cubits rather than 4. However, Hays goes to great lengths to demonstrate that regular-sized people (e.g., in the military) often carry this kind of weight.
  6. Saul’s answer to David as to why he cannot fight him references Goliath’s skill as a warrior, not his height.
  7. Some argue against the “4 cubits and a span” reading by saying if Saul was “head and shoulders” taller than anyone else in Israel, and the average Israelite was 5 feet to 5‘3″, then Saul would be nearly as tall as Goliath. Hays says that this is precisely the point! Tall Saul should have been the one to face tall Goliath. The interest of the story is to demonstrate Saul’s fear and lack of faith, as he was the most likely candidate to confront Goliath.

Conclusion: Goliath’s Height

Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath was a descendant of the Nephilim but his height was not the exaggerated height shown here.
Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath may have been a descendant of the Nephilim  (he is called a “rapha” in 2 Sam. 21), but his height did not consist of the exaggerated height shown here.

Although I have always been inclined toward the reading of the MT, as noted above, I must admit that Hays presents some strong arguments. The most convincing to me include what he calls “the external evidence.” This concerns the textual evidence. The fact that 4QSam(a) is earlier than the MT and that it, and Chronicles, and the LXX, always agree with each other whenever there is a variant is compelling. The well-known problems of scribal errors in the MT of Samuel also contributes to this, as does the fact that parablepsis is a plausible argument for how the reading got changed. Furthermore, Josephus, living in the first century AD is also a witness to the reading “4 cubits and a span.”

Hay’s “internal evidence” includes examining the text which involves a discussion of Goliath’s armor and the fact that he is never mentioned as a giant. This was interesting and I agree with Hays to a point on this. However, while 1 Samuel 17 does not call Goliath a giant, there are two other passages that infer he was a descendant of the Nephilim. Joshua 11:22 speaks about the conquest of the land, especially focusing on the Anakim (descendants of the Nephilim, see my other related posts here and here). This passage states that the Anakim only remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (all Philistine cities!). It should be recalled that Goliath is from Gath. The description of his tall stature certainly suggests a connection with the descendants of the Nephilim. Furthermore, 2 Samuel 21:15-22 relates four stories of Philistines who are killed by David’s men. Each one is said to be related to the “giant” (the word is “rapha” which is the singular of Rephaim). This reference is to Goliath and here he is associated with the Rephaim, who were also considered to be descendants of the Nephilim. Therefore, although the story in 1 Samuel 17 may not refer to Goliath as a “giant,” it seems certain that other passages indicate he was a descendant of the Nephilim. However, I still believe the “external evidence” that Hays produces argues for the “4 cubits and a span” reading. Goliath could be a descendant of the Nephilim without being over 9 feet tall. Considering the average height of an Israelite at this time, someone who is roughly 6 1/2 feet would certainly be an intimidating presence.

Finally, in spite of all of the fantastic (trick) photography on the internet, no remains of people who were 9-10 feet tall have ever been found in the Middle East. These pictures of so-called Nephilim are dubious (see photo above on left). Since the average height in the ancient Near East was between 5 feet and 5’3,” and since archaeology seems to confirm this (at least to this point), and since the textual evidence leans toward the reading of “4 cubits and a span,” I conclude that Goliath was most probably on the taller side of the 6-foot range, as opposed to the 9-foot range of the MT.

The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner

The Importance of Biblical Names

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

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

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

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

Abner: The King-maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

Amasa and His “Blood Brothers” in 2 Samuel

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

One of the interesting, but admittedly gruesome, features of 2 Samuel concerns the stabbing of 4 different men in the stomach. The stories are tied together by this (un)common theme. The first two killings occur between rival houses for the throne–i.e. members of Saul’s and David’s house killing one another. The first incident involves Abner of the house of Saul killing Asahel, the nephew of David (2 Sam. 2:18-23). For a more indepth treatment of this incident see my post entitled: “Asahel: Running into Trouble.” The second incident involves Joab and his brother Abishai of the house of David (and brothers of Asahel) killing Abner of the house of Saul (2 Sam. 3:26-27). The first killing happens during a time of battle, and in spite of Abner’s pleadings for Asahel to stop pursuing him. The second killing is more treacherous as Joab lures the unsuspecting Abner into a trap and murders him. Although these killings are both tragic because they involve rival houses during a time of hostility, they are, to some extent, understandable.

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

The second set of killings, however, are more shocking. They are “in-house” killings. Ish-bosheth is stabbed by fellow Benjamites, captains of his own army (2 Sam. 4). Amasa, another nephew of David, is brutally dispatched by Joab, who is not only a nephew of David, but a cousin of Amasa (2 Sam. 20:8-13). Thus there is a steady progression of brutality and violence as we read through the story in 2 Samuel tracing this theme of 4 men who “get it” in the belly. The writer seems to linger a little longer over the death of Amasa. It is the last in this gory chain of stabbings and provides a climax in several ways. First, Joab’s killing of a fellow cousin through the deception of a kiss, and the callous treatment of Asahel as he lies “wallowing in his blood in the middle of the highway” (2 Sam. 20:12), presents the most tragic and gruesome scene of any of the 4 accounts. Second this scene intentionally recalls the other 3 accounts. In my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, my concluding thoughts on Amasa’s character study provides a summary of the similarities and differences between these accounts and some of the lessons to be learned from them. That conclusion is reproduced below.

Conclusion: Amasa and His “Blood Brothers”

family portraitsOne cannot read the account of Amasa’s death without recalling the violent deaths of other men in 2 Samuel. As Polzin notes, “2 Samuel makes it clear that Joab’s smiting of Amasa in the belly looks backward to the murders of Ishbosheth in 4:6, Abner in 3:27, and Asahel in 2:23. Moreover, these instances of ‘smiting in the belly’ occur only here in 2 Samuel, and always in the context of an explicit reference to ‘brother.’ ” These similarities invite the reader to compare and contrast the four different stories.

Parallels between the deaths of Abner and Amasa are especially noteworthy. They both share the same murderer: Joab. In both cases Joab deceived the men he murdered by catching them off guard and striking them in the stomach (3:27; 20:10). Both were commanders over their respective armies, who fought and lost a civil war against David (2 Sam. 2:12–17; 17:25). Joab perceived the reconciliation of both men to David as a threat, and both were killed in an atmosphere of “peace” (3:21–23; 20:9). Joab’s murder of these men threatened to disrupt the tenuous unity recently forged in both situations. Finally, David himself drew a parallel between these two murders, advising Solomon to deal with Joab accordingly (1 Kings 2:5–6).

These similarities provide the backdrop for the contrast between the two deaths. Although the narrative makes it clear that Joab was wrong in murdering Abner, at least the author provided him with some motivation: Abner’s killing of Joab’s brother Asahel (3:30). No such explanation is provided for the murder of Amasa; indeed, none can be. The silence of the text convicts Joab. Perhaps the text’s silence also suggests that Joab had reached such a hard-hearted state in his killing of others that he no longer felt the need to justify his actions.

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

A final contrast that highlights the heinous nature of Amasa’s murder is that he was a blood relative of Joab from the house of David, whereas Abner belonged to the rival house of Saul. The murder of Amasa sounds a climactic note in 2 Samuel on the consequences of the abuse of power. Joab’s unrestrained lust for power begins with killing his fellow-countryman (Abner) and ends with killing his own kinsman (Amasa).

Besides the act of “smiting in the belly,” a number of other similarities also connect Amasa’s death with Asahel’s. Both stories center on Gibeon (2:12; 20:8). Each story speaks of “pursuing” an enemy, and in each case the battle ends by Joab blowing the trumpet (2:28; 20:23). The root ʾaḥar (“after”) occurs frequently (11 times) in the account of Amasa’s death, as it does in the story of Asahel. Furthermore, in both accounts the author vividly relates the gruesome nature of the death and comments that those who came upon the scene “stood still” (2:23; 20:12).

The difference between Asahel’s death and Amasa’s highlights again the brutality of Joab’s action. Since Asahel and Abner are on opposite sides in the battle, it is not surprising that one would kill the other. Amasa and Joab, however, are on the same side. Abner warns Asahel twice (2:21–22) before delivering the deadly blow, whereas Joab lulls Amasa into a false sense of security, and then kills him without warning (20:9–10).

The similarities of Amasa with Abner and Asahel also suggest certain character traits that they share. Both Abner and Amasa are caught unaware and “die as a fool” (3:33). Asahel’s inexperience contrasts with Amasa’s experience, but both prove to be naive in their own way.

Sadly, there is not much of a positive nature that can be said of Amasa. He was the nephew that betrayed his uncle the king. He was the general who lost a war, and the ineffective commander of David’s troops who could not fulfill his commission. In the end he dies the death of a fool, his body disgraced by being dumped in a field, ultimately forgotten by his men, and by the narrator as the story continues without him. Amasa, as commander of the army (both David’s and Absalom’s), has all the outward trappings of success, but his life is a dismal failure. His cruel death evokes sympathy, but his betrayal of the Lord’s anointed appears to reap consequences that go beyond the civil war. His under-achieving seems to be related to his lack of true perception (he did not recognize the Lord’s anointed or the sword in Joab’s hand). As such, he becomes a warning to all who might “dress for success” and look the part, but inwardly lack the real quality of greatness: a quality that comes only by aligning oneself with the Lord and His purposes.