Category Archives: The Book of Samuel

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.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Looks Can Be Deceiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks Can Be Deceiving: Playing the Hypocrite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW MANY SONS DID ABSALOM HAVE?: INTENTIONAL AMBIGUITY AS LITERARY ART

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

HOW MANY SONS DID ABSALOM HAVE?: INTENTIONAL AMBIGUITY AS LITERARY ART

Abstract

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

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

THE INADEQUACY OF PROPOSED SOLUTIONS

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

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

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

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

AMBIGUITY AS AN INTENTIONAL LITERARY DEVICE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LITERARY CONNECTIONS BETWEEN 14:27 AND 18:18 AND THEIR STRATEGIC PLACEMENT

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

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

ABSALOM: IMPORTANT OR IMPOTENT? (2 SAM. 14:25-27; 18:18)

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

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

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

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

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

SOLUTION FOR A REMAINING PROBLEM

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

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

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

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

SUMMARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Ibid., 157.

[14] Ibid., 155.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid., 169.

[17] Ibid., 172.

[18] Ibid., 173.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 172.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Looking Like a Leader

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

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

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

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

Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God

Eli and his sons were corrupt leaders who stole from the people and from God. Picture taken from http://randalldsmith.com/1-samuel-226-36-the-portrait-hall-eli-and-the-ignorance-excuse/
Eli and his sons were corrupt leaders who stole from the people and from God. Picture taken from http://randalldsmith.com/1-samuel-226-36-the-portrait-hall-eli-and-the-ignorance-excuse/

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

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

In Search of Better Leaders

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

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

Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment

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

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

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

Better Leaders and Better Days

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

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

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