Tag Archives: 1&2 Samuel

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


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



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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Ibid., 157.

[14] Ibid., 155.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid., 169.

[17] Ibid., 172.

[18] Ibid., 173.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 172.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goliath’s Death Part 2

A Closer Look at Goliath’s Death

The defiance of Goliath by James Tissot. The story demonstrates that Goliath's death is the result of his defiance of both God and David, God's representative.
The defiance of Goliath by James Tissot. The story demonstrates that Goliath’s death is the result of his defiance of both God and David, God’s representative.

In a previous post I looked at a possible way in which David may have slain Goliath (How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?). In this post I would like to explore more carefully some of the theology behind Goliath’s death, especially as it is related in 1 Samuel 17:41-51. Although the entire chapter of 1 Samuel 17 builds toward the contest between David and Goliath, these verses focus on the confrontation between the two of them.

As Goliath approaches David we are told, “And when the Philistine gazed and saw David, he despised him because he was a youth, ruddy, and beautiful in appearance” (1 Sam. 17:42, my translation). Several of the words used in this verse are found previously in key contexts in 1 Samuel, and I have italicized and underlined them in order to highlight their importance. Notice that three of the words concern “seeing” (gaze, saw, appearance). Each of these words occur in 1 Samuel 16:7, a key verse in the story of David’s anointing. The Lord tells Samuel not to gaze at Eliab’s appearance because he  has rejected him. The Lord continues by stating that he does not see as a man sees but he sees the heart. The repetition of these words in the current story demonstrates that Goliath is making the same mistake that Samuel made in the previous chapter, but with deadlier consequences. Goliath is judging by appearance. Goliath is not the only one to make this mistake, however. Israel and Saul have also judged by appearance, and thus they have feared Goliath, and Saul has thought David incapable of killing him. Saul’s doubt, along these lines, is recalled in Goliath’s observation that David was a youth. This is the same word Saul had used when trying to discourage David from fighting Goliath: “For you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (1 Sam. 17:33). David is the only one in this story who truly “sees” correctly, and this is because he “walks by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).

How Despising, Cursing, and Reproaching Lead to Goliath’s Death

God's judgment on Eli's house. Drawing from http://mimaryvee.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/gods-judgement-on-elis-house.html
God’s judgment on Eli’s house. Drawing from http://mimaryvee.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/gods-judgement-on-elis-house.html

As Goliath makes the mistake of judging David by his appearance, we are informed that he despised him (v. 42), and “cursed David by his gods” (1 Sam. 17:43). In the bigger picture of 1&2 Samuel, for someone to despise and curse (also translated “lightly esteem”) either God, or his representative, is to invite judgment. A key passage in the story of judgment on Eli’s house also includes these key words. God says to Eli, “Far be it from Me; for those who honor Me I will honor, and those who despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (1 Sam. 2:30). This statement, found at the beginning of 1 Samuel, provides a key for understanding why certain people in 1&2 Samuel are honored (raised up), while others are brought low (destroyed or dishonored–For a more indepth look at this theme see my book Family Portraits). However, not only does Goliath despise and curse David, we are told 6 times that he reproaches (defies) God and his army (1 Sam. 17:10, 25, 26 [2x], 36, 45). “Reproach” is a word depicitng the heaping of shame on another. Once again, 1 Samuel 2:30 reminds us what happens to those who do not honor God. Anyone attuned to this theme is aware that Goliath is toast!

Goliath’s Death Brings Honor to God

Carravagio's famouse portrait of Goliath's death.
Carravagio’s famous portrait of Goliath’s death.

It is clear that David’s speech in 1 Samuel 17:45-47 is at the heart of the theology of this chapter. Victory isn’t about who is the biggest, strongest, or best armed, it is about whose god is the true God. The story that began with an intimidating look at Goliath, his weapons, and his armor (1 Sam. 17:4-7), comes full-circle with David’s declaration that “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” (v. 45). As Davis states, “The focus of the chapter is not on David’s courage but on Yahweh’s adequacy in David’s weakness. David himself has told us this (vv. 37, 45, 47). An interpretation that refuses to see this steals the glory from God which in this Scripture he has designed to receive for himself” (Davis, D. R., 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, 2000, p. 189).

As noted in my previous post, each item of Goliath’s armor is mentioned throughout the story and shown to be inadequate (see link above). David’s victory with “a sling and a stone” substantiates his words in 1 Samuel 17:45-47. The significance of this truth is further emphasized by Goliath falling “on his face to the earth” (1 Sam. 17:49), which is an ironic way of speaking of his submission. People fall on their face when they approach a king (e.g., 2 Sam. 9:6), or when they are worshipping a deity. After reproaching, despising, and cursing, Goliath now shows the proper respect for the true king of Israel (David), and the true God! This verse also echoes a similar incident found in 1 Samuel 5:3-4. After judgment was brought on Eli’s house, and Israel (1 Sam. 4), the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it to Ashdod. Once there they put it in the temple of Dagon their god, in order to show their god’s superiority over the God of Israel. The next day, however, Dagon was bowing face down before the ark! The following day, after having been put back in his place (a little Hebrew humor about a god who can’t help himself!), the priests not only find Dagon face down before the ark, but with his hands and head cut off. Goliath, who lays prone before David, and the God of Israel, suffers the same fate as his god when David removes his head (1 Sam. 17:51).

Thus the story of Goliath’s death at the hands of a shepherd boy serves several functions within the narrative. In the immediate context it begins to confirm that God has chosen David (1 Sam. 16:1-14). Unlike Saul, David trusts God. Like God, David “sees” differently (1 Sam. 16:7). Within the larger narrative context it operates as another example of the importance of honoring the true God. Why is David raised up and Saul rejected? Because Saul reacts in fear (1 Sam. 17:11) and trusts in the physical realm (1 Sam. 17:38-39), whereas David defends God’s honor and trusts him for the victory over his foes (1 Sam. 17:26, 37, 45-47).

David, Saul, & God: Book Review

David, Saul, & God: Book Review

Paul Borgman, David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 335 pp.

David, Saul, & God is also available at Amazon USA / UK
David, Saul, & God is also available at Amazon USA / UK

After reading Paul Borgman’s David, Saul, & God, I felt like I often do after devouring a satisfying meal. It is definitely one of the best books that I have read on 1&2 Samuel. Borgman’s careful attentiveness to the repetitive patterns in the books of Samuel, as a way of unlocking its understanding of David, Saul, & God, is refreshing and insightful. Borgman contends that uncovering and solving the questions posed by the story of 1&2 Samuel “depends on close attention to the dozen or so broad patterns (he actually enumerates 11) of repetition governing the narrative’s progress” (p. 3). Borgman makes the helpful suggestion that, “The story’s modern audience often misses answers to the central questions driving the drama of David’s story because the text is read in a straightforward manner, rather than in the circular way demanded by the ancient text’s dependence on patterns of repetition. That is, recognizing a developing pattern requires a remembering of what has gone before, a circling-back action of the mind” (p. 4, emphasis mine). Readers would do well to heed Borgman on this point, not only regarding David’s story, but Old Testament narrative in general.

David, Saul, & God: The Main Course

Paul Borgman's book David, Saul, & God is full of "food for thought."
Paul Borgman’s book “David, Saul, & God” is full of “food for thought.”

David, Saul, & God consists of 9 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Among the 11 repetitive patterns discussed such as “David’s Multiple Introductions” (pattern 3), “Saul’s fear” (pattern 4), “Sword and Spear” (pattern 5) and “News of Death–Public and Private Davids” (pattern 9), I would like to note two that I found particularly insightful. Readers of 1&2 Samuel have often noted that there is a theme of “Failed Fathers” (Borgman’s pattern 8), but to my knowledge, no one has explored its significance until Borgman (but see my book Family Portraits, where I explore the connection between family failures and national consequences). The failed fathers of 1&2 Samuel include Eli, Samuel, and, especially, David. Borgman notes that the pattern of failed fathers has, in each case, important consequences for the nation of Israel. Eli’s failure with his sons leads to a national crisis in which the Philistines defeat Israel and capture the ark of God (1 Sam. 4). David’s over-indulgence with his sons Amnon and Absalom, similarly leads to national disaster (2 Sam. 13-20). Borgman writes, “Just as Eli did before him, David falters grievously as a father, with momentous negative consequences for the people he is supposed to be ruling” (p. 121). The difference with David, however, is a twist in the pattern, which occurs as he nears death and his son Adonijah attempts to take the throne (1 Kings 1). In this scene, David refuses to allow his self-indulgent son to take the throne. Borgman states, “At his physically weakest…David nonetheless rises to the occasion, evidencing the listening capacities we have seen in the past: he is receptive to advice from good people in the interest of Israel’s well-being” (p. 133). He continues, “What breaks this pattern of fathers-sons-death is the strength of a father standing up to an ill-directed son–displeasing that son for the sake of a greater communal good” (p. 139). Although this last example falls outside the bounds of the Samuel narrative, scholars are well-aware of the close link between the books of Samuel and Kings (especially the first 2 chapters of 1 Kings).

Paul Borgman, author of David, Saul, & God.
Paul Borgman, author of David, Saul, & God.

The second pattern I would like to note (Borgman’s 11th pattern) concerns the contrast made between Saul and David at the end of 2 Samuel. Readers are often puzzled by what appears to be a miscellaneous grouping of material found at the end of 2 Samuel in chapters 21-24. Scholars now recognize that this material is artfully arranged with a chiastic structure as follows:

A  Saul sins, 3 year famine, resolution (2 Sam. 21:1-14)

      B  David’s warriors, leadership (2 Sam. 21:15-22)

         C David’s poem concerning blamelessness and God (2 Sam. 22:1-51)

         C’ David’s poem, ideal ruler and God (2 Sam. 23:1-7)

      B’ David’s warriors, leadership (2 Sam. 23:8-39)

A’ David sins, 3 days plague, resolution (2 Sam. 24:1-25)

Borgman spends chapter 9 looking at the outer two stories of the chiasm (A & A’) involving Saul and David (in chapter 8 he explores the inner parts of the chiasm). Building on the insights of Herbert H. Klement he points out that, “What emerges clearly is the stark difference in the sinning of Saul and that of David” (p. 205). “Not only is there none of Saul’s equivocating response to wrongdoing, there is in David what is inconceivable for the Saul we meet early in his story: a radical willingness to look at himself critically, and further, to offer his own suffering on behalf of communal well-being” (p. 213, see 2 Sam. 24:17). By the end of the story, Borgman contends that we are able to understand why God chose David over Saul. David is a man who, not only repents when he sins, but in 2 Samuel 24 recognizes his own sin without the intervention of prophet or anyone else, and then offers himself in order to protect the nation. As David’s character unfolds throughout the story, we not only learn who he is, but we learn more about who God is.

Odysseus and his men put out the eye of Polyphemus the Cyclops (The Odyssey)
Odysseus and his men put out the eye of Polyphemus the Cyclops (The Odyssey)

In the conclusion to the book, Borgman contrasts the hero Odysseus (and the gods) from Homer’s The Odyssey with David. His purpose is “to shed another angle of light on the dynamic among David, Saul, and God” (p. 221). Here are a few of his observations: “David inhabits a moral world…quite different from that of Odysseus” (p. 227). “David learns and changes from experience to experience; Odysseus, however fascinating, becomes more of what he has always been…” (p. 235). “Athene’s focus in The Odyssey is helping Odysseus become more of what he is, while the biblical God helps David become more of what he can become. But this development is not for David’s sake alone, or even primarily, but for the sake of this God’s unchanging will for communal well-being.” Borgman’s final line of the book is fitting: “In coming to see David, we have come to understand the story’s God as well” (p. 244).

David, Saul, & God: The Hor d’Oeurves

imageI realize that in any fine meal the hor d’oeurves are served before the main course, but please indulge me. After all, it’s my metaphor! Since hor d’oeurves are side items to develop one’s taste for the main course, I think the metaphor is appropriate here. Throughout his book, Borgman carries on a conversation with other scholarly points of view. He does this some in the text itself, but more thoroughly in the endnotes (57 pages of them!). A lot of modern scholarly treatment of David, Saul, & God (meaning the characters in 1&2 Samuel, not Borgman’s book), in my opinion, has fallen prey to the prophet’s critique that some “call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). In other words, many make Saul the “good guy,” or, more accurately, “the victim,” while David and God become “the bad guys.” Borgman argues strenuously, and I believe effectively, against such an interpretation throughout his book. Again and again, he demonstrates how the repetitive patterns in 1&2 Samuel clearly picture Saul as the “bad guy” (my terminology), God as just and compassionate, and David as, at first mysterious, certainly far from perfect, but ultimately, a man after God’s heart. Rather than crafting his own portrait of David, Saul, & God (and misrepresenting the text as some do–at least in my opinion), Borgman allows the text to speak through his careful reading of the repetitive patterns he explores.

David, Saul, & God: The Bones

bonesThere actually aren’t many “bones to pick” over in this book. In fact in terms of Borgman’s treatment and methodology, I have no quarrel whatsoever (although there are, of course, a few places where I have a slightly different view from him). My complaint lies with the poor editing of David, Saul & God. The book is filled with grammatical and spelling errors and has the appearance of being hastily prepared for publication without being carefully proofread. Errors of every kind exist, from missing words, to words occurring in the wrong order, to wrong numbers for the endnotes, as well as endnotes missing entirely! Perhaps the most glaring error is the spelling error that occurs in the title of chapter 9. It reads in large letters: “Chiastic Conclusion: Final Contrast, Soul [instead of “Saul”] and David Sinning.” Hopefully in a future edition, these errors will be caught and corrected. Although the errors mar the aesthetic quality of the book, the content more than makes up for this inadequacy. I highly recommend David, Saul, & God to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of 1&2 Samuel.

Purchase David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story at Amazon USA / UK

Teach the Text Samuel Commentary in Logos

Teach the Text Samuel Commentary in Logos

Available at Logos.com
Available at Logos.com

1&2 Samuel Commentary Teach the Text from Logos Bible Software.

I have enjoyed the 1&2 Samuel commentary in the Teach the Text series so much that I decided to request a copy from Logos Bible Software. Logos offers many additional benefits that are not possible with a hardcopy. Because I have previously reviewed the contents of this commentary, I will focus on the benefits offered by the Logos edition. If, however, you have not yet read my review of the commentary itself, I have included it as well.

The Benefits of the Logos Edition of the 1&2 Samuel Commentary in the Teach the Text Series

The first thing that Logos allows me to do is show you the beautiful layout of this commentary. In my first review I noted that the Teach the Text series is attractively presented. In the photos that follow, you will have an opportunity to see what I mean.

This sample page shows the colorful maps and photos that adorn the pages of the 1&2 Samuel commentary
This sample page shows the colorful maps and photos that adorn the pages of the 1&2 Samuel commentary

Every author of the Teach the Text series follows a five-point outline. I have detailed these in the review below, but here I offer a photo of the introductory pages showing the five-point layout.

This photo shows the 5-point layout of the commentary. I have highlighted the heading. Logos allows you to use a highlighter pen just as you might in a hardcopy.
This photo shows the 5-point layout of the commentary. I have highlighted the heading. Logos allows you to use a highlighter pen just as you might in a hardcopy. The folder to the left of the highlighting also allows you to make comments on the portion you have highlighted.

The great benefit of Logos is that it allows you to interact with the text in various ways. Logos users will be familiar with some of the advantages that I list here. First, the ability to hover your mouse over something in the text and receive immediate information is extremely helpful. For example, how many times have you seen a textual reference in parenthesis and meant to look it up but never got around to it? With Logos you can simply hover over the textual reference and see it immediately without leaving the page. The photo below not only shows this feature, (the mouse is hovered over Matt. 12:34–see the lower righthand corner), it also shows an example of the layout of Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary. The photo shows the “Theological Insights” and “Teaching the Text” sections on 1 Samuel 16 (top of columns 1&3), while also showing another interesting feature of Chisholm’s commentary–a dialogue box that focuses on special issues (this one intriguingly entitled, “Divine Deception?”).

Logos allows you to see a Scripture reference immediately simply by hovering your mouse over it.
Logos allows you to see a Scripture reference immediately simply by hovering your mouse over it.

The hovering feature is also helpful when there are abbreviations in the text that you’re not sure of. Furthermore, when an author references a certain source, if you have that source in your Logos library, you can hover your mouse over it and pull up the reference to that source. This is especially helpful if the author is referring to a Hebrew word and quotes BDB (Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew Lexicon) as his source, or is referring to an ancient text that you may have available in your Logos library (such as Hallo and Youngers’ The Context of Scripture, which contains translations of ancient Near Eastern texts). Since the internet has become such a great source of information, modern authors will sometimes give website addresses in the footnotes. If you’re reading a hardcopy you have to jot down the reference and then open your computer to check it out. Again, it’s probably one of those things you’d like to do, but may never get around to. In Logos, it’s just a button click away! All you need to do is click on the web address and Logos immediately takes you there!

There is a dropdown menu in Logos that provides a number of advantages including a special “reading view,” which is the view I have been using for these photos. A really nice feature I have recently discovered is the “read aloud” option (see the menu on the left and go halfway down). If you’re tired of reading, or prefer someone else to read to you, you can click on this function and Logos will read the text to you! You can also click on “show table of contents” in this panel and immediately go to any part of the book. The following photo shows the drop down panel with these and other options. I have also chosen this page from Chisholm’s Samuel commentary because it illustrates the verse by verse commentary section, it shows an example of a chart (partially blocked by the drop down panel), and it shows an example of the “Key themes” box which summarizes in a few words the important ideas of the text under consideration.

Note the drop down panel in the left column which gives the Logos reader many options.
Note the drop down panel in the left column which gives the Logos reader many options.

Besides highlighting text (mentioned above), Logos also allows you to copy text. So if you are making notes for a sermon or Bible study, or you are writing an article, all you have to do is use your cursor to highlight the text, right click, and click copy. Logos even supplies the footnote so you don’t have to remember where you got the information from. This is especially convenient if you’re writing a paper because you don’t have to go to the trouble to compose the footnote! These are just a few of the wonderful features of reading in Logos. I’m sure as time goes on, I will discover others. As I promised, below is a review of Chisholm’s Samuel commentary. If you haven’t previously read it, please continue in order to gain a fuller appreciation of this book.

General Observations on the Teach the Text Commentary Series

The “Teach the Text Commentary Series” was commissioned to help the busy pastor and to fill a void in commentaries that are both scholarly, and yet practical. The aim is to present the “big picture” of a biblical book by dividing it “into carefully selected preaching units, each covered in six pages” (p. ix). There are 5 main areas of focus within these 6 pages: 1) Big Idea; 2) Key Themes; 3) Understanding the Text (this is the longest section including such subjects as context, outline, historical and cultural background, interpretive insights, and theology); 4) Teaching the Text; and 5) Illustrating the Text (pp. xi-xii). It is important to keep this structure and the necessary restrictions in mind when evaluating each commentary in this series.

Such an approach is clearly not intended to be exhaustive. So is there room for a commentary series with this more generalized approach? I believe there is. My own classroom teaching experience has demonstrated to me the need for students to gain the “big picture” of a biblical book. It is important to be able to summarize the main themes and key ideas of a book. Oftentimes people read or study a biblical book and have no idea of how to summarize its main message(s). The “Big Idea” and “Key Themes” features of this series go a long way in aiding the reader to achieve this goal. Therefore, the structure of the Teach the Text Commentary series is not only helpful to the pastor, who may be consulting it for his weekly sermon, it is also beneficial for the beginning student.

Before making specific remarks on Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary, I would also like to add that the “Teach the Text Commentary Series” is attractively presented. Each hardback volume is printed on heavy-duty paper which is ideal for the many helpful maps, photos, and illustrations contained in each commentary.

Comments on 1&2 Samuel Commentary

Chisholm begins his 1&2 Samuel commentary with a brief 7-page introduction. He summarizes these books by noting the three main characters (Samuel, Saul, and David) and by stating, “David is the focal point of the story” (p.1). Saul acts as a foil to David, while “Samuel’s support of David becomes foundational to the narrator’s defense of David” (pp. 1-2). The high point of the book is the Lord’s covenant with David, securing his dynasty and proving faithful even in the midst of David’s sin. Chisholm divides 1&2 Samuel into 7 sections based on “its major plot movements, revolving around the theme of kingship” (p. 4). His outline is as follows: 1) Prelude to Kingship (1 Sam. 1-7); 2) Kingship inaugurated (1 Sam. 8-12); 3) Kingship Fails (1 Sam. 13-15); 4) Kingship in Limbo (1 Sam. 16-31); 5) Kingship Revived (2 Sam. 1-10); 6) Kingship Threatened and Preserved (2 Sam. 11-20); and 7) Epilogue (2 Sam. 21-24). One potential weakness is that this outline is not clearly delineated in the commentary that follows. Perhaps Chisholm’s reason for ignoring this is because he does not find “clear-cut structural markers” in the text (p. 4), but sees the divisions above as related to plot development.

Chisholm packs a lot of information and insight into each 6-page unit of commentary. The information provided on historical and cultural background, though not found in every section, is very helpful for the beginning reader and student. Topics include foreign gods such as Baal or Dagon, divination, the Amalekites, or documents of the ancient Near East that have parallels with biblical material. This information enriches the presentation, as do the color photos that frequently accompany them. At times Chisholm includes side boxes that deal with special issues such as “The Problem of Genocide” or “The Legal Background of Tamar’s Request.”

Two characteristics of Chisholm’s exegesis that I found particularly helpful include his attention to certain words, and parallels and/or contrasts between biblical characters. Chisholm does an excellent job of paying attention to words or phrases found in 1&2 Samuel and demonstrating their connection with another incident in 1&2 Samuel (or the Former Prophets, meaning Joshua-2 Kings). For example, he notes that the expression “terror filled his heart” in 1 Samuel 28:5, in reference to Saul, only occurs one other time in 1-2 Samuel. It is found in the story of Eli’s demise as his “heart trembled over the fate of the ark of God” (p. 184). This kind of verbal connection suggests the author is comparing the circumstances of Saul and Eli. Similarly, Chisholm frequently points out similarities between incidents or characters in 1&2 Samuel with other biblical characters or incidents. One example is the similarities between the actions of Absalom in 2 Samuel 13-14 with Abimelech in Judges 9 (p. 252). This attention to biblical typology is extremely helpful when interpreting a narrative text (see my discussion in Family Portraits, p. 11).

Considering the constraints placed upon him by the commentary’s design (6 pages per literary unit), Chisholm’s overall treatment of the text of 1&2 Samuel is excellent. There is, however, one exception. Although 2 Samuel 2:1-5:5 can legitimately be viewed as a structural unit, treating it in the 6-page format does it a great injustice. This material is too important and too theologically rich to be skimmed over so briefly. Dividing this section by episodes, or even by chapters, would have been a better approach. This imbalance is all the more noticeable when the following section (2 Sam. 5:6-25), arguably less “meaty” than 2 Samuel 2-4, is given the full 6-page treatment. (For Chisholm’s reasoning on this see my interview with him which was conducted after this review.)

Perhaps the greatest challenge in writing a commentary of this kind is providing illustrations for the text. This is certainly a subjective task. Certain illustrations will ring true with some, while others will find them unhelpful. In an interview I conducted with Chisholm (click on link above), I discovered that this section was added by the editors, not by Chisholm himself. While I would not endorse the use of every illustration suggested in this commentary, I do believe a sufficient job has been done. The editors themselves point out that this section of the commentary is intended to provide “general ideas” and to “serve as a catalyst for effectively illustrating the text” (p. xii).

In conclusion, Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel commentary achieves the aims of this series admirably. He is a scholar of high caliber and is a well-established expert on the entire corpus of the Former Prophets. Pastors, students, and others wanting to become grounded in the message of 1&2 Samuel will benefit greatly from this commentary. I used it for my own 1&2 Samuel class this past semester and will continue to do so in the future. I heartily recommend it to others.

Purchase Robert Chisholm’s 1&2 Samuel Commentary from Logos Bible Software by clicking on this link.

(Many thanks to Logos Bible Software for supplying this review copy of Robert Chisholm Jr.’s 1&2 Samuel Commentary in the Teach the Text Commentary series in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.)