Tag Archives: Abner

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

Dead Dog: Motifs in Samuel

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

“Dog” in Scripture

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

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

“Dog” and “Dead Dog” in Samuel

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

Goliath and Abner: Dogs Who End Up Dead

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

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

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

Shimei, the Dead Dog

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

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

David & Mephibosheth: Dead Dogs

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

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

Mephibosheth the dead dog
Mephibosheth approaches King David with humility.

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

Is Nabal a Dog?

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

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

Dog Language in the Ancient Near East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Portraits

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

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

2 Samuel 2–Asahel:Running into Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Asahel pursues Abner. Painting by James Tissot

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

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

Winding Up on the Wrong End of the Stick!

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

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

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

Conclusion: Stop and Listen

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

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

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