Tag Archives: Goliath

Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel

Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel

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

The Use of Head in Modern Idioms

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

R’osh in Samuel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Headed Toward a Conclusion

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

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

Family Portraits

 

Goliath’s Gath Has Been Found

Goliath’s Gath Has Been Found

Gath, Tell es-Safi
My visit to Gath in the summer of 2008.

The ancient city of Gath (modern Tell es-Safi) has been experiencing the archaeologist’s spade for the past 23 years under the direction of lead archaeologist Aren Maeir from Bar-Ilan University. This excavation has revealed much about the Philistines, the ancient people who lived there. Perhaps, most famously, a piece of pottery was discovered in the excavation that bears similarities with the name Goliath (see my article here and the photo below). Maeir recently stated, “One of the nice things about excavations at this site – and archaeology in general – is that every time you excavate, there are surprises.” One of those surprises, just recently announced, is the discovery of an older city of Gath laying below the one that has been excavated for the past 23 years. This older city dates to the 11th century B.C., the time of David and Goliath, and is even larger and more impressive than the one Maeir and his team have been excavating over the past, almost, quarter of a century!

Goliath’s Gath is Impressive!

Maeir at Gath
Maeir standing by the ruins of the ancient Water Gate in Gath. ( Credit: TELL ES-SAFI/GATH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PROJECT)

The Jerusalem Post states, “While archaeologists have known for decades that Tell es-Safi contained the ruins of Goliath’s birthplace, the recent discovery beneath a pre-existing site reveals that his native city was a place of even greater architectural grandeur than the Gath of a century later” (for the full article click here). Digging beneath a previously explored area in Gath, this year (2019) the team discovered a large fortified structure with massive stones. Maeir states that the monumental architecture is larger than almost anything found in the Levant during this time period. As an example of the difference in size, Maeir compares the stones of the upper (later) period of the city (1.6 feet, or 1/2 meter long) with what he calls the “Goliath layer” recently discovered (3.2 – 6.5 feet, or between 1-2 meters). The walls of the older layer are also twice the width of the later walls (13 feet wide as opposed to 6.5 – 8 feet wide). The area covered by ancient Gath is also impressive. Maeir states that it covered about 123.5 acres, more than twice the size of comparable cities in the Levant. By comparison, the city of Jerusalem is estimated to have been about 10 acres in the time of David! For more details on the impressive size of Gath, see the excellent article in The Times of Israel.

Interpretation of the Find and Presuppositions

goliath ostracon
This is the piece of pottery, mentioned in the article above  (known as an ostracon), with names etched on it that resemble Goliath’s name. Discovered at Tell es-Safi, biblical Gath.

As we are all aware, all of us have certain presuppositions in our approach to anything in life. The same is true for archaeologists and biblical scholars. Maeir’s presuppositions differ from mine. He believes that much of the Bible was written at a later time period than the events that are described. Consequently he also believes that the Bible contains various myths, legends, and inaccuracies. As a result, he has suggested that the story of the gigantic size of Goliath (and others) may be related to the size of this ancient city and its walls. He thinks that ancient people would have reasoned that giant walls require giants to build them. Thus he does not believe the story of David and Goliath is literally true but derives from some such supposition.

Although Goliath may not be as tall as some think that he was (see my article here), I do respectfully disagree with Professor Maeir, since I hold to a strong view of the inspiration of Scripture. In my opinion, the power and sophistication of the Philistines and their great city of Gath, which has been revealed through archaeology, only confirms what the Bible has to say about them. They are pictured as a more technologically advanced society than the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam. 13:19-22), as well as a dangerous and powerful foe. Many of the articles announcing this discovery are running with Professor Maeir’s theory. I for one, cannot agree. While we may not always be in agreement with the presuppositions and conclusions of others, we are certainly debtors to the men and women archaeologists who are uncovering the rich history of Israel’s past.

For other articles related to this recent discovery, see the following links:

This is the link to the Tell es-Safi site: gath.wordpress.com

Short article in Bible History Daily 

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Goliath’s Height

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

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

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

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

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s Comments on Violence in the Old Testament

Robert B. Chisholm Jr.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

This past summer I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Robert B. Chisholm Jr., department chair and professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. The interview was primarily about his new commentary on 1&2 Samuel (you can see the entire interview here). However, I did take the opportunity to ask him about his views on Violence in the Old Testament. As part of my on-going series, I thought I would repost his comments on this topic. Bob’s comments particularly focus on the idea of justice and the biblical concept “you reap what you sow” (see my treatment of this idea here). I have reproduced Bob’s comments as they originally appeared in the interview. The only change I have made is to include Scripture references that were not part of the original interview so that the interested reader does not need to look them up. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read these comments, or if you’ve never read the entire interview, I hope you enjoy the following recap.

Here is my question followed by Bob’s answer.

I am currently writing a series of articles on my website entitled “Violence in the Old Testament.” This seems to be an important topic given the publications of books by the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Christians are often embarrassed about the violence in the Old Testament and many shy away from reading and studying it. I know this is a big topic but do you have any comments you’d like to share on this subject, especially as it relates to the books of 1&2 Samuel?

This is also a topic of great interest for me and I hope to do more writing on it in the days ahead. At the 2011 national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I delivered a paper entitled: Fighting Yahweh’s Wars: Some Disturbing Acts of Violence in Judges-Samuel. It should be published soon; I’m still working on the logistics of where. I study six different episodes where God endorses violence. I am not as apologetic as some and prefer to give God the benefit of the doubt. It’s a messy fallen world filled with a lot of evil people and sometimes God rolls up his sleeves, so to speak, and enters into the fray as the just Warrior-King. Here’s the conclusion to my paper: A close reading of these six accounts reveals that in each case the act of violence involved the implementation of divine justice against the object. In two instances (Adoni-Bezek–Judg. 1:5-7, and Agag–1 Sam. 15:32-33) an individual was treated in a way that mirrored his crimes against others. In four cases a people group (the Amalekites–1 Sam. 15) or representatives of a people group (the Moabite king Eglon–Judg. 3:14-25, the Canaanite general Sisera–Judg. 4-5, the thirty Philistines murdered by Samson–Judg. 14:15-19) were, at least from Yahweh’s perspective, the objects of violent acts of justice in response to crimes committed or intended (in the case of Sisera) against Israel. In Goliath’s case (1 Sam. 17), David refused to view the Philistine’s taunt as simply a verbal assault against Israel’s army. Yahweh identifies with his people and so he was the ultimate target of the Philistine’s slander. Consequently, David’s victory over Goliath was an act of justice that vindicated Yahweh’s honor by punishing a blasphemer.

Though these violent acts are disturbing at an emotional level, they are, as acts of justice, gratifying at a deeper, more elemental level. Ultimately, it is not worth living in a world in which there is no justice. Such a place would be nothing more than a jungle in which superior strength breeds arrogance and evil, and the strong take what they want, dishing out pain and suffering with reckless abandon. But justice, to truly be justice, must be implemented fully and appropriately. To use a contemporary example, when the Harry Potter saga finally reaches its climax, Nagini, Bellatrix Lestrange, and, of course, Voldemort cannot just die; they must be killed the “right way” for justice to be satisfied and for some sense of moral equilibrium to be realized. Bellatrix cannot be pitied as long as the image of a dying Dobby persists in the mind’s eye.

So it is in the biblical story: Those who cut off the thumbs of others or make mothers childless eventually discover that what goes around comes around. Those who attack, oppress, and abuse Yahweh’s people eventually pay the price in “the right way.” Those who dare defy the living God and challenge him to step into the arena may end up a decapitated torso. And though the scene may make one want to vomit, in the end the image prompts a sigh of relief and more. As the psalmist declares: “The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. Then observers will say, ‘Yes indeed, the godly are rewarded! Yes indeed, there is a God who judges the earth!’” (Ps. 58:10-11) In conclusion I leave you with this scene: “Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called ‘Faithful’ and ‘True,’ and with justice he judges and goes to war” (Rev. 19:11). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

For a list of some of Robert B. Chisholm Jr’s works click on the links here for Amazon USA / UK