Head in a Book: Motifs in Samuel
Someone 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
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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).
- 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“).
- 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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.