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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

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


Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Saul and Eli: Similarities of Rejected Leaders

Looking Like a Leader

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

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

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

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

Leaders Who Corrupt the Worship of God

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

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

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

In Search of Better Leaders

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

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

Leaders Who Receive a Similar Judgment

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

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

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

Better Leaders and Better Days

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

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

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