Getting Our Feet Wet: Motifs in Samuel
“Getting one’s feet wet,” according to The Free Dictionary means “a first-time experience with something,” or, “to venture into new territory.” According to vappingo.com, this idiom actually comes from the Book of Joshua where the priests were commanded to put their feet in the Jordan River and then it would part (Joshua 3:13-16). In this post I’m attempting to get our feet wet by looking at the use of “feet/foot/legs” as a recurring motif in the books of Samuel. For some reading this article the idea of motifs in Books of the Bible may be a new concept (see my posts here and here). Others, perhaps may have never noticed this prominent motif in Samuel, or never taken the time to consider what messages are being communicated through its usage.
The Use of “Feet” and Related Words in Modern Idioms
How many modern idioms can you think of that use the word “feet,” “foot” or “leg/legs?” On my own I can think of a few such as “you’re pulling my leg,” or “I really put my foot in my mouth on that one.” How about, “I just want to get my foot in the door,” or “stop dragging your feet?”How’s that for “thinking on my feet?” I recently Googled idioms using feet and here are a few others:
- To have “itchy feet”
- To have “two left feet”
- To have “one foot in the grave”
- To be “swift of foot” (we’ll actually see this one in Samuel!)
- To “pull the rug out from under one’s feet”
- To “put one’s feet up”
For these and a lot more, see 50 Idioms About Leg, Feet, and Toes. In the following examination of this motif in Samuel, I will try to put my best foot forward in order to keep you on your toes when looking for other motifs in the books of Samuel.
The Motif of Feet and Legs in Samuel
In my search for this motif in Samuel I found 36 passages which use the Hebrew root rgl (the noun form of this root is written as regel),the basic meaning of which is “feet” or “legs.” There are twelve occurrences of this root in 1 Samuel and twenty-four in 2 Samuel. Although it should be remembered that 1&2 Samuel were originally one book, this breakdown illustrates that this Hebrew root occurs with greater frequency in the second half of the book. One of the functions of a motif is how it links various stories together. For example, the use of “foot” or “leg” should recall other stories where the word was recently utilized. This is especially true when it occurs many times so as to be an obvious motif.
One final point should be made regarding the use of motifs before proceeding: We are examining motifs in their literary setting, but they may also have served to link stories together when they were first told orally. It’s possible that any or all of the motifs in Samuel were originally part of the oral telling of the story. Whether they originated orally or when the stories were first committed to writing, these motifs would serve to keep the listener engaged while acting as devices that both entertain and teach.
A Survey of Rgl in Samuel
Because of the different ways in which English must translate various Hebrew words, it’s important when studying a motif to look at the original language. As this post will demonstrate, if only the English is consulted, other uses of a Hebrew root may be overlooked This is easily illustrated by the fact that rgl can be translated as feet or legs in English–two different, though related words. This also means, that the motif has its most profound affect in the original language since word plays are sometimes made which cannot be noticed in translation.
But what about the meaning of this motif? Is there a singular theme that is highlighted or is it used in various ways? As the survey below demonstrates the Hebrew root rgl has various meanings. The meaning is dependent on whether the noun or verbal form of the word is used, whether it occurs in a proper name, and whether it is used figuratively or literally. Besides a literal meaning, context may also indicate an additional meaning to the word (or phrase in which the word is used). I have discovered roughly twelve different ways in which the Hebrew root rgl is used (I have highlighted in bold the meanings or usages). In no particular order, here they are:
- As noted above, the root is used in two different place names, which appear to have special significance. Jonathan and Ahimaaz, the sons of the high priests Abiathar and Zadok, were staying at a place known as En-Rogel (2 Sam. 17:17). En-Rogel (notice the Hebrew root rgl in the word) is located where the three valleys of ancient Jerusalem (the Kidron, Tyropoeon, and Hinnom) come together. Ironically the place means, “Well of the Spy.” These young men were hiding out there so that they might deliver intelligence information to David during Absalom’s revolt. We are also told that during Absalom’s revolt a man named Barzillai came from Rogelim (plural form of rgl) to bring much needed supplies to David and his people (2 Sam. 17:27; 19:31).
- Since we have noted that En-Rogel means “Well of the Spy,” we should also note that the root rgl is used several times in Samuel to refer to a spy or spies (1 Sam. 26:4; 2 Sam. 10:3; 15:10). It is also used once in its verbal form meaning “to slander.” Mephibosheth, the man who is lame in his “feet,” ironically accuses his servant Ziba of “slandering” him to King David (2 Sam. 19:27). Ziba had earlier claimed that Mephibosheth wanted to reclaim the throne of his grandfather Saul (2 Sam. 16:1-4), and therefore had stayed behind in Jerusalem and not gone with David during Absalom’s revolt. The meaning of “spy” and “slander” is thought to come from the idea of a person who moves their feet too much! In other words, in the case of a spy, the movement of their feet suggests “shiftiness,” while the movement of a slanderer suggests a “busybody.”
- Speaking of Mephibosheth, it is noted on several occasions that he is “lame in his feet” (2 Sam 4:4; 9:3, 13). While this is, of course, a reference to his literal feet, there is also a meaning of weakness, or helplessness. David’s generosity of allowing Mephibosheth to come eat at his table as one of the king’s sons is a demonstration of how David imitates God by caring for those who are less fortunate (e.g., Micah 4:6-7; Zeph. 3:19). It may also be a way of suggesting that Mephibosheth is no threat to take the throne of his grandfather Saul. The context in 2 Samuel 4 (see v. 4 particularly) seems to suggest that with the death of Ishbosheth and the lameness of Mephibosheth the dynasty of Saul literally “doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
- When Mephibosheth appears before David, he exclaims “Here is your servant (2 Sam. 9:6). The concept of feet is also suggestive of servanthood and humility. When David marches with 400 men to destroy Nabal’s house, it is the action of Abigail who “falls at his feet” (1 Sam. 25:24), along with her wise words that dissuades David from his vengeful plan. Later when Nabal dies, David requests Abigail to become his wife. Her reply shows great humility as she says, “Behold your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord” (1 Sam. 25:41). Since feet were exposed to the dirt and filth of the streets, they were considered an unclean part of the body. Washing the feet was an action of a lowly slave. In this expression, Abigail once again demonstrates true humility.
- In contrast to weakness or humility, feet could also be a symbol of stability and power. The image of God making the king’s enemies a footstool (e.g., Ps. 110:1), or the conqueror placing his foot on the necks of his enemies (Josh. 10:24) evokes this meaning. Since 1&2 Samuel are books about power, it is surprising that we don’t see this meaning more often. Nevertheless, this image occurs twice in David’s psalm in 2 Samuel 22. In 2 Sam. 22:10 it refers to God as David says, “He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet.” David uses it of himself when, speaking of his enemies he says, “they fell under my feet” (2 Sam. 22:39). Once again the image of feet is a concrete one (referring to God’s and David’s), but the symbolism behind these expressions conveys a deeper, meaning.
- Speaking of a reference to a physical part of the body, Goliath is said to wear bronze grieves on his “legs” (1 Sam. 17:6). This statement, along with the rest of the description of Goliath, is clearly intended to intimidate and inspire fear. Absalom is said to be handsome, “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (2 Sam. 14:25). This kind of expression is known as a “merism” where the words “foot” and “head” are a reference to the entire body. We still use this expression today.
- On a more mundane note, the root rgl is used to refer to infantry, or foot-soldiers on four occasions in Samuel (1 Sam. 4:10; 15:4; 2 Sam. 8:4; 10:6).
- “Following after one’s legs” is an idiom which communicates loyalty or faithfulness to the one being followed. The idea is following in someone’s footsteps. This expression is used of those who follow David (1 Sam. 25:27; 2 Sam. 15:15, 17, 18), and of the servants that follow Abigail (1 Sam. 25:42).
- Security, or protection is often the result of following after someone powerful. This is the idea in 1 Samuel 2:9 when Hannah says that God will “guard the feet of his faithful ones.” In 2 Samuel 22:34, David voices the security he finds in God by comparing himself to a deer whose footing is sure on rocky heights (see the photo and caption above).
- Feet can take a person where they shouldn’t go (e.g., Prov. 1:16; 4:26; 5:5). Asahel’s swiftness of foot should have been an asset to him, but instead it brought about his destruction (2 Sam. 2:18-23–see my expanded treatment of this here, or in my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel). The brothers who killed Ishbosheth allowed their feet to take them where they shouldn’t have gone. As a result, David had their hands and feet cut off when he executed them (2 Sam. 4:12).
- There is one example where the physical exertion of using one’s hands and feet point to stepping out (no pun intended) in faith. In 1 Samuel 14:13, Jonathan and his armor-bearer climb up a side of a mountain to defeat the Philistines.
- I will lump the final uses of rgl under the category of figurative usage. Among these are two euphemistic phrases. When David and his men are hiding from Saul in a cave, Saul is said to go in and “cover his feet,” which means he was using the toilet (1 Sam. 24:3). David wants Uriah to go down to his house and “wash his feet,” by which he means “have sex with your wife” (2 Sam. 11:8, see Uriah’s response in v. 11). We have here the same idiom of washing feet as we saw in the Abigail story above, but with a very different meaning! Another figurative usage is found in David’s lament of Abner’s death where he says, “your feet were not fettered” (2 Sam. 3:34). In other words, Abner wasn’t helpless and yet died a sad and foolish way. The idea of vulnerability is attached to this expression, as it is also in the story of Saul relieving himself in the cave. A final figurative use describes David’s hiding place when he is fleeing from Saul. Saul is told by the Ziphites that David is in their territory to which he replies, “know and see the place where his foot is” (1 Sam. 23:22).
A Footing…Uh, I Mean, Fitting Conclusion
The twelve categories above are a starting point. They are suggestive and not meant to be exhaustive. Furthermore, the use of rgl can, in certain instances, fit in several of the above categories. This survey demonstrates the pervasive nature of the foot motif in Samuel. It also demonstrates that this motif does not carry a single message. Context is the determining factor. The foot motif adds spice to the narrative of Samuel. In one sense, it is a running pun throughout the story. Once it is recognized, the reader might become intrigued on how the inspired author will use it next. Through its various shades of meaning it helps elucidate a given event, personality, or action. It is part of the glue that connects many of the stories together, particularly in the last half of Samuel. The foot motif is one of many that enriches, amuses, and informs God’s inspired message in the books of Samuel. We will look at another motif next time. Until then, keep your feet on the ground!