Murder in the Fifth

I love the oddities in the Bible; weird trivia, story-telling connections, stylistic weirdness. In my studies, one of the areas which took up most of my time and attention was Old Testament narratives, particularly in Genesis, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel (1 Samuel in particular took up a lot). This year, our Wednesday morning Bible Study group has been working through 2 Samuel (we did 1 Samuel last year). 1 & 2 Samuel are full of linguistic connections and oddities that only come to life if you read the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures together, and do so carefully. Even then, if you’re doing it in English, you might miss these things.

This past Wednesday, we finished chapter 19, and began into chapter 20. This chapter begins with David returning to Jerusalem to put his house back in order following the coup by his son Absalom. David sends out his newly promoted nephew Amasa, commander of the Army (who just happened to have previously served in the same capacity under David’s son Absalom during the war against David) to round up a force to track down Sheba son of Bicri, a Benjamite who has called for a rejection of David as king. Amasa fails to return with the forces in the allocated time (three days), and so Abishai (David’s nephew and Amasa’s cousin) younger brother of Amasa’s predecessor, the recently demoted Joab, is sent out with Joab’s men to track down Sheba.

On the way, Joab and Abishai run into Amasa (coincidence?) at Gibeon. There, Joab holds Amasa’s beard with his right hand, and leans in to give him a kiss of welcome, but with his left hand, Joab stabs his replacement “in the belly” (NIV). Now, as unpleasant as stabbings would normally be to talk about, this one has some intrigue connected to it.

The first, is something commented on by my former Old Testament Prof., Keith Bodner. The word rendered “belly” in the NIV is an interesting choice. The word (chomesh) is a rarely used word which means “fifth”. Amasa was stabbed “in the fifth”. The KJV translates more literally, with an interpretive assumption “in the fifth [rib]”. So, not really in his belly, but higher up in the torso (Amasa’s death is quick, not needing further jabs, so perhaps into the lungs or heart). The translators of the NIV tell us that Amasa’s intestines spill out (v. 10, “entrails” in the NRSV). That is unlikely given the location of the blade if chomesh in fact refers to the ribs (thus, above the intestines). Instead, what comes out of Amasa is not the intestines themselves, but the contents of the intestines (sorry for the grossness, but at death, this typically happens. In this case, death is presumably instantaneous). Bodner has written an article relating other stabbings[1] which use this same term, and all from 2 Samuel; Asahel (Joab and Abishai’s brother), stabbed by Abner in 2:23; Abner stabbed by Joab in retalliation in 3:27, and Ishbosheth is stabbed by two assassins “in the stomach” according the NIV of 4:6. These 4 stabbings use the same unusual term for the location of the blade, chomesh, thus linking them together. Three of the four involve the sons of Zeruiah (Joab, Abishai and Asahel) and three involve a member of Saul’s family (Abner, Saul’s cousin, and Ishbosheth, Saul’s son). Perhaps we can then speculate that the stabbing of Ishbosheth is perhaps somehow linked back to Joab? Whatever the case, there is definitely an affinity for precisely targeted stabbings.

The second interesting connection is the use of the left hand in the stabbing, which is strikingly similar to the depiction of the stabbing of Eglon of Moab by Ehud (Judges 3). There, Eglon is stabbed by the left-handed Ehud in the belly (actually his belly, not the fifth). Also, remember how the contents of Amasa’s intestines come out in 2 Sam. 20? Well, same thing happens to Eglon (different terms are used, but the same idea). So, a lefty concealing a dagger, stabbing an unsuspecting person of prominence in the belly, causing the bowels to empty. Clearly similarities are there.

Now, here’s where things get really weird. Lefties pop up a few times in the Deuronomistic History (the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). Ehud, Joab, and I am proposing another place. The next place we have to look is at Joab’s uncle. Presumably Joab is either left handed or perhaps ambidextrous, and this may be a family trait (I myself am left-handed, as is my mother, as was my grandmother). In the story of David and Goliath we find out some interesting data on David, which you might not notice. As David moves forward to engage Goliath in representative combat, we read of Goliath’s reaction to David’s appearance: “The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.” (1 Sam. 17:43). Seems pretty innocuous, right? But wait, back up a bit. In verse 40 we read, “Then he [David] took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine” (emphasis added). Why does Goliath state that David comes with sticks? David isn’t coming with sticks, but a sling and stones. Goliath apparently does not see the sling, but only David’s staff. Why? Goliath is likely looking to David’s right hand where a sword or javelin would be. Now, consider this; in Judges chapter 20 we read of inter-tribal war between Benjamin and the other tribes. When describing Benjamin’s army, the narrator tells us: “On that day the Benjaminites mustered twenty-six thousand armed men from their towns, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah. Of all this force, there were seven hundred picked men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss” (Judges 20:15-16, NRSV, emphasis added). Slings and southpaws go hand-in-hand (pardon the pun) and the irony in this case being the fact that left-handers from the tribe of Benjamin (benjamin meaning “son of my right hand”) are featuring in a special way. Joab’s possible left-handedness may be a family trait, shared by Joab and his uncle David.

As if that weren’t enough oddness, here’s two more things to ponder: 1.) Ehud, we are told is “Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man” (Judges 3:15). David, in chapters 16 of 2 Samuel encounters a Benjamite who curses David, and throws stones at him. The man is “a man of the family of the house of Saul [ie. a Benjamite]… whose name was Shimei son of Gera“! A descendant of Ehud perhaps? And of course, as expected, the stone throwing was not forgotten by the sons of Zeruiah; “Abishai son of Zeruiah answered, ‘Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed?'” (2 Sam. 19:21). The sons of Zeruiah are out for blood once again.[2]

2.) Ehud’s victim, Elgon of Moab, didn’t conquer Southern Israel alone. He comes, allied with the Amalekites and Ammonites (Judges 3:13). These two nations factor significantly in narrative of… you guessed it Saul and David. Saul’s greatest success is against the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11) and his moment of disobedience/failure comes in relation to the campaign against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15). David, on the other hand (pun intended!), has great success against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 27 & 30, 2 Sam. 1) and his moment of moral failure comes during Israel’s campaign against the… you guessed it- Ammonites! (2 Sam. 11-12). Then of course, after the coup by Absalom, David retreats to the East side of the Jordan to an area disputed between the Israelites and Ammonites, and receives help, ironically, from Gileadites, whom Saul rescued from the Ammonites, and still had sympathies for Saul’s dynasty. During the reign of Ishbosheth, the capital moved from Gibeah of Benjamin to Mahanaim in Southern Gilead, which is also the city where David retreats to, and is helped by an interesting cast: Makir (formerly custodian of Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth), Barzillai the Gileadite, as well as from Shobi, son of Nahash- Nahash being the king of the Ammonites defeated by Saul at Jabesh-Gilead, whose son (Shobi’s brother), Hanun, was defeated at Rabbah by Joab and David.

So what’s the point of all this? Just weird coincidences? Useless trivia? Probably not. The narrators of the Hebrew Scriptures are clever folks. They use these linguistic devices frequently, and presumably intentionally to demonstrate a point. So what’s the point they’re making? Well, the grotesque acts of violence are linked to one another through these vocabulary and motif choices, and I would argue (I think it’s certainly reasonable at least) that the narrator is drawing our attention to the systemic, repetitious nature of the violence in Israel’s history; violence begets violence. One of the stand out phrases of 1 Samuel is the request by the elders of Israel for “a king like all the other nations”. Israel was to be holy (Ex. 19:6, Lev. 11:44 & 45, 19:2), different, set apart. And yet, there is no discernible difference. The systemic assassinations and bitter, generations old rivalries demonstrate an ongoing destructive tendency even in God’s people; that is unless measures are taken (like those taken by David to protect Mephibosheth and Shimei or those taken to offer non-partisan help by Makir, Barzillai and Shobi, as well as Ittai the Gittite, the non-Israelite [Philistine?] general who refused David’s offer to join Absalom’s service). The narrator shares certain details, while withholding others, and it is probably not an accident. He could have just said Shobi and not revealed that Shobi is Nahash’s son. Or he could have neglected to mention that Joab used his left hand to stab Amasa. He didn’t have to tell us that Asahel, Abner, Ishbosheth and Amasa were are stabbed “in the fifth”. But those details are included that the original audience might learn something from this.[3]

[1] See also Bodner’s Power Play: A Primer on the Second Book of Samuel. (Toronto: Clements, 2004), p 47 & 204.

[2] For some key insights into the characterization of the sons of Zeruiah see Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation). (Louisville: WJK, 1990), a stunning, non-technical commentary which beautifully captures the literary nuances of the books of Samuel, or for Joab specifically Keith Bodner, David Observed: A King in the Eyes of his Court. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), chapter 8.

[3] If you’re interested in these linguistic techniques, perhaps the best places to go is Jewish Scholar Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative (BasicBooks, 1981).

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