2 Samuel 23:8–39: David’s Mighty Warriors
The book of 1/2 Samuel, which is focused on the life of King David, is drawing to a close by this point. Since war, battles, and other forms of fighting were such a part of David’s life, part of this summation is a highlight of some of his best fighting men.
It’s one of those passages that would be easy to skip over or just breeze through. It’s more than just a list of names—there are some stories included as well, illustrating why certain men were included on the list—but it can still be tempting to just waterski over this passage, focusing on the stories and skipping the lists. It’s also a bit confusing; it’s actually two lists, of The Thirty (David’s mighty warriors) and The Three (the best of the best, held in even higher regard than The Thirty). Except… even that’s not quite correct because it’s more complex than that:
- There’s a list of The Three
- There’s mention of Abishai (brother of Joab son of Zeruiah), specifically calling out that he’s not one of the three (even though he was still very good)… though nor is he included in The Thirty
- There’s mention of a man named Benaiah who is also not part of The Three even though he’s very good—but he is included in The Thirty
- There’s a list of The Thirty, which is not actually 30 names
I’ll just mention the highlights of the passage here1 (without links; the whole passage can be read here), with more in the Thoughts section below.
|verses 8–12||Highlights of The Three|
|8||Josheb-Basshebeth, who was “chief of the Three” because he killed 800 men in one encounter|
|9–10||Eleazor, who was one of The Three because of a particular battle against the Philistines|
|11-12||Shammah, who was one of The Three because of another battle against the Philistines|
|verses 13–17||A side story about an occasion when David and his men were hemmed in, and David wistfully mentioned that he’d love a drink of water from a particular well back in Bethlehem, so The Three broke through the Philistine lines, got water from the well, and brought it back to David—who offered it to the LORD instead of drinking it. More on this below.|
|verses 18–19||Abishai is called out, and… is kind of a strange case in this passage. He’s not one of The Three (though we’re told he was as famous as they were, became their commander, and was held in higher honour than them), nor is he one of The Thirty. He’s just… called out here and not included in either list.|
|verses 20–23||Benaiah is called out, and some of his exploits are mentioned. Like Abishai, Benaiah is not one of The Three, and like Abishai it’s mentioned that he was as famous as them. He’s held in higher honour than the rest of The Thirty, and put in charge of David’s bodyguard.|
|verses 24–39||The Thirty are named, though 34 names are actually listed.|
Of note: The last name called out in the list is Uriah. We’ll recall from Chapter 11 that David had had Uriah killed so that he (David) could have Uriah’s wife Bathsheba.
The numbers of men called out can be confusing, so I’m going to crib from the ESV Study Bible notes.
First, on the overall passage, they say this:
Thirty-four names are listed among “the thirty”: this could mean that (1) “thirty” is a round number, or (2) the group began with 30 members and continued to be called “the thirty” when others were added; or (3) the group remained at 30, but when some died they were replaced by other names on this list (the parallel list in 1 Chron. 11:10–47 has 16 additional names in 1 Chron. 11:41–47, probably for this reason). These 34 names plus “the three” make up the “thirty-seven” of 2 Sam. 23:39.
Then, in a note on 18–39, they say this:
This is the list of David’s “thirty men.” They are Abishai, Benaiah, and the men listed in vv. 24–39. … The list has 34 names, probably representing 35 men … Probably those of “the thirty” who died in battle, such as Asahel (v. 24; 2:18–23) and Uriah (11:17; 23:39), were replaced by others. Some of the names appear as officers in 1 Chronicles 27, and most appear in the list in 1 Chron. 11:20–47, which is an expansion of this but is not labeled as being a list of “the thirty” (cf. 2 Sam. 23:24 and 1 Chron. 11:26).
Those ellipses are because I omitted some parts.
Confusing enough? Well, there’s one more point of confusion! Verse 32 says, “Eliahba the Shaalbonite, the sons of Jashen” (both the NIV and ESV have the same wording here), and an additional note in the ESV Study Bible mentions:
The sons of Jashen probably refers to two men, possibly twins. In the list of names, however, they seem to be counted as one item. The translation of vv. 32–33 given here is the most natural, but it should be noted that those verses have been translated a number of ways (see also 1 Chron. 11:34–35).
The Water from the Well
Here is the passage I mentioned above, in which The Three go and get David water from a particular well:
During harvest time, three of the thirty chief warriors came down to David at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” So the three mighty warriors broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out before the LORD. “Far be it from me, LORD, to do this!” he said. “Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?” And David would not drink it.
Such were the exploits of the three mighty warriors.
At first glance, to the modern reader, this might seem like David is treating his men badly. That’s definitely how I read it, in my younger days. “They went to all of the trouble of going and getting him that water, and he poured it on the ground? How disrespectful!”
But the opposite is actually happening, and the passage even tells us what’s happening, if we will read it. David values what these men have done more than I valued it, when I saw him as disrespecting them. In fact, David is saying that because the men risked their lives in this way David is not worthy to drink it, so he offers it, instead, to the One who is: the LORD.
In other words, David is giving these men greater honour, not taking honour away from them. What they did was so courageous that the only one David viewed as worthy of receiving it was God.
So once again I find myself having to write about Joab and Abishai, the sons of Zeruiah.
First of all, I don’t know what to make of the fact that Joab is not included in this passage (other than an aside that he’s Abishai’s brother). As a rule, anytime there has been a battle in 1/2 Samuel Joab was the one leading David’s army; the times that he wasn’t leading were exceptions, but as a rule he led David’s army. But it’s clear that David has also been against Joab and his brother Abishai for much of the time. (I wrote about this in my post on 2 Samuel 19:9–43, so I won’t rehash it all here.) It feels like a deliberate omission that Joab isn’t included in this passage. Maybe he simply wasn’t included because he was the commander, and therefore by definition not one of The Thirty or The Three? But then, given the way Abishai is called out, it feels like Joab should also have been mentioned, in the same manner his brother was.
Speaking of which, the treatment of Abishai in this passage similarly confuses me. He’s called out in this passage for his prowess, it’s mentioned that he was as famous as The Three—in fact it even says he was held in greater honour than the three—but it also says that he was not included among them. In the ESV Study Bible notes listed above they see Abishai as being one of The Thirty, but I respectfully disagree because of the way Benaiah is called out: with both of these men named side-by-side, but Benaiah being included in the list of the The Thirty and Abishai not being included in either list, it seems as if Abishai is being left out. Actually, between the two, Abishai is treated a little better, in a way—Benaiah is held in greater honour than the rest of The Thirty, while Abishai is held in greater honour than The Three—and yet… Abishai isn’t in either list, and Benaiah is.
So if Benaiah hadn’t been called out, I would have seen this passage as snubbing Abishai (despite the ESV Study Bible notes). If I didn’t know anything about the history of “the sons of Zeruiah” with David, I’d have thought nothing of the passage’s treatment of Abishai; I’d have just assumed that he wasn’t in the lists because he was the leader. But because I do know the history between David and the sons of Zeruiah, and because Benaiah is called out right next to Abishai, I’m not sure how to interpret the his treatment here.
I am pretty sure that Joab is being snubbed by not being included, however.
This confusion around the sons of Zeruiah wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that Asahel, another brother of Joab and Abishai, is included in list of The Thirty!
This isn’t quite as confusing as the rest of the discussion of the sons of Zeruiah, however, because the bad blood between David, Joab, and Abishai didn’t occur until after Asahel’s death.
Is it ironic that I started out mentioning the temptation to waterski over this passage and then just waterskied over it? Maybe… ↩︎
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