Beheading in 1-2 Samuel

I’ve been thinking about David and Goliath a little more. It’s an interesting example of a story that is so well known on a popular level and yet so little understood in terms of its redemptive-historical significance, or even its role in 1-2 Samuel.

David doesn’t just get Goliath with stone and slingshot; he beheads him afterward. This is important for a number of reasons, and part of its significance emerges in comparison with the rest of 1-2 Samuel. There are 6 beheadings or near-beheadings in Samuel, and only one in the rest of the Old Testament (2 Kings 6:32). I think it’s safe to say there’s something of a pattern developing here.

The first time someone’s head is removed from them is in 1 Samuel 5. After the Ark of the Lord is taken into the temple of Dagon, the fish-dragon god falls down twice, and loses his head and hands the second time. Next is the account with David and Goliath, where David represents the Lord and Goliath is dressed like a big snake (see my previous post on this). At the end of 1 Samuel Saul, the Israelite “giant,” loses his head. All of these entities oppose the Lord or his anointed, and so all of them lose their heads.

In 2 Samuel 4, a few Benjaminites hoping to gain favor with David behead a descendent of Saul. David has them put to death for this, but the deed is done. Several chapters later, as David is fleeing from Absalom, Shimei begins to curse him, and Abishai offers to remove Shimei’s head (16:9). And finally, when Sheba incites rebellion against David, things go poorly for him and he is ultimately beheaded as well (20:22).

What are we to make of this? What’s the significance of beheading? I believe it has to do with lordship, a definite and recurring theme in Samuel. The word “head” (Hb. roš) is often used to refer to leaders in Hebrew, as it is in English. In 1 Samuel, which covers David’s ascension to kingship, those who oppose the Lord and his anointed king lose their heads. In 2 Samuel, which covers David’s reign, those who threaten his rule are put down (in Shimei’s case, the beheading is only talked about, not actually committed).

Ultimately, of course, this refers back to the promise of a Messiah in Genesis 3:15. The author of 1-2 Samuel is shouting at us that this one, this one is the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent. The Messiah is to come through David’s line.

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-13).

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