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).

Skull-Crushing King

It’s been an interesting weekend, and through some conversations and readings a few insights have stuck out to me.

In 1 Samuel 17, David faces up against Goliath. The story is well known, of course, but there are some interesting details worth consideration. Goliath is said to be wearing a “coat of mail” in verse 5, but the word used for “mail” is actually “scales” (cf. Leviticus 11:9, Ezekiel 29:3-4), like those of a fish or snake. So Goliath, our antagonist, is dressed like a dragon, like his dragon-fish god Dagon. And then there’s David, unarmed little shepherd boy. What’s a boy to do against a great big serpent?

David, being brought up on the Scriptures, knows what to do with serpents. He crushed Goliath’s head with a stone, and then he cut off Goliath’s head with his own sword (17:49-51). Then, he put the giant’s armor in his tent and took the head to Jerusalem. Why he did this is unknown, but it’s entirely possible that the skull was mounted for a time as a trophy (possibly outside the city gates, since Israel didn’t control the city), and then buried.

“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha” (John 19:16-17). It’s interesting that three of the four Evangelists tell us the Hebrew name for the place Jesus was crucified. Is there a play on words here? Gol is the first syllable of Goliath, and Gath was the giant’s home. I don’t want to indulge in fancy here, but there may be some deliberate connection made by the authors.

Golgotha was where David’s greater Son definitively crushed the head of that ancient serpent, the devil. Through the bruising of his heel, he was lifted up above the skull of his enemy. Jesus used death, the sword of his enemy, to crush his enemy and put him to open shame in him (Colossians 2:15).