PART I: THE LIST
“And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim…”
The Bible has many places where it stops short for dozens of verses at a time just to rattle off a list of people: Genealogies, names of tribe leaders, ancestral accounts, descendantal documentations, records of which-lot-fell-to-whom, etc. You’ll find plenty of them throughout the Old Testament, and even one or two in the New (such as the one above from Matthew 1).
My guess/experience is that these lists go largely unread and mostly ignored. I’m no historian, and I admit that I generally find these lists excessively long, overly tedious, and imparting no obvious spiritual truths or meaning. Perhaps you do too. (Perhaps you found yourself tempted to skim the passage I quoted above, severely abridged though it was.) At the very least, we may appreciate some of these names for their entertainment value (being the Americans we are), but let’s face it: I think I speak for most of us when I say that our natural instinct when we come across one of these dreaded lists is to skip ahead, fall asleep, or stop reading entirely (I have yet to hear anyone list 1 Chronicles alongside Romans, Psalms, Genesis, Job, etc. as a favorite book of the Bible).
Some time ago, I found myself reading one such list in 2 Samuel. At first, nothing significant. I carelessly read/skimmed the catalog of names, feeling somewhat bored and vaguely wondering if this was worth my time. Then about halfway through the passage, something stopped me short.
I’m not sure how it came about. I knew it was nothing original or particularly profound. No revelation, no epiphany, just a thought. But as it flashed through my mind, it prompted me in a new way. It gave me reason to take a step back from the passage, and when I did, I found myself looking at it in a slightly different light:
The people whose names are recorded in these various places in the Bible have been dead for thousands of years. After all this time, it’s doubtful that any of them have so much as an intact grave marker to trace the spot where they were buried. Few, if any of their names would spark recognition in a modern conversation.
Yet here they are, written for all to see. The Bible has been translated countless times into hundreds of languages across the entire globe. It’s present in every country on earth (and illegal in at least 50 of them). Wherever you go, you will find men and women of every tribe, every tongue, and every nation, whose lives have been changed by this book. Throughout history, these seemingly insignificant lists have endured, and to this day, they remain a part of the most widely read, published, and persecuted book in the world.
Perhaps these lists seem dull or monotonous to our modern, twenty-first century, mile-a-minute, ADHD minds. But God saw fit for them to live on long after the bearers of these names had gone the way of the earth, and even to this day they remain. Their names now live on in a way that can never be true of my name, or even of the most wildly celebrated and distinguished people of this century.
They live on in the Word of God itself.
PART II: THE MEN
Musclebound. That’s what these guys were.
Elhanan son of Dodo of Bethlehem
Shammah the Harodite
Sibbecai the Hushathite
Benaiah the Pirathonite
Jashen the Gizonite
Hezro the Carmelite
And so on. You find this list in its entirety in the latter half of 2 Samuel 23 (as well as in 1 Chronicles 11).
Out of all the other name lists in the Bible, this one strikes me as unique. No, it’s not because of the length or any particular name that appears on it (though I admit that I don’t think you can ever get any cooler than being called a Pirathonite). Rather, this list stands out to me because of a much simpler, yet in my opinion more profound reason: None of these men ended up on this list because they were the descendant of so-and-so or the ancestor of a certain significant individual. Their names weren’t put down for all posterity because they were related to a certain person or in a certain family. These men were written down because of the mighty deeds they did.
That gave me reason to pause. In other words, these guys, who were apparently from all over the land of Israel and probably from a vast variety of backgrounds, had earned their places in the ultimate hall of fame. That made me wonder… just how did these men set themselves apart from all of the other soldiers? David literally had an army of thousands upon thousands of fighting men (1 Chronicles 21:5). So what made these soldiers stand out? How did they act differently and get noticed in the sea of faces? I may be reading a bit much into the passage, but here’s what I came up with:
Who were these guys? They were the men who had proved themselves worthy of the name warrior. They were the fighters whose names were feared by the enemy, honored by the other soldiers, and respected even by the king himself. They were the champions who you could count on to have your back in battle, and who you knew you were glad to have on your side. They were the ones who had shown themselves to be leaders, trustworthy and reliable, examples to all the other men, and rock-solid even in the face of life and death. They were battle- tested soldiers who were not afraid to lay down their lives for the sake of their king, and the glory of their God.
They were essentially superheroes in the flesh. Coming to you next summer… The Mighty Men of Valor Episode I: The Philistine Menace! (sorry, couldn’t resist…)
Of course, this is all only general speculation. Sadly, we aren’t given a record of how each of the 37 mighty men earned his spot on the roster (now those are some stories that will be worth hearing about on the other side of heaven!). We don’t have access to all their stories just yet; but we do know some. Take the Mighty Three for example:
One slew 800 men in a single encounter. One fought by David’s side, until he was so exhausted, his hand literally stuck to his sword. One held his ground against a whole Philistine troop in a field of lentils (not sure if that’s a significant or random detail) while everyone else, the entire remnant of the Israelite army, turned tail and ran. Then there’s the famous story where they broke through the Philistine front lines and invaded enemy territory just to get David a drink from his home well; by far their most unusual exploit, considering it apparently didn’t happen during a battle that was already taking place…
Then there’s Benaiah, son of Jehoida, the head of King David’s guard. He too performed great feats in battle, and made a name for himself as great as that of the Mighty Three. He killed a huge, spear-wielding Egyptian while armed with just a club. He struck down two ariels (no one’s sure what those are, but they sound hard to beat) of Moab. He even chased down a lion into a pit on a snowy day and slew it.
Wait… he did what?
This exploit stopped me short. All the other achievements listed in the chapter were very clearly done in wartime, as deeds of war. Even the Three’s water trip for David, unusual as it seemed, involved doing some damage to the enemy.
But this lion-slaying, while impressive, was very clearly not a battle achievement. Neither did it seem to be a matter of self-defense; if he had to go down into a hole in the ground in the middle of a blizzard to kill it, the chances that the lion attacked him first or had been terrorizing the village side or something are pretty slim…
So what’s the deal? What was Benaiah’s reason for doing this? Why this seemingly senseless and meaningless glory quest?
In all honesty… I still don’t know. It still completely baffles me at times. Maybe I’m thinking too hard about it (as I always do), or maybe I’m just making a big deal out of nothing…
But I noticed this: a few chapters later, in 1 Kings chapters 1 & 2, Benaiah pops up again, still head over the royal guard. And despite his fame and position of power, he is anything but disloyal or conceited towards his king (first David, then Solomon). He refuses to support David’s usurping son Adonijah, and declares his undying loyalty to David by devoting himself to Solomon, the chosen heir. When David declares that Solomon will be king, Benaiah answered with these words: “Amen! May the Lord, the God of my lord the king, say so. As the Lord has been with my lord the king, even so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne greater than the throne of my lord King David.” (1 Kings 1:37)
Benaiah was a man after the king’s own heart, who wanted to see his son go on to become even greater than he had been. And though he was just as legendary as the Mighty Three, he never proved disloyal to his king’s name. Even in all of his glory and fame, Benaiah remained an unswerving, humble servant to his master. And somehow, I think he brought even greater glory to his lord the king by doing so.
Like I said, I’m still not sure, I still don’t know. I could be wrong about this passage, or extracting a moral that isn’t really there. But the lesson it teaches me is this: We are not only to do bold tasks for our Lord and King while on the battlefield, in our line of duty; we are also to go out looking for opportunities to do bold things to bring Him honor.
Some time ago, a pastor visiting my church preached on Acts 17, that passage about Paul in Athens. It was a pretty familiar passage to me, but he brought up a point that made me look at the passage a little differently than before: He emphasized that despite the fact that Paul was there waiting for his partners to arrive, he didn’t sit idly. He proactively and boldly went forth, first to the synagogue, then into the marketplace — the epicenter of the city, the place where ideas were freely shared — to tell people about Christ and the resurrection. He went into the marketplace, where he knew there would be opportunities to talk and reason with people about the gospel, and made the most of them.
True, Paul’s ministry was explicitly to go to the Gentiles and usually involved going out to public places to talk to people anyway, and whether Benaiah’s bold but seemingly rash example is to be followed or not is still questionable. But as far as I can tell from the passage, Benaiah is commended for his brave exploit, not criticized for doing something seemingly very foolhardy. And Paul’s example is certainly one we can follow even if we aren’t apostles or missionaries to foreign places.
I still don’t know about that lion in the snowy pit. But I do know that the Lord has commanded us to live in boldness for Him, and that it brings Him great glory when we do. The leaders of the early church prayed that they would be bold in spreading the Word (Acts 4:29), and they lived up to their desire. Are we not called to do the same?
Benaiah went down on a snowy day and killed a lion. Paul went down into the marketplace to reason with some of the most intellectual non-believers of his day. The early church proclaimed the gospel without fear, even to the point of utter persecution.
Let us be as bold as they were.