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Bible Q

What is the significance of the gruesome event in 2 Sam. 2:12-16?

2Sam. 2:12-17
{12} Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. {13} And Joab the son of Zeruiah and the servants of David went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. And they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool. {14} And Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men arise and compete before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” {15} Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. {16} And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, [1] which is at Gibeon. {17} And the battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.

[1] 2:18 Helkath-hazzurim means the field of sword-edges

Abner and Joab are the commanders of two enemy armies (Abner is the commander of Ish-bosheth’s army, and Joab of David’s: v10,15). It is probable that here Abner and Joab decide (v14) to settle their rivalry by having a few of their men fight instead of embarking on a full scale war.1 Presumably, if the twelve men from Benjamin won then all of David’s people would then become subjects of Ish-bosheth; but if the twelve servants of David won the fight then all of Ish-bosheth’s people would have to become David’s subjects. This is similar to the situation described in 1 Sam. 17, where David faces Goliath:

[Goliath] stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” [1 Sam 17:8-9]

However, in 2 Sam. 2 both sides kill each other, so there is no winner and the two armies then engage in a full battle (2Sam. 2:17).

A further thought

In some ways, like David represented Israel, the Lord Jesus is representative of the people who have faith in him. Like David confronting Goliath, Jesus faced an enemy that threatened to destroy all of his people: the Lord Jesus faced sin and death, and he triumphed over them! When one man, David, beat Goliath, all of God’s people, Israel, were freed (1 Sam. 17:51-53); when one man, Jesus, defeated sin and death, all of God’s people — the believers — are freed! See Rom. 5:12-21; Heb. 2:14.



1. Some older translations of the Bible have Abner saying ‘Let the young men now arise, and play before us’ (KJV; also, ASV, RSV, etc.). This makes it sounds as if the fight between the twenty-four soldiers is just for sport (which goes horribly wrong because  the people kill each other!). The KJV (et al) is translating the Hebrew literally when it uses the word ‘play’, but it may be missing the actual meaning of the event. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown say:

Some think that the proposal [in v14] was only for an exhibition of a little tilting match for diversion. Others suppose that, both parties being reluctant to commence a civil war, Abner proposed to leave the contest to the decision of twelve picked men on either side. [Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871)]

The NET has the following footnote:

Heb “play.” What is in view here is a gladiatorial contest in which representative groups of soldiers engage in mortal combat before the watching armies. Cf. NAB “perform for us”; NASB “hold (have NRSV) a contest before us”; NLT “put on an exhibition of hand-to-hand combat.”

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