THE PROWESS OF THE BENJAMINITES by P. S. Vermaak
Preliminary Note: Brit-Am a good while ago received permission to re-publish the article below. It is worth reading.
P. S. Vermaak is (or was?) a Senior Lecturer in Semitic Languages and Cultures in the Department of Semitics at the University of South Africa. He taught Classical Hebrew at pre-graduate level and Sumerian and Akkadian at post-graduate level.
Even though the tribe of Benjamin was the smallest in Israel (I Sam. 9:21), it became one of the most important. The question therefore arises why the Benjaminites were chosen to become one of the main tribes in that the very first king of Israel was one of their members. This article intends to propose one possibility2.
The fact that quite often special reference is made to the physical feats of Benjaminites may supply us with a clue why they were so important despite their small numbers. According to the information in the Bible, this tribe, unlike any other, reveals certain special qualities. It could in fact be described as the tribe of Israel with unequaled athletic expertise. The participation of this tribe in different activities will therefore be discussed, especially with reference to the bow and arrow, the sling and running as well as general physical condition.
In the early stages, the tribe of Benjamin is identified as the sons of Benjamin, with Abidan son of Gidoni as their chief (Num. 2:23, 7:60). Also, in Numbers 1:37, 2:23, 10:24 they are initially referred to as a tribe with 35,400 people and later with a population of 45,600 (Numbers 26:41). After the conquest of Canaan each tribe was allocated its own geographical area of the Promised Land, hence the tribe of Benjamin also received its quota, namely 12 cities with its towns (cf. Josh. 18:11-28). In Judges 1:21 they are described as integrated with the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
The general physical condition of the Benjaminites can be defined as the best among the people of Israel. Whenever the special soldiers of Israel are mentioned, the Benjaminites are singled out because of the high quality of their skills. Saul3 as well as David4 used men from the tribe of Benjamin to form the core of their military and other regular services. David was not a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, yet he had a special group of Benjaminite archers who assisted him in all endeavors and they, in fact, formed an essential backbone of his security services:5
The following joined David at Ziklag while he was still in hiding from Saul son of Kish; they were the warriors who gave support in battle; they were armed with the bow and could use both right hand and left hand to sling stones or shoot arrows with the bow; they were kinsmen of Saul from Benjamin (I Chr. 12:1-2).
THE ARCHERS OF THE BENJAMINITES
The bow and arrow, which has a long history, was part of the daily equipment of many peoples. The bow and arrow, one of the oldest weapons known to man, was initially used for hunting. It is important to keep in mind that all physical activities originate from real-life situations. It was a long distance weapon and played also a key role in the first phase of a battle during warfare. As in Egypt and Mesopotamia, archery was a royal pastime in Israel, normally combined with hunting6. Various kings of Israel are mentioned in connection with archery, such as David (Ps. 18:35), Jehu (II Kg. 9:24) and Joash (II Kg. 13:15-16). In the Bible various technical terms are found referring to archery, some of which will be mentioned in this article.
The qualities of the tribe of Benjamin are highly rated in the Bible. The Benjaminites were so well versed in the use of the bow and the arrow that they could even use their left hands (I Chr. 12:2). Whenever special archers are mentioned, the Benjaminites appear to have been related to them. In I Chronicles 12:2 it is mentioned that a number of these archers were supporters in the camp of David.
The well-known prince Jonathan, son of Saul, also belonged to the tribe of Benjamin and in I Samuel 20 his shooting abilities are described. He could, it is stated, position the arrows exactly according to plan. There is a reference to the method of practice with this weapon, shooting at targets (I Sam. 20:20):
Now I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I were shooting at a mark.7 There is also the reference to the sons of Ulam who all belonged to the offspring of Benjamin:
The descendants of Ulam men of substance who drew the bow (I Chr. 8:40).
. . . and 28,000 from Benjamin bearing buckles and drawing the bow; all these were valiant men (II Chr. 14:8). The draw of a bow was a special exercise in the ancient Near East. The sons of Ulam (from Benajmin) are referred to as brave men who could "draw the bow" (Hebrew: "Dorcai Keshet") . Although these terms are rendered only as "bowmen" in most of the Bible translations, it in fact refers to men who could draw the bow8. This act is well attested to in the Egyptian reliefs and King Amenophis II boasted that no one but he could bend his personal bow. The degree of difficulty attached to drawing a bow is a reflection of the quality of the bow, especially with regard to the driving force of the bow which affects the eventual speed of the arrow.
THE RUNNERS OF THE BENJAMINITES
It is a well-attested fact that in the ancient Near East the runners acted as messengers for the speedy delivery of messages. In fact one of the gates of the palace in Israel was called the "gate of the runners" (II Kg. 11:19)9. In Israel running was a normal activity employed to move rapidly from one point to the next. The informal act of running could be regarded as the formative stage of running within a cultural context as a sporting element10. The most impressive example is the feat of the runner from the tribe of Benjamin who ran all the way from Aphek to Shiloh to inform the priest Eli of the defeat of the Israelites at the hands of the Philistines (I Sam. 4). This runner was a messenger performing a military activity11. He covered a distance of 35 kilometers starting off from a place located almost at sea-level and he then ascended to a finish at a point approximately 700 meters above sea-level12. In the Sumerian literature a similar event took place when Sulgi ran from Nippur to Ur and back in one day despite a heavy hailstorm13. In order to place running in the general context of the Bible one should also consider the episode of Ahimaaz and the Cushite (II Sam. 18:19-32). After a long discussion to decide whether or not Ahimaaz should run with the Cushite, he eventually joined the Cushite. On their return, confusion reigned amongst the guards concerning who was in the lead. The matter was settled when they recognized the distinctive running style) of Ahimaaz (II Sam. 18:27)14. The running style of the first was like the style of Ahimaaz. In a tomb relief from Amarna a group of runners is depicted accompanying the king in his chariot. The picture of the runners depicts a long-distance running style15. Although most of the evidence in the Bible regarding runners reflects a military context, running obviously formed part of their physical training. For the Benjaminites to achieve recognition as the superior runners there had to exist an elimination process to select the best ones. Another example is the reference to the amazing swiftness of Asahel, comparable to that of a wild buck or antelope (II Sam. 2:18). In the Sphinx Stele King Amenophis II boasts that he is an outstanding runner unsurpassed in any race running.
The sling, like the bow and arrow, was a long-distance weapon; II Kings 3:25 and I Chronicles 26:14, inter alia, attest to it being a military weapon. It was also a primitive weapon used by shepherds to safeguard their herds. Users practised and employed it from childhood. The best documented example is that of the young David who conquered Goliath, the Philistine giant (I Sam. 17). As far as this feat is concerned, it seems to have been quite exceptional for a young boy to handle the sling with such accuracy as David. However, the sling had to be placed within the context of religion when David replied to the Philistine `but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied' (I Sam. 17:45).
It seems as if the men of Benjamin were also quite adept in the handling of the sling. They could use the sling with their left hands and not miss a target by a hair's breadth (Jud. 20:16).
So the Benjaminites gathered from their towns to Gibeah in order to take the field against the Israelites, On that day the Benjaminites mustered from the towns 26,000 fighting men...; 700 picked men were left-handed. Every one of them could sling a stone at a hair and not miss (Jud. 20:14-16).
According to I Chronicles 12:2, David had a special group of Benjaminites who could handle the sling with their left hands as well as with their right hands. The young Benjaminites obviously must have had special training in order to handle the sling with such ambidexterity. In order to find the best slingers in a tribe, competitions must have been held to select the best of the most promising slingers. One could therefore accept that these physical activities formed part of the education of the boys and the young men.
THE CONCEPT OF KINGSHIP DURING THE TIME OF SAUL AND DAVID
In the ancient Near East physical activities were often related to sporting events well known amongst the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and Elamites. However, these activities should be placed in a broader perspective. Should physical activities be connected with sporting events, then the concept of sport needs to be clarified. In the ancient Near East and in the classical world physical activities were closely related to other spheres of life, such as religion, ideology of kingship, the military sphere and education. However, the modern concept of sport and physical education is somewhat different in that sports in modern societies are mostly related to secular events.
The well-known physical feats of the Benjaminites may have played an important role in the choice of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin as the first king of Israel. The people wanted a king "as other nations" (I Sam. 8:5, 20). If it is kept in mind that the ancient Near East was their main source of reference20, it is conceivable that the Egyptian idea of kingship may have played a dominant role in the formulation of the Israelite concept, not only because the Israelites had lived in Egypt for many years, but also because Canaan was still controlled by the Egyptians during the 14th century B.C.E. In Egypt, the king was regarded as the protector of the country and, therefore, on a regular basis he had to prove to his people that he was still physically capable of the task, which he did especially by participating in competitive sporting events with
Once the activities of the tribe of Benjamin are placed in the correct context, it is possible to form an idea of what was initially expected of the office of kingship in Israel. During the first half of the United Monarchy a change occurred in the concept of kingship. To understand this development, a distinction should be made between the times of Saul and of David. When the people initially requested a king, they visualized him as the other nations did. Should one keep in mind the accomplishments of the tribe of Benjamin and the effect of the king's physique on his people, it is clear why Saul the Benjaminite was chosen as the first king of Israel. It is also not surprising that Samuel initially did not approve it. Saul's physique is described as follows:
## Saul was a well-built and impressive man. There was among the Israelites no one comparable to him, from his shoulders he was taller [lit., higher] than the whole of the nation ## (I Sam. 9:2).21
Although most of the standard Bible translations prefer the reading of "a handsome man" for the words "bochur ve-tov". This rendition does not do justice to the real semantic meaning of the words. The word "bochur" usually means "young man"22 and it could also be given the meaning "condition of the young man." The general meaning of the generic word " tov " is a positive one, but in this context it is not a fine appearance but the physique and its vigor that is expressed. The two words "bochur" and "tov", in this context refer to his physical ability and capability to be a king. The evidence in the rest of the verse clearly indicates the importance of the king's physical appearance.
A similar description is found when Saul was chosen by means of an elimination process (I Sam. 10:23):
[Saul] stood amongst the people and he was from his shoulders23 taller than the whole nation.24 At this point strangely enough, Samuel wanted the people to see Saul in terms of his body and his physique in comparison with the "kings of the other nations."
Samuel said to the people: `Do you see the one whom the Lord has chosen. There is no one like him among the people' (I Sam. 10:24).
In these descriptions it is not the handsome face of Saul that was exceptional, but his physique. Saul was at that stage the only one who could satisfy the need and the desire of the people for a king who could protect them. However, the real ideal for kingship representing their God was somewhat different.
After Saul's election the phrase May the king live long is found in I Samuel 10:24 in connection with Saul's physique. This is a well-known phrase in the sporting events depicted in Egyptian reliefs and literature, especially where there is reference to the king's participation in these events. In these cases the activities were performed in front of and also on behalf of the king, as it is depicted quite often in the window appearances of the monarch.
Therefore, the portrait that was made of the king in Israel was not uncommon in the ancient Near East.
The change or the development in the concept of kingship occurred when David was chosen as king of Israel, replacing Saul. However, as far as David is concerned, it is clearly stated that, in contrast to the election of Saul, God had no interest in the physique of this second king. Therefore, different categories were used as if the choice of Saul was only a diplomatic way of the Lord working with Israel. During the selection process for the second king of Israel, when Eliab the son of Jesse was also under consideration, we read:
But the LORD said to Samuel `Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature, for I have rejected him [Eliab]. For not as man sees [does the Lord see]: man sees only what is visible, but the LORD sees into the heart' (I Sam. 16:7).
The use of the term "bochur" was the outstanding feature where the choice of Saul was concerned, but with the selection of David this category acquired a different meaning. The term "bochur" was initially used to express the positive and impressive physique of Saul, but in the case of David the same term has acquired a negative connotation. It is, therefore, possible to deduce that the concept of kingship during the time of Saul was indeed related to the ideology of kingship in the ancient Near East. True theocracy was only realized during the time of David, when God was acknowledged as the true ruler of Israel.
1 This article is an extended version of the paper 'The Physical Activities of the Tribe of Benjamin," that was delivered at the 14th Annual Conference of the South African Jewish Studies Association held on 2-4 September 1991 at the University of South Africa, Pretoria.
2 The study of K.-D. Schunck, Benjamin: Untersuchungen zur Entstehung and Ceschichte eines Israelitischen Stammes (Berlin: Verlag Alfred Topelmann, 1963) is the standard reference on the tribe of Benjamin, but does not deal with the question why the Benjaminites were chosen to be the tribe for the first king of Isael.
3 Cf. I Sam. 10:26, 13:2, 15, 14:16, 22:7; H Sam. 2:15, 25, 31, 3:19, 4:2-3.
4 Cf. II Sam. 19:16-17; I Chr. 11:31, 12:2, 16, 29.
5 For the details of this statement see the discussions in the various sections below.
6 Cf. O. Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978).
7 The use of a target had to be well known in Israel, hence it was used as a metaphor in Job 16:12 in relation to God's acts with Job. Metaphors were normally used when a custom was well known.
8 Cf. also Isa. 5:28, 21:15; Jer. 46:9, 50:14, 29, 51:3, etc.
9 These runners were also found within the context of the military sphere as messengers. Cf. I Sam: 22:17; I Kg. 14:27; II Kg. 10:25, 11:4, 6, 11, 13, 19; Est. 3:13, 8:10.
10 There are several instances where this interpretation could be made of the word such as Gen. 18:2, 7, 24:17, 20, 28, 29, 29:13, 13, 33:4; Jud. 13:10; I Sam. 3:5 etc.
11 For running in a military context, see Josh. 7:22, 8:19; Jud. 7:2 and Num. 11:27.
12 Cf. U. Simri, 'Physical Education in Ancient Israel,' Proceedings of the Pre-Olympic Seminar on the History of Physical Education and Sport in Asia (Netanya: 1972) p. 23.
13 The running event of Sulgi is described in the self-laudatory royal hymn Sulgi A. Cf. the critical edition of this hymn by J. Klein, Three Sulgi Hymns: Sumerian Royal Hymns Glorifying King Sulgi of Ur (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1981).
14 Cf. Jeremiah 8:6 for the reference to a human running-style, compared with the style of a horse.
15 Cf. N. de G. Davies, The Rock Tombs of El Amarna, vol. 4 (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1906) plates 20-21; A. D. Touny and S. Wenig, Sport in Ancient Egypt
16 Yadin describes the sling as follows, "The sling looked rather like a large eyepatch. It consisted of a small piece of leather or cloth with two cords attached to the opposite edges. The stone missile was placed on the material and the cords pulled taut so that the material became a kind of bag containing the stone." This weapon was especially used in the defense of a fortified city. Y. Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands: In The Light of Archaeological Discovery (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1963) Vol. I, p. 10.
l7 The sling was commonly used in the ancient Near East. In 'the tombs at Beni Hasan in Egypt the sling is depicted as a weapon employed in a military context. Ibid., p. 28. Cf. P. E. Newberry, Beni Hasan (London: TrUbner & Co., 1893) tomb 4, plate XLVII.
18 Especially noteworthy is, the manner in which the sling is depicted in the reliefs from Tell Halaf.
19 Yadin, op. cit., Vol. I1, p. 364.
20 For the idea of kingship in the ancient Near East, see I. Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in The Ancient Near East (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1967) and H. Frankfort, Kingship and The Gods (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948).
21 Author's translation.
22 The original meaning of the word could have been the "chosen one," but it developed into the more general "young man."
23 Most of the translations have the dynamic reading of "a head longer."
24 Author's translation.