Name puns: Solomon as a man of peace

Cornelis_de_Vos_-_The_Anointing_of_Solomon

The Anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest. Cornelis de Vos, 1630.

Puns on names of people is a common phenomenon in many languages, including biblical Hebrew. Puns do not, however, translate easily from one language to another and so they are often lost in translation. The Bible contains a few well-known name-puns, largely because they are explained in the text or in translators’ footnotes. For example, we have one in 1 Samuel 25:25 where Abigail, speaking to David about her husband Nabal, says “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him.” The pun isn’t obvious in the English translation but the explanation lets us know that one exists. In fact, the Hebrew Nabal נָבָל (more correctly pronounced Naval) means “foolish”, “worthless” or “good for nothing”.  Since it is unlikely his parents hated him so much as to call him “fool” from birth, scholars have discussed how the name might also be understood according to an alternative Semitic root meaning “noble.” The meaning “fool” would be a play on the double meaning of the name. It’s a word-play: his name may actually have meant “noble” but it sounded like the word for “fool” so it would be an easy way to denigrate him. These types of puns are much more common in the Bible than we might realise by reading an English translation, and it seems that they are particularly prevalent in the books of Samuel and Kings.

I mentioned in my previous post that Solomon’s name in Hebrew – שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh – actually  sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for “peace” – שָׁלוֹם shalom – and he has a reputation for being a man of peace. The book of Chronicles is largely responsible for giving Solomon that reputation. In the book of Kings Solomon secures the throne through the bloody murders of his brother Adonijah and his supporters; hardly a man of peace. Further to this, it appears that the writer of Kings uses a series of puns playing on Solomon’s name and the word for peace, but using them in the context of bloodshed. Here are some of them:

  • Before David died he spoke with Solomon about his general Joab (a loyal supporter throughout David’s reign) and referred to two incidents where Joab killed Abner one of Saul’s commanders who had gone over to David, but whom Joab did not trust, and Amasa one of his own relatives whom he believed to be conspiring against David. David, however, read Joab’s motives differently and so he encouraged Solomon to carry out an act of post-mortem vengeance on his behalf: “you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war” (1 Kings 2:5). The word “peace” is mentioned several times throughout these narratives (e.g. 2 Samuel 3:21-23; 20:9).  An interesting thing here is that the vengeance was allegedly for shedding blood “in time of peace (שָׁלוֹם shalom)”. Ironically, throughout David’s reign, there never was “a time of peace”!
  • David’s advice/instruction to Solomon about Joab was “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (1 Kings 2:6), emphasing that Solomon was not to allow Joab to have a peaceful death. He was murdered on Solomon’s instructions while seeking sanctuary at the altar of God.
  • The record of David’s death and Solomon’s accession to the throne (and, according to some scholars, the end of the long section in Samuel-Kings called the “succession narrative”) ends with Solomon ordering that Joab be struck down beside the altar at the tent of the Lord: “so shall the blood of Abner and Amasa come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore” (1 Kings 2:33). David and Solomon blamed Joab for the kingdom’s woes because he allegedly shed blood during a time of peace; yet, ironically, they think that peace will eventually come through shedding more blood!
  • After Solomon secured the throne “Adonijah son of Haggith came to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. She asked, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably‘.” (1 Kings 2:13). The question and declaration that he came in peace use the word שָׁלוֹם shalom. This “peacable” audience with Bathsheba was soon to end with Adonijah’s death.

After a great deal of war and bloodshed throughout David’s reign these early chapters of Kings give the impression that peace was finally expected to come through שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh, Solomonthe man of peace. There are a number of ironies here. First, Solomon secured the throne only by shedding more blood; and second, the bloodshed was not over. Solomon thereafter commenced a series of military campaigns against neighbouring nations in order to secure peace through warfare. It may very well be that the writer of Kings is highlighting the irony by juxtaposing the word “peace” – which sounds like “Solomon” – with “blood”, “war” and “death” on several occasions.  Perhaps the writer wasn’t convinced by the propaganda of the Zadokite priests whose descendants were probably behind the writing of the alternative version of Israel’s history which made Solomon out to be a peaceful king. Through the clever use of puns Kings reminds its readers that Solomon’s so-called peace came at the cost of bloodshed! And “peace” which comes through bloodshed isn’t really peace.

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