Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Semi-Random Musings (27)

I have written once or twice about the use of disambiguators in scripture. These are the little bits of information the Bible’s writers supply in order to help us distinguish James (the brother of Christ) from James (the brother of John) or Mary (Magdalene) from Mary (the mother of Jesus).

The Benaiah who served David and Solomon is consistently called the son of Jehoiada. Good to know. With that disambiguator appended to his name it’s impossible to confuse him with two later Benaiahs mentioned by Ezra and Ezekiel, or with Benaiah of Pirathon, another man of valor in David’s service.

Jehoiada the Chief Priest

It never dawned on me until recently that Benaiah was the son of that Jehoiada, a chief priest who may have been the same Jehoiada who came to Hebron with 3,700 men to turn over Saul’s kingdom to David. The Jehoiada mentioned in 1 Chronicles 12 was said to be “of the house of Aaron”, which would qualify him for priesthood, and he was at the head of 3,700 of his fellow Levites, which suggests he held a position of great responsibility. However, it is difficult to be 100% certain about the identification when there are so many other Jehoiadas in scripture, several of them priests as well.

Seems to me Jehoiada could have used a disambiguator of his own.

Anyway, we know Benaiah’s father was a chief priest and therefore also a Levite from Aaron’s household. The book of Chronicles spells that out as clearly as possible:

“The third commander, for the third month, was Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada the chief priest; in his division were 24,000. This is the Benaiah who was a mighty man of the thirty and in command of the thirty.”

So then, chances are “Jehoiada of the house of Aaron” in chapter 12 and “Jehoiada the chief priest” in chapter 27 refer to the same person. They certainly lived during the same period and occupied similar roles. On the basis of his relationship to Jehoiada, Benaiah would have been next in line to be chief priest and qualified to serve at the altar, as other Aaronic priests did.

A Priest with a Sword

Benaiah, however, is famous not for the sacrifices he offered or for his annual entry into the holy of holies, but for his use of the sword. The first time we read about him (and on other occasions too), it is in association with the Cherethites and Pelethites, two divisions of David’s army made up of foreigners. The Pelethites were Philistines, who probably attached themselves to David during his time in Philistia when on the run from Saul. The Cherethites are thought to be men of Cretan extraction who had migrated to Philistia, where they too may have encountered David during his years as an outcast. These soldiers were fiercely loyal to David, inasmuch as their service in a foreign army frequently at war with the Philistines would surely have distanced them from their own kindred. They became David’s bodyguard and, later, Solomon’s as well, staying with David and protecting him during some of his darkest days.

Benaiah was the man who commanded them. Not that he needed to. There was probably some kind of exemption he could have invoked given his priestly status. But the times called for swordplay, not worship. That would come later.

Warrior priests are uncommon outside the realm of fiction today, but they are not unknown in scripture. During the debacle of the golden calf, Moses called for those who were on the Lord’s side, and only the Levites responded to take up arms against their own kindred. Moses called this act their “ordination for service”. But the most notable warrior priest was Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, who made atonement for Israel not at the altar but with a spear, impaling two sinners in the act, for which God commended him.

On the Horns of the Altar

Benaiah was surely responsible for more death than any other priest on record. He built his reputation by striking down two impressive Moabite warriors and killing an Egyptian with his own spear. (There was a lion in there somewhere too, but I’m mostly interested in his human body count.) He is said to have been “mighty among the thirty” and “above the thirty” (David’s elite soldiers), and was made one of twelve commanders for each month of the year, commanding 24,000 men. Who knows how many he killed in war? If David is credited with slaying his ten thousands for his generalship, Benaiah’s numbers were likely comparable; Israel was always at war during the early part of David’s reign, and thanks to God’s judgment for his sin with Bathsheba, subject to repeated rebellion and civil war during the latter part. Benaiah remained steadfastly loyal to David when others defected.

As a result, Benaiah became Solomon’s chief executioner. In 1 Kings 2 alone, he struck down three men, one of whom was clinging to the horns of the altar in the tent of the Lord. Actually, that is the only time we read about this priest in connection with an altar. After that act of loyalty, he replaced Joab as army commander.

Which brings up a question: Did Benaiah ever serve at the altar like his father? We have nothing to confirm he did and, equally, nothing to indicate he did not. In any case, killing in the service of God never stopped Phinehas from serving as a priest, and it would not likely have prevented Benaiah from doing so.

If so, the man had a very full schedule.

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Jordan Peterson came out recently against unmanaged online anonymity, tweeting this advice to Twitter owner Elon Musk: “Don’t allow the anonymous troll demons to post with the real verified people @elonmusk. Put them in their own hell.” That’s an interesting move for Peterson, who is on record defending free speech and has noted, “You can’t say anything important about anything, ever, without offending … probably the person you are talking to. Important speech about important issues is instantly offensive.”

I guess you can keep your free speech, but you just can’t make use of it without slapping a nametag on yourself first.

Some Christians considered anonymous criticism a serious problem long before there was an internet. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Never write what you dare not sign. An anonymous letter-writer is a sort of assassin, who wears a mask, and stabs in the dark. Such a man is a fiend with a pen. If discovered, the wretch will be steeped in the blackest infamy.”

Fiends with pens. Troll demons. Assassins wearing masks stabbing away in the dark. That’s pretty strong language, and I’m curious where that anger comes from. After all, when a critic you can identify by name stabs you in broad daylight, the wound still bleeds. Knowing where your adversary hangs out just means you can take a swing back at him if you want to, and try to damage his reputation as badly as you believe he is damaging yours.

But should Christians want to? Does an argument or opinion you don’t like become any weaker or stronger if you know the identity of the person who formulated it? I would say not. And in the online world, an ignorant critic still receives his reply even if he has posted his objection to your position anonymously. Everybody else can see your clever response to his critique, and decide for themselves which side they want to take.

That brings up another question: Are anonymous commenters okay provided they only say complimentary things? Are they fiends and demons just because they won’t identify themselves, or is it really because we just don’t like the things they are saying?

Rapidly shifting value systems often mean something you wrote ten years ago that offended nobody at the time has suddenly become sufficient justification for forcible exclusion from polite society, disemployment and shovelfuls of burning shame. That’s not a problem with the writer; it’s a problem with society. We are not a more enlightened society today than ten years ago, we have just moved on to burning different witches. Who knows who the trendy “demons” and “fiends” will be ten years further down the road?

Sometimes people “dare not sign” their opinions not because those opinions are untrue, unhelpful or unnecessary, but because an adverse reaction to the expression of criticism from even a tiny percentage of readers very frequently results in wildly disproportionate negative consequences to the writer. Often, it results in wildly disproportionate negative consequences for the writer’s family and friends, who in many cases have no idea what’s even going on. The online response to supporters of the trucker’s convoy to Ottawa earlier this year proved that expressing an opinion powerful people don’t like can even get your bank account locked down. In today’s online environment, forced self-identification is a form of censorship. It means some comments that probably should be made never will be; that some legitimate differences of opinion, however politely or strongly worded, may never see the light of day.

If anonymity sometimes prevents, mitigates or even slightly slows down an unhinged online mob, who wouldn’t choose to remain as anonymous as humanly possible? Well, other than folks like Peterson whose chosen careers and incomes depend on name recognition, of course …

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