Who Was King Lemuel?

Recently, a reader asked me to explain who King Lemuel was. Lemuel is an enigmatic figure that appears twice in the Old Testament. His name appears in Proverbs 31:1 and 31:4. However, in Proverbs 31:4 his name appears as Lemoel in Hebrew.

Because King Lemuel is not listed among the kings of Judah and Israel, several theories have been developed to explain the presence of Lemuel in Proverbs 31. In this post, I will review some of the proposals developed by scholars in order to identify Lemuel.

1. The Name of the King was Muel

Some scholars believe that the lamed at the beginning of the name Lemuel is a preposition meaning “to” or “for.” Under this view the name of the king was not Lemuel but Muel. Thus, Proverbs 31:1 would be translated “Words for Muel.” This is the view adopted by Justo J. Serrano in his commentary “Proverbios,” La Sagrada Escritura (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1969), p. 524.

Although the name Muel does not appear in the Bible, the name is related to Nemuel, a descendant of Simeon (Numbers 26:12; 1 Chronicles 4:24). Nemuel’s name appears as Jemuel in Genesis 46:10.

This explanation of the name of Lemuel is questionable because it does not resolve the problem of identification, that is, it does not explain who king Muel was, if such a king ever existed. This view has not been accepted by many scholars.

2. Lemuel was another name for Solomon

The ancient Rabbinical commentators identified Lemuel with Solomon. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Aboth, Chapter 5) says that six names were given to Solomon: Solomon, Jedidiah, Qoheleth, Ben Iokoh, Agur, and Lemuel. According to A. Cohen, Proverbs (Hindhead, Surrey: The Soncino Press, 1945), p. 209, Lemuel is another name for Solomon that when translated means “towards (lemo) God (el).”

In his book Solomon and Solomonic Literature (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2008), p. 67, Moncure Daniel Conway tells a rabbinical story that relates Proverbs 31 to Solomon and Bathsheba. He wrote:

The Ancient Rabbins identified Lemuel with Solomon, and relate than when, on the day of the dedication of the temple, he married Pharaoh’s daughter, he drank too much at the wedding feast, and slept until the fourth hour of the next day, with the keys of the temple under his pillow. Whereupon his mother, Bathsheba, entered and reproved him with this oracle. Bathsheba’s own amour with Solomon’s father does not appear to have excited any rabbinical suspicion that the description of the virtuous wife with which the Book of Proverbs closes is hardly characteristic of the woman.

The theory that Lemuel was Solomon is an attempt at defending the traditional view that Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs. It is clear from Proverbs 25:1 that Solomon did not write the book of Proverbs. Rather, the book was probably edited by the Hezekiah’s scribes or by a later editor.

3. Lemuel was not the name of a person

Although the Bible does not identify King Lemuel, Jewish tradition holds that Lemuel was a poetic name for Solomon. In Hebrew, the name Lemuel means “for God.” The name Lemuel may be related to Lael, a person mentioned in Numbers 3:24, a name which means a man dedicated “to God.” Under this view, Proverbs 31:1 may be translated as follows: “The words of a King for God, the utterance which his mother taught him.”

The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) also did not recognize Lemuel as the name of an individual. The Septuagint translated Proverbs 31:1 as follows: “My words have been spoken by God.”

The view that Lemuel was not the name of an individual is an attempt at discrediting the possibility that a non-Israelite wrote a section of the book of Proverbs. Although Proverbs 31:1 is difficult to translate into English, it is clear that Lemuel is the name of an individual.

4. Lemuel was the king of Massa

Many scholars believe that Lemuel was the king of Massa. Massa was one of the descendants of Ishmael and the leader of one of the Ishmaelite clans (Genesis 25:14). This is the view adopted by several versions in their translation of Proverbs 31:1. For instance, the New Jerusalem Bible translates Proverbs 31:1 as follows: “The sayings of Lemuel king of Massa.”

Andrew Hill, in his book A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 381, said that if Massa was the name of a North Arabian nation, then the words of Lemuel in Proverbs 31 “may reflect the influence of Arabian wisdom on the developing Hebrew wisdom tradition. Massa has been identified with the tribes settled in northwestern Arabia near Teman (cf. Gen. 25:14; 1 Chron. 1:30).”

However, this translation is problematic because it requires that the athnah under the Hebrew word melek (“king”) not be considered in the translation of the text. The athnah is a major accent in Hebrew which divides a verse into two sections. If the athnah was taken into consideration, the translation of 31:1 would be: “The words of Lemuel, a king.”

Those who take the athnah into consideration in the translation of the text also believe that the Hebrew word “massa” is a common noun, meaning “burden” or “oracle,” rather than a place name. This is the reading some versions have adopted in their translation of verse 1. For example, the New Revised Standard Version translates Proverbs 31:1 as follows: “ The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.”

I believe that the best explanation for the name of Lemuel in Proverbs 31:1 is to identify him as the king of Massa. Wisdom literature was widely known in the Ancient Near East and Israel did not develop its wisdom tradition in a cultural vacuum. It is evident that Israel borrowed some of its wisdom traditions from neighboring countries. One good example is the inclusion of Egyptian proverbs found in the “Instructions of Amen-em-Opet” into Proverbs 22:17-24:34.

As Donald K. Berry said in his book An Introduction to Wisdom and Poetry of the Old Testament (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), p.30, “Israel made little attempt to cover the alien origins of wisdom literature. For instance, a portion of Proverbs (31:1) opens with the name of a non-Israelite king.”

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book of Proverbs, Lemuel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Who Was King Lemuel?

  1. >Thank you. This is thought-provoking and helpful. Please keep up the good work. Peace.

  2. >Hi Milton,Thank you for your nice words. Long time since I have heard from you. How are things going? I hope all is well.Claude Mariottini

  3. tempusmaster says:

    >Thank you very much! I've often wondered about the origin of my name "Lemuel". In my case it was passed down through three previous generations.

  4. >tempusmaster,I am glad you found my post on king Lemuel. Know you know why three previous generations used this name.Welcome to my blog.Claude Mariottini

  5. Mark says:

    >Dr. Mariottini,Thank you for posting this information on King Lemuel. I just finished reading Proverbs again and needed to know more about King Lemuel.You referenced The Babylonian Talmud stating that six names were given to Solomon: Solomon, Jedidiah, Qoheleth, Ben Iokoh, Agur, and Lemuel. The Bible does many things in sevens. Is it possible there a seventh name attributed to Solomon?Thanks,Mark Trethewey

  6. >Mark,Good question, but I do not have an answer for you. It is possible that a seventh name exists, but I have never seen it. If I find out about a seventh name, I will update the post.Thank you for your comment.Claude Mariottini

  7. Darcy F. says:

    Hello Doc Mariottini
    I would humbly like to communicate with you about your article. I want to say thank you for writing it and I pray you accept my words as a humble student of the word.
    I agree with the theory number two that Solomon is the King in reference to proverbs 31 King Lemuel.
    I would respectfully dis agree with your comment that Solomon did not write proverbs based on proverbs 25:1. The reason is because it says in the King James Version that the men of Hezakia ” copied ” the sayings of Solomon and in the NIV translation that they ” compiled ” the sayings of Solomon. To say they EDITED them would leave room to say that the writers of he new testament edited Jesus sayings as Jesus himself did not write the New Testament but there is no misunderstanding that Jesus did say these things. I believe that King Lemuel was another name for King Solomon.
    I pray you humbly accept my position on this matter.
    Respectfully Darcy

    • Claude Mariottini says:

      Darcy,

      Thank you for your comment and the explanation of your views. Let me make a few observations.

      You believe that Solomon is King Lemuel. But read what the Bible says: “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa” (Pro 31:1 NAB). Lemuel was king of Massa and not Israel. In Genesis 25:13-14, you will discover that Massa was an Ishmaelite tribe. I believe what the Bible says.

      As your Proverbs 25:1, if the men of Hezekiah compiled the proverbs of Solomon, then this indicates that there was no book of Proverbs at that time. Solomon died in 922 B.C. and Hezekiah began to reign in 715 B.C.

      Just because the men of Hezekiah compiled Solomon’s proverbs, it does not mean that Solomon did not write the proverbs. Solomon wrote the proverbs, but it was the men of Hezekiah who put the book together.

      As good student of the Bible, we must study what the Bible says and believe what the Bible says. Many times we tend to believe what we have heard from others. Our teacher is always the Bible itself.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s