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.”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary