People of faith enjoy reading the Bible because through the reading of the sacred text God speaks to them. As people read the Bible, it is important for them to understand what the text says so that they may apply the words of Scriptures in such way that they are edified and, at the same time, able to apply the words of the Bible to deal with problems of life.
There are times, however, when one reads the Bible and finds it difficult to understand some of the words in the text because the translators of the Bible left the Hebrew word untranslated, thus forcing the reader to skip the word without understanding its meaning. One such example appears in the battle between the army of David and the army of Saul as described in 2 Samuel 2:8–16.
The battle between the army of David and the army of Saul occurred when Abner, the son of Ner, who was the commander of Saul’s army, took Ishbosheth, the son of Saul, and declared him the new king over all Israel after Saul’s death.
Then, for unknown reasons, Abner and the soldiers pledged to Ishbosheth went to Gibeon to confront the soldiers of David under the command of Joab. Whether the meeting was for negotiation or whether the meeting was a military confrontation in a effort to reunify the monarchy under Saul’s son, the biblical writer does not say. The meeting, however, was prearranged because the men of David probably came from Hebron (according to the Septuagint), where David had been anointed king of Judah, to Gibeon, a city in Benjamin.
The two groups met by the pool of Gibeon. This battle marks the beginning of the civil war between the house of David and the house of Saul. Ishbosheth reigned over Israel two years (2 Samuel 2:10). David reigned from Hebron over the house of Judah for seven years and six months (2 Samuel 2:11). During this period, “There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (2 Samuel 3:1).
When the two groups met, one group sat down on the one side of the pool, and the other group sat down on the other side of the pool. In the meeting, Abner took the initiative and said to Joab, “Let the young men now arise, and play before us” (2 Samuel 2:14 KJV). The word “play” in the KJV is very deceptive.
Although the Hebrew word for “play” literally means “to laugh, to play, to amuse,” the word does not imply a fun contest between two armies. Abner’s intention was more serious than just having fun. As Brueggemann writes, “What appears to be an innocent proposal is in fact a serious and intense challenge that could be refused only in cowardice” (Brueggemann 1990:222).
The word “young men” in a military context means trained military men who are selected for combat. As another translation puts it, “Let’s have a few of our warriors fight hand to hand here in front of us” (2 Samuel 2:14 NLT). Joab agreed to the one-on-one combat. Each side chose their best twelve warriors and they engaged in battle. As a result, “Each one grabbed his opponent by the hair and thrust his sword into the other’s side so that all of them died” (2 Samuel 2:16 NLT). As a result of the battle, all twenty-four warriors died in that place. Because of the intensive battle between the two sides, that place where the battle occurred and where the warriors died was called “Helkath Hazzurim” (2 Samuel 2:16).
And here lies the problem. When the average reader of the Bible reads 2 Samuel 2:16, they have no idea why the place was called Helkath Hazzurim. The reason the translators of the text of 2 Samuel 2:16 left the Hebrew name of the place untranslated is because scholars do not agree on what the name means.
The name Helkath Hazzurim is composed of two Hebrew words. The word helqāh means “a parcel of land” (Genesis 33:19). The word haṣṣurîm means “rocks.” Literally, the translation should have been “the field of rocks.” The problem with this translation is that it does not explain the one-on-one combat among the warriors.
Below are some proposed translations of “Helkath Hazzurim”:
KJV: “The field of strong men.” The King James Version seeks to explain that on that plot of land strong men faced each other in combat.
HCSB: “Field of Blades.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible translates the name of the place “Field of Blades” because the warriors died by the blade of the sword.
NAB: “Field of the Sides.” The New American Bible translates the name of the place “Field of the Sides” because the warriors stabbed each other on the side.
DRA: “The field of the valiant.” The Douay-Rheims translates the name of the place “The field of the valiant” because that was the place where the valiant warriors died.
GNW: “Field of Enemies.” The God’s Word to the Nations Version translates the name of the place “Field of Enemies” because that was the place where the enemies met for battle.
Septuagint (LXX): “The portion of the treacherous ones.” The translation of the LXX changes the “r” in haṣṣurîm to a “d” thus creating a new Hebrew word “haṣṣudîm.”
NET: “ Field of Flints.” The New English Translation presupposes that the Hebrew word for “rock” implies that the rocks were flint and that the warriors used flint knives in their one-on-one combat.
NKJ: “Field of Sharp Swords.” The New King James translates the name of the place “Field of Sharp Swords” because the warriors used sharp swords in their combat.
NLT: “Field of Swords.” The New Living Translation translates the name of the place “Field of Swords” because the warriors killed each other with swords.
Loring Batten (1906:90–94), in his studies on the meaning of Helkath Hazzurim, proposes that the Hebrew word for “play” does not mean “to fight”; it means “to play.” He suggests that Abner told Joab that the soldiers should amuse themselves with some kind of athletic contest. However, Abner’s plan was a ruse. He intended for his soldiers to use their skill in deploying their swords with their left hand. According to Batten, during the contest, Abner’s soldiers took their hidden swords and killed Joab’s warriors.
Batten finds support for his views in the translation of the Septuagint which calls the name of the place where the contest took place, “The portion of the treacherous ones.” Batten concludes that the name Helkath Hazzurim “commemorates the knavery of the Benjamites” who treacherously killed their enemies with their swords.
Yoshitaka Kobayashi (1992:126–127) rejects Batten’s view. He writes, “The LXX translation “the portion of the treacherous ones” suggest the original Hebrew as helqāh haṣṣudîm “the field of the hunters,” but it is difficult to find the meaning of “treacherousness” in “hunting.”
By now, the reader of 2 Samuel 2:16 must be confused with all these proposed translations. In my opinion, some of the proposed translations are mere guesses. The translators proposed their translations not in light of what the words mean but on what happened on the battlefield.
I have to confess that I do not have a better translation for Helkath Hazzurim. But like the translators of the Bibles listed above, I will venture a guess on what Helkath Hazzurim means.
Since the literal meaning of the name Helkath Hazzurim means “Field of Rocks,” it is possible that the place where the combat between the two armies took place, was a place with a lot of rocks, thus the name Helkath Hazzurim, “The Field of Rocks.”
My guess is as good as the guesses listed above.
Batten, Loring W. “Helkath Hazzurim, 2 Samuel 2, 12–16.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 26 no 1 (1906): 90–94.
Brueggemann, Walter. First and Second Samuel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990.
Kobayashi, Yoshitaka. “Helkath-Hazzurim (Place).” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. 3:126–127. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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