Sunday, January 23, 2022

In the Snowy Pit

The wind whistled past him. Snow was still falling. It wasn't so simple to see. Benaiah was a young man, standing on the precipice, listening to the roar below. This was the moment of decision. Clutching his spear in his hand, he astonished those around him by taking the next step. Pushing off the edge, he leapt into the pit.

Benaiah was a small-town boy from Kabzeel, a town at the southernmost boundary of Judah's tribal allotment, not far from the Edomite border (2 Samuel 23:20; cf. Joshua 15:21). Born under the kingship of Saul son of Kish in the late eleventh century BC, leadership was then in the hands of one of the northernmost tribes, distrusted Benjamin – so Benaiah knew what it was like to live on the edge. His father Jehoiada was a priest, descended through a long chain of ancestors from Aaron the brother of Moses (1 Chronicles 27:5). But the priestly life wasn't for Benaiah. Perhaps he had a disqualification. Perhaps he was ordained but simply gave his life to other pursuits. It was likely before the question even came up, when Benaiah was a teenager, that he would have run off to join the persecuted hero David in the wilderness.

Benaiah, as he grew, became strong, daring, devoted. In time, Benaiah stood out among David's followers. Proving his merit in battle, he became one of David's thirty mighty men, essentially the Green Berets of David's fighters. So too had David laid the groundwork for one day recruiting a team of mercenaries, the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and once he did, he assigned Benaiah to supervise them (2 Samuel 8:18; 20:23). Coming to reign in Jerusalem at last, it was from these Cherethites and Pelethites that King David selected a security detail for himself, knowing that they'd be unswayed by Israel's internal tribal politics. And who did David trust as their commander? Benaiah. Benaiah became David's personal bodyguard, Chief of Secret Service (2 Samuel 23:23). Eventually, Benaiah would even take Abishai's place as commander of the Thirty (1 Chronicles 27:6). Benaiah's career didn't stop there. When David organized Israel's men into military divisions, one to serve on duty each month, Benaiah was installed as one of those twelve lieutenant generals, in command of 24,000 men (1 Chronicles 27:5). In practice, busy Benaiah, by that point a father with a grown son, delegated that son, Ammizadab, to command them in his stead (1 Chronicles 27:6). It was Benaiah's shift of soldiers who were on duty at the end of each spring, in the month when Pentecost was (1 Chronicles 27:5).

As the four decades of David's kingship wore on, time came when the embattled monarch grew old, and his son Adonijah sought to guarantee himself the inheritance of the throne by declaring himself king in David's days. It was Benaiah, cooperating with the prophet and the high priest, who played a leading role, at David's command, in transferring royal authority to Adonijah's younger half-brother Solomon instead (1 Kings 1:32-40). And thus – through Benaiah's work – the LORD secured the royal line of succession into which would be born a man named Joseph, a woman named Mary, and above all, a Messiah named Jesus, to save his people from their sins.

For his loyalty and bravery, the fully matured Benaiah – certainly now in his late fifties or sixties – was elevated to commander-in-chief of Israel's army under Solomon (1 Kings 2:35; 4:4), in addition to serving as the court assassin or executioner – take your pick – when it came to enemies of the state who now at Benaiah's hands could meet delayed justice for their terrible crimes, as the late David had advised (1 Kings 2:25, 34, 46).

An incredible career for an obscure but incredible man in ancient Israel. But how did he make his name? With three great exploits. In one, Benaiah faced a Goliath of his own. Maybe it was when David lived among the Philistines and raided the Amalekites as far as the land of Egypt (1 Samuel 27:8). But Benaiah found himself squaring off against an Egyptian over seven feet tall, massive and muscular. The Egyptian had a massive spear, while Benaiah as yet had nothing but a walking stick. Outmatched, outgunned, yet Benaiah's youthful dexterity let him disarm the giant and strike him down with his very own spear (2 Samuel 23:21; 1 Chronicles 11:23). A second exploit was on the field of battle, perhaps after David had begun to reign in Jerusalem and warred to press the Moabites into subjection (2 Samuel 8:2). In open warfare, Benaiah faced down two of the most elite soldiers in all Moab – men fierce as lions, men just like the men in David's Thirty or his Three – yet, though it was two against one, Benaiah still emerged victorious (2 Samuel 23:20).

But perhaps before either came the day of the great snows. In those days, Asiatic lions roamed the countryside of Israel. David, as a shepherd boy, had had occasion to kill one with a slingshot. And now Benaiah had his own chance to face a lion. The lion had slid in the snow, fallen into a hunting pit – and it was none too happy about it. Roaring, raging, it yelled from the wintery depths. Into that pit, Benaiah leapt. We can only speculate why. Maybe someone else had fallen into the pit with the lion and needed rescue. Maybe the lion injured itself in its fall and, rather than let it slowly starve in the pit, he went down to put it out of its misery. Maybe Benaiah was a thrill-seeker bent on proving his bravery and valor. Maybe Benaiah, unwilling to risk the lion's escape to terrorize the land anew, risked himself for the safety of the community. Whatever his reason, Benaiah leapt.

Landing, Benaiah found a slippery floor and visibility poor, as he confronted the raging lion. He knew, as any man must have, that the swat of a full-grown lion's paw suffices to shatter bone. And that's to say nothing of claws or jaws. One slip, one unguarded moment, and Benaiah is dead meat – literally. He's trapped with no refuge or retreat, not to mention that, as a deep southerner, Benaiah's literally out of his element, having perhaps scarcely seen snow until that day. But in he went. What his tactics were, we don't know. Likely he brought a spear with him and, finding the right chance, thrust it through the whirling snow and scored a lethal blow. Calling out that the lion was dead, someone surely lowered him a rope, and he climbed back to the broad land above. And so it was that Benaiah killed the lion in the pit on the snowy day (2 Samuel 23:20).

Now, you or I read that story, and we're children of the modern era. We're by instinct limited in how we read. We read the Bible, and we find only histories or moral lessons in faith and virtue. But there's so much more here than a obsolete narrations or exhortations to courage. Down through history, Christians have read a many-layered Bible that, when all its rightful senses are explored, points on every page to Christ and his Church. For didn't Jesus say that all of Scripture “bears witness about me” (John 5:39), that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44)?

And so what is written of Benaiah is written, at its deepest level, to show us Christ. For this world is a snowy pit, obscure and unclear, and each of us is trapped in it, from birth to death, with the devil. Each of Benaiah's three exploits – against Moabites, massive Egyptian, and raging lion – is against an image used in either the New Testament itself or in early Christian writings to depict the devil. “Be sober-minded, be watchful! Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He's strong, he's deadly, he's dangerous, and in the pit of the world, we're snowed in with him. There's no escape. But from the broad land of heaven jumps down the Word of God, leaping into our flesh and our position, joining us in the pit. God so loved a pit-trapped world that he sent his only-begotten Son, Benaiah-style, to come down and give the lion a mortal wound, that we might live; and the spear with which Christ struck the lion is his cross.

So too, Benaiah's later career foreshadows salvation history. It's not for nothing that in David's days Benaiah oversaw Israel's active-duty troops every Pentecost. His was a pentecostal courage from the “Spirit not of fear but of power” (2 Timothy 1:7), foreshadowing the descent of the Holy Spirit into our world-pit from Christ. In this era, when now the Spirit has been given, we are the active-duty troops on duty under the Spirit's ultimate command, as he speaks to us by Scripture and by Church and leads us marching onward.

And at last, when David's days were done, he left the throne of David to the son of David, who sent Benaiah forth into the land to exact a fierce judgment against sinners like Joab, Shimei, and Adonijah. And so it is that “the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27), being “revealed from heaven... in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8), but also “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

In Benaiah, we see one of many shadows of the things that have come to pass and the things that are and the things that remain to come. But in Christ Jesus, we find the substance of them all. Glory be to Christ the Doer of Great Deeds, to Christ the Devil-slayer! And thanks be to God for the Christ who will one day return to pull us from the snowy pit to the perfect spring of a new creation. Amen.

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