Interpreting the Bible More Accurately: Awareness of the Likelihood of Unstated Agency

August 24, 2014

An analysis of two passages concerning authorities whom the Bible speaks of as having performed an action that someone else actually performed reveals that we need to have an awareness of the likelihood of unstated agency in other similar passages. By keeping this aspect of biblical revelation in mind, we will interpret such passages in the Bible more accurately.

Who Executed the Amalekite Who Claimed to Have Killed Saul?

After Rechab and Baanah had slain Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, they came to David to give him the supposed good news of God’s avenging him:

2Sa 4:5 And the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ishbosheth, who lay on a bed at noon.

 6 And they came thither into the midst of the house, as though they would have fetched wheat; and they smote him under the fifth rib: and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped.

 7 For when they came into the house, he lay on his bed in his bedchamber, and they smote him, and slew him, and beheaded him, and took his head, and gat them away through the plain all night.

 8 And they brought the head of Ishbosheth unto David to Hebron, and said to the king, Behold the head of Ishbosheth the son of Saul thine enemy, which sought thy life; and the LORD hath avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed.

David responded by rehearsing to them what had happened earlier when someone had come to him to give him the supposed good tidings of the death of Saul:

2Sa 4:9 And David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, and said unto them, As the LORD liveth, who hath redeemed my soul out of all adversity,

 10 When one told me, saying, Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold of him, and slew him in Ziklag, who thought that I would have given him a reward for his tidings:

Note that 2 Samuel 4:10 relates that David said that he took hold of this one (who told him that Saul was dead) and slew him.

Although 2 Samuel 4 does not specify precisely who this one was who related the news about Saul to David, an earlier account in 2 Samuel 1:5-10 informs us that this man was an Amalekite who said that he had killed Saul:

2Sa 1:5 And David said unto the young man that told him, How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son be dead?

 6 And the young man that told him said, As I happened by chance upon mount Gilboa, behold, Saul leaned upon his spear; and, lo, the chariots and horsemen followed hard after him.

 7 And when he looked behind him, he saw me, and called unto me. And I answered, Here am I.

 8 And he said unto me, Who art thou? And I answered him, I am an Amalekite.

 9 He said unto me again, Stand, I pray thee, upon me, and slay me: for anguish is come upon me, because my life is yet whole in me.

 10 So I stood upon him, and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord.

Second Samuel 1:13-15 then makes known who actually slew this Amalekite:

2Sa 1:13 And David said unto the young man that told him, Whence art thou? And he answered, I am the son of a stranger, an Amalekite.

 14 And David said unto him, How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the LORD’S anointed?

 15 And David called one of the young men, and said, Go near, and fall upon him. And he smote him that he died.

Whereas in 2 Samuel 4:10 we read of David’s saying that he took hold of this Amalekite and slew him, 2 Samuel 1:15 informs us that what really happened was that David ordered one of his young men to slay him. These two passages, therefore, provide an example of a statement about the action of an authority figure that depicts the authority figure as having performed the action (2 Sam. 4:10), but in reality, he performed the action through the agency of another (2 Sam. 1:15).

Who Beheaded John the Baptist?

The Synoptic Gospels record three parallel accounts of the death of John the Baptist. An examination of these accounts shows that they provide us with another example of the actions of an authority figure that involved agency but that agency is explicitly stated in only one of the accounts.

Luke records that king Herod Antipas said that he had beheaded John: “And Herod said, John have I beheaded” (Luke 9:9).[1] Mark, however, makes clear that Herod himself did not behead John directly:

Mar 6:25 And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.

 26 And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.

 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,

Here we learn that an executioner sent by Herod was the one who actually beheaded John. Comparing Luke 9:9 with Mark 6:27 shows that Scripture records in Luke 9:9 that an authority figure claimed to have performed an action, but what he said was in reality a statement that did not make explicit the agency of another who actually performed the action at the command of the authority figure.


Two passages illustrate how we should apply the understanding developed above concerning having an awareness of unstated agency when the Scripture records the actions of an authority figure. We will look at one passage each from both Testaments.

First, 2 Chronicles 28:6 declares, “For Pekah the son of Remaliah slew in Judah an hundred and twenty thousand in one day, which were all valiant men; because they had forsaken the LORD God of their fathers.” Obviously, Pekah did not himself directly kill 120,000 men in one day because he would have had to kill more than one person per second for every second of that day to slay that many men himself!

Clearly, we are to understand that king Pekah of Israel was an authority figure who authorized others who killed these people. The lack of mention of these agents and the possibility that king Pekah did himself kill some of these on that day in Judah in no way detracts from the certainty that others under him were actually responsible for killing the majority of these people.

Based on both the logistical impossibility of king Pekah’s personally slaying 120,000 men in one day and the implications of the passages that we have assessed above, we can be confident that a right interpretation of 2 Chronicles 28:6 requires a proper awareness of unstated agency in such passages.

Second, Acts records that king Herod Agrippa I persecuted the early Church (Acts 12:1-6). Luke writes of his killing James, one of the key leaders of the early Church:

Act 12:1 Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church.

 2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.

Based on what we have observed earlier in the accounts of kings who executed people through the agency of others, it is highly probable that Herod did not himself use a sword to kill James—we should understand rather that he likely had one of his men do so.





[1] Matthew speaks similarly of Herod’s actions: “And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison” (Matt. 14:9-10). Grammatically, the subject of “beheaded” in this verse is Herod, but because Matthew does say that Herod “sent and beheaded,” agency is also implied in this account.

Copyright © 2011-2024 by Rajesh Gandhi. All rights reserved.



Copyright © 2011-2024 by Rajesh Gandhi. All rights reserved.