Characters and Their Language in the Hebrew Bible: Suspicion and the Well-Dressed Man at the Door[1]

YHWH’s name is often interpreted as a sign of a character’s piety; however, adopting the lens of suspicion complicates this conclusion. This is particularly the case when the one speaking the holy name wants something from a character for whom the God of Israel is important. In these episodes, the divine name can be analyzed as a linguistic tool aimed at compelling the other to “buy their insurance.”

See Also: Invoking YHWH in 1 Kings 1–2 (Peter Lang, 2019).

By Maryann Amor
Curate, Anglican Diocese of Edmonton
Research Associate, Vancouver School of Theology
September 2019


Imagine you are at home one day and hear an unexpected knock at the door. You open the door and there stands a well-dressed man, holding a briefcase. Your spidey-senses begin to tingle; he must be selling something. Then he begins to speak and pleasantries abound in his words; he also seems very interested in learning more about you and your family. There is that tingle again. Finally he gets to the point: “So, I am here to ask if you would be interested in purchasing insurance for your home and car. I offer it at a better rate than you will find at most places.” Turns out, your suspicions were correct; this man had a reason for coming to your door and it was not because he wanted to chat with you. Quickly you ask him to leave and you politely shut the door.

Being suspicious of another’s motives when we are speaking together can sometimes be understandable. While we have many conversations that are for fun, for learning, or aimed at getting to know someone better, other conversations have a more concrete goal in mind—someone wants you to do something and they are using the conversation to convince you. Somehow, either built into our human DNA or learned through lived experience, we tend to know when someone wants something and, as soon as we suspect that this goal is informing a conversation, we begin to question every word: are they saying that simply to butter me up? what is it they really want from me?

In the Hebrew Bible, characters often shape their language in particular ways when they are trying to convince other characters to “buy their insurance.” When it comes to making sense of these kinds of interactions, we might use those same tools we use when we try to make sense of the words spoken by that well-dressed stranger – we imagine why a character is speaking, guessing at his/her motivations and intentions. Although treating biblical characters and their words in this way can lead to “excessive ‘psychologizing,’” whereby readers create detailed histories and backgrounds for characters that are not supported by what is found in the texts, this approach still has merit (Bortolussi and Dixon, pgs. 134-135). By analyzing characters, their words, and their interactions using the same suspicious lens we might use in real life, we can begin to enter into the complexity of the narratives, seeing well-worn aspects of the Bible in new and interesting ways.

While there are many techniques (eg., politeness[2]) that characters use when trying to convince others to act or to do something for them, in this piece my focus is on characters’ use of the divine name. YHWH’s name is often interpreted as a sign of a character’s piety; however, adopting the lens of suspicion complicates this conclusion. This is particularly the case when the one speaking the holy name wants something from a character for whom the God of Israel is important. In these episodes, the divine name can be analyzed as a linguistic tool aimed at compelling the other to “buy their insurance.”

To demonstrate this position, I will briefly look at scenes from two books of the Hebrew Bible where the holy name is a prominent part of characters’ interactions. First, in the book of Joshua, Rahab (Joshua 2) and the Gibeonites (Joshua 9) feel threatened by the invading Israelites and want them to spare their lives. To add to the force of their requests, both Rahab and the Gibeonites speak YHWH’s name in their conversations with representatives of Israel. Because Rahab and the Gibeonites know that YHWH is important for Israel, they use the holy name to increase the force of their words. Similarly, in 1 Kings 1-2, Bathsheba wants David to name Solomon as his heir and she uses YHWH’s name to convince David that he made an oath to put Solomon on the throne, which he had never made. Because YHWH matters to David, this name has power over him and convinces him to choose Solomon as the future king of Israel. In each of these examples, the divine name is not a sign of the speakers’ piety, but they have specifically chosen it because they know that it will have power over their interlocutors. Thus, it is by allowing our spidey senses to tingle when we interpret a character’s speech that our understanding of their use of YHWH’s name is complicated.

Rahab and the Gibeonites: YHWH’s Name

In Joshua 2, Rahab uses YHWH’s name when she speaks to the Israelite spies: “I know that the LORD [YHWH] has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us…we have heard how the LORD [YHWH] dried up the water of the Red Sea before you” (Joshua 2:9-10, NRSV).  With these references to YHWH and what YHWH has done for Israel, Rahab is often held up as a woman of faith. As noted by Gien Karssen, in these verses Rahab is “expressing faith in the God of Israel” (Karssen, pg. 28). Alice Ogden Bellis echoes this position when she states, “[Rahab is] heroic because she is a woman of faith who takes risks based on that faith” (Ogden Bellis, pg., 114).

These interpretations, however, are challenged when the context in which Rahab is speaking is taken into consideration. Rahab’s goal in this scene is to save herself and her family, not to proclaim faith for the sake of faith. Given this goal, we cannot interpret Rahab’s invocations as if they directly reflect her faith, but we must be more suspicious of her and her words. The Israelites, like other societies in the Ancient Near East, would interpret their world and experiences through the lens of their deity; the holy name and the deity associated with it have value for Israel (cf. Exodus 20:7). Rahab could be speaking YHWH’s name because she knows about this value, and by adding the name she is able to associate herself and her words with Israel’s God. Thus, Rahab does not speak YHWH’s name because of her faith in YHWH, but because the name has value for Israel and adding it to her request is an attempt at increasing her power of persuasiveness with the Israelites. The name, simply put, functions as a tactic that is similar to that insurance salesman’s pleasantries – it is aimed at buttering Israel up.

Looking at Joshua 9, a parallel use of the name is noted. In this episode, the Gibeonites do not want to face the death and destruction experienced by other nations at the hand of the Israelites (Joshua 9:3). Instead of joining in a coalition to fight against Israel (Joshua 9:1-2), they act with ‘armah (ערמה; Joshua 9:4), a term often translated as “resorted to a ruse” (NIV), “craftily” (NASB), “wilily,” (KJV), and “cunning” (NRSV). According to the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ערמה conveys how “the Gibeonites duped Joshua and the Israelites; ‘ormâ may therefore be interpreted as ‘trickery’ or ‘craftiness’” (TDOT 11:363). The Gibeonites’ cunning trick of Israel is not only noted when the narrator describes them hiding their true identity from Israel as they pretend to have travelled to them from a far country (Joshua 9:9), but also it is noted in their words. According to Christa Schäfer-Lichtenberger, the Gibeonites employ “rhetorische Geschicklichkeit,” “rhetorical skill” to convince Israel to make a treaty with them. Their invocation of YHWH is central to this skill, because they imply that it is their “Überzeugung und Bewunderung,” “conviction and admiration,” of what YHWH had done for Israel that is informing their interaction with Israel (Schäfer-Lichtenberger, 77).  It is not, then, their actual commitment to YHWH that underlies their words, but their desire to persuade Israel to spare their lives that is informing their invocation of the holy name.

Although the narrator does not call Rahab, ‘cunning,’ Rahab wants Israel to spare her and her family; this goal is the point of contact between the Rahab and Gibeonite narratives. With both Rahab and the Gibeonites wanting Israel to do something for them, it is necessary for interpreters to be suspicious about their language, which includes their use of YHWH’s name. Rahab and the Gibeonites know that Israel, who holds the power to save them, values YHWH, and they refer to YHWH because it would not go unnoticed by Israel. This word, among other things, increases the power of Rahab’s and the Gibeonites’ requests, making it more likely that Israel will do exactly what they are being asked to do.

1 Kings 1-2: YHWH’s Name

In the above examples, interpreting the biblical characters by using the same tools we might use to interpret a well-dressed man at the door allows for critical engagement with both Rahab’s and the Gibeonites’ use of YHWH’s name. This brief analysis raised the possibility that the characters might be using the name not because of faith but because they want to convince Israel to act for their benefit. Beyond Joshua 2 and 9, other characters also speak the holy name and, on the basis of what has already been outlined, it is possible that something more might also be said about these episodes.

1 Kings 1-2 marks a pivotal moment in the history of Ancient Israel – David is dying and, for the first time, Israel has to grapple with who might reign after him.[3] With primogeniture not yet established, the question is even more pressing because there is no guarantee that any of David’s sons would take the throne upon his death. In the midst of this uncertainty, YHWH could enter the narrative and tell the people who will be their king (cf. 1 Samuel 16). However, YHWH never once intervenes, remaining both absent and silent in the plot.

With this being said, you can still feel YHWH in this story, because characters consistently use YHWH’s name. Various characters speak about YHWH and, in situations where one of them wants something from another, for whom YHWH matters, they too might use YHWH’s name as Rahab and the Gibeonites did.

The most compelling example of a use of the holy name that is analogous with the examples studied in the Book of Joshua is found in Bathsheba’s words to David (1 Kings 1:17-21). Bathsheba is Solomon’s mother and it is in her best interest for Solomon to become king, which might allow her to retain a position in the court after David’s death. For this reason, she knows that she must convince David to make Solomon king instead of his other son, Adonijah. To accomplish this goal she adds the holy name to the words Nathan scripted for her (1 Kings 1:13), telling David,  “My lord, you swore to your servant by the LORD your God, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne” (1 Kings 1:17). With David’s relationship with God already established in the text (eg., 1 Samuel 17:45-46), Bathsheba’s statement that he had sworn by YHWH to make Solomon king increases the force of her words. The holy name adds credence to the oath and, alongside the other linguistic techniques that she uses (eg. suggesting that Adonijah had already proclaimed himself king, 1 Kings 1:18-19), plays a part in leading David to swear that Solomon will become king.


A knock at the door and a conversation with a salesman causes us to become alert, our suspicion at its highest as we prepare for the eventual sales pitch. The same hermeneutic that we apply in this context can be equally useful when we are interpreting biblical characters and their language in the Hebrew Bible. When a character wants something from another, as Rahab and the Gibeonites wanted something from the Israelites and as Bathsheba wanted something from David, their language requires suspicious, critical engagement because it is shaped to accomplish a goal similar to selling insurance. The holy name is just one of the tools at the speaker’s disposal and, if the hearer values YHWH, it can carry a lot of force.

Of course, what I have presented here requires a more in-depth analysis than space permits, including, for example, consideration of how readers assess character intention, the importance of taking into account what characters might know about each other, and the need to situate the entire interaction within the broader plot. What I hope is that this piece and the brief arguments I have raised might prompt readers to rethink how we study biblical characters and the usefulness of using the same tools that we use when engaging with each other, especially suspicion. By assessing characters in this way, perhaps new understandings of who they are and what they say might emerge and we might find signs of a sales-pitch where once we saw only faith.

Works Cited

Amor, Maryann. Invoking YHWH in 1 Kings 1-2. New York: Peter Lang, 2019.

Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

Bortolussi, Marisa and Peter Dixon. Psychonarratology: Foundations for the Empirical Study of Literary Response. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Botterweck, G. Johannes, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry (eds.). Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Translated by David E. Green. 15 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974-2006.

Bridge, E.J. “Polite Israel and Impolite Edom: Israel’s Request to Travel through Edom in Numbers 20.14-21.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 35 (2010), 77-88.

Karssen, Gien. Her Name is Woman: Believers : Lessons From Women of Powerful Faith. Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2015.

Schäfer-Lichtenberger, Christa. “Das gibeonitische Bündnis im Lichte deuteronomischer Kriegsgebote: zum Verhältnis von Tradition und Interpretation in Jos. 9.” Biblische Notizen 34 (1986): 321-339.

[1] Thank you to Dr. Patricia Dutcher-Walls and Dr. Elizabeth Corsar for reading and commenting on this piece.

[2] See, for example, the work of  E.J. Bridge. E.J. Bridge, “Polite Israel and Impolite Edom: Israel’s Request to Travel through Edom in Numbers 20.14-21,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 35 (2010), 77-88.

[3] For a detailed discussion of this section, including references to works that support the points that I am raising here, please see, Maryann Amor, Invoking YHWH in 1 Kings 1-2 (New York: Peter Lang, 2019).

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