The sons of Belial and Hophni and Phinehas

Jul 20, 2020 | Abigail, Ahab, David, Hophni and Phinehas, Jezebel, Nabal, Saul | 2 comments

“Sons of Belial” is a Hebrew term that can help us find stories of abuse in the Bible. There are many examples of abuse in the Bible, but as mentioned previously, the Bible doesn’t categorise abuse in the same way we do now. It refers to abusive behaviours as specific sins, rather than grouping them as abuse.

The Bible uses some other useful categorisation, such as oppression or injustice. There are benefits and costs to each approach. A great challenge with our modern approach is it can make it easy for some abusive behaviour to fly under the radar because we can easily talk about abuse without knowing what it looks like.

The description of Hophni and Phinehas gives us a clue to help us find other examples of abuse. They are called, “sons of Belial”, in the Hebrew.1 The King James Version retains this term, that appears to be Hebrew idiom, while other translations translate it as “worthless”, or “sons of worthlessness”.2

For what it’s worth, I don’t think “worthless” carries the strength of meaning in English that the use of this term seems to imply. The context seems to imply a stronger, idiomatic meaning. Michael Floyd wrote,

“The noun beliya’al denotes behaviour that offends any fundamental and widely accepted moral norm, because of which offenders are destined to be destroyed.”3

Who are some of the other “sons of Belial”?

When we look at the behaviour of people whom the Bible describes with this term, there are consistent themes.

  • The Bible tells us Hophni and Phinehas are sons of Belial who did not know God, and the following text describes their abuse.4
  • Abigail’s servant says her husband is, “such a son of Belial that a man cannot speak to him.”5 Nabal is mean, harsh, evil, and wicked. His behaviour is rude and selfish. He is aggressive, dismissive, entitled, and lacking empathy.6 We see him drunk and full of himself.7
  • When Ahab wanted some land belonging to one of his subjects,8 Jezebel recruited two “sons of Belial”,9 through third parties, who were willing to lie with the intent to kill.10 The man was falsely accused and executed, and Ahab got what he wanted.11
  • When David and his men went on a mission to recover their stolen possessions and his kidnapped wives from the Amalekites, 200 of the men were so exhausted they could not take part in the fight and guarded the camp instead. Some “sons of Belial”,12 who fought, refused to share the spoils with those who were left behind.13

There is a sense of evil fellowship amongst the “sons of Belial”, and it builds a picture of people who are willing to lie, use violence, or separate close friends with gossip. They are selfish and entitled. They value their wants more than people. Ahab and Jezebel’s behaviour is essentially the same as Hophni and Phinehas’s. In both cases, they use violence and work through third parties14 to get what they want.

The use of “Belial” also turns up in the Wisdom books

I can’t think of any modern worship songs that refer to abuse, but after David was finally free of Saul’s violent abuse, he wrote a song we have preserved as Psalm 18. In it, he says, “the floods of sons of Belial made me afraid.”15

When we are looking for wisdom on relating to others, Proverbs tells us,

A man of Belial plots evil,

and on their lips it is like a scorching fire.

A perverse person stirs up conflict,

and a gossip separates close friends.

A violent person entices their neighbor

and leads them down a path that is not good.16

How can knowing about the sons of Belial help us?

Victims of abuse are often on the search for answers, and the Bible often calls people who behaved abusively “sons of Belial”.

Finding out they aren’t alone can be a great encouragement, and for a Christian, finding parts of the Bible that name their abuser’s behaviour can be a great relief. “Belial” is one term that doesn’t appear in modern English translations, but is there in the Hebrew, and that means it’s just a few mouse clicks away. Following that path can lead to Psalm 18, or Proverbs, or some narrative that might sound very familiar to someone who has experienced abuse or is still living with it.

Yes, the Bible talks about abuse. Yes, God hates it. He does see, and his response to people like Hophni and Phinehas is thunderous. The narrator of 1 and 2 Samuel leads us through scene after scene of abuse. Even in David, we see devastating abusive behaviour. Yet Jesus calls us to follow him: the author and perfecter of our faith, who was good. He had deep empathy for others. He was safe and trustworthy, and that hasn’t changed. Those who claim to follow him need to look increasingly like him in their behaviour and paying attention to that can help us tell the difference between those we can trust and those we shouldn’t.

Steve Wade

Victims of abuse are often on the search for answers and finding parts of the Bible that name their abuser’s behaviour can be a great relief. The Bible often calls people who behaved abusively “sons of Belial”. Click To Tweet

 

Footnotes

  1. 1 Samuel 2:12
  2. The word “Belial” is used 28 times in the Bible. We can find it 27 times in the Old Testament, 10 of which are found in 1 and 2 Samuel.
  3. Floyd, Michael H. (2000). Minor Prophets: Volume 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan (p47)
  4. 1 Samuel 2:12
  5. 1 Samuel 25:17
  6. 1 Samuel 25:6-11
  7. 1 Samuel 25:36
  8. 1 Kings 21:1-4
  9. 1 Kings 21:10, 13
  10. 1 Kings 21:8-10
  11. 1 Kings 21:8-10
  12. 1 Samuel 30:22
  13. 1 Samuel 30:18-25.
  14. For a bit more about third parties and “flying monkeys”, check out this post
  15. Psalm 18:4. Note there is some variety in how different translations handle this.
  16. Proverbs 16:27-29

2 Comments

  1. David Cotton

    Wow – this makes for both an impressive and sobering read. This article has grabbed my attention. Thanks Steve

    Reply
    • Steve Wade

      Thanks David. I love the clear statements the Bible makes here that this kind of behaviour is not ok.

      Reply

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