Much like Russia’s Romanov dynasty was collectively expunged in 1917, Israel’s royal family is largely eradicated in one day when King Saul and three of his sons are killed in battle on Mount Gilboa (I Samuel 31:1-2). After their deaths, the kingdom is temporarily divided as David and Saul’s remaining son, Ishbosheth, make competing claims on the vacant throne (II Samuel 2:1-11). The resulting civil war ends when Ishbosheth is assassinated by two of his own commanders, Rekab and Baanah (II Samuel 4:1-7).
While recounting Ishbosheth’s murder, the text adds in passing that there was another tragic consequence of the battle at Mount Gilboa: the crippling of Jonathan’s son (and Saul’s grandson) Mephibosheth (II Samuel 4:4).
Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, had a son crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the report of Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled. And it happened that in her hurry to flee, he fell and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth. (II Samuel 4:4 NASB)Though the narrative aside introduces the recurring character of Mephibosheth (II Samuel 4:4, 9:1-13, 16:1-4, 19:24-30, 21:7-8), it reads as a non sequitur.
Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) acknowledges:
The description of how this—evidently the only—son of Jonathan became lame has no connection with this narrative. It would be in place in chapter 9, to which some commentators would transfer it. Perhaps it is meant to say here, ‘that after the death of Ishbaal there was no suitable claimant to the throne from the house of Saul’ (Friedrich Nötscher [1890-1966]). This is, of course, uncertain (cf. II Samuel 21), but not impossible. The marginal note would have been incorporated into the text with other gloss. The narrative proper has II Samuel 4:5 immediately after II Samuel 4:2. (Hertzberg, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 264)Ronald F. Youngblood (b. 1931) speculates:
Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is introduced parenthetically to demonstrate this his youth and physical handicap disqualify him for rule in the north. Symon Patrick [1606-1707]...provides another possible reason: “to show, what it was that emboldened these Captains [Banaaj and Recab] to do what follows: Because he, who was the next Avenger of Blood, was very young; and besides was lame and unable to pursue them.” (Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, 1 Samuel-2 Kings (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 337)Whatever the reason for his inclusion at this point, as soon as Mephibosheth is mentioned, the subject is immediately dropped (pun intended).
Mephibosheth is also known as Merib-baal (I Chronicles 8:34, 9:40). It has been speculated that the name has been bowdlerized.
A.A. Anderson (b. 1924) surmises:
“Mephibosheth” may be a deliberate distortion of the original name by substituting one element of the compound proper name by “bosheth” (בחת) meaning “shame”...However, some scholars regard “bosheth” as a divine epithet...The former alternative is more likely because in the Books of Chronicles we find what appears to be the original form of the proper name. There are two variants: Meribaal (בעל ’מר) in I Chronicles 9:40 and Meribbaal (בעל ב’מר) in I Chronicles 8:34, 9:40. The former variant may be derived from the latter (so Matitiahu Tsevat [1913-2010]) meaning, perhaps, “Baal contends.” (Anderson, 2 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 69-70)Peter R. Ackroyd (1917-2005) asserts:
The name has undergone a double change. The first part was altered so as to suggest the meaning ‘exterminator or Baal,’ and the second part to avoid uttering the detested name of Baal. (Ackroyd, The Second Book of Samuel (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the New English Bible), 49)Mephibosheth’s fate is tragic. In the aftermath of the defeat at Gilboa, the fear of reprisals sets off panic within Saul’s household and they flee. Five year old Mephibosheth is crippled during the escape when his nurse, who has presumably scooped up the child in an effort to save time, drops him (II Samuel 4:4). This misfortune would plague Mephibosheth for the remainder of his life (II Samuel 9:3, 19:26). Unable to walk, Mephibosheth would never ascend the throne.
Mephibosheth...was lame in both feet due to a tragic accident during his early childhood. At the time of his father’s death (I Samuel 31:2) there was a very real fear that the Philistines would continue their advances southward from Mount Gilboa to Israel’s then-capital city of Gibeah. Members of the royal family were evacuated from the area to preserve an heir to the throne. As Mephibosheth’s nurse picked him up and fled she fell, with the result that he became crippled. (Andrews and Bergen, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 214-15)The family’s fear was understandable. Charles R. Swindoll (b. 1934) explains:
According to some ancient customs, when the king died and a new dynasty began to rule, all of the descendants of the old king were annihilated. So when Mephibosheth’s nurse heard that both Saul and Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, had been killed, she took matters into her own hands. (Swindoll, The Mystery of God’s Will, 126)Mephibosheth is dropped by his “nurse” (ASV, CEV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). Jo Ann Hackett (b. 1949) defines:
The nurse (Hebrew ’ōmenet) of Mephibosheth...is not necessarily a wet nurse (Hebrew mēneqet), but rather simply someone who takes care of him. The same root is used for female and male caretakers elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible...In this case the caregiver is made responsible for the lameness of her five-year old charge. The child falls as the nurse whisks him away from danger. (Carol L. Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, 260)Regardless of what her position entailed, a person enlisted to help the child is responsible for his greatest wound. Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos (b. 1940) observes:
In the episode of Ishobshet’s murder, two...women appear, both in some way falling short in their responsibilities. First, a nurse appears, who fled in the aftermath of the defeat at Gilboa with one of Jonathan’s sons, Mephibosheth...“In her haste to flee,” the narrator reports, “he fell and was lame” (II Samuel 4:4). A change of subject in the sentence avoids a direct mention of the nurse’s failure—i.e., that she dropped the child—but the inference is clear enough. Finally, at the time the two killers enter their master’s quarters, a female guardian at the door may have been derelict in her duty: “And look, the woman who kept the gate, had been gleaning wheat and nodded and fell asleep” (II Samuel 4:6 in the reading of the Septuagint). Two women, even if they do not engage in outright criminal behavior, certainly participate in the demise of the house of Saul, one leaving the sole descendant lame, symbolic for a crippled house, the other unable to warn her master of his impending doom, futile though it might have been. (Wijk-Bos, Reading Samuel: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 170)Mephibosheth’s injury is severe. V. Philips Long (b. 1951) diagnoses:
That...Mephibosheth...is described as lame in both feet may suggest a spinal cord injury. It is also possible that he received (compound) fractures that either were not or could not be set properly...Medicine designed to treat illness and injury was practiced in the ancient Near East from early times. An Egyptian medical papyrus copied by scribes from older texts (ca. 1700 B.C.), for example, provides systematic instructions for the diagnosis and treatment of a host of injuries, beginning with the head and moving downward (the text is discontinued and reaches no further than the upper arm and ribs). One section describes a serious spinal cord injury. (John H. Walton, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 427)Kevin J. Mellish (b. 1968) adds:
The term used for Mephibosheth’s inability to walk (vayîpāsēah) is etymologically similar to the term that refers to the “Passover” (pesah) in Jewish tradition. Ironically, whereas the slaughter of a lamb commemorated a series of events that led to the Israelites’ freedom from bondage in the Exodus tradition, in this setting, the crippling of a child’s feet is connected with the opportunity for David to take control of Saul’s kingdom. As much as the text anticipates David’s role as ruler over Israel it also looks forward to Mephibosheth’s future relationship with David. When David rules as king from Jerusalem, he had Mephibosheth stay with him and “eat at [his] table” (II Samuel 9:7-13). (Mellish, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (New Beacon Bible Commentary), 193)The injury is life changing, even more so than it would be today. Elias Yemane evaluates:
The term “crippled in both feet” implies four characteristics: (1) economic vulnerability; (2) physical vulnerability; (3) permanent immobility; and (4) religious alienation. (Yemane, Mephibosheth: Transformation by a Covenant Love, 27)Mephibosheth’s disability shapes his future and he allows it to largely define him. He will later refer to himself as a “dead dog” (II Samuel 9:8).
Jeremy Schipper (b. 1975) reflects:
The David Story mentions his “lameness” almost every time his character appears in II Samuel (II Samuel 4:4, 9:3, 13, 19:27). While the royal ideal in the ancient Near East was a strong body with every physical feature properly placed (e.g. the depiction of Naram-Sîn), Mephibosheth is represented as “lame in both feet” (II Samuel 9:13)...By mentioning his disability in chapter 9, some suggest that the David Story contrasts Mephibosheth’s entrance into Jerusalem with David’s in chapter 6. In II Samuel 19:27, Mephibosheth’s disability marks him as one who has difficulty going out to war. When David asks him why he did not flee Jerusalem with the king, he cites his need for a donkey to ride because of his disability...A “lame” person who must ride a donkey hardly fits the ideal of the ancient Near Eastern king leading successful military campaigns. The representation of the last Saulide suggests to the reader that he lacks the properly portioned physique and military prowess of an ideal king. (Schipper, Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible: Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story, 96)The injury effectively disqualifies Mephibosheth from the throne. James E. Smith (b. 1939) deduces:
The Beerothites felt confident that the assassination of Ish-Bosheth would lead directly to David’s succession. Only one other direct descendant of Saul remained alive, but he was not a viable candidate for the throne. Jonathan had a son named Mephibosheth who was lame in both feet, (literally, “smitten of feet”). Before the fateful battle of Gilboa, the Israelite army had been camped at Jezreel (I Samuel 29:1). When news came from Jezreel of the death of Saul and Jonathan, the nurse (nanny) fled with the child. Unfortunately she had dropped the child. This caused permanent lameness. The text does not relate where Mephibosheth and his nurse were when they heard the news; they could have been in Gibeah, Saul’s hometown. Both his youth (he was twelve at this time) and his disability made Mephibosheth unwilling or unable to press his claim to the throne. (Smith, 1 & 2 Samuel (The College Press NIV Commentary), 368)Robert Alter (b. 1935) summarizes:
The notice is inserted here to make clear that after the murder of Ish-bosheth, there will be no fit heir left from the house of Saul, for Saul’s one surviving grandson is crippled. (Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, 218)Through one unintentional slip, one unfortunate moment, a child who was born to be king instantaneously became a “dead dog” who moved from the forefront to the background of history.
When you meet someone who is injured, are you curious as to how they arrived at their condition? Why? Why is a nurse carrying a five-year old; could Mephibosheth have had a preexisting medical condition? What royals have been maimed in more modern times? Would you be less accepting of an injured leader? What national leaders have had significant disabilities, e.g. Franklin D. Roosevelt? Who do you know who has been irrevocably affected by an incident from childhood?
Despite the tragedy, there is still hope for Mephibosheth and his family. Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) contextualizes:
The most important event of II Samuel 4 is the death of Ish-Bosheth. But in order to dispel the notion that might arise in the reader’s mind that Ish-Bosheth’s death meant the final destruction of the Saulide family, the writer inserts here a note concerning Mephibosheth, son of “Jonathan son of Saul.” (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary), 316)Whereas the nurse drops Mephibosheth, his father’s friend, King David will pick him up. Walter Brueggemann (b. 1933) comments:
This is an exceedingly curious note inserted in the middle of the Ishbosheth narrative. It disrupts the story line but does pertain to Ishbosheth’s fate. Ishbosheth is destined for death, whereas his nephew Mephibosheth is headed for mercy. In terms of the total David plot, this verse stands midway between I Samuel 20:14-17 and II Samuel 9:1-8. The subject of these two passages is the kindness (hesed) of David toward Jonathan. In the former, David promised Jonathan that he would not cut off his “loyalty” to the house and name of Jonathan. In the latter, David now keeps that promise by asking if there is anyone left of the house of Saul to whom the king may show kindness. David promises hesed and fulfills that promise. Mephibosheth is the channel for the fulfillment of the promise. Thus this verse sets the stage for the affirmation that David is a man of hesed who keeps vows, honors friends, and shows mercy to those with whom he is bound...The name of Mephibosheth is intended to remind the listener of David’s hesed. This peculiar verse, then, is a device for asserting that David would not do damage to Ishbosheth, who also comes under the vow made to Jonathan in I Samuel 20:14-17. II Samuel 4:4 reminds us of hesed in a chapter otherwise devoid of any dimension of mercy, fidelity, or generosity. (Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 234)In allowing Mephibosheth to routinely dine at his table (II Samuel 9:13), David violates his own royal decree forbidding “the blind or the lame from entering Jerusalem (II Samuel 5:6-8).
Eugene H. Peterson (b. 1932) notes:
David will deal with an actual individual who is lame—Mephibosheth (II Samuel 9). David will bring him into the city and into his home with honor, treating him with the utmost respect. David’s actions are better than his words. (Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion), 159)It is harder to discriminate against someone that is standing in front of you with their humanity on full display and David does not reject his friend’s son. After reaping the benefits of David’s kindness, Mephibosheth is a royal who is maimed but restored.
Max Lucado (b. 1955) correlates:
Mephibosheth is bracketed into the Bible. The verse doesn’t tell us much, just his name (Mephibosheth), his calamity (dropped by his nurse), his deformity (crippled), and then it moves on...But that’s enough to raise a few questions...If his story is beginning to sound familiar, it should. You and he have a lot in common. Weren’t you also born of royalty? And don’t you carry the wounds of a fall? And hasn’t each of us lived in fear of a king we have never seen? (Lucado, Cast of Characters: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God, 33-34)Can you identify with Mephibosheth, a character presented largely as a victim? Why? Why not? What in your life is in need of restoration? Do you have hope that God will restore you?
“I am conscious of a soul-sense that lifts me above the narrow, cramping circumstances of my life. My physical limitations are forgotten- my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!” - Helen Keller (1880-1968), The Story Of My Life: With Her Letters (1887--1901) And A Supplementary Account Of Her Education, Including Passages From The Reports And Letters Of Her Teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, p. 111