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Nahash, king of Ammon

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Nahash was the name of a king of Ammon, mentioned in the Books of Samuel. In the surviving account in the Bible, Nahash appears abruptly as the attacker of Jabesh-Gilead, which lay outside the territory he laid claim to. Having subjected the occupants to a siege, the population sought terms for surrender, and were told by Nahash that they had a choice of death (by the sword) or having their right eye gouged out. Somehow (the passage not explaining the difficult accomplishment) the population obtained seven days grace from Nahash, during which they would be allowed to seek help from the Israelites, after which (if the help didn't arrive) they would have to submit to the terms of surrender. In the account, the occupants sought help from the Kingdom of Israel, sending messengers to Saul, and he responded by sending an army that decisively defeated Nahash and his cohorts.

The strangely cruel terms given by Nahash for surrender were explained by Josephus as being the usual practice of Nahash. A more complete explanation has more recently come to light; although not present in either the Septuagint or masoretic text, an introductory passage, preceding this narrative, was found in a copy of the Books of Samuel among the Dead Sea Scrolls[1]:

[N]ahash, king of the children of Ammon, sorely oppressed the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, and he gouged out a[ll] their right eyes and struck ter[ror and dread] in Israel. There was not left one among the children of Israel bey[ond the Jordan who]se right eye was no[t put o]ut by Naha[sh king] of the children of Ammon; except that seven thousand men [fled from] the children of [A]mmon and entered [J]abesh-Gilead. About a month later Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-Gilead.

In other words, Nahash had conquered the tribal lands of Gad and Reuben, and a portion of the population had fled from him to Jabesh-Gilead, which is why he laid siege to it.

Nothing more is told about Nahash in the Books of Samuel until his death, at the start of the reign of David, is mentioned. At this point, the narrative states that David sent a message of condolence to Hanun, the heir of Nahash, because Nahash had shown kindness to David. Within the Bible, it is nowhere stated what that kindness was, but there is a tradition that when David had earlier entrusted his family to the King of Moab (cf. 1 Samuel 22:3-4) the latter slew the entire family, except for one of David's brothers who had escaped and found asylum with Nahash[2]. Jerome suggested that David's sympathy was because both he and Nahash were both enemies of Saul[3]. However, Josephus claimed that Nahash was slain when the Ammonites were defeated by Saul, which would, if true, make the Nahash whose death David lamented a different person; it is unclear on what basis Josephus (who lived over 600 years later) makes his claim[4].

According to 2 Samuel 17:25, Abigail was the daughter of someone named Nahash. Since Abigail is elsewhere identified as a sister (or half-sister) of David, one or more of the following must be true

  • Jesse was also known as Nahash (according to classical Rabbinical literature Jesse had this name because he was sinless but still had to die on account of the actions of the serpent in the garden of Eden - Nahash means serpent)
  • the wife of Jesse was named Nahash
  • Nahash was the first husband of the mother of David, and Jesse the second
  • the two accounts of the Abigail's ancestry come from different textual sources, and one or both are wrong

There is also a man named Nahash who is described by 2 Samuel 17:27-29 as the father of Shobi, a man who aided David against Absalom. Some modern scholars think that the father of Abigail, the king of the Ammonites, and the father of Shobi, were the same individual, hence making Shobi, Hanun, and David, half-brothers [5]. In consequence of this view, it would seem that Shobi shared his father's positive view of David, while Hanun, Shobi's brother and David's half-brother saw David as an enemy. Another spin on the equation of all these people named Nahash is that of some of the Classical Rabbis, who argued that Shobi was in fact Hanun; in this argument Hanun must have fallen out with David when they both took control of their respective thrones [6]. Some textual scholars, on the other hand believe that the 2 Samuel 17:25 originally named Jesse as the father of Abigail, and the current mention there of Nahash (נחש) is a typographic error caused by the brevity of the letters for Jesse (ישי) and the presence in verse 27 of the name Nahash[7].


  1. Qumran cave 4, to be precise
  2. Tanhuma, Wayera, 25
  3. Jerome, Questions of the Hebrews
  4. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 5:3 (volume 6)
  5. Jewish Encyclopedia, Nahash
  6. Yalkut, 2 Samuel 151
  7. eg. Wellhausen The text of the Book of Samuel

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