Ish-bosheth (Standard: Ishbóshet; Tiberian: ʼΚbṓšeṯ) also called Eshbaal (Standard: Eshbáʻal; Tiberian: ʼEšbáʻal), Ashbaal or Ishbaal, appears in the Hebrew Bible. He was one of the four sons of King Saul, and was chosen as the second king over the united Kingdom of Israel after the death of his father and three brothers at the Battle of Mount Gilboa.

Brief reign and death

Ish-bosheth was proclaimed king over Israel by Abner, the captain of Saul's army, at Mahanaim after his father and brothers were slain in the battle of Gilboa (). Ish-bosheth was 40 years old at this time and reigned for two years.

However, the tribe of Judah proclaimed David its king, and war ensued. David's faction eventually prevailed against Ish-bosheth's but the war did not come to a close until Abner joined David. For peace to be restored, David insisted that Michal (Saul's daughter and Ish-bosheth's sister who had been David's wife before David and Saul fell out with each other) be returned to him, which Ish-bosheth fulfilled. After Abner's death Ish-bosheth seems to have given up hope of retaining power. ()

Ish-bosheth was killed by two of his own captains who had expected a reward from David. Instead David punished the murderers as traitors, and buried Ish-bosheth in the grave of Abner at Hebron. ()

The names

The names Ish-bosheth and Ashba'al are unusual in some ways, as they have ambiguous meanings in the original Hebrew that are puzzling. In Hebrew, for Ish-bosheth, "ish" means "[great] man" and "boshet" means "[given to] bashfulness [or humility]" or "[sensitive to] shame", but it could also mean "shameful (or shamed) person". He is also called Ashba'al, in Hebrew meaning "[person of] master[y]" (and the "esh" may be connected to the Hebrew word for "fire"). "Ba'al" may also allude to the name of the ancient pagan idol Baal despised by God in the Bible.

Critical scholarship suggests that Bosheth was a substitute for Ba'al, beginning when Ba'al became an unspeakable word; as (in the opposite direction) Adonai became substituted for the ineffable Tetragrammaton (see taboo deformation).

The name Ish-bosheth

He is almost exclusively called Ish-bosheth in the Books of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible:

"...Now Abner the son of Ner, captain of Saul's host, had taken Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim; and he made him king over Gilead, and over the Ashurites, and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel. Ish-bosheth, Saul's son was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years..." (2 Samuel 2:8-10)

When he was prematurely assassinated and King David punished the killers:

"...Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ish-bosheth, as he took his rest at noon, and they came into the house, as though they would have fetched wheat; and they struck him in the groin; and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped ...And they brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David in Hebron, and said to the king: 'Behold the head of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul your enemy, who sought your life; and the Lord has avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed' ...And David answered ... '...shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?' ...But they took the head of Ish-bosheth, and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron." (2 Samuel 4:5-12)

The other name: Ashba'al

Ish-bosheth's name is changed to Ashba'al or Eshba'al (and not "Ish baal") in the Book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 8:33; 9:39). The rabbinic commentator, Meir Loeb ben Jehiel Michael (1809-1879) known as the Malbim, basing himself on the commentary of Rabbi David ben Joseph Kimhi (the Radak, 13th century) says:

"Ashba'al is Ish-bosheth, as bosheth and ba'al is one, as in the Book of Jeremiah :' the number of streets in Jerusalem have you made altars to the shameful (la-bosheth) idol, altars to sacrifice to the Baal (la-ba'al)'." (Jeremiah 11:13). Thus, "the shameful idol" ("bosheth") and the "Baal" are one and the same in terms of the words in this verse from Jeremiah.

The Radak emphasizes that what the correlation was between the names of bosheth and ba'al is unclear, while it may have been clear to the people of that time it is not really known or understood at the present time. The Malbim asserts that the name Ish-bosheth is utilized as a "cover" for Ashba'al to deliberately differentiate itself from the Baal, so that the Baal not be mentioned explicitly, and that even the name Ashba'al not to be directly associated with the actual idol of the similar sounding Baal name, even though linguistically they all have shared meanings. Hence the continuing mystery about why the name was given to him (Ish-bosheth) in the first place.

Identification with Mutbaal

Maverick Egyptologist David Rohl identifies Ishbaal with Mutbaal of the Amarna Letters. Rohl's chronology is controversial and much disputed, but there is no doubt that indeed the names have exactly the same meaning: "Man of Baal." If Rohl's identification is correct, it would mean that:

  • Ishbaal was estranged from his father Saul before Saul's death.
  • Ishbaal's center of power was in Pella in Transjordan.

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