Among the band of heroes that the Bible tells us were King David’s leading warriors – his “special forces operatives” – one warrior is particularly interesting. David’s chief fighters were all noted for great exploits, but one who stands out even in that crowd is Benaiah the son of Jehoiada. We might well call this warrior “Benaiah the lion hearted,” considering what is said about him:
Benaiah son of Jehoiada, a valiant fighter from Kabzeel, performed great exploits. He struck down Moab’s two mightiest warriors. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion. And he struck down an Egyptian who was five cubits tall. Although the Egyptian had a spear like a weaver’s rod in his hand, Benaiah went against him with a staff. He snatched the spear from the Egyptian’s hand and killed him with his own spear. Such were the exploits of Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he too was as famous as the three mighty warriors. He was held in greater honor than any of the Thirty, but he was not included among the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard (1 Chronicles 11:22-25).
Take a minute to consider these exploits. The son of a famous warrior, Benaiah ended up excelling his father’s deeds. Living in a time when ancient Israel was frequently attacked by surrounding nations, he is first said to have killed the two greatest warriors of Israel’s arch-enemy Moab. We don’t know if he fought these enemies separately or together, but the Hebrew term used of them seems to imply that they were “lion-like.” Yet that is only the beginning of Benaiah’s reputation.
We are also told that Benaiah slew a giant Egyptian warrior who was doubtless part of an invading Egyptian force. This man is said to have been of great height – approximately the same as the famous giant Goliath that David himself had killed – but it seems that Benaiah was armed only with a staff and that either through cunning or sheer strength he snatched the Egyptian’s huge spear and killed him with his own weapon.
But the most notable of Benaiah’s feats is that he “went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.” This is the deed we need to think about in order to truly appreciate its magnitude. We are not told why Benaiah slew this fierce animal, but at that time lions frequently preyed on flocks and herds (1 Samuel 17:36), and this predator may well have been endangering the people of the area where the incident took place.
Whatever the reason Benaiah ended up fighting the lion, this story gives us some important details about the contest. Military ground operations must always take three major factors into account: the strength of the enemy, the terrain – including options for mobility and withdrawal, and the ambient conditions (fog, smoke, bad weather, etc.). If any one of these factors is disadvantageous, military units must operate with great care. In Benaiah’s case, all three of these factors were against him. The simple statement “a lion in a pit on a snowy day” indicates an enemy of vastly superior strength, in very difficult terrain, and with very negative ambient conditions.
These combined conditions meant that on the snowy day visibility may have been limited by flying snow. Being in a pit meant that the sun would not melt ice on the ground making it easy to slip, plus the fact that the wind would likely have blown more snow into the pit where it could have become quite deep – making it hard to move. These are all very difficult conditions in which to find oneself: in a pit, facing a lion with no easy way of retreat. Keep in mind that a fully grown lion can smash a human skull with a swipe of one of its paws and can bite completely though a human body. The lion may have been trapped in the pit, but once Benaiah entered it, so was he. Any person with a tactical background knows that the simple biblical description of this contest indicates what a huge victory it was for Benaiah.
Even with these great exploits, Benaiah was not one of David’s three top generals at this time. However, he is said to have been greater than the king’s top 30 fighters and, perhaps not surprisingly, to have been made the commander of the king’s bodyguard. But there is one final detail that is often overlooked regarding the hero Benaiah. 1 Chronicles 27:5 tells us that “… Benaiah [was the] son of Jehoiada the priest. He was chief and there were 24,000 men in his division.” Both Benaiah and his warrior father were Levites and his father is actually said to have served as a priest.
Perhaps we might not expect an individual with this priestly background to have taken on the enemies he did – including lion-like warriors and an actual lion. But the story of Benaiah, like that of David and Goliath, is one of several accounts given in the Old Testament that show the connection between faith and fearlessness – of active, tactical involvement in life and the willingness to take on real problems and enemies. In that sense, Benaiah is the story of a religious man who was not afraid to fight to help others. Thankfully, in our own day we do not have to fight lions, but the battles are out there for the warriors who are willing to fight them in faith.