01 September 2010
The Cherethites and the Pelethites
At 2 Samuel 8:18 Nathan wrote that "Benaiah the son of Jehoiada [was over] the Cherethites and the Pelethites." From this time on, these otherwise unidentified groups serve as David's personal bodyguard. The lack of any further information about them has led to many decades of speculation as to their identity. After all, David had at his disposal the Gibborim, the "Mighty Men," his own personal Knights of the Round Table, made up of the greatest warriors in the land—and yet he chose to be protected by these two groups. He assigned one of his most trusted and deadly generals, Benaiah, to be their leader, but none of them are included in the lists of the Gibborim. This fact seems to indicate that the Cherethites and Pelethites were not part of the regular army, that they enjoyed an autonomy not shared by any other groups.
Whoever they were, they were extraordinarily loyal to David himself and not just to his position as king. In 2 Samuel 15 when David's son Absalom forcibly deposed his father it appears that most of the army supported Absalom—but the Cherethites and Pelethites stayed with David. They did the same during Sheba's rebellion in 2 Samuel 20, and even when the highest ranking officer in the army, Joab, sided with the usurper Adonijah after David's death the Cherethites and Pelethites supported Solomon, David's chosen heir.
The most popular identification for these groups is rooted in the name Pelethite. In Hebrew, adding a single character to "Pelethite" gives you the word "Philistine." The Cherethites are connected to the Philistines at 1 Samuel 30: 14 and 16, Ezekiel 25:16 and Zephaniah 2:5. The translators of the Greek Septuagint translated "Cherethite" as "Cretan"—likely alluding to the Philistine's origins on the island of Crete (Caphtor) (Amos 9:7). Many scholars, therefore, believe that the Cherethites and Pelethites were Philistine warriors, either of different tribes or serving in different positions, who served King David. Some see in the name "Cherethite" a relation to the Hebrew root karath, meaning "cut off". They feel this indicates that the Cherethites were some kind of executioners, but there is no evidence beyond this single etymological detail to establish this.
In 1 Samuel 27 David flees the land of Israel to escape the murderous intent of King Saul. In this case he flees to the Philistine city of Gath and comes under the protection of Achish, the Axis Lord of Gath. Eventually, David earns Achish's trust and he is given the city of Ziklag for himself and his men. Little detail is given regarding David's activities during his 16 months there. Nathan does record that David took the opportunity to raid the Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites, thereby laying the groundwork for his future hold on the land as king. (David told Achish that he was attacking Israel so that Achish would have no reason to question David's loyalty).
Apparently, though, when David left Philistia after the death of Saul, he was joined by a significant number of Philistines whose loyalty he had somehow earned. In 2 Samuel 15:18, Nathan specifies that David is supported by "all the Cherethites and all the Pelethites and all the Gittites, six hundred men that had followed him from Gath." It is a testament to David's incredible charisma that these people who had once considered him "enemy number one" would now follow him into a foreign land and pledge their lives to his protection. Gath was Goliath's hometown—if any of the Philistines might have had reason to hate David, it would have been the Gittites. But now they willingly became his servants. It must also have been a comfort to David to be guarded by soldiers who were bound to him by nothing but their personal loyalty—a characteristic that became important when David was usurped by Absalom.
The Pelethites are not mentioned after David's reign. Some feel that they might have returned to Philistia after his death. The Cherethites, though, may be referred to in 2 Kings 11:4 and 11:19 under the name "Carian bodyguard." The Masoretic text translates "Cherethites" as "Carian bodyguard" at 2 Samuel 20:23. It seems possible that both Pelethites and Cherethites, or at least some of them, continued to serve as the defenders of the Davidic line for some time after David's death.
These details give us a fascinating picture of the nature and structure of David's army. Joab was the general over the regular army. An elite group of warriors known as The Three was headed by Josheb-basshebeth the Tahchemonite. A second elite group known as The Thirty (the equivalent to Arthur's Round Table Knights) was headed by Abishai, Joab's brother. David's personal bodyguard, the Cherethites and Pelethites, were led by Benaiah (who had no familial association or loyalty to Joab). Out of these diverse groups David forged an army that, for nearly forty years, was undefeatable.
For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.