Who was Barzillai in the Bible?Barzillai means "iron-hearted" in Hebrew. There are three men named Barzillai in the Bible. Two of them are mentioned in the book of Second Samuel in chapters seventeen through twenty-one, and one Barzillai is mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. One man, Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim, showed bravery in a contentious situation and loyalty to God's chosen king, David. Another Barzillai, the Israelite from Mehola, showed contempt for that same king by allowing his son to marry the rival king's (Saul's) daughter (1 Samuel 18:19; 2 Samuel 21:8). Thus, not every man lived up to his parents' hopes and dreams as expressed in the meaning of his name. However, the Barzillais in the Bible can be examples from whom readers can learn.
Barzillai from Mehola, whose son married King Saul's daughter, may have hoped to gain influence and power or create a legacy by aligning with Israel's first king. However, King Saul broke a generations-long treaty with the Gibeonites and his descendants were executed (which included this Barzillai's grandsons) in order to atone for Saul's sin and bring peace between Israel and the Gibeonites (2 Samuel 21:1–14). Thus, this Barzillai's legacy was a failed attempt to attain lasting power and influence.
Conversely, Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim showed great generosity and loyalty to King David when he hosted the king and his men when David fled the coup initiated by his son Absalom. At the time when Absalom's power was on the rise and King David was fleeing in disgrace, Barzillai the Gileadite bravely aligned with God's chosen king, David. He was already an aged, wealthy, and influential man (2 Samuel 19:32) and when he saw "the people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness" (2 Samuel 17:29), he "brought beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the heard for David and the people with him to eat" (2 Samuel 17:28–29). Barzillai generously shared from his bounty to care for those in need.
When King David returned to power and offered to repay Barzillai's kindness, Barzillai asked that the reward be given to his servant Chimham who could benefit from the king's attention more than he would himself (2 Samuel 19:33–38). In both instances, Barzillai the Gileadite generously gave away the wealth and influence to which he had access to the people who needed it more than he did. He could have grasped for power the way Barzillai of Mehola did, but instead he lived generously and humbly. This generous attitude left a strong legacy that benefitted Barzillai's descendants, an honor denied to Barzillai of Mehola.
When King David gave his final instructions to his son and successor, Solomon, he said, "deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table, for with such loyalty they met me when I fled from Absalom your brother" (1 Kings 2:7). Later, we learn that one of Barzillai's sons-in-law was so impressed by his father-in-law that he took his name for himself (Ezra 2:61, Nehemiah 7:63). Those descendants then went on to serve the Lord when the Israelites returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. Thus, Barzillai the Gileadite and his son-in-law had descendants who continued to live in a way that was committed to the Lord even when the situation was less than ideal, just like the original Barzillai's choice to stay loyal to God's chosen king.
Every person has the choice to live a life that grasps for power, wealth, and influence or to live a life of humility actively seeking those in need and giving generously at every opportunity. Either choice can have far-reaching effects as younger generations observe these actions and experience their consequences and outcomes. God called the Israelites to live generously commanding, "You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, 'You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land'" (Deuteronomy 15:10–11). He calls believers to do the same (2 Corinthians 9:6–15; 1 Timothy 6:18; 1 John 3:16–18). Jesus set the ultimate example of not grasping for power, but instead giving in a self-sacrificial way. "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5–8). May we live as generously as Barzillai the Gileadite as we continue to allow God to conform us to the generous likeness of His Son.
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