“The Bible is an ocean whose depths cannot be plumbed by the plummet of human reason,” said English theologian Matthew Henry. Every time I read through the Bible as part of my daily Bible reading, I appreciate this observation. It never ceases to amaze me how something new emerges each time I reread the same Scriptures.
I’ve been noticing a group of men associated with David and Solomon that reappears when Joash takes the throne from the usurper Athaliah in the Book of 2 Kings: the Cherethites. Other groups, such as the Pelethites and the Gittites, were sometimes associated with the Cherethites. I’ll save those for another time.
Who are the Cherethites? Who you ask determines the answer. According to popular belief, the Cherethites were originally Cretan mercenaries. According to the English antiquarian C.R. Conder, this is of Byzantine origin. The Septuagint contributes to this misunderstanding by rendering Cherethite “Kretes or Kretoi.” It is understandable how someone could assume that they were Cretans. Indeed, a late-third-century commentator proposed this explanation as the origin of the Philistines. (Conder)
In reality, we must associate the Cherethites with the Philistines as uncovenanted people living in Canaan whom God would destroy alongside the Israelites when He led the latter into captivity (cf. Ezekiel 25.16; Zephaniah 2.5). However, reading Zephaniah’s prophecy makes it difficult to imagine the Cherethites as being anything but Phoenicians since God calls them “seacoast inhabitants.” As I previously stated, the Canaanites who lived along the coast were part of the Phoenician maritime empire.
But would Israel’s united monarchy or Judah’s kings associate with non-servile Canaanites? When on the run from Saul, David indeed surrounded himself with a motley crew (1 Samuel 22.1-2). Though there is no reason to believe that these 400 were Canaanites, we cannot rule out the possibility that there were Canaanites among this group of disenfranchised people.
We associate David with his valiant men, but many of them were not of Jacob’s ancestry. For example, consider Uriah, whom David assassinated (2 Samuel 11). Uriah was of Hittite origin. Although the heart of the Hittite Empire was in what is now Turkey, the presence of Hittites in Canaan during Abraham’s sojourn suggests that the Hittites colonized the region (Genesis 23.7–18).
According to Jewish sources, Cherethites were “specialized soldiers” in the king’s employ. It is clear from Joash’s account that they were the king’s bodyguards (2 Kings 11; called here Carites). In Midrash Tehillim, one “Rabbi Yivo” is quoted as saying about the Cherethites, “The Cherethites were those who cut off heads, and the Pelethites were those who performed extraordinary things in the court.” (Narbonne) This belief stems from the possibility that the Hebrew word for Cherethite may have originated from a Hebrew word that means “to cut off.” (See Strong’s numbers H3774 and H3772.) However, this only implies their role rather than addressing their identity.
In contrast to Conder, who thought that the Cherethites were a Semitic people (Conder), William Ewing felt that the Cherethites were a Philistine clan of possible Cretan, Phoenician, or Cillician origin. (Ewing) Given their association with the Philistines or Phoenicians, it is difficult to conclude that the Cherethites were Israelites. They must have been foreigners employed by the monarchy. Ewing states that it was the custom of ancient monarchs to have foreign mercenaries serve as their bodyguards.
It may seem odd for a king to choose foreign mercenaries over his own subjects, but it has certain advantages. Since mercenaries have fewer political or personal allegiances, they may be more dependable and trustworthy in situations like guarding the king or enforcing the law. This impartiality was likely the case with Joash, a young king God chose during a time of great danger. Joash could rely on the loyalty of his foreign mercenaries despite the threat of death from the usurper (2 Kings 11.4ff).
Scholars and theologians have debated the identity and origin of the Cherethites. Some believe they were Cretan mercenaries or Semitic people, while others suggest they were foreigners, possibly of Philistine, Phoenician, or Cillician origins. Regardless of their identity, they played a vital role in protecting the king during political instability and danger, as seen in Joash’s account. The Bible gives us a glimpse of its depth and complexity, encouraging us to explore its pages and gain new insights.
Conder, Claude. “Philistines in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online, edited by James Orr, 1939, www.internationalstandardbible.com/P/philistines.html.
Narbonne, editor. “Midrash Tehillim 3:3.” Midrash Tehillim 3:3, www.sefaria.org/Midrash_Tehillim.3.3?ven=Sefaria_Community_Translation&lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en. Accessed 11 May 2023.Ewing, William. “Cherethites – Meaning and Verses in Bible Encyclopedia.” biblestudytools.com, edited by James Orr, 1915, www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/cherethites.html.