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2 Sam 3:29 NASB

"May it fall (whirl) on the head of Joab and on all his father’s house; and may there not fail from the house of Joab one who has a discharge, or who is a leper, or who takes hold of a distaff, or who falls by the sword, or who lacks bread.”

Distaff

David discovers Joab has treacherously killed Abner, and pronounces this curse on Joab's house. The REST of the curse is apparent to me, but I'm not sure exactly what bad thing David was pronouncing here.

This was my scheduled study for yesterday, and the term was so strange to me that I went back and searched for the history of the conflict:

My reading of background

Abner was Saul's cousin, and the commander of his armies. Although David taunts him for not protecting Saul, it was divine intervention that put the camp to sleep; otherwise, Abner is appropriately loyal. He places Ish-bosheth, Saul's son, on the throne after Saul's death, and serves him until accused of going in to Saul's concubine (and it's not clear to me that he really did that). Then, he preps to hand the entire kingdom over to David, and has a peace meeting with him.

In the course of the civil war, he kills Joab's brother, but it's a clean combat kill, and he tries to avoid it. But that's the reason Joab kills him, DESPITE knowing that David has made peace with Abner.

My research on 'distaff'

Searching only in English, and only in NASB, I find two references to 'distaff.' One is this verse; the second is in Proverbs 31;19, where it is used as an example of the work of the excellent wife.

Deuteronomy 22:5

I'm not a scholar, but I am aware of the passage which prohibits wearing the other gender's clothing.
I wish I had better knowledge of the Scriptures that would inform me if the prohibition extends to "women's work" for men.

Modern use

We use 'the distaff side' to refer to things pertaining to women.

What is this a euphemism for?

Or could it just mean 'poverty,' if spinners were poor folks?

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The "distaff" part of David's curse is still a subject of speculation1. There are two suggestions supported by scholarly research.

The Wikipedia article for distaff explains that it is a term for a spindle used for holding the fiber which is to be spun into thread or yarn.

The Wikipedia article also notes that distaff is used as an adjective to denote the matrilineal branch of a family, the horse race with only female hoses, and the Women's division of the mixed-martial-arts organization EXC. That is, "distaff" is use at least in English to designate something feminine.

In Proverbs 31:19 distaff is the direct object of the verb תָּמְכוּ, meaning they support or the hold. In II Samuel 3:29 however, distaff is part of a noun phrase with the verb is מַחֲזִיק, to hold or to grab, resulting an a phrase "spindle holders" or "staff holders".

With regard to the ideal wife in Proverbs 31:19, supporting the distaff is clearly a virtue, but in II Samuel 3:29 being a "spindle holder" is a curse. To understand this we need to look more closely at the verbs.

In Proverbs 31:19 the verb תָּמְכוּ is complete (past) tense third person plural, either gender, and refers to the subject, the ideal wife's hands. However, in Samuel 3:29, the verb מַחֲזִיק is incomplete (present and future) tense, third person singular masculine, and refers to some present and future male individual or series of males who are "distaff holders".

So, the interpretations, both of which see "distaff holders" as a euphemism or symbol are:

  1. That the spindle in this verse is a synonym for cane or crutch and the curse is that there should never be a lack of lame and crippled people who rely on crutches in the family. This interpretation can be found in Society, Law and Custom in the Land of Israel in Biblical Times and in Ancient Near Eastern Cultures by Meir Malul, published by Bar Ilan University Press, 2006. This interpretation is also given by RASHI and RADAK and other medieval commentators.
  2. That the spindle in this verse, with the masculine referent is a euphemism for an effeminate, homosexual or trans-gender individual, who in biblical times was an embarrassment to a family and held in low social esteem. This interpretation can be found in "David's Curse of Joab (2 Sam.39) and the Social Significance of mhzyq bplk", Aula Orientalis 10 (1992), pp.49-67, also by Prof.Meir Malul and is in line with other medieval Jewish commentaries.

The first interpretation, that "distaff holder" is a euphemism for a cripple who requires a crutch, is consistent with word "agad" ("staff") used to translate פלך in the Aramaic Targum attributed to Onkelos. In addition, the verb תָּמְכוּ ("support") used in Proverbs suggests that the distaff, as well as being supported, could itself provide support, i.e could be used as a crutch or cane. The commentaries that support this interpretation do not provide any further justification.

In support of the second interpretation, that "spindle holder" is a derogatory euphemism for an effeminate or homosexual individual, is the fact that all of other terms in the list are similarly derogatory:

  1. The person with a genital "issue", i.e. continuous secretion as a result of contracting a venereal disease, who is ritually unclean, and disgusting
  2. The leper, also unclean and in those times was disgusting
  3. The person who "falls on the sword", a euphemism for a suicide or a person who is afraid to fight to the death, and possibly also a swipe at Saul, who purportedly died at his own hands only after shamelessly asking his armor bearer to do the job
  4. A pauper, who in those times was a disgrace and a source of revulsion and disgust

Note how politically incorrect this verse is today. And note how the commentary and translation traditions, starting way back with the LXX and Onkelos and continuing to the latest, have sought to exorcise the profanity of this verse (and also the shock value many other verses dealing with genital secretions, lepers and prostitutes of various sorts), by providing more palatable interpretations in order

  1. To provide a "family friendly" translation or interpretation
  2. To avoid questioning the later view of David as a saintly character even though the book of Samuel clearly presents a very different picture

Contrast this curse with the more civil curses in Joshua's curse of Gibeonites in Joshua 9:23 and Noah's curse of Ham in Genesis.


  1. The Cambridge commentary makes it clear that this is an unresolved question.
  • I was able to get an English version of the web page for the Bialik Institute, but there isn't a listing for an English language version of "Marginal People in Biblical Times." – Papa Pat Nov 26 '19 at 19:41
  • (Editing to add this, ran out of time!) I emailed the publisher to see if an English language version is available, because if so, I think I'd like to read it. However: the price for the book isn't translated. I get a symbol I don't recognize: "Sale Price :66.00 ₪." Since I don't know what the symbol signifies, I don't know if it's a book I could afford, even if I COULD read it. {I should have learned Hebrew when I had the chance} – Papa Pat Nov 26 '19 at 19:56
  • Can you pls explain how spindle is a synonym for crutch? – Bach Nov 28 '19 at 18:51
  • @Bach I added an explanation. IMHO the interpretation of "crutch" in II Samuel comes from the usage תמכו "support" in Proverbs and from the Onkelos use of אגד. My view is that this interpretation is a sanitized interpretation in Onkelos and the LXX already that is intended to remove the shock of the actual meaning but has no real support. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Nov 30 '19 at 21:51
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It doesn't appear to be a euphemism. The word translated distaff here (Strong's Exhaustive Concordance) is from an unused root meaning to be round, hence a circuit, spindle or crutch. It appears 10 times in the Old Testament and is translated as district (or circuit) 8 times in Nehemiah. Once, in Proverbs it is translated as spindle and the KJV has it, in 2 Samuel, as leaneth on a staff.

This seems most in keeping with the rest of the curse: Let there always be someone with an unclean issue, a leper, a cripple, a suicide, or hunger.

  • In fact, פלך with the meaning of spindle occurs at most twice in the MT, not ten times. The other eight occurrences of פלך are of the homonym meaning a district or administrative division. If Malul's second conjecture is correct, that פלך in II Sam 3:29 is a homonym for crutch, then there are 1 occurrences of פלך as "spindle", 1 occurrences as "crutch" and 8 occurrences as "district". In what sense then is פל"כ an unused root then if there are ten occurrences in the MT? – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Nov 29 '19 at 14:15
  • @Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Sir, It is Strong's Exhaustive Concordance that has identified this word as deriving from an unused root. I take it to mean that the root from which the word in question, which is rarely translated spindle but most often translated as district, comes is itself unused as a word in the source documents. – Mike Borden Dec 1 '19 at 19:01
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If you are looking for an interpretation that's loyal to the text and preserves the spindle translation as the true one (from your OP it is evident that you favor that one), then you have one in the IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 326:

The word the NIV translates "crutch" has now been identified from Ugaritic and Akkadian as the word for "spindle" or "distaff". The phrase used here was the common description of a woman involved in menial tasks. A Hittite oath of a soldier, if broken, would result in the loss of manhood. The oath describes this penalty in terms of the violator holding the spindle and mirror. This second curse then threatens Joab's house with decreased virility.

I don't know why the author would identify the Hebrew word פלך from Ugaritic and Akkadian as referring to spindle, when there is abundant biblical evidence to support that. In Mishanic Hebrew this word also comes up a lot in the context of Woman's menial tasks, and is conventionally translated as spindle. In any case, I think the Hittite evidence strongly supports this reading, especially in this case that it reads like that naturally. See also the Cambrdige Bible Commentray.

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