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:
- 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.
- 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:
- The person with a genital "issue", i.e. continuous secretion as a result of contracting a venereal disease, who is ritually unclean, and disgusting
- The leper, also unclean and in those times was disgusting
- 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
- 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
- To provide a "family friendly" translation or interpretation
- 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.
- The Cambridge commentary makes it clear that this is an unresolved question.