Was Shimei a Descendant of Joseph or Benjamin?
When King David returned to Jerusalem following his son Absalom’s death, Shimei, who previously had cursed David (1 Samuel 16:5-14), made haste to meet with the king. First Samuel 19:16 indicates that Shimei was a Benjamite. In fact, when he went to beg for mercy from David, Shimei took “a thousand men of Benjamin with him” (19:17). Some have wondered why, when Shimei met with David, he said, “I am the first to come today of all the house of Joseph to go down to meet my lord the king” (19:20, emp. added). If Shimei was a descendant of Benjamin, why does the text indicate that he was of the “house of Joseph”? Is this a contradiction?
First, simply because two contradictory statements may exist in Scripture does not mean the Bible writers were errant. Bible students must consider who is speaking when two different statements are compared: is it an inspired Bible writer, or someone the writer is quoting? When Jesus healed a demoniac, some of the Pharisees accused Him of casting out demons, not by the power of God, but by the power of “Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24). The gospel writer Matthew did not make this allegation; he merely reported it. The inspired writers of the Bible are in no way responsible for the false statements they quote from others (e.g., Satan; see Lyons, 2002 for more information). Regarding the statements under question in 2 Samuel 19, even if the statements were contradictory (which they are not), it must be acknowledged that though the inspired writer mentioned that Shimei was in fact a Benjamite (2 Samuel 19:16), in 2 Samuel 19:20 Shimei is the one speaking. Thus, even if Shimei said something incorrect (or lied) about being of the house of Joseph, it should not reflect negatively upon the inerrancy of Scripture.
Second, the skeptic cannot prove that (because Shimei said that “of all the house of Joseph” he was the first to come to David) he was alleging that he literally was a descendant of Joseph rather than Benjamin. Shimei could simply have been (and surely was) using “Joseph” (one of the most recognized names in Israelite history—a patriarch whom God used to save their nation) to refer to Israel as a whole. The psalmist called the Israelites “the sons of Jacob and Joseph” (77:15, emp. added). Notice also how the psalmist used the terms “Israel” and “Joseph,” as well as various tribal names seemingly interchangeably in Psalm 80: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock…. Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up Your strength, and come and save us!” (80:1-2, emp. added).
The fact is, the Bible writers frequently used a part to stand for the whole or the whole for the part (a figure of speech known as synecdoche; see Lyons, 2011 for more information). Thus, referring to Israel as “the house of Joseph” is not at all problematic.
Lyons, Eric (2002), “Look Who’s Talking,” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=11&article=1349.
Lyons, Eric (2011), “How Did Noah’s Ark Rest on the Mountains of Ararat?” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/AllegedDiscrepancies.aspx?article=647.