What Is A “Worthless Man” in the OT?

In a few Old Testament stories in the ESV we run across the phrase “worthless fellow” or “worthless man” (בֶּן־בְּלִיַּ֔עַל) The fool Nabal is a worthless man (1 Sam. 25:17). Sheba the Benjaminite is called a “worthless man” (2 Sam. 20:1). Proverbs also talks about a “worthless man” (Prov. 16:27).

What exactly does “worthless man” mean in these stories? A literal translation of “worthless man” is “son of belial” (בֶּן־בְּלִיַּ֔עַל) but that’s not overly helpful because who at first glance who knows what “belial” means? And I would argue that “worthless man/fellow” isn’t the best translation. Here’s how the NIDOTTE discusses this word and phrase (belial and son of belial):

This word (belial – בְּלִיַּ֔עַל) occurs 27× in the OT and generally refers to a person who has become so wicked and corrupt that he/she is a detriment to society. Prov 6:12 equates אָדָם בְּלִיַּעַל, a worthless man, with the phrase אִישׁ אָוֶן man of wickedness. In other passages it is used in parallel structure with “death” (מָוֶת) as the outcome of a corrupt, wicked person (2 Sam 22:5; Ps 18:4 [5]), whose activities include those that would quickly destroy the moral fiber of a society, such as attempting to turn people away from God (Deut 13:14 [14]), engaging in acts of corrupt sexual deviation (Judg 19:22; 20:13; 1 Sam 2:12), treating their brothers harshly (Deut 15:9; 1 Sam 30:22), rebelling] against authority (2 Sam 20:1; 2 Chron 13:7), and destroying others by false testimony (1 Kgs 21:10; Prov 19:28).

 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 662.

The NIDOTTE brings out the nuance of evil in this word (belial). A “son of belial” is not just a worthless person, but a wicked person. There is a difference! Here are a few similar short excerpts from the TDOT that explain this word/phrase (belial – son of belial):

Various wrongdoers are called ʾanashim bene beliyyaʿal, “men who are sons of belial,” in Judges 19:22; 20:13 (the homosexuals at Gibeah); and 1 Kings 21:10, 13 (the perjurers in the lawsuit against Naboth…). In both instances, the basic social order is violated.

…Finally, beliyyaʿal (belial) is used in a weakened sense in a couple of passages where it is applied to persons who are hostile to society. In 1 Sam. 25:17, 25, Nabal is described as ben beliyyaʿal, “a son of belial,” and ʾish habbeliyyaʿal, “man of belial.” Surely the writer is thinking not only of his folly, but also of his asocial “behavior.”

 Benedikt Otzen, “בְּלִיַּעַל,” ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. John T. Willis, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 134–135.

In summary, a “son of belial” is not simply a worthless person. He’s a wicked person that is a menace to society. Other translations bring this nuance out better than the ESV does. For example, the CSB, NET, NLT, and the NIV use the following phrases to translate “son of belial”: wicked person, worthless fool, wicked man, and scoundrel. So next time you read about a “worthless man” or “worthless fellow” in the OT, you know a little bit more about what it means. He’s not just worthless, he’s wicked!

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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