The Ariels of Moab
Occasionally, as time passes and languages develop, the particular meaning of a word is changed or lost. One can see plainly, even in the English language, where words fall in and out of use, and their meanings change over time. Every language goes through this development, and sometimes it is difficult for the translators of the Bible to capture, by a single English word, the deeper meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word—especially if the exact meaning is lost in antiquity. One such word is found in 1 Chronicles 11:22 (and in 2 Samuel 23:20), among the lists of the mighty men of David:
Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done many acts; he slew two lionlike men of Moab: also he went down and slew a lion in a pit in a snowy day (KJV).
Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, he slew the two sons of Ariel of Moab: he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit in time of snow (ASV).
And Benai’ah the son of Jehoi’ada was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds; he smote two ariels of Moab. He also went down and slew a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen (RSV).
Benaiah son of Jehoiada was a valiant fighter from Kabzeel, who performed great exploits. He struck down two of Moab’s best men. He also went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion (NIV).
Four different versions give four different translations in reference to the same group: the ariels of Moab. The Anglicized “ariel” comes from the Hebrew word ‘ariyel, which is a compound of the words ‘aryeh, which means “lion,” and ‘el, which means “God.” This literal translation, “lion of God,” does not explain to whom the authors of Chronicles and Samuel were referring. However, when taken in context, it appears that these were warriors of stature that were feared for their might.
The Revised Standard Version did not translate the word, but placed a transliteration from Hebrew into English in the passage. The American Standard Version also transliterated the word, but inserted the phrase “sons of ” into the text, seeming to assume that ‘ariyel referred to a specific man named Ariel. However, this does not seem to fit with the text. The passage continues the record of Benaiah by speaking of his killing an ‘aryeh (“lion”), as if the passage were speaking of him killing two “lions of God,” and also killing a lion. To make ‘ariyel a name breaks the continuity of the passage in its references to lions, whether they be of God or otherwise.
Probably the best treatment of this passage would come from a mingling of the New International and King James Versions. The NIV translated ‘ariyel by the phrase “best men,” as in men of might and valor, while the KJV used “lionlike men” (NKJV—“lion-like heroes”). When taken in context, something along these lines would be the better translation. The passage in 1 Chronicles 11:10-47 speaks of the men that David considered mighty, as well as some of their exploits. The record of Benaiah (vv. 22-25) states that he killed the two ‘ariyel (along with a lion) and an Egyptian giant whose height measured about seven and a half feet. Therefore, the best rendition of ‘ariyel is probably something that conveys might and strength, more so than what “best men” or “lionlike men” convey—they were mighty men who fought like lions from God. In the Old Testament, the image of a lion was used often to express power and strength when describing warriors. Soldiers from the tribe of Gad were described in 1 Chronicles 12:8 as having faces like “the faces of lions.” David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan called the deceased “stronger than lions” (2 Samuel 1:23). Proverbs 30:30 described the lion as “mighty among beasts.”
Perhaps these ‘ariyel were a special elite corps in the army of the Moabites, similar to our special forces (U.S. Navy SEALs; U.S. Army Green Berets, Airborne Rangers, and Delta Force; etc.). They also could have been two men who referred to themselves as the ‘ariyel, in reference to their abilities as warriors; likewise, it could have been an epithet given to them by their enemies. Whatever the reason, these men must have been known as some of the fiercest fighters, because they were compared to the “king of the jungle”—the mighty lion. Defeating two of them obviously was a feat worthy of mention in the list of mighty men. It is very hard for a single English word to convey the idea of warriors that go by “lions of God,” but it is obvious that they were considered some of the mightiest of men in that day.