🔼The name Sela-hammahlekoth: Summary
- Rock Of Smoothnesses, Cliff Of Divisions
- From (1) the noun סלע (sela'), rock or cliff, and (2) the verb חלק (halaq), either to divide and apportion or to be smooth.
🔼The name Sela-hammahlekoth in the Bible
Just when Saul and his men had David and his men almost surrounded, Saul received word that the Philistines had invaded Israel's territory, and went to see about that. Realizing he had escaped the mad king, David (or somebody else) named the rock that kept them apart Sela-hammahlekoth (1 Samuel 23:28).
🔼Etymology of the name Sela-hammahlekoth
There are a few rocks named in the Bible, but the word that means rock is rarely incorporated in the name (the word for mountain, for instance, is also never incorporated in the name, yet the words for house, fountain or meadow usually are, while the word for valley is sometimes incorporated and sometimes not; there seems to be no rule). Of the modern English versions, only the NAS and the Young Translation read Rock Of... while the others print Sela-hammahlekoth in slight variations. And indeed, the first part of our name is the noun סלע (sela'), meaning rock, crag or cliff:
The unused verb סלע (sala') probably meant to cleave or split (it does so in cognate languages). Noun סלע (sela') means rock, crag or cliff and there are several such rocks endowed with topographic names in the Bible.
The second part of our name starts with the letter ה (he), which either serves as definite article or else as particle of direction. It's very common in names that describe a "something of something". The core of the second part of our name is the word מחלקות (mahleqot), from either of the roots חלק (hlq):
Verb חלק (halaq I) means to divide and apportion. Noun חלק (heleq I) and חלקה (haluqqa) mean portion, tract of land, even one's mode of life. Noun חלקה (helqa I) means field. Noun מחלקת (mahaloqet) describes a division of some organization.
Verb חלק (halaq II) means to be smooth or slippery, either of items such as stones or speech and flattery. Nouns חלק (heleq II) and חלקה (halaqqa) describe smoothness or seductiveness of speech. Adjectives חלק (halaq) and חלק (halluq) mean smooth. The singular noun חלקה (helqa II) and the plural noun plural noun חלקלקות (halaqlaqqot) may describe smoothness, slipperiness, flattery, or pleasant nonsense.
It's not immediately clear what the name-giver was trying to convey when he named our rock Sela-hammahlekoth. The NAS translates the whole term as Rock of Escape, but neither of the two verbs חלק (hlq) means that. The closest חלק (hlq I) comes to escape is its usage in Genesis 49:7, where Levi and Simeon are said to be dispersed in Jacob and scattered in Israel, but neither the army of Saul nor the gang of David was dispersed. It's simply not a very good translation, and the name-giver isn't emphasizing David's escape.
The Young Translation proposes The Rock of Divisions, which seems to fit the story closer. Perhaps the name-giver is merely stating that the rock served as a dividing wall between Saul and David, and although that would linguistically work, it would fail to incorporate David's narrow escape, which is a major element of the narrative's power.
All commentators we've looked at seem to feel compelled to choose between these two possibilities, but all fail to notice the obvious comical element of this story, and more broadly: of the whole Saul versus David saga. The ongoing story of Saul chasing David is virtually littered with silliness; it's the Biblical equivalent of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry cartoons.
The word סלע (sela') conveys a typically rugged rocky mass, and is the opposite of smoothness, just like Saul's daftness is the opposite of David's cunning (or good fortune, in this case). A rock supplies a steady foothold, but slipperiness lets you fall. The contrast is even pursued in the singular word for rock versus the plural word for slipperinesses. Ergo: Sela-hammahlekoth is a tease name, a name of mockery, and its meaning lies somewhere between Les Uns Et Les Autres, Between A Rock And A Hard Place, and Sticks And Stones...!