1 Samuel 21: David’s escape

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Having escaped, David makes a stop in Nob to visit Ahimelech. Notice how both here and in 1 Sam. 19, he chooses to flee to a figure of religious authority (in that case, he had gone to Samuel). Ahimelech is terrified to see David alone, but no explanation is given for why this would be the case. Perhaps he knows of the animosity between David and Saul and suspects that David is on the run? That’s my best guess, because David reassures him by lying, saying that Saul has sent him – and a group of men waiting for him at “such and such a place” (1 Sam. 21:2) – on a super secret mission (presumably, David’s companions are fictional, meant to convince Ahimelech that David truly is out on official business). He asks Abimelech if he can spare some food.

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Unfortunately, Ahimelech only has holy bread. According to a few sources, this would be bread that could only be consumed by members of the priesthood, yet Ahimelech offers it to David. His only condition is that neither David nor his companions have slept with women recently. David explains that he and his men keep their vessels holy on missions, even on common journeys, so that’s not a concern. The argument will later be made (Mk 2:23-28) that this passage allows for flexibility in the cultic rules when they interfere with the wellbeing of people. Even though David isn’t a priest and therefore has no business eating the holy bread, he is allowed to take it because he has need.

David next asks if Ahimelech has any weapons he could have, “for I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste” (1 Sam. 21:8).

This is difficult to reconcile with the story in 1 Sam. 20, where David suspects that Saul might have it in for him and then plans his absence from the court. Rather, it seems better to follow after his flight in 19:11-17, where his wife shoves him out of a window in the middle of the night. This would better explain why David has so little with him.

The only weapon Ahimelech has to give is Goliath’s sword, which he keeps behind the ephod. As in 1 Sam. 14:3, the ephod is here implied to be a box containing sacred objects, not an item of clothing.

In the middle of David’s exchange with Ahimelech, we learn that an Edomite named Doeg, a servant of Saul’s, happens to be in Nod at that time. He was “detained before the Lord” (1 Sam. 21:7), likely meaning that he is ritually impure for some reason and is waiting for his term to end. The detail seems out of place here, but I peeked ahead and it seems that the author/editor was establishing a fact for a later occurrence.

David at King Achish’s court

His old enemy’s sword in hand, David then moves on to the Philistine city of Gath. There seems no reason for this episode, and it certainly turns out to have been a mistake. Highlighting that Saul has very good reason to feel threatened by David, the Philistines recognize David and mistakenly believe that he is Israel’s king, citing the same song that we heard in 1 Sam. 18:7:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands. (1 Sam. 21:11)

Probably quite wisely, David realizes that this is potentially a very bad situation. If King Achish of Gad believes him to be the king of Israel (or, at least, politically important), might he not read the situation as a very good opportunity to easily get rid of an enemy.

So he decides to play the fool. Literally. He makes marks on the doors of the city gate, and lets spittle run down into his beard. I’m not sure how making marks on city gates is supposed to be an indication of madness, unless it means that he is smearing feces or something.

Anyways, King Achish is fooled, and he asks his servants why they bothered bringing a madman to him. “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?” (1 Sam. 21:15). This provides David with a means of escape, of course, but also reads like a joke at Philistia’s expense. Is King Achish’s court so glutted with madmen?

The Kiss

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We can’t have a discussion of Jonathan and David without touching on homosexuality. Twice in this chapter, they express their fondness for each other, and the chapter even closes with them apparently having a make-out session in the middle of a field.

Homosexuality – per se – is something of a new invention (at least in terms of being an identity rather than a predilection). So I think it would be anachronistic to try to understand David as a homosexual, rather than asking whether his relationship with Jonathan, specifically, was a romantic/sexual one.

Jonathan and David embrace, illustration from La Somme le roy, ca. 1300

Jonathan and David embrace, illustration from La Somme le roy, ca. 1300

I’ve also seen the argument that David may have been bisexual, given his many wives. This is anachronistic for the same reason, but suffers the additional issue of confounds. A man in a patriarchal society like that of ancient Israel likely had no choice but to have a wife/wives, particularly if he wishes to establish a dynasty. reading anything about sexuality into marriage in a culture where marriage doesn’t really have any alternatives is rather silly.

Kenneth Davis notes that, “among warriors [in other nearby cultures], homosexuality was condoned because of the bond it created between men” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.181), so it’s not unreasonable that David may have felt comfortable letting his relationship with Jonathan be known (and visa versa) at that time and in that cultural context.

Others have noted that homosexuality is pretty strongly condemned elsewhere in the Bible, so it makes no sense for Jonavid to be mentioned, particularly with such focus and repetition. But there are plenty of other possible explanations.

One is that the relationship was so well known that the authors didn’t have the option of simply glossing over it. Instead, they chose to face it head on and cast in a way that made it seem like it a positive thing. It does not necessarily follow that they would be arguing that homosexual acts committed by anyone other than David are therefore okay. Kenneth Davis argues that David’s sexual exploits with women are later emphasized “as proof of what a macho guy he really was” – providing a counterbalance to the well-known relationship with Jonathan.

Another possible explanation is that the writings against homosexuality were targeting specific ritual practices, such as a symbolic coupling with Baal to make the rain come. In such a case, a homosexual relationship with God’s blessing would not come under the same rubric.

It could also be that the condemnation of homosexuality was a later tradition, or that the focus on homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 had to do with ritual purity. I argued several times in the reading of Leviticus that the prime concern of the book seems to be with keeping things in neat categories. Blemishes are bad, men must have testicles, men and women have sex, etc. The authors show clear discomfort around anything that deviates from the norm. It could be, then, that the condemnation of homosexuality was – at least at one time – a concern for priests, but not really a big deal for the common people (or princes and future kings). Given Leviticus gives us the only explicit condemnation of homosexual sex in the Old Testament, I’d say that there’s a strong argument to be made that it was only a concern to a relatively small segment of the population.

This all assumes that the relationship is, indeed, a romantic one. I don’t think that’s settled, though, at least for now. Abbie at Better Than Esdras combed through our text for other examples of kissing, finding:

  • Isaac asks his son to kiss him (Gen. 27:26).
  • Laban kissing his sons and daughters (Gen. 31:55).
  • Esau and Jacob kiss when they meet each other after a separation, weeping as David and Jonathan do (Gen. 33:4).
  • Moses kissing his father-in-law (Exod. 18:7).

By contrast, she found only two romantic kisses:

  • Jacob kisses Rachel (Gen. 29:11).
  • Kisses are given in the Song of Solomon (So. 1:2).

This doesn’t mean that David and Jonathan weren’t lovers, merely that this particular kiss isn’t proof of a relationship.

1 Samuel 20: David finally figures out that Saul doesn’t like him

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Chapter 20 feels awkward following the last few chapters, despite the note in the first verse telling us that the events take place after David’s escape to Naioth. The chapter makes far more sense if we assume that it came from a separate tradition, one in which David only suspects that Saul has turned against him.

My New Bible Commentary, which frequently argues against the multi-source hypothesis, tries to explain away the oddity by casting this chapter as an attempt to convince Jonathan of the threat:

Certainly after the events of ch. 19 David can have been in no real doubt as to Saul’s intentions; but this chapter does not in fact suggest that he had – rather to the contrary (v. 3). It was Jonathan who could not believe it of his father (v. 2). (p.298)

Which sort of works. We could read it as Jonathan believing that 1 Sam. 19:6 ended the matter, naively believing that his father has passed through his wanting to kill David phase. But then we have to believe that what follows – with Saul tossing a spear at David and David escaping and all the assassins – happened without Jonathan’s knowledge. The same Jonathan who confidently declares in 1 Sam. 20:2 that his father tells him absolutely everything.

The result, then, of accepting the New Bible Commentary‘s view is seeing Jonathan as an absolute naif.

Which seems to fit the portrayal of him in this chapter, honestly. When David asks Jonathan what he’s done for Saul to want to kill him, Jonathan tells him not to worry because he won’t die. And I’m just like, that wasn’t the question, you fool. (Allowing, of course, for translation and rhetoric.)

Jonathan’s reasoning is that Saul tells him everything, so he will know if Saul is plotting to kill David. David, however, isn’t so sure. Saul knows that the two of them are buddies, he argues. The implication being that he might control the outflow of information in Jonathan’s presence as a result. “Truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death” (1 Sam. 20:3).

The Plan

David and Jonathan come up with a plan to prove, once and for all, whether Saul is trying to kill David. David will go into hiding for three days. If, during that time, Saul asks after him, Jonathan is to say that he’d asked permission to go to Bethlehem for a sacrifice – a family affair. Interestingly, this is the same cover Samuel gave in 1 Sam. 16:2-3 to avoid arousing suspicion when going to anoint David.

If Saul accepts the explanation, David will know that it’s safe to return to court. If, however, Saul is angry, they will know that he is determined to do bad things to David. Because, apparently, two spear-throwing incidents weren’t evidence enough.

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

Their conversation continues and Jonathan again answers the wrong question. They plan a communication system to allow Jonathan to get news to David without arousing suspicion, then they renew their vows to each other. In the midst of it, Jonathan says: “should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan, and more also” (1 Sam. 20:13). I haven’t read ahead, but this sounds like some major foreshadowing.

On the first night of David’s hiding, Saul notices his absence at dinner. He figures that David must have accidentally become ritually unclean and shrugs it off. On the second night, however, he becomes suspicious (as we read in Exodus-Deuteronomy, most instances of uncleanliness are purged by evening, so the explanation doesn’t hold up over a second day).

He asks Jonathan where David is, and Jonathan gives the planned excuse about the sacrifice in Bethlehem. Saul becomes slightly irritated, calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse, rebellious woman” (1 Sam. 20:30), going on to say: “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”

If we take the view that David and Jonathan don’t just like each other but like like each other, it seems that this could be a reference to that. Another possibility is that Saul is recognizing David as competition for the crown – Jonathan’s competition. So long as Jonathan is on Team David, “neither you not your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam. 20:31). The “shame” he speaks of, then, would be of turning against the interests of his family by not pursuing the creation of a dynasty.

To punctuate his argument, Saul then throws a spear at his son.

This is a guy who is apparently known for throwing spears at people, as he did so in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, then again in 1 Sam. 19:10. You’d think there’d be a point (no pun intended) where people would just refuse to be in a room with Saul if he has a spear nearby.

In accordance with their plan, Jonathan heads out to the field and fires an arrow, directing his servant to fetch it in the way that would tell David that it is most definitely not safe for him.

Despite all the secret signals, they end up meeting up and having a long chat anyway, during which they re-confirm their bond, kiss, and cry a lot.

Not that both times Jonathan has saved David so far, it has involved David hiding in a field (1 Sam. 19:1-3).

 

The Ten Commandments of Bass

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Commandments of Bass

(via Guitar Player Magazine’s Facebook wall)

1 Samuel 19: Far-falling apples

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Saul makes no secret of his desire to kill David. He tells all his servant, and even his son, Jonathan. Jonathan, you’ll remember, is the guy who’s knit his soul to David’s, so this turns out to be a pretty bad idea on Saul’s part.

Again, we are told of Jonathan’s special relationship with David. In this case, he “delighted much in David” (1 Sam. 19:1). Abbie at Better Than Esdras scanned through the text for other uses of “delighted,” and did find it used in a sexual (albeit generally non-consensual) manner. However, it is also used in Num. 14:8 to express God’s feelings toward the chosen people.

Abbie’s final conclusion is:

In the context, I read Jonathan “choosing” David as an analogy to YHWH “choosing” the Israelites – Jonathan pledges his devotion to David, because he’s goddamn King David. They form a covenant, just as YHWH and the Israelites had a covenant.

Regardless, it’s clear that Jonathan cares for David, so of course he spills the beans and instructs David to hide while Jonathan tries to change Saul’s mind. He is successful, and Saul promises that “as the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death” (1 Sam. 19:6). David is returned to court and everyone lived happily ever after. Or did they?

David must still die

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

War breaks out again, and David heads out to kill the Philistines. Meanwhile, the evil spirit comes back to Saul, so he sits in his house with a spear in his hand. This time, Saul isn’t simply flying into a rage. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he is able to wait with intent until David’s return. So perhaps his evil spirit is violent paranoid delusion? David plays the lyre, Saul throws the spear at him, and as in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, David evades him. At least it was only the one spear this time, and at least this time David has the good sense to flee.

He doesn’t flee very far, however, as he apparently just goes home. Saul, really intent on killing David this time, sends “messengers” (who really seem more like assassins) to wait outside David’s house, hoping to kill him in the morning.

David’s wife, Michal, knows that they are there, however, and sends David out the window. She then makes a dummy in his bed, using a teraphim, a term that is elsewhere used to refer to household gods, and what appears to be a pillow made with goat hair to stand in the place of David’s head. I see murmurings that Michal’s possession of a teraphim marks her as an idolater, but I think that there are a few issues with this: Firstly, the text describes the location as David’s house. If she has a teraphim, so does David. Secondly, why couldn’t the same term be used to refer to a decorative statue? Michal is a princess, so it stands to reason that her home might include some decorative statues. Either way, the trick is so classic that it has it’s own entry on TV Tropes.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

When Saul sends in the assassin to take David, Michal refuses him, claiming that, like Ferris Bueller, David is ill. Saul persists, however, and his assassin demands to see David’s bed. He does not, unfortunately, attempt to stab the dummy, but rather recognizes it immediately as a fake. Michal’s excuse is that David said to her, “Let me go; why should I kill you?” (1 Sam. 19:17), which I take to mean that she is claiming that he threatened her, even though the plan was clearly her idea. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take from this that Michal is merely covering her own butt now that David is safely away, or if we’re supposed to slot Michal into the liar category.

It’s notable that this chapter shows two of Saul’s children defecting, choosing to be loyal to David instead. If we assume that at least some of the sources going into 1 Samuel are propagandistic, having Saul’s own children reject him in favour of the competition is a pretty obvious move.

What happens in Ramah

Having escaped, David heads to Samual at Ramah. He tells him all that has happened, and the two go to live at Naioth (which, from the context, is apparently a district of Ramah).

Saul finds out where David is and sends his messenger assassins. When they arrive, they are met by a company of prophesying prophets with Samuel leading them. The assassins are overtaken by the spirit of God and begin prophesying. This likely refers to an ecstatic form of worship, something like speaking in tongues. From the description in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, these guys seem like a rather wild bunch, what with all the music and such.

Saul sends a second group of assassins, but they join the prophets as well. As does the third group. Finally, Saul decides to take matters into his own hands, and he comes down to Ramah. When he arrives, the spirit of God comes upon him too, and he also begins prophesying. In fact, the party gets so wild that “he too stripped off his clothes” (1 Sam. 19:24) and he lies naked all day and night. Because of this, it was said of him: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 19:24). This story was clearly an alternative explanation for what appears to have been a common saying, as it so directly mirrors the one in 1 Sam. 10:12.

For those keeping track of sources differences, this story conflicts with 1 Sam. 15:35, in which we are told that Samuel and Saul separate and never see each other again. Harmonizers may take comfort in the fact that 1 Sam. 19 never explicitly states that Saul and Samuel see each other, it is merely implied.

The evidence for “Paleo-Eskimos”

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There’s a fascinating (and frustratingly short on details) article on CBC about the so-called “Paleo-Eskimos.” Apparently, genetic testing has found that there is no relation between this group and the later Inuit peoples. What this means, in short, is that there was a group of people living in the arctic for about four thousand years, totally unrelated to the people there now.

There are two aspects of this story that are particularly fascinating. The first is that despite an overlap between the “Paleo-Eskimo” people and the Inuit, it appears that (almost) no interbreeding occurred. This is extremely rare. Even when cultures have specific prohibitions against interbreeding with outsiders, there are nearly always exceptions – people who didn’t follow the rules, sexual violence from the other culture, things like that.

The second aspect about this that I find really interesting is that Inuit oral legend had preserved their knowledge of this other people:

Inuit still talk about the Tunit people they encountered when they arrived. The oral tradition says the Tunit were very shy and would run away when approached.

This is a complicated issue when looking at mythology because it can be very difficult to tell the difference between preserved history and entertaining fabrication, mostly because so many stories are a combination of both, at least in general terms.

When reading Judges, I talked a lot about trying to find the history buried in the myth, and gave some of my own impressions and stories. Without corroborating evidence from other disciplines – such as archeological and genetic evidence as in the case of the “Paleo-Eskimos” – it remains pure conjecture.

But no less fascinating.

EDIT: A friend posted this article validating another Inuit oral tale, this time relating to the Franklin arctic expedition.

1 Samuel 18: Foreskin currency

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At the end of the last chapter, Saul and David have a meeting during which Saul establishes David’s identity. Here, we find out that while they spoke, David and Jonathan – Saul’s son – were falling in love (though whether this is love of a romantic sort is, as usual, up for debate). Precisely, their souls are “knit” together.

Abbie at Better Than Esdras points to the term as meaning “bound” or “tied,” and therefore a reference to the covenant formed between them in 1 Sam. 18:3. She gives the example of Deut. 11:18, where the words of the covenant are to be bound upon the hands of the Israelites.

Jonathan then strips off his robe, giving it David along with his armour and weapons. We are told then that David is successful in whatever tasks Saul sets him to, seeming to imply that Jonathan’s gifts aid him in this.

Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp, by Erasmus Quellinus II

Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp, by Erasmus Quellinus II

The idea that Jonathan is stripping is an interesting one, and I’ve seen a few theories that this would have been a part of lovemaking between the two men. Abbie provides an alternative by pointing to three other instances of this stripping that we’ve seen so far: In Genesis 37:23, Joseph is stripped of his coat. In Num. 20:26, Aaron is stripped of his garments, which are then given to Eleazar. And, finally, in 1 Sam. 17:38, Saul tries to give his armour to David and is refused.

At no point does the term occur in a sexual context. Rather, it is a conferring of honour (or an attempted taking of it). The connection to Saul’s similar attempt to dress David seems important. Wearing Saul’s armour, David fails so hard that he can’t even walk. In Jonathan’s armour, however, he “was successful wherever Saul sent him” (1 Sam. 18:5). It points, perhaps, to a taint surrounding Saul, and perhaps refers to a deep friendship between David and Jonathan from which David drew strength.

In there, there is a confusing line about how Saul prevents David from returning home. According to my New Bible Commentary, this “does not of course mean that visits to Bethlehem were forbidden to David; it is simply a mark of David’s advancement that he becomes a permanent officer at court” (p.297). This seems a plausible enough explanation, given what follows.

When Saul and David return from fighting the Philistines, they are met by dancing women who are playing timbrels and singing:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 18:7)

Here, again, we see the recounting of heroic deeds sung by women. An interesting detail.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this song doesn’t exactly sit well with Saul, who now perceives David as his enemy.

This first portion of the chapter seems to be a bit of a time skip, despite the references to it taking place the same day as the battle against Goliath. I got the impression that it was added as a poetic device to serve as a sort of introduction to what would follow – namely the relationship with Jonathan, the acclaim of David among the people, and the souring of his relationship with Saul.

David must die

The rest of the chapter is cut up into seemingly isolated stories. The next day (though this could be an editorial insert to situate the story), Saul is suddenly overtaken by the evil spirit sent by God and, while David plays his lyre (remember that he was hired in 1 Sam. 16:14-16 to play in just such situations), Saul throws two spears at him. David manages to duck in time. There’s no indication that this episode concerns David in any way. I had interpreted the “evil spirit” as referring to something like epilepsy, but it seems clear from this story that it’s something more like a violent rage, like perhaps some sort of manic episode.

Saul next tries to get rid of David by making him a commander, hoping that he will be killed in battle. The ruse fails, however, as David succeeds in every mission he is given – as we were told he did in 1 Sam. 18:5. Saul is in awe, a term that means both fear and reverence. More importantly, the people grow to love David, because “he went out and came in before them” (1 Sam. 18:16). I assume that this means that they see him leaving for his missions, then coming back successful – a sort of parade that serves as a visual reminder that he is totally awesome.

Saul offers his daughter, Merab, to David in exchange for his continued fighting on Saul’s behalf. If you’ll remember, the champion who defeats Goliath was promised her in 1 Sam. 17:25, so this is rather late in coming. Saul hopes that he will avoid sinning by having the Philistines kill David in battle rather than having to do it himself. David is humble, as usual, asking who he is that he should be considered for son-in-law to the king. It seems, however, that he eventually agrees, though Saul inexplicably changes his mind and marries Merab to Adriel the Meholathite when she should have been marrying David. According to my study Bible, this incident is “lacking in some Greek texts” (p.356).

Which makes sense, because it’s immediately followed by a very similar story involving Michal, Saul’s other daughter.

Like Ruth, Michal is the initiator of the union. Though rather than heading off to a threshing floor, she instead expresses her interest in David within earshot of people who report back to Saul. Saul decides to make this work for him, hoping that Michal “may be a snare for him” (1 Sam. 18:21). It seems that his plan is identical to the one he had with Merab – that dangling Michal before David will keep him going out on suicide missions.

David acts humble, because apparently he is incapable of responding in any other way, and highlights his poverty. He is presumably indicating that he lacks the funds to provide a bride price, so Saul makes a proposition: David can marry Michal for the price of 100 Philistine foreskins. It is unknown how he would be able to identify whether the foreskins were, indeed, of Philistine origin. His hope is that David will die in the effort to extract them.

The impossible task is not an uncommon one in stories. As Kenneth Davis writes:

The idea of giving a young hero an impossible task is a common one in legends. In Greek myth, Jason must deliver the golden fleece and Perseus must bring the head of the Medusa. Like these other ancient Near East warrior-heroes, David surprises Saul by delivering the goods. In some versions of the Hebrew text, David actually goes Saul one better and delivers two hundred foreskins. (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.178)

The demand for foreskins, while seriously weird from my perspective, may not actually be quite so far-fetched. We need only look to shockingly recent North American history for an example, as colonists offered bounties for the scalps of First Nations people. Different head, same concept.

Davis goes on to provide an even closer parallel. It seems that the Egyptians, who also practised circumcision, were known to take anatomical trophies from defeated enemies. In particular, the uncircumcised penises of Libyans were amputated to aid in counting the number of the defeated (or, perhaps, de-feeted).

According to my Bible, David does Saul one better and brings home double the required foreskins (which just shows lack of attention to detail, as far as I’m concerned), though apparently the Septuagint sticks with only 100 foreskins.

The bride price taken care of, David is able to marry Michal, and Saul is more afraid of David than ever.

According to Collins, there may have been a political motive behind the story of Michal. Not only does she get the ball rolling by expressing her interest in David, it is Saul who proposes the union. “David, then, cannot be accused of marrying for expediency” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.121).

1 Samuel 16-18

Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible? does an excellent job parsing out two distinct stories from the jumble we’ve seen in the preceding three chapters. The post first examples all the concerns that are raised if we read the early part of David’s story as a single, continuous narrative, then goes on to tease out the two probable source stories using discrepancies between the Massoretic Text and the Septuagint (as well as some brief mentions of other sources). Then there’s some other very interesting stuff specifically about Goliath, but that may be left for later to avoid spoilers as it deals with details from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.

Judas Never Really Understood the Concept of Personal Space

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Personal Space

(via Cheezburger)

1 Samuel 17: David and Goliath

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It’s so obvious that this chapter offers up a different story for David’s entry into the royal circle from that of the last that even my New Bible Commentary offers up only a half-hearted attempt to explain away the multi-document hypothesis. In the last chapter, we find a shepherd boy David who is brought into the royal court because his music playing helps Saul deal with his tormenting evil spirit. He becomes well-loved and is soon made Saul’s armour-bearer. Here, however, shepherd boy David finds himself on a battlefield and defeats the Big Baddie of the Baddies, thus becoming introduced to Saul.

The strongest argument I can see that these are meant to be part of a single narrative is that we’re dealing with some time-skipping and flashbacks. As evidence, we might cite 1 Sam. 16:18, where David is recommended to Saul as a “man of war,” even though in 1 Sam. 17, he is clearly inexperienced in that area. So the proper narrative chronology may be that David is anointed by Samuel, walks onto the battlefield to slay Goliath, becomes known to Saul as a fighter, then is recommended to Saul as a musician as well, ending up as Saul’s armour-bearer. Will not entirely far-fetched, there’s really no indication in the text that this was the intended narrative.

My New Bible Commentary tries to argue that when Saul asks who the heck that kid who just killed the giant is, what he actually meant was “what’s his last name?” His first name being already known since he is already a musician in Saul’s court.

To further complicate things, even this chapter may not be from a single source. According to Collins:

There are actually two stories here. The first is found in 17:1-11, 32-40, 42-48a, 49, 51-54. The second is in 17:12-31, 41, 48b, 50, 55-58; 18:1-5, 10-11, 17-19, 29b-30. The verses that make up the second story are missing from the Old Greek translation. It is generally agreed that in this case the Greek preserves the older text. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.120-121)

A valley divides them

The chapter opens with those big bad Philistines amassing near Socoh, in Judah. Saul musters his own army in response, so each side camps atop a mountain, a valley running between them.

Every day – for forty days – a Philistine champion by the name of Goliath of Gath comes out to call for single combat. Whichever champion wins, his side wins the war.

The description we get of Goliath is an imposing one, despite the lack of agreement. According to Deane at Remnant of Giants, there are two major possibilities, depending on the manuscripts one chooses to read:

In some manuscripts of 1 Samuel 17, Goliath is 4½ cubits, which at approximately 18 inches or 45cm per cubit (as general estimates) is 6 feet 8 inches or 2.02 metres. In other textual witnesses, Goliath is 6½ cubits, that is, 9 feet 7 inches or 2.93 metres. Texts in which Goliath’s height is only 4½ cubits are also missing many of the verses found in most modern translations of 1 Samuel 17  (with the notable exception of Codex Alexandrinus) . The missing verses are 1 Samuel 17.12-31 and 55-58, and almost only appear where Goliath’s height is given as 6½ cubits.

A height of 6’8″ is certainly tall, but not what we could consider giant today. However, Deane adds that that “the average height of people in this region in the late centuries B.C. was about 3½ cubits (a little over 5 foot).” At the time, then, even our low option would be fairly impressive (albeit within the range of human possibility).

The assumption, then, is that the figure was impressive to begin with, but apparently not impressive enough for a later editor. If you’re wondering how Goliath stacks up against other giants in the Bible, Deane has another post up comparing both possible heights to an estimated height for King Og of Bashan (based on the size of his bed/coffin described in Deut. 3:11). At an estimated 11’10”, King Og cuts a far more impressive figure than even the tallest Goliath.

(And if you’re interested in how the Bible has influenced later literature, Deane also has a post comparing David and Goliath to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.)

Highlighting Goliath’s impressiveness, we’re given a list of all his armour and weaponry. This seems to be making the Deuteronomist theological point that victory in battle stems form God’s approval, not might or skill.

The shepherd boy

We turn then to David, who is described as “the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah” (1 Sam. 17:12), as though we hadn’t just spent a chapter learning that. He has seven brothers, though the same three are named as in 1 Sam. 16: Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah. Tradition apparently forgot the names of the other four, or perhaps the number of brothers was rounded up to give David an auspicious number of male siblings.

Goliath's head, from the Grimani Breviary, 1515-1520

Goliath’s head, from the Grimani Breviary, 1515-1520

Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah are all fighting in Saul’s army, while David goes back and forth from battlefield to Bethlehem so that he can feed his father’s sheep. One day, Jesse, David’s father, sends David to the battlefield with food for his brothers and for the commanders of Saul’s army. Apparently concerned about the wellfare of his sons, Jesse asks David to bring back some token from his three brothers, proving, I suppose, that they are well.

David’s timing is impeccable, and he arrives just as the Israelite army is heading into battle. He reaches his brothers and is chatting with them when Goliath steps out from among the Philistines and issues his challenge, yet again. David overhears the terrified Israelites talking about how the one who steps up as Israel’s champion and wins will be rewarded with many riches and Saul’s daughter.

I was a little confused about David’s actions here. It seems that he is going around the camp trying to urge someone to step forward, perhaps doing it in a shaming way. Either way, his brother Eliab stops him. He assumes that David has left the sheep unattended so that he could come out and watch the battle, it being several thousand years before TV. David seems to brush him off, arguing that he was just talking, then resumes his call for a champion. If I’ve interpreted this passage correctly, it seems that the narrator wishes to establish that David has some humility – that he stepped up because no one else would, and only after asking everyone else to do it first. This seems reinforced by having Eliab directly accuse him of being a glory hog, so the narrator can show David being conspicuously not one.

There’s also some mirroring going on. Eliab’s rejection of David seems to recall Joseph’s rejection by his older brothers in Genesis 37. It also mirrors the discounting of David’s older brothers from 1 Sam. 16. There, Samuel initially assumes that Eliab must be the future king, but God tells him not to be fooled by appearances. God, we are told, “sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). We see that played out here were David is the only one from among Jesse’s sons to stand up to Goliath.

 The duel

Saul hears about David going around camp trying to drum up a champion, and he has David brought to him (though it’s unclear why since it seems like everyone is going around saying similar things). Here, for the first time, David volunteers to slay Goliath.

Saul tries to dissuade him, arguing that David is just a kid (despite his description as a “man of war” in 1 Sam. 16:18), whereas Goliath is a seasoned fighter. But David argues that he has loads of experience fighting lions and bears to defend his father’s flock, even going so far as to grab the predators by the beard.

Given that the deal Goliath proposed would have Israel serve Philistia if their champion loses, it seems rather strange for Saul to go for such a Hail Mary candidate. But whatever his reasoning, he gives his blessing.

Saul tries to equip David as best he can, loading him with armour and a sword. However, David “tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them” (1 Sam. 17:39). It seems that the armour is so heavy that David can’t even walk in it! Instead, he goes out with nothing but his staff, a handful of stones, and his sling.

There’s a theological reason for this, of course – the same one that spent so much ink listing Goliath’s amour and weapons. The Deuteronomist shtick is that battles are not won by superior skill, or numbers, or weaponry. Rather, battles are won (or lost) according solely to the will of God. By pushing an unmatched fight to the extreme, the point is all the more strongly made.

According to Victor Matthews, there could also be a historical underpinning to the dynamic:

Although the Philistines and Canaanites began to experiment with an iron-based military technology in the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C., the metal of choice throughout this period remained bronze. Israelites also used bronze weapons, but their lack of metallurgical knowledge, and the Philistine monopoly over the tin trade, probably forced many of their soldiers to use slings and farm implements to defend themselves. Some iron weapons were undoubtedly captured during raids by Israelite forces, but without the knowledge of metallurgy to repair and fabricate new weapons out of scrap metal, they would have become useless eventually. This may explain why the forces under Joshua chose to burn the chariots of the northern coalition of Canaanite kings rather than use them themselves (Josh 11:9). The Israelites could not repair the chariots, and they did not want to leave them behind for Canaanites to use against them in the future. Also, the chariots would have been of little use to Israelite bands operating out of the rugged hill country. (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59-60)

When they meet, Goliath and David banter a bit. Goliath makes fun of David for being dressed as a shepherd boy, and David responds: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied (1 Sam. 17:45).

Notice, also, that David’s retort positions him not as the champion of Israel (which is the whole point of the duel – that the battle be resolved by each side providing a champion for single combat), but rather he is the champion of God.

There’s some more posturing, and David’s speech is fairly dripping with Deuteronomistiness: “All this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (1 Sam. 17:47).

David then draws his sling and smacks Goliath in the forehead with a stone. The Philistine falls, and then David takes his sword and beheads him. It’s unclear from the text whether it was the stone or the beheading that did the actual killing. Or, rather, both are said to. The important point is that David defeated Goliath while “there was no sword in the hand of David” (1 Sam. 17:50).

His job done, David stows Goliath’s armour in his tent – though we may ask which tent given that David had only just arrived from Bethlehem, and it hardly seems that the armour would be of much use to anyone given the size issue. David then takes Goliath’s head to Jerusalem.

When Saul saw David go out against the Philistines, he asked Abner, his general, who the boy is, and Abner doesn’t know. Once Goliath is dead, David tells Saul that he is the son of Jesse.

1 Samuel 16: The boy with the beautiful eyes

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One of my most vivid memories of Sunday School as a child was colouring in a picture of of little boy David standing on a hilltop with his flock of sheep. Now, finally, we meet shepherd boy David!

At the end of the last chapter, God had removed his protection from Saul’s reign. Now, God tells Samuel to dry his tears and fill up his oil horn, ’cause Saul’s replacement is in Bethlehem.

Samuel, however, isn’t so sure that he wants to make the journey. Understandably, he fears the repercussions if Saul finds out that he is gallivanting around anointing overthrowers. So God provides him with a cover story – he is to bring a heifer along, so he can tell anyone who asks that he is going to make a sacrifice (though it isn’t clear why he would be choosing that location in particular).

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue, Syria

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue, Syria

For reasons that aren’t stated, the elders of Bethlehem are terrified of Samuel. They meet him “trembling” (1 Sam. 16:4), asking if he comes in peace. There’s no given reason for the elders to be afraid. I might have thought that, given the new animosity between Samuel and Saul, they might be afraid that Samuel’s presence might cause problems. But their question, “Do you come peaceably?” (1 Sam. 16:4) suggests that it is Samuel himself that they fear.

According to God, the chosen one is one of Jesse the Bethlehemite’s sons. Samuel goes to Jesse and has him parade his sons before him.

When the first comes out, Samuel is wowed. He is certain that Eliab must be the new king. But God tells him not to judge a book by its cover, or “the height of his stature” (1 Sam. 16:7).

Seven sons in total are presented, but God rejects them all. Perhaps confused, Samuel asks if there might not be some more sons hidden away somewhere. Jesse confesses that that the youngest remains, but he is out tending sheep. I suppose this is meant to highlight David’s humbleness, that even when the running was down to just eight people, he was still not considered to have enough of a chance to be brought in. Once again, we see the point made that God is choosing the leaders, that they are not – like Abimelech – seeking out power for themselves.

David is fetched. He is a “ruddy” boy with “beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12). God gives a nod and Samuel anoints him. His job done, Samuel heads back to Ramah.

As with Saul in 1 Sam. 9, David’s name isn’t revealed until the last possibly moment. Even though the intended audience almost certainly knew who the story was about, the technique adds a slight suspense (or, at least, the humour of knowing that suspense is intended).

Saul’s illness

The scene changes and we come to Saul. The spirit of God has left him and, in their place, God sent him an evil spirit that torments him. The description is of episodes or fits, so it could be something like epilepsy.

His servants recommend finding a musician who can play through Saul’s fits, perhaps to calm him. Another servant says that he has heard of a particularly fine musician, a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. I think you can guess who he has in mind.

Despite the Sunday School colouring picture of the young boy barely able to hold up his shepherd’s crook, this David is described as “skilful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence” (1 Sam. 16:18). It could be that this description was earned after the spirit of the God came into David, though, since there’s no indication of the passage of time.

Saul is impressed by his new musician, and quickly makes him armour-bearer.

Christopher Rollston provides some other examples of stories from the Near East in which kings – particularly kings who took power by suspicious means – who were chosen for their kingship by their respective gods. Whether or not David overthrew Saul, the fact remains that Saul failed to establish a dynasty and David took over. Tongues wag in a situation like that.

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