David is informed that the Philistines have been harassing the citizens of Keilah, a town in Judah. David asks God if he should go help them, and God says yes. Abiathar has brought his ephod, so this conversation takes the form of divination (notice God’s “yes/no” answers in these chapters – God is not having lengthy, direct conversations with his adherents here).
David’s followers, however, have different ideas. Their argument seems to boil down to the fact that they are already on the run from Saul, so why draw attention to themselves as the enemies of Philistia as well? David asks God again if he really should go, and God maintains that he should.
This story seems to serve two purposes. The first is to contrast David against Saul. Saul, too, has been defied by his followers. In 1 Sam. 15:24, Saul disobeys Samuel’s instructions out of fear of his people and, in 1 Sam. 22:17, he couldn’t get his guards to obey his orders. Yet here, when confronted by the same refusal from his followers, David chooses to follow God instead. The message is a clear one: David is a strong leader, Saul is a weak one; David is a God-centred leader, Saul is a people-centred one.
The second point seems to be that David is behaving like a king – at least in Judah. When a town is harassed by Philistines, a good monarch should come to their aid. Yet where is Saul? He will have no trouble coming to Keilah with an army once he hears that David is there, but displays no intention to come relieve the citizens of the town from the Philistines. Alternatively, this may support my reading that the antagonism between David and Saul was one between two tribal leaders trying to establish their own tribe as the rulers of a confederation.
So David heads out to Keilah with his 600 followers (an increase from the 400 he had in 1 Sam. 22:2) and fends off the Philistines, then apparently takes up residence in Keilah.
When Saul hears that David is in Keilah, and he assumes that God must have delivered David into his hands (since Keilah, apparently a walled town, can easily become a prison in a siege). At this point, Saul clearly still believes that God is on his side, despite his conflicts with Samuel.
David hears of Saul’s coming and consults Abiathar’s ephod to confirm the rumours. He then asks if the people of Keilah will surrender him, and God says that they will. No explanation is given for future-betrayal, but it may be assumed to be related to the slaughter at Nob (having heard of it, it would make sense for people to be rather wary of sheltering David). So David and his followers leave and go instead to the wilderness of Ziph.
While Saul has had so much trouble locating David, Jonathan seems to have no difficulty whatsoever. He goes out to David in the wilderness of Ziph to reassure him. He also assures David that: “you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you” (1 Sam. 23:17). Apart from Samuel’s visit to Bethlehem, this is the first we hear about David’s future as king, and it seems odd given the circumstances that he does not deny or seem surprised by Jonathan’s words. It changes the tone of the story, suggesting that David is not so much a fugitive on the run from a king possessed by an evil spirit, rather than a rebel and explicit contender for the throne. It suggests that Saul’s hatred and fear of David may not be quite so irrational as they have been made to seem.
Jonathan and David reconfirm their covenant, and Jonathan returns to Saul.
The Ziphites in the area where David is staying appeal to Saul to help them get rid of David. It seems strange unless we’re supposed to understand David as a sort of bandit leader figure, since the request is similar to that of towns like Keilah.
Saul sends the Ziphites home to confirm David’s whereabouts. He’s concerned that David is “very cunning” (1 Sam. 23:22), so he wants absolute confirmation before he brings out his army again.
Once the Ziphites confirm David’s location, Saul heads out and chases David to the wilderness of Maon. There, he is closing in when, suddenly, he receives a message that the Philistines are raiding. As king, he must repel them, so he abandons the hunt for David.
This complicates our image of Saul. He is not possessed of an “evil spirit” that causes him to hunt David single-mindedly. Rather, he is still – at least in this instance – willing to abandon the hunt, even when he is so close, to go fulfil his duty as king and protect his people.
With Saul distracted, David escapes to Engedi.
Saul returns from fighting the Philistines and hears of David’s move, so he takes 3,000 soldiers along (to fight David’s 600). As they march along, Saul stops in a cave to relieve himself. Because Saul’s dignity is clearly not a concern for the authors.
Unfortunately, Saul ha the worst luck ever. The cave he chooses happens to be the one David is hiding in and, while Saul is doing his business, David stealthily cuts the skirt off Saul’s robe. He then feels terribly guilty for having done even that much and stays his hand against further mischief.
Saul, apparently not noticing that the skirt of his robe is gone, finishes up and leaves the cave. The mental image will have me giggling for weeks, I think.
David spares Saul, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250
David chases after Saul, waving his skirt. “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks you hurt’?” (1 Sam. 24:10). The obvious answer might be that Saul’s own son and David’s closest friend, Jonathan, is one of them. By declaring David the next king, he is strongly implying that David will either kill Saul or, at least, prevent Saul’s descendants from taking the crown.
But in this case, David has evidence on his side. He presences the skirt he cut from Saul’s robe, saying that he came that close yet Saul remains unharmed.
David then launches into a big speech in which he apparently admits that he and Saul are pitted against each other, but calls on God to arrange all of the fighting on his behalf. He refuses to raise his own hand against Saul (1 Sam. 24:12-15). The apologetics of such a speech placed in the mouth of someone who will usurp the crown are rather obvious.
Saul acknowledges that David is the more righteous between them, and he calls on God to reward David for his mercy. He admits that he knows now that David will be king (1 Sam. 24:20), and even that it will be David who will truly establish “the kingdom of Israel” (1 Sam. 24:20) – further supporting my pet theory that Saul was king only of the Benjaminites (and possibly the odd vassal tribe). He asks only that David swear not to cut off his descendants and destroy his name.
There may or may not be secondary intended aspect to this story. When David runs out of the cave to talk to Saul, he puts himself at the mercy of Saul’s 3,000 men. It’s never explicitly said, so I don’t know if it’s intended or not, but Saul shows just as much restraint here as David in not taking advantage of the parlay to capture or kill David.
In the end, Saul heads home and David goes to a stronghold.