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.