Before we got sidetracked by Saul’s adventures in Endor, we learned that David was going out to fight with the Philistines against the Israelites. So far, David has managed to avoid the conflict of interest by lying about the victims of his raids (1 Samuel 27), but now his betrayal seems inevitable.

At no point are we given insight into David’s feelings about all of this. He seems perfectly willing to follow Achish into battle in 1 Samuel 28, and he expresses no reservations here. Rather, it is the other Philistines who complain about his presence – worried that David might turn on them during the battle, seeing this as a great strategy if David wants to reconcile himself with Saul.

After all, they say, isn’t this the David from the song?

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 29:5)

Achish defends David’s presence, arguing that David has shown himself to be nothing if not loyal. But, in the end, he gives in to the will of the people (and interesting parallel to Saul who, in 1 Sam. 15:22, 24, claimed that he only disobeyed God because he was afraid to go against the popular opinion – just as, here, Achish goes against his conscience for the same reason).

David protests using much the same language as he used when defending himself to Saul in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26, but ultimately gives in and heads back to Ziklag, conveniently spared the faux pas of having to fight against his own people (over whom he will son be king, no less!).

The common argument about this story is that it gives David an out. He was apparently known to have defected to the Philistines, and trying to erase that historical detail would have proved impossible. What was possible, however, was at least keeping him away from the battle in which his chief nemesis dies, exonerating David from any intentional power play.

David versus the Amalekites

When David gets back to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by Amalekites and burned, the women (including David’s two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail) taken captive.

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David rescues the captives, Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

This apparently has a rather profound effect on morale, because David’s followers start talking about stoning him. Which seems a little extreme, but perhaps the rationale is that they wouldn’t have left their families undefended if David had not taken them out to fight with the Philistines. To defend himself, we are told that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Sam. 30:6). It’s not really clear what this means, but perhaps he invoked their belief in God (and his position as God’s chosen) to dissuade the people from mutiny.

As he’s been doing a lot before making major decisions (even when they seem as clear cut as “shall I rescue my wives?”), David calls for Abiathar to consult God. Should he pursue the bandits, he asks? Of course, God says yes, so David marches out with his 600 fighting men.

Some of them appear to be getting a little on in years, because 200 of them simply can’t go on after they reach Besor. David carries on with his remaining 400 men. This will be important later.

On their way, they encounter a starving Egyptian. They feed him – apparently quite well – and find out that he is the servant of one of the Amalekites, left behind after he had fallen sick. According to the Egyptian, Ziklag was not the only place hit, the Amalekites had also raided the Negeb of the Cherethites, areas belonging to Judah, and the Negeb of Caleb. He agrees to lead David to the raiders.

He does so and David smites all except for 400 who manage to flee.

Everything and everyone taken is recovered from the Amalekites, plus a good deal of spoil. Not a bad run, all told.

When David’s army rejoins with the 200 men they had left behind at Besor, the 400 who had gone on start grumbling that they shouldn’t have to share the spoils with people who didn’t even fight. Heck, they don’t even want to return their property (except for women and children, which is a concession I’m glad they made).

David argues that those who fight in the battle and those who stay behind to guard the baggage are both important, and both deserve a share of the spoils. He makes this an ordinance that is to apply to all Israel henceforth, though it isn’t clear on what authority he does this.

Once he returns to Ziklag, David sends part of the spoils out to various elders of Judah, smoothing any concerns over his allegiance and presumably paving the way for their support when it comes time to select a new king of Israel.

How many times can an Amalekite die?

It’s been pointed out that the Amalekites are utterly killed on several occasions. There are a couple possible explanations for this.

Reconciling Samuel’s slaughter of the Amalekites with Saul’s is rather easy, as it could be that Samuel’s list is not of his personal achievements in battle, but rather of the achievements of Israel/God while under his spiritual leadership.

For Saul and David, it could be that we’re dealing with hyperbole. It’s not like the authors of the Bible are totally unfamiliar with the technique.

It could also be that we’re dealing with a subset of Amalekites, not the entire people. We’ve seen this before, particularly in censuses, where the term “people” is used when only the adult men are meant. So in 1 Samuel 15: 7-8, it could well be that the “all the people” Saul kills refers only to the men currently on that battlefield. This might well exclude the raiding party for David.