Once cobbled together from multiple sources, 1-2 Samuel was presented as a single, continuous narrative, only to be separated when translated into Greek. This is rather clear given that 2 Samuel 1 follows seamlessly from where we left off in the last book.

Three days after David has returned to Ziklag with his rescued wives, an Amalekite with torn clothes and dirt in his hair – signs of mourning. He claims to have just escaped from the Israelite camp and brings word that Saul and his sons are dead.

When David asks the Amalekite knows that Saul is dead, he answers that he found Saul leaning on his spear (presumably injured), and that Saul asked him to kill him. He agreed, then removed Saul’s armlet and crown, which he has brought for David.

David and his men rend their clothes, then weep and fast until evening. When they are done, David asks the Amalekite to give him his identity – he is, he says, the son of an Amalekite sojourner (which, as we see in places like Ex. 20:10 or Deut. 14:29, implies a long term resident rather than someone just passing through).

You’ll notice a few things about this. First, that this does not match the description of Saul’s death in 1 Samuel 31 (where Saul kills himself after his armour-bearer refuses). Second, the fact that the Amalekite just happened to stumble on Saul and that he then took Saul’s stuff suggests that he may not have been a combatant, but rather a battlefield scavenger (it’s perfectly plausible that the Philistines did not find Saul right away, and while it is said that they removed his armour, his crown and armlet are not mentioned in 1 Samuel 31). Thirdly, it’s clear that the Amalekite considers David to be Saul’s successor, and presumably hopes to win favour by being the one to bring him the symbols of kingship.

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

Death of Saul, Marc Chagall, 1956

If I’m reading this correctly, it seems that the Amalekite stumbled on Saul’s body, looted it, then invented the story of killing Saul in the hopes of ingratiating himself with Saul’s enemy and competitor for the crown of Israel.

(Another amusing theory is that Saul is being portrayed as so utterly incompetent that he couldn’t even get his suicide right and had to ask a second person after his armour-bearer had already tried to follow his king to the grave.)

You may also notice that the Amalekite is an Amalekite, not an Israelite. So when David asks him, “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) and has him killed, he is – once again – spared from ever having to do violence against an Israelite. He may be a bandit raider, but at least he’s our bandit raider.

On having the Amalekite killed,David either believes the man’s story, or wants to make sure that he sets an example early on. As for why punish him for essentially doing him a favour, I think that there are two things going on.

The first is that David is portrayed fairly consistently through our narrative as Totally Not A Traitor. He is driven out, sure. He even defects to the Philistine side, but that’s only because Saul gives him no choice and he’s got to provide some form of stability for his family. But at no point is he shown to be the antagonist in his relationship with Saul (and, in fact, explicitly refuses to move against Saul on two separate occasions – 1 Sam. 24 and 1 Sam. 26). So we can take his execution of the Amalekite as an extension of his Totally Not A Traitor persona.

The second reason may have something to do with the “we do not kill princes” policy. If we imagine this story to be taking place in a time of flux and social upheaval, in the nascent years of a monarchy in a land that is accustomed to tribal rule, David’s reign stands a fair chance of ending in the same way as Saul’s. The killing of one’s predecessors as a means of gaining the throne is probably the last precedent David would want to set for his budding monarchy. (There’s a really cool parallel in the rule of Elizabeth I, where she refused to kill her would-be successor to avoid reinforcing the precedent of killing princes. In the end, her followers had to stage an elaborate sham plot to trick Mary into semi-open treason – maybe, or just gave up and forged it – to force Elizabeth’s hand. It’s called the Babington Plot, and it is a surreal and fascinatingly convoluted story of court intrigue.)

David’s question – “How is it that you were not afraid to put forth your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Sam. 1:14) – helps to illustrate the rationale Saul’s armour-bearer might have been using when he refused to follow Saul’s direct command to kill him.

The lament

David has a reputation as a musician. Like most musicians I know, he turns to song to express the pain of his loss, composing a piece that fills up the second half of the chapter. David commands that his lament be written down in the Book of Jashar, and that it be taught to the people of Judah (presumably only Judah because they are David’s people). The Book of Jashar is a now-lost book that seems to have been a source for at least some of 1-2 Samuel, as well as Joshua. In Joshua 10:13, we are told that the episode of the sun stopping in the sky was described in the Book of Jashar. Given that Jashar contains both stories, we can assume that it was composed – at the very earliest – during the reign of David. Since the Book of Joshua cites it, we can therefore assume that Joshua was written sometime even later.

In his lament, David writes glowingly of Saul, calling him “mighty” several times. He wishes that the Philistines not be told of his death lest they rejoice at it. He asks that the mountains of Gilboa (the site of the battle) become barren for having had Saul die upon it. Then he praises Saul and Jonathan’s military prowess in the battle prior to their deaths, and states that they were not divided in life – a strange thing to say given that Jonathan most certainly had sided with David and Saul tried to kill him for it (1 Sam. 20:32-34). Only in the strictest sense that we say that they were not divided, in that Jonathan had remained at Saul’s side rather than going to Ziklag with David.

In the penultimate verse, David writes of Jonathan: “very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). The phrasing resonates with that of Leviticus 18:22, and certainly seems to suggest that their relationship was of a sexual nature. The other possibility is sexism – equating women with the bedroom and reserving friendship for between men. If that’s the case, then David is essentially saying that he valued his friendship with Jonathan even more highly than he values getting laid. Or, to put it into more modern parlance, it could be his way of saying “bros before hoes.”