1-2 Samuel: Closing Thoughts

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Before reading 1-2 Samuel, I’d heard speculation that the figures depicted – particularly Saul and David – were not historical. Having now read the books, I find that it rings authentic. There are (almost) certainly fudges, exaggerations, and propagandic spins, but the characters and their conflicts had a completely different feel from what we’ve mostly seen so far. In Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua, there were elements that I found odd, bits that modern believers would generally find embarrassing (I would hope), but there was always a sense of purpose behind the stories. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, to use one example, there was a clear sense of theological purpose, even if that underlying purpose has been lost.

In 1-2 Samuel, however, I didn’t get the sense that there was a purpose to having David become a bandit after leaving Saul’s court. It didn’t seem to have a point, except that the author was trying to mitigate the negative stain of it on David’s reputation by trying to spin him as a freedom fighter/vigilante police.

King David, by David Clayton, based on Westminster Psalter, c.1200

King David, by David Clayton, based on Westminster Psalter, c.1200

That said, there’s no question that much was exaggerated. I don’t buy for example, that Saul and David ruled over territories that were quite so large as claimed. Just to engage in some wild speculation for a moment, the sense I got was that Saul was raised as a leader of the Benjaminites. At the time, Benjamin was powerful enough and offered up enough resistance to antagonists like the Philistines that they were able to receive tribute in exchange for protection – forming a confederacy that was a little more solid than what we saw in Deborah’s narrative in Judges 4-5.

Meanwhile, David came to Saul, possibly as a court musician. Perhaps Judah was already starting to cause problems, or perhaps David attempted a coup (a failed coup might have become retold as David staying his hand and sparing Saul by choice) to make Judah the central/leading tribe of the confederacy. It might instead have just been a personal issue between the two men. Either way, David ended up being cast out and living as a bandit for a while before joining the Philistines. During this time, he got leadership experience and amassed a personal army of not-inconsiderable might. He was also buddybuddy with the Philistines, who posed the greatest threat to the confederacy. It was this alliance that occasioned Saul’s death (I suspect that David was at the battlefield, since his alibi, presented in 1 Samuel 29, just seems a little too convenient, though there’s no reason to believe that he personally killed Saul).

With the Hebrew confederacy in turmoil after a major loss to the Philistines and the death of its figurehead (presumably along with enough sons to make succession an issue), David saw an opportunity and returned to his home in Judah. It’s possible that he had a family claim to the Judahite leadership, though the sense I get was that he was just good enough at politics to convince the Judahites to make him their leader and mount a challenge against the already much weakened Benjaminites – who were now not only dealing with enemies from nearly all sides, but also seem to have had a fairly weak (and possibly quite young) king.

This lead to a sort of civil war between two tribes competing for primacy in the confederacy – one that David ultimately wins. But with the resentment of the Benjaminites, the cultural differences between Israel and Judah, the precedent of inter-tribal conflict, and the conflicts within David’s own family, it seems that his rule was marked by rebellions as the culture group messily evolved into a nation. Still, David managed to keep the confederacy together even after the pressing danger of the Philistines was over.

Not only is it a good story, it’s a plausible one, too. It just feels true, at least in kernel form.

The Characters

Saul was a very inconsistent character, which makes sense if his portion of the narrative was cobbled together from different sources. He seemed hard yet sympathetic at times – which makes sense if he was truly able to unite the tribes for such a long time. At other times, he seems vindictive, petty, and erratic.

If the text was generally composed (or at least compiled) by pro-David propagandists, this all makes a good deal of sense. They would want to disparage Saul just enough to make it clear that David’s succession was a good thing, but without disparaging him so much that anyone might think that maybe this whole monarchy thing was a bad idea. This would particularly be the case for the earliest sources, while it was still thinkable for the tribes to exist without a king.

There are hints about Saul that go unexplored, like his zealousness in “purifying” his newborn nation. I wish there was more information about his rule, more clues to help me decide if it was the work of a cultic zealot or a shrewd politician who understood that the inter-tribal variations would have to be stamped out if the nation wasn’t soon to dissolve back into its separate groups (or, perhaps most likely, a combination of both).

Much more time is spent with David, and we hear more both about his policies and about his family life. What we see isn’t pretty. He’s clearly politically savvy, holding the nation together through multiple challenges – both internal and external. Privately, however, he comes off as a complete douche – particularly where women are involved. In fact, I can’t recall a single time in all of 1-2 Samuel where a woman is brought up in relation to David and isn’t in some way harmed by him (either explicitly or it’s strongly hinted at). Over and over again, he sees a woman he likes, causes the death of her husband, and takes her. His own daughter is raped and he seems to regard it as little more than an unfortunate “boys will be boys” incident. He leaves his concubines – women who are completely dependent on him for their safety – behind in a city that is about to be taken by an invading army, then shuts them away under guard when they are, predictably, raped.

When I think of how many times I was told in Sunday School that David is the “ideal king,” and that we should hope for a leader like David, I can’t help but feel my stomach churn a little.

Theology

One of the more interesting aspects of 1-2 Samuel has been the evidence of change from what we’ve been reading. God is no longer speaking directly to anyone other than prophets, and even then it’s coming in the form of divination techniques like oneiromancy or using special divination stones. To me, it’s an indication that we’ve left Mythic Time, and have entered into mythologised/fudged historical time.

One element that stood out for me, particularly toward the end of 2 Samuel, was the idea of God’s ultimate power. Theologically, it was more important to show that God was the Big Boss than it was to show him being kind or consistent or making sense. So we God get angry at the people, so he orders David to take a census, so he can punish the people for David’s census. It makes no sense whatsoever unless we begin with the assumption that God is the ultimate power, responsible for all things. It’s the same theology we saw so much of in Exodus, where God keeps hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

If I remember correctly (and it has certainly been a while), this is quite a change from the more limited, local-seeming God of Genesis. I’d be interested in knowing if this is due to geographical differences, or an actual evolution in theological thinking. My best guess would be that the stories of Genesis were, for the most part, commonly known folk stories recorded by scribes who did not alter too much. Moses, I think, began that way, but was adopted by “schooled” theologians, who had time to bring plenty of their own thinking to the story before it was committed to writing. David’s history, clearly court-writing, seems to be see the practical application of “school” theology in interpreting history.

Priestly Matters

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In 2 Sam. 8:18, we learn that David’s sons are serving as priests. Previously, we’ve read that only the descendants of Levi could serve as priests (as, for example, in Numbers 18). As David is, in fact, from the tribe of Judah, this poses a rather serious continuity problem.

I’ve seen some apologetics claim that this is a translation error, and that it should rather say that David appointed his sons to oversee the priests. Of course, that doesn’t address the other breadcrumbs.

Genesis and Judges seem, to me, to be the most folk books we’ve read so far, showing us glimpses of the popular religious expression. What we see in both books, but that is largely lacking in the more urban/establishment books, is the presence of individuals setting up their own personal shrines. In Genesis, the characters are semi-nomadic, and seem to be dotting the landscape with altars. In Judges, we see the beginning of more settled, permanent installations, such as Micah’s shrine in Judges 17.

High PriestIf we assume a nomadic/semi-nomadic origin for Israel, we could be seeing the process of settlement and the evolution of belief. This is further illustrated when Micah replaces his own sons as priests with a dedicated professional, giving us the term “levite.” This could be a story illustrating the beginnings of the priesthood as a dedicated vocation in Israelite society.

In a nomadic culture, it’s rare to fine specialization. When camp needs moving, everyone needs to help. When sheep need tending, everyone needs to pick up a crook. It’s only as societies settle that agriculture can support a class of people providing services that are not directly related to the acquisition of food.

If we make further assumptions, it could be that, as the priest cast came to hold more power, they consolidated by making the position hereditary. Perhaps even to prevent precisely what David does – rulers setting their own sons in the priesthood, which could lead to the same family controlling both the secular and religious life of the nation. It’s quite possible, then, that the tribe of Levi was formed sometime after David, taking over what had been a more generic term for priest, and constructing a tribal identity that fit with the cultural and cosmological milieu.

It could also be that there was a nomadic tribe of Levi that, when it finally came down to settle, found it more expedient to serve as priests than to fight established communities for patches of land.

There’s also an evolution from regional worship to a more centralized cult, giving us the possibility that the term “levite” (and the definition of the levite’s role) may have originally had more pronounced regional variations, hints of which remain in the stories collected in the Bible. We may see a hint of this in the different uses of the word “ephod” – which is used variously to mean an item of clothing, an object made of metal, or a divination tool. It’s possible that the term had cultic significance, but that what it referred to differed by region. Or perhaps it referred to a whole class of objects and garments associated with ritual.

Certainly, it’s clear from 1-2 Samuel that tribal heredity was not a requirement at the time of the events being described, but we also see that this was a concern for later contributors. For example, Samuel’s father is explicitly an Ephraimite in 1 Sam. 1:1. Given Samuel’s later role, however, it seems that a group of contributors were uncomfortable with him having so much religious authority without being a Levite. So the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-27 makes him a descendant of Kohath, turning him into a proper Levite.

This may have been the case with Eleazar, as well. In 1 Sam. 7, Abinadab appoints his son, Eleazar, as a priest and caretaker of the ark. In 2 Sam. 6:3-4, however, Eleazar is not listed as one of Abinadab’s sons (who are given as Uzzah and Ahio). It’s quite possible that multiple people have been named Eleazar, and that perhaps he’d died prior to or been absent from the events described in that chapter. Or, it could be that Eleazar was known as an early priest of the ark, and was written into Aaron’s family at a later date.

There’s frustratingly little evidence from which to draw conclusions, and it doesn’t help that the texts have been periodically edited so that clear chronologies are difficult to tease out. I think, however, that it’s reasonably clear that the priesthood evolved over time – from a role assigned to a member of the family, to a mostly hereditary profession.

1 Samuel 31: The king is dead, long live the king!

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With David safely back at home with his family and far, far away from the battle (lest anything be said about his ambitions), we return to the battlefield where, as we know, Saul is soon to die. Given the locations, it seems probable that the scene with the witch of Endor should have been placed just before this chapter, and not all the way back in 1 Samuel 28 (it’s current location requires some geographical skipping).

the narrative jumps right in, telling us that the Philistines win the day. Saul’s sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) are killed and Saul is badly wounded by archers. Unwilling to be slain by those “uncircumcised” Philistines who might make sport of him (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him instead. The armour-bearer refuses.

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

It’s unclear why the armour-bearer refused. It could be that killing his king – even if commanded to do so – is just too great a sin for him, or it could be a final dig at Saul, a reminder that he really has no control over his subjects (as we saw in 1 Sam. 22:17, where his followers refused his command to kill the the priests at Nob).

Saul takes matters into his own hands and falls on his sword. The armour-bearer follows suite and kills himself as well. When the Israelites in the area hear that the royal family is dead, they flee the cities, leaving them empty for the Philistines to occupy.

The next morning, the Philistines return to the battlefield to scavenge the dead. They find Saul and his sons, strip Saul of his armour, and cut off his head. The armour they send to the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his corpse to the wall of Beth-shan (and, apparently, the corpses of his sons, too, though they aren’t mentioned here).

The mention of a temple of Ashtaroth here is a little confusing. So far, the term has been used as the plural of the shrines/idols/poles used in the worship of Asherah (maybe?), not as the name of the goddess herself (though a variation of the old semitic mother-goddess, Ashtoreth, is very similar sounding). So it could be that the temple of Ashtaroth is a typo, or perhaps we’re to understand that the temple contains several idols to the goddess.

Another possibility, though I don’t know how plausible it is, is that the name of the temple refers to its location. We saw in, for example, Deut. 1:4 and Jos. 9:10 that King Og of the Amorites ruled from a town called Ashtaroth. Either way, it seems that the phrasing causes some confusion.

When the people of Jabesh-gilead hear that Saul’s body has been fastened to a wall, they sneak out at night to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. Note the identity of the corpse-rescuers here – one of Saul’s first acts as leader/king was to rescue Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite raiders.

The people of Jabesh-gilead burn the bodies of Saul and his sons, then bury their bones under a tree. They finish up by fasting for seven days. It’s not clear why they choose to burn the bodies rather than simply bury them. It could be that the fire is intended as a sort of purification after the bodies were left hanging too long (if they rescue the bodies on the night of the same day that they were hung, this would still violate Deut. 21:23). It could also be that there was some variation in burial practices at this time.

With Saul’s death, 1 Samuel comes to a close.

 

1 Samuel 29-30: The Great Rescue

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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.

1 Samuel 28: The Witch of Endor

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When last we left our heroes, David was working as a sort of raider-in-chief for the Philistine king Achish while Saul remains (for the time being) the king of the Israelites. This poses an obvious problem for David, as the Philistines and Israelites have long been enemies. So far, David has managed to avoid conflict by only raiding non-Israelites and lying about it. The ruse couldn’t last forever, however, and King Achish summons David to join his army as he marches out to meet the Israelites. David accepts the summons.

As a reward for his loyalty, Achish makes David his bodyguard for life.

So with David about to fight against his own people (if he felt any hesitation, the narrative doesn’t tell us about it). Leaving a rather major cliffhanger, the narrative veers off into a digression.

Meeting the witch

In accordance with Exodus 22:18, Saul has rather thoroughly been going after witches (or mediums, wizards, necromancers, seers – whatever term the translator decides to use).

Unfortunately, when God stops speaking to Saul by any sanctioned means – through dreams, the Urim, or through prophets – he gets a little desperate and heads off to Endor to meet with one of the few remaining witches.

The Witch of Endor, by Nikolay Ge, 1857

The Witch of Endor, by Nikolay Ge, 1857

Saul hides his identity when he goes to her, and his reasoning is obvious when she baulks at his request. She is afraid that Saul will find out and she will be danger. Saul presses her and she finally agrees.

When he requests that she raise Samuel, however, she figures out who he is. Even so, she raises Samuel (apparently the real Samuel, as he retains his ability to prophesy).

Saul explains his problem to the Samuel-shade: The Philistines are moving against Israel but God is silent. My New Bible Commentary explains the possible issue a little more thoroughly: “His problem was that the Philistine armies were resorting to a new strategy; hitherto they had fought in the hills, where their more sophisticated weapons gave them little advantage, and where the Israelites were on familiar terrain. But now they marched into the plain of Jezreel, keeping to level ground, and threatened to cut off Saul from the northern group of tribes” (p.301).

Predictably, Samuel is as acrimonious as ever. It’s unclear why Saul expected death to improve his relationship with the prophet! So, of course, Samuel goes on about how God is giving Saul the silent treatment because he’s mad at him – apparently specifically for his failure to deploy his full wrath contingent against the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Samuel then tells Saul what he already knows – that David has been chosen as his successor. Then he finishes up by predicting that Saul and his sons will die the next day (when David is slated to fight against him!).

Saul, exhausted from fasting (perhaps part of the summoning ritual?), collapses. The witch forces him to eat (insisting after Saul’s initial refusal), then Saul and his companions leave.

The complicated witch

Despite how frequently the text has forbidden people from consulting mediums (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10-12) and even the prohibition from allowing mediums to live (Ex. 22:18), the actual depiction of the witch of Endor is very sympathetic.

She is cast almost as one of Saul’s victims. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the text here, but when we read about Saul’s campaign to exterminate the mediums and the witch’s fear of him, it certainly seemed that Saul is the one playing bogeyman.

Even in the end, when Saul collapses, the witch shows great compassion in feeding him before sending him off.

Cultic confusion

I also noted the mention of the Urim in 1 Sam. 28:6 (one of the methods by which God is refusing to talk to Saul). Does this mean that Saul has his own Urim/Thummim? Up until this point, I had been under the impression that they were unique objects that were kept and used by the current high priest (which would be Abiathar).

So this detail suggests that perhaps the objects were, if not common, at least not unique. Perhaps it also suggests that David and Saul each had their own high priest at this time.

Or perhaps the Urim is only mentioned as being silent to Saul because he currently has no access to it (it being with David). This is always a possibility.

1 Samuel 27: Playing two sides

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Thinking – justifiably – that he may die at Saul’s hand (despite their two reconciliation), David escapes to Gath, to the court of Achish, son of Maoch. The last time he did this was in 1 Sam. 21. At that time, he was still reasonably in Saul’s good graces and feared that Achish might nab him for the political expediency. To get back out of Achish’s court, David lathered up his beard and pretended to be mad.

The move was predicted in 1 Sam. 26:19, where David’s complaint that he is driven out of the assembly of God indicates that he knew that he would be moving to Philistia.

king_davidThis time, he approaches Achish directly. It’s perhaps not surprising that Achish doesn’t remember him, as he didn’t seem to know that David was anything other than just a madman.

David offers himself – and his 600 followers – up as a sort of pirate army. In exchange, he asks for a country town. The text mentions that he brings along Ahinoam and Abigail, so it seems likely that David is trying to settle his (and his soldiers’) family. Living in caves and in wilderness, always having to move as they pursued by their king, can’t have been a very comfortable existence.

Achish agrees and gives David Ziklag. The town had been given to the tribe of Simeon in Joshua 19:5, but had since apparently fallen under Philistine control. Now that it’s given to David, we are told that “Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day” (1 Sam. 27:6). David and his followers live there for one year and four months.

During that time, they go on raids for Achish. Sort of.

While they tell Achish that they are raiding Israelites and friends of Israelites (Judah, Jerahmeelites, and Kenites), they are actually raiding Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites. To keep his subterfuge under wraps, David has all the people he raids murdered, keeping only the livestock and stuff to bring back to Achish. This way, no survivors can reveal that David isn’t raiding the people he claims to be raiding.

Achish, believing that David is making himself an enemy among the Israelites, thinks that his loyalty is assured. After all, he’d have nowhere else to go.

1 Samuel 26: History repeating itself

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In this chapter, we get what is essentially a repeat of the story from 1 Sam. 24. A few details are different, but many are the same. In several places, the wording is even identical.

We begin once again with the Ziphites reporting on David’s whereabouts to Saul. When I read chapter 24, the wording had suggested to me that they were complaining to Saul and asking him to do something about David. When I got a different vibe from chapter 26, I read back again and realized that I’d brought my own assumptions into the chapter 24 narrative. It seems that the Ziphites are merely betraying David’s whereabouts to their king. This doesn’t preclude my original reading, but it makes it by far the less obvious one.

Saul heads into Ziph, again with his 3,000 soldiers, and David can apparently feel his approach. He sends out spies to confirm his intuition. When Saul makes camp for the night, David finds out that he is sleeping in the middle of the camp.

There’s a note here about some of David’s followers, which includes an Ahimelech the Hittite. I think it’s safe to assume that this is a different Ahimelech, not the priest. The characters are named as though they should be familiar to the reader – Abishai is named as “Joab’s brother” and “the son of Zeruiah” (1 Sam. 26:6). Of his companions, it is this Abishai that David decides to take along with him.

Together, they sneak into the camp and stand over Saul’s sleeping body. Abishai urges killing Saul, now that they have him so vulnerable. David, however, refuses – “who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless” (1 Sam. 26:9). Though he has lost God’s favour, Saul is still the anointed king. If God wants him gone, he’ll have to take care of it himself. Not to skip ahead in our narrative, but David displays quite a bit of prescience when he suggests that perhaps God will take care of the monarchy problem by having Saul die in battle (1 Sam. 26:10).

David Sparing Saul, by C.F. Vos

David Sparing Saul, by C.F. Vos

Instead of killing Saul, or perhaps cutting off a piece of his robe, this time David takes a spear and a jug of water that had been placed by Saul’s head. I can’t help but wonder if the taking of Saul’s spear might not be a nod to 1 Sam. 18:10-11, 1 Sam. 19:10, and 1 Sam. 20:33. Finally someone thinks to take Saul’s spear away from him!

More cautious this time than in chapter 24, David stands at a safe distance before he he calls out – this time to Abner, Saul’s general. He taunts Abner, showing him the jug and the spear, berating him for having failed to keep adequate guard over his king. “As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not kept watched over your lord, the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:16).

Saul overhears David’s yelling at Abner and recognizes his voice. In identical words to those used in 1 Sam. 24:16, he asks: “Is this your voice, my son David?” (1 Sam. 26:17).

As in chapter 24, David reproves Saul for being such a meanie, asking him what he’s done to deserve such treatment. This time, there’s an added detail: David argues that by driving him out, Saul is cutting him off from the assembly of God, sending him into the arms of foreign gods (1 Sam. 26:19).

If I understand correctly, David is talking about being cut off from the sanctuaries of YHWH – either because it’s too dangerous for him to show his face in such places (as the episode at Nob in 1 Sam. 22 amply illustrates), or it’s a reference to David’s later defection to Philistia. It’s a hint that perhaps David’s faith wasn’t quite as unwavering as the account otherwise portrays.

As before, Saul agrees that he has done wrong, and he promises that he will not try to harm David again. This seems rather silly following, as it does, so closely on the heals of a nearly identical reconciliation that clearly amounted to very little. Those who argue against the multi-source cobbling hypothesis use this as evidence of Saul’s mental instability, though that does not exactly explain David’s apparent memory problems.

With that, Saul and David part ways.

Under His Authority

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Over on Love, Joy, Feminism, Libby Anne has been reading Created To Be His Help Meet by Debi Pearl. Over and over again, it’s struck me how much emphasis is placed on wifely submission. A godly wife should never ever criticise or question her husband, writes Pearl. Never to him, and certainly never to anyone else. The only exceptions she makes are when a husband tries to force his wife to do something illegal or he is molesting children, though even then she can only report him to the police. In nearly every example Pearl gives, the wife must still remain loyal to her husband and never badmouth him. Throughout the book, she claims biblical authority for her message.

David and Abigail, by Antonio Molinari

David and Abigail, by Antonio Molinari

And then there’s Abigail.

Abigail is the opposite of what Pearl teaches in nearly every way. When she sees her husband acting the fool, she leaves her home to meet David. She essentially tells David not to take guilt upon himself avenging the slight made by an idiot – a man so foolish that that’s even his name! She acts without her husband’s authority and publicly criticises him in pretty much the strongest terms imaginable. And for this, she is described as a woman “of good understanding” (1 Sam. 25:3).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did a search on the Pearls’ website (NoGreaterJoy.org) for “Abigail” and found no hits. Debi Pearl does, however, devote a little apologia to Abigail in Created To Be His Help Meet.

Right from the start, she diminishes Abigail’s agency in the story:

The workers left behind to keep the home place feared that their selfish, evil master was going to get them all killed, so they appealed to Abigail to save their lives. Abigail took the advice of the men her husband had left in charge of overseeing his home.

While still disobeying her husband, in Pearl’s version of the story, Abigail is acting on the advice of men – men her husband put in charge. In a weird, convoluted way, the situation is set up in such a way that Nabal really gave her two separate implied commands (refuse David, and obey the overseers). Abigail can’t do both, so her rebellion is not in going against her husband’s wishes, but rather in choosing which of his wishes to obey.

Pearl then highlights that Abigail returned to her husband, even though she might face consequences for her betrayal. That’s fairly standard Pearl, unfortunately.

As Libby Anne writes about the story:

You know what Abigail doesn’t do? Mourn for her husband. She goes straight to David after her husband’s death, breaking all of the customs of the time. So let’s get this straight. Abigail sides with her husband’s enemy, bad-talks her husband up and down in public, and gives her dead husband the finger by refusing to mourn his death. And yet she gets a pass from Debi.

But it’s in the Bible and Abigail is never described as “wicked,” therefore she must have been good. In PearlWorld, it’s our job to figure out how she can still be good despite contradicting so much of their ideal of “biblical womanhood.”

This episode is an extreme example of what I’m enjoying so much about this project. I grew up as a Quaker in a Catholic area, so my biblical instruction was rather lacking, to say the least. As a consequence of that, what I’ve heard of the Bible (and the oughts one may draw from it) all come from atheists and the most vocal Christians – the vast majority of whom are evangelical fundamentalists. Both groups seem to have it as their mission to present the Bible as simplistically and negatively as possible.

Reading about a woman as strong and independent as Abigail – who steps right around her incompetent husband to get’r done herself – illustrates just how much more complex the biblical view of women is than both the fundamentalists and atheists give it credit for.

1 Samuel 25: Uppity women

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Before getting into the main story, we find out that Samuel is dead. The delivery is every bit as brutal in the text, too, though I apologize to anyone who had gotten attached.

Of his death, we are told only that it happened, that the people grieved, and that he was buried in his house at Ramah. My study Bible notes simply, “the brevity of the obituary is surprising” (p. 365). No kidding.

My New Bible Commentary wonders if the note might not have been added to make a theological point, noting that it occurs right after Saul acknowledges that David will succeed him as king of Israel. From this perspective, Samuel’s death serves to punctuate that story, declaring Samuel’s mission to find a proper king for Israel officially over.

David in the wilderness

For the rest of the chapter, we return to David’s adventures in the wilderness. He is now holed up in the wilderness of Paran or, perhaps, the wilderness of Maon (the Septuagint reading). My study Bible notes that the latter is more plausible, as Paran would put David too far south.

How David manages to keep his 600 followers fed is something of a mystery. My study Bible emphasises that the area would have been quite arid, though 600 is a lot of mouths to feed even for lush ground. It helps to explain why he has been moving so much. It’s also worth keeping in mind as we try to understand the story of his interaction with Nabal.

David and Abigail, by Joseph Schonmann

David and Abigail, by Joseph Schonmann

So David is hanging out in the wilderness with his 600 followers, and he’s doing something. He and some other people in the story claim that he’s a sort of Robin Hood figure, just hanging out and protecting shepherds from wannabe bandits. Take the fancy speeches out, however, and a rather different picture is painted.

David sends ten messengers out to a wealthy shepherd by the name of Nabal. It’s in the middle of sheep shearing, apparently a festival time, and David wants his followers fed. Nabal, whose name means something like “fool”, refuses. He asks who is this David who makes such a claim of him – “There are many servants nowadays who are breaking away from their masters” (1 Sam. 25:10). Why should he feed David’s followers when he has his own to feed?

When the messengers report back to David, he is furious. One interpretation has him angry because the laws of hospitality have been violated – a tremendous insult. Another suggests that perhaps David is a bandit leader and this is how he’s keeping his followers fed. Either way, he orders 400 of his followers to arm up, leaving the remaining 200 to guard their stuff, and marches out. His intention is to kill every male under Nabal’s authority (presumably meaning both livestock and people). Hilariously, the King James Version has the euphemism “any that pisseth against the wall” (1 Sam. 25:22) in place of “male.” Apparently, this is a defining characteristic of masculinity!

Meanwhile, Nabal’s wife, Abigail, hears about the messengers. Unlike her foolish husband, she is “of good understanding and beautiful” (1 Sam. 25:3). Without telling her husband, she quickly pulls together a feast and rushes out to meet David.

When she reaches him, she throws herself at his feet and brown noses for 8 verses straight. She assumes the guilt in the incident because her husband is a total nincompoop and she failed to hear of David’s messengers sooner – an interesting argument, to be sure. During her speech, she references God appointing David “prince over Israel” (1 Sam. 25:30) in the future, suggesting (perhaps an unintentional anachronism) that David’s bid for the crown was broadly known.

David thanks her for staying his hand and preventing him from taking on the bloodguilt of murdering all the wall pissers.

When Abigail returns home, she finds Nabal partying and drunk, and she decides not to tell him about what she’s done (and the danger he was so recently in). The next morning, once he’s sobered up a little, Abigail tells him and his “heart died within him, and he became as a stone” (1 Sam. 25:37) – suggesting some kind of stroke – and he conveniently dies ten days later. David gives thanks to God for getting the foolish Nabal out of the way and sends in a petition for Abigail’s hand in marriage. She accepts.

Overshadowed by such a great “first meeting” story, David also marries a woman from Jezreel named Ahinoam. We are told that he technically has only two wives at this point because Saul has married Michal off to Palti, son of Laish (much as he did Michal’s sister in 1 Sam. 18:19).

1 Samuel 23-24: The Proclaimed King-To-Be

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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.

Gotcha!

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 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 presents 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.

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