1 Chronicles 11: David’s uncomplicated rise

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Skipping straight from Saul’s death in the last chapter to David’s ascension as king, the Chronicler leaps right over the succession conflicts of 2 Samuel 2-4. In this narrative, David’s rise was effortless and conflict-less.

Right from the start, we see all of Israel congregating in Hebron to declare David as their new king. Repeating their speech almost verbatim from 2 Sam. 5:1-3, they reinforce David’s claim by saying that he had truly been the one leading them from the start, even while Saul was king in name. They make a covenant with David, and Samuel anoints him.

1 Chronicles 11 - Samuel anointing DavidWith all of Israel on his side, David turned toward Jerusalem. The Jebusites taunt David, saying that he will never enter his city. But then, wooops, he conquers it anyway. Parts of the story are copied word-for-word from 2 Sam. 5:6-10, except that all references to David’s hatred for people with physical disabilities are replaced by his vow to promote the first person to kill Jebusites (or perhaps to rush forward at the Jebusites) to the rank of chief and commander. This seems like a fairly awful way to pick leaders, given that leadership skills aren’t terribly correlated with “rush into battle and kill stuff” skills. I get that the point is to reward bravery, but this seems like the Peter Principle in action. The point is only more clearly made when we find out that it is Joab who goes first, earning his place as chief. And we all know how well that turned out (1 Kgs. 2:5-6).

My New Bible Commentary notes that Joab’s promotion here would seem to conflict with 2 Samuel, where Joab is already functioning as commander prior to the taking of Jerusalem. Yet, “the commander-in-chief of the king of Judah would not automatically have become commander-in-chief of the king of all Israel” (p.375). In other words, it’s possible that Joab was already commander, but had to re-earn his position in the new national government. Assuming historicity for a moment, this doesn’t seem unreasonable.

James Pate notes a problematic difference between this chapter and 2 Sam. 5:6-10: Whereas in 2 Samuel, David seems to have chosen Jerusalem as his capitol because it was centrally located and because it did not belong to any particular tribe (therefore avoiding the argument of favouritism), the Chronicler gives David complete support from all Israel before he turns to Jerusalem, and in fact shows a pan-tribal attacking army. So why, then, would David have needed to take Jerusalem? Pate discusses the issue in his post.

Once David took Jerusalem, it began to be known as the city of David. He and Joab then set to work repairing the city (and presumably building it up), and thus did David become ever greater.

The Mighty Men

The rest of the chapter lists the men of David’s elite army. It is nearly identical to the list found in 2 Sam. 23:8-39, though with additional names added to the end. One theory is that the 2 Samuel version ended with Uriah to rhetorically underscore the evil that David had done to him in 2 Sam. 11, whereas the Chronicler may have been working with a more complete list.

We begin with the elite of the elite, known as the Three. The group’s leader was Jachobeam, a Hachmonite, who once killed 300 enemies with his spear at one time (the number is 800 in 2 Sam. 23:8, but the difference could be caused by confusion with another warrior, Abishai, who killed 300 in 2 Sam. 23:18 and 1 Chron. 11:20).

The other two members of the Three are mashed together here, apparently due to a scribal error. In 2 Sam. 23:9-12, we learn of two members of the group: Eleazar son of Dodo the Ahohite and Shammah son of Agee the Hararite. In the 2 Samuel version, Eleazar was with David when they defied the Philistines. The Israelite army was routed, but Eleazar kept fighting until his arm grew weary – long enough to win the battle. When the Israelites returned, it was only to strip the dead. As for Shammah, the Israelite army was again routed, but Shammah stood in a plot of lentils, defending it until the Philistines were defeated.

The Chronicler’s version, however, tells us only of Eleazar, and how he was with David at Pasdammim when the Philistines gathered against them. Even though the Israelites were routed, he stood his ground in a field of barley and defeated the Philistines. It’s rather easy to see how a scribe’s eye might skip in two such similar stories.

Before getting into the Thirty, we learn of three men from the band of Thirty (there’s no indication that they are the Three) who came to David while he was in hiding in the cave of Adullam (his stay is narrated in 1 Sam. 22:1-5) while the Philistines occupied Bethlehem.

David seems to have been feeling rather sorry for himself, and said (with much sighing, I imagine) that he wished he could have some water to drink from one of the wells of Bethlehem. These three members of the Thirty heard him (or perhaps overheard him, depending on the interpretation) and took it upon themselves to go fetch that water for David. So they snuck through the Philistine guards, into Bethlehem, and drew the water.

When they returned, however, David refused to drink it. Instead, he poured it onto the ground, saying: “Shall I drink the lifeblood of these men?” (1 Chron. 11:19). How David looks in this story depends entirely on the reader’s interpretation. If he had asked his men who fetch him the water, then his actions are just awful. But if he was just moping about, feeling sorry for himself, and they happened to overhear him and did something foolish that he hadn’t wanted them to do, then he is some degree of less awful. At least no Beckets were killed this time.

The chief of the Thirty was Abishai, Joab’s brother. Like Jachobeam, he too killed 300 enemies at one go with a spear. The other member of the Thirty whose deeds are worth mentioning is Benaiah son of Jehoiada, of Kabzeel, the captain of David’s bodyguards. He killed two whole ariels of Moab, which I’m sure is very impressive whatever an ariel is. He also killed a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen, the significant of which is lost on me, but I’m sure that too is very impressive. He also duelled a very large Egyptian who wielded a spear like a weaver’s beam. Benaiah lunged in with his staff and, snatching the oversized spear from the Egyptian’s hands, killed him with his own weapon.

The rest of the Thirty are given as a simple list:

  1. Asahel brother of Joab
  2. Elhanan son of Dodo of Bethlehem
  3. Shammoth of Harod
  4. Helez the Pelonite
  5. Ira son of Ikkesh of Tekoa
  6. Abiezer of Anathoth
  7. Sibbecai the Hushathite
  8. Ilai the Ahohite
  9. Maharai of Netophah
  10. Heled son of Baanah of Netophah
  11. Ithai son of Ribai of Gibeah, of the Benjaminites
  12. Benaiah of Pirathon
  13. Hurai of the brooks of Gaash
  14. Abiel the Arbathite
  15. Azmaveth of Baharum
  16. Eliahba of Shaalbon
  17. Hashem the Gizonite
  18. Jonathan son of Shagee the Hararite
  19. Ahiam son of Sachar the Hararite
  20. Eliphal son of Ur
  21. Hepher the Mecherathite
  22. Ahijah the Pelonite
  23. Hezro of Carmel
  24. Naarai the son of Ezbai
  25. Joel the brother of Nathan
  26. Mibhar son of Hagri
  27. Zelek the Ammonite
  28. Naharai of Beeroth, the armor-bearer of Joab and son of Zeruiah
  29. Ira the Ithrite
  30. Gareb the Ithrite
  31. Uriah the Hittite
  32. Zabad son of Ahlai
  33. Adina son of Shiza, the Reubenite, who was a leader among the Reubenites and was accompanied by 30 of his brethren
  34. Hanan son of Maacah
  35. Joshaphat the Mithnite
  36. Uzzia the Ashterathite
  37. Shama son of Hotham the Aroerite
  38. Jeiel, Shama’s brother
  39. Jediael son of Shimri
  40. Joha, brother of Jediael, a Tizite
  41. Eliel the Mahavite
  42. Jeribai son of Elnaam
  43. Joshaviah, also a son of Elnaam
  44. Ithmah the Moabite
  45. Eliel
  46. Obed
  47. Jaasiel the Mezobaite

These are, of course, way more than thirty men. It seems that the name of David’s elite company was chosen for its neat roundedness (or perhaps its accuracy at some earlier date).

1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).

1 Samuel 9: The Great Ass Chase

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In our narrative so far, we’ve been setting the scene for the emergence of the first king of Israel. The people have asked for a monarchy and, despite his reservations, God is going to give them one.

We open with Saul, a wealthy Benjaminite who is exceedingly tall and handsome, and we are given his lineage (all the way back to his great-great-great-grandfather). Between his lengthy lineage and personal physique, there is little question that this is a guy we need to be paying attention to. As Tim Bulkeley puts it: “You can’t get into hero school unless you’re tall and handsome.”

But then we take a sudden turn. Rather than going off into heroics, or turning a lion into a beehive, or whatever, Saul’s great quest is to go find some donkeys. You see, his father – Kish – has lost some of his donkeys, and he entrusts his tall, handsome son with their retrieval.

Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible that “this story speaks volumes about early Israelite society. Lost donkeys were a matter of concern for prophets and for future kings” (p.118).

Now, according to my study Bible and to Collins’s handy textbook, the last chapter was written by the anti-monarchy source, whereas this one was written by the pro-monarchy/pro-Saul source. According to them, when Samuel appears as a local “man of God” in 1 Sam. 9, it is because this source did not view him as the super special national hero that he was in, say, 1 Sam. 7-8. Here, he is a local seer who happens to play a role in the anointing of the true hero of the story – Saul.

Further, the monarchy is no longer seen as something that the Israelites asked for and God grudgingly obliged. Rather, it is a gift from God, freely given.

But then I read Tim Bulkeley’s spin, and my perception of this story changed quite dramatically. Since I find Bulkeley’s version far more interesting, I’m going to stick to that one as we proceed.

Shilly-Shallying Around

So Saul and his servant search for the donkeys high and low. Several place names are given in their search, none of which sounded familiar. Bulkeley suggests that perhaps the names were chosen because of their sound – Shalisha and Shalim, said too fast, might indeed trip the tongue. As Bulkeley puts it, perhaps the point is that Saul is “shilly-shallying around.” (That doesn’t mean that these were not real places – they may have been little known villages chosen because they evoked images of backwater, as well as for their sound.)

Saul’s servant plays a comedic foil. While Saul rides around not finding these donkeys (and, really, how far could they have gone?), his servant makes a solid proposal – why not ask the local man of God, see if he can help? Saul, portrayed as the kind of guy who chronically forgets to bring his wallet when he leaves home, naysays the plan because he has nothing to offer the seer as payment. In an amusing reversal, it is the servant who has the necessary money.

Donkey and rider, by Saul Raskin, 1929

Donkey and rider, by Saul Raskin, 1929

This is the Beleaguered Assistant trope, in which the assistant is the one who has to do most of the work and suffer most of the consequences, yet reaps none of the benefits. In this case, we have Saul who is handsome, rich, and about to stumble into becoming king, yet the servant who put him on the necessary path doesn’t even get a name.

When they arrive at a well near the town where the man of God is said to live, they stop to ask a group of maidens for directions. This is another trope that should be familiar, since we’ve seen it play out with Rebekah in Genesis 24, Rachel in Genesis 29, and  Zipporah in Exodus 2.

As Bulkeley points out, the directions the maidens give are repetitive, almost breathless-sounding. Are they babbling because Saul is such a hottie? Or perhaps because they are conscious of their fictionality and the trope of meeting maidens by the well, so they are expecting one of them to soon be married?

But Saul fails to seal the deal. In fact, he seems to have no idea of the proper literary conventions for this kind of meeting. Just to reinforce the point that perhaps he isn’t the sharpest bulb in the basket, Saul listens to these maidens tell him half a dozen time that he will totally meet Samuel as soon as he steps into the town, and that he really can’t miss him because everyone else is waiting for Samuel to start the feast so no one else will be there.

Yet when Saul walks into town and sees a guy, he asks him for directions to Samuel’s house, apparently failing to even consider that he might be talking to the man of God himself.

Meanwhile, we get a flashback telling us that Samuel was expecting Saul, having gotten God’s memo about the king-to-be arriving shortly. You’ll note that Samuel’s name has not been mentioned until this moment, making the “OMG, Samuel was the man of God all along!” reveal all the more dramatic.

So Saul doesn’t recognize Samuel, but Samuel recognizes Saul. Samuel reveals his identity and tells Saul not to worry about the donkeys – they’ve already been found and, in any case, he’ll have his pick of donkeys soon enough. Saul doesn’t catch on and seems rather confused that Samuel would take an interest in a mere Benjaminite, “from the least of the tribe of Israel” (1 Sam. 9:21).

In the context of the story, there’s no reason for Saul to guess that he might go out one morning looking for donkeys only to find himself crowned king of all Israel. But for the audience – who almost certainly already know about Saul and that he will be king – his interactions with Samuel must have been quite funny.

Samuel wines and dines Saul, seating him at the head of the table, giving him what appears to have been choice cuts of meat, then prepares a bed for him. In the morning, Samuel asks Saul out for a walk-and-talk and tells him to send his servant on. Saul himself must stay behind so that Samuel might “make known to you the word of God” (1 Sam. 9:27).

Positive Portrayal

Is this really the positive portrayal of Saul that my study Bible claims it to be? If we assume that the answer is yes, then the MacGuffin of the donkeys serves to show that Saul did not go out looking to become king. He was – at least in the beginning – a humble man who was totally surprised when God chose him out of the blue. He even argues against his special treatment from Samuel: “Am I not a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribe of Israel?” (1 Sam .9:21).

On the other hand, Saul consistently fails in this story. He fails to find the donkeys, he fails to have something on him with which to pay the seer, he fails to secure a bride at the well, he fails to recognize Samuel, and he fails to realize why Samuel takes an interest in him. As Brant Clements puts it: “this sets the tone for Saul’s entire kingship. Overall he will be a failure. He will not establish a dynasty. He will die by suicide. Preemption, disappointment, and subverted expectations are the hallmarks of Saul’s story.”

Whether we buy it outright or not, it seems that Bulkeley’s reading of this story as poking fun at Saul is, at the very least, plausible. It makes a fool of the king-to-be even while it tells of his rise.