1 Samuel 22: The Nob Slaughter

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Having escaped from Gath, David hides himself in a cave near Adulam. He is, apparently, the worst at hiding, because his family hears that he’s there and come out to meet him. As do approximately 400 people in distress, in debt, and in discontent (the three Ds of any rebel army worth its salt). David becomes their leader.

He then makes his way to Mizpeh, in Moabite territory, and asks the king of Moab to look after his parents for a while, at least until David has a chance to figure out where his little rebellion is heading. According to the Book of Ruth, David is related to the Moabites, so he may have been able to claim kinship for the favour.

David leaves Mizpeh when a prophet, named Gad, tells him to. Again, we see that David is positively aligned with religious figures. From there, he then goes to the forest of Hereth, which would place him in the territory belonging to the tribe of Judah.

Saul, in Gibeah, hears about David. Unfortunately, we know he’s in a bad mood because he is described as having “his spear in his hand” (1 Sam. 22:6). He asks his court what they think David will offer them for defecting, since none of them had told him about Jonathan’s alliance to David (though 1 Sam. 20:30 makes it quite clear that he knew).

His speech makes the conflict sound inter-tribal to my eyes. He addresses his court as “Benjaminites” (1 Sam. 22:7), for example. This could simply imply that his close court is comprised of Benjaminites, but David’s position makes it clear that exceptions were made. The fact, also, that Saul is in Gibeah and David in the forest of Hereth suggests a possible border issue (Benjamin and Judah were neighbours). If I go out on a limb, I might wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is a story of tribes competing with each other for supremacy, with Saul declaring himself king of Israel as leader of Benjamin and David declaring himself king of Israel as leader of Judah. This would certainly explain why the Philistines in 1 Sam. 21:11 believed David to be king.

It could also be that the united monarchy was not a single event, one in which loose tribal alliances become a single nation overnight with the popular acclaim of a single leader. Rather, perhaps Saul ruled Benjamin, and perhaps he had a protector/vassal agreement with a few other tribes. It would make the transition more gradual, and help to explain why Saul refers to his entourage as “Benjaminites.”

It’s also worth noting that Saul’s rave paints David as a revolutionary, not as a fugitive. From his perspective, David is raising an army with intent to overthrow him. And it is certainly true that David is raising an army! Only, the authors, who aren’t necessarily trying to paint David as perfect but certainly think he’s a pretty cool dude, have soldiers simply flock to David of their own volition, presumably intending later on to force David’s hand into overthrowing Saul. So far, he has consistently been painted as defensive in his relationship with Saul.

Doeg the Edomite, whom we met in 1 Sam. 21:7, is the only one in Saul’s entourage who speaks up. He says that he saw David at Nob, and that Ahimelech fed him, consulted God for him, and armed him.

The slaughter

Saul is understandably furious. He has just found out that the high priest of his nation has just been helping a traitor and enemy of the state. We might see Ahimelech as a good guy because history remembers David as a good guy, but I think that if the same situation were to play out today, Ahimelech would, at best, be a controversial figure.

Doeg kills Ahimelech, from the Macclesfield Psalter, c.1330

Doeg kills Ahimelech, from the Macclesfield Psalter, c.1330

Of course, none of that excuses what Saul does next.

He summons Ahimelech and asks him why he conspired with David against him. Ahimelech turns it around, arguing: “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David” (1 Sam. 22:14). Not only does this explain his own behaviour (since David is such a loyal servant, how could Ahimelech possibly have known that they had fallen out?), it also argues in David’s favour (if David is faithful, then the responsibility for the rift falls on Saul).

Saul goes straight for the ultra-baddie title and orders his entourage to kill Ahimelech and all the priests. Showing just how tenuous Saul’s grasp on the throne is (or has become), his entourage refuses. This also fits with the portrayal of Saul that we saw, for example, in 1 Sam. 15:24 – a king with very little authority.

Only Doeg the Edomite, Saul’s little Renfield, is willing to raise his hand against the priests. He kills Ahimelech and 84 other priests. Apparently all on his own, he also slaughtered the people of Nob – men, women, children, infants, and even livestock. It’s rather hard to imagine how he would have managed this. Only one man, Ahimelech’s son Abiathar, escapes and flees to David’s side.

When he tells David what happened, David is suitably contrite, realizing that he shares some of the responsibility for what had happened. He invites Abiathar to remain with him and promises him protection.

The slaughter of the priests is apparently a continuance of the prophecy in 1 Sam. 2:31.

As an aside, I’ve noticed that Saul seems always to use “son of” designations, avoiding the use of personal names. He seems to be the only character who does this so consistently, but I don’t know what that means.

1 Samuel 21: David’s escape

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Having escaped, David makes a stop in Nob to visit Ahimelech. Notice how both here and in 1 Sam. 19, he chooses to flee to a figure of religious authority (in that case, he had gone to Samuel). Ahimelech is terrified to see David alone, but no explanation is given for why this would be the case. Perhaps he knows of the animosity between David and Saul and suspects that David is on the run? That’s my best guess, because David reassures him by lying, saying that Saul has sent him – and a group of men waiting for him at “such and such a place” (1 Sam. 21:2) – on a super secret mission (presumably, David’s companions are fictional, meant to convince Ahimelech that David truly is out on official business). He asks Abimelech if he can spare some food.

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Unfortunately, Ahimelech only has holy bread. According to a few sources, this would be bread that could only be consumed by members of the priesthood, yet Ahimelech offers it to David. His only condition is that neither David nor his companions have slept with women recently. David explains that he and his men keep their vessels holy on missions, even on common journeys, so that’s not a concern. The argument will later be made (Mk 2:23-28) that this passage allows for flexibility in the cultic rules when they interfere with the wellbeing of people. Even though David isn’t a priest and therefore has no business eating the holy bread, he is allowed to take it because he has need.

David next asks if Ahimelech has any weapons he could have, “for I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste” (1 Sam. 21:8).

This is difficult to reconcile with the story in 1 Sam. 20, where David suspects that Saul might have it in for him and then plans his absence from the court. Rather, it seems better to follow after his flight in 19:11-17, where his wife shoves him out of a window in the middle of the night. This would better explain why David has so little with him.

The only weapon Ahimelech has to give is Goliath’s sword, which he keeps behind the ephod. As in 1 Sam. 14:3, the ephod is here implied to be a box containing sacred objects, not an item of clothing.

In the middle of David’s exchange with Ahimelech, we learn that an Edomite named Doeg, a servant of Saul’s, happens to be in Nod at that time. He was “detained before the Lord” (1 Sam. 21:7), likely meaning that he is ritually impure for some reason and is waiting for his term to end. The detail seems out of place here, but I peeked ahead and it seems that the author/editor was establishing a fact for a later occurrence.

David at King Achish’s court

His old enemy’s sword in hand, David then moves on to the Philistine city of Gath. There seems no reason for this episode, and it certainly turns out to have been a mistake. Highlighting that Saul has very good reason to feel threatened by David, the Philistines recognize David and mistakenly believe that he is Israel’s king, citing the same song that we heard in 1 Sam. 18:7:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands. (1 Sam. 21:11)

Probably quite wisely, David realizes that this is potentially a very bad situation. If King Achish of Gad believes him to be the king of Israel (or, at least, politically important), might he not read the situation as a very good opportunity to easily get rid of an enemy.

So he decides to play the fool. Literally. He makes marks on the doors of the city gate, and lets spittle run down into his beard. I’m not sure how making marks on city gates is supposed to be an indication of madness, unless it means that he is smearing feces or something.

Anyways, King Achish is fooled, and he asks his servants why they bothered bringing a madman to him. “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?” (1 Sam. 21:15). This provides David with a means of escape, of course, but also reads like a joke at Philistia’s expense. Is King Achish’s court so glutted with madmen?