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.

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.