1 Chronicles 15-16: A Meandering Path

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David has decided that it is now, finally, time to bring the ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem. His reasoning isn’t explicitly explained, but there are two likely candidates that jumped out at me: The first and more flattering of the two is that, seeing the blessings on Obededom’s household, David realizes that God wasn’t angry that the ark was being moved, but rather that it was being moved incorrectly (in this case, because those moving it were not Levites, as per Num. 1:51). Therefore, once David has appointed Levites to move the ark, it becomes safe and the procession can continue.

The second explanation is that David saw all the blessings the ark was bringing to Obededom, and he wanted to get in on that.

In either case, he begins by building palaces for himself and pitching a tent for the ark. An odd statement, certainly. I realize that it was culturally known that the temple wasn’t built until Solomon, and that there may have been religious objections to housing the symbol of a nomad god in a permanent structure, but mentioning that David built palaces (plural, mind) for himself, yet merely pitched a tent for the ark seems strange to my modern sensibilities (not to mention my cultural assumptions regarding what a “house of God” ought to look like). Even within a proper context, however, mentioning David’s building projects here seems somewhat out of place.

There’s some odd narrative time skipping in these two chapters, resulting in the ark having been brought to its resting place at least once (possibly twice) before the procession is actually concluded. I suspect that this may be an artefact of the Chronicler’s use of multiple sources, or perhaps just some grammar troubles (one of my greatest difficulties in writing is trying to keep my tenses straight, so I totally get it).

There is also much dwelling on the names of the priests, as well as their roles. I’ll mention those at the end, though, because there’s a lot of them and they are fairly disruptive to the flow. That said, it certainly helped me to understand the commentaries who argue that the Chronicler may have been a musician!

The Journey

Once David had built his palaces and cleared a little camping plot for the ark, he gathered Israel about him and announced that Levites must be the ones to carry and tend to the ark.

He told the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, and the Levite chiefs to sanctify themselves prior to approaching the ark (this would likely involve rituals like fasting, abstaining from sexual contact, and washing). David explains his theory that God attacked the first time (killing Uzzah) because the ark was not being carried by Levites. This is an addition to the story in 2 Samuel 6, which makes no mention of Levites (likely an anachronistic one, as well, since it seems there’s evidence to suggest that the Levitical caste didn’t emerge until later).

The priests do as they are told, and they carry the ark on their shoulders using poles, as per God’s instructions (relayed via Moses, then David).

David dances before the ark, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

David dances before the ark, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

The priests appoint a number of singers, as well as musicians of various varieties to play in the procession and “raise sounds of joy” (1 Chron. 15:16). There are harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets. There’s even a conductor, Chenaniah.

Taking from 2 Sam. 6:12-15, the procession goes to the house of Obededom to fetch the ark and they bring it to Jerusalem. There are two main differences between this version and the one in 2 Samuel: The first is that we get a whole lot more detail about the music played in the procession. The second is that David is clothed, this time wearing a robe of fine linen in addition to his ephod. The priests of the procession are also wearing robes of fine linen.

Another possible difference is in the time/location of the sacrifices. In 2 Sam. 6:13, a sacrifice (one ox and one fatling) is made when those who bear the ark have gone six paces. In 1 Chron. 15:26, however, seven bulls and seven rams are sacrificed “because God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark”. Reading far too much into the text, it would seem that the 2 Sam. 6 priests tentatively lift the ark, and thank God right away when they survive the test. In 1 Chron. 15, however, the implication seems to be that they give thanks when the journey is completed, perhaps because God somehow made their burden light or saved them from any accidental stumble that could result in a situation like the one that led to Uzzah’s death. But this is bringing a lot into the text, and there’s no reason why the 1 Chron. 15 version can’t be taken to mean the same as the 2 Sam. 6 version.

As they approach Jerusalem, Michal (here, as in 2 Sam. 6:16, identified only as the daughter of Saul) sees David dancing and she hates him. In 2 Sam. 6:20-23, the reason for Michal’s hatred of David is apparently because he was dancing naked, uncovered save for the ephod, disgracing himself. It’s easy to see how afraid she might be, after her father’s house fell and her whole family was slaughtered. She has ever reason to want David to act the proper king, a king who won’t be judged weak or unfit and deposed. Here, however, the conversation is absent, and Michal’s reasoning is unstated. The implication, then, is that she hated him because she was Saul’s daughter (as this is the only detail we are given of her), and is perhaps seen as further proof of Saul’s dynastic unfitness.

The ark finally makes it to its new tend, and sacrifices are made. David blesses the people in God’s name, and he distributes a loaf of bread, a portion of meat, and a raisin cake to every Israelite (including, for once, the women).

A good deal of 1 Chron. 16 is given to a special thanksgiving song David gives to Asaph and the other musically-inclined priests. It’s a fairly ordinary praise song, much like the ones we’ve had before. God is great, we should seek God, he’s done wonderful works, the descendants of Abraham and Jacob are his chosen people, God has protected them. God is to be “held in awe above all gods” (1 Chron. 16:25), who are but idols while God is actually in heaven. The natural world exults in God for God is good. Also, if God wouldn’t mind delivering his chosen people from other nations – so that we can thank him for it, of course – that’d be great.

What’s interesting about this son in particular is that it appears to be a cobbling together of a few different Psalms. Specifically:

  • 1 Chron. 16:8-22 is taken from Psalms 105:1-15;
  • 1 Chron. 16:23-33 is taken from Psalms 96:1-13;
  • And 1 Chron. 16:34-36 is taken from Psalms 106:1 and Psalms 106:47-48.

Perhaps even more interesting, “none of the three psalms used is Davidic and all are later, possibly even post-exilic” (New Bible Commentary, p.378). This would certainly explain the final verses of the poem, which talk about deliverance from other nations (1 Chron. 16:34-36) – something that would have been salient for the Chronicler, but not so much for the rising star of David who has recently destroyed the Philistines. James Pate proposes that the verses could refer to prisoner’s of war – perhaps some Israelites had been taken in David’s recent battles against the Philistines – and the hope that they should be returned.

Another interesting detail about the song is that it is the only place in all of 1 Chronicles where Jacob is referred to by that name, rather than as Israel.

All the people say “Amen!” and David leaves the priests to their business. The Israelites head home, and David goes to bless his house.

The Priests

Priests and their roles are listed at several points through 1 Chron. 15-16. It begins when David is setting up a location for the ark, and he gathers the Levites to him. They are represented by their leaders:

  • 120 Kohathites, led by Uriel;
  • 220 Merarites, led by Asaiah;
  • 130 Gershomites, led by Joel;
  • 200 Elizaphanites, led by Shemaiah;
  • 80 Hebronites, led by Eliel;
  • And 112 Uzzielites, led by Amminadab.

David then commands these chiefs to appoint musicians from among their sub-tribes to play loudly before the ark as it is being transported. The Levites appoint Heman son of Joel, and Asaph son of Berechiah. The Merarites (listed as though a distinct group from the Levites) appoint Ethan son of Kushaiah, as well as some underlings: Zechariah, Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, and Mikneiah. Listed here, as though the role is a musical one, are also Obededom and Jeiel, appointed as gatekeepers.

Next, we get a breakdown of the musicians by instrument as they play before the ark in its procession:

  • Sounding the bronze cymbals: Heman, Asaph, and Ethan;
  • Playing the harps (according to Alamoth – apparently some unknown musical term): Zechariah, Aziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Unni, Eliab, Maseiah, and Benaiah;
  • Leading with the lyres (according to the Sheminith – some other unknown musical term): Mattithiah, Eliphelehu, Mikneiah, Obededom, Jeiel, and Azaziah;
  • Blowing the trumpets before the ark: Shebaniah, Joshaphat, Nethanel, Amasai, Zechariah, Benaiah, and Eliezer;
  • Lastly, the conductor: Chenaniah.

Berechiah and Elkanah are designated as the ark’s gatekeepers. Then, a verse later, we are told that Obededom and Jehiah are also the gatekeepers (1 Chron. 15:23-24).

Once the procession arrives in Jerusalem and the ark is settled into its new tent, David appoints some Levites to minister to it, led by Asaph, who is to sound the cymbals.

To the harps and lyres, David appoints Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obededom, and Jeiel.

Finally, David appoints Benaiah and Jahaziel to blow the trumpets continually (1 Chron. 16:6), though one hopes that they were at least allowed to take turns.

The sons of Jeduthun are appointed to the gate, which apparently includes Obededom (here identified as a son of Jeduthun) and Hosah (conspicuously not identified as a son of Jeduthun).

Jeduthun himself, along with Heman, are given charge of the trumpets and cymbals at Gibeon, where the tabernacle has been left in Zadok’s charge. There is no reason given for why the ark has been separated from its tabernacle and moved into a new tent, but it appears that worship continued at both sites.

One possibility involves the nomadic nature of the early YHWH cult. If David hoped to nurture a more urban society, detaching the local god from its tent would have been a priority. He might not have felt confident enough to to build a permanent temple yet, but he could at least separate the ark from its tabernacle (which had, as evidenced by this chapter, become a locus of worship in its own right). This is, of course, pure fancy and utterly unsupported as far as I know.

Obededom

Obededom is a strange figure in these chapters. Is he the same Obededom who housed the ark in 1 Chron. 13:13? And why is he shoehorned so forcefully into 1 Chron. 15-16?

He is mentioned three times as a gatekeeper:

  • When he and Jeiel are counted among the Merarite musicians (1 Chron. 15:17-18);
  • When he and Jehiah are added, as if as afterthoughts, when Berechiah and Elkanah are listed as gatekeepers (1 Chron. 15:23-24);
  • As a son of Jeduthun, who are appointed to the gate (1 Chron. 16:37-38).

This is, of course, in addition to his mentions as a musician.

The way in which he is mentioned feels very forced, particularly in 1 Chron. 15:23-24. I feel like there must be a reason for this.

If this Obededom is the same as the Gittite in 1 Chron. 13:13, it introduces a possible problem. The term “Gittite” is usually used to refer to people from Gath – a city under Philistine control. If Obededom is a Philistine, then he is not an Israelite, and he is certainly not a Levite.

That’s not a certainty, though. It could be that Obededom is merely an Israelite from Gath, or perhaps the name “Gath” was used in a few different place names and the designation of Gittite does not even refer to the Philistine city.

James Pate imagines that Obededom, having had direct experience with the ark and received its blessings while it was in his home, followed it to Jerusalem. It’s an amusing image!

2 Samuel 21: The Giants of Gath

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The remaining chapters of 2 Samuel are considered a sort of Appendix, relaying various bits and bobs that fit, thematically and chronologically, with the preceding book before the narrative continues in 1 Kings 1.

This chapter in particular appears to take place prior to 2 Sam. 9. The theory goes that Samuel initially ended with 2 Sam. 8, with the material of chapters 9-20 “having been suppressed for a time, though finally restored,” according to my study Bible (p.385). Thus, when 2 Sam. 21 was added, it came from different sources and did not fit chronologically with the rest of the book. We’ll notice, for example, that at least one story is a repeat (albeit with a surprising change), and a few details seem to come from a different source than what we’ve been mostly been reading so far.

While the last four chapters of 2 Samuel clearly come from different sources, they do seem to have been arranged with care. My New Bible Commentary notes that “the six sections contained in these four chapters are arranged chiastically: natural disaster, military exploits, poem, poem, military exploits, natural disaster” (p.312).

Famine

There was a famine in Israel for three years in a row. The people are suffering and, finally, David calls on God. One might wonder why he let the famine get into its third year before doing this, but I suppose it just takes that long before a palace starts to feel the pinch.

Of course, God shows a bit of his own weird sense of time, because he claims to have sent the famine as punishment for Saul killing the Gibeonites (a story not recorded in our text). Israel had sworn not to kill them (Jos. 9:3-27, albeit through trickery), but Saul had done so anyway “in his zeal” (2 Sam. 21:2). We’ve had hints of this zeal in, for example, the story of the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:9). This paints a picture of a Saul who was very concerned with establishing a Yawehist Israelite homogeneity, compared to David’s liberal use of Philistines and other non-Israelites in his personal guard.

Why Israel should be punished now for Saul’s actions is left unexplained. A cynic might wonder if perhaps David wanted to find a reason for the famine that he could bring back to his people, but didn’t want it to be anything that was his fault (particularly if we’re placing this story fairly early on in his rule). In fact, isn’t it convenient that the famine is a punishment against his deposed predecessor? Doesn’t that just every so nicely discourage any lingering support for Saul?

Revenge

David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what can be done to appease them. It seems that God’s retributive justice was not initiated by himself, but rather by a Gibeonite curse that either took this long to come into effect, or they’ve been biding their time until the responsible party is dead and his dynasty collapsed.

The Gibeonites claim that they do not want to be repaid in blood or gold, except that they do actually want seven of Saul’s sons to be hanged on the mountain of God at Gibeon – which sounds an awful lot like the blood vengeance they claimed not to be asking for. This only avoids being a contradiction if a) the number seven is a symbolic one, replacing the one-to-one killing of a blood vengeance, or b) the nature of the killing is ritually/legally different from a blood vengeance. In other words, if this is meant to be a human sacrifice to God rather than a tribal justice matter.

David agrees to their terms, though we get a clunky, clearly added later note that he spares Mephibosheth because of his oath to Jonathan. Instead of Mephibosheth, he chooses Armoni and Mephibosheth (a case of name recycling, at one end or another) – the sons of Saul and his concubine Rizpah. It seems that some of Saul’s survived him, though 1 Sam. 31 implied that they all died with him at the battle of Gilboa.

For the other five, he got the five sons of Michal, Saul’s daughter, and Adriel, son of Barzillai the Meholathite. Obviously an issue because it is Merab who married Adriel in 1 Sam. 18:19. Also a problem because we were told in 2 Sam. 6:23 that Michal died childless.

Some theories have been proposed to fix the discrepancy; for example, that Merab’s sons were given to Michal to bring up. Others, such as my RSV, simply change the name to Michal to “fix” the error. According to Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible?, there are some problems with this bandaid:

(1) We have already shown that the mention of Merab marrying Adriel in 1Sam 18 is a separate tradition and a later addition to 1 Samuel. It is difficult to assume “Merab” is the correct reading once we realize that the earlier reference to Merab’s marriage – the very passage scholars would like to harmonize 2Sam 21 with – is a later insertion. (2) The LXX confirms the reading of “Michal” in 2Sam 21:8, which means that if there was such an error, it was very widespread, and it happened before the LXX was produced. (3) Josephus, Pseudo-Jerome, and rabbinic sources confirm the reading of “Michal” and propose harmonizations. (4) Targum Jonathan appears to have been based on a vorlage that reads “Michal”, and it solves the problem by asserting that Michal simply raised the children on behalf of Merab.

The record is clearly a bit dodgy, however you cut it.

These seven sons and grandsons of Saul are hanged and God is appeased (despite the excuse that God is appeased because the Gibeonites withdraw their curse, this still smells rather strongly of human sacrifice).

Funerals

So the Gibeonites are happy, but poor Rizpah isn’t. She camps out at the spot where her two sons are left hanging and keeps all the carrion eaters away until the rain comes (it being the sign that the drought-induced famine would soon be over). From context cues, it seems that the bodies were left hanging the entire summer, from late April or May until the Autumn.

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

When David hears of Rizpah’s vigil, we’re told that he fetched Saul and Jonathan’s bones from Jabesh Gilead and buries them along with the bones of the men sacrificed by the Gibeonites in Zela, the tomb of Saul’s father. It is after the funeral that God finally relented and the famine was over.

The text seems to want to tell us that Rizpah’s grief convinced David to bury Saul and Jonathan’s bones, yet he expressed more than enough grief himself to do it way back in 2 Sam. 1. It makes it rather difficult to believe that it had never occurred to David before now to give them a proper burial – particularly Jonathan, whom he claimed to love so much.

It’s difficult not to see the political motivations behind David’s decision to bury them now. It could be that he needed this big show of love for Saul and Saul’s dynasty to avoid repercussions from Saul’s remaining supporters. Or perhaps it was an attempt to show that he didn’t give in to the Gibeonites’ demands too readily.

It could also be to smooth over the fact that David had allowed the men’s bodies to hang, exposed to the elements, for what could be as long as six months – a huge insult, as well as a clear violation of the law (Deut. 21:23).

In fact, the entire Gibeonite desire for revenge (particularly its timing) looks awfully suspicious. A cynic might wonder if David used a natural disaster as an excuse to get rid of a bunch of Saul’s descendents and thereby solidify his own hold to power.

Philistine Aggression

The Philistines are at it again! In this chapter, we hear of four Philistine champions, all descended from giants, and the Israelite heroes who defeated them.

There’s Ishbibenob, whose spear weighed as much as three hundred shekels of bronze. With a new sword in hand, he comes after David, but Abishai steps in (again) and kills the threat. After this, David’s men forbid him from coming out to fight with them, “lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam. 21:17). If I were to venture a guess, I’d say it was known that David did not participate in his own military campaigns. Some people, like the author of this passage, tried to excuse his absence. Others, like the author of 2 Samuel 11, clearly did not approve.

The next champion is Saph, dispatched by Sibbecai the Hushathite.

The third might be a little familiar: Goliath the Gittite, once again armed with a spear like a weaver’s beam (2 Sam. 21:19; 1 Sam. 17:7). This time, however, he is defeated by Elhanan, son of Jaareoregim. According to Kenneth C. Davis, “the King James translators of 1611 tried to cover up the discrepancy by inserting the words “brother of” before the second mention of Goliath, but older texts don’t bear that version out” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.177).

Paul Davidson has a discussion of the episode on Is That In The Bible? that I recommend, but here’s an excerpt:

It is commonly thought by scholars that this was the original Goliath legend, for various reasons. In the earliest folktales, it was the champion Elhanan who slew Goliath when Israel was threatened by an ancient race of giants. Elhanan, Abishai, and Jonathan were all members of the Shalishim (the “Thirty”), a group of elite warriors who are listed in 2Sam 23. (Sibbecai is also included in the parallel list in 1 Chr 11:10–47.) Later on, as the figure of David the warrior king became more important to Jews and the other characters more obscure, the story of Goliath was retold with David as the hero instead.

The last Philistine champion is unnamed, but we’re told that he had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and was slain by Jonathan, the son of Shimei and David’s nephew.

2 Samuel 6: Dirty dancing

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David’s political enemies have rather conveniently met their ends, and David’s power base is now fairly well established in Jerusalem. His next step is to consolidate his power even more strongly by taking control over Israel’s religion.

David brings 30,000 soldiers with him when he goes to reclaim the ark. Since there’s no mention of fighting and no apparent reason to worry about an attack, it seems probably that the soldiers are more of an honour guard for the ark, and the number is meant to show the extent of David/Israel’s devotion.

He goes with the people who were with him from Baalejudah, a place name we haven’t encountered before. My Study Bible suggests that the name is “either an error or another name for Kiriathjearim” (p.382).

If you’ll remember from 1 Samuel 7 that the ark is being kept by Abinadab and his son Eleazar, who are apparently acting as impromptu priests. It’s still there when David comes for it, and Abinadab’s sons – Uzzah and Ahio (perhaps Eleazar was sick that day) – are in charge of driving the cart bearing the ark. Like the Philistines in 1 Samuel 6, the Israelites use a new/virgin cart for the job. Perhaps the Philistines had attempted to mimic an Israelite practice, perhaps the Israelites adopted it from the Philistines, perhaps both were using a tradition that was floating around in the area, perhaps the later authors/editors projected the practice back onto both… I think it’s clear that there are many possibilities, even without the mention here of dairy cows. The idea that a new cart should be used is fairly basic symbolic stuff, so it’s entirely plausible that the same tradition would arise independently in more than one culture or cult. God stuff is too special to just re-use that old cart with the chip in the wheel that you have lying around.

The ark’s procession was apparently a pretty significant event. Not only did it have a 30,000 strong honour guard, it also had the entire “house of Israel […] making merry” (2 Sam. 6:5) with music and shouting.

The accident

Unfortunately, the ark cart (arkart?) starts to tip when the oxen stumble at Nacon. Presumably hoping to prevent disaster, Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the ark and is stricken dead. When this happens, the area is renamed Perezuzzah, or “breaking forth upon Uzzah.”

The obvious objection to this story goes something like this: “Would God have rathered Uzzah simply let the ark fall to the ground?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that. We’ve seen enough to know that good things don’t come to the people who let the ark fall off a cart. So why was Uzzah punished for surely preventing some massive plague?

I’ve used the analogy of radioactive material before. In the context of many of these stories, God is power; pure, raw, wild power. When someone is tasked with transporting radioactive materials, they need to have the proper training, the proper equipment, and the proper containment procedures. Similarly, God needs his trained handlers all wearing regulation safety clothes, his lead-lined box, his property procedures.

It’s like the ending of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the end (spoilers don’t count on 30 year old movies that you should have seen a hundred times already anyway), when the ark is opened, Indy knows that the power contained in the ark doesn’t discriminate between goodies and Nazis. A breach of protocol – in that case, seeing the power – means melty-face, no matter who you are.

That’s the ark.

David, understandably, is pretty freaked out by the incident and decides that maybe having the ark under his control isn’t worth all the risk. Instead of bringing the ark all the way to Jerusalem, he dumps it on Obededom the Gittite. He’s a “no nukes is good nukes” kind of guy.

At least until he finds out that Obededom’s household has been blessed and is prospering in the three months the ark has been kicking around. Suddenly, David is interested again.

No information is given about this Obededom other than his identity as a Gittite, and that his name apparently means “worshipper of Edom” (New Bible Commentary, p.305), presumably the name of a deity. Gittites are from Gath, though, which suggests that he might have been a Philistine (Gath is one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis). So why was the ark of the covenant left in the hands of someone who was a Philistine and possibly not a YHWHist?

It could be that David was so freaked out by the ark that he decided to dump it back into Philistine hands, hoping to give them another good dose of tumours or haemorrhoids or whatever happened in 1 Samuel 5. It could be that this is an alternative “how we got the ark from the Philistines” origin story. It could be that Obededom was a friend of David’s from his Philistia days. My Study Bible brings up another possibility: “Gath means ‘wine press,’ and there were several towns by that name in Israelite territory” (p.382).

The second leg

After three months and no disaster, David returns to Obededom to collect the ark. It’s unclear how Obededom felt about having the instrument of his prosperity taken away from him so soon, though I’d like to think that he was well compensated for the danger of housing the ark.

David Dancing Before the Ark, by C Malcolm Powers

David Dancing Before the Ark, by C Malcolm Powers

Once again, the ark sets out accompanied by much fanfare. This time, it makes it only six paces before David starts making sacrifices. Instead of the whole band, this time they have only horns and loads of shouting. The centrepiece of the parade, though, is David himself, who dances ahead of the ark wearing a “linen ephod” (2 Sam. 6:14). “Ephod” clearly has multiple meanings, since it’s hard to imagine David dancing around while wearing the box that houses the divination stones. Rather, it’s likely something akin to the apron-like garment described in Exodus 28:6-14.

Which segues nicely into a tangent. The ephod tends to be something worn by priests, and David is making sacrifices (something that landed Saul in a great deal of hot water in 1 Sam. 13:10-13). By participating in this way, David seems to acting in the role of priest. The evidence of changing rules regarding the priesthood is something I’d like to come back to in a later post.

There’s a tradition that has David doing his ark dance wearing his ephod and only his ephod. This is because when the ark approaches Jerusalem, David’s wife Michal looks out the window and “saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart” (2 Sam. 6:16).

The ark is housed in a tent – a nomadic symbol appropriated by city dwellers. David make some more offerings, then distributes all the food. Finally, he goes home to bless his household, but Michal intercepts him.

She reprimands him for “uncovering himself” (2 Sam. 6:20), suggesting that he really was wearing nothing more than an apron. She seems particularly piqued that he did this before the eyes of servant girls, acting like a vulgar fellow rather than a king. David retort that he was not uncovered before servant girls, but rather before God, “who chose me above your father” (2 Sam. 6:21). In the marital biz, we call that the “point of no return.”

So was David naked?

I think that there’s some wordplay here. It’s hard, of course, to read the text in this way because of the language barrier, but I think it’s possible that we aren’t meant to read “uncovering” literally. Rather, it could mean that David is appearing stripped of his regal accoutrements, like “one of the vulgar fellows” (2 Sam. 6:20). He’s also stripped off his regal dignity, perhaps taking up a position in the crowd, among the servant girls.

This interpretation makes sense given David’s reply, that he was not uncovered before the servant girls, but rather before God. In other words, it isn’t debasing himself before the people, but rather taking up his appropriate status before God.

I suspect that there’s also meant to be something of a joke here about jealous wives, given that only the servant girls are mentioned.

With a final comment about how the servant girls appreciate his actions even if his wife doesn’t, the fight appears to be over and we’re told that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Sam. 6:23). Though, again, pieces are missing from the story. Did God support David’s actions and rebuke Michal for complaints by cursing her with bareness? Or are we to understand that this fight severed their relations permanently? In other words, is Michal’s apparent barrenness God’s doing, or David’s?

Why was Michal angry?

We might ask ourselves why Michal was angry at David. A literal reading of the passage has Michal seeing her husband prancing about near-naked, upset that he’s revealing himself to other women. In this reading, Michal is the jealous wife.

If David’s “uncovering” has to do with a failure to act/dress in a manner befitting a king, Michal’s concern becomes far more understandable. After all, the monarchy is still young, and the first two kings – Michal’s father and brother – didn’t fare too well. Given that her fortunes are tied to David’s, it makes sense for her to get antsy at any display of weakness or un-kingly behaviour.

Her complained may also be religious. Ishbosheth, her brother, is elsewhere called Ishbaal, and her nephew, Mephibosheth, is elsewhere called Mephibbaal. This suggests the possibility that Saul’s God was not YHWH, at least not exclusively. Michal’s anger therefore might be due to her husband’s blasphemy.

A final possibility is that the whole episode is propagandistic. David’s rise to power, even sanitized as it is in the text, suggests an awful lot of opportunism. His enemies just happen to be assassinated, he just happen to be forced to fight as a mercenary for the enemies of his country, etc. It might be said that he only married Michal so that he would have some claim to Israel’s crown.

This possibility gets refuted in 1 Sam. 18:20, where the author is very careful to point out that it is Michal who initiates the affair between them. David didn’t marry her for political expediency! She married him for love!

Here, the story of her complaint could have been invented (or reinterpreted) to explain her being set aside. It’s conceivable that David, now secure with his crown, had no more use for her, so he essentially abandoned her. It could even be that she (and her family) had supporters who complained about it and accused David of political manoeuvring.

2 Samuel 3: An embarrassing situation

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Despite the resolution in the last chapter, we’re told that the house of David and the house of Saul are caught up in a lengthy war. As time wears on, David’s side gains strength while Ishbosheth weakens.

During this time, Abner’s power and influence grows. It seems that in the process, he grew a little big for his britches and may (or may not) have had a dalliance with one of Saul’s concubines, Rizpah daughter of Aiah. Notice that she is named (as is her parentage!) when so many side characters are not.

Ishbosheth confronts Abner about this. After all, since Rizpah was Saul’s concubine, having sex with her would be something like a servant “just trying on” the king’s crown. It implies ambitions that are utterly unsuitable – especially from the perspective of a king with such a tenuous grasp of his crown as Ishbosheth.

Abner is absolutely indignant. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to think that Abner is a liar here, or if we’re supposed to see Ishbosheth as going a little paranoid.

Either way, it’s the only time we see Ishbosheth nay-saying Abner, and it’s clear how Abner feels about this. He reminds Ishbosheth that it is Abner who brought him to Mahanaim instead of simply delivering him into David’s hands. If Ishbosheth has a crown at all now, it is only through Abner’s benevolence.

He is saying this, I remind you, to a 40 year old man (2 Sam. 2:11).

To avenge the insult to his honour, Abner promises to be the hand by which God makes David king of Israel. Ishbosheth is too afraid to respond to this.

In his speech, Abner asks Ishbosheth, “am I a dog’s head of Judah?” (2 Sam. 3:8). Dogs are unclean animals, so that’s insult enough. Adding “of Judah” seems to imply that his defection has already occurred, even though in the narrative, it is this incident that prompts it. That said, “of Judah” does not appear in the Septuagint, suggesting that it may have been an editorial addition.

Defection

Upset with his king, Abner decides to try another. He goes to David and pledges loyalty in exchange for covenant (which I assume means that he is trying to ensure his personal safety and, possibly, his position). David agrees, but only if Abner brings him his first wife, Michal, who had been remarried to Paltiel (or Palti) son of Laish in 1 Sam. 25:44, and whom David claims to have paid a hundred Philistine foreskins for (though he’s shortchanging himself since the figure in 1 Sam. 18:20-27 was two hundred).

Abner agrees and runs off to collect her. Meanwhile, David sends a messenger to Ishbosheth asking for Michal to be returned to him. Since he has already commanded Abner to bring her, it’s unclear what his reasoning was, though it ends up working out as Ishbosheth agrees and charges Abner with delivering her. (Though why he would entrust Abner with anything after his stated plan to defect is also unclear. In fact, why he would agree to release Michal knowing that it would greatly solidify David’s claim on his throne is also rather unclear.)

We are told that Michal’s husband, Paltiel, followed her weeping all the way to Bahurim. Finally, Abner tells him to buzz off and, afraid to challenge someone so powerful, he does. Though Michal’s feelings are never revealed, Paltiel’s actions suggest that David has just broken up a happy marriage for his own political gain. (Being Saul’s son-in-law lends his claim to the Israelite crown far more legitimacy, as it becomes arguably a hereditary succession rather than a straight up usurpation.)

On his way, Abner rouses the elders of Israel and Benjamin against Ishbosheth, so he goes to David with their support. The separate mention of Benjamin here is particularly significant because that is Saul’s own tribe turning away from Saul’s son. They are the most likely to support Ishbosheth’s claim, yet they are supporting David. It could be that with Ishbosheth trapped on the east side of the Jordan, they figure that David is their best chance for protection against the Philistines.

Abner arrives with Michal and twenty soldiers, and David throws them a feast (though his reunion with Michal is conspicuously absent). The feasting done, Abner heads out to gather the Israelites for a covenant ceremony to swear David in as the new king of Israel.

2 Samuel 3But just then, Joab (and apparently his brother Abishai as well, though his name isn’t added to the story until 2 Sam. 3:30) returns from a raid (despite being the king of Judah, David is still, apparently, a bandit leader) and finds out that Abner, his mortal enemy, had been there. To avenge Asahel’s death, he sends out some men to capture Abner and bring him back, then murders him.

This is technically a legal killing since Joab is a relative of the killed Asahel and Abner is not currently in one of the cities of refuge (as stipulated in Deut. 19 and Num. 35). Even so, it’s not exactly politically convenient for David, since it makes it look an awful lot like he’s murdering his way to the crown.

To distance himself from the murder, David curses Joab, makes a big public show of mourning Abner, writes a lament (which he is apparently doing for all of his Totally Not Murdered Nemeses), and fasts for a day despite being begged not to. He even announces publicly that he and his kingdom are innocent in the matter. The people are apparently convinced by David’s fervent campaigning and all is forgiven, though you’ll note that all talk of crowning him king of Israel is dropped for the time being.

It seems that he cannot simply execute Joab and Abishai as he did the Amalekite in 2 Sam. 1 because they have too much political clout. Instead, he asks that God to the punishing for him, cursing Joab and his descendants: “may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who is slain by the sword, or who lacks bread” (2 Sam. 3:29). Spindles, by the way, are women’s tools. Strictly speaking, I’d say that few houses go for very many generations without at least one daughter, but in this context I think he is merely cursing Joab with effeminate children.

This whole episode stinks of propaganda. As with David being sent home at the last minute so that he is conveniently not on the battlefield where Saul gets killed (1 Sam. 29), this story exonerates him from Abner’s murder. But here, the cover story is far more clumsy.

A possible alternative story would simply have Joab murdering Abner, either on David’s direct command or in the hopes that David would be pleased by it after-the-fact. The backstory of a blood feud provides a little cover for Joab, making his actions legal (and reducing the classicism in David’s lack of punishment). Having Abner defect to David’s side first eliminates David’s gain from his death – after all, Abner had sworn to deliver the crown of Israel into David’s hands, and that process is delayed by his death.

Yet the fact remains that David’s competition keeps dying, and that’s more than a little suspicious.

David’s family life

In the middle of all this, we got a little insert about the sons born to David during his stay in Hebron. While ostensibly about his sons, it also provides an updated list of his wives as well.

As we learned in 2 Sam. 2:11, David was only in Hebron for seven and a half years. That means that he was having an average of almost one son per year during his stay (and that’s only sons, since daughters are not listed!), albeit all from different women. In order of birth, those sons are:

  1. Amnon of Ahinoam
  2. Chileab of Abigail
  3. Absalom of Maacah, the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur
  4. Adonijah of Haggith
  5. Shephatiah of Abital
  6. Ithream of Elgah

Notice Maacah’s parentage. The fact that David is marrying princesses at this early stage suggests that he’s already amassed a good deal of political clout. It also suggests that he has forged an alliance with Geshur, which would be located to Ishbosheth’s north. With David and the Philistines to his west, poor Ishbosheth’s position is looking rather dire.

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 19: Far-falling apples

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Saul makes no secret of his desire to kill David. He tells all his servant, and even his son, Jonathan. Jonathan, you’ll remember, is the guy who’s knit his soul to David’s, so this turns out to be a pretty bad idea on Saul’s part.

Again, we are told of Jonathan’s special relationship with David. In this case, he “delighted much in David” (1 Sam. 19:1). Abbie at Better Than Esdras scanned through the text for other uses of “delighted,” and did find it used in a sexual (albeit generally non-consensual) manner. However, it is also used in Num. 14:8 to express God’s feelings toward the chosen people.

Abbie’s final conclusion is:

In the context, I read Jonathan “choosing” David as an analogy to YHWH “choosing” the Israelites – Jonathan pledges his devotion to David, because he’s goddamn King David. They form a covenant, just as YHWH and the Israelites had a covenant.

Regardless, it’s clear that Jonathan cares for David, so of course he spills the beans and instructs David to hide while Jonathan tries to change Saul’s mind. He is successful, and Saul promises that “as the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death” (1 Sam. 19:6). David is returned to court and everyone lived happily ever after. Or did they?

David must still die

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

War breaks out again, and David heads out to kill the Philistines. Meanwhile, the evil spirit comes back to Saul, so he sits in his house with a spear in his hand. This time, Saul isn’t simply flying into a rage. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he is able to wait with intent until David’s return. So perhaps his evil spirit is violent paranoid delusion? David plays the lyre, Saul throws the spear at him, and as in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, David evades him. At least it was only the one spear this time, and at least this time David has the good sense to flee.

He doesn’t flee very far, however, as he apparently just goes home. Saul, really intent on killing David this time, sends “messengers” (who really seem more like assassins) to wait outside David’s house, hoping to kill him in the morning.

David’s wife, Michal, knows that they are there, however, and sends David out the window. She then makes a dummy in his bed, using a teraphim, a term that is elsewhere used to refer to household gods, and what appears to be a pillow made with goat hair to stand in the place of David’s head. I see murmurings that Michal’s possession of a teraphim marks her as an idolater, but I think that there are a few issues with this: Firstly, the text describes the location as David’s house. If she has a teraphim, so does David. Secondly, why couldn’t the same term be used to refer to a decorative statue? Michal is a princess, so it stands to reason that her home might include some decorative statues. Either way, the trick is so classic that it has it’s own entry on TV Tropes.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

When Saul sends in the assassin to take David, Michal refuses him, claiming that, like Ferris Bueller, David is ill. Saul persists, however, and his assassin demands to see David’s bed. He does not, unfortunately, attempt to stab the dummy, but rather recognizes it immediately as a fake. Michal’s excuse is that David said to her, “Let me go; why should I kill you?” (1 Sam. 19:17), which I take to mean that she is claiming that he threatened her, even though the plan was clearly her idea. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take from this that Michal is merely covering her own butt now that David is safely away, or if we’re supposed to slot Michal into the liar category.

It’s notable that this chapter shows two of Saul’s children defecting, choosing to be loyal to David instead. If we assume that at least some of the sources going into 1 Samuel are propagandistic, having Saul’s own children reject him in favour of the competition is a pretty obvious move.

What happens in Ramah

Having escaped, David heads to Samual at Ramah. He tells him all that has happened, and the two go to live at Naioth (which, from the context, is apparently a district of Ramah).

Saul finds out where David is and sends his messenger assassins. When they arrive, they are met by a company of prophesying prophets with Samuel leading them. The assassins are overtaken by the spirit of God and begin prophesying. This likely refers to an ecstatic form of worship, something like speaking in tongues. From the description in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, these guys seem like a rather wild bunch, what with all the music and such.

Saul sends a second group of assassins, but they join the prophets as well. As does the third group. Finally, Saul decides to take matters into his own hands, and he comes down to Ramah. When he arrives, the spirit of God comes upon him too, and he also begins prophesying. In fact, the party gets so wild that “he too stripped off his clothes” (1 Sam. 19:24) and he lies naked all day and night. Because of this, it was said of him: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 19:24). This story was clearly an alternative explanation for what appears to have been a common saying, as it so directly mirrors the one in 1 Sam. 10:12.

For those keeping track of sources differences, this story conflicts with 1 Sam. 15:35, in which we are told that Samuel and Saul separate and never see each other again. Harmonizers may take comfort in the fact that 1 Sam. 19 never explicitly states that Saul and Samuel see each other, it is merely implied.

1 Samuel 18: Foreskin currency

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At the end of the last chapter, Saul and David have a meeting during which Saul establishes David’s identity. Here, we find out that while they spoke, David and Jonathan – Saul’s son – were falling in love (though whether this is love of a romantic sort is, as usual, up for debate). Precisely, their souls are “knit” together.

Abbie at Better Than Esdras points to the term as meaning “bound” or “tied,” and therefore a reference to the covenant formed between them in 1 Sam. 18:3. She gives the example of Deut. 11:18, where the words of the covenant are to be bound upon the hands of the Israelites.

Jonathan then strips off his robe, giving it David along with his armour and weapons. We are told then that David is successful in whatever tasks Saul sets him to, seeming to imply that Jonathan’s gifts aid him in this.

Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp, by Erasmus Quellinus II

Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp, by Erasmus Quellinus II

The idea that Jonathan is stripping is an interesting one, and I’ve seen a few theories that this would have been a part of lovemaking between the two men. Abbie provides an alternative by pointing to three other instances of this stripping that we’ve seen so far: In Genesis 37:23, Joseph is stripped of his coat. In Num. 20:26, Aaron is stripped of his garments, which are then given to Eleazar. And, finally, in 1 Sam. 17:38, Saul tries to give his armour to David and is refused.

At no point does the term occur in a sexual context. Rather, it is a conferring of honour (or an attempted taking of it). The connection to Saul’s similar attempt to dress David seems important. Wearing Saul’s armour, David fails so hard that he can’t even walk. In Jonathan’s armour, however, he “was successful wherever Saul sent him” (1 Sam. 18:5). It points, perhaps, to a taint surrounding Saul, and perhaps refers to a deep friendship between David and Jonathan from which David drew strength.

In there, there is a confusing line about how Saul prevents David from returning home. According to my New Bible Commentary, this “does not of course mean that visits to Bethlehem were forbidden to David; it is simply a mark of David’s advancement that he becomes a permanent officer at court” (p.297). This seems a plausible enough explanation, given what follows.

When Saul and David return from fighting the Philistines, they are met by dancing women who are playing timbrels and singing:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands (1 Sam. 18:7)

Here, again, we see the recounting of heroic deeds sung by women. An interesting detail.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this song doesn’t exactly sit well with Saul, who now perceives David as his enemy.

This first portion of the chapter seems to be a bit of a time skip, despite the references to it taking place the same day as the battle against Goliath. I got the impression that it was added as a poetic device to serve as a sort of introduction to what would follow – namely the relationship with Jonathan, the acclaim of David among the people, and the souring of his relationship with Saul.

David must die

The rest of the chapter is cut up into seemingly isolated stories. The next day (though this could be an editorial insert to situate the story), Saul is suddenly overtaken by the evil spirit sent by God and, while David plays his lyre (remember that he was hired in 1 Sam. 16:14-16 to play in just such situations), Saul throws two spears at him. David manages to duck in time. There’s no indication that this episode concerns David in any way. I had interpreted the “evil spirit” as referring to something like epilepsy, but it seems clear from this story that it’s something more like a violent rage, like perhaps some sort of manic episode.

Saul next tries to get rid of David by making him a commander, hoping that he will be killed in battle. The ruse fails, however, as David succeeds in every mission he is given – as we were told he did in 1 Sam. 18:5. Saul is in awe, a term that means both fear and reverence. More importantly, the people grow to love David, because “he went out and came in before them” (1 Sam. 18:16). I assume that this means that they see him leaving for his missions, then coming back successful – a sort of parade that serves as a visual reminder that he is totally awesome.

Saul offers his daughter, Merab, to David in exchange for his continued fighting on Saul’s behalf. If you’ll remember, the champion who defeats Goliath was promised her in 1 Sam. 17:25, so this is rather late in coming. Saul hopes that he will avoid sinning by having the Philistines kill David in battle rather than having to do it himself. David is humble, as usual, asking who he is that he should be considered for son-in-law to the king. It seems, however, that he eventually agrees, though Saul inexplicably changes his mind and marries Merab to Adriel the Meholathite when she should have been marrying David. According to my study Bible, this incident is “lacking in some Greek texts” (p.356).

Which makes sense, because it’s immediately followed by a very similar story involving Michal, Saul’s other daughter.

Like Ruth, Michal is the initiator of the union. Though rather than heading off to a threshing floor, she instead expresses her interest in David within earshot of people who report back to Saul. Saul decides to make this work for him, hoping that Michal “may be a snare for him” (1 Sam. 18:21). It seems that his plan is identical to the one he had with Merab – that dangling Michal before David will keep him going out on suicide missions.

David acts humble, because apparently he is incapable of responding in any other way, and highlights his poverty. He is presumably indicating that he lacks the funds to provide a bride price, so Saul makes a proposition: David can marry Michal for the price of 100 Philistine foreskins. It is unknown how he would be able to identify whether the foreskins were, indeed, of Philistine origin. His hope is that David will die in the effort to extract them.

The impossible task is not an uncommon one in stories. As Kenneth Davis writes:

The idea of giving a young hero an impossible task is a common one in legends. In Greek myth, Jason must deliver the golden fleece and Perseus must bring the head of the Medusa. Like these other ancient Near East warrior-heroes, David surprises Saul by delivering the goods. In some versions of the Hebrew text, David actually goes Saul one better and delivers two hundred foreskins. (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.178)

The demand for foreskins, while seriously weird from my perspective, may not actually be quite so far-fetched. We need only look to shockingly recent North American history for an example, as colonists offered bounties for the scalps of First Nations people. Different head, same concept.

Davis goes on to provide an even closer parallel. It seems that the Egyptians, who also practised circumcision, were known to take anatomical trophies from defeated enemies. In particular, the uncircumcised penises of Libyans were amputated to aid in counting the number of the defeated (or, perhaps, de-feeted).

According to my Bible, David does Saul one better and brings home double the required foreskins (which just shows lack of attention to detail, as far as I’m concerned), though apparently the Septuagint sticks with only 100 foreskins.

The bride price taken care of, David is able to marry Michal, and Saul is more afraid of David than ever.

According to Collins, there may have been a political motive behind the story of Michal. Not only does she get the ball rolling by expressing her interest in David, it is Saul who proposes the union. “David, then, cannot be accused of marrying for expediency” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.121).

1 Samuel 16-18

Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible? does an excellent job parsing out two distinct stories from the jumble we’ve seen in the preceding three chapters. The post first examples all the concerns that are raised if we read the early part of David’s story as a single, continuous narrative, then goes on to tease out the two probable source stories using discrepancies between the Massoretic Text and the Septuagint (as well as some brief mentions of other sources). Then there’s some other very interesting stuff specifically about Goliath, but that may be left for later to avoid spoilers as it deals with details from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles.

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).