Those of us who have gone to Sunday school are probably aware of the depiction of the cherubic young shepherd boy from Bethlehem, David. He is portrayed as the model of goodness and righteousness. He gained fame by slaying the evil Philistine champion Goliath. The type of young man any mother would want her daughter to bring home. This is a sanitized and idealized version of a killer.
[Note to Reader: I would encourage one read through the books of Samuel several times to gain an overall perspective. Then to read carefully each chapter under discussion rather than rely only on cited text. In this case, the devil is truly in the details and failure to interact thoughtfully and objectively with the material will yield little fruit by way of appreciating the real person of David.
Admittedly, there is a massive amount of information to sift through if one wants an accurate picture of Israel’s most famous king. Sunday school lessons and the occasional sermon is insufficient for adequately evaluating David’s true nature. Ideally, those serious about understanding the Bible should spend years undergoing formal theological education acquiring the necessary hermeneutical skills and knowledge crucial to proper exegesis. Instead many evangelicals view biblical interpretation like someone picking up a book on anatomy and proceeding to take out someone’s appendix. It is possible but the likelihood of doing serious harm is great. Bible study requires great skill, precision and expertise (if performed properly) like a literary surgeon. Instead much of what passes for Biblical teaching today is nothing less than an exegetical butchering of the text by those ill equipped for the task.]
It is easy for Christians to read the Bible in a kind of faith haze. To skim over the text without seeing what is sitting on the surface. It’s kind of like flying over a city as opposed to walking down its streets. One offers an observation of the general contours of the city while the other offers detailed information.
Most Christians treat the Bible as if it were a spiritual smorgasbord. They hover over it and pick whatever satisfies their appetite (needs) and ignore the rest. This and other articles attempt to “force feed” the reader with the less appealing aspects of the biblical text. Large passages are cited so the reader is confronted with particulars he or she might otherwise ignore or gloss over. The biblical story of King David of Israel is one such example. I challenge the reader to make an honest appraisal of the text without automatically assuming how he has been traditionally depicted.
David was a fierce warrior. He was also a cold, calculating murderer, an accomplished slayer of men, women, children and babies. Today, we would refer to him as a monster. Three thousand years ago he was considered a national hero and great leader of Judah and Israel. The biblical narrative of David’s life found in the books of Samuel and Kings is all we know about him. These were not written by historians intent on objectivity but a writer(s, editors, redactors) with one specific goal: to fictionalize his life where necessary to make it consistent with who David had become to the cultus of Yahweh. The idealized end justified the theological means.
The centrality of David to fulfillment of ancient Hebrew prophecy is indisputable. He is cited repeatedly by the prophets as the conduit through which Yahweh’s promises will flow. Christians see him as the one through whom the Son of God would eventually come. He is to them, the father of the Messiah, and to Jews today, the one through whom the messiah is yet to come.
Words like “Deuteronomist” or “Deuteronomical history” seldom filter down to the average evangelical Christians sitting in the pew. They are usually relegated to theology classes and among evangelicals suggest a compromise to inerrantist views. The idea behind them, regardless of how “theoretical” they may be, is crucial to properly understanding the Hebrew canon of scripture. Supposing, as evangelical Christians are prone to do, that the entirety of Hebrew scripture was supernaturally written and preserved as reflected in our Bible today is not only naive and simplistic but more importantly tarnishes ones understanding of its meaning.
When we examine the life of David, there are details which are so precise as to warrant a stenographer accompanying him and those with whom he comes into contact. Private conversations, conversations between two men chasing each other, conversations between Philistine kings are some examples of dialogue which could never be captured and recorded in such excruciating detail. Adopting the mechanical dictation theory is the only explanation evangelicals can proffer. This theory holds the writer of Joshua received direct revelation or recollection by the Holy Spirit who guided his pen (stylus) allowing him to transcribe in perfect detail the events he records. Such an idealistic view borders on the ridiculous to the rational mind but to those steeped in the supernatural, it makes perfect sense.
As in most matters concerning biblical criticism, at this point we come to a sharp divide in the road. One way leads to unbiased reasonable scrutiny of the Bible without concern for the consequences to faith. The other way leads to a romanticized view of biblical infallibility which refuses to challenge its divine reliability and credibility in any way that undermines faith. The reader must decide which path to take.
By the time the writer of Israel’s history undertook to compose these narratives, David was already highly regarded. From the author’s standpoint, history had already proven Zion was God’s holy city and the place (The Temple) where Yahweh resided with his people. Against all human odds, Yahweh had miraculously preserved his sacred city from the wicked Assyrians (701BC) thus proving its inviolability and ensuring a kingship in keeping with his promises. A century later these promises would be shaken when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians (586BC). However, the Yahwist cultus now residing in captivity was not deterred. They devised a new perspective which placed blame squarely on the rebellious Israelites who had violated their covenantal responsibilities. God’s promises had not failed, they had failed in their obligation to remain faithful. The next momentous event was Persian king Cyrus’ edict (538BC) allowing Israelites throughout his empire to return to their homeland. To the Yahwist community, this could only have been orchestrated by Yahweh. A “new” covenant (Jeremiah 31:31) was created written in the heart of the faithful demanding loyalty to God and his law. All of which were seen as being channelled through the Davidic covenant.
This macro perspective must be born in mind when studying the text. The heavy hand of literary bias are traceable throughout the narrative. But there is a far greater bias than even that: a predisposition toward belief in the supremacy of Yahweh. This colors the entire Hebrew Bible because it assumes prophetic authenticity. Much of what David and others do is either at the directive and endorsement of Yahweh.
Either God exists as portrayed throughout the Hebrew Bible, and therefore, everything recorded is legitimized as divinely sanctioned when affirmed as such. Or if he does exist (which is not being disputed at this time), his depiction here is reflective of the ancient Israelites attempt to comprehend him and adapt him to their own culture, traditions and beliefs. If so, the actions of men like Moses, Joshua, the Judges, David, Solomon and others is subject to rigorous moral and ethical scrutiny.
For three thousand years many have arbitrarly assigned divine weight to these historical writings. Joshua’s bloody campaign of Canaanite extermination (if true) is white washed as divinely sanctified because “God told him to do it.” If someone today made the same claim for killing a Muslim, would we excuse his actions as well? Many Christians read through the ancient stories of merciless slaughter of men, women, children and babies without the slightest feeling of remorse or anger BECAUSE God ordered his leaders to perform these acts. It is unconscionable to become so desensitized because your God is behind it.
[Side Note: For those who sometimes struggle with evangelical Christians seemingly unsatisfiable appetite for war, despite a Savior who constantly preached peace and meekness, they need look no further than Israelite history. The atrocities committed by those acting under God’s authority borders on genocide. Yet they barely register a blip on evangelicals ethical radar screen. This topic was touched on in my article on abortion when Joshua and David are said to wantonly kill all the inhabitants of many towns even specifying at times pregnant mothers and babies. If true, evangelicals have lost their abortion argument on these grounds alone.]
David’s abilities as an accomplished killer was legendary. Three times we read these words, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). Even finding its way into the Philistine camp (1 Sam. 29:5). This song is very likely authentic and influenced the writer when composing his narrative. These deaths, however, were not all battlefield casualties. David was indiscriminate in his killing rampages (this will be discussed later in the article in some detail).
First on a bit of a technical note for those who may not know. Often biblical writers whether the “author” of Genesis or Israelite history or the gospels had many sources at his disposal from which to choose. In this regard, he was more a compiler than a composer. In Genesis we find multiple couplets or separate traditions which when juxtaposed have irreconcilable differences. In a later article(s) and in great depth we will painstakingly examine the four gospels concerning their treatment of identical events such as the resurrection. And compare and contrast to identify contradictions and logical inconsistencies. But for now, we find two literary traditions concerning David and Saul’s first meeting which reveal an obvious incongruence. The purpose of this exercise is to allow the reader to see for themselves how imperfect the composition process was. Any doctrine which proposes textual perfection is shown to be flawed here and many other places.
In 1 Samuel 16, we are introduced to a young David who is tending sheep. In the previous chapter, the Lord has rejected Saul as king for slaughtering all the Amalekites (men, women and children) except their king and choice livestock. For this God removes his spirit and inflicts Saul with an “evil” spirit to torment him. Samuel, the prophet, then symbolically tears Saul’s robe to illustrate “the kingdom of Israel being torn” from him and given to “one of your neighbors.” This story marks a pivotal point in the narrative by announcing the decline of Saul and ascendancy of David. Samuel anoints David after selecting him from among Jesse’s eight sons. At which time “the spirit of the Lord comes upon him powerfully.”
The “first” meeting of Saul and David takes place under unusual circumstances. Saul who is being tormented by the evil spirit sent from God inquires if there is someone who can soothe his pain. One of his attendants says, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him” (1 Samuel 16:18). David is summoned and enters Saul’s service.
21David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” 23Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” (1 Samuel 16:21-23)
Thus we see how the two met and how personal a relationship they had. There would be no forgetting David. The next chapter describes the famous battle between David and Goliath. Saul had offered David his armor but since it was uncomfortable so David refused it. After David slays the Philistine champion, we read these words.
55As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?”
Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”
56The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.”
57As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head.
58“Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him.
David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.” (1 Samuel 17:55-58)
This passage shows neither man had any familiarity with the other. Though they had met briefly when Saul offered his armor, he had not learned David’s name. No manner of rationalizing can explain the discrepancy with the previous chapter other than two separate traditions which the author includes. Those who argue the writer would not have intentionally put two stories that contradict one another together. They fail to recognize the purpose was to include relevant information from both stories. In the first, David’s incorporation to Saul’s service as a lyre player because of Saul’s torment. And in the second, David’s inclusion in Saul’s army based on his military prowess against Goliath. Both were key in advancing his narrative to explain David’s access to Saul’s household and subsequent meeting with Jonathan, and to explain David’s advancement in Saul’s army where he gains the allegiance of some and forms his own army.
We have already mentioned David’s facility as a slayer of men and hinted at how indiscriminate he was with those he killed. Specific events will now be discussed as we work through the narrative searching for clues to his character.
Immediately the “unique” relationship of David and Jonathan is introduced. It is popularly depicted as one of mutual love and adoration, two men who share a love with rivals that between a man and a woman. There is nothing in the text to suggest homosexuality; however, there was certainly more to this friendship than mere affection.
1After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. 2From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. 3And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. 4Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
5Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the troops, and Saul’s officers as well.
6When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. 7As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”
8Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” 9And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:1-9)
These verses reveal some tantalizing information. Jonathan’s gesture and the covenant with David is an act of submission. He recognizes he is next in line to the throne and realizes David’s intentions to claim it as well. For whatever reason, Jonathan has determined either he does not want to be king or more likely did not want to battle David for it.
Note: David is described prior to his fight with Goliath as a “brave man and warrior” and one who “speaks well and is good looking” (1 Samuel 16:18). Christian commentators struggle to explain these words attributed to an innocent young shepherd boy. Again, the two traditions clash. The words “brave man” (‘gibbowr hyil’ or “mighty man of valor”) and “man of war” (‘ish milhamah’) are reserved for those seasoned in battle and not guarding sheep from wild animals as evangelicals suggest attempting to conflate the two stories. It seems more plausible David along with his seven brothers were part of a small band of raiders who attacked Philistine outposts as well as providing protection to fellow Israelites from “hill people” (This idea will be picked up later when dealing with Nabal and Abigail, 1 Samuel 25).
As the narrative progresses we also learn Jonathan is acting as a secret agent on David’s behalf. This betrayal should not be minimized because of their friendship. It, seems more plausible the writer is using this to mask the subterfuge. With this in mind, it is not at all surprising Saul is paranoid. He suspects David’s intentions and his own sons plot to help David gain the throne.
We also learn of Saul’s brewing jealousy. He recognizes David’s popularity among the troops and officers which all kings know could spell a future coup. In verse eight this suspicion is articulated as he realizes his kingdom is in jeopardy. Saul feels his power and authority slipping through his fingers and his son is in league with David, leaving him only one recourse — to kill David. Anybody in Saul’s shoes would act the same way.
Saul devises a plan and offers David his older daughter Merab for marriage. David declines. Saul then offers his younger daughter Michal to David but requests “a hundred Philistine foreskins” as a payment for his bride. David obliges and returns with two hundred foreskins (1 Sam. 18:27). Why David decided to bring back twice the required amount is unknown. It does however show his cruelty and love for killing.
Chapter nineteen highlights Jonathan’s role as David’s secret adviser and Saul’s determined effort to kill David in spite of Jonathan pleading on his behalf. At the risk of being overly repetitive it bears mentioning the private conversation between Saul and Jonathan could not be authentic since no one was there to record it. That aside, Jonathan’s role as informant is likely accurate. Later in the chapter, Michal’s becomes complicit in helping David escape Saul. There can be no doubt, historically speaking, Saul made repeated attempts on David’s life. The question is why didn’t David kill Saul since he had been anointed to replace him (see 1 Sam. 16:12,13)?
The writer goes to great lengths to emphasize David’s reluctance to retaliate was because Saul was “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. ) except he was not. God had deliberately withdrawn his spirit (18:28) and anointed David seeming to clear the way. The reason is Saul still had the support of the bulk of his military and David could not risk the repercussion of killing the king. It should be noted, the first anointing of David was done privately by Samuel without the will of the people if it did indeed occur. A much later public anointing of David after Saul’s death (2 Sam. 2:4) suggests a different tradition not consistent with the earlier one. If this is true, David did not see himself as king until elected by the people. It stands to reason the writer wanted to anoint David before the Goliath story in order to attach the victory to David’s God (1 Sam. 17:45-47).
Chapter twenty reintroduces the love between Jonathan and David and reaffirms their covenant (20:8,16). Again we are struck with the detailed conversation between them which the author “records.” Its authenticity however is unlikely. If I were a detective, I would think the writer is over compensating here and throughout his narrative for David’s alibi in the later deaths of Jonathan and Saul who were the two primary contenders for the throne. Were David actually responsible for their deaths, it would be difficult for later Yahwists to reconcile these actions with the father of the ancient promises where conformity to the righteous demands of the law was paramount. In fact, if the “true” David were exposed, the very foundations of the Yahweh cultus would crumble to the ground. David had to be portrayed as Israel’s most righteous king at any cost even literary integrity.
This style of composition is backward and myopic. The author is convinced of David’s righteous pedigree but when confronted with an unfavorable historical record which is incongruent with David’s legendary status, something has to change. I am certain the records were deemed flawed, and deliberately “revised” to support an idealized version of David, thereby helping to solidify Yahwist propaganda.
Chapter twenty-one records another damaging story in the life of David. Fleeing Saul along with some of his trusted bodyguard, David and his men become hungry. David approaches a priest named Ahimelech at Nob and begs him for food. The priest is curious as to why David is alone. In order to avoid suspicion David lies and tells him he is on a covert mission from Saul, so Ahimelech obliges and provides the only food available, leftover consecrated bread. David assures him all who will partake of it have been “kept holy.” Since David has lied up to this point, we cannot be certain this also isn’t a lie, after all, David was desperate. David then claims he has no weapon because the king’s “mission was urgent.”
David flees with the sword of Goliath, whom he previously killed, to the Philistine king of Gath, Achish, who recognizes David as the prolific slayer he was. David fearing his reputation might jeopardize his life fakes insanity so Achish lets him go.
1David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and his father’s household heard about it, they went down to him there. 2All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.
3From there David went to Mizpah in Moab and said to the king of Moab, “Would you let my father and mother come and stay with you until I learn what God will do for me?” 4So he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him as long as David was in the stronghold.
5But the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.” So David left and went to the forest of Hereth.” (1 Samuel 22:1-5)
The reader must ask the question, “Why did David flee to Philistine?” Later he will return and be welcomed though unsuccessful this time.
We will now introduce a theory which if true colors the entire narrative of David’s life and provides remarkable insight and clarity to his actions. Though not without its share of detractors by those determined to preserve the romanticized version of Israel’s beginnings and David’s reputation. Joshua’s main source of recruits were likely a large disenfranchised segment of the indigenous population who refused to submit to Egyptian rule through its many puppet regimes scattered throughout Canaan. This was a social not ethnic class composed of freebooters, sell swords, outlaws and servants who lived on the fringes of society.
It is incomprehensible David, arguably the greatest enemy of the Philistines and one who is obviously recognized as such, is given safe passage at a later date (chapter 27) going so far as to volunteer to fight against his own people (28:1,2). Something does not make sense unless we understand David is a mercenary and brigand. This above theory is based on several factors which require much more discussion than we can afford now. Briefly, it is operates on the premise during Egyptian occupation of Canaan many of its residents were displaced rather than submit to indentured servitude or slavery. These fled to the hill country where they were forced to resort to raiding Egyptian controlled lands and ambushing Egyptian supply caravans to survive. After the Israelites regained possession of the land under Joshua and in covenant with Yahweh and the tribal league, much of the indigenous population reclaimed their farms and vineyards. However, as recorded in Joshua and Judges many pockets of resistance remained who the Israelites continued to war against not the least of which were the Philistines. I believe David and his brothers were part of a small band of outlaws who continued to harass and attack Philistine outposts as a means of survival. This explains David’s characterization as a “man of valor” and “mighty warrior.” Also, we see in the passage quoted above David’s parents relocate to Moab while David’s small army retreats to “the forest of Hereth.”
The identification of the “habiru” or “hapiru” with a segment of the Canaanite population described in the previous paragraph is not without support and controversy which again is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, regardless of terminology and the stigma attending it, the actions of David throughout the narrative lend considerable weight this theory. His men are described as “those who were in distress or in debt or discontented” (1 Samuel 22:2). David’s use of “strongholds” (22:5) in the hills to escape Saul fits perfectly with someone who retreats to elude Philistine pursuers.We will make reference to this theory when alluded to in the text. For those who don’t support this idea, they have to explain where these people who are heavily attested to in extra biblical writings “disappeared.”
Now the consequence of his charade at Nob is revisited. Unbeknownst to David, Doeg the Edomite had been spying on him (22:9,10). He tells Saul of Ahimelech’s provision of bread and sword to David and his men. Ahimelech professes his innocence having had no idea of “this whole affair.” He was acting in accordance with what he thought were the king’s wishes. Saul orders his men to slay Ahimelech and his family but they refuse. Doeg then obliges killing eighty-five priests and the entire town of Nob ” with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep” (22:19).
The take away from this story is David’s own culpability which he confesses to one of Ahimelech’s son who escaped.
“Then David said to Abiathar, “That day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, I knew he would be sure to tell Saul. I am responsible for the death of your whole family.” (1 Samuel 22:22)
This admission of guilt is yet another stain on David’s reputation. If the story is true, David acknowledges he is aware Saul would find out and then must have anticipated his revenge on the priest. Why did David not seek to protect the priests and people of Nob? It seems David’s sole concern was his own preservation over that of the innocents whose deaths he caused including babies! It also demonstrates David realizes he is overmatched by Saul’s forces or else he would have come to the aid of Nob.
Chapter twenty-three records David attacking and inflicting heavy losses on the Philistines in Keilah. This is significant because it is yet another example of David fighting the Philistines and yet will soon be welcomed by them. Saul learns of David’s whereabouts and pursues him. After consulting the Ephod David and his men retreat to “strongholds and hills in the wilderness of Ziph.” That David is comfortable retiring to the hill country is consistent with the Hab(p)iru equals Hebrew theory.
15While David was at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph, he learned that a Saul had come out to take his life. 16And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God. 17“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this.” 18The two of them made a covenant before the Lord. Then Jonathan went home, but David remained at Horesh.” (1 Samuel 23:15-18)
The reference to this covenant between the two men seems redundant given its previous mentions (18:3; 20:8,16) and may reflect a separate tradition. Regardless the writer is reiterating the bases of their relationship is covenantal obligation not merely mutual affection. David is gaining critical information for immediate survival while Jonathan is getting a guarantee for future survival.
A couple of important details are found in chapter twenty-four which bare mentioning. First is David’s sparing of Saul’s life as the “Lord’s anointed” (24:6). We have mentioned technically David is the Lord’s anointed not Saul (see 16:12-14) unless these are separate traditions in which case David does not consider himself king yet. Second, this story seems remarkably similar to the one recorded in chapter twenty-six in several respects:
(1) The treachery of the Ziphites (1 Samuel 26:1; 1 Samuel 23:19).
(2) David’s position in the hill Hachilah (1 Samuel 26:1, 3; 1 Samuel 23:19).
(3) Saul’s march with 3000 men (1 Samuel 26:2; 1 Samuel 24:2).
(4) The speech of David’s men (1 Samuel 24:4; 1 Samuel 26:8).
(5) David’s refusal to lay hands on the anointed of Jehovah (1 Samuel 24:6; 1 Samuel 26:9, 11).
(6) Saul’s recognition of David’s voice (1 Samuel 24:16; 1 Samuel 26:17).
(7) David’s comparison of himself to a flea (1 Samuel 24:14; 1 Samuel 26:20).
Only those predisposed to preserving biblical infallibility at any cost would dare suggest these are two separate events. It is unmistakable the writer was confronted with two similar stories and rather than choose one, he included both. Here again we see the “writer” functions more as a compiler of source documents picking and choosing those which help build his case, although he is also an editor making subtle or dramatic changes when necessary, helping guide the narrative to his desired ends.
We pause at this point to reiterate how much easier it is for evangelicals to accept the biblical text at face value rather than invest time, money and energy in acquiring the theological skills to properly understanding it. I am fond of saying, “I was never more certain of biblical inerrancy than when I knew nothing about the Bible“. The more I learned, the greater my doubts became. While my faith in Jesus remained strong (at the time), this too would eventually crumble along with the divine reliability of the Bible. This topic deserves a fuller discussion in another article. The point here is: Not knowing something is not a valid reason for believing something else. There is virtually no good reason for holding to inerrancy and a wealth of arguments against it. Because most evangelicals refuse to avail themselves of this information does not make their unsupported belief true.
Chapter twenty-five records the illuminating story of a “very wealthy” sheep and goat farmer named Nabal (which means “fool”). David, who is on the lam from Saul, sends some young men to request food from him. He appeals to a past relationship with Nabal when he was guarding his flock and neither harmed his shepherds nor stole any sheep. Most commentators see here a reference to past “protection” services (vs. 21) from marauders provided by David and his men. Nabal’s reaction suggests these services may have been coerced and David was now extorting provisions by veiled threat. Of course fans of David place the blame of Nabal but this seems unfair.
If David and Nabal had entered into a past business contract which David satisfied by protecting both sheep and shepherd, why would Nabal begrudge David some much needed food and water? Surely in keeping with Middle Eastern hospitality and to ensure future dealings, he would have happily consented. Instead, he refuses implying David is a nobody and has no right to his generosity.
10Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. 11Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?” (1 Samuel 25:10-11)
Decoding these words is not easy. The writer has already introduced him as “evil and mean” (vs. 3). On what grounds is unknown. The meaning of the phrase, “many servants are breaking away from their masters” may hint at a growing movement by slaves to throw off the yoke of oppression from the Egyptian petty kings who ruled throughout the territory. As previously discussed, David’s army may have comprised men “coming from who knows where” who made their living either raiding or protecting others from raiders. Nabal recognized their “type” and refused to give in to their black mail. Those who doubt this interpretation need only measure David’s response. He sends four hundred armed men (!) to slaughter every man in Nabal’s employ. His wife, Abigail, intercedes and petitions David not to kill them by offering him “a gift” (“She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, sixty pounds of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys,” vs. 18). David relents. She returns home to find her husband drunk. The next morning she tells him all that had happened. Upon hearing it, “his heart failed and he became like a stone.” Ten days later he dies and David takes his wife to be his.
Like many biblical stories, this one too is etiological. The writer took the information and crafted it to cast David in the most favorable light and Nabal as the scoundrel. The first clue is his name which means “fool.” Nobody would call their child this nor would a man of immense wealth label himself as such. Other logical inconsistencies include Nabal’s refusal of assistance, David’s overreaction to this response, Nabal’s sudden death and Abigail’s eagerness to leave her estate and become one of David’s many wives. This narrative reeks of over simplification and bias toward David.
Chapter twenty six is a repeat of chapter twenty four as discussed earlier. Chapter twenty seven records David’s “escape to the land of the Philistines.” If this is an authentic action taken by David, it is beyond belief. The repeated mention of David fighting and defeating the Philistines including his epic bout with Goliath render the possibility of him entering Philistine territory unmolested incomprehensible. He would have been immediately killed. The only plausible explanation is David was well known as a sell sword whose services were always for hire even to the Philistines. The accounts of his success against the Philistines likely took place after his kingship or were invented to bolster his reputation.
The chapter introduces us to David’s thoughts to which the writer is somehow privy (27:1). Then the chapter closes with the words of Achish, king of Gath, who is talking to himself (vs. 12). Evangelicals will default (as usual) to the direct revelation argument. It posits God via his Holy Spirit can supernaturally vouchsafe all biblical writers with perfectly accurate details about anything and everything he chooses regardless. For those who have a predisposition to believe biblical inerrancy, nothing no matter how far fetched and ridiculous is outside the scope of possibility. The core of evangelical belief, the resurrection of Jesus, is the very definition of the unbelievable.
David is assigned a city, Ziklag, from which he launches raids over the span of sixteen months. Achish thinks he is attacking Israelite towns but David is covertly targeting non Israelite towns in the south. In order to keep his deception secret, David exterminates every living thing in these villages “such was his practice” (vs. 11). The writer thinks nothing of mentioning the slaughter on non Israelites such was the mindset of the yahwist. What is astonishing is modern Christians happily condone this murderous rampage of David with the same vigor because God’s ways are timeless, according to them.
Chapter twenty eight opens with the Philistines facing Israel for battle. David eager to please his master announces, “Then you will see for yourself what your servant can do” (28:2). The narrative is abruptly interrupted by Saul and the witch of Endor story, which while immensely interesting has little direct bearing on our study, before resuming in chapter twenty nine. Of significant note is the use of the term “Hebrews” by the Philistines to describe David and his men (29:3, see also 1 Sam. 4:6). This term is consistently referenced as synonymous with “foreigners” and with some derision. It is distinct from Canaanites directly under Egyptian rule and fits well with the hapiru class. The Philistines would not be using it to refer to descendants of “eber” (see Genesis 10:21,24) anymore than the puppet kings installed throughout the land in their correspondence to Egyptian authorities.
I would encourage anyone interested in availing themselves of all relevant material, including extra biblical writings, to pursue this fascinating, enlightening and often ignored discussion concerning the hapiru or habiru people as they relate to Israel’s origins. The identity of the “Hyksos”people is also relevant as it pertains to who they were and where they went after being ousted from Egypt. It should be born in mind, those going down this investigative wall will run up against a wall of resistance by those, like the biblical writers of Israel’s history, determined to preserve and promote an idealistic and sanitized version of the people and events who together have created the understanding we have today . Dare to know!
Here again the writer has access to the private conversation among the Philistine commanders and Achish which he records (29:3-7). Their concern is David’s reputation as a prolific killer might backfire on the Philistines.
4But the Philistine commanders were angry with Achish and said, “Send the man back, that he may return to the place you assigned him. He must not go with us into battle, or he will turn against us [become “a satan”] during the fighting. How better could he regain his master’s favor than by taking the heads of our own men? 5Isn’t this the David they sang about in their dances:
“ ‘Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands’?” (1 Samuel 29:4-5)
When David is informed by Achish that he will not be allowed to participate in the battle against his own people (!), David protests.
8“But what have I done?” asked David. “What have you found against your servant from the day I came to you until now? Why can’t I go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?” (1 Samuel 29:8)
The terminology found within this text is surprising. David refers to himself as “servant” (‘ebed’) and Achish as his “lord” (‘adonai’). It would be hard to make the case this is all a charade put on by David. He seems genuinely disappointed not to be able to war against the people he will soon lead. This is hardly the attitude of one anointed by God as king of Israel though it is consistent with one still seeking the throne. What better way to acquire it than by killing the current king who has been trying to kill him to prevent his gaining the throne.
Some will raise the question, “Why would a pro David writer deliberately include this material if it casts suspicion on David’s integrity?” The material represented in Samuel betrays the work of several authors, a pro-monarchy and a pro-prophetic hand. These two are often in competition. The reader will recall when the people first petitioned Samuel, the prophet, for a king which was seen as a rejection of Yahweh’s rule (1 Samuel 8:4f.). However, we also see the selection of David and Solomon as God’s earthly regents (2 Samuel 7). Saul is both vilified and celebrated as king or ruler. The tradition depicting David as in cahoots with the Philistines may represent the opinion of those who saw the monarchy as the start of Israel’s demise and David as little more than one who abused the throne for his own ambition.
Chapter thirty contains little relevant information for our purposes. It records David’s discovery of his town, Ziklag, having been plundered by the Amalekites while he and his men were preparing to attack Israel. He pursues them eventually catching up after being told by an Egyptian slave as to their whereabouts. Much to David’s surprise, the Amalekites have not injured or killed a single living person or beast nor was anything missing. While this is most certainly impossible given the nature of war then, nevertheless, it is what is recorded. It was a common practice of neighboring enemies to take advantage of another’s misfortune by attacking and pillaging when they were vulnerable. Israel was particularly susceptible to plundering on her eastern flanks by Ammon, Moab and Edom (Jeremiah 49:1, Ezekiel 21:28-32; 25:3, Amos 1:13-15, Joel 3:19, Zephaniah 2:8-11).
The final chapter of 1 Samuel records the death of Saul and his three sons including Jonathan. This too is not without suspicion foremost being how the private conversation between Saul and his armor-bearer, both whom died shortly thereafter, is somehow preserved here.
Saul, his sons and his army are locked in a fierce battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. Forced to retreat from the rapidly enclosing Philistines, Saul is critically wounded.
4″Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”
But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. 5When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. 6So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day.” (1 Samuel 31:4-6)
The details of this battle are not improbable though the story surrounding Saul’s death may have been invented to hide the fact he was indeed tortured and humiliated by his captors. This version would preserve his dignity. David’s complicity in Saul or Jonathan’s death cannot be proven though it is not beyond speculation. The amount of space dedicated to exonerating David from any collusion in Saul or Jonathan’s death is curious. He repeatedly refers to Saul as “the Lord’s anointed” and therefore untouchable, and Jonathan as someone whose love was “greater than that of a woman” and one whom he shared a covenantal bond with. The only possible argument to be made is whether the outcome of this battle would have been the same had David chosen to fight alongside them as was his duty as commander of Saul’s forces (18:5,13,30; 23:5) .
The first part of our study if nothing else has illustrated David’s propensity for indiscriminate killing of those who threatened his own safety regardless of their innocence. He was willing to “switch sides” and fight for the Philistines, Israel’s greatest foe at the same, rather than confront Saul directly. The story of Nabal stands as a stark reminder of the lengths to which David will go to punish those who offend him, yet when it comes to standing up for the innocent priests, women, children and infants of Nob, this “brave warrior” was nowhere to be found.
I have no doubt David was the ideal model of a leader for Judah at this time (Israel would have to wait for eight years). A man whose own exploits in the field of battle could inspire others to fight at his side, David was the perfect choice to repel the pesky Philistines. However, as we move into the second book of Samuel, cracks in his persona will become more evident. Those close to him will stage coups and he will abuse his position as king to seduce a married woman and conspire to have her husband killed in order to cover up this crime.