Friday, June 15

First Samuel 27: As this chapter begins, the reader is immediately aware that the story shifts from the external circumstances in David’s life to his internal world of reflection and resolve. Hitherto, only dialogue within the narrative has disclosed what David is thinking. Now, however, for the first time in the story, the narrator enters, directly into the mind of David and, as it were, records his thought: “David said in his heart, “Now I shall perish someday by the hand of Saul.” David now reaches the same conclusion that has probably occurred to the reader already! Saul cannot be trusted. David may not be so fortunate, if he meets the king a third time.

David’s decision to “go over” to Israel’s traditional enemies, the Philistines, is drastic. He has already received prophetic intimations—from Jonathan, Abigail, and even Saul—that he will, in due course, become King of Israel. He must realize that this decision to join the Philistines, on the face of it, renders those prophetic intimations less likely. Will the Israelites ever choose, as their king, a man who—as far as they can tell—has abandoned them in order to collaborate with their enemies?

One suspects this question occurred to Saul, as well, because he foregoes further pursuit of David: “And it was told Saul that David had fled to Gath; so he sought him no more.” The situation lasts sixteen months, until the Battle of Mount Gilboah.

One further suspects that other Israelites at the time also regarded
David’s move, as described in this chapter, to represent betrayal and apostasy. The Philistine king depends on this impression among the Israelites, because he believes it will strengthen David’s loyalty to him.

Arguing for a frontier post for himself and his followers, David uses these sixteen months to continue smiting Israel’s Canaanite enemies to the south, cleverly disguising this activity from his Philistine overlord. His pretense requires the slaughter of whole Canaanite populations, so that no survivors can tell the truth.

David scruples over this slaughter no more than the original Israelites who conquered the territory back in the time of Joshua. Indeed, David surely regarded this policy as a continuation of Joshua’s own conquest, except that he does not scruple to take spoils from those whom he kills.

Questioned on the matter, David deceives the Philistine leader into believing that his conquests have been against his own countrymen, the people of Judah. Just as in the case of David’s acts of slaughter, the biblical author does not comment on the morality of this lie. It appears that the Philistines, in spite of David’s constant proclamations of loyalty, still have their nagging doubts. David’s words, after all—if carefully analyzed—suggest a touch of evasiveness!

Two can play that game, however. By making David’s men his own bodyguard, the Philistine king contrives to keep him close and under surveillance.

It is worth remarking here that the episodes in this chapter testify to the truthfulness of the biblical story. If the account of David’s rise to power were simply an idealized, Camelot-like narrative, the details in this chapter would never have found their way into the Bible. They are included for the simple reason that the biblical author knew them to be historical facts.

Saturday, June 16

First Samuel 28: Moving from the Philistines to the Israelites, this chapter tells of the two opposing kings. It opens with an impending crisis and goes on to narrate how each man prepares for the coming battle.

The author continues, first, to elaborate the complicated relationship between David and the Philistine king. The latter, having grown suspicious (it seems) of David’s activities and his motives, makes him and his small band the royal bodyguard. While appointment to this service is certainly a mark of confidence on the king’s part, it also has the effect of keeping David close to court, the better to keep track of his activities.

Now the king sees an opportunity—in the impending battle—to test the loyalty of David. He determines that the latter’s small force should play a prominent role in the fight. David, learning this, responds with a cautious ambivalence. “Well,” he says, “you will certainly learn what I am capable of.”

This brief conversation is followed by a second notice of the death of Samuel, inserted here to introduce the main event of the chapter—Saul’s meeting with the witch at Endor.

Saul, apprehensive about the coming conflict, covets some preternatural guidance with respect to its outcome. Such consultations were hardly unknown in antiquity. We recall, for instance, that Croesus of Lydia, who contemplated war with the Persians, consulted the oracles at both Thebes and Delphi.

Alas for Saul, however, Israel’s most recent valid “oracle,” Samuel, was dead, and Saul’s grievous mistreatment of the priests makes priestly consultation an improbable choice.

Moreover, Saul himself has purged the land of sorcerers, soothsayers, and other necromantic media. There is, in short, a shortage of witches! The author appreciates the irony of Saul’s situation: For some time an evil spirit has held sway over the imagination and mind of the king, clouding his thought and prompting him to act irrationally. Now, however, in order to seek further light, the king will go to another dark source.

The writings of the Old Testament, composed over several centuries, are not of one mind with respect to an afterlife for the dead. In general, the dead are treated as though they were no longer living; they were simply inaccessible to contact from this earth. In some sources, nonetheless, they seem to be shadowy figures, resembling the spirits of the dead in the Odyssey. The Torah proscribes all attempts to reach them, commanding capital punishment for those who make the effort. Thus, Saul is about to violate the very injunction (from Leviticus) he had enforced.

Saul’s assumption of a disguise advances an ongoing theme of the book: Saul’s gradual loss of his regal clothes. Already we have seen him naked, dancing among the dervishes, and recently David has cut off part of his garment. Now, he puts aside the royal raiment and dons the guise of a commoner.

Because the witch herself suspects a trap, Saul assures her with an oath. When the ghost of Samuel appears in his prophetic robe, nonetheless, the witch knows Saul has deceived her. She screams, and Saul repeats his oath not to punish her.

Samuel wears the very coat torn by Saul at an earlier meeting. For Saul, this is not a good sign. Nor are Saul’s first words very encouraging: “Why have you awakened me?” Samuel then repeats the dire prediction he gave to Saul years before: He will lose the kingdom. God has already determined it. Tomorrow, says Samuel, you and your sons will join me in the realm of the dead.

There ensues the poignant story of the witch feeding Saul his last meal.

Sunday, June 17

First Samuel 29: Leaving the night scene of the previous chapter, the narrative moves backwards to an incident of the previous day, the time when we last read of David and the Philistines.

Twice in this sequence, in fact, the narrator finds an advantage in moving backwards in time, as he shifts the story from one camp to the other. In the present place, the insertion of the story of the witch serves to provide a narrative space between David’s two meetings with the Philistine king (28:1-2 and 29:6-9). In the next instance, the battle with the Amalekites, which occurs after the Battle of Gilboah (“when David and his men came to Ziklag, on the third day”—30:1), is told first, so that the Battle of Mount Gilboah holds the properly climactic position in the narrative.

The Philistine king, who had planned to use David’s force in the coming battle, finds no support among the other commanders. Recalling his earlier service to Israel, they simply do not trust this self-alleged Israelite rebel; they suspect he will turn on them in the coming battle. The king, embarrassed by this circumstance, asks David and his men to withdraw from the field and go back to Philistia.

A scene of complaint and remonstration ensues, David and the Philistine king each protesting his lack of responsibility in the circumstances.

It seems strange that the Philistine king, swearing his friendship to David, should invoke Israel’s God; “Surely, as the Lord lives . . .” Although David once again professes his loyalty to the king, he must surely feel relieved that Divine Providence—using the Philistine commanders as historical instruments—is setting him free from a difficult situation. More than one reader has observed that the words chosen by David refer to his loyalty to “my lord the king.” Just what king does David have in mind? Is this choice of words deliberately multivalent? And just who are the “enemies” to whom David refers? The answer to the first question determines the answer to the second. David does not clarify.

We observe the contrast of night and day: Just after Saul’s midnight meal at the residence of the witch, “David and his men rose early to depart in the morning, to return to the land of the Philistines.” This is the morning of the battle; the other incidents in the chapter took place the previous day.

The development in this chapter serves two narrative purposes: First, it liberates David from a difficult situation in the coming battle. Second, it places him in a position to advance the cause against his enemies. The Amalekites, taking advantage of the absence of the Philistine army, are determined to do a bit of mischief, as we shall see in the next chapter.

Monday, June 18

First Samuel 30: David and his men, not yet informed about the outcome of the Battle of Mount Gilboah, return to their earlier base on the southeastern edge of Philistine territory. They arrive on the third day.

This story also serves the apologetic purpose of putting a great distance between David and the death of Saul. David could never be blamed for it, because he was far away.

David’s company discovers that the Amalekites, in their absence, have attacked and destroyed Ziklag, where they had left their families and property.

Since Ziklag was taken in the absence of David’s band, there was no real battle. Consequently, there were no deaths in the attack; all the prisoners are still alive. The prisoners have become—like Joseph of old—prisoners of Amalekite slave-traders.

As for David, he genuinely fears that his men, discovering that their families have been abducted, are going to take some revenge of him; it was his idea, after all, to be away from Ziklag these past several days. The author’s inclusion of this detail of David’s fear indicates how precarious his situation has been over the past fourteen months. His handful of followers has given up a lot on his behalf. They are desperate men, and they have their limits. David fears those limits may have been trespassed by this recent catastrophe at Ziklag. The author comments on David’s spiritual attitude in this crisis: “David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.”

In David’s consultation with the priestly oracular ministry, there is a clear contrast between him and Saul. Whereas the latter has just been reduced to seeking counsel from a dark source, David has the advantage of a priest, Abiathar, in his camp, and from this priest he seeks guidance in the present calamity. Abiathar reassures him.

On their way to rescue their families, David and his men find an abandoned Egyptian, who provides information helpful to their cause. Using this information, they quickly discover the raiders, spread out and insouciant to danger. Since four hundred of them will escape David’s surprise attack, their number is apparently large. Gorging themselves with food, however, and having too much to drink, they are no match for David’s enraged band descending on their camp without warning.

The booty taken by David includes not only the spoils absconded from Ziklag but also the material the raiders have taken from other adventures in the region. All of this material belongs to the Israelites as the rewards of war.

Those who have accompanied David all the way, however, are reluctant to share the booty with the exhausted men who stayed behind. David, who perceives that the recent success represents, not simply human effort, but the generosity of God—what the Lord has given us—insists on a corresponding generosity among his men.

In such a adjudication, the reader perceives that David is more than a brave and skillful warrior; he is also the sort of humane leader Israel will now need, for Saul (as we presently see) has just perished on a battlefield further north.

Tuesday, June 19

First Samuel 31: The narrator now turns north and east, to Mount Gilboah, where the Philistines are engaged in a great victory over the forces of Saul.

The Battle of Mount Gilboah actually takes place somewhat northwest of the mount itself, in the Valley of Jezreel, where the Philistine chariots enjoy the advantage of a flat terrain. The Israelites, overcome by these forces, flee to Mount Gilboah, where fighting in a chariot is more difficult. The chariots, therefore, do not pursue them. Instead, the Philistines advance their archers to harass the fleeing Israelites. In the course of this archery attack, Jonathan and his brothers are slain.

As for Saul, the traditional Hebrew (Massoretic) text says that he “was overcome with fear.” Some textual historians, nonetheless, amend that text to read, “badly wounded.” The present writer is less than persuaded by this emendation, because a badly wounded man would not likely be strong enough to throw himself on his sword. In any case, Saul commits suicide, a thing fairly rare in Holy Scripture (cf. 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18; Matthew 25:7).

The defeat of Saul’s army leads to a general panic in the neighboring vicinity, and the eastward flight of whole populations leaves many cities and villages uninhabited. The Philistines quickly seize and occupy those places. Thus, Philistine occupation effectively cuts a great swath through Israelite territory—west to east—so that the northern tribes are cut off from Judah and Benjamin in the south. This practical estrangement of the northern and the southern tribes will not be resolved until much later in the story, when the greatly weakened house of Saul will lost popular credibility and the political support of Abner.

As a sign of Israel’s total humiliation, Saul’s decapitated body is impaled on the wall of Bethshan, roughly eleven miles southwest of Mount Gilboah. This town, near the Jordan, is twelve miles west of Jabesh Gilead on the east side of the river. The citizens of Jabesh, learning of the fate of Saul, and remembering how he relieved the military siege of their city twenty years earlier (1 Samuel 11), bravely effect a night raid across the Jordan to retrieve the corpses of Saul and his sons. The bodies are burned, perhaps because they have already begun to decay.

As the citizens of Jabesh had endured that siege for seven days, so now they fast for seven days to mourn the loss of their erstwhile deliverer.

Although there is no narrative break between this story and the first chapter of Second Samuel, the editors and copyists of the Greek (Septuagint) translation—forced by the physical volume of the work to split it into two scrolls—discerned a certain propriety in dividing it at the end of the Battle of Mount Gilboah. The death of Saul, Israel’s first king, has removed the major obstacle to David’s ascension to the throne. The Bible’s next page truly is a new leaf.

Wednesday June 20

Second Samuel 1: Some days after David’s return to the camp at Ziklag, there comes a straggler from Saul’s army, perhaps an Amalekite mercenary. He presents David with part of Saul’s royal raiment, and he boasts of having given the dying Saul the coup de grace on Mount Gilboah. He evidently expects David to welcome him with open arms.

David, however, having just pursued and defeated a band of treacherous Amalekites, is in no mood to suffer a dubious story from yet another one. The man’s account sounds implausible from his first words; he claims, “I happened by chance to be on Mount Gilboa.” He happened to be on Mount Gilboah?! David senses duplicity here and narrows to two his responsive options: Either this Amalekite is simply a scavenger who stumbled on the corpse of Saul before the Philistines found it, or he is what he claims to be—the very killer of Saul. David goes with option number two. The reader, who already knows how Saul died, perceives the irony that this Amalekite is lying his way to a death sentence. (No reader of Samuel, up to this point, has yet discovered much reason to look on Amalekites with favor!)

David is not favorably impressed. If this Amalekite had time and opportunity to abscond with Saul’s crown and bracelet, why did he not remove Saul’s body and save it from desecration? Instead—according to the man’s own account—he presumed to lay a violent hand on the Lord’s anointed, a thing David has several times refrained from doing. Indeed, a man like this would feel free to kill any king, including David himself. Such a one has forfeited his own life, as far as David is concerned.

David has, in addition, lost his best friend—Jonathan. Doubtless this is the reason why David’s poetic lament on the battle of Mount Gilboah (verses 19-27)—in addition to the epic theme of its historical reference—takes on a great personal pathos. This chant opens for the reader a window into the soul of David.

Also, this is one of the few places where Holy Scripture explicitly names an earlier literary source—The Book of Jasher, which was perhaps an anthology of martial poetry. It is quoted also in Joshua 10:12-13.

In days gone by, David knew, Israelite maidens had danced when “Saul killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Let not the Philistine maidens similarly rejoice over the tragic fall of Saul:

Tell it not in Gath,

Publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,

Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

David, aware that he had been a source of alienation between Jonathan and Saul, seems to find peace in the thought that in death, at least, the father and son were once again united.

Thursday, June 21

Second Samuel 2: This chapter breaks into three parts: David’s accession to authority over the tribe of Judah in the south, Ishbosheth’s succession to the throne of Saul in the north, and the rivalry between these two thrones during the period after the Battle of Mount Gilboah.

In the first section (verses 1-7), David abandons Philistine service and leaves Ziklag. Then, following oracular counsel (presumably given through the ministry of Abiathar, the priest who has accompanied him since First Kings 22), he and his band settle in and around the southern city of Hebron. When the leaders of the tribe of Judah choose him as their king, this city becomes his capital. There is no evidence that the Philistines look askance at this; both they and David, after all, appear to be allied against the house of Saul.

One of David’s first actions is to dispatch a message to the citizens of Jabesh Gilead, praising their care for the body of Saul. This action of David is a good political move, as well, ingratiating him with an Israelite city on the other side of the Jordan. In his message, David is careful to mention that he has become king in Judah.

In the second section (verses 8-11), we learn that Abner did not perish at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. Now, loyal to the memory and legacy of Saul, he establishes the latter’s remaining son on the northern throne. The author of the Book of Samuel calls him “Ishbosheth,” literally “man of shame,” which seems to be the derisive nickname by which he is known in the south. His real name, according to Chronicles, is “Ishbaal,” “man of the Lord.” Because of the continuing Philistine menace, his capital is set east of the Jordan, at Mahanaim. As events will show, this northern throne depends absolutely on the support of Abner.

In the third section (2:12—3:1), the author uses a memorable episode to illustrate his theme: “there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (3:1). Ishbosheth, in the north, slowly expands his realm, which means that he must have had some unrecorded victories against the Philistines. When his forces move south, they encounter those of David near the city of Gibeah, in the territory of Benjamin, not far north from the still-Canaanite city of Jerusalem.

The leaders of the two forces want to avoid a pitched battle, but they are not adverse to selecting some of their better warriors to engage in individual combat with the other side: “Abner said to Joab, ‘Let the young men now arise and compete before us.’ And Joab said, ‘Let them arise.’” Twelve is the number of warriors chosen from each side, perhaps symbolizing the number of Israelite tribes.

Very quickly, however, things get out of hand, as new combatants enter the fray, and before long “there was a very fierce battle that day, and Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.”

Since Abner is likely the best warrior on the field, he becomes a special mark for the bold. And also for the foolish young men who want to make a name for themselves—such as Asahel, David’s nephew. Abner, unable to outrun Asahel, reluctantly slays the youngster, dealing him a backward thrust with the blunt end of his spear. Joab, Asahel’s brother, never forgives Abner, and a few years later he will take revenge.

Friday, June 22

Second Samuel 3: There are four components to the present chapter: first, a list of David’s sons born through the years 1000-992; second, an account of Abner’s change of allegiance to David; third, the story of Joab’s murder of Abner; and fourth, the narrative of David’s lament over Abner.

In the list of David’s sons born during the sojourn in Hebron (verses 2-5), the reader identifies the chief figures who will darken the later story of David: Ammon, who will rape his sister; Absalom, who will rebel against David himself; and Adonijah, who will attempt to steal the throne in the closing days of David’s life.

The story of Abner’s defection to the throne of David (verses 6-21) describes how the northern and southern kingdoms become united. As a royal relative and the recognized commander of Israel’s army, Abner’s responsibilities are considerably increased after the death of Saul and Jonathan at the Battle of Mount Gilboa. Indeed, the political stability of the northern tribes greatly depends on his personal authority during these troubled years, nor could the house of Saul have stayed in power, up till now, were it not for the backing of Abner.

Following the Battle of Mount Gilboa, the Israelites are divided between north and south, a division rendering it easy for the Philistines effectively to control most of the northern area west of the Jordan. This hapless situation, threatening to become permanent, poses for Abner a true moral dilemma.

He is an instinctively loyal man, principled, and innocent of personal ambition. The sundry loyalties of even such a man, nonetheless, may sometimes stand in conflict, and Abner is compelled in due course to choose between his expected adherence to the house of Saul and his more abiding concern for Israel’s very survival.

Long accustomed to viewing David through the eyes of Saul, Abner experiences much of the same conflict of loyalties that earlier plagued the conscience of Jonathan, and his painful resolution to that conflict, like Jonathan’s, leads directly to the tragedy that ends his life.

The story of Abner’s murder by the hand of Joab (verses 22-30) is tied directly to the previous chapter, where Joab’s brother, Asahel, perished at the hand of Abner. The contrast between Joab and Abner could not be starker. Joab is a simple and savage character, whose actions often gain no credit for the throne of David. Here he murders Abner in cold blood, insouciant to the reputation of David, who offered Abner political refuge. Later, he will murder the defenseless Absalom.

In the final account in this chapter (verses 31-39), we find the exasperated David lamenting the murder of Abner but politically unable to execute justice on the murderer. He does, however, go to some length to separate himself from the deed.