Friday, June 8
First Samuel 23: Three episodes make up the narrative of this chapter: first, David at Keilah (verses 1-13); second, Jonathan and David together (verses 14-18); and third, Saul’s further pursuit (verses 19-28).
The complex episode at Keilah, in which David delivers the city from the enemies of Israel, may be contrasted with the story of Nob, in which there was no one to deliver the city from the King of Israel.
Faced with reports of the Philistine siege of Keilah, David is uncertain of his course: Does he dare take his modest guerilla band to fight the besiegers, even as Saul pursues him with a large army? David is no coward, but he also does not want to tempt the Lord by presumption.
Well, then, there is nothing for it but to consult the Lord, and recent events have made this recourse a bit easier. When Abiathar fled from Nob, he took with him the oracular ephod used by the priests to discern God’s will (verse 6). David, who appeals to this source several times in the present chapter, seeks guidance about what to do about Keilah. He consults the oracle once for himself, and then again to reassure his men. The answer, both times, is “Go for it!” He does, and a mighty victory ensues (verses 1-5).
Saul, who should have been the one to help Keilah, learns that David is now in the city, behind its walls. Aha, says he to himself, now we’re got him! Forthwith, the king proceeds to march toward Keilah.
David now confronts a new dilemma: Should he stay and take a stand in Keilah, to face Saul’s inevitable siege of the city, or should he flee before Saul arrives? There is a more direct way of posing the question: Will the citizens of Keilah protect David from Saul as he protected them from the Philistines?
On the face it, there is every reason to believe that the people in Keilah will be unwilling to put themselves at risk. They know what Saul just did to Nob, when he believed that city had aided David. David, again guided by oracular counsel, leads his men out of Keilah. It is a close call, nonetheless, and David is afraid (verses 14-15).
Jonathan, learning David’s whereabouts, leaves Saul’s force and comes to visit his friend in the Judean Desert (verses 16-18). On this, their final meeting, they renew their fraternal covenant.
One suspects that if Jonathan can ascertain the whereabouts of David, so can Saul, and he does. A messenger arrives, however, to report that the army is needed elsewhere to engage another Philistine attack. Once again, David experiences a providential mercy.
Before Jonathan departs from his friend, he professes certainty that David will inherit the throne. He adds that Saul, too, knows this. Thus, the reader is given an update on the state of Saul’s mind: He is aware of the hopelessness of his cause; he is conscious of resisting the inevitable.
This resistance, nonetheless, is still pretty strong. Relying on further reports of David’s whereabouts in the southern desert, Saul again advances and closes in on him. Just as the situation seems critical for David, word reaches Saul that he must break off the pursuit and journey back to deal with those pesky Philistines (verses 19-28). Divine Providence strikes again.
Saturday, June 9
First Samuel 24: When Saul’s jealousy and dangerous behavior drove David from the royal court, he was obliged to wander, much like an outlaw, in the desert regions in the south of Judah. Harassed and pursued by the army of the increasingly deranged king, David was constantly on the move, he and his small band of friends, hiding here and there as chance provided, often hungry and always exposed to danger. Saul had put a price on David’s head, moreover, so there was the added peril of betrayal; the king’s spies might be anywhere.
David’s plight was dire indeed: “in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness,” “being destitute, afflicted, tormented,” while wandering “in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth” (2 Corinthians 11:27; Hebrews 11:37-38).
The present reading tells the story of David’s concealment in another cave, this one at Engedi, just west of the Dead Sea, where Saul had led a military detachment to apprehend the young fugitive. The circumstances of this encounter draw attention to two features of the story, both of them typical of this whole period of David’s desert wandering.
First, there is the quiet, subtle working of Divine Providence, whereby the Lord protects David from capture and delivers his enemy into his power. The Lord has all these things in His historical control, a truth already perceived when David just happened to show up at Saul’s camp at the very moment Goliath was throwing out his challenge! This theme will be repeated in the next two chapters, the story of David and Nabal, and a second encounter with Saul.
Second, David shows mercy to Saul, whom he yet regards as Israel’s rightful king. This trait of mercy will also be manifest (and put to the test) in the two chapters that follow.
Throughout this period of great hardship and relentless persecution David learned by experience that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). God has “called” David to become the next and better king, and David must bide God’s time and pleasure to reveal that call.
Psalm 55: Of the fourteen inscriptions that assign specific psalms to occasions in David’s life, nine are related to the period of his exile as a fugitive from the insane wrath of Saul. These assignments, which are rather imaginative, can be strung together, relating step-by-step to episodes during David’s time of desert exile. They are worth listing in sequence, following the narrative in 1 Samuel 19—31.
In this arrangement, the first assignment is Psalm 58 (59), which its inscription relates to the very beginning of David’s exile: Saul’s officers watching through the night, planning to arrest him in the morning (1 Samuel 19:11-12).
The second is Psalm 55 (56), assigned to David’s seizure and temporary detainment by the Philistines (21:10-15). This incident is also the assigned setting of the third example, Psalm 33 (34), but here there is an historical problem: Whereas David plays an idiot before Achish in the scene in First Samuel, this psalm title speaks of “Ahimelech,” an obvious confusion. The mistake prompts me to think a different—less careful—scribe was responsible for this inscription.
The fourth example, Psalm 141 (142), places David “in the cave.” This appears to be the cave of Adullam in 1 Samuel 22:1.
The fifth example relates Psalm 51 (5) to the treachery of Doeg the Edomite (22:9-19), who is thus identified as the boastful man with the vicious tongue. This assignment is probably the most persuasive.
The sixth example is Psalm 53 (54), the inscription of which relates it to David’s betrayal by the Ziphites (23:14-23).
The seventh example, Psalm 56 (57), is tied to David’s “close call” with Saul in the cave near Engedi (24:3-8).
The eighth example, which places David “in the wilderness of Judah,” is Psalm 62 (63). It is apparently a general reference to this whole period of David’s life.
The final example, Psalm 17 (18), celebrates the end of David’s exile, when Saul is slain in the Battle of Mount Gilboah. The text of this psalm is virtually identical to 2 Samuel 22.
One is impressed that nine of these fourteen biographical references are assigned to a relatively short period in David’s life: the time of his desert exile.
One is also struck that six of them are found in the “second book” of the Psalter, clustered between Psalms 51 and 62 (52 and 63). Five of those are assigned to discrete incidents within 1 Samuel 19-24. At least five of them, and perhaps six, appear to come from the same hand, which means that they appeared at the same time in a particular manuscript of the second book of the Psalter.
The impulse prompting that early copyist to make these biographical references is a matter of speculation, but surely the proper path in this speculation is to consider what those references did, in fact, achieve. There are two things, I believe:
First, by assigning these psalms—particularly those clustered in the second book of the Psalter—to the period of David’s persecution and distress, our scribe effectively identified the suffering just man, a very prominent a figure in the Psalter, with David, the Anointed One. In other words, the Lord’s Suffering Servant was made identical to the Lord’s Messiah.
Except for the incident of Absalom’s rebellion (the title assignment of Psalm 3), the period of David’s desert exile offered that ancient copyist the most persuasive opportunities to make that identification.
Second, our scribe’s interest in the period of David’s wandering in the desert evokes a comparison with Israel’s corresponding experience during the years following the Exodus. In the Psalter, this latter period receives extensive consideration (cf. Psalms 77 (, 94 , 104 , 105 , etc.).
Such a comparison, however, serves mainly to highlight a contrast: Whereas Israel, during its forty years in the desert, was repeatedly unfaithful to the Lord, the exiled David was entirely faithful during his desert sojourn. Tempted, in several instances, to assert his own will and take the future into his own hands, this Suffering Servant consistently surrendered his destiny and placed his soul in the hands of God.
Sunday, June 10
First Samuel 25: In this chapter, roughly halfway through the description of David’s exile, comes the endearing account of his meeting with Abigail and of their eventual marriage. Reckoned among the most winsome narratives in the Bible, it is a story interesting, and even intriguing, from several aspects. The principal interest of the biblical author himself is properly theological, especially the theme of wisdom.
Even though she will not become an active participant in the drama until verse 14, Abigail is immediately introduced with her husband Nabal, near the very beginning of the account. This stylistic arrangement allows the author to establish early what becomes a sustained contrast between the two characters throughout the story. Abigail is “a woman of good understanding and beautiful appearance,” whereas her husband “was harsh and evil in his doings” (verse 3). The rest of the account, elaborating the differences between a wise, attractive woman and her sottish, offensive husband, thus becomes a narrative enactment of the tension between Wisdom and the Fool, a standard theme of the Bible’s sapiential literature.
Nabal is rash, compulsively driven, hot-tempered, sharp-tongued, stubborn, stingy, impossible to reason with, and very slow to learn. A major feature of Nabal’s moral imbecility is the failure to appreciate his wife’s wisdom. Long habituated to ignoring her example and her counsel, he has followed his own path to self-destruction. His household servants sum it up: “He is such a scoundrel that one cannot speak to him” (verse 17).
Notwithstanding the conditions of her marriage, however, Abigail is not a woman to sit around agonizing over her fate. On the contrary, she is the very embodiment of the resourceful, energetic, and “virtuous wife” described in Proverbs 31:10–31: loving and patient, disciplined, hard-working and efficiently organized, wise and discerning, and endowed with a gentle disposition and pleasant speech.
Abigail’s household is so well ordered that, with no prior notice, she can promptly put together an enormous meal (including two hundred loaves of bread!) to feed David’s entire army (verse 18). A woman of great practical insight, she acts with dispatch; three times in the one chapter we are told that she “made haste” (verses 18, 23, 42). The attentive reader gains the impression of a woman who decided, years ago, that her very survival would require an energetic but disciplined approach to life.
To save her household, therefore, Abigail goes out to meet the outraged David. This latter, sadly, is not far behind Nabal in rashness of temper. Vowing an exorbitant retaliation for Nabal’s arrogant affront, he too is on the point of playing the Fool (cf. Proverbs 14:17). But then Abigail, acting as David’s own personal Lady Wisdom, comes to seek him out, giving the “soft answer [that] turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), instructing him not to “answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (26:4). As the personification of Wisdom on David’s behalf, Abigail “has slaughtered her meat, / She has mixed her wine, / She has also furnished her table. / She has sent out her maidens, / She cries out from the highest places of the city” (9:2–10).
In his hour of impending moral peril, then, David’s deliverance comes from receiving the instruction of Wisdom (Proverbs 15:32–33). He is rescued from an evil course of action that his anger had caused to seem proper (16:25; Ecclesiastes 7:9). The wise Abigail exhorts him to patience and restraint. She persuades him to abandon his foolish vow—compare this with Saul’s earlier vow in chapter 14—of blood-vengeance and to leave retribution to a provident God.
Thus rescued from the edge of moral catastrophe, David recognizes and praises Abigail as a woman of sense and discretion. The ultimate, decisive difference between David and Nabal is that the one will listen to Abigail’s exhortation and the other will not. The wise man gladly receives instruction and reproof, but the fool does not.
As the messenger of Wisdom, moreover, Abigail serves in a prophetic role. She perceives God’s true purpose in history, foretelling David’s ascent to the throne and the founding of his dynasty: “The Lord will certainly make for my lord an enduring house” (verse 28; see also verse 30). She asks for herself only to be “remembered” by David (verse 31), a modest petition that is providentially granted in the marriage that ends this lovely story with both irony and extravagance.
Monday, June 11
First Samuel 26: This chapter describes a second encounter between Saul and David during the latter’s time of wandering in the desert as an exile.
There are distinct points of similarity between this story and the account found two chapters earlier—the encounter at the cave of En Gedi. These similarities include the betrayal of David by the friends of Saul, the irony of Saul’s seeking David and David’s finding Saul, David’s mercy to Saul and the reference to Saul as the Lord’s “anointed,” Saul’s retreat from further pursuit, and certain close resemblances in the conversations between the two men on both occasions.
In each account, the circumstances of their meeting give David an advantage over his adversary, an advantage that he exploits with singular restraint. In the first story, he cuts off the edge of Saul’s robe; in the second, he absconds with the spear and water jar placed near Saul’s head while he sleeps in camp. In both cases, the seized items serve as tokens to smite the conscience of Saul and bring him to a sense of remorse.
A major difference between the stories is the introduction of extra characters—Abishai and Abner—in the second. These are relatives of the antagonists; David is the uncle of Abishai, and Abner the uncle (or, perhaps, cousin) of Saul. From the perspective of the literary structure, the introduction of these extra characters ties the present episode to later—and deadly—encounters between them (cf. 2 Samuel 2-3).
Like the account of the cave at En Gedi (1 Samuel 24), the present story is largely structured on the contrasted characters of Saul and David. The one is mad and relentless in persecution, while the other is longsuffering and patient in mercy. Whereas the one imagines himself threatened, the other—who truly is threatened—forgives the offense and foregoes vengeance. Saul is clearly the unworthy king; David is clearly worthy to be the king.
This double thesis is elaborated through an identifiable dramatic sequence: David is tempted for a second time. Two chapters earlier he had “turned the other cheek” to Saul’s offense, refusing to return evil for evil (24:17). Now, once again, David steadfastly declines to harm this king who has proved himself to be an enemy. He turns the cheek a second time.
Nonetheless, the author’s moral contrast between the two men is far more than the development of an ethical theme. That is to say, the primary purpose of this narrative is not to convey a lesson in virtue. The author is not a Hebrew Aesop, nor even a biblical Plutarch. The moral structure of the story serves, rather, to illustrate the righteous judgment of God and His purposeful governance of history. God is the chief actor in this play.
If the two main characters in this new account are less explicit on this thesis than they were in the En Gedi story (cf. 24:12,20), the narrator is not. Indeed, I suggest that the entire theological burden of the encounter is conveyed in a single and subtle detail, which is introduced into the narrative at the point where David, under cover of darkness, departs from the enclosure of Saul’s picket line: “So David took the spear and the jug of water by Saul’s head, and they got away; and no man saw or knew it or awoke. For they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen on them” (26:12).
With this masterful stroke of storytelling, the narrator inserts the divine action into the story: “a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen on them.” The author mimics, as it were, the subtlety of David’s secret intrusion into the camp of Saul. This introduction of God is so quiet, so unobtrusive, that the reader—like one of those pickets posted on the line—must be fully awake to observe it. This “deep sleep from the Lord” is the sole point at which the narrator reveals the true theological significance of the story: a vigilant God keeps guard over these events.
What transpires here is not just a conflict between two antagonists. It is an episode in the dramatic enactment of the divine judgment. David, the reader knows, will come to the throne. At the end, even Saul’s knows it: “Be blessed, my son David! You shall do great things and you will continue to prevail.”
The deep slumber that came over Saul’s camp that night was the historical lock, into which God inserted “the key of David.” He shuts, and no one opens; He opens, and no one shuts.
Tuesday, June 12
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 enter, 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 eventually 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—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 Canaanites 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.
Wednesday, June 13
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 would 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.
Thursday, June 14
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 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.
Friday, June 15
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 skilful 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.