I Samuel 19 – Attempted Murder in the Palace
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 19, 2008. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. It is good to be home after our two week trip to the birthplace of the Moravian Church. I am grateful to Neil Routh and Scott Venable for covering the class while I was away. I asked them not to be too good lest you be disappointed to have me back. I think that is the real reason pastors are reluctant to take Sabbaticals, by the way. They are afraid the church will do just fine without them. I wish I could remember a single one of the jokes that we laughed at so hard on the trip, but then again, it might be best that I’ve forgotten them. I do recall that our Czech guide was amused by our efforts to pronounce the name of a city spelled BRNO. That word does not have enough vowels for Americans.
The Trip There were 28 of us on the trip, including a very competent representative of Aladdin Travel. I’d like to give a shout out to the folks at Aladdin who put together a wonderful itinerary for us that included some fabulous meals. The first part of the trip was spent in Prague where we toured Bethlehem Chapel where John Hus preached. We saw St. Martin in the Wall Church where the laity first drank from the chalice in opposition to the policy of the Catholic Church. We also toured the Prague cathedral and castle, and saw the tower where Moravian bishop John Augusta was imprisoned and tortured during the Reformation. Before we left Prague we shared Holy Communion in front of the statue of Hus on the Old Town Square, right in front of the Tyn Church where Brother Gregory first got the idea of starting our church. It was a wonderful way to experience the founding of the church five and a half centuries ago.
We also took a day trip up to Herrnhut and Berthelsdorf where the Moravian Church was resurrected during the time of Count Zinzendorf. My friend and colleague Peter Vogt introduced us to the Saal and God’s Acre in Herrnhut. From Prague we journeyed east toward the region of Moravia. At one time Moravia was a kingdom, but now it is the agricultural heart of the Czech Republic. We stopped in Podebrady, the home of King George of Podebrady who was the first Protestant monarch in Europe. It was during his reign that our church was founded. From there we traveled past Lhotka where the first Moravian ministers were ordained in 1467 and Rychnov where our first confession of faith was written.
After driving on some very small roads that rarely see tour buses, we arrived in Brandys, which was one of the major headquarters of the Moravian Church at one time. It was in Brandys that Brother Gregory was buried in an unmarked grave, and it was there that Luke of Prague helped moderate the original sectarianism of the church. It was also in Brandys that Comenius wrote Labyrinth of the World when he was in hiding from Catholic authorities.
We spent a night in the charming town of Litomysl and stayed in a hotel where seven presidents have stayed. We toured the beautiful castle and garden, and a few people cooled their feet in the fountain. Our guide wrote down the phrase “I would like tap water with ice” in Czech for a member of the group so she could get ice water at her meals. Ice is still a rare commodity in Central Europe, but you do not need ice for beer. The Czechs drink more beer than any other nation. Almost as much as the students at UNC.
The next two days were spent in Moravia tracking down sites associated with Comenius. We visited Fulneck where Comenius had been pastor. There is a lovely museum dedicated to him there. Then we were led by a bicyclist to Suchdol, the village where a few families had kept alive the memory of the Unity of the Brethren during a century of harsh persecution. Some of the most famous names in Moravian history are associated with Suchdol. We saw the foundation stones of the house of David Nitschmann, who became a bishop and missionary. Anna Nitschmann, the Zeisbergers, Neissers, and other families left Suchdol at great personal cost and built the village of Herrnhut in Germany. They have a new grove of trees in Suchdol with trees from all of the provinces of the Unity serving as a living memorial of the witness of those original refugees. Having chosen exile because of their love for Christ, they went to the most marginalized people of the world with the revolutionary message that the Creator loved them with an infinite love. Thanks to them, we now have brothers and sisters on almost every continent.
One of the most magical moments on the trip was when we were driving past fields of sunflowers covering the rolling hills. The sky was filled with dark gray clouds and suddenly the widest rainbow I’ve ever seen burst out in bands of color reaching down to touch the sunflowers. It truly looked like we had found the fabled pot of gold, and it was a reminder that the greatest treasures are those that you enjoy for a time and allow to return to the giver.
We visited the area where Comenius was born and spent time in the museum at Uhersky Brod where there is a companion to the statue of Comenius that stands proudly at Moravian College. It is a fabulous museum and the library houses virtually every book ever published by or about Comenius. Some of the titles were in Japanese even. On our way out of Moravia, we stopped in Kralice where there is a museum dedicated to the famous Kralice printing press where the Moravian Church published the first complete Bible in the Czech language – forty years before King James published his famous English Bible. Our last stop in Moravia was to visit the enormous Slavic epic paintings of Alfonso Mucha. There we saw the artist’s vision of the history we had been discussing.
We also had a nice time in Vienna, where many of the group enjoyed a beautiful concert of Viennese masterpieces. I rode the Ferris Wheel, and we took a day trip to Budapest where we learned about the tragic history of Hungary. It is a beautiful city. Our last day was spent cruising down the Danube through the Wachau Valley, which is where Wachovia in North Carolina got its name. We saw the original estates of the Zinzendorf family that they had to abandon when they became Lutheran, and so the whole history came full circle to Herrnhut and Salem. You’ll have to ask I. B. Southerland or David Pfaff about the closing dinner and the funny hats. Except for getting stranded in Atlanta on the return journey, it was an incredible trip. It was a good group of people to travel with, and I think some life-long friendships were made.
Even with all of the memories and adventures, it is good to be back home with the family; however, it is a little hard to get used to having a crazy kitten pounce on you as you walk through the house. She has a new name “Warp Kitty” because she suddenly appears places that you don’t expect to find a cat, like in the refrigerator. But enough about life in the Atwood home – we are returning to our study of I Samuel this week. I’ll be reading from chapter 19.
Jonathan’s Intervention So far in the book of I Samuel, the narrator has indicated that Saul was growing jealous of David, and we’ve had hints of the conflict to come. Here in chapter 19 Saul finally goes over the edge. He tells his closest advisors and his son that he wants to kill David. 3000 years later, it is hard to tell if this was originally a matter of Saul blowing off steam and saying that he wanted to kill David or if he was actually plotting with his men. In other words, should we look at the opening of chapter 19 like a scene from the Godfather where the head of a mob puts a price on someone’s head or like a scene from the Honeymooners with Ralph threatening to send his wife to the moon. Quite likely it was somewhere in between with Saul being like King Henry expressing his desire for someone to rid him of the troublesome Archbishop of Canterbury.
In any case, the main point of this story is that the king’s son objects to his father’s murderous intent. Jonathan reminds the king that David has served him well and has done nothing against him. Not only that, Jonathan conspires with David against his father. Some biblical scholars point out that this scene is a little confusing and the text may have suffered corruption over the centuries, but the basic idea is clear. David was to hide somewhere so that he could hear Jonathan and Saul discussing his fate. Jonathan convinces his father that David is not a threat and his life should be spared. After that, Jonathan thinks it is safe for David to return to Saul’s service, but there are reasons to doubt Saul’s sincerity in sparing David.
It is interesting that we are told a great deal about Saul and Jonathan and their feelings, but David remains a cipher in this story. We don’t know if he was frightened as waited in hiding, or if he was angry with Saul. We don’t know how he felt about Jonathan choosing him over his father or the dangerous position he was putting his friend in. The author of I Samuel provides key insights into the psychology of all of the major actors in this drama except for the star, David.
Attempted Murder At first it appeared that Jonathan’s appeasement of his father had worked. Saul did not send his henchman to have the shepherd hero murdered in his sleep. At least, not yet. Instead, David was restored to his place in the royal court, and soon he was leading the king’s men in battle against the Philistines. As usual, David was victorious, but he was not welcomed home by the king. Presumably, Saul had hoped that this battle would result in David’s death. We had a verse to that effect in a previous chapter, but it makes more sense here. Jonathan had convinced Saul not to have David killed, and so the king decided to let the Philistines take care of things for him. But God was with David and he was victorious. The best laid plans can fail if they are contrary to God’s intention.
David returns in triumph. Perhaps the women once again greeted him with songs of praise and victory, and this angered the king. In the court of the king, it was David who had to play and sing rather than being sung to. The evil spirit was upon Saul, and only David’s soothing hand on the lyre could bring him back to sanity. But not this time. This time the spirit was not subject to the music. This time the evil spirit was fueled by Saul’s irrational hatred of the younger man who was always successful. Saul’s resentment and paranoid grew beyond the bounds of music, and he took his spear and hurled it at the warrior musician.
This is such a dramatic scene that we might be inclined to dismiss it as fiction, but things like this happen in real life. Powerful people in positions of authority sometimes lose it. They throw things and break things. They try to destroy even the people who helped make them successful. Sometimes they kill. I have no trouble picturing a tormented king like Saul throwing a spear at David; I am just surprised David avoided the spear and it stuck into the wall. I imagine that years later people would point to the hole in the wall where the spear had been and tell of that night.
Michal Rather than being ashamed of what he had done, Saul decided he needed to finish in cold blood what he had begun in rage. He sent men to kill David in his home. It is possible that this happened sometime later than the throwing of the spear, but the biblical author, like a Hollywood director, shortened the timeframe for dramatic impact. In any case, David is at home with his wife, Michal who knows what her father is planning. Michal, like Jonathan, will have to make a choice. Will she support her father even when he is planning something reprehensible? Will she be loyal to her husband or her father?
This is an important scene in the Bible that is rarely the subject of sermons. Many of us had to memorize the Ten Commandments growing up, and the most important one was “honor your father and your mother.” It is the only commandment with a promise attached to it. This commandment to honor one’s parents was the basis of the social order of many nations for thousands of years. Even nations that did not worship the God of Israel believed that the basis of morality was the obligation to be obedient to one’s father. I have known Christians in America who view this commandment as absolute.
Michal knows that it is her father’s will that David be killed, but she helps David escape. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant might argue that Michal sinned in violating the commandment to honor her father. Worse, she used deception rather than telling the truth. Personally, I think what Michal did was moral, and that her actions are praiseworthy. Comenius wrote that the commandment to honor one’s parents does not apply when parents ask a child to do something immoral or harmful. There are ten commandments, not just one, and even parents do not have the right to tell a child to violate the other commandments. Sometimes we honor our parents most when we disobey them.
So Michal did the right thing and saved her husband’s life that night. It sounds a bit like a movie in that she put something in the bed to fool the guards into thinking that David was lying there sick. What she used is a bit surprising, though. It was one of the terephim, which were household idols. You may remember from our study of Genesis that Rachel stole the terephim of her father when she left Haran with Jacob. Centuries later the wife of David had terephim in the house. It is surprising that the author of I Samuel is not at all embarrassed by these idols in the house of David. Michal is not criticized for having idols nor do any of the characters in the story seem disturbed. There is no effort to justify her actions either. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. She placed an idol in the bed and covered the head with goat hair. This is a reminder that the world of ancient Israel was more complicated than we often think, and the fact that the Israelites condemned idolatry did not mean that all images were abolished in the households.
When Saul discovered that he and his men had been fooled and that David had escaped, he confronted his daughter. She lied to him and claimed that David had threatened her life if she did not help him. Again she appears to have violated the commandments, and yet there is no hint that the author of I Samuel criticized her. Her deception kept her father from committing the sin of killing his own child, and Michal was right to deceive the king.
Michal is often overlooked when people list heroes and heroines of the Bible, but she should be remembered as a strong and bold woman who took action to save the life of David. She was used by God to preserve the life of the anointed king of Israel. Though she was not an ancestor of Jesus, we Christians should respect her for saving the life of Jesus’ ancestor, David. History might have been different if she had been obedient to the evil intentions of her father. We should also pause and think about all of the brave women in the world today who risk their lives to save the lives of others or to prevent angry men from committing crimes. There are many Michals today who deserve our support.
Conclusion We have come to the end of our time on the radio for this week. Thank you for tuning in to the Adult Bible Class. Let me remind you that you are welcome to join us in person in the chapel of Home Moravian Church. Next week we will continue the story of David’s flight from the murderous rage of Saul.