I Samuel 19-20: Saul’s Madness
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 27, 2008 Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church during this hot month of July. I will be leaving right after class to go preach at Christ Moravian Church on Academy Street. If anyone from Christ is listening, let me assure you that the sermon is different from the radio lesson. Let me give a shout out to my father who has a birthday this week. It’s been a quiet week in the Atwood home. For the first time this month, we are all at home together. There was big news in the world. One of the worst war criminals in Europe since World War II was arrested in Serbia this week. Radovan Karadzic will finally face justice in the world court for his role in the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990s. The wheels of justice may move slowly, but we should be thankful that they move at all. The thing that truly separates dictatorships from democracies is an independent judiciary that observes the rules of law. That is a treasure we need to protect.
David’s Escape: We left our lesson last week with Michal choosing to help her husband in defiance of her father. After class we talked a lot about divided loyalties and the difficulties of living in a patriarchal society. This remains true in the world today. Two members of Home Church, Tamra Thomas and Mallie Graham just returned from an international women’s conference that focused on courageous women confronting dangerous times. There were representatives from Africa, North and South America, and Europe meeting in Herrnhut. One of the themes was the need for the modern church to highlight the stories of women in the Bible, especially women like Michal, who took strong and courageous action in the face of great danger. Women around the world need to know that God is on the side of justice. God was on the side of Michal as she defied her father and helped David escape from Saul.
According to 19:18, David fled to the home of the priest Samuel at Ramah. Scholars have many reasons to doubt the historicity of this claim since it is unlikely that Samuel was even alive at this point. There are a number of inconsistencies in the text that make it hard to establish the chronology of the story, but the literary meaning of this statement about David going to Ramah is to remind the reader that Samuel had prophesized that Saul’s kingdom would be torn from him. By having David run to Samuel for protection, the storyteller connects several parts of a complicated tale. Whether or not things happened precisely this way is less important than the meaning of the story: David remains the Lord’s anointed even when he is running for his life.
Ecstatic Sanctuary: What happens next is very odd. Saul sends some of his men to go and get David from Ramah. They found Samuel there among a band of prophets who were in a frenzy. We talked earlier about prophecy in Israel being much more complicated than one might think from reading Jeremiah or Isaiah. In the days of Saul, prophets were men and women who sometimes fell into prophetic trances or who experienced ecstasy. They were “beside themselves” when they were filled with the Spirit. In short, many of the prophets of ancient Israel were probably like the shamans of tribal peoples around the world today. For whatever reason, there are people who seem especially sensitive to the spiritual world. Sometimes prophets in Israel received a message from God to deliver, but sometimes they merely experienced the divine world. You can see similar behavior in modern charismatic churches where people may be “slain in the spirit” and lie immoveable for a period of time.
It was not unusual for prophets in Israel to band together for mutual support, and it would be reasonable to expect that they would be associated with particular shrines, like the one of Naioth where David went with Samuel. We don’t know what was going on when Saul’s messengers arrived, but the prophets were in ecstasy and the spirit could not be contained. The king’s men were overcome. Saul sent more men, and the same thing happened. The implication of this story is that by seeking refuge with Samuel, David was protected by the Spirit of God. The king’s men could not get him. David was provided sanctuary by God himself. It is interesting that God’s spirit does not harm those who were trying to kill David. They experienced what the prophets were experiencing – an encounter with God’s spirit.
We have become so secularized in our modern world, and in our modern churches, that we forget that holy things are dangerous. We forget that it can be profoundly disturbing to come into the presence of the Holy One or be filled with the Spirit. Prophets, you may remember, tended to be on the fringes of society even when they were allowed to speak to kings and priests. They remain dangerous because they are gripped by an unseen Spirit and are zealous for justice. Prophets may be shaken and are sometimes shattered by their experience, but what happens when men of hatred are seized by the Holy Spirit? What happens when people whose first instinct is to obey earthly authorities are swept up by the Spirit of God and learn that there is a law that even the king must obey? It can be profoundly disturbing.
The Madness of King Saul: Saul’s men are unable to do the evil that he has commanded them to do. So the king himself goes to Ramah in search of David. This contradicts the earlier statement that Saul did not see Samuel again after the time he tore his robe, and most scholars are convinced that this text was edited many times over the years, and that the chronology was changed for dramatic effect. We don’t need to worry too much about minor contradictions in a 3000-year old story since we are focusing on the meaning of the text for the life faith rather than trying to establish the mere facts of history. According to the text as we have it today, Saul went to Ramah to kill David, but he fell into a frenzy.
This is almost a reversal of the parable that Jesus told of the king who sent messengers to the tenant farmers and finally sent his son. In that story, the messengers and the son were abused by the farmers, and finally the king comes and destroys them. In this story in I Samuel, the king finally comes to Ramah, but even he falls before the prophet Samuel. King Saul was overcome by the Spirit, and he lay on the ground naked and writhing for a day and a night. Here we have a vision of Saul falling completely into madness. This is far beyond the evil spirit that sometimes afflicted him. It is beyond melancholia or even paranoia. He has stripped himself of his robes of office and is lying naked before the prophet of the Lord.
This kind of thing still happens to people, as mental health workers know. People do fall into catatonic states, sometimes naked. Here in I Samuel, Saul’s nakedness is symbolic of being spiritually naked before God. Saul cannot hide behind his throne, his office, or his robes. His intentions are laid bare, and he is found to be unjust. Thus he is rendered powerless. There are people who go through this kind of spiritual journey and emerge enlightened, such as a different Saul who was struck down on the road to Damascus.
The narrator of I Samuel tells us that this was the origin of the phrase “Is Saul among the prophets.” We read that phrase earlier when Saul was chosen as the king. In that earlier story, Saul’s prophetic ecstasy was taken as evidence that the Spirit of God was upon him and he was the true king. This story in chapter 19 is far different, and a phrase that was originally positive is now used with derision. Saul has been humiliated and defeated by God. He belongs with the ecstatic prophets, not on the throne.
I have a final observation about this strange interlude in the story of the rise of David: we see here just how thin the line is between prophetic ability and mental illness. Throughout the history of religion, there has been a debate over the sanity of prophets, mystics, and shamans. The true test of sanity in relation to religious prophecy or mysticism may depend on what one does with such unusual spiritual experiences. When Saul first fell among the prophets he was empowered to be the king. Now he has been so diminished by his fear and hatred that he is left catatonic and impotent. He will emerge from his prophetic fit no wiser than he was.
David and Jonathan part – chapter 20
Chapter 20 of I Samuel is a beautiful piece of ancient literature. In it, David flees from Saul in Naioth near Ramah and goes to visit his close friend, Jonathan. Though the editor tries to connect this story with the independent tradition of Saul following into frenzy in the previous chapter, it is really hard to make sense of the chronology here. If David had been pursued by Saul all the way to Ramah, it is unlikely that he had any doubts about the king’s intentions. Originally chapter 20 probably followed directly on the story of David fleeing in the middle of the night from his bedroom. The conversation with Jonathan makes more sense if we picture David having fled from the king without knowing for sure whether Saul was really planning to have him killed. Michal had warned him to run away, but now David needs to know for sure if his life is in danger.
Chapter 20 is very long and intricate, like a beautiful tapestry on a castle wall, and we cannot do it justice in a few minutes here. The story as we have it today shows signs of having been edited and added to over the years. Verses 12-17, for instance, interrupt the narrative and seem to have been a later insertion to explain David’s concern for Jonathan’s son. Even without those verses, the original story emphasizes that Jonathan is siding with David rather than his father, just as Michal did. We will only have time this week for the first part of the story and will continue it next week.
Is the King Angry? David has fled in the middle of the night and is afraid to return. Naturally he seeks the help of his closest friend and ally. If you have ever lived with or worked for someone with a severe mental illness, you can appreciate David’s dilemma. He knew that Saul was prone to fits of bad temper since one of his major jobs was to play the lyre for him when an evil spirit afflicted him. But he has to figure out if Saul was really trying to kill him the night he threw the spear or if it was just one of his fits. Is this the kind of thing that Saul would forget about or was he seriously plotting to end David’s life? It all boiled down to the crucial question of whether it was safe for David to return to the presence of the king. He needed Jonathan to answer that question for him.
David somehow manages to get in touch with Jonathan, presumably at the place Saul had made his headquarters. David tries to explain to Jonathan that his father has “gone round the twist” and is trying to kill him. Jonathan responds the way most of us do when someone tells us something about our fathers that we do not want to believe. Children tend to idolize their fathers, and the news that they have acted immorally or stupidly can be very disturbing. Jonathan is such a guileless young man that he cannot conceive of his father doing something as nasty as having David killed in his sleep. Jonathan is also shocked that his father could plan something like this without letting him in on the conspiracy. After all, he is Saul’s closest confidant and second in command.
Jonathan’s claim that he has not heard anything about his father’s desire to kill David, of course, contradicts the earlier statement that Jonathan had talked Saul out of killing David. Clearly, the author of I Samuel was drawing upon a variety of written sources about the rise of David and could not stitch them together without the seams showing. Here in chapter 20, David has to convince Jonathan that his father has not told him about his plans because he knows that David and Jonathan are friends. For the first time, David is actively sowing doubt on Saul in Jonathan’s mind.
The Plot David planned to use an upcoming feast as the way to test the depth of Saul’s animosity toward him. In those days in Israel, the New Moon each month was an occasion for a religious festival. It was the kind of feast that the king would expect his most important followers to attend, and David knew that it would look very suspicious if he were absent. It would be like the Vice President of a company not showing up for the CEO’s birthday party. David was playing a dangerous game. If he attended the feast, it would give Saul ample opportunity to have him murdered, but if he were absent, it might make Saul even more willing to kill him. Saul might think that David was planning a coup of some sort.
Since David could not avoid the dilemma of not attending the feast, he decided to use it to his advantage. He gave Jonathan a cover story to explain his absence. It was, of course, a fabrication. The Bible is not the least embarrassed by the fact that David and Jonathan lied, which is a nice reminder that the Bible is not as moralistic as people think. David was placed in a situation where honesty might not be the best policy. He had to force Saul’s hand. If Saul asked why David was absent from the feast, Jonathan was to say that David had gone to his father’s home for an annual sacrifice. If you are going to lie to someone, it is always best to claim that you are being pious.
David tells Jonathan to report to him on how the king received the news that David had gone back to his father’s house instead of sharing in the king’s New Moon banquet. If the king gets angry, then David will know that it is because his plans to kill him have been frustrated. Saul will know that David has slipped from his trap, and he will suspect that David is mustering support from his own tribe against Saul.
David assures Jonathan that he is innocent of any crime against the king, and that his anger is unjustified. The innocence of David is repeated so often in I Samuel, that we can assume that many people doubted that David was the legitimate king. Part of the original purpose of this vignette with Jonathan was to reassure people that even Saul’s son recognized that David was not trying to usurp the throne. David goes so far as to tell Jonathan that he was willing to die by Jonathan’s own hand if he is guilty.
The Covenant At this point there is a break in the original narrative, and we have a very moving conversation between Jonathan and David. Jonathan swears his loyalty to David. Jonathan recognizes that his love for David has put him in a dangerous position. We saw earlier in the book that Saul was willing to kill his son for having broken a religious oath. Surely his life would be forfeit if he assisted an enemy of the king. Jonathan courageously chooses to remain loyal to his friend.
The Hebrew word used to describe Jonathan’s faithful love to David is Hesed, which is a word most often used to describe God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with Israel. It is an enduring love that goes beyond emotion. Hesed is not affected by the changing circumstances of life but remains as constant as the Pole Star. In other words, Jonathan is reminding David of the covenant they made with each other, and that he will never betray his friend. Even if the king is trying to kill David, Jonathan will stand by him. Their lives are twined and cannot be separated even though they may never see each other again. Jonathan asks David to show Hesed to him and to his descendents should he die. This is the first hint in the text that Jonathan will die before David becomes king. On that somber note, we have reached the end of our lesson for this week. Tune in next week to discuss the rest of chapter 20.