I Samuel 21:1-9

I Samuel 21:

The Sword of Goliath

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Aug. 31, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. Schools have started, buses are rolling, and folks are settling into their fall routine. Churches are also implementing their fall programming. This morning I thought you might like to hear the 10 Commandments as written for North Carolinians:

(1) Just one God (2) Put nothin’ before God (3) Watch yer mouth (4) Git yourself to Sunday meetin’ (5) Honor yer Ma & Pa (6) No killin’ (7) No foolin’ around with another fellow’s gal (8) Don’t take what ain’t yers (9) No tellin’ tales or gossipin’ (10) Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff. An old high school buddy sent me that.

For those of you not involved in school, it is Labor Day weekend, which ends summer. I was talking this week to one of the premier organists in Winston-Salem, and conversation ranged from summertime weather to jobs we’ve held in the past. In college his summers were spent working on highway construction in southwestern Missouri in 100 degree heat. He said that it gave him a real appreciation for the men and women who labor day and night in this country, often in very unpleasant conditions and still have trouble making a living. You may know that this week was the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” in Washington, DC. What you may not remember is why Dr. King was in Memphis the day he was assassinated. He was there to assist sanitation workers in their effort to improve working conditions. Two men had been crushed to death in a garbage truck while they were on break. They had to eat their lunch with the garbage because they were not allowed to be seen in the city. So many of our workers today remain invisible, and it is important on Labor Day that we remember the ordinary heroes who sacrifice themselves day and night for their families and for all of us.

In other news, it is the season for political conventions, and we should pray that virtues such as justice, prudence, wisdom, and strength will triumph over cynicism, cronyism, greed, and fanaticism. That is a prayer for both parties as they choose leaders, formulate policies, and conduct their campaigns. The two major presidential candidates will have a discussion with Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in California. I think Pastor Warren will be able to generate meaning discussion instead of simply scoring debating points.

I Samuel            Politics have been on our minds in this class as we have explored the Old Testament book of I Samuel this year. It’s been three weeks since we’ve looked in on King Saul, Jonathan, and David, so let me recap the action for you. We saw how David became one of the king’s most important retainers, and that he was particularly close to Prince Jonathan. David had proven himself as a warrior and commander, and was rewarded by being allowed to marry the king’s daughter Michal. But Saul grew insanely jealous of David, and was convinced that David was going to usurp the throne. He tried a couple of times to kill David, but was foiled. When Jonathan finally realized that his friend’s life was really in danger, he told David to flee from the king. They had a tearful farewell. It is a little surprising that we given a picture of David’s farewell from Jonathan, but not his departure from his wife. It reminds me a bit of the fellow who said that his wife ran off with his best friend and he sure does miss him.

We pick up the story this week with David on the run. Keep in mind that David is famous. When he came back from the king’s war he always had the equivalent of a ticker tape parade in New York City. He was like an astronaut, or a rock star, or a first term senator from Illinois. Women sang his praises and men swore their loyalty to him, but once he left Saul’s household, he was an outlaw. He was an outlaw who was so famous that there was nowhere he could hide.

Read I Samuel 21:1-9

The Priest of Nob                        David fled to Nob where there was a sanctuary of the Lord. There is not a lot of information about Nob in the Bible or from archaeology. Scholars are not entirely sure of its location, other than the fact that it was in the tribal lands of Benjamin. It is described in one verse as a “city of priests,” and seems likely that the sanctuary at Nob was the “tent of Yahweh” or the “tent of meeting.” It is possible that this was the sanctuary that had once been at either Mizpah or Shiloh, but it was relocated to Nob because of war. You may remember that Shiloh was destroyed by the Philistines.

It appears that the sanctuary at Nob was important and may have the central sanctuary at the time. One of the grandsons of Eli was the chief priest at Nob. His name was Ahimelech, and may have also been known as Ahijah. Or that may have been his brother (I Sam. 14:3,18). In any case, the priests in Nob were closely related to the priests of Shiloh, which is further evidence that the sanctuary had been relocated. The ark was no longer there, though. One thing we know for sure is that the sanctuary at Nob was so important that it needed a large staff of religious professionals.

It is interesting that a grandson of Eli was the chief priest in Nob. That brings us back to the beginning of the book, and it demonstrates that the story of  Eli did not end with the rise of Samuel. J. R. R. Tolkien once noted that the great stories never end. They are all somehow interconnected. Even we are playing our part in a story that spans centuries.

We should recognize that Ahimelech grew up in a family that was involved in the great struggles of the day, including the establishment of the kingdom. When David appeared unexpectedly, Ahimelech feared that there was trouble afoot. It was particularly odd that he was alone. Why would one of the king’s most important generals be traveling without his men and supplies? Why would he come to the sanctuary at Nob? The reader knows the answer to the first question. David is alone because he is running for his life, but that is not what he tells the priest.

David’s Prevarications            Though a lot of biblical commentators and preachers through the centuries have tried to obscure the facts or at least interpret around them, it is clear that David lied to the priest. He told him that he was on a secret mission for the king. As we know in our own times, if you claim that something is a secret mission for the President, then you don’t have to reveal the truth about what you are doing. David was claiming “executive privilege, “ and tells the priest that his mission is so secret that he cannot tell anyone what it is, but it is not so secret that he cannot tell the priest that he is on a secret mission. This was a clever ruse to get the priest to trust him, but we should not gloss over the fact that it was all a lie.

It is interesting that the biblical author is not at all concerned about David’s dishonesty. You would expect that lying to a priest would be a bad thing. It is likely that the author had no idea that one day this story would be part of sacred Scripture that is used by millions of people as a guide to moral behavior. This story causes problems for churches and synagogues, and it would easy to just ignore it, but we can’t do that in good conscience. We may decide that the Bible teaches that lying is occasionally called for in extreme situations where telling the truth would lead to very bad consequences, such as getting someone killed. People who lied to the Nazis in order to save the lives of Jews may have been strengthen by this story.

Or we may decide that David was just another lying politician, but God uses imperfect tool to do his will. We might even decide that it is very wise that Scripture includes stories like this to make us think about religion and morality as we struggle to live honestly in a world that is all too often governed by lies and threats of violence. One of the things that make the Old Testament interesting is that the people in these stories are so much like us. David and Ahimelech were trying to make good decisions in situations where ambiguity reigned. David chose to lie to the priest rather than tell him that the king was trying to kill him.

David’s Men                        It is not clear if David was also lying when he said that his men were going to meet him later. When Jesus refers to this story in the New Testament, he says that David’s men also ate the bread, but there is no indication in I Samuel that David had a retinue with him. It may have been that he was lying to the priest so that he could get a greater supply of bread for his journey, or simply to give a subtle threat about what would happen if he refused him. It is also possible that David had indeed sent word to his own loyal soldiers to meet him near Nob. It would not be unusual for a warrior like David to assemble his own company of fighters. Just as Achilles had his Myrmidons who fought for him in the Trojan War, David had his own band of professional killers.

This becomes more clear later in the story, but it does leave us with two conflicting pictures of David’s rise to the throne. Was he just a poor shepherd boy who to climb out of the princess’ window to escape her father and then flee for refuge to the priest? Or was he a powerful lord with a band of armed men who fought for the king until DAvid was forced to leave the king’s service, taking his private army with him? Perhaps the truth lies between those poles of interpretation.

Why Nob?            It is still not clear why David went to Nob. What was David looking for? This story in ch. 21 may be a different version of the earlier story about David fleeing to Samuel in Ramah for protection that we discussed a few weeks ago. Here David is fleeing to the priests rather than to the prophets, but in both stories we see him seeking help from the religious leaders rather than political leaders. He does not flee to some powerful tribal chief; he goes to the sanctuary of the LORD. This reminds the reader that David’s rise to power is not simply the result of shrewd political maneuvering and force of arms. He is blessed by the LORD and has the support of the priests and prophets. He is the LORD’s anointed and is recognized as such even while Saul is king.

We find a clue as to why David went to Nob in the next chapter. It is reported to Saul that Ahimelech assisted David by giving him bread and a sword and inquiring of the LORD for him. David could have gotten bread anywhere, and it seems odd that he would go to a priest to get a sword. What he probably wanted from Ahimelech was a word from the LORD and a blessing. He is like Jacob who has to flee from his home but goes with a blessing. Sometimes that is all you have as you face an uncertain future. David wanted reassurance that God was with him.

The text mentions the ephod, which the priest wore when he made inquiries of God, and it is reasonable to assume that the priest put on the ephod and offered David advice for his journey. Many scholars speculate that a verse or two was somehow omitted from the text in an early stage of its transmission. Or, it could be that the author assumed that we could figure out on our own that the priest inquired of the LORD on David’s behalf. It is impossible to know for sure, but later Ahimelech admits to Saul that he did just that. The priest offered the fugitive advice and help.

Bread of the Presence            David asks the priest for bread, but the only bread available is holy bread. It was the bread of the Presence, which was baked according to strict religious rules and placed in the sanctuary as an offering to God. This is a reminder that the religion of the ancient Israelites was not all that different from other ancient people. If you visit the huge temples in Egypt, you can see where the priests laid food offerings before their gods. The closest most of us come to that ancient religious practice today is Thanksgiving when we roast the sacred turkey according to our ancestor’s secret recipe. Preparation of the holy food was one of the main duties of a priest, and then according to strict instructions, he ate the food on behalf of the god. Speaking as an ordained minister, it is a little odd to think that my professional ancestors were more like gourmets than professors.

Only priests could eat the Bread of the Presence, but it appears that the rules were not as rigidly established in David’s day as they would be later. Ahimelech was willing to let David eat the sacred bread if he was ritually pure. This may have been political expediency on Ahimelech’s part. He knows that it is unwise to deny the request of a killer like David, especially if he claims he is on a secret message for a king like Saul. Ahimelech assumed that there was no way that someone like David had been keeping celibate, but David assured the priest that he was pure and chaste. His men were, too. Sure thing. They always keep themselves away from women when they are on a military campaign. Whether or not David was lying to the priest, it is bitterly ironic that years later he would try to hide his affair with the wife of Uriah by encouraging Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, something Uriah would not do because he wanted to remain chaste like his men who were engaged in battle.

So, the priest gives David the bread of the Presence. Theologically we can interpret this as the LORD himself nourishing David as he fled from Saul and went into a dangerous exile. For David, this bread was like the manna. The biblical author does not appear to have been overly concerned about the deceptions involved or the violations of ritual laws. What was important is that David was fed by the priest of the LORD. In our own lives, we should remember that our prayers may be answered in ordinary ways, and sometimes we play a role in the answer ourselves. David did not wait for the manna to fall from heaven. He asked the priest for it.

The Sword of Goliath            That was not all he asked for. He needed a weapon. That must have seemed particularly strange to the priest. Why would a warrior on a mission for the king not have his sword? David’s lie in this case is even less convincing. I strongly suspect that Ahimelech knew something odd was going on, but willingly went along with the lies because he wanted to help David. Like politicians today, they were playing a game, and David was providing him with “plausible deniability.” What happens next is a bit of a surprise. They only sword that Ahimelech has available is a sword that had been placed in the sanctuary behind the sacred ephod. It is a sword that was a symbol of the LORD’s protection of Israel in a moment of extreme crisis. It is none other than the sword that had once been wielded by Goliath who had blasphemed God and taunted the Chosen People.

If you play video games, you know that heroes need special swords with religious power. In literature Arthur received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. As Monty Python reminds us, “watery tarts distributing weapons is no system of government,” but it is the stuff of great mythology. Swords are symbolic of masculine power. By offering David the sword of the giant who had once shamed Saul, Ahimelech was offering David a weapon of symbolic and spiritual significance.

We discussed David and Goliath in an earlier lesson, and you may remember that there is some reasonable doubt as to who actually killed the giant from Gath. It is possible that the tradition of David having killed Goliath came from David having possession of Goliath’s sword during his exile. When he became king, he placed the sword in the sanctuary in Jerusalem, and over time the legend grew that he had killed Goliath when he just a boy. That is one theory. If the story of I Samuel is historically accurate and David had killed Goliath and then placed the sword in the sanctuary, this account of the events at Nob are even more meaningful. At the moment when David’s life is most threatened, the priest presents David with the sword of his enemy and reminded him of his greatest victory. David receives it with gratitude and leaves Israel.

Next week we will see that David finds refuge in the most unlikely place imaginable.

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  • Tricia Williams  On August 31, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    I am so delighted to find this site. I have so missed my brilliant, funny friend- Dr. Craig Atwood!
    It will be a pleasure to have access to your class- thanks to the letter we received from Bill Leonard of the Divinity school. I am very proud of all your many accomplishments as Theologian- In- Residence and John Comenius Visiting Professor of Moravian Studies.So many will benefit from all your endeavors. I feel very honored to know you and to have access to your classes. Fondly, Tricia Williams

    P.S. Loved the Southerner’s Ten Commandment- sounded like The Cable Guy.

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