I Samuel 21:10-22:5 – Crazy David and His Band
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 7, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on what was supposed to be a stormy weekend in North Carolina. It is hurricane season in the South, but the weather was nice for the WFU game. It is always nice when the righteous are victorious. Temperatures are already rising on the political scene now that both parties have had their conventions. It was nice to hear that John McCain and Barak Obama agree on many points about the failures of government in recent years, but they disagree over the solutions. One of the most amusing comments I heard about the campaigns recently was by my daughter Sarah. She said she was all that impressed that Ms. Palin hunts moose. How hard could it be to find a moose and hit it? They’re pretty large and don’t move all that fast. I do hope that people of faith throughout the country will be involved in the political process. Religion and politics can be a strange combination. It was interesting to hear an executive of the Southern Baptist Convention accusing the press of sexism for questioning the wisdom of having Sarah Palin as a vice-president. Apparently, the church’s leaders believe that a woman can be trusted with the most powerful military in history, but cannot be pastor of a Baptist Church. No matter what the outcome, this will be an historic election. For the first time in history, the President or Vice-president will be from either Alaska or Hawaii.
We’ve started classes at Wake, and I have 40 students in my Christian Theology class. It is a remarkably good group of students, some of whom are anxious about studying theology. It appears that many of them grew up in churches that taught them that it was wrong for Christians to think about God or ask questions. That saddens me when I ponder the fact that for over 1500 years the Christian Church was the major institution for education and intellectual debate, but now churches have retreated from the life of the mind. Not only should people of faith be involved in politics, we need to be involved in the liberal arts, humanities, sciences, social sciences, and all realms of academic life. I hope that in these radio broadcasts, your curiosity has been piqued and you have had something to think about and maybe argue about with a friend. I want to give a shout out to one of my former students who was ordained last week. Keith Stirewalt was a member of Home Moravian Church when he felt a call to leave a lucrative business career and go to divinity school. He graduated with a Masters of Divinity from Wake Forest and has served for a couple of years as a chaplain at Baptist Hospital. Last week he was ordained as a minister by Wake Forest Baptist Church, and I know that God will find wonderful ways to use Keith.
This week we have one of the strangest stories in the whole Old Testament. It is such a strange story that the biblical commentaries I read have almost nothing to say about it. It is a story that is almost never heard in church, and is not in the lectionary. Only the most fool hearty minister would dare preach on it. So, here I go.
Read I Samuel 21:10-end
David and Achish One indication of just how powerful King Saul was is that when David fled, there was no place in Israel where he could hide. He knew that Saul would seek him out, so he had to leave Saul’s realm completely. The closest place to seek refuge was the land of the Philistines, and so David sought protection from Achish the king of Gath. This is one of those stories in the Bible that is so amazing it must be true. It must have been embarrassing years later that David, the Lord’s Anointed, went to one of the Philistine kings in an attempt to escape the wrath of Saul. What is more remarkable is that he went to the king of Gath carrying the sword of Goliath of Gath. You must be desperate if your only hope is that one of your worst enemies will take you in and protect you. This was worse than one of the Hatfields appearing on the front porch of grandpa McCoy looking for help. This is worse than Rush Limbaugh asking Nancy Pelosi for a job. You can just picture the original hearers of this story saying to themselves “was David insane?”
There are actually two stories in I Samuel about David going to King Achish in Gath. We’ll discuss the second one in detail in a few weeks. For now, I’ll just say that it is quite different. In the second story, David comes before the Philistine king as the leader of a fearsome army and is welcomed as a valuable ally on the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We’ll see that the king even rewards David with the gift of a city that remained part of David’s familial estates for centuries. In that second story, we have a picture of David as a powerful tribal chieftain who could make a mutually beneficial alliance with a more powerful king. That is not the picture given here in chapter 21. Scholars debate whether both stories could be historically accurate. We can’t solve the historical problem without more evidence than we have in the text of I Samuel, but we can still look at the meaning of the story that we do have.
Busted It appears in chapter 21 that David thought he could assume a new identity in the land of the Philistines and perhaps hire himself out as a soldier. Persumably this was the advice he had gotten from the priest in Nob. But David was already too famous for that. Verse 13 says that he was “in their hands” when he appeared before Achish, which may indicate that he had been taken prisoner when the servants of the king recognized him. Here was the feared David who had killed so many Philistines on the command of King Saul. They quoted to the king the couplet that had caused David so much trouble back home: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands. That chant by the dancing women was sung in praise of the young hero, but fame brings its own grief. That chant had turned Saul against David, and now David is haunted by it in his exile. He is too famous to hide; he will have to fulfill his destiny.
It is very interesting that the servants of Saul call David “the king of the land.” Presumably the land is Israel, but it is not at all clear in the text. Some scholars speculate that this may have been a slip of the author who accidentally made David a king before he had a kingdom, but it is more likely that author wanted to show that even foreigners recognized who the real king of Israel was. So far in the story David has been identified as the legitimate king by prophets, priests and even Saul’s children. Now he is proclaimed king by the servants of Achish. A third possibility is that the term king in those days did not have the same meaning that it had later. Achish was one of five Philistine kings, each of whom controlled a major city-state. In the Iliad, there were many kings fighting for Agamemnon who was the “king of kings.” With David’s reputation, it would be natural for the Philistines to assume that he was a king. David was not the last famous person to be proclaimed a king without having been crowned. Just think of Elvis.
The key point is that David’s cover is blown and King Achish realizes that this is the man who once brought Saul over a hundred Philistine foreskins as a bride price. He was not just some shepherd boy or musician; he was a dangerous warrior who was now in the hands of his enemies. When David discovered that he was recognizable even in the land of his enemies, he grew very afraid, as you might imagine. He suddenly realized he was not much safer in Gath than he would have been back in Israel. Since he was “in their hands,” he was not free to go. If you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia, think of what it was like when Lawrence fell into the hands of one of the Arabian chiefs. Death comes swiftly in these situations. David was in trouble and had to think fast. He did the only reasonable thing to do when you realize that you’ve done something crazy. He acted crazy. You thought Shakespeare made up this ruse in Hamlet didn’t you? Keep in mind that the Bard of Avon knew his Bible very well. I suppose one lesson we could take from David is that if you find yourself in a situation that is insane, it might be wise to act crazy yourself. Not that I’ve ever done so, of course.
Crazy Messiah David’s insanity is one of the reasons this story is rarely used in church. I am sure that in Sunday School we did not have a picture of David for the felt board that showed him with spit running down his beard or looking like a madman. We don’t like to think of the Lord’s Anointed making marks on the doors or howling at the moon. It is unseemly to say the least, but it would make Sunday School pageants more interesting. I imagine many twelve year olds would enjoy portraying David acting loony in Gath, but it might get out of hand.
I should mention that it is possible that this story is trying to put a good spin on a problematic story from David’s biography. It is possible that David actually did have a mental breakdown during this ordeal, but later told he folks he was faking it. David would not be the first person to use such as ruse, nor would he be the only ruler in history who was a bit unbalanced. We’ve already seen that Saul had bouts of insanity and religious ecstasy. Later on David dances naked in public. Perhaps he did not always have both his oars in the water, but I digress. The text says that he was pretending to be insane.
His plan worked. Achish was appalled by David’s behavior. Rather than having him executed, he asked his servants why they had brought a madman to him. “What? I don’t have enough crazy people around me already?” That may have been an Israelite joke about the Philistines, but it has the ring of authenticity to me. I can picture a king responding just that way.
Part of the method in David’s madness was that people in the ancient world tended to view the insane as under the special protection of the gods. They did not have the categories of mental illness that we have today, and they certainly did not have medications to regulate brain chemistry. They assumed that irrational behavior was caused by the gods or perhaps by demons. Either way, insane people were doubly dangerous. Their actions could cause harm, but if you harmed them, you might incur the wrath of a god. Achish was not going to kill a madman, nor was he going to let him cause problems in the palace. It was much easier just to send David away. David’s plan worked, but think of the cost to him. A short time ago he had been welcomed by dancing girls singing is praises and honored at feasts. He was married to the daughter of the king and his best friend was the heir to the throne. The last judge of Israel had anointed his head with oil and proclaimed him a future king, but here he was in a dangerous exile in the palace of his enemy foaming at the mouth and pawing at the door. He has almost hit rock bottom, but he does not despair. He continues to work towards the future.
Human Initiative There is another reason why this section of Scripture is rarely preached in church. There is no mention of God in this story. It does not say that David prayed to the Lord and he was rescued from his enemies. Nor does it say that the Lord showed David how to preserve his life. The text is quite clear that David was afraid and he decided to play the part of a madman. Personally, I really like this aspect of I Samuel. We are constantly reminded that the great figures of the Bible used their own wits and came up with creative solutions to difficult situations. Modern Christians are sometimes too pious to think for themselves and to act boldly. Thank God David did not have to consult a committee. He saw a problem and thought up an ingenious solution. This may have the first time in history that the old cliché was true. His plan was crazy enough it just might work!
David’s Merry Men Once he escaped from Achish, David took refuge in the caves of Adullam near the border of Judah. It is place where it was fairly easy to hide, although it was hardly comfortable. I mentioned last week that it is not clear if David’s men had accompanied him when he fled from Saul. It sounds like he was alone in Gath, but we do not know for sure. At the beginning of chapter 22, people begin to join up with David. The Bible says that he attracted people who were dispossessed. Some were debtors. Others were in economic or legal distress. Some were no doubt outlaws and miscreants. We could read this part of the story as an ancient Hebrew version of Robin Hood and his Merry Men who were living in the wilderness hiding from the Sheriff and prince John. Like Robin Hood, David’s growing band of followers were disreputable fellows living on the margins of society.
Modern biblical commentators like to picture David here as a liberator who reached out to the poor and oppressed, much like Jesus. Or we could picture him as the leader of a band of malcontents, nar’ do wells, and scoundrels who preferred to fight rather than pay their bills. It is possible that Samuel’s prediction about the monarchy had come true, and the king was changing property laws and foreclosing on people’s lands. How we view David at this point depends in part on our understanding of society. The picture we have makes David look a lot like Che Guevara hiding in the jungle or George Washington at Valley Forge. You can view him as a freedom fighter or a leader of an armed gang of bandits. Regardless, the story itself shows David building his own private army of men loyal to him.
Read, if time: I Samuel 22:1-5
Moab David learned there was no place for him to hide, and so he prepared for battle. He does take the precaution of removing his parents from Israel. He knows Saul well enough to know that the King would have his family killed. According to this chapter, David’s parents are still alive, but it is curious that Jesse is not named here. David arranges for them to live in Moab. You may remember that one of David’s ancestors had left his home in Bethlehem during a famine and sought refuge in Moab. We studied the Book of Ruth, and saw that one of David’s immediate ancestors was from Moab. Therefore it is not surprising that David’s parents took refuge in Moab. What is surprising is that David personally negotiated with the King of Moab. This demonstrates two things: one, David was already powerful enough and famous enough that he could have access to the king of a neighboring country. It also shows that David was willing to make alliances with the traditional enemies of Israel. This is a very important lesson for politicians and statesmen today. David could negotiate with Moab, why should we fear negotiating with Iran?
Gad This phase of David’s life ends when an obscure prophet named Gad comes to him in his cave. We know almost nothing about this man or why he came to David. Was he sent by the prophets at Ramah or David’s supporters? Was he sent by God to remind David that he had been anointed? All we are told is that he appeared one day and convinced David it was time to go to Judah. David left the safety of the caves with his growing band of followers and returned to his homeland. In many ways, this was like Caesar crossing the Rubicon or Pancho Villa crossing the Rio Grande. David was returning to Saul’s realm with an army. Saul’s worst fears were coming true. This was a threat that could not be ignored, and for the rest of the book, David and Saul are engaged in war. Tune in next week and we’ll look at some of the stories from that ancient war.