I Samuel 22:6-23 Killing the Priests of Nob
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 14, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to this broadcast of the Adult Bible Class at Home Moravian Church. I wrote part of the lesson this week with the sound of the ocean in the background. The North Carolina Association of Health Access Managers had their annual meeting at Carolina Beach, and they invited me to give the keynote address. I’m glad things went well at the conference despite my inexperience as a motivational speaker. As a professor, my motivational speeches usually involve the phrase “if your work is not turned in by Friday, you will fail my class.” As a man of the 21st century, I went to the internet for assistance in becoming a motivational speaker. I found a website called despair.com that publishes beautiful posters with demotivational sayings on them such as: “When the winds of change blow hard enough, the most trivial of things can become deadly projectiles.” “A few harmless flakes working together can unleash an avalanche of destruction.” My favorite has a picture of a grizzly bear catching a salmon. The caption reads “a journey of a thousand miles can end very badly.” I’m not sure why I find such things comforting. We have been looking closely at I Samuel this year, and we have seen that the story of Samuel, Saul, and David is told without rose-colored glasses. It is a harsh and realistic portrayal of the establishment of the kingdom.
Under the Tamarisk Last week we discussed David’s abortive flight into the land of the Philistines and his decision to come back to Judah with a rather large band of men. David knew that Saul would see this as a challenge and that he might react violently, so David took his family to safety in Moab. What David could not predict was that Saul’s wrath would be unleashed on others who had no protection. This week we turn our attention away from David and back to Saul. In many ways, Saul is the main character of I Samuel, but he is a tragic figure. He rose to power with the support of priests and prophets like Samuel, but several weeks ago we read a scene that symbolized the rupture between Saul and the priests. Saul’s charisma gradually slipped into paranoia. Last week we saw David pretending to be a madman, but this week we see the development of Saul’s genuine madness.
The story begins with Saul sitting under a tamarisk tree on a hill. Tamarisks are very distinctive trees, and in ancient Israel they may have been sacred. Abraham planted a tamarisk as a way of making a claim on the Promised Land (Gen. 21:33) and King Saul’s bones were laid to rest under a tamarisk. The storyteller is letting us know that Saul is not simply sitting in the shade; he is holding court under a special tree. He also has his spear in his hand as a symbol of authority and power. From the beginning Saul was a warrior, and it is interesting that in I Samuel we never seen him in any other role. He almost always has his spear or a sword in hand. Jesus could have been speaking of him when he said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
Saul is speaking to his officials, his bodyguard and servants. He calls them Benjaminites, which may indicate that he tended to rely on members of his own tribe. Some scholars take this as evidence that he was more of a tribal chieftain than a king. It is hard to go too deep into ancient Israelite politics based on the few sources we have, but it is interesting that David will make a point elevating people from many tribes in his government and even gave authority to non-Israelites. Even if Saul’s kingdom included all of the tribes, it appears that he still thought in terms of tribe and clan. He trusted Benjaminites more than others.
But on this occasion the king was angry with his tribesmen. He asked the men gathered whether they think that David could provide them with the gifts that he has given them. Will this upstart hiding in the mountains be able to give them vineyards and fields and make them generals in his “army”? Saul is reminding them that he has done those things for his supporters. This is the way politics has always worked. Kings and rulers reward loyal subjects by redistributing the wealth of the realm to their supporters. Those who oppose the ruler or are simply too weak to resist him watch their property go to those who are loyal to the regime. It generally works that way in democracies, too, but the mechanisms are more subtle. Still there is ample evidence that even today “to the victory goes the spoils”.
Jonathan Saul accuses his closest servants of conspiring against him. This is not uncommon. If you look at Stalin, Mao, Saddam, or any number of modern tyrants, you will see that it was very dangerous to rise to a position or power and authority in their governments. Often rulers fear those who are close to them, and many times this is a justifiable fear. The people who had the opportunity to see most clearly that the ruler is insane were the ones who were most in danger of being shot or imprisoned in a mental institution. Hitler was afraid that a member of his staff would kill him, and some of them certainly tried. We could go down the list.
Saul accuses his servants of complicity in a plot hatched by Jonathan and David. We know that Saul had long been suspicious of his son, but we do not know for sure what he thought was happening between him and David. Perhaps he thought the two were planning a coup so that Jonathan could be king. That sort of thing does happen from time to time in political systems in which change can only come when the chief executive dies. We don’t know the details, but we do know that Saul discovered that Jonathan helped David escape. He knows that Jonathan and David sealed a covenant and swore loyalty to each other. And now Saul has gathered his closest comrades and officials and berates them for not having told him what was going on.
Many commentaries describe this scene of Saul under the tamarisk in terms of his growing paranoia, and that may be true. But keep in mind that Saul is acting like many tyrants throughout history when faced with a threat. It is not just kings and dictators that abuse their advisors this way. Saul may have been crazy, but here he looks like many managers and executives in our day. You may have been in meetings like this with some kind of authority figure. It may have been a teacher, or a coach, or a boss. Things have been going on behind his or her back. There has been murmuring and maybe even some plotting against the authorities. Complaints are evidence of treason, and so the staff begins to whisper to each other and meet in quiet places to discuss what needs to be done. The authorities sense that something is going on behind their backs, but no one does to tell the folks in charge what is really happening. Then comes the confrontation. Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? Why didn’t you tell me that Jonathan was helping David?
The answer, of course, is obvious. Either they did not know, or they were afraid to tell the king the truth. That still happens with government officials, by the way. It is hard to tell the truth to someone who does not want to believe the truth or who will respond irrationally to it. The men gathered before Saul knew that if they had told Saul about David and Jonathan, at least one of the men would be killed, perhaps both of them. They could see that Saul was willing to destroy his kingdom in order to assert his power and authority. Some of them were probably loyal to Jonathan or David. They had decided that silence was prudent, but even that could be dangerous.
Doeg At this point a man named Doeg speaks up. You all have known people like this Doeg. He has information that he has kept secret and now he sees an opportunity to prosper by it. He can tell the boss something useful. He can give the boss someone to vent his wrath on. And best of all, he can get a little revenge in the process. You may have forgotten Doeg the Edomite. People like him are easily forgotten, but it is dangerous to ignore them. They are like snakes who strike without warning and do a lot of harm in a mean sort of way.
We met Doeg in Nob when David went to see the priest. He was the chief of Saul’s herdsmen, and the text says that he was “detained by the Lord” in the sanctuary at Nob. Most likely this means that he had been accused of some misdeed and the priests found him guilty. He was probably forced to do some type of penance or to serve the Lord for a period of time to atone for his misdemeanor. Like many of us, Doeg probably resented what the priest had done, and now he could get revenge.
He sidled up to Saul and with an oily manner ratted on Ahimelech the priest. He told the king that Ahimelech inquired of the LORD for David, gave him provisions, and even gave him the sword of Goliath. Doeg was not lying, and he may have thought he was being loyal to the king, but his words were destructive. Doeg was not forced to hand the priest over to a violent and angry king. He was not forced to be an informant for a corrupt regime. He was like the thousands of apparatchiks, like Vladimir Putin, supplying information on their neighbors to the Soviets. He was like the hundreds who supplied information to Joseph McCarthy knowing that the information was going to be used unjustly. He hoped to profit from the misery of another, and that is a fundamental definition of sin.
Read I Sam. 22:11-19
Ahimelech’s Defense Saul had Ahimelech brought before him and investigated him. Saul did not even call him by name, but addressed him as the son of Ahitub, which was a way to remind Ahimelech that what he said might have bad consequences for his whole family. Ahimelech appeared humble before his king, but it did not change Saul’s disposition. He did not ask the priest if he had helped David. He made it clear to the priest that he already knew everything that had gone on that day. He could not deny that he had helped David, all he could do was to explain to the king why he had done so. Why had he inquired of the Lord for David and given him arms and food? Why had he betrayed the king and made it possible to lie in ambush for him?
This may have been news to Ahimelech. He may not have known that David had come back to Judah with a small army in defiance of the king. The priest acknowledged that he had helped David just the way the king reported it. This is why it is safe to conclude that he really had inquired of the Lord for David, and that he had given him advise for his journey. Ahimelech tells Saul the truth, but he defends his actions on the grounds that he did not know that he was being disloyal to the king. He tells Saul that he had no idea that David was no longer one of his most trusted men. According to Ahimelech, David was chief of Saul’s personal bodyguard, which may well have been true.
Murdering the priests of God But Ahimelech’s defense was in vain. Saul did not believe for a moment that the priest was so naïve about David’s intentions. He assumed that David came to Nob specifically because he knew that Eli’s grandson would assist him. News that the priest had not only fed David but had given him the sword of Goliath was all the proof Saul needed. Even if Ahimelech had truly not known that David was a rebel and a traitor, the simple fact that he had assisted an enemy of the king was enough to seal his fate. At the beginning of this story, Saul was angry at Jonathan, but now he had a new target for his royal wrath. Saul decreed that Ahimelech would die. By implication, anyone who helped David would die.
It was not enough that Ahimelech be executed for treason; Saul decided to kill his entire family. Biblical commentators are rightly appalled at this decision of Saul, and they often point to this as evidence that Saul had truly lost his marbles, but sadly enough, this is the way politics used to be done. Later in the story, David has many family members of his enemies killed. European history is full of such familial murder, and this is still done in some parts of the world. One way to prevent someone from taking revenge in a blood feud is to kill the whole family. It is brutal, but effective. We think politics today is tough, and people get bent out of shape over a comment about lipstick, but at least we no longer use murder and extortion as tools of public policy. We are rightly horrified that Saul would murder children and women in order to protect his throne, but that was normal in the ancient world. We live in a more enlightened age that condemns the killing women and children as part of a political agenda. Except in times of war, of course.
What would have shocked the ancient Israelites is that Ahimelech and his sons were all priests of the LORD. Priests were sanctified. That means that they were set apart from normal society. They were a special class of person, and were even like a separate tribe: the sons of Levi. They did not work like other people or take part in wars. They were not celibate nor were they perfect, but they were treated like sacred vessels. They belonged to the LORD. The ancient readers of this tale would have believed that it was crazy to kill a priest because it meant that the LORD would have to avenge the death of one of his servants. In essence, Saul was inviting a blood feud with God. What had been symbolized earlier in the book when Saul ripped Samuel’s cloak was now coming true in fact.
Doeg the Murderer The author makes a point that none of the Israelites was willing to do kill the priests and their families. He wants to show that Saul was isolated even from his generals, and that the Israelites recognized that he was doing something beyond the pale. It is a brief statement easily overlooked, but it makes an important point. Obedience is a virtue only to a point. There are times when people have to disobey the orders of their superiors. Think of how much less evil there would be in the world if people had the courage to say “no” when told to do something immoral or illegal. No, I will not dump that toxic waste. No, I will not lie for you. No, I will not justify waterboarding. Did you know that there were many German soldiers in World War II who refused to participate in the death squads that terrorized Eastern Europe and others who refused to work in the death camps? Most of them were simply reassigned to other duties, but some were executed. If enough people had said no, there might not have been a holocaust. Do you know why so few Jews were deported from Denmark and Norway during the Nazi occupation? The police and government officials refused to cooperate. They said no, just like Saul’s generals.
Unfortunately, that did not stop Saul. He knew that Doeg the Edomite was the kind of man who would do any evil commanded by the king. So Doeg took his sword and slew Ahimelech. The text says that he killed over 80 members of Ahimelech’s family that day, but he most likely had help during the slaughter. There are men who enjoy such things and others who saw an opportunity to rise in the king’s service. Doeg and Saul showed neither justice nor mercy as they killed every living thing in Nob. They treated the city of the priests as if it were under the ban of Holy War. It is bitterly ironic that Samuel had taught Saul how to do this when he ordered him to exterminate the Amalekites. Biblical interpreters for centuries have tried to justify the slaughter of the innocent when ordered by a priest but condemn it when priests are killed. Jesus teaches us that there is no justification for killing the innocent and that we are to love our enemies.
Conclusion Saul’s fear of David led him to commit a great crime, but he merely accelerated the crumbling of his kingdom. One son of Ahimelech managed to escape the slaughter and found refuge with David. Saul was losing support and authority in his kingdom while the oppressive and frightened looked to David as their potential savior. It is interesting that when David heard about the atrocity at Nob, he blamed himself for the deaths. He knew that Saul had killed Ahimelech and the others because they had helped David. Though he was an outlaw, David showed more majesty and wisdom than the king at that moment.