I Samuel 23 – David on the Run
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 21, 2008. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this beautiful autumn day. It is the equinox, the time when the days and nights are equal length, and for the next three months the nights will be longer than the days. As a scholar of religion, I find it a bit odd that Christianity does not have a way to observe the autumnal equinox. Our Jewish brothers and sisters will soon be observing their high holy days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year. American churches do observe the changing of the season, but that has more to do with the secular school schedule. But I do hope you will take a moment to be thankful for the summer that has ended and to look with hope to the fall that is beginning. It was a hard summer for many people, especially in Texas. It was a hard week for the American economy. Companies that had long been rock solid were shown to be extremely fragile. Tax payers have now become share holders in some of the major financial institutions in America. I wonder how many of the Wall Street executives and Washington lobbyists who were begging for government funds have been opposed to governmental assistance to the poor and disadvantaged in the past? The Presidential campaign is kicking into high gear, and already the political operatives are up to their old tricks. I hope you will take the time to separate truth from distortion, and that you will make an informed choice in November. I am amazed when I hear people say that it does not matter who is President, and I am saddened when they say that their vote doesn’t count. .
David Rescues Keilah: Last week we discussed Saul taking vengeance on the priests of Nob who had helped David. The story ended with David offering protection to Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech whom Saul had murdered. In chapter 23 Abiathar assists David by inquiring of the LORD for him. The chapter begins with David being informed that the Philistines were attacking the town of Keilah, which was near the border between Judah and the land of the Philistines. Raiders were robbing the threshing floors of Keilah, which meant that during the winter many people would probably starve. This is warfare at its most basic level. A powerful group of people steals the food from those who are weaker. I often hear skeptics and cynics claim that religion is the cause of most violence in the history of the world, but that’s not true. Wars and conflicts are almost always fought over property and power. Much of the fighting in Iraq today is over who will control the oil wealth of that region. England once waged war on China in order to protect its opium trade. There are still warlords in parts of the world who attack villages during the harvest to steal their food. Many economists and military experts predict that in the near future global wars will be fought over water rather than oil. Religion provides an excuse for war, and it can give wars a holy patina to war, but that just hides the crude reality that wars are about power and property, just as they were in David’s day.
David learns that the people of Keilah are being oppressed by the Philistines, and he asks the priest Abiathar what he should do. Abiathar asked the LORD and he received the reply that David should attack the marauders. We talked about this practice of inquiring of the LORD in an earlier lesson. When the priest was wearing the sacred ephod, he would ask a specific question and then reach for one of the seer stones, the urim and thummin. One was affirmative and the other negative. This was the biblical basis for the Moravian use of the lot in the 18th century, by the way. For the Moravians, this was a way to make decisions based on obedience to the will of God rather than personal will. It was also a way to bring debates to a close since everyone was bound by the decision of the lot. In David’s day, it appears that the urim and thummin were used as oracles. The priest would ask a specific question to see what the future might be. Most ancient rulers used divination as they tried to make policy decisions. In light of the current financial crisis, one might wonder if divination would be more effective than our current system of following economic models.
What is unusual is that David asks twice. First he asks if he should go rescue Keilah, and when his men raise reasonable objections against that course of action, David asks if they will defeat the Philistines. That’s a whole different question. One of the difficulties with the use of the lot for the old Moravians was that sometimes the decision did not work out well. They interpreted a bad result to mean that God was punishing them or that there was a deeper plan, not that God had made a mistake. David took a more prudent route. He was not going to risk the lives of his men without some assurance of victory. David is being prudent and asking for a second opinion rather than simply rushing into battle. Why were the men so worried about attacking the Philistines? For one thing, they were on the run from Saul’s army, and the Philistines were even more powerful. Why pick a fight with the Philistines when you’ve already got Saul against you? On the surface, it does seem foolish to come to the rescue of Keilah, but David was shrewd as well as good. There is no reason to doubt the tradition that David was genuinely concerned about his fellow Israelites and that the rescue of Keilah was bold and heroic, but it also worked to David’s advantage. The only way to win a guerilla war against a superior foe is to have the support of the local population. By rescuing Keilah, David became a hero defending the oppressed, and the people might be willing to support him. He was showing them that he could protect them better than Saul.
Almost Trapped David’s plan almost failed. He was successful against the Philistines and even captured many of their animals, but word reached Saul that David was in Keilah. If he struck quickly, he could trap David in the walls of the city and starve him into submission. Saul said boldly that God had handed David over to him, which is reminder that in many wars both sides think that God is on their side. Abraham Lincoln addressed that problem in his Second Inaugural Address, and he was one of the few rulers wise enough to recognize that God may not be wholly on either side in a war. For his part, David was wise enough to recognize his peril. If Saul besieged Keilah, the people might betray David even though he had just rescued them. David consulted with the priest, who told him that David should leave Keilah before Saul arrived. Part of the purpose of this story is to show that the priest could advise David, but Saul could no longer be sure of the Lord’s will since he had killed the priests. Even today leaders often get rid of the advisors that would be most useful. David and his 600 men escaped from Keilah, and they kept on the move so Saul could not find them.
Ziph: This is not the most interesting section of I Samuel, but it was probably very exciting at the time. Saul is the cat and David is the mouse, but in the long run the mouse will win. These scenes of David having to flee from stronghold to stronghold because he knows he cannot win a battle against Saul remind us of many moments in history where a rebel band tries to outwit a stronger foe. Think of Robert the Bruce hiding in a cave watching a spider repeatedly build a web. Or think of George Washington retreating again and again during the American Revolution until finally the British are caught unprepared at Yorktown. We could even think of the Afghans using similar tactics against the British Empire in the 19th century and against the Russians in the 20th century. We Americans prefer stories like Rocky where the hero fights toe to toe and wins despite great losses. We like to say that we will always be on the offensive and never sound retreat, but there are times when that is a disastrous approach.
I think it is quite nice that the Bible affirms the principle that he who fights and runs away may live to fight another day. David was brave, but he was also cunning, and he listened when the oracle told him to run away. Day after day, Saul searched for him in the desert of Ziph, but he could not find him. Strangely enough, Jonathan was able to find David. He met with David in Horesh. We can assume that they send messengers back and forth to arrange this unofficial meeting. It must have been a very dangerous affair, especially for Jonathan. It is in this conversation that we learn that Jonathan is planning to support David’s claim to the throne and that he will be David’s second in command. Jonathan claims that Saul is aware that God has already ordained that David will be king. Preachers and biblical commentators point to Jonathan’s assertion that David will be king as evidence of God’s protection over David. They tend to ignore the tragic reality that Jonathan will not live to see David as king. They renew their covenant, but Jonathan will die before the end of the book.
Eventually the Ziphites betray David. The text does not tell us why. Who knows how many people Saul tortured and killed trying to get information about David’s whereabouts? Who knows what threats or rewards the king used to get this information? It is possible that the Ziphites voluntarily agreed to hand David over to the king. After all, David was a rebel and an outlaw. Saul blesses the Ziphites for being loyal to him, and once again we see that both sides call upon the same God. Both David and Saul are convinced that God will bless them and give them victory. We know that David has been chosen by the LORD, but it may not have so clear at the time.
Searching for David Saul tells the Ziphites to learn all they can about David and his movements. He is determined to track him down, but he is going to wait until he has definite information. It is illuminating that Saul mentions that David is hiding among the clans of Judah. Clearly there were many people in the tribe of Judah who supported David instead of Saul. When David becomes king, he will assert control over all of the tribes of Israel, but under his successors the kingdom will be divided. The descendents of David will rule over Judah and not much else. It appears that this separation between Judah and the rest of Israel was already apparent during the reign of Saul.
David discovers that he has been betrayed again, and that Saul is on his way to capture him in the desert of Maon. Scholars have mapped all of this out, by the way, but its not that important for understanding the story. The key point is that David stays one step ahead of the king. He keeps going deeper and deeper into the wilderness. You can almost feel David’s fear as Saul gets closer day by day, and finally there comes a time when the two armies are separated only by a mountain range. The storyteller does not give us all the exciting details, but it sounds like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid running from the cavalry. Just when it looks like David is going to be caught by the king, something happens to change plans.
Saul has to break off the pursuit because the Philistines have sent a raiding party into Israel. We know how much the king wants to capture David, but he has a greater obligation. He must come to the aid of his people. Commentators, including me, are generally very negative about Saul, but we should not overlook this scene. Despite all of his flaws, he remained a king who came to the defense of his people. It is perhaps a strange irony that David was saved in this case by the Philistines. David recognized that he had an almost miraculous escape, and so he named a prominent rock there Sela Hammahlekoth – the rock of parting. And he took refuge at En Gedi.
Sparing Saul’s Life Saul had lost his opportunity to seize David, but when he had defeated the Philistines he returned to his pursuit. David was well hidden in the desert of En Gedi, and Saul could not find him. In chapter 24, we have a little scene that is popular among middle school boys because it is so earthy. The Bible tells us that Saul went into a cave in order to relieve himself. While he was occupied with the call of nature, David’s men told him that Saul was vulnerable. Seize the moment, they said. Kill him while he cannot defend himself. Rather than calling for a frontal assault that would have alerted Saul’s army, David crept up to the cave. Instead of killing Saul, he cut off the corner of his robe, which Saul had removed for obvious reasons.
That was a very odd thing to do, but David wanted to prove to his men and to Saul that he had been close enough to kill the king. It is almost like an Indian brave scoring a coup on an enemy. By cutting the robe, there could be no doubt that Saul had been a David’s mercy, but he did not kill the king. Strangely enough, the text says that David felt guilty for doing this. It is possible that the text got muddled and edited over the years. It would make sense that he felt guilty for sneaking up on the king intending to kill him, and so instead he cut his robe. It seems a little excessive for him to feel guilty for simply cutting the king’s robe, but all we have is the text we have. It says that David rebuked his men for urging him to murder the king while he was alone in the cave.
The Lord’s Anointed The key point of this passage is clear despite some possible confusion in the details. David publicly acknowledges that Saul is still the king and he is a servant of the king. All of the secret covenants with Jonathan and all of the words of the prophets and priests are set aside at this moment. David may be the king one day, but as long as Saul lives, he will not attack him. The king is the Lord’s Anointed, even if he has gone insane and is trying to kill David.
This was an important thing to add to the story of David because the kings of Judah did not want one of their subjects thinking that they had the right to rebel against them. This whole story of David and Saul was problematic for the kings of Israel since it appears to sanction rebellion against the monarch. This scene was discussed a lot during the history of Europe as Christians debated whether it was ever justified to rebel against their sovereign. When the Puritans separated the anointed head of King Charles from his body in 1649, it sent shock waves throughout Christendom. They had struck down the Lord’s Anointed, and they claimed that they had a divine mandate to do so.
We’ll pick up next week at 24:8