I Samuel 26-27: David Among the Philistines
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 26, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love. I want to give a shout out to Tripp Fuller who just moved to California to pursue a PhD in theology. Tripp was in my first class at Wake Forest and was very helpful to me. He’s the reason I have a blog titled theflamingheretic, where you can access all of my Bible lessons. The most exciting thing in my life this week was a trip to the dentist. Dr. Leal is an old friend and he told that he took the best class at Salem College recently. It was a class in yoga and creative writing. It was the last thing I thought he would be doing on a Saturday afternoon, but I’ve never see Jeff so excited as told about what he wrote. He reminded me that life remains full of learning and adventure even if you just had your 30th high school reunion. He’s a really good dentist, too.
In case you haven’t heard, there will be an election next week. I used to complain because North Carolina was not a swing state and the candidates ignored us, but I’m getting a little tired of the ads. My nine-year old daughter Madeleine can recite several of them by heart. But please don’t let election fatigue keep you from going to the polls. Today several churches downtown are holding a Souls to the Polls rally and taking folks down to the board of elections to vote early. I won’t tell you who to vote for, but I will tell you to vote your conscience.
Chapter 26 overview Speaking of political leaders, this week we are continuing our year-long study of the book of I Samuel. Hopefully we’ll finish by Advent! Last week we talked about David and Abigail, which was a nice interlude in the story of Saul’s war against David. Our lesson last week ended with the statement that Saul gave David’s wife Michal to another man. In chapter 26 we return to Saul’s pursuit of David. I am not going to read this chapter on the air because it is so similar to chapter 24, which we discussed at length. The similarities include the Ziphites telling Saul where David was hiding, Saul taking 3000 warriors to pursue the rebel, David secretly scoring a coup on Saul, David proving to Saul that he could have killed him but showed mercy instead, David asking Saul what crime he had committed that has made the king hunt him down, and Saul addressing David and acknowledging that David is the better man.
In short, the two stories are so similar that many scholars speculate that they are two different versions of the same event. It seems very unlikely that David would have attempted, much less been successful, in pulling off the same trick twice. There was no reason to prove twice to Saul that he could have killed him. It also seems like a strange coincidence that both events were instigated by the betrayal of the Ziphites and that in both Saul admits he was wrong.
The fact that we do have two different accounts of the same basic story increases our confidence that something like this really happen. The fact that they are so different indicates that they circulated in oral tradition for a long time before being written down. It is reasonable to conclude that somehow or another, David managed to get within striking distance of the king and chose not to kill him.
Multiple Traditions Why did the author of I Samuel include both of these stories in his book? We saw in our study of Genesis that biblical authors were not as worried about redundant stories as modern editors are. I just got one my manuscripts back and the editor cut out a few redundant passages, even though every word I had written was gold. The editor of I Samuel included repetitious passages to emphasize that David showed mercy to Saul.
Another reason for including both stories is that they are different enough to be interesting. In the first story, David sneaks up on Saul while he is relieving himself in a cave. It is a bit too scatological for use in the synagogue or church. Chapter 26 is much more dignified. It is also much more heroic, almost miraculous. Saul and his 3000 soldiers have set up camp on a plain near a mountain, and Saul is sleeping in the middle of the camp. It sounds like the soldiers are arrayed in concentric circles. Saul’s personal bodyguard, Abner, is lying next to him. In other words, the king is as well protected as a man could be, but David got close enough to kill him.
The Tale In the story, David looks down from a height and sees that Saul’s men are asleep with no one on watch. He decides to try to get into the camp and he asks for a volunteer. One of his cousins, Abishai, is eager to prove his courage, and accompanies David. One problem with this story is that we are not given a clue as to why David wants to do this. In the first story, David’s men urged him to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity and end the war. After an internal debate, David changed his mind and showed the king mercy. This story in chapter 26 has none of that debate. We aren’t told what David intends to do. It appears to be nothing more than fool hearty act of bravado.
Abishai and David successfully infiltrated the camp and were standing over the slumbering form of Saul when they took time to have a rather long debate. Abishai wants to run Saul through with his own spear, but David refuses. Apparently he never intended to kill the Lord’s Anointed, but merely wanted to teach Abishai a lesson about why you shouldn’t kill a king. Abishai is nonplussed, to say the least. Here they are surrounded by 3000 enemy troops and David is giving him a lesson about the divine right of kings. The author acknowledges the difficulty of this scenario by telling the reader that the LORD had made all of Saul’s men fall into an unnaturally deep sleep. Finally, David decided to take the king’s spear and his water jug as tokens of his “victory.”
The theft of the spear is significant. Several weeks ago we talked about the fact that Saul is almost always depicted with his spear in hand. It was the symbol of his authority and manhood. Saul probably had a bumper sticker on his chariot that said “the only time they’ll take my spear is when they pry it from my cold, dead hands.” By taking the spear, David took Saul’s manhood and his kingdom. He attacked the symbol of Saul’s authority. I honestly don’t know why he took the water jug, but I suspect that water jugs were particularly important in a dry land. The water jug was probably a symbol of life.
Unlike the earlier (and probably older) story, David’s conversation with Saul is public in ch. 26. First David called out to Abner and shamed him. Abner was the king’s top general and personal bodyguard, but David taunted, telling the whole army that he was asleep at his post. Today we would say that David was trash talking his opponent. Then he showed everyone the spear so they would know that Abner almost let the king get killed. Abner did not get a chance to respond David’s showboating. Saul called David as his son. David asked the king why he pursuing him and protested his innocence. This is a constant refrain in I Samuel. David was the innocent victim of Saul’s paranoid rage. Here Saul acknowledges before his own army that David is righteous and merciful. He even blesses David instead of attacking him.
Chapter 27 We would expect that this second encounter between David and Saul would be the end of the story, but chapter 27 begins with David recognizing that the war with Saul will never end. David decides that he would be safer with the Philistines than in Israel, and so he goes into exile with his two new wives and his men and their families. It was quite a large company that journeyed south to Gath. You may remember that earlier we had a story where David was a refugee in Gath. That was a strange tale that ended with David pretending to be insane so that he could escape from the wrath of King Achish. It is more than a little odd that we now have another story where David escapes from Saul by going to the court of Achish. In the first story, the Philistines hated David so much that he had to go to great lengths to escape, but in this story David’s enemies treat with honor.
These are probably radically different accounts of the same historical event. Even 3000 years later, it is shocking to learn that King David served the Philistines, and it is implausible that the author of I Samuel made this up. It would have been tempting to ignore it if he could. This was one of those memories that must have plagued David and his descendents for many years. This was worse than having been AWOL from the National Guard years before becoming President. It was the kind of resume item that always threatened to undermine the legitimacy of David’s rule, and it had to be explained away from his apologists.
Mercenary David: So, we have two quite different descriptions of what happened when David fled to the Philistines. In one he is a vulnerable refugee hiding among the Philistines, but in chapter 27, he is depicted as a powerful warlord who offers his services to a rival king. Since he cannot serve King Saul, he will serve King Achish. The Philistine king is so impressed by David that he gives him a city of his own. Historically speaking, this is perfectly plausible.
You may have heard of El Cid, “he who in a happy hour girded on his sword.” El Cid is one of the national heroes of Spain. During the Middle Ages, El Cid was a warlord who defeated the Moors and helped expand the Christian kingdom of Aragon. Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren starred in a movie about El Cid that was based on an epic poem extolling El Cid as a crusader and model of chivalry. The portrait of El Cid painted by modern historians is more complicated. Yes, El Cid defeated the Muslims, but he frequently fought for Muslim kings against Christians. He was basically a mercenary who fought for whoever paid him best. In chapter 27 David looks more like the real El Cid than the legendary one.
Liege of Achish The gift of Ziklag meant that David did not have to hide in caves any longer. He had a permanent home and an income base. Even a fool like Nabal would now recognize David as a prince who could reward his followers. But the young warrior does not settle down in the city. Chapter 27 is a grim reminder that David is still a warrior. King Achish did not reward him for his talent on the lyre. He expected David to harass his enemies. David attacked several tribes that lived south of Judah, ravaging the lands almost to the Egyptian border. The tribes listed included some of the traditional enemies of the Israelites, most notably the Amalekites. The major reason I Samuel records David’s raids against these tribes was to reassure the audience that David was not a traitor against Israel even though he fought for the Philistines. The people he attacked were enemies of Israel.
When Achish asked David about his expeditions, David lied. There is simply no way to interpret around this fact. David lied to his liege lord when he claimed that he was attacking the Israelites and Judeans in the Negev desert. We can picture the ancient audience nudging one another and smiling at the way David tricked the Philistine king. David was so shrewd that he was able to injure the enemies of Israel right under the nose of the Philistine king!
At the time, this was seen as a good thing, but it raises all kinds of moral problems for Jews and Christians today who read I Samuel as sacred scripture. What are we supposed to do with a story like this? This is one of those stories that ancient theologians said should not be taken literally or used a prescription for faithful living. They argued that this story has to be read allegorically. Today we might say that this story tells us that honesty is not always be the best policy. There may be times when it is wise not to tell the whole truth, but we must be cautious in drawing morals from this tale, especially since the Bible neither blames nor praises David for his deception.
War Crimes There is a a part of this chapter that is more deeply disturbing than David lying. In order to carry out his subterfuge against his liege-lord, David makes sure there are no witnesses to dispute his account. When he raids the camps and villages of Israel’s enemies, he orders that every man, woman, and child be killed. We know from history that people commit this kind of atrocity. This is not pleasant conversation for a Sunday morning, but such brutality is woven into the fabric of human history. What is shocking about chapter 27 is that it was the Lord’s Anointed did this as a cold-blooded policy. How can we as people of faith make sense of this? I’m not sure we can.
Does it help to realize that the author of this story probably thought he was praising David by telling us this? This was probably part of a pro-David propaganda campaign, a way to warn enemies and reassure friends. Even today, rulers want to convince their enemies that they have the power to destroy them completely. Think back to the rhetoric of the Cold War when mutual assured destruction was our military policy. It is quite likely that King David wanted his enemies to think that he was merciless in battle.
What David did was accepted practice in the ancient world, but is no longer. In part thanks to Christianity, we have established that such things are crimes. We have tribunals in the Hague that convict people of such “war crimes.” We must be careful and not use stories like this in I Samuel to justify war crimes and other atrocities in the name of religion. One biblical scholars says that the point of this story is that “we, like David, may also be asked to act boldly in circumstances that do not give us ideal options or absolute moral clarity.” We can go too far in that kind of thinking. There is no doubt that genocide and the murder of children is immoral. We must avoid the temptation to use the story of David to justify moral relativism and opportunism.
Another thing that is shocking about this story is that it comes after three stories that expatiate on David’s mercy toward Saul and Nabal. In those stories, David demonstrated great self-control and did not use violence when it was expected, but here we see him exterminating families who have done him no harm. All of the speeches about sparing the Lord’s Anointed pale in comparison.
We are approaching the season of Advent and will be singing hymns about Jesus as the son of David and the Lord’s Messiah. Keep in mind that the New Testament does not claim that Jesus imitated David, only that he was the descendent of David. Jesus was the true Messiah and true king of God’s people in part because he was not like David. Rather than establish his throne through conquest, he offered himself in sacrifice. Rather than shedding the blood of the innocent in order to intimidate his foes, his innocent blood was shed. This is why Pilate could not believe that Jesus was a king. What king goes to the cross to free his people? What king speaks truth when lies are more expedient?
Conclusion I will confess that this was not the easiest passage of Scripture to discuss or to write, but it is important that we look at the whole story of David instead of just the pleasant parts. We are living in perilous times, but that does not mean that we have to give up our deepest convictions and abandon our morals. Though there is much to admire about King David, we beware of using his example to justify our lies, crimes and atrocities. Though we have found much benefit in studying the kings of ancient Israel, we who bear the name of Christ are called to follow Jesus’ law and example. May the prince of peace rule in your hearts and minds.