I Samuel 29-30 – David the Warrior
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 16, 2008
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Church. Today we are celebrating the anniversary of the congregation with a lovefeast. On my blog and on the Home Church website you can read more about the significance of the Moravian lovefeast. Next month I will be going down to Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte to help them do their first ever lovefeast. I had a great time eating lunch with a group of women from the church who were trying to understand this profoundly simple religious service. They even came by to see folks making the candles. I reassured them that the beauty of the Moravian lovefeast is that each congregation develops its own way of doing the service.
Also this week, one of our members hosted a dinner for a delightful scholar from Poland who was researching the history of one of the national treasures of Poland, an altarpiece in the cathedral in Krakow. It had been stolen by the Nazis and returned after the world. She discovered that Frank Albright of Old Salem had played a critical role in returning the altarpiece. It was a thrilling story, and our own Margaret Kolb helped the research by providing photos that Frank had taken during the process of returning the altarpiece. It was a reminder that the people we know may have done extraordinary things before we knew them, and it was a reminder that any one of us might be called upon to play a part of the restoration of all things.
I have been reminded several times in recent weeks of friends who listen to this broadcast because they are unable to attend in person. It would take too long to name everyone, but I want to get a special shout out to Pat, Jack, Hal, Anise, and Juanita. In my theology class we have been talking about creation and the goodness of God. When we someone we love is suffering, it can be hard to believe in God’s goodness and mercy. Love and suffering go together, and I think that is true of God as well. God is love and the tears of God can bring healing to us. I know that it was the love and care of the church that pulled me through some very dark times in my life, and I hope that all of you listening on the radio will be strengthened in God’s love through the church. As I told the theology students at Wake Forest, we must remember that these Scriptures we read, hymns we sing, and doctrines we teach have reclaimed people from the brink of despair, restored them to life, and inspired millions to live as agents of change in a cynical world. We need to treat them with respect.
Last week we saw King Saul haunted and hopeless. Today we turn our attention to the 29th and 30th chapters of the book of I Samuel where the story of David continues.
Chapter 29 In the interest of time, I’m not going to read chapter 28 on the air. Instead I will summarize it while I comment on it. Chronologically this chapter belongs before the one we discussed last week since in chapter 28 Saul has already seen the massive Philistine army that is being assembled in chapter 29. The author inserted the story of Saul in the middle of the three chapters about David among the Philistines to remind us that the two men have different histories. Saul sees the Philistine host and despairs, but David has joined this same army. The tension is building. Will the son of Jesse actually ride to war with the uncircumcised enemies of Israel in order to fight Saul man to man? Will David become king by being a liege of Achish? Saul, Jonathan, and David have all heard the prophecies and in different ways have come to believe that David will be king, but how will God bring this about?
In order to answer these questions, the author redirects our attention to David who has taken his men to join the massive Philistine assault force. Thousands of soldiers are passing in review past the king and his generals, just those May Day parades in Moscow back in Communist days. Rulers like to see their power displayed publicly, but this time there is a controversy. The other generals notice David and the Hebrews marching at the rear of Achish’s column. The word Hebrew, by the way, was a word of derision used by non-Israelites. The generals were very upset to see these Hebrews, and they questioned the king.
David Sent Home When the king told the generals that the Hebrews were led by David who had deserted King Saul, the generals were even more unhappy. They reminded Achish of the reputation of David and sang the ditty about David killing ten thousand Philistines. They rightly feared that David would prove disloyal in battle against his own people. They warned Achish that David would try to regain Saul’s favor by bringing him the heads of Philistines, the way he had once brought foreskins as a bride price for the king’s daughter. The Philistine generals wisely insisted that David be sent back to his home in Ziklag.
We do not know what David’s intentions were. It is plausible that he intended to betray Achish and assist Israel despite his opposition to Saul. We have seen that David had already lied to his new lord, and we cannot assume that he would have been loyal in battle. At the least, we need to acknowledge that David was in a very difficult position. If he failed to fight for Achish, his life could be forfeit. If he fought against Israel, he would never become king. How could the Lord’s Anointed take up arms against the Lord’s chosen people? David faced one of those dilemmas in which there was no right decision, and thankfully he did not have to choose. The Philistine generals chose for him. Though the text does not identify this as a moment of divine intervention, it can be read that way. God sometimes works very subtly in history and in our lives even when we do not make a decision.
The king breaks the news to David who protests against being distrusted. He asserts his loyalty, which must have been a hard thing for an Israelite audience to hear on the lips of their greatest king. Achish goes so far as to tell David that he is blameless, like an angel of the LORD, which is laying it on a little thick. No doubt this was to address the criticism that David had betrayed two kings, first Saul then Achish. Unlike Saul, Achish recognizes David’s morality and loyalty. Of course, the irony of this speech in the context of the whole book is that we know that David has been lying to the king all along. We know that he has been fighting the enemies of Israel not the enemies of Achish. In any event, David is ordered by the king to return home. He will avoid open warfare with Israel and still be praised by king. We can almost hear a sigh of relief on David’s part as he and his men leave Aphek and return to Ziklag. The sigh soon turns into a lament, though.
Read chapter 30
Harsh Realities This is a hard story for Americans to relate to in many ways. We do not live in a world that functions in this way any longer, but our ancestors could relate closely to this story of tribal raids and revenge. David’s story was very popular in medieval Europe, and the scene here is not that different from tribal raids in in Iraq and Afghanistan today. For many people in the world, war is not a matter of competing ideologies or even competing religions: it is the old story of one tribe raiding another.
David and his men return home and find that Ziklag has been raided in his absence. This is one of the harsh realities of war. When fighting a distant war, those left behind may be left vulnerable. We can get so focused on fighting a perceived threat from home that we ignore genuine threats.
The Amalekites had raided and destroyed Ziklag. They keep popping up in I Samuel. You may remember that earlier in the book Saul had killed all of the Amalekites except the king, Amalek, whom Samuel personally killed. Saul’s disobedience was repeatedly given as the reason for the kingdom being taken from him. It is perhaps ironic that the Amalekites appear again at this point in the story to harass David in his struggle against Saul. Clearly the reports of genocide were exaggerated since the Amalekites appear to be a large and dangerous tribe.
The Amalekites took advantage of the Philistines’ war with Israel to raid numerous towns and villages throughout the region. They were not engaged in ethnic cleansing; they were equal opportunity brigands. We are reminded of the cruelty of the ancient world when we read that the booty they took included all of the women and children of Ziklag. Some of the women would be given as prizes to the warriors, but most of them were to be sold into slavery. Sadly, women and children are still sold in many countries, and governments do little to protect them. It is an insidious and invisible form of slavery. In ancient times, at least the process was visible and there was a way to respond.
The Amalekites also burned the city. That may have been in revenge for David’s raids against them. You may remember from an earlier chapter that David and his men also raided the region, but he did not take captives. He killed the women and children so there would be no witnesses. The Amalekites were greedy, but in some ways more merciful than David. Their captives were alive, but they did burn the city.
David Strengthened We can only imagine the heartbreak of the men who returned to find their homes in ashes and their families gone. These warriors wept until they could weep no more. David shared in the suffering of his men. Both of his wives were taken from him. The text says that David’s own life was in danger since the people wanted to take their anger out on him for failing to protect the city. One of the things that make the story of David so interesting for people of faith is that his life is so hard. He may have been the Lord’s Anointed chosen by Samuel to be king, but so far he has had a really rough road. He was “the eighth son” of Jesse who managed to rise in the king’s service only to have the king try to kill him. He has had to sneak out of his own bedroom window and flee to the mountains. He has been responsible for the slaughter of the priests of God, and spent months living in caves always on the run. He has finally found a measure of security among his old enemies and even has position of a city, and now he returns home to find the city destroyed, his wives captured, and his people threatening to kill him. What can he do?
The text says that he strengthened himself in the Lord. We aren’t told how he strengthened himself in the Lord, but presumably he prayed. He poured out his lament to God and renewed himself. This is what Saul apparently did not how to do. We have read stories of Saul seeking out prophets, priests and mediums to learn what he should do, but no stories of Saul humbling himself before the LORD in prayer. We have stories of Saul making ridiculous religious vows, but no stories of him being strengthened by his faith. This may be what made David different. With all of his complexities and moral ambiguity, David appears to have still been a man who was able to pray and seek to do God’s will. This is one reason so many of the Psalms, including the Psalms of lament are ascribed to David.
And this is something we may be able to learn from his example. There are those who dismiss piety and religious faith as a pointless distraction from doing good in the world, but it is often prayer and worship that keep us going in perilous times. David could have given into his despair, like Saul, but he strengthened himself in the LORD. He could have rashly pursued his enemies, but he paused to gather his strength and find wisdom for the task at hand. That is what prayer is for: to give voice to your lament, fear, and fatigue. Prayer is a way to let the spirit of God renew your hope and clear your vision. Then you can return to the struggle of life, just as David did.
David’s Pursuit After he was strengthened, David pursued the Amalekites. Some of the men could not keep up with him in his zeal, and they had to remain at a Wadi that was later named Besor, which means “valley of good news.” This seems like an unnecessary point of information, but it will become a key part of the story at the end. These men are unable to join the attack on the Amalekites, but David does not shame them. He leaves them to watch the supplies and establish a base camp so the rest of the men can travel even faster. David is wise.
They come upon a starving Egyptian slave who has been left by his master to die in the desert. Before he knows anything about this wretched man, David halts his pursuit and takes care of him. They give him food and water, and when he recovered some of his strength, the man tells his story. David is merciful even in the midst of his anger, and it works to his advantage. It so happens that the man was the slave of one of the raiders and he knows exactly where they are encamped with their spoils. History is filled with stories of “expendable” people who are disregarded and discarded by the powerful but who have their own revenge as this Egyptian does.
The Rescue The man is no fool. He makes David swear a solemn oath that he will protect, which David does. Then he recounts the bad deeds of his master and shows David where the Amalekites have established their stronghold. They are rejoicing and enjoying the spoils of war. They were dancing and drinking and no doubt doing other things with the captive women. For those who live for pleasure, this was the best of times, but it is also a dramatic illustration of the motto “Eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow you will die.”
David watched the celebration and planned his attack. There is some ambiguity in the text here, which different translators deal with in different ways. Most say that David attacked them from dusk until evening of the next day, implying a 24 hour battle through the night. That is unlikely. The Hebrew word for twilight, though, may have been like our word “gloaming,” which can mean the dim light either before dawn or after sundown. In other words, David probably waited to attack until very early the next morning when the Amalekites were hung over from the night’s revels. The battle raged all day, but still 400 of the Amalekite cavalry escaped. It must have been a very large camp.
Almost miraculously, all of the captives were rescued alive. It is a thrilling story that would make for a great movie. We can picture the jubilation as families were reunited, and psalms of thanksgiving were sung. To make things even better, David now could distribute the spoils that the Amalekites had taken. By taking bold and shrewd action in a time of crisis, David had quickly gone from being hated by his own people to being loved and respected. Again, the contrast with Saul last week is immense.
Besor But that is not the end of the story. There are still two hundred men back at the Wadi waiting with all of the baggage. There is another joyful reunion when David returns their wives and children, but there is also dissension in the ranks. Those who had risked their lives in battle saw no reason to divide the spoils of victory with those who had fallen behind. It is an ancient debate that still plagues us. David’s solution was wise and generous. David, unlike so many of us, recognized that his prosperity depended as much on God’s grace as his courage. He knew all too well that the victory could have gone the other way. Had he and his men gone to war with King Achish, their families would have been lost forever. Had the timing been different, they might have come upon the Amalekites in battle array rather than in the midst of celebration.
Today is our commitment Sunday at Home Church, and it is good to ponder this scene at the Wadi. The famous investor Warren Buffet is wise enough to recognize that much of his wealth is because he was lucky enough to be born in America. He does not make the mistake of many of us who think that we deserve our prosperity, but just think how easily things could be different for us. It is because he is wise, Buffet has also proven to be a good steward and is generous with his wealth. David is grateful that he was successful rather than being arrogant in victory. Since he is grateful, he is also generous. He shares the spoils with those who did not have the opportunity to fight. The more salient point is that he decrees that this will be the law among his people. Those who have to stay behind will also share in the spoils. This is probably why the Wadi was named Besor. This was indeed good news.
Conclusion Though this is a bloody and violent tale, we can learn from David here. He will be a good king because he is a man of prayer who is bold when action is needed. But that is not all. He is wise, kind to those who are suffering, and generous to all. These are the qualities of a strong leader. The story ends with David sending some of the spoils back to his own tribe of Judah so they will benefit as well. While Saul has been unmanned by the ghost of Samuel, David has been able to send gifts to the people of Judah and rescue the families of his followers. He is increasing as Saul decreases. Next week we will discuss the death of Saul.