Category Archives: I Samuel

I Samuel 31 – The End

I Samuel 31: The Death of Saul

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 23, 2008.

Introduction                                    Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class broadcast live from the chapel of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those whom God has given you to love. I had a reminder this week that there are many people I’ve never met out there listening to these broadcasts. I took the children to dinner at Cloverdale Kitchen, and a man stopped by the table to ask if I was on the radio. At first I thought he was telling me that I was talking too loud, but he just wanted me to know that he recognized my voice and appreciated these broadcasts.

Today is the Sunday before Thanksgiving in the national calendar, and many of my students slipped out of town a little early so they would have more time with their families and friends at home. I’ll give a shout out to my theology students who have been working very hard this semester, often in very trying circumstances, and I wish them Godspeed in their travels. Thanksgiving is a day set aside to contemplate the many blessings we have in our lives, and it can be hard to be thankful in the midst of suffering. With that in mind, I want to give a shout out to my uncle Raymond as he recovers from surgery. I hope that during this holiday season you will allow yourself to feel the love of God that surrounds us and strengthens us even in the midst of pain and tragedy.

This coming Tuesday is the annual Winston-Salem Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service. This year it will be hosted by Temple Emmanuel. It is always a very meaning and beautiful service that brings neighbors from many different religious bodies together in a spirit of gratitude. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, which is the day Moravians sing the Hosanna as we begin our preparations for Christmas. It is one of my favorite traditions. Over the next four weeks members of Home Church will spend thousands of volunteer hours at Candle Tea, preparing for lovefeasts, providing music, being dieners, and a host of other joyful duties associated with our celebration of the incarnation. Despite the economic woes afflicting our land, we can still experience the true blessing of this glorious season of the year.

This week Madeleine and I were listening to Performance Today on NPR and they told a true story about a pianist who was performing in South Africa. Instead of hearing “bravo” or “encore”, he heard someone shout out that there was a white rhino behind him. As he was playing Moonlight Sonata, the elephants came out of the woods and were walking in time to the music. Eventually even the rhino was so touched by Beethoven’s music that he came closer to listen. It was a nice reminder that all of God’s creatures are bound together in God’s love, and that we are blessed that our human ears sometimes hear an echo of the music of heaven and even elephants can be graceful.

Our lesson today strikes a much more somber note, I’m afraid. For months we have been carefully reading the book of I Samuel, and this week we come to the end of the scroll. The story itself is so poignant that it does not need a lot of commentary. I’ll be reading chapter 31 from the translation of Hans Hertzberg.

Read ch. 31

Defeat of the Israelites                        We have been prepared for the defeat of the Israelites and the death of Saul for several chapters, but the final story is tersely given. Much of the book of I Samuel has been anticipating the end of Saul’s reign and the rise of David as king, but the biblical author does not rejoice in the death of the Lord’s Anointed. We are not reminded of the prophecies given by Samuel or the many ways in which Saul had undermined his own authority. The narrator merely gives the facts that the Philistines routed the Israelites and that Saul and his bodyguard were cut off from retreat. They were trapped on Mount Gilboa, and Saul’s sons died fighting for him. Such is the tragedy of war in which good men like Jonathan die young because of the decisions of their fathers.

Saul’s fear that David might supplant Jonathan as the next king were proven to be a chimera. David did not kill Jonathan; Jonathan died defending his father, and he might have lived had David been fighting with him. Saul witnessed the death of his dynasty before his enemies brought him down with “slings and arrows,” as Hamlet says. During this season of family gatherings, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Saul. I wonder how many fathers and mothers spend their lives trying to fulfill an ambition for their children only to destroy their children in the process. How many sons and daughters are slain on Mount Gilboa in our day?

Israel was defeated by the Philistines in a rout that was almost as bad as the one we read about at the beginning of the book. You may remember that the Israelites had demanded that Samuel appoint a king for them because the Philistines had overwhelmed them and taken the ark. They believed that a king could make their nation secure and that no harm would come to them as a result. They were willing to give up a great deal of their freedom and even some of their religious principles in order to have a strong protector on the throne. Samuel chose one of the tallest and bravest men of the tribe of Benjamin to be the king, and for years King Saul was the scourge of Philistia. But the Israelites learned the humbling truth that we cannot make ourselves invulnerable and that the quest for security may make us less safe. Saul always had a spear or sword in his hand, and in the end he and the Israelites were defeated by their neighbors.

Suicide of Saul                        Saul was wounded, and he knew that battle was lost. We can speculate that he went into the battle already resigned to defeat thanks to the message he received from the necromancer. He does not want to be taken alive back to Philistia, though. He knows all too well what would happen to him if were at the mercy of his enemies. He knows all too well how much they would delight in taking revenge on Saul who had slaughtered so many of their young men over the years. We have seen the dissolution of Saul as a man over the course of the book, especially in that penultimate scene when he is huddled on the floor of the witch’s hut, but in the end Saul reclaims his dignity. He does not love his life so much that he would prefer dishonor and abuse to death. In the Harry Potter books, the wise teacher Dumbledore repeatedly makes the point that there are worse things than death, which is something Saul knew.

He asks his armor-bearer, his most trusted follower, to have mercy and kill him. We can only imagine how hard this must have been for the young man. It would be like a president asking a Secret Service agent to shoot him. His primary purpose in life has been to protect the king and to die for him if necessary. The armor bearer was willing to take an arrow for Saul, but now the man he has served and loved and admired is broken and bleeding before him. “Have mercy and take my life,” Saul pleads. Those who have faced the difficult decisions related to end of life issues know how dreadful this plea is. Every nerve in your body and every synapse of your brain rebels against this request. You would do anything to prolong the life of a loved one, at least for a little while, but reality is often so different from your hopes and dreams. Saul pleads with his servant to end his life, but the young man cannot do it. It is a too horrible a demand, and his love is too weak to comply. Like David, he cannot raise his hand against the Lord’s Anointed even when commanded to do so.

And so in one of the most famous scenes in Western literature, Saul falls upon his own sword, ending his life. The biblical author does not describe the scene or offer any interpretation or judgment. For centuries, commentators have disagreed over whether the biblical author approved or disapproved of Saul’s actions. For the most part, Christians have seen Saul’s suicide as the end result of his long journey into madness and despair. This is one of the very few suicides recorded in Scripture, and it was a key verse used by the Catholic Church to justify the doctrine that suicide is a mortal and unforgiveable sin. For most of European history, victims of suicide were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground or given the ministrations of the Church. For the most part, Protestant churches took a less judgmental position and argued that victims of suicide were victims not criminals, and thus the church should be merciful to them and their families. Even so, Protestant commentators have tended to view Saul’s suicide almost as harshly as Catholics. His death is often portrayed as the final act of cowardice.

In modern times, commentators have moved away from blanket condemnation of Saul’s suicide, noting that in the context of the story, his actions seem reasonable and noble. It appears that the main point of this narrative is not that he took his life, but that neither his servants nor his enemies could kill the first king of Israel. He was defeated, but he went down to Sheol bravely where he knew Samuel waited. The armor bearer could not kill Saul, but he joined him in death by falling on his own sword. In verse 6 we can almost see the sweeping panoramic shot of the battle scene with the corpses of Saul, his three sons, the armor-bearer, and other brave Israelite soldiers as mournful music plays. The ruin of Saul’s reign was total.

When Saul fell, Israel fell and the Philistines captured their cities and lived in their homes. This is a grime reminder that in the ancient world, the fate of the leader often determined the fate of the people. The reason people prayed for the health of the king or queen was that they knew what could happen if the monarch faltered. Even in our modern industrialized democracies, we know all too well that the failures of presidents and prime ministers affect the lives of the people. It is a fool who hopes that a president or prime minister from a rival party fails. When our leaders fail, we fall with them.

Saul’s Corpse                        Saul avoided capture by taking his own life, but even in death he was humiliated. The Philistines stripped his armor, which was the custom in ancient times. It is a little disconcerting in the Iliad to read how gleefully warriors paused in their fighting to strip the bodies of their slain enemies, but that was one of the ways they were paid for their service to the king. Armor was also a trophy of victory. Nothing makes a man prouder than to take possession of his rival’s stuff so everyone can see. The trouble with being a scholar is that we don’t have much chance to do this. We don’t get to wear the doctoral hood of someone we’ve bested in an academic debate, for instance. But I did read in The New Yorker recently about a company that specializes in making “tombstones” for Wall Street firms to celebrate their victories over rival companies. These are plastic items that you can line up on a shelf commemorating great deals. A successful hostile take-over of a fast food chain, for instance, might be memorialized by a plastic hamburger being eaten by the firm’s logo.

The Philistines did something worse than take the armor of the dead, though. They desecrated the corpse of Saul and his sons, hanging their bodies on the walls of one of their cities. This was a primal cry of victory and warning to all who would oppose the Philistines. They were not the only folks to did this sort of thing. When the Holy Roman Emperor executed the leaders of the Protestant resistance in Prague in 1621, he had twelve of their heads mounted on the Charles Bridge as a warning to Protestants throughout the Empire. Vlad the Impaler was infamous for his treatment of the corpses of Muslims who had invaded Romania. Today we are much more sensitive about this kind of public display, and war criminals today try to hide the evidence of their atrocities, but even they often want their enemies to know what they did. Sometimes it is hard to believe that humans are indeed a little lower than the angels when they act in ways that animals never would dream of.

Honor in Death            The story of Saul does not end with this humiliation, though. The people of Jabesh-gilead remembered that Saul had been the one who answered their cry for deliverance from Nahash the Ammonite. When they heard what the Philistines had done, they did not turn their back on Saul or scorn the memory of his former greatness. Presumably, many years had passed since Saul’s daring rescue before he had been anointed king, but the people of Jabesh-gilead did not let time dampen their gratitude, which is an important message for Thanksgiving.

All of the valiant men of the city, young and old, marched through the night, not to avenge Saul, but to reclaim his body from his enemies. We aren’t told if they had to fight the people of Bethshan or if they relied on stealth. What is important is that they were courageous and daring enough to bring Saul back in honor to Israel. They treated the bodies of the fallen with respect and buried the royal family under a sacred tamarisk tree. Unlike the Pharaohs, Saul had no tomb, but his people laid his bones to rest with honor and devotion. Today we do not know where his bones lie.

The End of I Samuel            Thus ends the book of I Samuel and the story of Saul. If it were up to me, I would name this book the Book of Samuel and Saul because they are the two main characters. Though David is important in the book, most of his story is told in II Samuel. Over the course of the past year we have seen that I Samuel is a complicated and often difficult book that is striking in its historical realism. Many times, I think we have all been grateful that we are living in a much less violent and brutal age, but we have seen numerous parallels to our own time.

We have seen that the people in I Samuel had to make decisions in difficult situations where it was not always clear what the right answer would be. The book began with the story of Hannah offering her first son to the LORD in gratitude for getting pregnant, and then God chose her son to be the last and greatest judge of Israel. The book narrates times of tragedy and despair, such as when the Ark of the Covenant was taken from the land, and it tells how Samuel responded to crisis as a servant of the LORD.

Much of the book is about the first king of Israel, and we saw that it records two quite different perspectives on the monarchy. Within the book of I Samuel is a debate over government that remains lively in our day. The book makes many theological points related to God’s covenant with Israel, and the rise and fall of Saul was so remarkable, that the Israelites could only interpret it as the will of God. Much of the enduring value of I Samuel lies in its portrayal of the relationships between Saul, Jonathan, and David. These men are not stereotypes or theological symbols; they are complex individuals. At times they were brave and noble, but they could also be cruel and cunning.

There is no doubt that the main reason for writing I Samuel was to narrative and justify David’s rise to power, but in many ways it is Saul who is the most meaningful figure in the book. We saw Saul deliver his people but then slowly dissolve into paranoia, madness, and despair. Too often, preachers and scholars have condemned or simply ignored King Saul in their desire to exalt King David, but Saul was also the Lord’s Anointed and is one of the most tragic figures of biblical history.

Conclusion                        It seems appropriate to end our study of I Samuel by looking ahead to II Samuel and reading David’s lament upon hearing the news from Mount Gilboa. Though Saul and Jonathan died 3000 years ago, we may still be moved by David’s words. (Read II Samuel 2:19-27)

Next week in church we will sing about the coming of great David’s greater son. During the Advent season in this class we will take a look at the birth narratives of Jesus, beginning with the Gospel According to Luke.


I Samuel 28 – Saul and the Witch (corrected)

I Samuel 28 – Saul and the Witch of Endor

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 9, 2008

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class broadcast live from the chapel of Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. This week we are continuing our study of I Samuel, but before we turn to the Bible, I think it is important that we take a moment to ponder the events of the past week. Tuesday night was historic, and it may be years before we understand the full significance of the election of Barak Obama. Many tears were shed Tuesday night and there was dancing in the streets across America and abroad. Senator McCain’s concession speech was noble and inspiring. He called for us all to rally behind our new president, and I hope we will. Barak Obama will not only be the first African-American President, he is the first from Hawaii, our youngest states. He is not the youngest person to be chosen for this office, but it is the first time in my life that the president is roughly my own age. I am just six months older than him.


I could not go to sleep after the election, and so I got out of bed to work on this lesson. It occurred to me that Senator Obama and I were both born at the very beginning of the space age, when humans first left Earth’s atmosphere. But this was also shortly after the creation of the hydrogen bomb. For our whole lives, we have lived under the threat of nuclear weapons. The Civil Rights movement had already begun when Senator Obama and I were born, and we were both children when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Throughout my childhood, America was involved in the Vietnam War, and George Wallace ran in the first presidential campaign I can remember. I was only seven years old in 1968 when the country was convulsed by riots, but I remember the deployment of the National Guard in several states.


Just think how much things have changed in forty years. Not only did Germans rise up and tear down the Berlin Wall, South Africans tore down the wall of apartheid. We watched one American president broker peace between Israel and Egypt, and another president encourage democracy in the former Soviet Socialist republics. The past 48 years of my life have been filled with conflict and pain, but we made great progress as well. Along with millions of Americans, I was inspired by the words of our President-elect on Tuesday night when he reminded of us of the promise of America and the ideals that make us great.


We have often failed to live up to those ideals as individuals and as a nation, but that is no reason to doubt those ideals. In the Moravian Church, as in most Christian churches, we regularly confess in worship that we have fallen short of the standards set by our Lord and are often unworthy servants. We know that as individuals and as churches, we are poor stewards of God’s grace, just as we Americans have sometimes been poor stewards of the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” The reason we confess our failures in church is so that we may change our ways, so that our lives may more perfectly reflect our ideals.

The Christian Church, which started as a small, persecuted group of disciples dedicated to the extraordinary propositions of the Sermon on the Mount, now includes believers who speak over a thousand different languages and whose skin is a thousand different hues. The United States, which began with the extraordinary proposition that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” now includes people from nearly every nation on earth. We will soon have a president whose ancestors came from Europe and Africa, who was educated in a university founded by the Puritans, and who chose a life of public service over the pursuit of personal wealth. This week he challenged us all to turn away from cynicism and selfishness so that together we may live into the hope and promise of our ideals as Americans and as people of faith. I hope we will heed that call and that repentance will be matched by deeds of justice and mercy.


Our lesson for this week strikes a somber note after the excitement of Election Day. We are continuing our story about politics and religion in ancient Israel, and this week we have a story about necromancy and despair. It is a very weird story that writers have copied for centuries, but remarkably this is the only story of its kind in the Bible. Ancient literature abounds with stories of heroes speaking with the shades of the dead, but this is the only such tale in Scripture. Chapter 28 contains a story that may be more appropriate for Halloween than the Sunday after Election Day, but I think we will find a useful message in it for our lives today. I will read the entire story.

Read chapter 28           

Placement in I Samuel                        One of the first things we notice about this story as we are reading through I Samuel is that it interrupts the flow of the narrative. In fact, it is a rather jarring change of scene. We have seen that I Samuel was assembled from many pieces of ancient literature, including royal documents. Some of the sections of the book, like chapter 28, appear to be stories or legends passed down for generations before being incorporated in this grand history of the origin of the Israelite monarchy. In its current location the story interrupts the story of David serving the Philistines. In the previous chapter David became a liege of the Philistine king, and chapters 29 and 30 continue the chronicle of David’s wars on behalf of King Achish.

Chapter 28 abruptly shifts the scene to King Saul who is preparing to battle the Philistines. This is beautiful stagecraft similar to a good movie. David is not the only character in this drama. We now return to the two men who figured most prominently in the first part of the book: Saul and Samuel. By placing this chapter where it is, the author shows us the contrast between David who has responded creatively and boldly to his dire situation and Saul who is slipping further and further into impotence and despair.

The author inserted a few verses in the original story so that it connects with the larger narrative of the book. We are reminded yet again that Samuel was dead and that all Israel mourned for him. It is like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which says that Marley was dead, to begin with it. Like Marley, Samuel was as dead as a doornail, or perhaps a coffin nail. Everyone in Israel knew he was dead, and that his wisdom was lost.

A Small Medium at Large:                        We are also told that Saul had gotten rid of the mediums and wizards, which was consistent with biblical law (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, Deut. 18:11). There is no reason to doubt that the king had indeed tried to stamp out ancient magical practices. Many of the later kings of Israel did similar things, often with brutal efficiency. The author of I Samuel probably approved of this, but this chapter is remarkably non-judgmental. By beginning the story with the statement that it was Saul who had abolished necromancy, the author emphasizes Saul’s desperation in seeking out a medium. It is similar to the situation today when a legislator who passes a law condemning certain activities is caught doing those same things. Saul banished mediums and witches, but when he was distressed he found one.

There are several translation issues in this passage. Scholars disagree over what to call the woman Saul visits. The King James Version calls her a “witch” because she is a woman doing illicit magic. By the way, Samantha’s mother in the TV show Bewitched was named Endora because of this story. Until the 20th century, the word “witch” has almost always been pejorative. Most tribal cultures have a concept of witchcraft, and it is almost always someone who uses supernatural powers to harm people. Those who use occult powers to help people are generally referred as wise women, oracles, herb women, shamans or healers. Such women and men often work on the fringes of society, practicing ancient forms of medicine and divination.

Since the woman in chapter 28 is helping Saul rather than using her power to harm someone, modern translators tend to avoid the word “witch” when describing her. All we know about her is that she is a type of seer or oracle. In the days of King Saul, there was probably less difference between a prophet or seer and the woman in Endor than we might assume, but she is using necromancy, which has often been condemned as dark magic in Christianity. In the 19th century, spiritualism became popular in America and Europe, and some people claimed to be “mediums” who could contact the spirits of the dead. Some translators call the woman in Endor a medium or even a spiritualist, but it is unlikely that Saul was having a séance. Since she is hiding from the authorities, we might say that she is a small medium at large. I will follow tradition and call her the witch of Endor, but keep in mind that she is not like the witches we see on Halloween.

Saul and the Witch                        Even though he is the king of Israel, Saul recognizes that he is losing control of his destiny. In earlier stories we have seen that Saul’s religion was based on superstition and shallow religiosity rather than faith. He depended more on prophecy, oracles, and religious vows than justice and wise administration. Now he is coming to the end of his reign, and is desperately looking for help. He realizes that the Philistines are massing an imposing force against him, and he has alienated one of his best warriors. He wants someone to tell him what he should he do, but none of his old methods of seeking religious confirmation are working. The prophets turned against him and endorsed his rival. The Urim and Thummin stones aren’t working because he had killed the priests.  The Lord has turned against him. What can he do?

Rather than ask himself what he must do to return to God, he asks one of his retainers to find a medium, even though he knows he has driven them all from the land. His war on the witches appears to have been no more successful than our government’s war on drugs. Saul thinks he has gotten rid of the witches, but one of his men knew right away where to find a witch. There is a witch in Endor.  King Saul has to hide his identity and go to her seeking advice. We can feel her fear when the strange man comes to her. She thinks it is a trap, but she is torn by compassion for this suffering man and she agrees to help him. When she hears who Saul wants her to summon, she becomes more frightened. Only someone powerful would dare to wake Samuel from the grave. Moreover, we can assume that it was the prophet Samuel who had instructed Saul to get rid of the witches in the first place. She realizes that the hated king is in her home asking her to break the law. He insists and she relents.

Witchcraft?                        Modern feminists view this woman with more sympathy than male biblical scholars through the centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant and Catholics alike used this story as justification for burning tens of thousands of women on the charge of witchcraft. Many of them were simply midwives who were unfortunate enough to help deliver babies with birth defects. Many of them were probably women like the witch of Endor who were confined to the fringes of society, and yet people still wanted their help in times of crisis.

One of the big debates in Christian theology through the years was whether the woman actually had the power to raise the spirit of Samuel. Many theologians were reluctant to say that a human could do this without demonic help, but surely Satan would not raise Samuel from the dead. Some have argued that God performed a special miracle in bringing Samuel back from the dead for a brief time. Others have argued that this was simply a vision, and that it was really God speaking to Saul.

A careful reading of the text indicates that Saul himself did not see Samuel; it was the witch who saw him. It is possible that the witch of Endor was like modern mediums who claim to have contact with other side while actually telling customers what they want to hear. It is interesting that it is Saul who tells her that the old man with a robe is Samuel.

This description of Saul confirming that the spirit she has contacting is Samuel is very similar to what happens in modern séances or with psychics. It is the customer who provides the interpretation of the experience and creates the message he or she wanted to hear. In other words, chapter 28 may be a surprisingly accurate account of a real event, but that does not necessarily mean that the spirit of Samuel was physically raised from the dead. It sounds like Saul himself did not see Samuel even though he talked to him.

The Ghost of Samuel                        It is interesting that Saul learns nothing new from the necromancer. The ghost of Samuel tells him that the kingdom has been torn from him and that David will be the next king. The ghost confirms Saul’s worst fear; that there is no hope for him and Jonathan. I keep saying “ghost,” which is the traditional translation for the Hebrew here, but it is not clear that this is correct. The woman says that she could see one of elohim rising, but elohim is the Hebrew word for God or gods. This is one reason some ancient scholars speculated that this was actually a vision of God in the form of Samuel. Modern translators generally say that the witch saw a “spirit” capturing the ambiguity of the Hebrew word.

From a literary perspective, the word ghost is helpful, so long as we do not picture someone in a white sheet moaning “boo.” There are many ghosts in world literature, such as the ghost of Hamlet’s father who tells the young prince something he already suspected was true. A ghost is basically an echo of the past speaking in the present; it is a memory that takes shape in our consciousness. But ghosts rarely bring comfort. They haunt us with memories of wrongs unatoned, regrets, and the fear that the past has determined our future. This story brilliantly dramatizes Saul being haunted by his own past and his sense of hopelessness.

Saul’s Collapse                        Saul bows before the spirit as if he were still the judge of Israel. He pours out his lament to the ghost of the man who had made him king. He gets no more sympathy from the dead Samuel than he had from the live Samuel. Just like many of us, Samuel’s ghost reproaches Saul for his failures and sins. The ghosts of remorse and regret are merciless. His past robs Saul of his last remnants of hope and strength. He will go into battle expecting that he will soon join Samuel in Sheol.

Rather than eating and building up his strength, Saul has been fasting all day. Rather than preparing his troops for battle and planning strategy with his generals, Saul has been consulting the dead. He is left shaken and powerless. The witch who had been so frightened of him now shows him kindness. She cooks the fatted calf for the broken king and insists he eat.

Conclusion                        In our lesson for next week, we’ll return to David who represents a new hope for Israel. As we look forward to a new era in American history, we should contemplate the fate of Saul. In the end, Saul was overwhelmed by fear, and he failed to recognize that David was the hope for the future. As his kingdom crumbled, Saul turned to the ghosts of the past instead of meeting the challenges of the present or greeting the dawn. 

I Samuel 26-27: David the Philistine

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.

Read 27:5-end

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.

I Samuel 25 – Abigail

I Samuel 25 – Abigail

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Oct. 19, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Church. It has been a beautiful week in North Carolina. There are few things more pleasant than the Carolina sky this time of year, and now that the leaves are turning it is hard to sit at a desk. I can see Pilot Mountain from my office at Wake, but I haven’t figured out how to grade exams while hiking. It is easy to follow Paul’s instruction to rejoice when the leaves are flaming with color and the sky is so blue that you feel you could dive into it. Last week I presented a paper on the theology of Spangenberg at an international Moravian history conference at Moravian College. Less than a fourth of the papers were by Moravians; most were secular scholars. It was an excellent conference and many of the papers will be published in the Journal of Moravian History. Riddick and Julie Weber from Winston-Salem also presented papers, and we had the pleasure of driving up together. I hope that the Moravian Church finds ways to encourage them and other young scholars. I am grateful to Dr. Moore for teaching class last week. One of the benefits of Home Church’s relationship with Wake Forest is that we can have someone with a PhD in Old Testament substitute in Sunday School. As it happened, I had to leave the conference early, and so I was able to hear Megan’s excellent presentation on ways to read the story of Abigail. I have to admit that she is right. If I were making a movie about I Samuel, I would cast Catherine Zeta Jones as Abigail. I am afraid that Juliette Binoche may be jealous, though, since for years I had a not-so-secret crush on her. Thankfully, I am married to a woman who is my Abigail: beautiful and smart. This week, I would like to follow up on a couple of the paths outlined by Megan and suggest ways that we might use this story in our lives today. If you were listening last week, you know the story, so there is no point in repeating it.

There is much that we can learn from Abigail and that her example can help us navigate treacherous waters. We saw that Abigail recognized danger to herself and others, and that she used her management skills to address the danger. We saw that she was willing to disobey authority when it would have been foolish and dangerous to submit. She was willing to go to remarkable lengths to prevent bloodshed and violence. And we saw that she had the courage to act when action was needed, and the courage to speak the truth even though others might find it shameful.

Nabal                        First of all, lets think about the character of Nabal, which is the Hebrew word for fool. I am always interested in whether translators decide to translate a proper name or not. Most English translations leave Nabal’s name in Hebrew, but that obscures the nature of this story. As Megan said, this tale advertizes to us that it is a folktale. No father in ancient Israel ever named his son Nabal or Fool except in anger. I’m reminded of Bill Cosby saying that until he went to school he thought his name was Jesus Christ because his dad was always yelling “Jesus Christ, stop doing that.” Think how different this story would sound if it said, “Now the name of the man was Fool.” We might picture folks in the village saying, “Yo, Fool!” What we have here is a special kind of folktale. It is a piece of wisdom literature that is going to illustrate the difference between the Fool and Wise Wife. It will also show us that David recognizes the difference between wisdom and folly.

Many people in the class wondered how this Fool/Nabal could be so rich, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Our news today is filled with stories of fools who are rich. Some inherited their wealth; others were lucky in the stock market; some were well connected. There are rich fools, but we are all paying a price for foolishness and greed on Wall St., as John McCain has pointed out. Nabal may well have been a shrewd landowner, but even very intelligent people can be foolish. Eliot Spitzer comes immediately to mind. Nabal’s particular brand of foolishness was his arrogance. He was wealthy and powerful, which made him feel invulnerable. He did not investigate the situation to learn who David was or even whether he was a friend or a threat. Like a crotchety old man, he looked down on David as an upstart who needed to be brought down a peg. Nabal not only refused David’s request for food, he insulted him because he assumed he was nobody. The Fool substituted swagger and tough talk for diplomacy, and unknowingly invited his own destruction.

Abigail            The next person to consider is Abigail. One of the important things to note about I Samuel 25 is that a woman is the main actor. Abigail is the only one who interacts with all of the other characters in the drama, even the unnamed servants. Last week you heard how carefully she gathered provisions for David and his men. I think we have to assume that the 600 men in David’s band also had their women and children with them. In other words, Abigail had to put together a lot of food, but she did it in secret against the expressed wish of her husband. This is rather extraordinary, and it challenges the assumption that the Bible teaches that women must always be submissive to their husbands. Abigail is one of the many biblical heroines we’ve discussed over the past three years who wisely subverts the expected rules and norms.

She is acting in the best interest of the Fool she is married to, but there is also an element of self-interest in the story. What do you think happened in ancient times to the women marauders killed all of the men? They were given as prizes to the warriors along with the other plunder, but Abigail is not going to be a passive victim of macho stupidity or male violence. She is going to take the necessary actions to protect herself and others, but she is wise enough to know that there is no point in telling Nabal what she is doing. Rather than wasting her time trying to convince a fool to do the wise thing, she simply acts on her own.

Abigail went herself to deliver the gifts to David. There is much that we do not know about the customs of ancient Israel, and so it is not clear if this was a scandalous act on her part. Certainly it was risky and required great courage. Abigail trusted the reports of the servants that David was good and had protected them, but she has no assurance that David would not seize her as a hostage or worse. Even if she succeeded in her mission, she would have to face the wrath of Nabal when he learned what she had done. It took as much, if not more, courage for Abigail to face David the warlord unarmed than for David to confront Goliath with a slingshot. Abigail will have no stones to hurl at David; instead she has to persuade the warlord through the power of her words.

The Speech:            In recent months I’ve heard a lot people speak disparagingly of eloquence in politics, but communication is an essential part of leadership. We need leaders who can put their thoughts and plans into words and persuade others to follow a wise course of action. Eloquence that reflects wisdom and courage is a precious gift. Abigail was smart and well-spoken.

She bowed before David, which is something that bothers our modern sensibilities. We don’t usually see women bowing to the ground before men, although I know a few men that might like that. Keep in mind that Abigail is doing exactly what David did when he greeted Jonathan and Samuel. This bowing to the ground was not sexist; it was a sign of respect. Abigail is acknowledging that David is a prince, which is important since her fool of husband implied he was a runaway slave. Yes, she is flattering David, but sometimes it is wise to remind someone of their exalted status. As Megan pointed out, David is still insecure. He feels a need to put Nabal in his place for having offended his honor. Abigail responds to this by reminding David that he is a powerful and respected chief. I’m reminded of a scene in Schindler’s List when Schindler tries to convince the Nazi commandant that he could demonstrate his strength and authority better by showing mercy rather than killing those who offended him. The Nazi tried, but he was too weak and insecure man to be merciful.

I Samuel portrays David as a man who can be bold, but he can also control himself. It appears that he was impressed by the courage and prudence of Abigail. He listens to her speech about the fool she was married to. Though Abigail is often presented as the perfect wife, she does not attempt to defend her husband’s boorish behavior. She appears almost disloyal to her husband talking about him this way to another man. No doubt she and the other women in the red tent swapped stories about their husbands the way wives do today over coffee or on the internet, but this was different. She is shaming her husband before another man, but she is doing so in order to save Nabal’s life and the lives of the entire household.

There is a lesson in this for us today. One of the things I’ve learned about family abuse is that the abuser usually tries to isolate members of the family from outsiders. Families with abuse keep secrets. The great fear is that someone will find out the truth, but it is the truth that sets us free. The only way to stop abuse is to be honest about what is happening and to seek help. Someone in the family must break the code of silence for the sake of everyone’s health. Abigail could have submitted to her husband and not revealed his foolishness, but that would have led to his death and the suffering of many. She took a great personal risk in order to preserve life. Our ethical ideals mean nothing if we do not have the courage to act when it is necessary. Abigail’s courage and willingness to defy her husband saved her life and the lives of many.

Verses 26-31            After Abigail pleads for Nabal’s life, she gives a long speech blessing David. As Megan pointed out, speeches like this were a way that ancient authors could communicate important ideas to the readers. These verses appear to be a later insertion in the story since they break the flow of the narrative. Abigail is thanking the LORD for restraining David from his sanguinary intentions, but David has not yet responded to her plea. The story reads better if we go from verse 25 straight to verse 32 when David takes Abigail by the hand and assures her that he will not take vengeance on Nabal. The inserted verses and David’s response to Abigail both talk about the fact that David has been preserved from bloodguilt. Unlike Saul, David was willing to break a foolish vow when greater wisdom was revealed to him. In this case he recognized that Abigail was an agent of the LORD, and he was grateful to God that she came and spoke to him. Had David killed Nabal and his household, Nabal’s extended family and clan would have been obligated to seek revenge. Even in our day we suffer from the cycle of violence where vengeance is never satisfied. The story of David might have turned out quite differently if he had responded to Nabal’s disrespect with violence. Rather than uniting the tribes and clans of Israel as king, he might have remained a petty warlord who only knew one tool of statecraft – the sword.

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch                        Abigail was able to pull off her plot, which may be a testament to her husband’s lack of attention to his own affairs. You would think he would miss hundreds of loaves, skeins of wine, fruit, and five whole sheep! But we have many examples in our day of leaders in government, business, and the church who were apparently clueless about what was going on in their own organizations. It is perhaps significant that none of the servants told Nabal what was going on. That is always a bad sign in an organization, by the way. When Abigail returns home from her mission, Nabal is feasting like a king, or a pig, depending on your point of view. It appears that Nabal started the feast without his wife, and this may be a further indication of just how out of touch Nabal was. He didn’t even notice Abigail was missing. Of course, it is possible that Abigail had made all of the arrangements for the feast as a way to distract her husband from what she was doing. That would make a lot of sense, but we do not know for sure.

Someone in the class pointed out last week that Abigail very wisely waited until Nabal was sober to tell him what she had done. I learned years ago when working the night shift in a motel that you can never reason with a drunk. Don’t even try. There is an interesting pun in this section. It says that the wine was drained out of Nabal, meaning that he had sobered up, but the word Nabal can mean “wineskin” (Birch, 1169). We can imagine what kind of condition Nabal was in the next morning after his feasting and drinking. No doubt he was experiencing that peculiar type of repentance that comes after self-indulgence. As his head pounded and his stomach churned, he probably knew he had been a fool. Abigail took advantage of the opportunity to let him know just how great a fool he had been. She told him that she had gone to David because she had learned that David was planning to slaughter every man and take all of the women and animals as booty. She told him that the only way she could save his life was to present herself to David and plead for his life.

Wives                        Nabal was shocked at the news. The Bible says that his heart died and he became like a stone. We don’t know if he had a heart attack or a stroke. Either would make sense in this situation. It is even possible he had a catatonic fit. We don’t know for sure, but the severity of his reaction is an indication of the seriousness of this story. In the end, Abigail had saved everyone’s life, except Nabal’s. He survived for a few days more before he died. I Samuel emphasizes that it was the LORD, not David who killed Nabal, and David blesses the LORD for this. This is one of those prayers that makes pastors uncomfortable, by the way. Today it is not acceptable to thank God for the death of your enemies. There is more to this blessing than that, though. The text reiterates that David is without guilt. Megan talked last week about the apologetic aspects of I Samuel. Here, the author wants to make it clear that David was not responsible for Nabal’s death, and that Abigail had not poisoned him so that she could be free to become David’s wife.

We aren’t told how long David spent wooing Abigail. The Bible is a bit like modern movies in that events are telescoped. The text sounds like David got the news that the fool had died and immediately sent for Abigail, kind of like a Mafioso taking the wife of his rival as soon as the funeral was over. Most likely, David followed custom and sent for Abigail after a period of mourning. It is likely that she had let it be known that she was interested in David. Clearly David was impressed with Abigail.

If this story was originally a folk tale about a fool with a wise wife, this is the happily ever after ending. Because she was prudent and brave, Abigail was able to marry the handsome prince. If this story was based in historical events, we can assume that David’s marriage to Abigail had practical benefits. We don’t know how much of Nabal’s property Abigail inherited, but this marriage meant that David was no longer just a leader of brigands. Abigail would help finance his rise to the throne.

Chapter 25 ends with brief mentions of two other wives of David. First we are told that he married Ahinoam of Jezreel. This marriage is further indication that David is rising in status and power. The difference between biblical times and modern times is that in those days rich and powerful men added trophy wives without having to get divorces. Polygamy was considered a good thing. Ahinoam is particularly important since she will be the mother of David’s firstborn son, Amnon.

But what happened to David’s first wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul? The text states tersely that Saul gave her to Palti son of Laish. This is stark reminder that in the ancient world fathers could give their daughters away literally. Even though Michal was married to David, Saul felt he had the right to give her to another man since David had betrayed him. You may remember that I Samuel says that Michal loved David. She is the only woman in the Bible that we know loved her husband. She saved David’s life, but her father gave her to another man. In a single verse, the author reminds us that David’s struggle against Saul has not ended.

Conclusion:                        We spent two weeks on the story of Abigail and David not only because it is so long but also because it is a rich story. It is one of those passages of Scripture that acknowledges the complexities and ambiguities of life, but which also provides some guidance on how to live. Hopefully, none of you is like Nabal the fool, but if you are, perhaps this story can open your eyes to the need to change before it is too late. Hopefully, none of you is living with a fool like Nabal, but if you are, take guidance from Abigail who acted wisely, courageously, and cautiously. Hopefully, none of you has ever been in danger of shedding blood over a point of honor, but if you are, learn from David. Listen to wisdom and do not follow through on rash and stupid oaths. 

I Sam. 23-24

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

I Samuel 21 – Crazy David

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. 

I Samuel 21:1-9

I Samuel 21:

The Sword of Goliath

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Aug. 31, 2008

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. Schools have started, buses are rolling, and folks are settling into their fall routine. Churches are also implementing their fall programming. This morning I thought you might like to hear the 10 Commandments as written for North Carolinians:

(1) Just one God (2) Put nothin’ before God (3) Watch yer mouth (4) Git yourself to Sunday meetin’ (5) Honor yer Ma & Pa (6) No killin’ (7) No foolin’ around with another fellow’s gal (8) Don’t take what ain’t yers (9) No tellin’ tales or gossipin’ (10) Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff. An old high school buddy sent me that.

For those of you not involved in school, it is Labor Day weekend, which ends summer. I was talking this week to one of the premier organists in Winston-Salem, and conversation ranged from summertime weather to jobs we’ve held in the past. In college his summers were spent working on highway construction in southwestern Missouri in 100 degree heat. He said that it gave him a real appreciation for the men and women who labor day and night in this country, often in very unpleasant conditions and still have trouble making a living. You may know that this week was the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” in Washington, DC. What you may not remember is why Dr. King was in Memphis the day he was assassinated. He was there to assist sanitation workers in their effort to improve working conditions. Two men had been crushed to death in a garbage truck while they were on break. They had to eat their lunch with the garbage because they were not allowed to be seen in the city. So many of our workers today remain invisible, and it is important on Labor Day that we remember the ordinary heroes who sacrifice themselves day and night for their families and for all of us.

In other news, it is the season for political conventions, and we should pray that virtues such as justice, prudence, wisdom, and strength will triumph over cynicism, cronyism, greed, and fanaticism. That is a prayer for both parties as they choose leaders, formulate policies, and conduct their campaigns. The two major presidential candidates will have a discussion with Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in California. I think Pastor Warren will be able to generate meaning discussion instead of simply scoring debating points.

I Samuel            Politics have been on our minds in this class as we have explored the Old Testament book of I Samuel this year. It’s been three weeks since we’ve looked in on King Saul, Jonathan, and David, so let me recap the action for you. We saw how David became one of the king’s most important retainers, and that he was particularly close to Prince Jonathan. David had proven himself as a warrior and commander, and was rewarded by being allowed to marry the king’s daughter Michal. But Saul grew insanely jealous of David, and was convinced that David was going to usurp the throne. He tried a couple of times to kill David, but was foiled. When Jonathan finally realized that his friend’s life was really in danger, he told David to flee from the king. They had a tearful farewell. It is a little surprising that we given a picture of David’s farewell from Jonathan, but not his departure from his wife. It reminds me a bit of the fellow who said that his wife ran off with his best friend and he sure does miss him.

We pick up the story this week with David on the run. Keep in mind that David is famous. When he came back from the king’s war he always had the equivalent of a ticker tape parade in New York City. He was like an astronaut, or a rock star, or a first term senator from Illinois. Women sang his praises and men swore their loyalty to him, but once he left Saul’s household, he was an outlaw. He was an outlaw who was so famous that there was nowhere he could hide.

Read I Samuel 21:1-9

The Priest of Nob                        David fled to Nob where there was a sanctuary of the Lord. There is not a lot of information about Nob in the Bible or from archaeology. Scholars are not entirely sure of its location, other than the fact that it was in the tribal lands of Benjamin. It is described in one verse as a “city of priests,” and seems likely that the sanctuary at Nob was the “tent of Yahweh” or the “tent of meeting.” It is possible that this was the sanctuary that had once been at either Mizpah or Shiloh, but it was relocated to Nob because of war. You may remember that Shiloh was destroyed by the Philistines.

It appears that the sanctuary at Nob was important and may have the central sanctuary at the time. One of the grandsons of Eli was the chief priest at Nob. His name was Ahimelech, and may have also been known as Ahijah. Or that may have been his brother (I Sam. 14:3,18). In any case, the priests in Nob were closely related to the priests of Shiloh, which is further evidence that the sanctuary had been relocated. The ark was no longer there, though. One thing we know for sure is that the sanctuary at Nob was so important that it needed a large staff of religious professionals.

It is interesting that a grandson of Eli was the chief priest in Nob. That brings us back to the beginning of the book, and it demonstrates that the story of  Eli did not end with the rise of Samuel. J. R. R. Tolkien once noted that the great stories never end. They are all somehow interconnected. Even we are playing our part in a story that spans centuries.

We should recognize that Ahimelech grew up in a family that was involved in the great struggles of the day, including the establishment of the kingdom. When David appeared unexpectedly, Ahimelech feared that there was trouble afoot. It was particularly odd that he was alone. Why would one of the king’s most important generals be traveling without his men and supplies? Why would he come to the sanctuary at Nob? The reader knows the answer to the first question. David is alone because he is running for his life, but that is not what he tells the priest.

David’s Prevarications            Though a lot of biblical commentators and preachers through the centuries have tried to obscure the facts or at least interpret around them, it is clear that David lied to the priest. He told him that he was on a secret mission for the king. As we know in our own times, if you claim that something is a secret mission for the President, then you don’t have to reveal the truth about what you are doing. David was claiming “executive privilege, “ and tells the priest that his mission is so secret that he cannot tell anyone what it is, but it is not so secret that he cannot tell the priest that he is on a secret mission. This was a clever ruse to get the priest to trust him, but we should not gloss over the fact that it was all a lie.

It is interesting that the biblical author is not at all concerned about David’s dishonesty. You would expect that lying to a priest would be a bad thing. It is likely that the author had no idea that one day this story would be part of sacred Scripture that is used by millions of people as a guide to moral behavior. This story causes problems for churches and synagogues, and it would easy to just ignore it, but we can’t do that in good conscience. We may decide that the Bible teaches that lying is occasionally called for in extreme situations where telling the truth would lead to very bad consequences, such as getting someone killed. People who lied to the Nazis in order to save the lives of Jews may have been strengthen by this story.

Or we may decide that David was just another lying politician, but God uses imperfect tool to do his will. We might even decide that it is very wise that Scripture includes stories like this to make us think about religion and morality as we struggle to live honestly in a world that is all too often governed by lies and threats of violence. One of the things that make the Old Testament interesting is that the people in these stories are so much like us. David and Ahimelech were trying to make good decisions in situations where ambiguity reigned. David chose to lie to the priest rather than tell him that the king was trying to kill him.

David’s Men                        It is not clear if David was also lying when he said that his men were going to meet him later. When Jesus refers to this story in the New Testament, he says that David’s men also ate the bread, but there is no indication in I Samuel that David had a retinue with him. It may have been that he was lying to the priest so that he could get a greater supply of bread for his journey, or simply to give a subtle threat about what would happen if he refused him. It is also possible that David had indeed sent word to his own loyal soldiers to meet him near Nob. It would not be unusual for a warrior like David to assemble his own company of fighters. Just as Achilles had his Myrmidons who fought for him in the Trojan War, David had his own band of professional killers.

This becomes more clear later in the story, but it does leave us with two conflicting pictures of David’s rise to the throne. Was he just a poor shepherd boy who to climb out of the princess’ window to escape her father and then flee for refuge to the priest? Or was he a powerful lord with a band of armed men who fought for the king until DAvid was forced to leave the king’s service, taking his private army with him? Perhaps the truth lies between those poles of interpretation.

Why Nob?            It is still not clear why David went to Nob. What was David looking for? This story in ch. 21 may be a different version of the earlier story about David fleeing to Samuel in Ramah for protection that we discussed a few weeks ago. Here David is fleeing to the priests rather than to the prophets, but in both stories we see him seeking help from the religious leaders rather than political leaders. He does not flee to some powerful tribal chief; he goes to the sanctuary of the LORD. This reminds the reader that David’s rise to power is not simply the result of shrewd political maneuvering and force of arms. He is blessed by the LORD and has the support of the priests and prophets. He is the LORD’s anointed and is recognized as such even while Saul is king.

We find a clue as to why David went to Nob in the next chapter. It is reported to Saul that Ahimelech assisted David by giving him bread and a sword and inquiring of the LORD for him. David could have gotten bread anywhere, and it seems odd that he would go to a priest to get a sword. What he probably wanted from Ahimelech was a word from the LORD and a blessing. He is like Jacob who has to flee from his home but goes with a blessing. Sometimes that is all you have as you face an uncertain future. David wanted reassurance that God was with him.

The text mentions the ephod, which the priest wore when he made inquiries of God, and it is reasonable to assume that the priest put on the ephod and offered David advice for his journey. Many scholars speculate that a verse or two was somehow omitted from the text in an early stage of its transmission. Or, it could be that the author assumed that we could figure out on our own that the priest inquired of the LORD on David’s behalf. It is impossible to know for sure, but later Ahimelech admits to Saul that he did just that. The priest offered the fugitive advice and help.

Bread of the Presence            David asks the priest for bread, but the only bread available is holy bread. It was the bread of the Presence, which was baked according to strict religious rules and placed in the sanctuary as an offering to God. This is a reminder that the religion of the ancient Israelites was not all that different from other ancient people. If you visit the huge temples in Egypt, you can see where the priests laid food offerings before their gods. The closest most of us come to that ancient religious practice today is Thanksgiving when we roast the sacred turkey according to our ancestor’s secret recipe. Preparation of the holy food was one of the main duties of a priest, and then according to strict instructions, he ate the food on behalf of the god. Speaking as an ordained minister, it is a little odd to think that my professional ancestors were more like gourmets than professors.

Only priests could eat the Bread of the Presence, but it appears that the rules were not as rigidly established in David’s day as they would be later. Ahimelech was willing to let David eat the sacred bread if he was ritually pure. This may have been political expediency on Ahimelech’s part. He knows that it is unwise to deny the request of a killer like David, especially if he claims he is on a secret message for a king like Saul. Ahimelech assumed that there was no way that someone like David had been keeping celibate, but David assured the priest that he was pure and chaste. His men were, too. Sure thing. They always keep themselves away from women when they are on a military campaign. Whether or not David was lying to the priest, it is bitterly ironic that years later he would try to hide his affair with the wife of Uriah by encouraging Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba, something Uriah would not do because he wanted to remain chaste like his men who were engaged in battle.

So, the priest gives David the bread of the Presence. Theologically we can interpret this as the LORD himself nourishing David as he fled from Saul and went into a dangerous exile. For David, this bread was like the manna. The biblical author does not appear to have been overly concerned about the deceptions involved or the violations of ritual laws. What was important is that David was fed by the priest of the LORD. In our own lives, we should remember that our prayers may be answered in ordinary ways, and sometimes we play a role in the answer ourselves. David did not wait for the manna to fall from heaven. He asked the priest for it.

The Sword of Goliath            That was not all he asked for. He needed a weapon. That must have seemed particularly strange to the priest. Why would a warrior on a mission for the king not have his sword? David’s lie in this case is even less convincing. I strongly suspect that Ahimelech knew something odd was going on, but willingly went along with the lies because he wanted to help David. Like politicians today, they were playing a game, and David was providing him with “plausible deniability.” What happens next is a bit of a surprise. They only sword that Ahimelech has available is a sword that had been placed in the sanctuary behind the sacred ephod. It is a sword that was a symbol of the LORD’s protection of Israel in a moment of extreme crisis. It is none other than the sword that had once been wielded by Goliath who had blasphemed God and taunted the Chosen People.

If you play video games, you know that heroes need special swords with religious power. In literature Arthur received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. As Monty Python reminds us, “watery tarts distributing weapons is no system of government,” but it is the stuff of great mythology. Swords are symbolic of masculine power. By offering David the sword of the giant who had once shamed Saul, Ahimelech was offering David a weapon of symbolic and spiritual significance.

We discussed David and Goliath in an earlier lesson, and you may remember that there is some reasonable doubt as to who actually killed the giant from Gath. It is possible that the tradition of David having killed Goliath came from David having possession of Goliath’s sword during his exile. When he became king, he placed the sword in the sanctuary in Jerusalem, and over time the legend grew that he had killed Goliath when he just a boy. That is one theory. If the story of I Samuel is historically accurate and David had killed Goliath and then placed the sword in the sanctuary, this account of the events at Nob are even more meaningful. At the moment when David’s life is most threatened, the priest presents David with the sword of his enemy and reminded him of his greatest victory. David receives it with gratitude and leaves Israel.

Next week we will see that David finds refuge in the most unlikely place imaginable.

I Samuel 20: David and Jonathan

I Samuel 20: David and Jonathan Part

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Aug. 3, 2008. Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you and those God has given you to love. It has been a rather busy week for the Atwoods. Madeleine has been participating in the Five Yesterdays program at Old Salem in the mornings and has been in Vacation Bible School at Christ Moravian in the evenings. Both programs have been very good. Five Yesterdays always ends with a Moravian lovefeast, with the children dressed in old Moravian style. Speaking of lovefeasts, the Song of Salem program this fall will focus on the theme of lovefeast in the Moravian tradition. We have some surprises in store for you! My daughter Sarah came back from Mission Camp yesterday tired, but otherwise unharmed. We’ve been cleaning and packing and are heading for vacation immediately following this lesson. Pastor Gerry Harris will be covering the class for the next couple of weeks. Gerry will be discussing the lectionary readings rather than I Samuel. We’ll pick up with chapter 21 when I return. My wife’s family is having a big gathering in Montana to celebrate the 100th birthday of Julie’s grandmother. We’ll be driving, which we can do guilt free now that we have a Prius hybrid. Here at Home Church we are having congregational conversations about our proposed capital campaign. The last available times are Aug. 10 and 17. Come and share your views about things we need to do here at the church. Speaking of churches, last week a woman told me about two pastors who were discussing their careers. One pastor bragged that when he preached the people were “glued to their seats.” The other replied, “I wish I had thought of that!”

I Samuel 20                        Last week we began talking about chapter 20 of I Samuel. It is a long chapter, but I think it is worth reading most of it on the air. I’ll omit verses 12-17 which we discussed last week. READ

David was in a dilemma. Should he simply desert Saul and be hunted down by Saul’s men or should he risk returning to the court? We have seen repeatedly that David may have been pious, but he was no fool. He could act boldly, but he did not act rashly. In this chapter he is prudent in dealing with an unpredictable king. David suggests a plan to Jonathan to test the king’s intentions. Jonathan not only accepts David’s plan, he adds to it. He tells David to stay in hiding for a couple more days. After the feast of the New Moon is over, Jonathan will come to the field where David is hiding and deliver a coded message.

There is some ambiguity in the oldest texts of I Samuel, but it appears that the place that Jonathan indicated was the same place where David went into hiding when he fled from his bedroom window. That makes sense. Apparently this was a sheltered area in a rocky place next to a vacant field. It was a place where David and Jonathan could talk without being overheard or seen.

We can imagine what a lonely and grim time David had while he waited. Luckily he was a man accustomed to tending flocks in the field. He had not yet grown soft living in palaces and eating fine foods. At this point in his life, he is still a soldier – a general used to sharing the hardships of his men, but this vigil was different from waiting in a military camp or sleeping with his sheep. Like Jacob fleeing from Esau, David was all alone among the rocks. Also like Jacob, he did not know if he would live to see tomorrow, but unlike Jacob we do not know what David dreamed or if he wrestled with angels. We can imagine the thoughts that tormented his sleep more painfully than the stones on the ground. What if Jonathan betrayed him? What if someone had seen him? It must have been an agonizing wait, particularly when Jonathan did not return after the first evening.

Dinner at Saul’s            The focus of this chapter, however, is not David. It is Jonathan who is the main actor. He goes to the New Moon feast hosted by his father, just as planned. Only three men are mentioned as being present, but that does not mean there was no one else in attendance. The ones mentioned were the chief men of the kingdom. King Saul is sitting against the wall, where he is safest. We should not be surprised that the king has his spear with him at the feast. He was not the head of a modern state; he was a warrior chieftain who could expect to be attacked at any time. Even if there were no real threat, a king like Saul would keep his spear as a reminder of the source of his power and prestige.

Jonathan is sitting opposite his father. No other sons or grandsons of the king are mentioned. The focus is entirely on Jonathan who is the heir to the throne. He sits in the position of highest honor across from the king. Next to Saul was Abner. This is not the first we’ve heard of Abner. He was the general who had introduced David to Saul after the defeat of Goliath, and here we see just what a powerful prince Abner was. He is seated beside the king at the festival.

Abner will be a very important figure in the rest of the history of David even though much of his career was spent in opposition to David. Abner was the most loyal servant of Saul, but after Saul’s death he will eventually side with David. Unfortunately for Abner, siding with David did not prolong his life since David’s general Joab would murder him. But all of that is in the future. For now, what is important is that it is Abner who is sitting beside the king.

David’s seat, as we already know, was empty. We are not told which seat it was. If Abner was next to Saul, we can assume that David was supposed to sit next to Jonathan across from Abner. That would put him in fourth place in the royal hierarchy. Whether or not others were at the festival, it is clear that David had attained a high position in the court, and his absence from the feast was scandalous.

At first Saul ignores David’s absence, attributing it to ritual uncleanness. There were many ways in which a man in ancient Israel could be made unclean for a ritual. The rules are all spelled out in Leviticus, and all I can say is that a man or woman was quite likely to be unclean for at least one day of a festival. It only took another day to purify oneself and be ready to participate in the sacred rituals. Thus when David did not appear the second day Saul grew suspicious.

Jonathan’s Lie                        On the second day Saul asks Jonathan where the son of Jesse is. It is interesting that Saul does not call Jonathan’s liege by his given name. He does not ask about David, but calls him the son of Jesse. Is this to insult David and remind everyone that David should have been honored to eat with the king? Or is it simply a way to dehumanize David and distance him from Saul? Before we kill a man in body, we first kill him spiritually. We take away his name and personhood. It is much easier to blow up or bomb people with no names or identities, much harder to kill an individual with a name. It is harder to kill David than merely a son of Jesse.

Saul assumes that Jonathan would know where David is. This is a further indication that David may have actually been a liege of prince Jonathan than of the king himself. You may remember that Jonathan is the one who supplied David with armor and weapons. Saul may also suspect that Jonathan and David are up to something.

One of the reasons that monarchy is a bad system of government is that it so often leads to sons trying to take their fathers’ thrones and fathers killing their children. So much of the mythology and literature of the ancient world was about the rivalry between kings and their sons that Sigmund Freud concluded that every son secretly wants to kill his father. Freud should have noticed that there are very few stories of shepherds or scholars killing their fathers. The problem is not human psychology but the lust for power. It is much better to hold elections and have term limits than to have a system that encourages violence and rebellion. As king, Saul had to worry about his son’s career plans.

As expected, Saul asks about David’s absences, and Jonathan tells his father the lie that he and David had prepared. He tells the king that David went home for a sacrifice being held by his family. This may be the origin of the common explanation of the departure of a government official on the grounds that he or she wanted to “spend more time with their family.” I suppose there are times when that is the true story, but usually it is no more true than it was in the case of David.

It is strange that Jonathan adds a twist to the story. He says that it was David’s brother who demanded that he be at the feast. It is possible that Jesse had already died, and David’s oldest brother was now the head of the family. Even so, it would be far less compelling for David to answer a summons from his brother than from his father. All in all, it is a very unconvincing story, and that may have been intentional. It was designed to test the king’s temper.

Saul’s Anger                        If the purpose of this charade was to test the king’s feelings about David, then the plan succeeded beyond expectations. The author describes Saul’s outburst vividly, even including his offensive curse that mentions the genitals of Jonathan’s mother. Some of the English translations clean the Hebrew up here so that we can read the story in church. Suffice it to say that Saul was really angry and insulted his son in very crude terms. His curses against Jonathan focus on the idea of rebellion. We know nothing about Jonathan’s mother, but Saul calls her a perverse and rebellious woman. Perhaps she was, or perhaps Saul is just saying that his son is behaving in an unnatural way. He is the one who is rebelling against his father by siding with this upstart son of Jesse!

Saul recognizes clearly what is going on. Jonathan has chosen to protect David even though it may ultimately cost Jonathan the kingdom. Remember the old dictum that “just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you”? In other words, Saul’s insane fear of David had some basis in reality. He has heard Samuel’s prophesy that his kingdom shall not be established for long. His hope that his son will establish a dynasty is being dashed before his eyes. But to make matters worse, it is Jonathan himself who is throwing the kingdom away. Saul knows that David is a threat to Jonathan as well as to himself, but Jonathan is shielding him.

Saul pronounces that David must die. There is a pun in Hebrew. The “son of Jesse” will be a “son of death.” He orders Jonathan to send for David so that he can be executed for treason. It is no longer time for subtlety, and Saul wants Jonathan to take charge. Jonathan refuses. For the second time in the book of I Samuel Jonathan defends his friend before the king.

In his rage, Saul loses all control and reason. He hurls his spear at his own son. It is the second time that Saul has tried to kill Jonathan, but this time it is in a blind rage. Here is the great irony of family relationships. Saul is angry because he wants Jonathan to succeed him on the throne, but he tries to kill Jonathan in his anger. I wonder how often this happens less dramatically in families. We have great ambitious for our children and when they do not share those ambitions we alienate them. Too often we destroy the people or things we claim to love.

Saul may not have been trying to kill Jonathan, but he could have. Jonathan left the table in anger and refused to eat. The text says that it was both because he was grieving over David and because the king had disgraced him. This is an indication that there may have been more people at the meal than just the loyal prince Abner. Jonathan was probably shamed in front of several people, and he knew that he had lost respect in their eyes. The aspect of grief also makes sense if we recognize that even if David lives, he and Jonathan will be parted until the king dies.

Arrows            The next morning Jonathan goes to the field where David is waiting. They had already worked out their code to communicate what happened at the feast. Jonathan has a young servant who has been ordered to fetch his arrows when he shoots them. Today the servant would probably have to go out and fetch the prince’s golf balls. It is not clear in the text whether Jonathan shot one or several arrows, but the signal was given. He tells the boy that the arrow is beyond him and he will need to go farther to find it. That is the message for David. He will have to go farther in order to be safe from the king. Jonathan adds the message that David must be quick and not linger.

David is not safe in Saul’s realm. If any of the king’s servants find him, he will be killed. We would expect the story to end here. The whole point of the coded message was so that Jonathan could tell David the truth without risking an open meeting with the fugitive. It would make sense that after Jonathan delivered the message he and the boy would take the arrows and return to the palace. But he and David could not part in this way.

The Farewell            David emerges from his hiding place even though he now knows for sure that he is risking his life. He cannot sneak away without honoring the friend who has risked so much. This is one of those scenes that show you why people loved David and were loyal to him. A lesser man would have simply waited until nightfall and fled without a word. But David loved and honored Jonathan. So he rose and then he bowed three times to the ground. For centuries this has been a practice in the Middle East, a way to honor someone who is superior to you in the social hierarchy. David was showing Jonathan the honor that he owed to the King and to the king’s son. It was a final way of telling Jonathan that he was not a traitor or a rebel. How different this parting was from that of Samuel and Saul!

Suddenly Jonathan and David were kissing and weeping together. Presumably it was the prince who ran to David who was prostrate before him. They threw away all pretence and hiding in this tearful farewell. In our modern, mechanized world few of us know this kind of passionate friendship or this kind of heart-wrenching sacrifice. Nothing is worse than having to preserve the life of someone you love by giving up that very person. No matter what the future held, David and Jonathan knew that the old days were gone forever. The king would pursue David and he would have to defend himself. It was likely that a day would come when these friends might be shooting arrows at one another. But for now they would unashamedly demonstrate their love for one another.

Conclusion                        The last thing that David and Jonathan did before they departed was to renew their covenant before the LORD. It was not only a covenant between the two of them, but between their descendents. Their invocation of God as a witness between them was much different than the more famous scene at Mizpah when Jacob and Laban asked God to keep watch of the other while they were absent. The Mizpah blessing was a sign of mistrust while the covenant between Jonathan and David was one of deep trust and friendship.

They have no illusions that life will be fair to them. They are affirming their friendship in the midst of hardship, sacrifice and suffering. Jonathan will be returning to his father and will fulfill his responsibilities as a son, even unto death. Bruce Birch sums this chapter up well when he writes, “Jonathan could choose against his own self-interest and his father’s restricted vision of the future because his horizon was God’s future. His vision encompassed more than the present realities of a homicidal father, fugitive friend, risky intercession, and tearful parting. Beyond these events, Jonathan could see God’s future for Israel.” (I & II Samuel, NIB, 1137)

I Samuel 19-20 Saul’s Madness and Jonathan’s Love

I Samuel 19-20: Saul’s Madness

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 27, 2008 Craig D. Atwood

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church during this hot month of July. I will be leaving right after class to go preach at Christ Moravian Church on Academy Street. If anyone from Christ is listening, let me assure you that the sermon is different from the radio lesson. Let me give a shout out to my father who has a birthday this week. It’s been a quiet week in the Atwood home. For the first time this month, we are all at home together. There was big news in the world. One of the worst war criminals in Europe since World War II was arrested in Serbia this week. Radovan Karadzic will finally face justice in the world court for his role in the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia in the 1990s. The wheels of justice may move slowly, but we should be thankful that they move at all. The thing that truly separates dictatorships from democracies is an independent judiciary that observes the rules of law. That is a treasure we need to protect.

David’s Escape:            We left our lesson last week with Michal choosing to help her husband in defiance of her father. After class we talked a lot about divided loyalties and the difficulties of living in a patriarchal society. This remains true in the world today. Two members of Home Church, Tamra Thomas and Mallie Graham just returned from an international women’s conference that focused on courageous women confronting dangerous times. There were representatives from Africa, North and South America, and Europe meeting in Herrnhut. One of the themes was the need for the modern church to highlight the stories of women in the Bible, especially women like Michal, who took strong and courageous action in the face of great danger. Women around the world need to know that God is on the side of justice. God was on the side of Michal as she defied her father and helped David escape from Saul.

According to 19:18, David fled to the home of the priest Samuel at Ramah. Scholars have many reasons to doubt the historicity of this claim since it is unlikely that Samuel was even alive at this point. There are a number of inconsistencies in the text that make it hard to establish the chronology of the story, but the literary meaning of this statement about David going to Ramah is to remind the reader that Samuel had prophesized that Saul’s kingdom would be torn from him. By having David run to Samuel for protection, the storyteller connects several parts of a complicated tale. Whether or not things happened precisely this way is less important than the meaning of the story: David remains the Lord’s anointed even when he is running for his life.

Ecstatic Sanctuary:                        What happens next is very odd. Saul sends some of his men to go and get David from Ramah. They found Samuel there among a band of prophets who were in a frenzy. We talked earlier about prophecy in Israel being much more complicated than one might think from reading Jeremiah or Isaiah. In the days of Saul, prophets were men and women who sometimes fell into prophetic trances or who experienced ecstasy. They were “beside themselves” when they were filled with the Spirit. In short, many of the prophets of ancient Israel were probably like the shamans of tribal peoples around the world today. For whatever reason, there are people who seem especially sensitive to the spiritual world. Sometimes prophets in Israel received a message from God to deliver, but sometimes they merely experienced the divine world. You can see similar behavior in modern charismatic churches where people may be “slain in the spirit” and lie immoveable for a period of time.

It was not unusual for prophets in Israel to band together for mutual support, and it would be reasonable to expect that they would be associated with particular shrines, like the one of Naioth where David went with Samuel. We don’t know what was going on when Saul’s messengers arrived, but the prophets were in ecstasy and the spirit could not be contained. The king’s men were overcome. Saul sent more men, and the same thing happened. The implication of this story is that by seeking refuge with Samuel, David was protected by the Spirit of God. The king’s men could not get him. David was provided sanctuary by God himself. It is interesting that God’s spirit does not harm those who were trying to kill David. They experienced what the prophets were experiencing – an encounter with God’s spirit.

We have become so secularized in our modern world, and in our modern churches, that we forget that holy things are dangerous. We forget that it can be profoundly disturbing to come into the presence of the Holy One or be filled with the Spirit. Prophets, you may remember, tended to be on the fringes of society even when they were allowed to speak to kings and priests. They remain dangerous because they are gripped by an unseen Spirit and are zealous for justice. Prophets may be shaken and are sometimes shattered by their experience, but what happens when men of hatred are seized by the Holy Spirit? What happens when people whose first instinct is to obey earthly authorities are swept up by the Spirit of God and learn that there is a law that even the king must obey? It can be profoundly disturbing.

The Madness of King Saul:                        Saul’s men are unable to do the evil that he has commanded them to do. So the king himself goes to Ramah in search of David. This contradicts the earlier statement that Saul did not see Samuel again after the time he tore his robe, and most scholars are convinced that this text was edited many times over the years, and that the chronology was changed for dramatic effect. We don’t need to worry too much about minor contradictions in a 3000-year old story since we are focusing on the meaning of the text for the life faith rather than trying to establish the mere facts of history. According to the text as we have it today, Saul went to Ramah to kill David, but he fell into a frenzy.

This is almost a reversal of the parable that Jesus told of the king who sent messengers to the tenant farmers and finally sent his son. In that story, the messengers and the son were abused by the farmers, and finally the king comes and destroys them. In this story in I Samuel, the king finally comes to Ramah, but even he falls before the prophet Samuel. King Saul was overcome by the Spirit, and he lay on the ground naked and writhing for a day and a night. Here we have a vision of Saul falling completely into madness. This is far beyond the evil spirit that sometimes afflicted him. It is beyond melancholia or even paranoia. He has stripped himself of his robes of office and is lying naked before the prophet of the Lord.

This kind of thing still happens to people, as mental health workers know. People do fall into catatonic states, sometimes naked. Here in I Samuel, Saul’s nakedness is symbolic of being spiritually naked before God. Saul cannot hide behind his throne, his office, or his robes. His intentions are laid bare, and he is found to be unjust. Thus he is rendered powerless. There are people who go through this kind of spiritual journey and emerge enlightened, such as a different Saul who was struck down on the road to Damascus.

The narrator of I Samuel tells us that this was the origin of the phrase “Is Saul among the prophets.” We read that phrase earlier when Saul was chosen as the king. In that earlier story, Saul’s prophetic ecstasy was taken as evidence that the Spirit of God was upon him and he was the true king. This story in chapter 19 is far different, and a phrase that was originally positive is now used with derision. Saul has been humiliated and defeated by God. He belongs with the ecstatic prophets, not on the throne.

I have a final observation about this strange interlude in the story of the rise of David: we see here just how thin the line is between prophetic ability and mental illness. Throughout the history of religion, there has been a debate over the sanity of prophets, mystics, and shamans. The true test of sanity in relation to religious prophecy or mysticism may depend on what one does with such unusual spiritual experiences. When Saul first fell among the prophets he was empowered to be the king. Now he has been so diminished by his fear and hatred that he is left catatonic and impotent. He will emerge from his prophetic fit no wiser than he was.

David and Jonathan part – chapter 20

Chapter 20 of I Samuel is a beautiful piece of ancient literature. In it, David flees from Saul in Naioth near Ramah and goes to visit his close friend, Jonathan. Though the editor tries to connect this story with the independent tradition of Saul following into frenzy in the previous chapter, it is really hard to make sense of the chronology here. If David had been pursued by Saul all the way to Ramah, it is unlikely that he had any doubts about the king’s intentions. Originally chapter 20 probably followed directly on the story of David fleeing in the middle of the night from his bedroom. The conversation with Jonathan makes more sense if we picture David having fled from the king without knowing for sure whether Saul was really planning to have him killed. Michal had warned him to run away, but now David needs to know for sure if his life is in danger.

Chapter 20 is very long and intricate, like a beautiful tapestry on a castle wall, and we cannot do it justice in a few minutes here. The story as we have it today shows signs of having been edited and added to over the years. Verses 12-17, for instance, interrupt the narrative and seem to have been a later insertion to explain David’s concern for Jonathan’s son. Even without those verses, the original story emphasizes that Jonathan is siding with David rather than his father, just as Michal did. We will only have time this week for the first part of the story and will continue it next week.

Is the King Angry?                        David has fled in the middle of the night and is afraid to return. Naturally he seeks the help of his closest friend and ally. If you have ever lived with or worked for someone with a severe mental illness, you can appreciate David’s dilemma. He knew that Saul was prone to fits of bad temper since one of his major jobs was to play the lyre for him when an evil spirit afflicted him. But he has to figure out if Saul was really trying to kill him the night he threw the spear or if it was just one of his fits. Is this the kind of thing that Saul would forget about or was he seriously plotting to end David’s life? It all boiled down to the crucial question of whether it was safe for David to return to the presence of the king. He needed Jonathan to answer that question for him.

David somehow manages to get in touch with Jonathan, presumably at the place Saul had made his headquarters. David tries to explain to Jonathan that his father has “gone round the twist” and is trying to kill him. Jonathan responds the way most of us do when someone tells us something about our fathers that we do not want to believe. Children tend to idolize their fathers, and the news that they have acted immorally or stupidly can be very disturbing. Jonathan is such a guileless young man that he cannot conceive of his father doing something as nasty as having David killed in his sleep. Jonathan is also shocked that his father could plan something like this without letting him in on the conspiracy. After all, he is Saul’s closest confidant and second in command.

Jonathan’s claim that he has not heard anything about his father’s desire to kill David, of course, contradicts the earlier statement that Jonathan had talked Saul out of killing David. Clearly, the author of I Samuel was drawing upon a variety of written sources about the rise of David and could not stitch them together without the seams showing. Here in chapter 20, David has to convince Jonathan that his father has not told him about his plans because he knows that David and Jonathan are friends. For the first time, David is actively sowing doubt on Saul in Jonathan’s mind.

The Plot            David planned to use an upcoming feast as the way to test the depth of Saul’s animosity toward him. In those days in Israel, the New Moon each month was an occasion for a religious festival. It was the kind of feast that the king would expect his most important followers to attend, and David knew that it would look very suspicious if he were absent. It would be like the Vice President of a company not showing up for the CEO’s birthday party. David was playing a dangerous game. If he attended the feast, it would give Saul ample opportunity to have him murdered, but if he were absent, it might make Saul even more willing to kill him. Saul might think that David was planning a coup of some sort.

Since David could not avoid the dilemma of not attending the feast, he decided to use it to his advantage. He gave Jonathan a cover story to explain his absence. It was, of course, a fabrication. The Bible is not the least embarrassed by the fact that David and Jonathan lied, which is a nice reminder that the Bible is not as moralistic as people think. David was placed in a situation where honesty might not be the best policy. He had to force Saul’s hand. If Saul asked why David was absent from the feast, Jonathan was to say that David had gone to his father’s home for an annual sacrifice. If you are going to lie to someone, it is always best to claim that you are being pious.

David tells Jonathan to report to him on how the king received the news that David had gone back to his father’s house instead of sharing in the king’s New Moon banquet. If the king gets angry, then David will know that it is because his plans to kill him have been frustrated. Saul will know that David has slipped from his trap, and he will suspect that David is mustering support from his own tribe against Saul.

David assures Jonathan that he is innocent of any crime against the king, and that his anger is unjustified. The innocence of David is repeated so often in I Samuel, that we can assume that many people doubted that David was the legitimate king. Part of the original purpose of this vignette with Jonathan was to reassure people that even Saul’s son recognized that David was not trying to usurp the throne. David goes so far as to tell Jonathan that he was willing to die by Jonathan’s own hand if he is guilty.

The Covenant            At this point there is a break in the original narrative, and we have a very moving conversation between Jonathan and David. Jonathan swears his loyalty to David. Jonathan recognizes that his love for David has put him in a dangerous position. We saw earlier in the book that Saul was willing to kill his son for having broken a religious oath. Surely his life would be forfeit if he assisted an enemy of the king. Jonathan courageously chooses to remain loyal to his friend.

The Hebrew word used to describe Jonathan’s faithful love to David is Hesed, which is a word most often used to describe God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with Israel. It is an enduring love that goes beyond emotion. Hesed is not affected by the changing circumstances of life but remains as constant as the Pole Star. In other words, Jonathan is reminding David of the covenant they made with each other, and that he will never betray his friend. Even if the king is trying to kill David, Jonathan will stand by him. Their lives are twined and cannot be separated even though they may never see each other again. Jonathan asks David to show Hesed to him and to his descendents should he die. This is the first hint in the text that Jonathan will die before David becomes king. On that somber note, we have reached the end of our lesson for this week.  Tune in next week to discuss the rest of chapter 20.

I Samuel 19 – Attempted Murder


I Samuel 19 – Attempted Murder in the Palace

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast July 19, 2008. Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. It is good to be home after our two week trip to the birthplace of the Moravian Church. I am grateful to Neil Routh and Scott Venable for covering the class while I was away. I asked them not to be too good lest you be disappointed to have me back. I think that is the real reason pastors are reluctant to take Sabbaticals, by the way. They are afraid the church will do just fine without them. I wish I could remember a single one of the jokes that we laughed at so hard on the trip, but then again, it might be best that I’ve forgotten them. I do recall that our Czech guide was amused by our efforts to pronounce the name of a city spelled BRNO. That word does not have enough vowels for Americans.

The Trip            There were 28 of us on the trip, including a very competent representative of Aladdin Travel. I’d like to give a shout out to the folks at Aladdin who put together a wonderful itinerary for us that included some fabulous meals. The first part of the trip was spent in Prague where we toured Bethlehem Chapel where John Hus preached. We saw St. Martin in the Wall Church where the laity first drank from the chalice in opposition to the policy of the Catholic Church. We also toured the Prague cathedral and castle, and saw the tower where Moravian bishop John Augusta was imprisoned and tortured during the Reformation. Before we left Prague we shared Holy Communion in front of the statue of Hus on the Old Town Square, right in front of the Tyn Church where Brother Gregory first got the idea of starting our church. It was a wonderful way to experience the founding of the church five and a half centuries ago.

We also took a day trip up to Herrnhut and Berthelsdorf where the Moravian Church was resurrected during the time of Count Zinzendorf. My friend and colleague Peter Vogt introduced us to the Saal and God’s Acre in Herrnhut. From Prague we journeyed east toward the region of Moravia. At one time Moravia was a kingdom, but now it is the agricultural heart of the Czech Republic. We stopped in Podebrady, the home of King George of Podebrady who was the first Protestant monarch in Europe. It was during his reign that our church was founded. From there we traveled past Lhotka where the first Moravian ministers were ordained in 1467 and Rychnov where our first confession of faith was written.

After driving on some very small roads that rarely see tour buses, we arrived in Brandys, which was one of the major headquarters of the Moravian Church at one time. It was in Brandys that Brother Gregory was buried in an unmarked grave, and it was there that Luke of Prague helped moderate the original sectarianism of the church. It was also in Brandys that Comenius wrote Labyrinth of the World when he was in hiding from Catholic authorities.

We spent a night in the charming town of Litomysl and stayed in a hotel where seven presidents have stayed. We toured the beautiful castle and garden, and a few people cooled their feet in the fountain. Our guide wrote down the phrase “I would like tap water with ice” in Czech for a member of the group so she could get ice water at her meals. Ice is still a rare commodity in Central Europe, but you do not need ice for beer. The Czechs drink more beer than any other nation. Almost as much as the students at UNC.

The next two days were spent in Moravia tracking down sites associated with Comenius. We visited Fulneck where Comenius had been pastor. There is a lovely museum dedicated to him there. Then we were led by a bicyclist to Suchdol, the village where a few families had kept alive the memory of the Unity of the Brethren during a century of harsh persecution. Some of the most famous names in Moravian history are associated with Suchdol. We saw the foundation stones of the house of David Nitschmann, who became a bishop and missionary. Anna Nitschmann, the Zeisbergers, Neissers, and other families left Suchdol at great personal cost and built the village of Herrnhut in Germany. They have a new grove of trees in Suchdol with trees from all of the provinces of the Unity serving as a living memorial of the witness of those original refugees. Having chosen exile because of their love for Christ, they went to the most marginalized people of the world with the revolutionary message that the Creator loved them with an infinite love. Thanks to them, we now have brothers and sisters on almost every continent.

One of the most magical moments on the trip was when we were driving past fields of sunflowers covering the rolling hills. The sky was filled with dark gray clouds and suddenly the widest rainbow I’ve ever seen burst out in bands of color reaching down to touch the sunflowers. It truly looked like we had found the fabled pot of gold, and it was a reminder that the greatest treasures are those that you enjoy for a time and allow to return to the giver.

We visited the area where Comenius was born and spent time in the museum at Uhersky Brod where there is a companion to the statue of Comenius that stands proudly at Moravian College. It is a fabulous museum and the library houses virtually every book ever published by or about Comenius. Some of the titles were in Japanese even. On our way out of Moravia, we stopped in Kralice where there is a museum dedicated to the famous Kralice printing press where the Moravian Church published the first complete Bible in the Czech language – forty years before King James published his famous English Bible. Our last stop in Moravia was to visit the enormous Slavic epic paintings of Alfonso Mucha. There we saw the artist’s vision of the history we had been discussing.

We also had a nice time in Vienna, where many of the group enjoyed a beautiful concert of Viennese masterpieces. I rode the Ferris Wheel, and we took a day trip to Budapest where we learned about the tragic history of Hungary. It is a beautiful city. Our last day was spent cruising down the Danube through the Wachau Valley, which is where Wachovia in North Carolina got its name. We saw the original estates of the Zinzendorf family that they had to abandon when they became Lutheran, and so the whole history came full circle to Herrnhut and Salem. You’ll have to ask I. B. Southerland or David Pfaff about the closing dinner and the funny hats. Except for getting stranded in Atlanta on the return journey, it was an incredible trip. It was a good group of people to travel with, and I think some life-long friendships were made.

Even with all of the memories and adventures, it is good to be back home with the family; however, it is a little hard to get used to having a crazy kitten pounce on you as you walk through the house.  She has a new name “Warp Kitty” because she suddenly appears places that you don’t expect to find a cat, like in the refrigerator. But enough about life in the Atwood home – we are returning to our study of I Samuel this week. I’ll be reading from chapter 19.

Jonathan’s Intervention                        So far in the book of I Samuel, the narrator has indicated that Saul was growing jealous of David, and we’ve had hints of the conflict to come. Here in chapter 19 Saul finally goes over the edge. He tells his closest advisors and his son that he wants to kill David. 3000 years later, it is hard to tell if this was originally a matter of Saul blowing off steam and saying that he wanted to kill David or if he was actually plotting with his men. In other words, should we look at the opening of chapter 19 like a scene from the Godfather where the head of a mob puts a price on someone’s head or like a scene from the Honeymooners with Ralph threatening to send his wife to the moon. Quite likely it was somewhere in between with Saul being like King Henry expressing his desire for someone to rid him of the troublesome Archbishop of Canterbury.

In any case, the main point of this story is that the king’s son objects to his father’s murderous intent. Jonathan reminds the king that David has served him well and has done nothing against him. Not only that, Jonathan conspires with David against his father. Some biblical scholars point out that this scene is a little confusing and the text may have suffered corruption over the centuries, but the basic idea is clear. David was to hide somewhere so that he could hear Jonathan and Saul discussing his fate. Jonathan convinces his father that David is not a threat and his life should be spared. After that, Jonathan thinks it is safe for David to return to Saul’s service, but there are reasons to doubt Saul’s sincerity in sparing David.

It is interesting that we are told a great deal about Saul and Jonathan and their feelings, but David remains a cipher in this story. We don’t know if he was frightened as waited in hiding, or if he was angry with Saul. We don’t know how he felt about Jonathan choosing him over his father or the dangerous position he was putting his friend in. The author of I Samuel provides key insights into the psychology of all of the major actors in this drama except for the star, David.

Attempted Murder                        At first it appeared that Jonathan’s appeasement of his father had worked. Saul did not send his henchman to have the shepherd hero murdered in his sleep. At least, not yet. Instead, David was restored to his place in the royal court, and soon he was leading the king’s men in battle against the Philistines. As usual, David was victorious, but he was not welcomed home by the king. Presumably, Saul had hoped that this battle would result in David’s death. We had a verse to that effect in a previous chapter, but it makes more sense here. Jonathan had convinced Saul not to have David killed, and so the king decided to let the Philistines take care of things for him. But God was with David and he was victorious. The best laid plans can fail if they are contrary to God’s intention.

David returns in triumph. Perhaps the women once again greeted him with songs of praise and victory, and this angered the king. In the court of the king, it was David who had to play and sing rather than being sung to. The evil spirit was upon Saul, and only David’s soothing hand on the lyre could bring him back to sanity. But not this time. This time the spirit was not subject to the music. This time the evil spirit was fueled by Saul’s irrational hatred of the younger man who was always successful. Saul’s resentment and paranoid grew beyond the bounds of music, and he took his spear and hurled it at the warrior musician.

This is such a dramatic scene that we might be inclined to dismiss it as fiction, but things like this happen in real life. Powerful people in positions of authority sometimes lose it. They throw things and break things. They try to destroy even the people who helped make them successful. Sometimes they kill. I have no trouble picturing a tormented king like Saul throwing a spear at David; I am just surprised David avoided the spear and it stuck into the wall. I imagine that years later people would point to the hole in the wall where the spear had been and tell of that night.

Michal            Rather than being ashamed of what he had done, Saul decided he needed to finish in cold blood what he had begun in rage. He sent men to kill David in his home. It is possible that this happened sometime later than the throwing of the spear, but the biblical author, like a Hollywood director, shortened the timeframe for dramatic impact. In any case, David is at home with his wife, Michal who knows what her father is planning. Michal, like Jonathan, will have to make a choice. Will she support her father even when he is planning something reprehensible? Will she be loyal to her husband or her father?

This is an important scene in the Bible that is rarely the subject of sermons. Many of us had to memorize the Ten Commandments growing up, and the most important one was “honor your father and your mother.” It is the only commandment with a promise attached to it. This commandment to honor one’s parents was the basis of the social order of many nations for thousands of years. Even nations that did not worship the God of Israel believed that the basis of morality was the obligation to be obedient to one’s father. I have known Christians in America who view this commandment as absolute.

Michal knows that it is her father’s will that David be killed, but she helps David escape. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant might argue that Michal sinned in violating the commandment to honor her father. Worse, she used deception rather than telling the truth. Personally, I think what Michal did was moral, and that her actions are praiseworthy. Comenius wrote that the commandment to honor one’s parents does not apply when parents ask a child to do something immoral or harmful. There are ten commandments, not just one, and even parents do not have the right to tell a child to violate the other commandments. Sometimes we honor our parents most when we disobey them.

So Michal did the right thing and saved her husband’s life that night. It sounds a bit like a movie in that she put something in the bed to fool the guards into thinking that David was lying there sick. What she used is a bit surprising, though. It was one of the terephim, which were household idols. You may remember from our study of Genesis that Rachel stole the terephim of her father when she left Haran with Jacob. Centuries later the wife of David had terephim in the house. It is surprising that the author of I Samuel is not at all embarrassed by these idols in the house of David. Michal is not criticized for having idols nor do any of the characters in the story seem disturbed. There is no effort to justify her actions either. The story is told in a straightforward fashion. She placed an idol in the bed and covered the head with goat hair. This is a reminder that the world of ancient Israel was more complicated than we often think, and the fact that the Israelites condemned idolatry did not mean that all images were abolished in the households.

When Saul discovered that he and his men had been fooled and that David had escaped, he confronted his daughter. She lied to him and claimed that David had threatened her life if she did not help him. Again she appears to have violated the commandments, and yet there is no hint that the author of I Samuel criticized her. Her deception kept her father from committing the sin of killing his own child, and Michal was right to deceive the king.

Michal is often overlooked when people list heroes and heroines of the Bible, but she should be remembered as a strong and bold woman who took action to save the life of David. She was used by God to preserve the life of the anointed king of Israel. Though she was not an ancestor of Jesus, we Christians should respect her for saving the life of Jesus’ ancestor, David. History might have been different if she had been obedient to the evil intentions of her father. We should also pause and think about all of the brave women in the world today who risk their lives to save the lives of others or to prevent angry men from committing crimes. There are many Michals today who deserve our support.

Conclusion                        We have come to the end of our time on the radio for this week. Thank you for tuning in to the Adult Bible Class. Let me remind you that you are welcome to join us in person in the chapel of Home Moravian Church. Next week we will continue the story of David’s flight from the murderous rage of Saul.