June 26 – July 3, 2020

Friday, June 26

First Samuel 25: Reckoned among the most winsome narratives in the Bible, this is a story interesting, and even intriguing, from several aspects. The principal interest of the biblical author himself is properly theological, especially the theme of wisdom.

Abigail is immediately introduced with her husband, Nabal, near the very beginning of the account. This stylistic arrangement allows the author to establish early what becomes a sustained contrast between the two characters throughout the story. Abigail is “a woman of good understanding and beautiful appearance,” whereas her husband “was harsh and evil in his doings” (v. 3). The rest of the account, elaborating the differences between a wise, attractive woman and her sottish, offensive husband, thus becomes a narrative enactment of the tension between Wisdom and the Fool, a standard theme of the
Bible’s sapiential literature.

Nabal was rash, compulsively driven, hot-tempered, sharp-tongued, stubborn, stingy, impossible to reason with, and a very slow learner. A major feature of Nabal’s moral imbecility was the failure to appreciate his wife’s wisdom. Long habituated to ignoring her example and her counsel, he followed his own path to self-destruction. His household servants summed it up: “He is such a scoundrel that one cannot speak to him” (v. 17).

Notwithstanding the conditions of her marriage, however, Abigail is not a woman to sit around agonizing over her fate. On the contrary, she is the very embodiment of the resourceful, energetic, and “virtuous wife” described in Proverbs 31:10–31: loving and patient, disciplined, hard-working and efficiently organized, wise and discerning, endowed with a gentle disposition and pleasant speech. Abigail’s household is so well ordered that, with no prior notice, she can promptly put together an enormous meal (including two hundred loaves of bread!) to feed David’s entire army (1 Samuel 25:18). A woman of great practical insight she acts with dispatch; three times in the one chapter we are told that she “made haste” (vv. 18, 23, 42). The attentive reader gains the
impression of a woman who decided, years ago, that her very survival would require an energetic but disciplined approach to life.

To save her household, therefore, Abigail goes out to meet the outraged
David. This latter, sadly, is not far behind Nabal in rashness of temper. Vowing an exorbitant retaliation for Nabal’s arrogant affront, he too is on the point of playing the Fool (cf. Proverbs 14:17). But then Abigail, acting as David’s own personal Lady Wisdom, comes to seek him out, giving the “soft answer [that] turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1), instructing him not to “answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him” (26:4). As the personification of Wisdom on David’s behalf, Abigail “has slaughtered her meat, / She has mixed her wine, / She has also furnished her table. / She has sent out her maidens, / She cries out from the highest places of the city” (9:2–10).

In his hour of impending moral peril, then, David’s deliverance comes from receiving the instruction of Wisdom (Proverbs 15:32–33). He is thus rescued from an evil course of action that his anger had caused to seem proper (16:25; Ecclesiastes 7:9). The wise Abigail exhorts him to patience and restraint. She persuades him to abandon his foolish vow of blood-vengeance and to leave retribution to a provident God.

Saturday, June 27

First Samuel 26: This chapter describes a second encounter between Saul and David during the latter’s time of wandering in the desert as an exile.

There are distinct points of similarity between this story and the account found two chapters earlier—the encounter at the cave of En Gedi. These similarities include the betrayal of David by the friends of Saul, the irony of Saul’s seeking David and David’s finding Saul, David’s mercy and his reference to Saul as the Lord’s “anointed,” Saul’s retreat from further pursuit, and certain close resemblances in the conversations between the two men on both occasions.

In each account, the circumstances of their encounter give David an advantage over his adversary, an advantage that he exploits with singular restraint. In the first story, he cuts off the edge of Saul’s robe; in the second, he absconds with the spear and water jar placed near Saul’s head as he sleeps in camp. In both cases, the seized items serve as tokens to smite the conscience of Saul and bring him to a sense of remorse.

A major difference between the stories is the introduction of extra characters—Abishai and Abner—in the second. These are relatives of the antagonists; David is the uncle of Abishai, and Abner the uncle (or, perhaps, cousin) of Saul. From the perspective of the literary structure, the introduction of these extra characters ties the present episode to later—and deadly—encounters between them (cf. 2 Samuel 2—3).

Like the account of the cave at En Gedi (1 Samuel 24), the present story is largely structured on the contrasted characters of Saul and David. The one is mad and relentless in persecution, while the other is longsuffering and patient in mercy.
Whereas the one imagines himself threatened, the other—who truly is threatened—forgives the offense and foregoes vengeance. Saul is clearly the unworthy king; David is clearly worthy to be the king.

This double thesis is elaborated through an identifiable dramatic sequence: David is tempted for a second time. Two chapters earlier he had “turned the other cheek” to Saul’s offense, refusing to return evil for evil (24:17). Now, once again, David steadfastly declines to harm this king who has proved himself to be an enemy.

Nonetheless, the author’s moral contrast between the two men is far more than the development of an ethical theme. That is to say, the primary purpose of this narrative is not to convey a lesson in virtue. The author is not a Hebrew Aesop, nor even a biblical Plutarch. The moral structure of the story serves, rather, to illustrate the righteous judgment of God and His purposeful governance of history.

If the two main characters in this new account are less explicit on this thesis than they were in the En Gedi story (cf. 24:12,20), the narrator is not. Indeed, I suggest that the entire theological burden of the encounter is conveyed in a single and subtle detail, which is introduced into the narrative at the point where David, under cover of darkness, departs from the enclosure of Saul’s picket line: “So David took the spear and the jug of water by Saul’s head, and they got away; and no man saw or knew it or awoke. For they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen on them” (26:12).

With this masterful stroke of storytelling, the narrator inserts the divine action into the story: “a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen on them.” The author mimics, as it were, the subtlety of David’s secret intrusion into the camp of Saul. This introduction of God is so quiet, so unobtrusive, that the reader—like one of those pickets posted on the line—must be fully awake to observe it. This “deep sleep from the Lord” is the sole point at which the narrator reveals the true theological significance of the story: a vigilant God keeps guard over these events.

What transpires here is not just a conflict between two antagonists. It is an episode in the dramatic enactment of the divine judgment. David, the reader knows, will come to the throne. At the end, even Saul’s knows it: “Be blessed, my son David! You shall do great things and you will continue to prevail.”

The deep slumber that came over Saul’s camp that night was the historical lock, into which God inserted “the key of David.” He shuts, and no one opens; He opens, and no one shuts.

Sunday, June 28

First Samuel 27: As this chapter begins, the reader is immediately aware that the story shifts from the external circumstances in David’s life to his internal world of reflection and resolve. Hitherto, only dialogue within the narrative has disclosed what David is thinking. Now, however, for the first time in the story, the narrator enters, directly into the mind of David and, as it were, records his thought: “David said in his heart, “Now I shall perish someday by the hand of Saul.” David now reaches the same conclusion that has probably occurred to the reader already! Saul cannot be trusted. David may not be so fortunate, if he meets the king a third time.

David’s decision to “go over” to Israel’s traditional enemies, the Philistines, is drastic. He has already received prophetic intimations—from Jonathan, Abigail, and even Saul—that he will, in due course, become King of Israel. He must realize that this decision to join the Philistines, on the face of it, renders those prophetic intimations less likely. Will the Israelites ever choose, as their king, a man who—as far as they can tell—abandoned them in order to collaborate with their enemies?

One suspects this question occurred to Saul, as well, because he foregoes further pursuit of David: “And it was told Saul that David had fled to Gath; so he sought him no more.” The situation lasts sixteen months, until the Battle of Mount Gilboah.

One further suspects that other Israelites at the time also regarded
David’s move, as described in this chapter, to represent betrayal and apostasy. The Philistine king depends on this impression among the Israelites, because he believes it will strengthen David’s loyalty to him.

Arguing for a frontier post for himself and his followers, David uses these sixteen months to continue smiting Israel’s Canaanite enemies to the south, cleverly disguising this activity from his Philistine overlord. His pretense requires the slaughter of whole Canaanite populations, so that no survivors can tell the truth.

David scruples over this slaughter no more than the original Israelites who conquered the territory back in the time of Joshua. Indeed, David surely regarded this policy as a continuation of Joshua’s own conquest, except that he does not scruple to take spoils from those whom he kills.

Questioned on the matter, David deceives the Philistine leader into believing that his conquests have been against his own countrymen, the people of Judah. Just as in the case of David’s acts of slaughter, the biblical author does not comment on the morality of this lie. It appears that the Philistines, in spite of David’s constant proclamations of loyalty, still have their nagging doubts. David’s words, after all—if carefully analyzed—suggest a touch of evasiveness!

Two can play that game, however. By making David’s men his own bodyguard, the Philistine king contrives to keep him close and under surveillance.

It is worth remarking here that the episodes in this chapter testify to the truthfulness of the biblical story. If the account of David’s rise to power were simply an idealized, Camelot-like narrative, the details in this chapter would never have found their way into the Bible. They are included for the simple reason that the biblical author knew them to be historical facts.

Monday, June 29

First Samuel 28: Moving from the Philistines to the Israelites, this chapter tells of the two opposing kings. It opens with an impending crisis and goes on to narrate how each man prepares for the coming battle.

The author continues, first, to elaborate the complicated relationship between David and the Philistine king. The latter, having grown suspicious (it seems) of David’s activities and his motives, makes him and his small band the royal bodyguard. While appointment to this service is certainly a mark of confidence on the king’s part, it also has the effect of keeping David close to court, the better to keep track of his activities.

Now the king sees an opportunity—in the impending battle—to test the loyalty of David. He determines that the latter’s small force should play a prominent role in the fight. David, learning this, responds with a cautious ambivalence. “Well,” he says, “you will certainly learn what I am capable of.”

This brief conversation is followed by a second notice of the death of Samuel, inserted here to introduce the main event of the chapter—Saul’s meeting with the witch at Endor.

Saul, apprehensive about the coming conflict, covets some preternatural guidance with respect to its outcome. Such consultations were hardly unknown in antiquity. We recall, for instance, that Croesus of Lydia, who contemplated war with the Persians, consulted the oracles at both Thebes and Delphi.

Alas for Saul, however, Israel’s most recent valid “oracle,” Samuel, was dead, and Saul’s grievous mistreatment of the priests makes priestly consultation an improbable choice.

Moreover, Saul himself has purged the land of sorcerers, soothsayers, and other necromantic media. There is, in short, a shortage of witches! The author appreciates the irony of Saul’s situation: For some time an evil spirit has held sway over the imagination and mind of the king, clouding his thought and prompting him to act irrationally. Now, however, in order to seek further light, the king will go to another dark source.

The writings of the Old Testament, composed over several centuries, are not of one mind with respect to an afterlife for the dead. In general, the dead are treated as though they were no longer living; they were simply inaccessible to contact from this earth. In some sources, nonetheless, they seem to be shadowy figures, resembling the spirits of the dead in the Odyssey. The Torah proscribes all attempts to reach them, commanding capital punishment for those who make the effort. Thus, Saul is about to violate the very injunction (from Leviticus) he had enforced.

Saul’s assumption of a disguise advances an ongoing theme of the book: Saul’s gradual loss of his regal clothes. Already we have seen him naked, dancing among the dervishes, and recently David has cut off part of his garment. Now, he puts aside the royal raiment and dons the guise of a commoner.

Because the witch herself suspects a trap, Saul assures her with an oath. When the ghost of Samuel appears in his prophetic robe, nonetheless, the witch knows Saul has deceived her. She screams, and Saul repeats his oath not to punish her.

Samuel wears the very coat torn by Saul at an earlier meeting. For Saul, this is not a good sign. Nor are Saul’s first words very encouraging: “Why have you awakened me?” Samuel then repeats the dire prediction he gave to Saul years before: He will lose the kingdom. God has already determined it. Tomorrow, says Samuel, you and your sons will join me in the realm of the dead.

There ensues the poignant story of the witch feeding Saul his last meal.

Tuesday, June 30

First Samuel 29: Leaving the night scene of the previous chapter, the narrative moves backwards to an incident of the previous day, the time when we last read of David and the Philistines.

Twice in this sequence, in fact, the narrator finds an advantage in moving backwards in time, as he shifts the story from one camp to the other. In the present place, the insertion of the story of the witch serves to provide a narrative space between David’s two meetings with the Philistine king (28:1-2 and 29:6-9). In the next instance, the battle with the Amalekites, which occurs after the Battle of Gilboah (“when David and his men came to Ziklag, on the third day”—30:1), is told first, so that the Battle of Mount Gilboah holds the properly climactic position in the narrative.

The Philistine king, who had planned to use David’s force in the coming battle, finds no support among the other commanders. Recalling his earlier service to Israel, they simply do not trust this self-alleged Israelite rebel; they suspect he will turn on them in the coming battle. The king, embarrassed by this circumstance, asks David and his men to withdraw from the field and go back to Philistia.

A scene of complaint and remonstration ensues, David and the Philistine king each protesting his lack of responsibility in the circumstances.

It seems strange that the Philistine king, swearing his friendship to David, should invoke Israel’s God; “Surely, as the Lord lives . . .” Although David once again professes his loyalty to the king, he must surely feel relieved that Divine Providence—using the Philistine commanders as historical instruments—is setting him free from a difficult situation. More than one reader has observed that the words chosen by David refer to his loyalty to “my lord the king.” Just what king does David have in mind? Is this choice of words deliberately multivalent? And just who are the “enemies” to whom David refers? The answer to the first question determines the answer to the second. David does not clarify.

We observe the contrast of night and day: Just after Saul’s midnight meal at the residence of the witch, “David and his men rose early to depart in the morning, to return to the land of the Philistines.” This is the morning of the battle; the other incidents in the chapter took place the previous day.

The development in this chapter serves two narrative purposes: First, it liberates David from a difficult situation in the coming battle. Second, it places him in a position to advance the cause against his enemies. The Amalekites, taking advantage of the absence of the Philistine army, are determined to do a bit of mischief, as we shall see in the next chapter.

Wednesday, July 1

First Samuel 30: David and his men, not yet informed about the outcome of the Battle of Mount Gilboah, return to their earlier base on the southeastern edge of Philistine territory. They arrive on the third day.

This story also serves the apologetic purpose of putting a great distance between David and the death of Saul. David could never be blamed for it, because he was far away.

David’s company discovers that the Amalekites, in their absence, have attacked and destroyed Ziklag, where they had left their families and property.

Since Ziklag was taken in the absence of David’s band, there was no real battle. Consequently, there were no deaths in the attack; all the prisoners are still alive. The prisoners have become—like Joseph of old—prisoners of Amalekite slave-traders.

As for David, he genuinely fears that his men, discovering that their families have been abducted, are going to take some revenge of him; it was his idea, after all, to be away from Ziklag these past several days. The author’s inclusion of this detail of David’s fear indicates how precarious his situation has been over the past fourteen months. His handful of followers has given up a lot on his behalf. They are desperate men, and they have their limits. David fears those limits may have been trespassed by this recent catastrophe at Ziklag. The author comments on David’s spiritual attitude in this crisis: “David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.”

In David’s consultation with the priestly oracular ministry, there is a clear contrast between him and Saul. Whereas the latter has just been reduced to seeking counsel from a dark source, David has the advantage of a priest, Abiathar, in his camp, and from this priest he seeks guidance in the present calamity. Abiathar reassures him.

On their way to rescue their families, David and his men find an abandoned Egyptian, who provides information helpful to their cause. Using this information, they quickly discover the raiders, spread out and insouciant to danger. Since four hundred of them will escape David’s surprise attack, their number is apparently large. Gorging themselves with food, however, and having too much to drink, they are no match for David’s enraged band descending on their camp without warning.

The booty taken by David includes not only the spoils absconded from Ziklag but also the material the raiders have taken from other adventures in the region. All of this material belongs to the Israelites as the rewards of war.

Those who have accompanied David all the way, however, are reluctant to share the booty with the exhausted men who stayed behind. David, who perceives that the recent success represents, not simply human effort, but the generosity of God—what the Lord has given us—insists on a corresponding generosity among his men.

In such a adjudication, the reader perceives that David is more than a brave and skillful warrior; he is also the sort of humane leader Israel will now need, for Saul (as we presently see) has just perished on a battlefield further north.

Thursday, July 2

First Samuel 31: The narrator now turns north and east, to Mount Gilboah, where the Philistines are engaged in a great victory over the forces of Saul.

The Battle of Mount Gilboah actually takes place somewhat northwest of the mount itself, in the Valley of Jezreel, where the Philistine chariots enjoy the advantage of a flat terrain. The Israelites, overcome by these forces, flee to Mount Gilboah, where fighting in a chariot is more difficult. The chariots, therefore, do not pursue them. Instead, the Philistines advance their archers to harass the fleeing Israelites. In the course of this archery attack, Jonathan and his brothers are slain.

As for Saul, the traditional Hebrew (Massoretic) text says that he “was overcome with fear.” Some textual historians, nonetheless, amend that text to read, “badly wounded.” The present writer is less than persuaded by this emendation, because a badly wounded man would not likely be strong enough to throw himself on his sword. In any case, Saul commits suicide, a thing fairly rare in Holy Scripture (cf. 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18; Matthew 25:7).

The defeat of Saul’s army leads to a general panic in the neighboring vicinity, and the eastward flight of whole populations leaves many cities and villages uninhabited. The Philistines quickly seize and occupy those places. Thus, Philistine occupation effectively cuts a great swath through Israelite territory—west to east—so that the northern tribes are cut off from Judah and Benjamin in the south. This practical estrangement of the northern and the southern tribes will not be resolved until much later in the story, when the greatly weakened house of Saul will lost popular credibility and the political support of Abner.

As a sign of Israel’s total humiliation, Saul’s decapitated body is impaled on the wall of Bethshan, roughly eleven miles southwest of Mount Gilboah. This town, near the Jordan, is twelve miles west of Jabesh Gilead on the east side of the river. The citizens of Jabesh, learning of the fate of Saul, and remembering how he relieved the military siege of their city twenty years earlier (1 Samuel 11), bravely effect a night raid across the Jordan to retrieve the corpses of Saul and his sons. The bodies are burned, perhaps because they have already begun to decay.

As the citizens of Jabesh had endured that siege for seven days, so now they fast for seven days to mourn the loss of their erstwhile deliverer.

Although there is no narrative break between this story and the first chapter of Second Samuel, the editors and copyists of the Greek (Septuagint) translation—forced by the physical volume of the work to split it into two scrolls—discerned a certain propriety in dividing it at the end of the Battle of Mount Gilboah. The death of Saul, Israel’s first king, has removed the major obstacle to David’s ascension to the throne. The Bible’s next page truly is a new leaf.

Friday, July 3

Second Samuel 1: The reader, already familiar with the circumstances of Saul’s death, knows the Amalekite in this scene is lying. David, too, has his suspicions; if this Amalekite had time and opportunity to abscond with Saul’s crown and bracelet, why did he not remove the king’s body from the battlefield and save it from desecration?

Instead, according to the man’s own account, he presumed to lay a violent hand on the Lord’s anointed, a thing—the reader knows (1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:4-11)—David has twice refrained from doing. Indeed, a man who would murder Saul would likely feel free to kill any king, including David himself. As far as David is concerned, then, such a one has forfeited his own life.

The reader should appreciate the deeper significance of this scene, which represents the first trial of Israel’s new king.

This story continues, in fact, a sustained thematic contrast between David and Saul, inasmuch as it stands in opposition to a parallel story in 1 Samuel 16. In that earlier account Saul was commanded to slay the Amalekites, specifically their king, Agag. It was partly for his failure to obey that order that the Lord rejected Saul and sought out a new king for His People. Now this new king is subjected to a similar trial, also involving an Amalekite.

The problem with this Amalekite is his serious misunderstanding of David’s character. Expecting the new king’s response to be positive—even enthusiastic—he lies through his teeth, in graphic detail, to brag how he put the tragic Saul to death.

In this respect the reader recognizes a further contrast, this time between David and the Amalekite himself. The latter’s is a darkened mind. He is the carnal man, the self-serving moral imbecile, who unwittingly involves himself in matters beyond his grasp.

David has met this kind of individual before. Perhaps he was reminded of Doeg the Edomite, the treacherous friend of Saul; the scoundrel who slew the priests of Nob.

This Amalekite, comprehending nothing of David or David’s God, fancies that all men are guided by the same mendacity and self-service that govern his own life. Hence, he expects David to jump at the chance to exploit the death of Saul, just as he exploited the death of Saul.

He represents, therefore, the proverbial “fool,” chronically unable to comprehend the path of righteousness and wisdom. He and David live in very different moral worlds. In laying a violent hand on Saul, this Amalekite committed the very offense David found morally repugnant.

In the eyes of the biblical author, therefore, the new king does the world a favor; he rises to the moral challenge of removing this man’s shadow from the face of the earth, redeeming, thereby, Saul’s earlier failure to punish the fool.

The contrast of David and the Amalekite can be read—following the Wisdom tradition—to form an illustration of Psalm 1. In this account, accordingly, David is the blessed man who strays not in the counsel of the ungodly nor sits in the seat of the scornful.

The Amalekite, in contrast, is not so. No, he is not so. He is as the chaff dispersed by the wind, and, at the end of this story, the way of the ungodly will perish.

David, refusing to advance his own ambition by killing Saul, patiently waits for the Lord to give him the kingdom He had promised. Convinced that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous,” he believes, with the Psalmist, that the tree planted by the living water “will bring forth its fruit in due season.” David does nothing to hasten the hour. His leaf, then, does not wither, and he prospers in whatever he does. His delight, day and night, is the Law of the Lord.