June 28 – July 5, 2024

Friday, June 28

1 Samuel 14: In the previous chapter Saul forfeited Jonathan’s succession to the throne (13:13-14). In the present chapter we see him put Jonathan’s very life in danger. The irony of this story is introduced by Jonathan’s remarkable military exploit, with which the chapter begins (verses 1-16).

The contrast grows between this son and father: Whereas Saul feared having too small an army to face the Philistines (13:11), Jonathan declared, “the Lord is not constrained to deliver by the many or by the few” (verse 6). He went on to demonstrate that thesis by taking a single companion with him to engage and rout the Philistines, a force earlier described “as the sand on the seashore” (13:4).

It appears that in large part Jonathan owed his victory, not only to his boldness and the advantage of surprise, but also to other conditions: (1) the relative weakness of the picket force guarding the top of the sheer crags (Josephus 6.6.2[108-109]); (2) the drowsiness of the defending army in the early morning light; (3) a confusion among the defenders—a mixed force of allied components (6.6.2[114])—who subsequently turned on one another in the bedlam (verse 20).

Saul, for his part, was showing signs of being what today would be called a “control freak.” Indeed, it was for this failing, which Samuel saw as a failure of faith, that the king was chided in the previous chapter (13:12). Here, too, Saul responded to Jonathan’s bold exploit by, once again, counting his troops (verse 17). The reader comes to realize that Jonathan would make a better king than Saul, and then he reflects that the father has already forfeited the son’s succession to the throne. A strong sense of impending tragedy sets in, and a suspicion that the king is losing his right mind.

At last discerning his army’s advantage, Saul made a precipitous decision to follow up the attack (verses 19-20). Other Israelites in the neighborhood followed suit (verse 21), and the army quickly swelled from 600 to 10,000 (verses 22-24), as deserters (cf. 13:5) came out of their hiding places.

Suddenly rising to a manic state, the king gave an imprudent order, followed by the enforcement of a rash oath: Until the battle was over, no soldier was to eat, under penalty of death (verse 24). By way of explaining Saul’s flight from rationality here, Josephus remarked, “reason runs out on the lucky” (6.6.3[116]).

When Jonathan, ignorant of the oath, violated his father’s injunction and was taken to task by a fellow soldier, he treated the matter with nonchalance, not to say contempt. In the end, the army defended him against his irrational father.

In this chapter the true and effective leadership has clearly passed from Saul to Jonathan, who wins the loyalty of the army. This same leadership and popularity are soon to pass to David.

For the nonce, however, Saul remains king and continues victorious (verses 46-48). The chapter closes with summary comments about his family (verses 49), especially introducing Abner and Saul’s two daughters, who will be important when David comes on the scene. The final verse, about military recruitment, opens yet another door, through which David soon will come on stage (verse 52).

Saturday. June 29Sunday. June 30

1 Samuel 16: As Saul was introduced by the combination of three episodes, so is David: First, there is a private anointing: Saul in 9:26—10:1, David in 16:1-13. Second, there is a more elaborate introduction: Saul in 10:20-24, David in 16:14-13. Third, there is a military exploit: Saul in 11:1-15, David in 17:1-31.

Whereas chapter 15 ended in Samuel’s mourning for Saul, at the beginning of the present chapter the Lord tells him it is time to stop mourning and so something positive about the situation. The time has come to disregard Saul who belongs—already!—to the past. Samuel must forget those things that are behind and reach forward to those things that are ahead.

Like Saul (9:16; 10:1; 11:15), David will be anointed three times: by Samuel (verse 13), by the tribe of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4), and by the elders of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

Right from the beginning of David’s rise, Holy Scripture insists that the process of that rise cannot be understood by external observation; considerations of flesh and blood do not explain it. The meaning of it eludes the scrutiny of the “objective historian,” who will see in it only a political narrative. Such a one will comment on the various political forces, including David’s own ambition, which will bring the son of Jesse to the throne. All such considerations, however, fail to cover the case, says Holy Scripture.

Consequently, Samuel is cautioned not to regard the matter with solely human eyes, because “God does not see as man sees.” David will become king because God wants him to be king. Whereas Saul was chose, in part, because he looked like a king (9:2; 10:23), such considerations must now be excluded from the process (verse 7).

As in the case of Saul (9:12-24), David’s first anointing is preceded by a sacrificial meal (verses 3-5).

As is so often the case in Holy Scripture—Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Ephraim over Manasseh—David is chosen instead of his older brothers. As the “youngest” (haqqatan—verse 11), David is presumably the smallest, a feature in which he is contrasted with Saul (cf. 9:2; 10:23).

At the end of the first scene (verse 13), the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David and abode there “from that time onward.” Only at that dramatic point is David’s name actually used.

Samuel leaves the scene and will not appear again until three chapters later (19:18).

The second scene in this chapter, which brings Saul and David together for the first time, introduces a situation of mammoth irony. The Spirit of the Lord, in descending on David, departed from Saul. The latter, as a result fell into a state of ever deepening depression—“an evil spirit”—manifest in jealousy (18:3-8), intrigue (18:15), violence (19:9-10; 20:33; 22:16-19), paranoia (20:25), and superstition (28:7-13).

To minister to this rapidly disintegrating king, David was introduced into the court as a musician, because Saul’s depression responded positively to the influence of music. The reader and—except for David—only the reader recognizes that this musician had already been anointed as Saul’s replacement on the throne! The irony is heightened by the fact that Saul cherished David (verse 21).

We may be correct in the suspicion that some of David’s psalms may have come from this period.

In this chapter is our first explicit assertion that the Lord was “with” David (verse 18). Indicating the source of David’s wisdom and strength, this assertion will be repeated several times (cf. 18:12,14,28; 2 Samuel 5:10).

Monday, July 1

1 Samuel 17: The Philistines, who arrive in the Holy Land about the same time as the Israelites, arrived from the Greek coastlands and islands. Indeed, the Egyptians called them “the sea peoples.” Thus, they were Europeans, whose ways were quite alien to the Semite territory they invaded. Indeed, the Philistines were very much the same people described in Homer and other ancient Greek literature. We are correct, therefore, in regarding them as the first Western invaders of the Middle East. Thus, there is a special irony in the fact that the very name of these invaders—“Philistines”—is the root word that eventually gave its name to the region they invaded: “Palestine.”

Several things are notable about this battle:

First, we observe the attention given to single-handed combat, a feature this story has in common with so many battle scenes in Homer. Because so much of ancient warfare was hand-to-hand, stories of individual heroism tended to dominate ancient epic accounts of battle. Although thousands of men fought on both sides of the Trojan War, for instance, the interest of the poet was largely directed to just a few outstanding warriors on each side, whose battles he describes in dramatic detail. In this respect the present chapter of 1 Samuel almost reads like a page of Homer.

Second, in that classical literature the significance of such battles was indicated to the reader through the dialogue in which the battles were set. Thus, for instance, the significance of the fight between Hector and Patroclus is to be found in the brief speeches that each man gives in preparation for the encounter. The same is to be said for the final fight between Achilles and Hector.

We find much the same thing here in 1 Samuel. The significance—in this case, the theological significance—of the fight between David and Goliath is to be found in the dialogues and speeches of this chapter: Goliath’s challenge, the announcement by Saul’s spokesman, David’s dialogue with his brothers and the other soldiers, the conversation between David and Saul, the challenges hurled at one another by Goliath and David, and the dialogue of Saul with Abner. David’s pre-battle declarations carry the theological weight of the narrative.

Third, great attention to detail characterizes the description of the giant and his armor (verses 4-7). He is definitely “the strong man fully armed.” With respect to the prophetic mystery of the battle with Goliath, our Teacher commented, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils” (Luke 11:20-22). In this text, Jesus discloses the deeper identity of Goliath and David.

Fourth, when David arrives at the battlefield, things are not going well for Israel. First of all, the tallest man in the army, King Saul, is terrified of the apparently taller Philistine (6’9” in the Greek, 9’9” in the Hebrew). Since his recent emotional collapse, His Majesty is way off his stride. Saul is so chowderheaded that he does not even recognize David, who has already been identified as his armor bearer. Even at the end of the chapter, when the immediate crisis has passed, Saul has no idea who David’s father is, even though he wrote a letter to that father in the previous chapter (16:19). The king’s weakness and confusion have infected the whole army, as David discovers on his arrival at camp.

Fifth, Goliath is said to “challenge” or “reproach” Israel; the verb, haraph, found five times in this chapter (verses 10,25,26,36,45), bears both meanings. It conveys insult, not only to Israel’s army, but also to Israel’s God. We gain some sense of the verb’s meaning in this chapter by consulting the Psalms: “My enemies reproach me, / While they say to me all day long, / ‘Where is your God?’” (42[41]:10). Again, “My dishonor is continually before me, / And the shame of my face has covered me, / Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles” (44[43]:15-16).

Recognizing the blasphemy of Goliath, David could well have prayed on this occasion, “O God, how long will the adversary reproach? / Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?” (74[73]:10; cf. 55[54]:13; 74[73]:18; 79[78]:12; 89[88]:53; 89[88]:52 (twice); 102[101]:9).

Sixth, this battle is really about Israel’s “living God” and the idol of the Philistines. That is to say, this is a repeat of the battle earlier waged in Dagon’s temple. When the mortally wounded Goliath falls on his face, he assumes the posture in which Dagon was found before the Ark (5:3).

Tuesday, July 2

1 Samuel 18: The chief motif of chapter 18 is Saul’s growing suspicion and distrust of David, which is elaborated in the context of Saul’s family. Both his son, Jonathan, and his daughter, Michal, quickly become fond of David.

With respect to Saul’s daughter, Michal, the king sees a way to use her affection for David as a means to dispose of him: He offers the girl in marriage but requires his planned son-in-law to pay one hundred Philistine foreskins as a bridal price. Saul presumes that this requirement—which includes a streak of course ethnic humor about Philistine genitalia—will enrage the Philistines enough to finish David off. In the Greek version, David simply produces the one hundred foreskins, but the Hebrew text is more interesting and ironical: David decides to show Saul a thing or two by producing—and counting them out!—two hundred Philistine foreskins!

(When he came to tell this story to his Roman readers, Josephus had a problem: According to Philo, a contemporary of Josephus, the culture of the day regarded circumcision as an object of ridicule [Special Laws 1.1.2]. In this respect, Roman custom continued the anti-circumcision preference of the Greeks. We recall that when Antiochus IV Epiphanes forbade circumcision within his realm, including Judaea, the prohibition was partly a cause of the Maccabean wars [1 Maccabees 1:48; Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.4[254]; Tacitus, Histories 5.8]. Both Hadrian and Antoninus Pius promulgated laws against circumcision. How, then, did Josephus handle this wedding gift arrangement of Saul and David? He simply changed the Philistine foreskins into Philistine heads. The Romans, after all, had no problem with beheading! [Antiquities 6.10.2-3[201-203])

With respect to Saul’s son, Jonathan, the king observes with distress that he become deeply attached to David, much impressed with the latter’s handling of Goliath. David’s abrupt intervention on the battlefield, at the hour when “Saul and all Israel . . . were dismayed and greatly afraid,” seized the attention of Jonathan. His eyes fixed on this newcomer walking calmly back into the camp, one hand gripping the giant’s sword and the other swinging the giant’s severed head.

Jonathan, unlike most godly men of the Old Testament, died young. Indeed, combat being a pursuit commonly ungenerous in respect to years, Jonathan’s prospects for maturing to grey hairs were never promising. However, as we have seen, he fought with a derring-do that lowered those chances further still. As for the enemies of Jonathan, their odds for old age were even worse, for he was truly fearsome in the arts of war.

Though he was manifestly adept as a swordsman, it was chiefly as an archer that men remembered Jonathan. They often watched him begin his day in the discipline of that skill (20:20–22, 35–38). The funeral dirge of Saul and Jonathan, memorized by the Israelites and in due course recorded in the Book of Jasher, was known, in fact, as the “Song of the Bow” (2 Samuel 1:18), named for that line that reads, “the bow of Jonathan did not turn back” (1:22).

Jonathan’s pursuit of warfare was formed by, and inseparable from, a warm commitment to his father’s throne. He was a faithful son, but his fidelity will be sorely tried in the chapters that follow. As it became obvious to both father and son that David, not Jonathan, would be the next king (20:15; 24:20), the situation grew tense and progressively complex. Saul, increasingly deranged and acting in rage, not only disputed the fidelity of Jonathan (20:30, 31), but even made an impetuous attempt on his life (20:33). Remaining ever loyal to David, however, Jonathan stayed steadfast at the side of his doomed father, finally dying with him on the desperate slopes of Gilboa, brave and faithful to the end.

Wednesday, July 3

1 Samuel 19: This chapter is structured on three episodes, in each of which David is delivered from the clutches of Saul: (1) with the aid of Jonathan; (2) with the aid of Michal; and (3) with the aid of Samuel. There is a progressive intensity in these three episodes: in the first, David is delivered by negotiation; in the second, by a ruse; and in the third, by a demolishing counterattack.

In the first episode (verses 1-7) Jonathan, following a promise to David, persuades his father to call off the execution of his friend. David is so placed that he can hear the conversation and be reassured. The intervention is successful, and David returns to court. The arrangement, nonetheless, is not permanent, because David’s continued military success plunges Saul once more into a deep and murderous madness (verses 8-10).

In the second episode (verses 11-17) Michal, learning that Saul’s executioners are plotting to kill her husband the next morning, plotted his escape during the night. Her ruse included placing a statue of a household god in David’s bed and pretending he was sick. Meanwhile, David has made good his getaway.

This story reminds the reader of Rachel, who, like Michal, also employed the services of a household god to deceive her own father, Laban (Genesis 31:19,34-35). The similarity between the two cases, moreover, prompts the reader to recall that Laban, like Saul, meanly used his two daughters to exploit Jacob; both Laban and Saul delayed handing over the desired daughters and increased the price for them.

In the third episode (verses 18-24) Samuel, receiving David at his home in Ramah, protects him from Saul and the agents Saul sends to capture the fugitive.

This episode is elaborately told: Three delegations are dispatched. At each instance, Samuel and his prophetic followers are raised to ecstatic experience, causing a negative and debilitating reaction among those dispatched to capture David. (They become as helpless as the three delegations sent to arrest Elisha in 2 Kings 1:9-18.) Finally, Saul himself arrives, and in this case the debilitating reaction becomes extreme: Saul goes completely mad, strips off his clothes, and lies naked in the dirt.

The final details of this third episode form a contrasting parallel with Samuel’s first encounter with Saul at Ramah in chapter 9. There are five points of correspondence: (1) Both meetings take place at Ramah; (2) in each case Saul makes inquiry how to find Samuel; (3) in each case the inquiry is made at a well (cf. 9:10-11; 19:22); (4) in each case Saul is gripped by an ecstatic experience; and (5) in both cases the bystanders inquire, “Is Saul among the prophets?

This detailed parallel, however, serves entirely to heighten a contrast. Whereas in the first encounter with Samuel Saul was elevated in honor, in the second he is utterly degraded. In the first case, the question, “Is Saul among the prophets?” invites a positive response: “Yes!” In the second case the same question solicits a negative answer: “No, Saul is among the hopelessly insane!”

As Saul slips into lunacy, David makes his escape. Never again to appear in the court of Saul, he begins to live as a fugitive and outlaw, a thing not so easy to do in a place as small as the Judean Desert.

Thursday, July 4

1 Samuel 20: It would be a simple matter to document the political crisis brought about by the decline of Saul and the simultaneously increasing success of David. Holy Scripture is not content, however, simply to chronicle the details of this crisis. Two other aspects of the political situation are objects of his interest and reflection: the divine purpose and the human drama. The first aspect is concerned with theology, and the second with psychology.

First, with respect to God’s purpose in the painful unfolding of these events, the comments of Holy Scripture are necessarily brief, modest, and occasionally indirect. The biblical writer claims no clarity of perception into the divine mind beyond the experienced conviction that the Lord of history had a decisive hand in the political development described in these pages. Things did not simply happen. They happened, rather, because they were guided by an obscure providential impulse that nudged events along in a determined direction. At no point in the story, moreover, did this providential impulse violate or impair the free choices and decisions of those taking part in the drama.

Here and there the biblical author points to some seam in the story’s fabric where God inserts a subtle but determining influence. For instance, when David and his two companions gain the advantage over Saul as he sleeps in the camp at Hachilah (chapter 26), the author discerns the divine intrusion that makes the story’s outcome possible: “David took the spear and the jug of water at Saul’s head, and they slipped 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.” How did this come about? The writer has no idea of the mechanism of it, but he is sure the sleep came from the Lord, and this little detail determines the outcome of the narrative.

Sometimes the author’s perception of the providential influence is so oblique that he refrains from drawing attention to it. The reader is obliged to ferret the matter out for himself. For example, after going into minute detail on everything David did on the morning he set out for Saul’s camp near Azekah (chapter 17), the biblical writer barely hints at (wehinneh—“and behold”) the significance of Goliath’s appearance at the very moment David arrives on the scene. If the reader is unable to spot the importance of this “coincidence,” the author will not insult him by pointing it out.

More often the biblical writer summons his characters to become the spokesmen for his thesis. In the present chapter, for instance, Jonathan conveys his conviction that God is leading David to the throne; the Lord, Jonathan asserts, will be with David as He was, in former days, with his own father. Abigail, too, in chapter 25, voices this same conviction about the divine plan. She says to David, “For the Lord will certainly make for my lord an enduring house.” Even Saul becomes the spokesman for this thesis, declaring in the following chapter, “May you be blessed, my son David! You shall both do great things and also still prevail.”

Second, with respect to the human drama of this political crisis, the biblical author describes in detail the complex psychological experiences of the major characters.

Chief among these is Saul himself, who suffers the emotional trauma born of his rebellion. For a brief period—lasting exactly one verse in the previous chapter—Saul lets Jonathan persuade him to abandon the persecution of David. Saul’s is unhappy at his spiritual state, but there is no real repentance. Deeper than these transitory impulses of remorse is Saul’s radical rebellion against the divine will. Even though Saul can say—and evidently, for the time being, believe it—“I have played the fool and erred exceedingly,” David cannot trust the king’s emotional instability to hold that thought in place very long.

In the present chapter, the author analyzes the inner suffering of Jonathan, torn between the obligations of piety to his father and fidelity to his friend. Intrinsically opposed, both claims are equally tested. Even as he is obedient to his father, Jonathan is fully aware that the old man cannot be trusted, even with his son’s life. Saul is doomed, and Jonathan knows it, but Saul is still his father. David, to whom he is bound by personal covenant, is in danger, and Jonathan must protect him, even at the cost of offending Saul.

At the same time, he knows, David will prevail; David, not he, will wear the crown, and what will David do, when he comes to power, to secure his hrone against the claims of Jonathan’s own family? Most of all, in the present chapter, what can Jonathan do to demonstrate his absolute loyalty to his friend, whom the rest of the world must see as Jonathan’s rival for the throne? Was ever a friendship so tested as this one?

Friday, July 5

1 Samuel 21: Jonathan, though sorely pressed in the effort, found a way to remain loyal to David without breaking his allegiance to Saul. Not everyone involved in the crisis was able to do this—the priests at Nob, for example, one of whom David now approaches in the first story of this chapter (verses 1-10).

Ahimelech, chief of these priests, is the great-grandson of Eli, the priest of Shiloh, who was so important to the first chapters of this book. That family moved south after the Philistines’ capture of the Ark and the death of Eli, and now we find them at Nob, not far from Jerusalem.

Ahimelech, acquainted with reports of the deteriorating relationship between the king and his son-in-law, is at first fearful to receive David. Doubtless he knows these reports from his brother, Ahijah, who serves as Saul’s military chaplain (14:3). Ahimelech is nervous.

He has reason to be: Although David has struggled to remain an obedient subject of the king and a faithful friend to the king’s son, he is not overly scrupulous with the truth on every occasion, including two occasions in this chapter. In short, David deceives Ahimelch, perhaps with the intention of giving him an excuse if Saul should learn of this meeting.

First, David is well aware that Ahimelech has custody of the sword of Goliath. Indeed, it was to obtain this sword that David has come to Nob. Nevertheless, he never mentions the sword; he simply requests a weapon, and he does so near the end of his visit, as though the matter were an afterthought.

Second, David deceptively reassures Ahimelech that, far from being on the outs with Saul, he has just been dispatched by the king on a top-secret mission. He goes on to elaborate this hoax by mentioning that the rest of his party is concealed in the neighborhood, and they need food.

In other words, David hoodwinks the priest into helping him—the first of many beggars to pull a fast one on the clergy this way—and when the incident is soon reported to Saul, Ahimelech will pay a dear price for his kindness. In due course, David’s conscience will not lie easy on this matter.

The bread David receives from Ahimelech come from “the loaves of the presence,” the dedicated bread placed in the sanctuary before the Lord and replaced each Sabbath (cf. Exodus 25:30; 35:13; Leviticus 24:5-9; 1 Chronicles 9:32). Normally this bread is eaten only by the priests, but Ahimelech makes an exception in the present case. This exception will later meet a very important approval (cf. Matthew 12:3-4; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4).

One verse mentions that Saul’s Edomite spy witnesses the entire transaction. Not good.

In the second and shorter story (verses 11-16), David continues to elude Saul by going southwest and crossing into Philistine territory. This is risky, but David is a bit desperate. We suspect that reports of the political crisis in Israel may have reached Philistine ears, but David takes no chances. To make certain the Philistines will see in him neither a threat nor an advantage, he begins to act demented. When David recently watched Saul in a completely demented state, he took notes and knows what to do. This is his second deception in this chapter. The Philistines are impressed.

There have gone abroad, of late, reliable tales of whole sections of Saul’s army—even Saul himself—suddenly going berserk, so the Philistines are on their guard. The problem might be contagious, for all they know, so Achish, the king of Gath, declines to have anything to do with this mad visitor from Israel. Out with him!

While David is playing the idiot in Gath, Saul’s Edomite spy wastes no time getting word to the king about what has just happened at Nob.

Meanwhile, it occurs to David that his own family is at risk; he must get them to safety, away from Saul. They will be safest in Moab, he considers. Through their venerable ancestor, Ruth, the family has a touch of Moabite blood. It is time to turn east.