Saturday, May 31, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 25

In this chapter, David marries his second wife, Abigail.

In the beginning of this chapter Samuel dies and he is buried in Ramah.  Ramah is Samuel's hometown in Ephraim; it's where he was born and it was where he lived after he grew up.  David fled to Ramah on at least one occasion when he was running away from Saul.

For such a great figure, Samuel's death is very brief.  Unlike Jacob and Moses, Samuel does not have a lengthy pre-death speech or prophecies.  However, Samuel served the nation well and is almost singlehandedly responsible for guiding the nation through the Judges period and into their new monarchy.  Israel will remain a monarchy from now until at least the Babylonian exile at the end of the Old Testament.

In the immediate context, this is a real blow for David, because Samuel was one of David's strongest supporters and probably the only person would could stand up to Saul.  Now that Samuel is dead, there is nobody who can hold Saul in check anymore, and David loses one of his closest allies.  This is only a footnote to what is an otherwise long and unrelated subject, the story of how David met his wife Abigail.

Basically, the way I interpret this chapter is David returning to be a shepherd.  Let me try to break this chapter down and give a bit more of the social context.

So first of all, verse 4 tells us that David learns Nabal is shearing his sheep.  This is the nomadic equivalent of harvest season.  If you remember (amongst other things) the story of how Ruth married Boaz, it was when Boaz and his harvesters were celebrating the harvest because harvest season is the time of plenty and prosperity.  Sheep shearing is very similar, because it is a seasonal event when shepherds of Israel annually harvest wool, which can't be eaten but it can be traded or made into clothes.

So David is approaching Nabal at a time of celebration to ask for his generosity, sharing in the good things that Nabal has.  So David uses the language of generosity, but at the same time verse 7 tells us that David "did not insult" Nabal's men, and helped protect them from loss.  Nabal's men later confirm this when talking to Abigail in verses 15-16.  So even though David petitions Nabal with kind words, we can also see that David is making a sort of quid pro quo, asking for food in exchange for having protected Nabal's belongings.  After Nabal refuses him, David responds by swearing an oath to kill Nabal and all his men, so it's obvious that David was expecting Nabal to reward him for his help.

In other words, David is returning to the occupation of his youth and is trying to be a shepherd and get paid for it.

This also gives us an idea how David plans to survive in the wilderness.  He has already spent his youth shepherding, so now that he cannot return to the cities, it seems like he wants to return to being a shepherd.  This is an occupation that is well-suited for the desolate Negev desert, far away from the (still very dry, but at least arable) lands of northern Judah and Benjamin.

In verse 10, Nabal replies by saying "Who is David?"  Later in that same sentence, we can see that he doesn't mean this literally.  Nabal knows who David is (because David is one of the most famous men in Israel), and verse 10 also tells us that Nabal knows about the conflict between David and Saul, when he says "There are many servants today who are each breaking away from his master".  In effect, Nabal is saying two things.  The first thing he's saying is that he doesn't know David and he doesn't want to know David.  As far as Nabal is concerned, David is a stranger to whom he owes no obligation and will do nothing to help him.  The second thing Nabal is saying is that he doesn't want to help David because he is probably afraid of Saul's retaliation.  Remember just a few chapters ago when Saul almost killed off the entire priesthood of Israel because one man gave David a couple loaves of bread.  If Nabal gives David a lot of food, it is almost certain that Saul will seek Nabal's life as well.  So Nabal is probably trying to avoid retaliation.

However, we are told that Nabal is an evil and foolish man by the author of 1st Samuel in verse 3, Nabal's men in verse 17 and Abigail herself in verse 25.  So while Nabal's response might be prudent in a certain light, we should also consider David's immediate retaliation when he tells his men to "gird their swords", and Abigail similarly realizes that Nabal is doing wrong.

As Abigail alludes, the name Nabal itself means "fool" in Hebrew, which is unlikely to be a real person's given name.  It could be some sort of literary or figurative name.

In the end, Abigail realizes that Nabal behaved inappropriately and goes to reconcile things with David behind Nabal's back, while he is busy feasting and celebrating (as previously noted, this is a time of celebration in Nabal's household).  When Nabal finds out that he nearly died, he actually does die from the resulting heart attack (as well as being "struck" by the LORD).  David was obviously impressed by Abigail's behavior, because not only is Abigail beautiful, she is also intelligent (v. 3) and discerning (v. 33).

Abigail plays only a minimal role from here through the rest of the bible, which I think is unfortunate because she seems like a really strong woman and could have been a great biblical role model.  It's difficult to judge what kind of role she might have had behind the scenes in David's life and subsequent kingship, because she stayed with David for the rest of her life but every reference to Abigail after this chapter either refers to her as David's wife or as the mother of one of his children.  It's obvious from her behavior in this chapter that Abigail was capable of acting on her own initiative and could make a big difference in the world.

In the last couple sentences of this chapter we are told that David marries a second woman and that his first wife, Michal, is given by Saul to another man.  The second part reminds me of Samson's wife who was given to another man in Judges 14:20.  There are many people in the bible who married more than one woman, and I think a holistic analysis of passages like e.g. Gen 2:24 shows that it was not God's intent for people to have more than one spouse.  In the life of Abraham, we saw him have a lot of problems because he fathered a child through Hagar.  Jacob similarly endured a lot of strife in his family because he married both Leah and Rachel.

We don't really ever get to learn much about Ahinoam, David's third wife.  It's obvious from all these examples that polygamy is very common in Israelite society through various time periods, but my personal opinion is that it is not validated or approved.  Some of the laws in the Pentateuch address situations with having multiple wives, such as mandating a husband to provide food and clothing for all his wives and not depriving unloved wives of what they are owed by the social contract of marriage.  I do not believe these laws are intended to validate polygamy any more than the laws about slavery are intended to validate slavery; in both cases I believe these laws are intended to be pragmatic restraints on what are otherwise unjust practices.

To put it more concisely, the references to David's multiple wives are descriptive, not prescriptive.  This is true of many parts of the bible, which I have discussed before, so I won't rehash those points here.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 24

In this chapter, David spares Saul's life.

This is such an incredible chapter.  David, driven away from his wife and home, running circles around a mountain trying to avoid Saul's armies, having literally dodged Saul's spear on several occasions, is now remarkably put into a position that he could kill Saul and he does not do it.

First of all, even though this chapter doesn't mention God doing anything, I think it's clear that Saul going to "relieve" himself in the same cave that David was hiding is more than a coincidence.  If I may speak plainly, this opportunity is a test of David's character just as much as the trials that he's faced surviving in the wilderness, which is just as much of a trial as the times of favor and success when he was leading Israel's armies.  All of these situations, both good and bad, test David by revealing his character and what decisions he will make through both honor and adversity.

Let's remember the circumstances of this meeting.  Not only has David been anointed by Samuel to be the next king, not only has Saul tried to murder David several times, but Saul has actually murdered several hundred people from the priestly families in Nob.  And David knows it because of Abiathar who escaped from the massacre.  In spite of all this, and knowing that he would be the next king, David insists that he will not raise his hand against Saul.  Instead, David is waiting for the LORD to install him as king in the proper time and proper way.  I think it's worthwhile to draw a contrast between David's action here and Abraham's action when he had a child through Hagar in an attempt to fulfill God's promise that he would have a son.  Even David's men think that this is an opportunity from the LORD for David to fulfill Samuel's promise to him.

All these things taken together, David's action are very honorable, though it's not clear to me that killing Saul would have been a sin considering the evil that Saul is inflicting on the nation and David in particular.  But I think David's response shows such restraint and valor that it deserves our respect.  I don't think it's wise to make generalizations about this chapter, although certainly some people try to do so.  For instance, when we contrast David with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor who was involved with a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II), can we say that Bonhoeffer did wrong?  Or can we say that David did wrong?  Who is to judge men when put under such pressure, both for their own lives but also confronted by such a dark evil in the man who is supposed to be their leader?  I don't think it's my place to judge either David or Bonhoeffer, nor do I think any living person can judge them without facing a similar situation.  I have respect for David, who chose non-violence, and I have respect for Bonhoeffer, who chose to help the conspiracy against Hitler's life.  I think this is a really difficult issue and I think the only true answer will come by asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth.  I hope I never have to decide whether to harm one person and saving another, but if I do, the only way I feel like I could make the right choice is if I am guided by the Holy Spirit.

On top of all that, I find David's language to be extremely respectful and deferential.  He refers to Saul as "my lord the king", "my father", and himself as a "dead dog, a single flea" (dogs are unclean animals under the laws of Judaism, and frequently used a derogatory term).  David appeals to Saul, showing the hem of his robe as proof that he could have killed Saul but didn't.  Ultimately, David appeals to the LORD to judge between them and avenge the mistreatment David has received from Saul.

For the moment, Saul appears to realize the horror of what he's done to David and cries and apologizes.  Perhaps more remarkably, he also predicts that David will be king.  Jonathan was doing this just a chapter ago, and David's men also seem to think that he will become king.  Everyone seems to know that David will become king, and now it's just a matter of time.

What always surprised me the most about this chapter though, is that after David and Saul appear to be reconciled, David goes back to the stronghold instead of returning with Saul.  I always thought that Saul crying and repenting for treating David poorly meant that David could go back to Bethlehem and his wife.  Instead, we see David go back into hiding as if nothing had happened.  Even more remarkably, two chapters from now Saul will begin pursuing David anew, as if David had never spared his life.  All I can think to say about this is that Saul is allowing his paranoia and fear of losing power to guide him into madness, and David refuses to go back with Saul because he realizes how unstable and threatening Saul has become.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 23

In this chapter, David flees from Saul into the wilderness.

If there's one big message we can take from this chapter, I think it is to contrast between Saul and David's responses to the Philistines.  In the first half of the chapter, David is told that the Philistines are attacking, and he responds by rescuing the town.  Both David and his men are afraid of rescuing Keilah, because it is a town in Judah (only previously mentioned in Joshua 15:44 which describes the inheritance of Judah) and much closer to the center of power for Saul.  Saul responds to this by trying to trap and kill David.

In the second half of the chapter, Saul is chasing David and only leaves to go defend against the Philistines.  But where was Saul when Keilah was attacked?  Why was David, this vagabond hiding in the desert, the person who first responded to a Philistine raid on Israel?  If the previous chapter showed Saul's growing paranoia and murderous tendencies, this chapter shows us Saul's delinquency in protecting the people who are under his rule.  Saul did not have any problem mobilizing his entire army to chase down David both in Keilah and following him to the wilderness of Ziph (in southern Judah, the Negev desert).  This shows that Saul has full control over Israel's military, but he is using primarily to protect himself from what he perceives as threats, rather than protecting the people that he is supposed to be the leader of.  Like so many other leaders throughout history, he is using his position of authority to serve himself, rather than serving the people.  David is already acting more like a real king than Saul.

Secondly, we can see how heavily David depends on the LORD for guidance.  First he asks twice if he should go down and save Keilah, because they were afraid of being attacked by Saul.  Then he asks twice if Saul will attack and his men be given over by the townspeople (who they just saved).  Each time David acted he consulted with Abiathar and the ephod to find out what the LORD would have him do, so each time he acted correctly even at great personal peril.

After that, we see Jonathan go out to encourage David.  Again, it's interesting how easily David's allies find him when David is so hard to catch for his enemies.  This is the last time we will see Jonathan alive; the next time he is mentioned in this book is when he is killed in battle.  I talked about Jonathan a lot the last time he was mentioned in 1 Samuel 20, but the gist of it is that Jonathan was not able to escape his father's influence, and was therefore drawn into his father's destiny.

I think verse 17 tells us what is much closer to God's plan for the kingdom, that Jonathan should have been David's second-in-command while David is king.  This is probably what God would want for Jonathan's life, but unfortunately it won't happen.  It's very interesting also that Jonathan would tell David he's going to be king over Israel, because Jonathan was not present when David was anointed.  It's possible David told him about it, but there's no mention of that in the text.

In the last part of the chapter, after being betrayed by the Ziphites (a clan of Israel), David runs away from Saul, with David and his men on one side of the mountain and Saul and his men on the other side of the mountain.  This is another one of the humorous-but-serious things, which is serious because David is running for his life, but humorous because it gives me a mental image of two people running in circles around a table or something like in a cartoon.  But like Laban's men chasing Jacob (Gen 31), the pursuers are always faster, so David would have certainly been caught except that at the last minute, Saul receives a message that diverts him away to defend his nation (one of the first good things he's done in the last couple chapters).  This is another deliverance from the LORD, even though it looks like a coincidence.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 22

In this chapter, Saul orders for Ahimelech and his entire family to be killed for helping David.

The first 3-4 verses breeze over a couple important things, so I will specifically call them out.  In verse 1, David's family goes to be with him in the "cave of Adullam".  Presumably this is a cave somewhere in the wilderness away from the settled areas and Saul's influence.  But even more interesting, David's father and brothers are now going to him.  This is quite a reversal from their previous disdain for him; now David has become the "captain over them".  I can think of two possible reasons for this.  First of all, since David is now a persona non grata, it is very possible that Saul would murder his family simply because they are related to him.  They probably go to David because they are under almost the same threat of death that he is.  Secondly, this probably also reflects a newfound recognition that David has become a formidable leader in his own right.  He has been a leader of Israel's armies for some time and a close servant of the king, and I think his family has finally come to recognize his authority.

This is the only passage where we really hear anything about David's family for a long time, and it's very muted, but I think it's significant because it shows us how the people who used to be most antagonistic to David are now supporting him and looking to him for leadership.

After his family, we see an assortment of troubled figures join him, all who were distressed, discontented or in debt.  There are a couple of things that are interesting about this.  First of all, somehow all of these people needed to figure out where David was, without Saul finding out.  I don't really know how that happened, but probably people saw David going into the wilderness and somehow the word spread.  Secondly, I think it's interesting that these distressed people would even think of going to join David in the first place.  Ahimelech, for instance, did not know that David was on the run from the king, but now it seems that all of these paupers and runaways have discovered that David is an enemy of the king and (as the king represents their oppression) becomes their ally.

So I think that whole evolution in David's life is at least as interesting as his departure from Gibeah and Bethlehem.  Even though David is the future king, his only associates are the outcasts of society, the people who have nothing else to lose, and himself an outcast, he has become their leader, even as he led the armies of Israel in the days when he was honored amongst the nation.

In verses 3-5 David brings his family to the king of Moab, which is a nation hostile to Israel.  He's trying to protect his parents from Saul's inevitable retaliation.  The king of Moab, in his turn, is no friend of David, but wants to undermine Israel and he probably sees David as an insurgent that will weaken Saul by causing internal conflict.  Moab likely hopes to benefit by strengthening David as a force against Saul.  This is not David's intention at all, but any force that Saul employs hunting David will weaken him against the surrounding nations such as Moab.

Finally, David is staying in "the stronghold", but the prophet Gad (an entirely new figure) instructs him to return to Judah, and David does so.  Since "the stronghold" is not in Judah, it is probably in Moab or maybe Philistine territory.  Either way, by moving back into Judah David is putting himself back into harm's way, because he is now within Saul's reach.

Saul, for his part, is sitting in Gibeah (a city in Benjamin), surrounded by his men whom he addresses as Benjamites.  Saul is himself a Benjamite, and I think what we can tell from this is the power of tribal affiliations in Israel.  It's a topic I've belabored previously, and with good reason because it's exactly what's going on here.  Saul has promoted his family and tribe members to positions of power in the army and gifted them wealth and land.  It's shameless nepotism, but that's how a lot of things worked in the ancient world (not to mention, the modern world).

Doeg the Edomite is the odd man out amongst these Benjamites, because Edom is also hostile to Israel.  It is a strange thing that an Edomite should be employed in Saul's inner circle.  He is the chief shepherd, which as I have previously discussed is an occupation of ill repute at this time in Israel's history.  Saul might have hired an Edomite because there weren't any Israelites who wanted to do the job.

Anyway, Doeg tells Saul what he saw in the previous chapter, and after confronting Ahimelech, Saul orders his men to kill all the priests.  His men refuse to do so, but Doeg (an Edomite who does not worship the LORD) is willing to kill all of these innocent men at the king's order, including all of their families, animals, wives and children.

This also shows the growing paranoia of Saul, who is not just trying to kill David, but now anybody who he suspects of helping David.  It's disturbing that Saul would give his men an order so evil that the only person willing to carry it out is an uncircumcised foreigner.  I think this chapter marks the point at which Saul has completed his descent into evil.  There is only a single survivor from the priestly family, and like all the other desperate and distressed men, he runs to David for help and leadership.  David accepts him because David realizes that he is responsible for Ahimelech's death.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 21

In this chapter, David flees to Ahimelech the priest and then to Gath in Philistia.

David has fled from Gibeah of Benjamin (where Saul resided) and now he's in desperate need of help.  Like any of us would be if we had to flee our house overnight and go live in the wilderness, David visits one of his friends, Ahimelech the priest, who was in Nob.  This is the first time (and nearly the last time) that we will hear any references to Nob, so it must have been the location of the tabernacle at the time, but it is not a prominent city in biblical history.  David asks for two things: bread and a sword.  Both of these requests are deeply pragmatic, but at the same time I think there is also a lot of symbolism in how he gets it.

David is near the tabernacle, asking one of the chief priests for bread and a sword, and what he gets are the consecrated bread of the presence and the sword of Goliath.

A brief interlude: to those who don't know or remember, the bread of the presence was one of the several things that the LORD commanded Israel to put in the holy place in the tabernacle.  It is first mentioned in Exodus 25:23-30, which details a golden table that Israel must build and put in the tabernacle, and Lev 24:5-9 elaborates on this law.  It says that 12 fresh loaves of bread should be placed on the table every Sabbath, and the old bread is given to the priests to eat.  The bread that Ahimelech gives to David is the bread "which was removed from before the LORD".  Lev 24 also says that the bread is holy, which explains why Ahimelech insists that David and his (fictional) men should have kept themselves from women, because sex is one of the things that results in ceremonial impurity (Lev 15:18).

Going back to what I was talking about before, the sword of Goliath is symbolic of David's victory over Goliath and by extension, the LORD's protection over his life.  The bread of the Presence is symbolic of the LORD's provision, but given its position in the tabernacle I think it's more likely that it is intended as an allusion to Deut 8:3, where Moses says that man does not live on bread alone, but upon every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  It's also called the bread of the presence, so its name additionally refers to the LORD's presence.  But I think that because the bread is replaced every week and is meant to be kept fresh, it is most closely related to the manna of Deut 8:3 that was freshly given to the Israelites every day and by extension, the LORD's commands and voice that guided them through the wilderness.

David is about to go into one such wilderness; both a literal and metaphorical wilderness.  The literal wilderness is the Judean Negev desert; the metaphorical one is spending years of his life running away from Saul and with few companions or luxuries, holding only the promise that was given by Samuel when he was anointed to be the next king.

So that's what I think is most interesting about this chapter, how David's requests to Ahimelech are very practical, while at the same time the results are very symbolic.  I think this is another area where we can see that the LORD is going to protect David and bring David into the things that he was promised.

Some other things I find interesting are how Ahimelech trembles when he meets with David, asking why David was traveling alone.  This is interesting to me because the last time we saw people trembling at the approach of a stranger was when Samuel visited Bethlehem to anoint a son of Jesse to be the next king.  Now it is the priest trembling at David's approach, which surprises me a bit because I would have expected these men to know each other.

David, for his part, lies to Ahimelech and says that he is on a king's mission.  I'm not sure why he lied, other than perhaps he is afraid that Ahimelech will not help him or try to stop him if he knows the truth.  Unfortunately, David's lie means that Ahimelech will later die.  Verse 7 tells us that one of Saul's servants, an Edomite of all things (a nation that is hostile to Israel), is present when David sees Ahimelech.

David flees, as we can see in verse 10, but Ahimelech remains because he doesn't know anything is wrong.  Saul, in his madness, will later kill Ahimelech as retributive punishment.

Lastly, I wanted to mention a couple things about David's time in Gath.  It is strange that David would flee to Gath, which is part of the Philistine confederacy, and what's more, it's the hometown of Goliath whom David slew!  How strange is it that David would seek shelter in the town of the great giant that he battled just 4 chapters ago.  I don't know why David would think he would be safe here, other than that the Philistines are at war with Israel so he is definitely beyond Saul's reach in this territory.  Unfortunately, as we can see Achish's servants remember the Israelite songs of chapter 18, and they wonder why Achish should allow an Israelite hero to remain in their town.  There's something very interesting in verse 11 though: Achish's servants call David "the king of the land".  He's actually not; Saul is the king of the land, but I think this is significant foreshadowing and possibly also shows popular perception at the time.  This might be why Saul is so keen on killing David.

David correctly realizes that he's at just as great a risk from the Philistines as from Saul, but his response is bizarre and humerous.  He starts drooling and scribbling on the doors, and Achish's response is similarly funny to me: he is like, "Do I have a shortage of crazy people that you thought you needed to bring me another one?"  To me this whole exchange is pretty funny, but it's also weirdly serious because David really could have been executed by Achish.  Instead, David escapes and runs off into the wilderness to avoid both Saul and the Philistines.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 20

In this chapter, Jonathan tries to protect David and stands up against his father.

I think this is such an amazing chapter.  There's a lot of stuff going on so I'll try to break it down piece by piece.

At the beginning of the chapter, David flees once more and returns to his friend Jonathan.  In the previous chapter, Jonathan tried to reason with his father and openly opposed killing David.  When Saul realized this, Saul started acting duplicitously, concealing his intentions from Jonathan.  In return, Jonathan and David start acting covertly as well, with this elaborate scheme to have Jonathan "sound out" his father regarding David.  The essence of this story is that if Saul doesn't care about David's absence, then it would show that Saul is not concerned about him.  It's not like Saul really wants to have dinner with David, it's that Saul wants David to return to the kings residence so that he could be killed.  If he is absent, then it's probably because David fled (which he does), and Saul is angry because he (rightly) perceives that Jonathan is helping to conceal David.

The particular circumstances of this chapter are uniquely Israelite, though.  The new moon festival is one of the feasts prescribed in Num 28:11, which commands that Israel must make a special offering on the first day of every month.  While it only says that an extra offering needed to be made in the tabernacle, in practice this became a day of religious observance and celebration, and as we can see in this chapter, it was customary for the king and his closest servants to gather for a meal on the new moon.

Another uniquely Israelite detail is that when Saul observes David's absence on the first day, his thought is that David is ceremonially unclean.  As we read in the Pentateuch, there are many ways that someone can become ceremonially unclean.  From being spat upon to touch a dead body or grave, there were many sources of ceremonial impurity.  However, nearly all of the most common sources of ceremonial impurity resulted in only a single day of being impure, washing in the evening and thenceforth being clean.  Some simple examples: touching the body of an unclean animal (Lev 11), having sex with a woman, an emission of semen, or touching articles contaminated by other kinds of bodily emissions (Lev 15), and the list variously goes on.

Saul's assumption is that David did something that made him unclean for a day, such as touching the dead body of some kind of animal, so he is not concerned when David is absent for the first day.  But the feast goes on for a second day, and by then Saul knows that it is unlikely to a common impurity, though other kinds of ceremonial impurity last longer than one day.

Next, I think the story about Jonathan shooting the arrows and having a boy fetch them is interesting.  You would think if Jonathan could just go outside by himself, he wouldn't need this elaborate ruse about "shooting at a target".  For this reason, it is evident that Jonathan intends the arrow to be symbolic; he shoots an arrow "beyond" the boy to indicate that David must also go beyond, fleeing away like an arrow from the threatening presence of Saul.  If the arrow is near, however, then David may also return like the boy returning with the arrows.  I still think it's funny though whenever I read this chapter how Jonathan shoots an arrow past the boy, and when he reaches the arrow Jonathan insists that the arrow must be further away.  The boy must have been a bit confused, seeing as how he was standing right near the arrow.

It's funny to me, but a tragic kind of funny because we can also see the raw emotion shared between Jonathan and David as David is being cast out like an arrow and they both weep over it, torn apart by the wrath and jealousy of Saul.

One of the more interesting things about this story is how Jonathan returns to his father.  We have seen over the last 20 chapters how Jonathan is (in my opinion) so much more similar to David than Saul.  They both have the same tenacity and bravery in battle, both have the same steadfast faith in the LORD.  But something in Jonathan causes him to return to his father rather than join David in exile.  This is more tragic than it might appear, because (spoiler alert) at the end of this book Jonathan will die alongside his father in battle, while David survives.  If Jonathan had left his father he would have plausibly survived and would have remained a servant in David's kingdom.  It is impossible to guess how David's reign might have been different with someone like Jonathan with him.

Even though Jonathan never joined in his father's evil plots, he would nevertheless destroyed by his father because for whatever reason, he simply found himself unable or unwilling to leave his evil family.  It's like when Moses commanded the Israelites to separate themselves away from the tents of Dathan and Abiram, because these men were about to be consumed by God's wrath and anyone who was too close to them would become collateral damage (Num 16:26-27).  It's not that God wants to kill innocents, but if you are too close to a big hole in the ground it just goes without saying that you are likely to fall into it.  I think the story with Jonathan is similar; Saul was rushing towards destruction and even though Jonathan tried to do what he could to help David, he was never able to separate himself from the tents of Saul, and unfortunately Jonathan dies as a result.

As the story is developing, we can see Saul becoming increasingly violent such that he even tries to strike down his own son in his wrath.  We can see the righteousness of Jonathan as he tries to protect David, but ultimately himself becomes a victim of Saul's destruction.  David, for his part, is now finally and totally separated from Saul.  He will talk with Saul a couple times, but will never return to serve in Saul's court or eat with him.  This is the true beginning of David's exile, and Saul will spend the rest of this book hunting for David, a man who has literally never tried to harm him.  And thus the cards are laid for how Saul's kingship will develop.

But I think my favorite part of this chapter is the raw emotions of it, because the emotions of the bible don't always show through clearly in the writing.  But in this chapter I think it really does, as we can see David's desperation and his fear of impending death, telling Jonathan "there is hardly a step between me and death".  Jonathan insists it is not true, and has an explosive confrontation with Saul.  In the final part of this chapter, he meets David for a final, tearful goodbye.  Just as David leaves Saul's house for the final time, this is also essentially the final meeting between David and Jonathan.  We will read in 1 Samuel 23 that Jonathan visits David one last time, but at this time David and Jonathan were living in the same city, if not the same household, and from passages like verse 25 in this chapter, we can see that Jonathan and David would regularly eat meals together (with the king and Abner also present).  So this chapter is not just the separation of David and Saul, it is also the separation of David and Jonathan.  That's the tragedy inflicted by Saul's malice, these two young men who were so emotionally bonded being forced apart, the one cast out by a threat to his life and the other drawn in by familial obligation.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 19

In this chapter, Saul promises not to kill David and then tries to kill him several times.

In the previous chapter, Saul was enraged that the people would hold David in higher regard than himself.  Like so many other times, we see that Saul is chiefly concerned about what people think about him rather than what the LORD thinks.  In some situations, that leaves Saul docile and easily manipulated by the whims of the people.  1 Samuel 15:24 shows us this most clearly when Saul says that he "feared the people and listened to their voice".  However, when Saul perceives someone as better regarded than himself, then we see that his desire to be popular makes him murderous.  It's the exact same impulse that drives him in both situations, whether to try to boost himself up or tearing someone else down.

David never even did anything to claim the throne or betray Saul, but because the people favor David, Saul will try to have him killed.

In this chapter, we see Saul continuing in his desire to murder David, and he orders all of his servants and court officials to also kill David.  As the king, they are bound to obey him even when his orders are evil, as is the case here.  However, we already knew that Jonathan loved David (1 Samuel 18:1-4), so Jonathan tries to reason with his father and convince him that David has done him no harm (which is true).  Initially, Saul listens and David is able to return to his post "as formerly".  However, it doesn't last and when an evil spirit visits Saul again, Saul strikes out to kill David again.  This is somewhat ironic because David had originally gone to Saul's house in order to relieve him from these evil spirits, and now they are goading Saul to kill David.

Another thing I want to mention that perplexed me when I first read 1 Samuel, which is the LORD sending an "evil spirit" to torment Saul.  A plain reading of this can be troubling because it seems to suggest that the LORD controls or directs evil spirits.  Do demons work with God for common goals or common purposes?

I think the references to evil spirits in 1 Samuel (as they relate to Saul) are ambiguous, so it's hard to say anything definitive based on these chapters.  I think the best way to interpret these chapters are in the context of the bible as a whole.  My opinion here (and elsewhere) is that God does not "work with demons"; he restrains them in many situations, and then in some situations and for certain reasons he will stop restraining the evil spirits.  God does not need to command a demon to do evil; given the opportunity, it will do harm to anyone and everyone it can.  I believe the only reason our world can exist as it does is because God restrains all of the evil spirits from destroying it.

1 Samuel 16:14 tells us in the same sentence that the spirit of the LORD departed and an evil spirit came to fill in the vacancy.  As I said before, I believe that the spirit of the LORD covering Saul was inhibiting the powers of evil from harming him and when Saul sinned, he drove the spirit of the LORD away and thereby opened the door to his own torment.  This isn't the only way that evil spirits enter someone's life, but it is one of the most common.  Those who do evil open themselves to receive evil unto themselves.  Genesis 9:6 tells us that "whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed".  That is, those who commit murder have opened themselves to be murdered in retaliation.  I would write as a second law, "whoever commits evil shall be punished by it."

Other teachers have said that evil is its own punishment.  But that doesn't just mean when you do something evil you will feel really bad about it and that will be your punishment.  Committing an evil act has emotional and spiritual consequences as well, and I am not trying to make light of it.  After Saul sinned and the spirit of the LORD departed from him, his life has grown darker and darker, and because of his position of power, that darkness is spreading to the people around him.  David is also now suffering for Saul's sin, because through no fault of his own David is the recipient of Saul's wrath.

But.  There is an important but here.  David is humble, anointed, and is protected by the spirit of the LORD.  He is going through a lot of really hard situations, and I can't even imagine what it's like to have the king try multiple times to murder you in all of these situations.  First Saul tried to kill him with guile, letting the Philistines strike him down.  When that failed, Saul used his own hand and spear.  When that failed, he is now commanding all of his servants to strike David down.  But the LORD is protecting him, restraining the evil that seeks to consume him.  It started with Goliath, when David killed the formidable giant.  Then David prospered through various situations until he is now one of the top commanders in Israel's army.

In this chapter we see the LORD's protection in a much clearer way, when Saul sends not one, not two but three delegations of messengers to arrest David in Naioth so that he can be put to death.  When all three groups of messengers are interrupted by the spirit of God compelling them to "prophesy", Saul goes himself to harm David.  But even Saul is involuntarily compelled to prophesy all day and night in Samuel's presence.  This is the spirit of God protecting David, because David has not done anything to take himself out of the LORD's protection.  For most of 1st Samuel, when David escapes death it often looks like a coincidence.  Michal protects him in one case, Jonathan protects him in another, and whenever Saul tries to pin David to a wall with his spear, David evades him and runs away.  But from the story in verses 18-24 we can see that these aren't coincidences.  The LORD is protecting David through all of his trials, and the LORD is going to bring him into the kingship.

Why does David have to face all of these trials then?  We can see two reasons from the text.  The first reason is that Saul is becoming increasingly evil, and he is inflicting his evil onto the people around him.  It's really unfortunate, but this is a fact of life, that even the innocent suffer when evil men do evil things.  However, there is a second reason which is that God is using these trials to change and shape David's heart, to teach him resilience and humility.  The cynics of the world only see the first reason, they see evil inflicted by one onto another and reason that God cannot exist because he would not permit harm to come to those who do not deserve it.  Others reason that God might exist, but if so then he must be evil because he permits the innocent to suffer.  What the cynics don't see is the second factor, how suffering can breed endurance and strength in the humble, what Victor Hugo calls the "excellence of misfortune".  To quote from him more fully, Hugo writes:
He ate of that terrible, inexpressible thing that is called de la vache enrage; that is to say, he endured great hardships and privations. A terrible thing it is, containing days without bread, nights without sleep, evenings without a candle, a hearth without a fire, weeks without work, a future without hope, a coat out at the elbows, an old hat which evokes the laughter of young girls, a door which one finds locked on one at night because one's rent is not paid, the insolence of the porter and the cook-shop man, the sneers of neighbors, humiliations, dignity trampled on, work of whatever nature accepted, disgusts, bitterness, despondency. Marius learned how all this is eaten, and how such are often the only things which one has to devour. At that moment of his existence when a man needs his pride, because he needs love, he felt that he was jeered at because he was badly dressed, and ridiculous because he was poor. At the age when youth swells the heart with imperial pride, he dropped his eyes more than once on his dilapidated boots, and he knew the unjust shame and the poignant blushes of wretchedness. Admirable and terrible trial from which the feeble emerge base, from which the strong emerge sublime. A crucible into which destiny casts a man, whenever it desires a scoundrel or a demi-god.
Les Miserables 
People who misunderstand the ways of God see only evil.  Those who understand the ways of God see how God brings redemption and resurrection from and through the darkest of situations, without in any way himself besmeared by the darkness.  God changes the darkness into light, even as it is written: "For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; But the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you."  C.S. Lewis also writes about this in The Great Divorce when he says that to those who are going to heaven, even the earth becomes part of heaven.  And to those who are going to hell, even the earth becomes part of their hell.  God has the power to change the past, because even past evils in a person's life can be turned into good by how the LORD changes that person.  This is one of the mysteries of God that few people understand.  It's not that God changes what objectively happened, but he can change how we perceive those events and how they impact our lives.  That is the power of redemption and healing that flows from God, that it can heal not just our present but even the wounds of our past.

In the end, David goes to Samuel, perhaps hoping that the prophet would be able to protect him.  Alternatively, David might be going to Samuel to ask for guidance in how he should respond to Saul’s ominous behavior.  Saul begins sending groups of men to capture David, but every time the spirit of God comes upon them and they begin prophesying, almost as if they had no choice in the matter.  In the end Saul himself goes to capture or murder David, and Saul also prophesies, stripping off his outer garments (but probably still wearing his inner garments) he lies for a full day prophesying before Samuel.  The last time Saul prophesied was an entertaining story.  Quirky, perhaps confusing, but overall a positive experience.  This time, Saul is a much darker figure, on his way to murder David, when he is interrupted by the spirit of God inducing him to prophesy.  Although I think God still wants to redeem Saul, it is likely that he is acting more for David in this instance than for Saul.

I also want to point out that David is saved from death three times in this chapter by three different people.  The first time Jonathan warns him that Saul is going to kill him, so David hides.  The second time, Michal helps David down the window and conceals his departure from Saul's servants.  The third time David goes to Samuel in Naioth and Samuel protects hiim from Saul's assassins.  This shows us that even before David became king, he is already gathering around himself a coterie of allies that support him through his challenges and will continue to support him throughout his reign (except for those who die, of course).

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 18

In this chapter, Saul becomes afraid of David and tries to kill him.

This chapter marks another turning point in Saul’s life, when he goes from being disobedient to the LORD to being dangerous to the people around him.

Jonathan loves David, because they both have the same spirit.  We see the same attitude in both of them that “the LORD can save by many or few”.  That is a direct quotation of Jonathan, while David says that "the LORD will deliver you up into my hands" when speaking to Goliath.  Both of them refer to deliverance in battle coming from the LORD.

Both David and Jonathan also show the same aggressiveness towards their enemies.  David “ran quickly towards the battle line” (1 Sam 17:48) and Jonathan “climbed up, using his hands and feet” to attack the Philistines (1 Sam 14:13).  We are going to see this friendship emerge as a major story element later in this book, but for now I’m just pointing out the similarities between David and Jonathan as a probable basis for their mutual friendship.  Some commentators suggest that David and Jonathan get into a homosexual relationship, which I believe is unsupported by the text (not the least of which, because David later marries a woman, but more generally, because the text never says anything that infers sexual activity between them).  More than anything else, I think we can see strong similarities in their personalities and attitudes, and that is almost definitely the basis of their friendship.  Jonathan is also honoring David for the great victory that he just won on behalf of the nation.

Saul, however, feared David’s growing reputation.  We know from many places how much Saul cared about what the people thought of him, so it is unlikely he would have been pleased by any man who was better regarded than himself.  Saul is the kind of leader who does not permit anyone to be greater than himself, because that would grate against his insecurities.  He finds his greatness by being superior to others, rather than by his identity in the LORD as part of the LORD’s people.  This is ultimately destructive to both Saul and the people around him.  Saul could have benefitted tremendously from David’s service, because David was entirely loyal to him and very successful.  David, in turn, could have benefitted from having a lord who wasn’t trying to murder him, because nobody likes getting murdered.

I think it’s likely that Saul is also afraid that David will be the usurper that Samuel threatened.  In v. 8 Saul appears to have (correctly) guessed that David would be the one to take his kingdom.  What Saul got wrong is that he thought David would try to take the kingdom from him, perhaps in some sort of coup.  Instead, by attempting to kill David and gradually driving him away, Saul is in fact undermining his own rule.  What we will see in the future is that David has absolutely no intention to overthrow Saul, even after everything that Saul does to him.

Something I’ve often wondered about is why David remained in Saul’s service after Saul first tried to kill him, in v. 10-11.  I’m really not sure.  Perhaps David attributed Saul’s increasingly erratic behavior to the “evil spirit” and did not think that Saul harbored any genuine malice towards him.  Maybe Saul apologized and insisted he would never repeat the attempt.  It does appear that most of the time, Saul did not try to directly kill David.  But as we can see, Saul was trying to deliberately put David into dangerous roles so that the Philistines could kill him, so in whatever respect David thought he was safe from Saul, he judged incorrectly.

Nevertheless, all of Saul’s attempts to undermine David failed.  After making David a commander in Israel’s army, “all Israel and Judah loved David” as a result (v. 16).  After offering Michal his daughter for 100 Philistine foreskins, David brings back 200, earning for himself the king’s daughter where Saul had plotted his death.  The very things that Saul has done to kill David prepare him for eventually claiming the throne.  This is the second time in as many chapters that David has brought human body parts to Saul, and if anything this time is much more disgusting than the last.  Imagine how Saul must have reacted when David came to him with a sack full of human foreskins.  That must have been an interesting conversation.

Some other things to note.  I've mentioned a couple times how Israelite poetry works, that it uses couplets and parallelism.  There are hundreds of examples of what I call thematic parallelism, and the songs of the women in verse 7 is another example of this.  I don't believe the women are trying to say David is greater than Saul, what they are saying (if I may paraphrase) is "Saul has done great things and David has done great things too".

Honestly, Saul is acting like David's brothers, trying to shut down David because David is doing greater things than them.  Unlike David's brothers, Saul can simply try to murder him and there is nobody who can hold Saul to account.

Another minor note is that Saul probably asked for foreskins because of the symbolic value.  The Israelites are circumcised as part of their covenant with the LORD, so cutting off their foreskins as evidence of their murder (much like scalping) is probably intended to be insulting, because being uncircumcised is sort of a derogatory term in the bible.  For instances, in Judges 14:3 Samson's mother asks him, "Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?"  Later in Judges 15:18 Samson says, "Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?"  In all of these cases (and more that I have not referenced) the term uncircumcised is meant to be insulting, because it highlights how the Philistines are not in a covenant with the LORD, idolatrous, sinful, etc.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 17

In this chapter, David slays Goliath, a champion of the Philistines.

This is one of the most iconic stories in the bible, so I suspect most of my readers are at least vaguely familiar with it.  However, I think there are some interesting observations one could make based on the context of 1 Samuel that might not be immediately apparent.

As we should know, this is not the first conflict between Israel and the Philistines.  They have fought multiple battles, under the leadership of both Samuel (1 Samuel 7) and Saul (1 Samuel 14), not to mention earlier conflicts in the book of Judges (e.g. Judges 3:31, Judges 10:7, Judges 13:1).  Since the Israelites were previously victorious, this is probably the Philistines attempting to regain control of what was once their vassal.

The battle site is located at Ephes Dammim, which is Hebrew for "boundary of blood".  In a literal sense, this probably refers to the battle that is occurring on the site, and more implicitly the "boundary of bloodshed" that existed between Israel and Philistia.  In a more figurative sense, the boundary of blood is a reference to the blood of the lamb that preserved the Israelites through the Passover.  This might seem like a stretch, but consider the role that David has in bringing deliverance to Israel on this site, not because he is stronger or more skilled than Goliath, but because the LORD brings deliverance through him.

Goliath himself is probably an Anakite, the ferocious giant-men who have been referenced a couple times so far, such as Num 13 when the Israelite spies return to tell the people what they saw in the promised land.  This is the first of several Anakites that David will battle throughout his lifetime.  It doesn't specifically say that Goliath is an Anakite, but from his size and the weight of his gear we know that this is true.

Out of Jesse’s 8 sons, only the eldest 3 followed Saul to war.  Verse 15 tells us that David is still tending his father’s sheep part-time.  Jesse has 5 sons who are still at home, but out of all of these he sends David to visit his brothers at the battlefield to see how they are doing and bring some food for them.  Sending a young, unarmed boy to an active battlefield is dangerous in the best of circumstances, and while I hesitate to read too much into it, it seems to belie a certain lack of concern about young David.  But honestly, Jesse saw David anointed to be the next king of Israel, yet Jesse continues to have David spend his time tending sheep, which at this time in Israel's history was probably a disreputable profession.  So through the way that Jesse treats David it's pretty obvious that Jesse does not care much for his son.

So David was held in low regard by his father both before and after he was anointed.  His brothers however are now openly jealous of him, with Eliab criticizing David for arriving at the battle site, that David left those “few sheep in the desert” out of his “conceited” and “wicked” heart.  Eliab likely suspects that David came to the battlefield to seek his fortune after being declared the next king.  Eliab still views David very poorly, doing nothing of significance.  Eliab is doubtless angry that David should be honored over himself, and he is insisting that David should return to the poverty of his origins.

More than anything else, what stands out to me about the story so far is David's humility and the pride and jealousy of his father, brothers and Saul.  What I see in David is that he raised the sheep in his youth, was given a stunning reversal of fortunes when Samuel came and anointed him as the next king in the presence of his father and brothers, and when his father demanded that he continue raising the sheep, David did so.  Even after Saul summoned David to play music and David became one of Saul's retainers, we still see David raising the sheep and serving his father and brothers.  David isn't demanding power or trying to gain the kingdom by force, even though he has a divine blessing to take the kingship after Saul.

Meanwhile, we see Saul building monuments to his own glory after being victorious over his enemies.  The LORD rejected David's brothers because they have the exact same spirit as Saul.  When they see David come to the battlefield, what they in effect are telling him is that the battlefield is a place for great men to change the fate of the nation, and that David does not deserve to be there, because David is only capable of spectating when other men like themselves are fighting.  It's prideful because they are insisting that only great men such as themselves should have any power.  In the LORD's kingdom, that is exactly the attitude that disqualifies you from having any power at all.  Therefore David is anointed to be the next king, and in proper time it will happen.

David insists that he can fight Goliath, not because he is stronger or larger than other men, but because the LORD, who delivered him from other challenges, would also deliver him “from the hand of this Philistine.”  This teaches us an important principle: whenever we face a new challenge, remember and dwell on past successes.  It is our memory of the lion and the bear that gives us confidence to face the Philistine (metaphorically).  Every time I become uncertain about my future or how I will overcome something, I recount to myself what things the LORD has done for me and for others in my life.  Three chapters ago, Jonathan insisted that he could defeat the Philistines because “nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.” (1 Sam 14:6).  In this case David makes a similar argument, insisting that the LORD will save him regardless of the physical circumstances.

Anyway, David insists on using the weapons that he is familiar with, a staff and sling stones (the weapons of a shepherd) and not the heavy armor and sword of a soldier.  While David chooses a light armament, keep in mind that slingers could be exceptionally dangerous in ancient warfare, although usually only against massed troops.  It’s challenging to hit a single target with a sling: however, being hit by a sling could be fatal.  For instance, Judges 20:16 refers to 700 Benjamite slingers “each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.”  While probably an exaggeration, we should understand that slings can be extremely dangerous.

The rest of the battle goes as we should expect by this point.  One point that I find moderately amusing is how David is walking around carrying Goliath’s head, as if to remind people of what he had just done.  I could imagine some awkward conversation where David sits around eating lunch with his brothers while Goliath’s distorted and bloodless face stared at them.  That's kindof how I imagine his conversation with Saul going.

"Hey David, good job killing Goliath."  
"Thanks, Saul!"  
"By the way, are you really going to just leave that head there while we're talking?"
"Yes, that's what I was planning to do."

Anyway, it seems like one of Goliath's most powerful weapons is intimidation, both from his size and from his verbal threats to the Israelites.  The entire army ran away from him in fear, but David ran towards him.  David is courageous in the same way that Jonathan is courageous, charging into the enemy because they know that the LORD would give them victory.

Another interesting thing.  When David is brought before Saul, Saul does not know who he is.  This is surprising because David was already serving Saul whenever the "evil spirit" came to torment him.  Not only that, but Saul sent for David specifically on the advice of his servants.  It's hard for me to understand how Saul could not recognize him, but that appears to be the case.  I'm guessing that Saul just didn't pay any attention to David and just considered him another one of his many servants.

This is the first of David's major exploits after being anointed as king.  Like Saul, David starts out on a very good note.  Unlike Saul, we can see that David is a deeply humble person who has enormous trust in the LORD to deliver Israel from their enemies.  We can already see why the LORD would choose David and call him "a man after his own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14).