Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 26

In this chapter, Saul tries to hunt down David again, and David spares Saul's life again.

Just two chapters ago David had an opportunity to kill Saul when Saul was alone and unarmed using a cave as a toilet.  But David did not harm Saul, and used it as an example of his loyalty to try to reconcile himself with Saul.  Nevertheless, David remained in the wilderness, most likely out of fear that Saul would betray him and try to kill him again.  Now here we are, and Saul is seeking to kill David again, in spite of David's proven loyalty and Saul's own repentance for trying to harm David.  Saul said, "You have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you."  But for some reason, Saul does not actually stop "dealing wickedly" with David, even though he recognizes that he is doing wrong.  I find this incredibly hard to understand and it bothered me the first time I read this chapter.  How can Saul do an evil thing, recognize it's an evil thing, APOLOGIZE for doing the evil thing, and then keep doing it?  I know many people struggle with many different temptations.  Some people struggle with anger, other people struggle with lust, but it is pretty serious when the king of your nation is struggling with an irrepressible desire to murder others.

In addition, Saul shows a level of premeditation and persistence in attempting to kill David that this is very different from the first couple times when Saul tried to spear him.  Saul is gathering a significant army and then spending multiple days chasing David in the remote Judean desert.  Out of Saul's many sins, attempting to kill David is not the least among them.

As in chapter 24, the Ziphites tell Saul where David is hiding, Ziphites being the men of Judah who lived in the desert where David was hiding.

There are a couple of important people introduced in this chapter.  We previously met Abner, who is Saul's chief commander and will remain an influential figure after Saul dies.  Abishai and Joab are both important allies of David and will be two of his top commanders throughout his reign.  They are both... interesting figures, so I will definitely talk more about them later.

Ahimelech is only mentioned in this chapter.  It's worth mentioning that this is a different Ahimelech from the guy we met before, who was the high priest of Israel.  That Ahimelech was a Levite, a descendant of Aaron, and he was also murdered.  This Ahimelech is a Hittite, one of the foreign peoples of Canaan, and surprisingly is an ally of David.  Of course, Ruth was a Moabitess and Caleb was a Kenizzite, but discrimination against foreigners is far more common.  I would have to guess that his Hittite status is one of the reasons why Ahimelech finds himself in the company of vagabonds and fugitives like David.

This chapter gives us our first sign of what Abishai is like.  When he and David sneak into Saul's camp, Abishai says, "Let me strike him with a spear; he will not require a second blow."  As we will progressively see, Abishai and Joab will prove themselves over the years to be ruthless pragmatists.  They are both closely loyal to David and will never betray him, although Joab gets into conflict with Solomon who reigns after David.  However, both Abishai and Joab have a tendency towards murdering people who get in their way.  In this case, Abishai counsels David similarly to what his men said when they last had an opportunity to kill Saul, and David's reply is the same.  Of course, we also see Abishai's bravery on display, and I don't think anyone can question that both Joab and Abishai are very brave.  In the same vein, Saul is also quite brave when it comes to fighting war.  Bravery is a good thing, but their moral failings undermine what could have been more successful lives in leading the nation.

David insists that the LORD will deal with Saul.  David obviously knows that Saul is sinning.  When David says that Saul is the LORD's anointed, eh doesn't mean that Saul is perfect or even a good person.  He is saying that Saul is a person marked out by the LORD to have power, gifting and authority to lead Israel.  In a sense, he is the LORD's subordinate, and therefore David believes that the only person who has authority to harm or discipline Saul is the LORD.  In my discussion of chapter 24 I shared my thoughts on David's philosophy regarding "the LORD's anointed", but the short version is that I have no particular opinion about whether David is right or wrong; I think this is an area reasonable people can disagree, and I don't know what I would do if placed in a similar situation.

Similar to chapter 24 where David cut off a piece of Saul's tunic, David takes Saul's spear and water jug as a sign that he had been in Saul's presence and uses that to later show Saul that David could have harmed him.  David then uses this evidence to rebuke Saul for chasing him and Saul apologizes, calling himself a fool and encouraging David to return.  However, as in the previous episode, David goes back to the wilderness while Saul returns to his estate in Benjamin.  This is, however, the last time that Saul chases after David.  After this, Saul will be too busy fighting hostile nations to concern himself with David.  So this story is mostly similar to the one we already read.  There are two differences I find interesting, however.

The first is verse 12 which tells us the LORD is the one who put a deep sleep upon all of Saul's men, creating this opportunity for David and Abishai to approach.  In 1 Samuel 24, we only had inference and speculation to suggest that the LORD created the chance for David to kill Saul, but in this chapter the author makes it explicit.  It is indeed remarkable to think that a camp of 3,000 men would all be asleep with no guards or sentries posted and that David, the man they were seeking, would be able to walk right into their midst and into the presence of the king.  What this means is that God was deliberately creating an opportunity for David to have power over Saul.

I believe this was meant as a test.  Do you remember earlier in Saul's life in 1 Samuel 15 when it says that Samuel arrived just after Saul offered a sacrifice?  I believe that this was a test for Saul, a test of his obedience to see what he would do when placed in a high pressure situation, and Saul failed the test.  On the other hand, I believe that this opportunity for David to kill Saul is a test for David, a test to see what he will do when he is given power over another person's life, and remarkably, David chooses for the second time to spare Saul's life.  It would certainly be to David's political advantage for Saul to be dead, but David is not thinking about politics, and that is to his merit.

The second difference is when David says that men are trying to drive him away from the inheritance of the LORD, telling him to "go serve other gods".  I think this is interesting for a couple reasons.  The foremost is that it shows, once again, how deeply connected the Israelites feel about occupying their land as a connection to their god.  It reminds me of the altar in Joshua 22 that the Transjordan tribes built as a symbol or reminder that they, too, are part of the LORD's people even though they are across the boundary of the Jordan.  In the same way, David is equating his exile from the people as also being an exclusion from the LORD.  To a large extent, this makes sense.  Recall in the book of Deuteronomy how much of Israel's religion is built around the national feasts when the whole nation would gather at the tabernacle to celebrate the deliverance of the LORD.  The Passover is both an event (when the Israelites were passed over) and a feast, a communal celebration.  In all these ways, Israel's faith is a communal process.  But also, the promised land holds significant spiritual meaning to them, since it was the chief promise given to Abraham and passed down to his descendants.

David says that he is being driven out of the "inheritance of the LORD".  Being driven out of the land casts David out of the community of his faith, and it also drives him out of the inheritance that he was meant to share in as a descendant of Jacob.  The inheritance is more than just money though, because the inheritance is "of the LORD".  It is part of their faith as much as anything else.

In the end, Saul blesses David for a second time, and unless I'm mistaken I believe this is the last time that Saul and David will ever speak to each other.