The Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA continues to work its way through 1 and 2 Samuel, at the rate of about a chapter a week. (This is blinding speed compared to our slog through Deuteronomy at the rate of about four verses a week, but narrative goes faster than law-code.)
Here’s the latest set of notes:
Chapters 24 (the cave at En-Gedi) and 26 (the hill at Hachilah) — separated by the story of David, Abigail, and her nasty, feckless husband Nahal — are a doublet, both telling essentially the same story: David has Saul in his power, but lets him live.
The common elements of the two stories are:
— Saul chases David with an army that outnumbers David’s bandit gang.
— David has the opportunity to kill Saul.
— David is urged to do so.
— David refuses, pointing to the King’s status as the anointed of HaShem.
— David takes a token to show that Saul was in his hand.
— David displays the token to Saul and protests his innocence of any intention to harm Saul, and his insignificance.
— Saul repents, calls David “my son,” and proposes a pact.
— Saul leaves.
Those are the similarities. What are the differences?
In Chapter 24, it is Saul who has precise intelligence, while David is lucky that Saul chose to relieve himself in the cave where he and his men happened to be hiding out. IN Chapter 26, David, thanks to his spies, has precise intelligence, and he arranges the encounter.
In chapter 24, the token is the skirt of Saul’s robe; in 26, his spear and water-jug.
In chapter 24, the dialogue between David and Saul is private; in 26, public.
In chapter 24, Saul asks for a promise (that David will not extirpate his line); in 26, he makes a promise (that he will not pursue David further).
In Chapter 24, Saul leaves and David goes back to his stronghold. In chapter 26, both leave, David proclaiming that he will go into exile.
(Saul also pursues David in Chapter 23; there Jonathan comes to assure David of his survival and eventual triumph, and to make a pact.)
While Chapter 24 is primarily comic, Chapter 26 is heroic, after the manner of a folk-tale, again making a parallel between David and Odysseus (Iliad X, 469 ff., the night raid on the camp of the Thracians). David with a sole companion, penetrates the enemy camp by night and comes within killing distance of the King. The narrator hints at divine protection: “they [David and Abishai] went off, no one seeing and no one knowing and no one waking, for they were all asleep, for HaShem’s deep slumber had fallen upon them.”
Among the common elements, what is the strategy of David in refusing to kill Saul?
— He’s reluctant to take the monarchy. (How old is he? The text doesn’t say.)
— He has genuine respect for Saul’s anointed status.
— He wants Saul’s troops and supporters to see him as loyal, to make his subsequent reign easier.
— He wants his own troops and supporters, and others, to see him as magnanimous, to improve his own reputation.
— He wants to put a good deed in his karma bank: “HaShem will pay back a man for his right actions and his loyalty.”
— He has genuine affection and compassion for Saul.
— The strategy is not only David’s but the narrator’s as well. Writing in the court of David or one of his successors, the narrator wants to drive home the message “Hands off the king.” (These verses, and especially the reference to the King as “the Lord’s anointed,” were important in the English Civil War and its aftermath; cf., for example, the first stanza of “The Vicar of Bray”:
In good King Charles’s golden days,
When Loyalty no harm meant;
A furious High-Church man I was,
And so I gain’d Preferment.
Unto my Flock I daily Preach’d,
Kings are by God appointed,
And Damn’d are those who dare resist,
Or touch the Lord’s Anointed.
Again among the common elements, we see Saul as both the victim of a compulsion to seek after David and as being brought to temporary sanity, and repentance, by David’s magnanimity. But David knows that the respites are temporary, which eventually leads him to go into exile.
The tale in Chapter 26 has several striking features. Abishai says, concerning Saul, “now let me, pray, strike him through with the spear into the ground; I will need no second blow.” We are thus reminded that Saul has twice cast that same spear at David. (The spear was also Goliath’s weapon; perhaps it was an especially good weapon for big men.)
Why the water-jug as well as the spear? Alter suggests that the water-jug was also a piece of battle-gear, for fighting under the hot sun. A commenter offers the interpretation that the spear is death, the water life.
In Chapter 26, David taunts Abner and the rest of Saul’s troops with their dereliction of duty: “You all deserve death.” Perhaps that is meant to demoralize them, or to encourage his own troops by mocking the incompetence of the enemy.
David, or the narrator on David’s behalf, offers a pre-emptive justification for his decision to join the Philistines as a mercenary. Of the men he imagines having incited Saul against him, he says, “Cursed are they before HaShem, for they have banished me today from joining HaShem’s inheritance, saying ‘Go, serve other gods.’ ” His plea to Saul not to pursue him further has a patriotic ring: “Let not my blood fall to the ground away from HaShem’s presence.”
Both David and Saul appear to advantage in these chapters: David is at once wily and magnanimous, while we see Saul not as a cold-blooded tyrant but as the victim of the “evil spirit from HaShem” that has plagued him since Chapter 16. When he is shocked back into sanity, he recognizes his prior (and future) actions as wrong. His last words to David are “Blessed are you, my son David. You shall surely do much and you shall surely win out.”