Hirsleifer Tanakh group notes: 1 Sam. 23-24

Saul continues his pursuit of David; David spares his life, shocking him into a brief moment of lucidity.

One topic omitted from last week’s notes: sparked by a footnote from Alter comparing David to Odysseus, we got into a discussion of how “Greek” the character of David seems. That raised the question: could the authors of the narrative have been familiar with what became the Homeric canon? Answer: quite plausibly. After all, “Homeric” material was being recited in Greece by early in the first millennium, and the Philistines (Phonecians) certainly had trade contact with Hellas.

On the other hand, the text as we have it bears little if any literary evidence of having come down from an oral tradition. Little of it is in verse, and while thematic and narrative elements are repeated, there are none of the formulae (e.g., personal epithets) that make oral poetry easy to compose and remember.

The central theme of Chapter 23 seems to be communication with HaShem. David, while he never hears the divine voice directly as Samuel does, always seems to have one or more channels of communication open. Saul, by contrast, seems entirely cut off, and his attempts to break through (e.g., joining the prophets, and later raising the ghost of Samuel) lead only to his further humiliation.

As the chapter starts, David is told that the Philistines are raiding Keilah, “robbing the threshing-floors.” David “inquires of HaShem” and is told to come to the city’s relief. Indeed, he inquires twice, in the face of the skepticism of his troops. He then attacks and saves the city, slaughtering the Philistines and acquiring their cattle.

First question: How does David inquire? We are told at the end of that short section that Abiathar has brought the oracular ephod with the Urim and Thummim. But that seems to be an afterthought. Moreover, David’s queries draw detailed responses, distant from the yes-or-no answers the Urim and Thummim provide. The prophet Gad, mentioned in an earlier chapter as advising David, is not mentioned. Seemingly David had some other means of inquiry, not specified.

After David has rescued Keilah, Saul decides to take advantage of David’s vulnerable position, potentially trapped inside a walled city. David (somehow) knows of the impending attack. Now he asks Abiathar for help, and Abiathar brings the ephod (apparently a unique brass breastplate, and not to be confused with the “linen ephod” which is the mark of a priest). Now David asks yes-or-no questions and gets yes-or-no answers.

What were the Urim and Thummim, and how do they relate to the ephod? One tradition is that they were gemstones on the breastplate, and that the reflection of light from the stones had divinitory qualities. Another is that they were oracular stones or dice, kept in a sack attached to the ephod.

The oracle tells David that Saul will attack, and that the men of Keilah (whom he has just rescued) will give him up to the king. (As Harry Truman said, if you want a friend in politics, get a dog.) So David and his band leave Keilah, and Saul pursues him in the wilderness of Ziph.

Jonathan comes to reassure David, either predicting or promising both that his father Saul will not find David and that David will be king. He asserts that Saul knows as much. Before, Jonathan had made a pact with David that their descendents should be allies; now he seems to think that he personally will be able to serve as David’s second-in-command (mishneh melekh = grand vizier?).

In light of what is to come, Jonathan here seems strangely naive, and David as devious as usual. We spent some time on the character of Jonathan. His disloyalty to his father seems extreme, until one considers that Saul had not only tried to kill Jonathan in one of his fits of rage, but cold-bloodedly orderered Jonathan’s execution on the day of his military triumph because Jonathan violated the royal command that the entire army should fast. Only the army’s loyalty to him in the face of his father’s sentence preserved him on that occasion.

Then the Ziphites try to sell David to Saul, as the men of Keilah would have done. Seemingly Saul’s tyranny has the people cowed, or else they either respect the king or dislike the bandit leader. (Presumably David’s men are living off the land: i.e., stealing what they need from the locals.)

Saul’s response typifies his self-pity and paranoia: “Blessed be ye of the Lord; for ye have had compassion on me. Go, I pray you, make yet more sure, and know and see his place where his haunt is, and who hath seen him there; for it is told me that he dealeth very subtly.” (Vv. 21-22)

Saul pursues, and David flees. As, apparently, he is about to catch David’s forces in a pincer movement, a messenger comes to say that the Philistines are attacking, and Saul turns back to face them.

Two questions here:

To some of us, this nick-of-time intervention by the enemy seemed a rather lame narrative trick. Others agreed with Alter that the Philistine attack was a natural consequence of the king’s preoccupation with putting down the rebels, and that the sequence of events illustrates Saul’s folly in pursuing David rather than defending the people from the national enemy.

The word Alter translates as “messenger” is “malach,” which can (also?) mean “angel.” His message seems reasonably mundane, so perhaps he was merely a courier sent by some city or tribe to the king. But is it possible that “angel” was in fact meant, and that HaShem here intervenes directly to save David? Apparently the word can be used either way.

Chapter 24 marks the final confrontation between David and Saul. Once again, we were struck by the sheer narrative power of the author of our text. This was not the that the group’s initial reaction to the reading of a chapter was simply, “Wow!” (The apparition to Samuel, the death of Eli, Saul’s battle with the Amalekites and the fate of Agag, David and Goliath, David’s pact with Jonathan, the slaughter of the Priests of Nob: that’s a lot of set-pieces to pack into 23 chapters.) But Chapter 24 stands out for its psychological realism and emotional impact: David and Saul are clearly characters, not archetypes.

At the beginning of the chapter, Saul is once again humiliated and made ridiculous. But at the end he has a moment of lucidity (these have grown increasingly rare for him since his denunciation by Samuel over the matter of Agag) and commands our respect as well as our pity. David, too, acts with magnanimity, even if it is a somewhat Machiavellian magnanimity.

Saul is once again pursuing David’s forces, now with 3000 picked troops as against David’s 600 ruffians. David and his men (all, or just some?) take refuge in a cave, where they might have been trapped and exterminated had Saul been aware of them. Instead, however, with his usual kluztiness, Saul enters the cave only to “cover his feet,” exposing himself to his enemies, as Alter says, in a double sense.

David’s men say to him, “Behold the day in which HaShem hath said unto thee: Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thy hand, and thou shalt do to him as it shall seem good unto thee.” (Alter’s translation doesn’t show it, but “Behold” ( הִנֵּה ) is used twice, introducing both the words of David’s men and the words they attribute to HaShem.)

Alter remarks on the presumption of David’s men, and indeed this is the only time we hear of a prophecy that Saul would be delivered into David’s hand. But in context it seems hard to credit that the men are making it up; why should we not instead take it that David has told them of such a prophecy?

Be that as it may, their words echo Saul’s words about David two chapters back, when he heard that David was in Keilah: “God has delivered him into my hand.”

Here the sequence of events becomes confused. As the text tells it, David cuts the skirt off Saul’s cloak, feels remorse, withholds his men from attacking Saul, follows Saul out of the cave, prostrates himself, proclaims his loyalty, and shows the cut-off skirt as evidence that he had Saul within his power.

Alter asks whether David’s restraint of his men ought not to precede, rather than following, his cutting-off of the skirt. He doesn’t raise, but we did, the question of David’s remorse. A more direct story would have David’s men urge him to attack Saul, David move to do so, then feel remorse, and cut off the skirt so as to be able to show it to Saul later.

If David never intended to kill the king, what is he remorseful about? (In any case, he’s not remorseful enough to forgo the advantage having that bit of cloth gives him in persuading Saul of his loyalty.) Is the remorse merely feigned? The text doesn’t say so, or clearly imply it. Alter points out that the cutting of the skirt echoes Saul’s inadvertent tearing of Samuel’s cloak as Samuel turns away from him in Chapter 15, which Samuel makes an omen of the monarchy being “torn away” from Saul.

Why, in any case, should David be reluctant to kill the man who has so long sought his life? Because, as David says, Saul is the king? Because Saul is his father-in-law? Because Saul is helpless? Or, as one of us suggested, is this merely one more instance of David’s failure to take over the responsibilities of monarchy, long after his anointment by Samuel? Could David, having killed Saul, and with Jonathan committed to his cause, have taken the crown and had his claim accepted by the Benjamites? Perhaps not; the fact that all he has around him is a group of bandits could be both evidence of, and a further cause of, his lack of any deep popular support.

(One of us raised the question whether the monarchy would have been understood to be hereditary. Samuel never says so. On the other hand, descent from father to son seems a fundamental principle, which might have been familiar to the Israelites from the practice of the neighboring monarchies. Surely when David comes to die the question is only which of his sons is to succeed him.)

Perhaps David, expecting to be king, thought that killing Saul would set a bad precedent (cf. Elizabeth and Mary Stuart) and that David’s expressed remorse about even cutting the king’s garment was intended to build up respect for the sacredness of the post he was to fill. Or perhaps that strategy was not David’s, but that of the narrator, writing at the court of Solomon or one of Solomon’s descendents. (This chapter, with its insistence on the untouchability of “the Lord’s anointed,” was used as a proof-text by the Royalists in the English Civil War before and after the execution of Charles I and by the Tories and the Jacobites before and after the deposition of James II.)

Whatever the sequence, David’s withholding his hand leads to an emotionally charged and tragic scene. David, addressing Saul as “my father,” offers the cut-off bit of cloth as evidence that he could have killed Saul but refrained. This shocks Saul into his moment of sanity. He addresses David as “my son,” weeps, and confesses that David is more righteous than he is, having requited Saul’s evil with good.

Saul then follows in his son Jonathan’s footsteps, telling David that he will be king, and asking for his pledge (given and, typically of David, broken) not to exterminate Saul’s lineage. It is not until the end of the next chapter that we learn of Saul’s extinguishing his family ties to David by giving his daughter Michal, formerly David’s wife, to another man.

In this chapter, we see both David and Saul acting nobly, though in David’s case also strategically. That makes Saul’s suffering, and his coming downfall, seem tragic. We are reminded that Saul, before he was hit with the “evil spirit from God” in the aftermath of the Agag incident, had acted decently enough (except for the death-sentence he pronounces on his son for not keeping the battle-day fast). Even after his descent into madness and tyranny, he is not depicted as having been rapacious or concupiscent (by contrast, for example, with the sons of Eli). Saul is never shown as fulfilling the prophecy of Samuel about the evils of monarchy from Chapter 8:

This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots.

And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots.

And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.

And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.

And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.

And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.

He will take the tenth of your flocks; and ye shall be his servants.

And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not answer you in that day.

The fulfillment of those awful words is left to David, and more especially to Solomon.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com