Notes on 1 Sam. 16

The Jacob Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA continues to work its way through First Samuel; at the jump are the notes on our last two meetings, which discussed Chapter 16, the selection of David as king and his introduction to the court of Saul.

The Jack Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA continues to work its way through First Samuel; at the jump are the notes on our last two meetings, which discussed Chapter 16, the selection of David as king and his introduction to the court of Saul.

Chapter 16 starts out by telling us once again that Samuel “mourned” for Saul’s deposition, though it doesn’t tell us why. (Perhaps, someone suggested, Samuel was happy to have a clumsy, manipulable, spiritually tone-deaf king, and was worried about finding his successor less easy to manage.) HaShem rebukes him, and orders him to fill a horn with oil (presumably for anointing) and to go see Jesse the Bethlehemite.

Samuel says that he is afraid that, if he goes, Saul will kill him. This strikes a new note. Has the enmity between Saul and Samuel grown? Has Saul established his rule so strongly that he can now imagine picking a quarrel with the Man of God? Has Saul’s homicidal madness already become evident? These are all guesses. The text seems silent.

HaShem proposes, and Samuel acts on, a trick and a lie: he is to pretend to be going only to offer sacrifice. (Not a very plausible story since Bethlehem was not one of the usual altars, according to the commenters, but apparently adequate for its purposes.)

Samuel’s appearance causes fear. The elders of Bethlehem tremble, and ask whether he comes in peace. We are not told why the arrival of a holy man intent on sacrifice should create consternation, again unless Samuel has become an established enemy of the king.

Samuel then meets the sons of Jesse, and makes one of his few blunders. When he sees Eliab, the eldest and the tallest of Jesse’s sons, he jumps to the conclusion that Eliab must be the chosen one. Does this mean that Samuel had a tendency to confuse size with competence, and that he identified Eliab for the same reason he identified Saul? A more generous interpretation (consistent with the description of the choice of Saul as having come from HaShem rather than Samuel) is that Samuel has guessed on the basis of that earlier choice that HaShem takes size to be the criterion, and needs to be corrected. In any case, Samuel reviews the seven eldest sons, and all are rejected, until Jesse finally mentions the youngest, David, off tending the sheep. David is accordingly summoned.

(Why does Jesse not think of David on his own? Is his attention, like Isaac’s, so fixed on the first-born that he cannot appreciate the talents of the youngest?)

At this first meeting, David is not quoted as saying anything, nor are any of his actions reported. There is no hint of his intelligence, his strategic capacity, or his skill in music and poetry. Instead, we are told of his physical beauty, which will serve him well throughout his career. HaShem tells Samuel to anoint him, and Samuel does so “in the midst of his brethren,” whereupon “the spirit of HaShem came mightily upon David from that day forward,” as it had upon Saul when confronted with the Ammonite threat (11:6).

The scene then shifts to the court of Saul; David continues his career of passive success. As the “spirit of HaShem” grips David, it departs from Saul, suggesting some sort of zero-sum game or conservation law. But the departure of “the spirit of HaShem” doesn’t leave Saul back where he was; instead, he is seized by “an evil spirit from HaShem.” His courtiers suggest, as Alter notes, a sort of music therapy, and Saul agrees that someone skilled at playing the lyre should be sought.

Aside from Miriam’s use of the timbrel in Exodus 15:20 and the use of the ram’s horn before Jericho, this appears to be the first mention of a musical instrument in the Tanakh. It introduces David as the founder of Hebrew liturgical music; Alter suggests that David’s ability to cure Saul reflects his command, through music, of the realm of spirit.

While the wandering bands of prophets, such as the one Saul joins in his post-anointment ecstasy, apparently used music and dance to create religious frenzy, none of the named prophets is recorded as using music. (But in much of the ancient world — ancient Greece, for example — poetry implied music: the Homeric bards, like the Celtic bards, always performed to the accompaniment of the harp. So are we to infer music wherever the text is in verse, consistent with the repeated description of verse passages as “songs”: e.g., the Song of Deborah, the Song of Hannah? If so, then many of the prophets whose names we know used music; but the text never mentions that music, while David’s psalms are often labeled with the names of the instruments to be used.)

One of the ne’arim (literally “lads;” does this mean young courtiers, or simply serving-men as opposed to senior officials? compare French garçon for “waiter” or English “bellboy” or “busboy”) quickly has a candidate to offer, with a wealth of (improbable) detail about his qualities: “skilled in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, a good-looking man, and HaShem is with him.”

Alter asks whether the na’ar in question, who is so ready to offer a candidate from a rival tribe, might not be a Davidic (or perhaps Samuelic) agent in Saul’s court. We wondered, along with some commenters, whether the speech was well-designed to recommend David to Saul’s favor as oppose to stirring up the envious antagonism Saul later displays. In particular, offering someone from whom “the spirit of HaShem” has departed a servant enjoying HaShem’s favor seems somewhat impolite, to say no more. But perhaps, some of us thought, Saul was so aware of his own lack of divine favor as to be ready to embrace someone who had it, like a blind man seeking out a guide with keen eyesight.

If, as we earlier speculated, “mighty man of valor” is a technical term for a heavily-armed infantry fighter such as Saul or Goliath or Achilles, then it must surely be false as applied to David. Even “a man of war” seems like a stretch for a shepherd boy whose military experience consists of fighting wild animals in defense of his flock. As to “prudent in speech,” how does the courtier know? To this point, the text records no word of David’s.

(The rabbis tried to understand the list of David’s attributes as embodying the virtues of a sage: “a man of war,” for example, meaning someone who battles relentlessly for the truth.)

Saul sends for David (by name, and specifying that he is with the flock, though we aren’t told how he came by those bits of information) and Jesse sends him, with (literally) “a donkey of bread,” a wineskin, and a goat. (Alter reads this as “a donkey laden with bread,” though it might equally well be “a donkey-load of bread.”)

Then “David came to Saul and stood in his presence, and Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.” To “stand in the king’s presence” apparently could be idiomatic for “served the king” (compare English “waited on” for “served”), but if so no details of the service are given; it could equally well mean literally that David stood before Saul and Saul fell in love with him, as his son Jonathan and his daughter Michal do later.

Why “armor-bearer”? This seems a strange role for someone recruited as a music therapist. Alter suggests that there might have been no office of court musician, and that David was simply being appointed to a recognized office. We speculated that the “armor-bearer” might, like a contemporary politician’s “driver,” be the great man’s closest personal attendant and confidant. David’s appointment as armor-bearer, like his introduction as a “mighty man of valor” and “a man of war,” also prepares us for his appearance in the next chapter as the slayer of Goliath.

Despite his military-sounding title, David functions, as the courtiers had originally proposed, as a music therapist: when the evil spirit is upon Saul, David plays, and Saul is benefited: “the evil spirit would turn way from him.” As Alter observes, this turning-away of the evil spirit mimics the turning-away of the spirit of HaShem that began Saul’s affliction.

1 Sam 16 (JPS)

16:1 And the Lord said unto Samuel: ‘How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? fill thy horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Beth-lehemite; for I have provided Me a king among his sons.’

16:2 And Samuel said: ‘How can I go? if Saul hear it, he will kill me.’ And the Lord said: ‘Take a heifer with thee, and say: I am come to sacrifice to the Lord.

16:3 And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will tell thee what thou shalt do; and thou shalt anoint unto Me him whom I name unto thee.’

16:4 And Samuel did that which the Lord spoke, and came to Beth-lehem. And the elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said: ‘Comest thou peaceably?’

16:5 And he said: ‘Peaceably; I am come to sacrifice unto the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.’ And he sanctified Jesse and his sons, and called them to the sacrifice.

16:6 And it came to pass, when they were come, that he beheld Eliab, and said: ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.’

16:7 But the Lord said unto Samuel: ‘Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for it is not as man seeth: for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’

16:8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said: ‘Neither hath the Lord chosen this.’

16:9 Then Jesse made Shammah to pass by. And he said: ‘Neither hath the Lord chosen this.’

16:10 And Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse: ‘The the Lord hath not chosen these.’

16:11 And Samuel said unto Jesse: ‘Are here all thy children?’ And he said: ‘There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep.’ And Samuel said unto Jesse: ‘Send and fetch him; for we will not sit down till he come hither.’

16:12 And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and withal of beautiful eyes, and goodly to look upon. And the Lord said: ‘Arise, anoint him; for this is he.’

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.

16:14 Now the spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrified him.

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.

16:15 And Saul’s servants said unto him: ‘Behold now, an evil spirit from God terrifieth thee.

16:16 Let our lord now command thy servants, that are before thee, to seek out a man who is a skilful player on the harp; and it shall be, when the evil spirit from God cometh upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.’

16:17 And Saul said unto his servants: ‘Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me.’

16:18 Then answered one of the young men, and said: ‘Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Beth-lehemite, that is skilful in playing, and a mighty man of valour, and a man of war, and prudent in affairs, and a comely person, and the Lord is with him.’

16:19 Wherefore Saul sent messengers unto Jesse, and said: ‘Send me David thy son, who is with the sheep.’

16:20 And Jesse took an ass laden with bread, and a bottle of wine, and a kid, and sent them by David his son unto Saul.

16:21 And David came to Saul, and stood before him; and he loved him greatly; and he became his armour-bearer.

16:22 And Saul sent to Jesse, saying: ‘Let David, I pray thee, stand before me; for he hath found favour in my sight.’

16:23 And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took the harp, and played with his hand; so Saul found relief, and it was well with him, and the evil spirit departed from him.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

One thought on “Notes on 1 Sam. 16”

  1. Many thanks for posting these notes. I'm a United Methodist Pastor, and so it's of interest to me both personally and professionally to read the reflections of cogent, well-informed people on biblical texts. It's especially beneficial when those reflections come from a Jewish perspective, as it takes me out of the Christian milieu in which (for obvious reasons) I spend most of my time.

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