Tanakh notes: 1 Sam. 27: David, the mass murderer

David raids a bunch of villages, and kills everyone in them so that his perfidy toward his Philistine overlord will remain secret. There is no hint, in text or tradition, that David is wrong to do so. This is a holy book?

Chapter 27 (including 28:1-2, clearly part of the same narrative unit) is short, straightforward, and brutal. It leaves us in not much doubt about the story, but in an apparently inescapable quandary if we try to attribute any sort of moral wisdom to the text, or to the tradition that accepts it.

David, having at last concluded that Saul will continue to come after him as long as he stays in Israelite territory, takes his band to Philistia, and offers his services to Achish, the King of Gath. David had told Saul at the end of the confrontation at Hachilah that he would go into exile, and begged Saul not to pursue him to shed his blood away from HaShem’s inheritance. And Saul indeed does not pursue him.

Two factors might explain Saul’s self-restraint: David’s absence might have relieved his fear that David would strike for the throne, that Saul might have been afraid to pursue David into hostile territory, thereby exposing both his elite troops and the homeland to Philistine attack.

David’s band, 600 warriors plus women and children, would have been substantial burden on a modest-sized city, so David asks Achish to assign him another place to live. Achish gives him Ziklag (whether inhabited or uninhabited, the text does not tell us. Some commentator take it to be an abandoned city previously inhabited by the tribe of Judah.)

For a year and four months, David lives as a bandit, raiding apparently (the text didn’t make it clear to us) to the south, away from Gath and away from Israelite territory. He tells Achish, however, that he is raiding various bits of Judea and the territory of tribes friendly to the Israelites, in order to convince Achish that he has burned his bridges and therefore will be a loyal ally of the Philistines. (Apparently the tribes David is actually raiding are unfriendly both to the Philistines and the Israelites, being among the original inhabitants of the land that Israel and Philistia have seized and are now contesting; the Amalekites, of course, we have seen before.)

In order to maintain the deception, though, David can’t afford to leave any survivors. Therefore he slaughters all the people, but keeps the animals.

About all this the narrator says not a disapproving word, and for the most part the commentators are similarly tactful. (One meta-commentator remarks that the commentators are extremely reluctant to criticize the behavior of any Biblical figure not explicitly condemned in the text, which is one reason they make excuses for Saul’s tyranny.)

Some commentators try to assimilate David’s behavior to the old commandment to wipe out the Canaanites, though in that context it isn’t clear that David would be justified in keeping the animals rather than putting everything to the sword and to the torch. But if that is David’s motivation, the text is silent about it. The narration makes it reasonably clear that this is a piece of Machiavellian cunning on David’s part, combining violence against the helpless with deception of his putative ally.

Achish, who is by no means the sharpest knife in the Philistine drawer, is taken in. “He hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant for ever.”

After his perfidy and serial homicide, David seems strangely scrupulous about an explicit lie, and prefers a prevarication. Achish, preparing to raid Israel, says to David that he and his men must come along. Instead of saying some version of “Sir, Yes, sir!” David says, in a rather Delphic phrasing, “Then you know what your servant will do.”

Achish then announces that David will henceforward be his head bodyguard. There was disagreement about whether this reflects the deception of Achish by David, which seems the most natural interpretation, or rather, as Alter suggests, Achish shrewdly keeping David under observation and away from his own troops.

As it turns out, David never has to decide whether to betray Achish and join his forces to the Israelite forces, since the other Philistine rulers distrust him and make Achish send him and his men away. But, although David knows that the Philistines are to attack Israel, he does nothing to prevent the coming military disaster, in which Saul and Jonathan both die; instead, he returns to Ziklag and busies himself taking revenge on the Amalekites who have raided and burned it.

What are we to make of the text’s seeming indifference to what we would call mass murder? David and his men kill and kill and kill for fourteen months, for no better reason than to be able to steal with impunity. And yet the text makes, not this, but his misconduct with Bathsheba, his central fault, and the only one that draws down divine retribution.

This is a different problem from the genocidal commandments with respect to the Canaanites as recorded in the book of Joshua: here we need to deal with why what we would think of as pure human evil is not criticized, while in Joshua the problem is that evil is represented as not merely divinely sanctioned but divinely commanded. (Abraham’s question echoes: “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?”)

In the case of some of the appalling (to us) mitzvot the Talmud provides an escape from the Torah; for example, the stubborn and disobedient son and the apostate village both get such “due-process” protections as to be utterly secure against having the capital punishment provided for them actually carried out. But here the entire tradition, right through the Middle Ages and beyond, appears to endorse what we all utterly deplore.

Why, then, if the tradition is so horribly defective on these (to us) obvious points, should we accord it any weight whatsoever in making our own moral decisions? This seems to be a much more profound challenge to Judaism (and the other Biblical religions) than the defective geography, geology, biology, and cosmography of B’reshit.

27:1 And David said in his heart: ‘I shall now be swept away one day by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than that I should escape into the land of the Philistines; and Saul will despair of me, to seek me any more in all the borders of Israel; so shall I escape out of his hand.’

27:2 And David arose, and passed over, he and the six hundred men that were with him, unto Achish the son of Maoch, king of Gath.

27:3 And David dwelt with Achish at Gath, he and his men, every man with his household, even David with his two wives, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the Carmelitess, Nabal’s wife.

27:4 And it was told Saul that David was fled to Gath; and he sought no more again for him.

27:5 And David said unto Achish: ‘If now I have found favour in thine eyes, let them give me a place in one of the cities in the country, that I may dwell there; for why should thy servant dwell in the royal city with thee?’

27:6 Then Achish gave him Ziklag that day; wherefore Ziklag belongeth unto the kings of Judah unto this day.

27:7 And the number of the days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a full year and four months.

27:8 And David and his men went up, and made a raid upon the Geshurites, and the Gizrites, and the Amalekites; for those were the inhabitants of the land, who were of old, as thou goest to Shur, even unto the land of Egypt.

27:9 And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel. And he returned, and came to Achish.

27:10 And Achish said: ‘Whither have ye made a raid to-day?’ And David said: ‘Against the South of Judah, and against the South of the Jerahmeelites, and against the South of the Kenites.’

27:11 And David left neither man nor woman alive, to bring them to Gath, saying: ‘Lest they should tell on us, saying: So did David, and so hath been his manner all the while he hath dwelt in the country of the Philistines.’

27:12 And Achish believed David, saying: ‘He hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant for ever.’

28:1 And it came to pass in those days, that the Philistines gathered their hosts together for warfare, to fight with Israel. And Achish said unto David: ‘Know thou assuredly, that thou shalt go out with me in the host, thou and thy men.’

28:2 And David said to Achish: ‘Therefore thou shalt know what thy servant will do.’ And Achish said to David: ‘Therefore will I make thee keeper of my head for ever.’

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