Fribble Friday: Feels like the first time (1 Samuel 16–17)

OK. Only a bit late this time!

Short, snarky summary: Samuel decides he’s OK with the whole “king” concept and starts looking for a higher-quality monarch than Saul. He finds a shepherd’s son named David. Later, more or less by coincidence, Saul also discovers and favors David and brings him into his court. Later on, a shepherd’s son named David blunders into a battle with a Philistine strongman and emerges victorious. Saul meets and is quite taken with this young man, to whom he is introduced. Extradiegetically, the continuity editor is sacked.

In this chapter, we meet the Deuteronomists’ hero: David, founder of the Judaic dynastic line, descendant of Ruth (who, thanks to Tanakh ordering, we haven’t met yet), ancestor-to-be of the Messiah (according to Judaic prophesy) and of Jesus (according to Christian scripture). The Deuteronomists have a big sticky love for him due, as far as I can tell, to some serious going for broke on the Judaic kingdom after the (possibly apocryphal) split between Judah and the Ten Tribes of Israel. Deuteronomical works (and the canon built by the heirs of Deuteronomical thought) generally paint Judah in as favorable a light as possible and Israel in as black a light as possible. Judah was ruled more-or-less continually by the Davidic dynasty (at least according to the Biblical chronology), while Israel was ruled by a ragtag sequence of violent rebels (starting with the rebel Jereboam, and continuing generally not in a dynastic line).

David is also, incidentally, the first Israelite we actually have corroborating evidence for the existence of. The Tel Dan and Mesha steles both have fragmentary texts suggesting (although other readings are possible) the existence of a local, small-time ruler named David. So, among other things, David’s rule will bring us slowly into the interface between myth and actual history.

But right now in our narrative, David isn’t king. Saul is, and when last seen, Saul and Samuel were not on speaking terms. This is kind of a problem for both, because at that time temporal and spiritual power weren’t so very disentangled that a king could remain stable without the support of the priesthood, nor would a recalcitrant priest be that comfortable with an antagonistic strong king. Neither of these characters seems to have a secure hold on the hearts and minds of Israel, so there’s no coup at this point, but nonetheless, Samuel at this point seems to be pretty devoted to undermining Saul’s authority.

Chapter 16 attributes his main undermining act to divine command: God’s sick of Samuel moping around mourning this king who has lost the divine mandate, and orders Samuel to relay the divine mandate to the new king. Samuel appears to recognize that this is sedition that could get him killed, so he goes covertly to invite Jesse (whose son God has fingered as divinely chosen) to share in a sacrifice, with his sons.

Verses 6–13 are basically a “Cinderella” narrative. Samuel sees Jesse’s seven sons, and doesn’t get a surge of prophetic awesome from any of them, and asks if Jesse might possibly have another son he forgot about. Sure enough, there’s the baby of the lot, off tending the sheep, and when he is called in, sure enough he is handsome and healthy-looking. Last tiem Samuel picked a handsome, healthy-looking guy, he got Saul, but this time he’s sure he has the right king, and thus annoints Jesse’s eighth son David as the true king of Israel.

The second half of Chapter 16 provides Daiv with a convenient excuse to be at the heart of things. Verse 14 says that “an evil spirit from God began to terrify Saul”, which sounds a lot like what we would nowadays call mental illness. Generally, in many cultures, the erratic behavior and peculiar beliefs of the mentally ill were interpreted as the torments of demons, so the easiest modern reading of this narrative is that Saul is suffering from some awful mental disorder. On the recommendation of his court, he seeks a musician to calm his fevered mind, and surprise! one of his attendants happens to know Jesse’s son David, who’s a skilled lyre-player. Small world, innit? If we couldn’t handwave away God’s hand in all coincidences, I’d venture that both the prescription of music and the suggestion of a specific musician are connivances of Samuel’s. In fact, the story works pretty well if they are, so I’m going to read it that way.

Chapter 17 is one of those stories everyone knows (at least in its generalities, if not specifics). Unfortunately, it’s also completely inconsistent with the established chronology. See, at this point, we (the readers) have been introduced to David, told in no uncertain terms that he is the destined king, and he has been brought into the intimate circle of King Saul where he can observe the kingship from the inside. Chapter 17 basically ignores all that and reintroduces David again as if we’d never known the dude at all. The context is that Saul is away to battle the Philistines again, and this time the Philistines have brought a champion, Goliath of Gath, who is enormous, nuscular, well-armored, and well-armed. He challenges the Israelites to single combat, and even the tallest among them (Saul, if we trust 1Sam 9:2), is unwilling to fight.

A side note: the idea that the tallest guy around is the king, or a champion, or a hero, is kind of weird from a modern perspective. I mean, I know height is positively correlated with respect and esteem and all, but I keep flashing back to the government of the Irken Empire from Invader Zim (and at this point, I have a feeling the Almighty Tallest would be an improvement on Saul).

After this scene-setting, we are told that some guy named Jesse (yeah, we’ve met him) has a youngest son named David (yeah, him too) whose older brothers are with the army (OK, that part is news). Anyways, David brings provisions from Jesse’s farm for his sons and for their unit, and thus is in a position to hear Goliath’s challenge.

Thus follows a colloquy between David and various military folks, from the generality of the army to his brother Eliab and finally up to Saul. The common soldiers, having no actual dog in this fight, praise Goliath’s might and talk about how great the reward will be for whoever kills him. Eliab, seeing David’s enthusiasm for the reward, strongly suggests leaving things to the professionals, and Saul, initially disdaining David’s youth and inexperience, is favorably impressed by a speech of faith, in which David professes that, having been graced by God to protect his flock from predators, will be likewise graced in protecting the Israelites from this Philistine (it’s actually a quite good little speech, in fairness).

So Saul is apparently OK with sending this kid to be his champion in one-on-one battle with Goliath, even though if he loses the Israelites are theoretically obliged to serve the Philistines (incidentally, the reverse is supposed to happen if David wins, and it doesn’t, so maybe the whole let’s-decide-this-with-a-single-fight thing is just so much blarney on both sides). Saul tries to armor and arm David with his own trappings, but he rejects the supplies as outside of his familiarity (and, since Saul is so tall, they probably don’t fit him anyways).

So David, clad simply and armed just with a staff and sling, goes to battle against the fearsome Philistine warrior. There’s a reason the scene has acquired fame: it’s a powerful contrast between simple faith and prowess. And, of course, we know how the story ends—as in so many fables of this sort, after a round of back-and-forth insults, the experienced and more obviously powerful combatant falls to a single blow from his underestimated foe. Just to drive home the fact that David won without a sword, the narrative emphasizes that, after knocking down Goliath, he then has to use Goliath’s own sword to behead him.

So the Israelites triumph, and Saul asks, “who is this brave hero, who I definitely didn’t meet last chapter?” and is told, and gets to meet the stranger who has won the day.

So, whichever origin story you read for David, he’s now Saul’s favorite, and a protégé of the royal household. It’s not going to last, though.

Tune in next time, when you learn the dire secret of my real first name, and how I got it.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Fribble Friday: Feels like the first time (1 Samuel 16–17)

  1. gsanders says:

    I forget if I’d thought of the idea that Samuel prescribed music and picked the musician, that makes sense. Oh, and minor typo, I think you mean “even the tallest were *un*willing to fight him”

    Finally, while it should come afterwards given your methodology, I strongly recommend the Life of David by Robert Pinsky. He’s a former U.S. poet laureate and does a good job of making the text accessible, treating it as a work of poetry, without looking away from the darker elements. I’m quite fond of Pinsky for this sort of thing and I really loved his work translating and updating the play Wallenstein.

    • Jake says:

      I’ve not read any Pinsky but I’ve met him briefly heard good things about his work (the narratology-and-history-of-interactive-fiction crowd is particularly fascinated by Mindwheel). I might have to pick up the book — UofL’s got it in the library — and I’m definitely not averse to reading auxiliary texts germane to whatever I’m writing on (certainly for the Torah I was dipping into the most accessible Midrashic sources I knew).

      So, thanks for the recommendation. Might end up bleeding into my next few writeups!

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