Wibble Wednesday: Aid and Comfort (1 Samuel 26–27)

*sigh* School started, and on Wednesdays I’m out until medium-late. Readjusting to the year, but I did flake a few weeks.

Short snarky summary: David, who has repeated almost everything he has done in the narrative thus far at least twice, repeats a previous event, and then joins up with a surprisingly oblivious and trusting Philistine force.


Chapter 26 is—and there is no other easy way to describe it—thematically identical to Chapter 24. I’ve harped on the poor integration of the Early Source and the Late Source a lot, I know, but it really does come as a surprise to me, reading through the David-and-Saul narrative, just how often things are repeated, or certain events happen which clearly serve the same narrative function as events which already happened. The story from Chapter 16 to 26 has astonishingly poor continuity, even by the rather low standards of the Bible, and this is kind of the final insult of that sequence.

In Chapter 24, if you recall, Saul received word that David was in the wilderness of En-gedi, and he chases him there but doesn’t find him. Then David creeps up on Saul while he’s pissing, spurns his comrades’ advice to kill the king, steals the corner of his cloak, and later shows the corner of the cloak to Saul as proof of his mercy. Saul recognizes David’s forbearance and agrees to give up the chase.

In contrast, Chapter 24 tells the tall of how Saul received word that David was in the wilderness of Ziph, and he chases him there but doesn’t find him. Then David creeps up on Saul while he’s sleeping, spurns his comrades’ advice to kill the king, steals his spear and water jug, and later shows them to Saul as proof of his mercy. Saul recognizes David’s forbearance and agrees to give up the chase. Completely different story.

OK, that’s a bit unfair. There is a little bit of interest in the Chapter 26 telling which differs from the previous tale. An obvious change is in the agency: back in Chapter 24, David basically found Saul at his mercy by pure dumb luck, in that Saul happened to pop into the cave where David was hiding to take a piss, whereas in this retelling, David is specifically making an excursion into Saul’s camp while he’s asleep. In addition, this version of the story adds elements both of divine intervention and of dereliction of duty. In Chapter 24 the only real antagonist is Saul: he’s spacing out while urinating—as you do—and that’s why David can sneak around cutting up his clothing. The Chapter 26 variant is a bit more peculiar because Saul and apparently an entire armed camp are asleep. Military protocols have changed over the last few millennia, but surely the concept of a night watch in hostile territory isn’t a new thing? Indeed, verse 26:12–14 somewhat justifies this oddity: In verse 12, the deep sleep fallen on the entire camp is attributed specifically to the hand of God, and in verse 14, David explicitly calls out Saul’s right-hand man Abner for failing to protect his lord. Putting the divine explanation and the censure of Abner in such lose proximity is either monstrously unfair to Abner, or mitigating, and I’m not sure which.

But other than these details, which I’ll admit provide a little bit of difference, Chapter 26 doesn’t advance the story. We’ve already seen the cycle of David’s mercy and Saul’s continued persecution, and we didn’t actually need a repeat.

Chapter 27 is the second view we get of a David who will become unfortunately common, namely, the David who seems to have a completely malfunctioning moral compass. We got a glimpse of him back in Chapter 25, where he fumingly decided to commit a massacre against a man’s household for the crime of not paying his lawless band off, and here again his behavior is going to run off the rails.

This chapter starts sensibly enough: David, having finally gotten the hint that Saul is never going to stop persecuting him, decides to pick up stakes and leave Israel altogether. Carefully considering the many neighboring states of Israel and their attitudes, he opts to go to the Philistine territory of Gath. That’s right: of all the places he could have chosen to lay low, he decides to go to the one that’s currently at war with the nation he once served as the military leader of, whose champion he killed in single combat, and where some time earlier he’d had to feign madness to keep from being summarily executed. Oddly, king Achish seems to completely ignore David’s notoriety in his nation and court; I’m weirdly reminded of this exchange from “Last Exit to Springfield”:


BURNS: Simpson, eh? New man?
SMITHERS: He thwarted your campaign for governor, you ran over his son, he saved the plant from meltdown, his wife painted you in the nude…
BURNS: Doesn’t ring a bell.

He even gives a town to David, on the strength of apparently no qualifications whatsoever. This bit might be etiological, explaining why the Philistine town of Ziklag came to be in the nation of Judah.

But the psychopathic bit only comes a bit later. At this point David’s behavior is mildly treasonous, going over to the side of the enemy. Achish sets him and his troops to raiding, which is maybe a bit more treasonous than just living quietly in Gath. To his credit (and perhaps Achish’s), he doesn’t actually raid Israelites, but rather harries the previous inhabitants of the land, including our old enemies the Amalekites, and steals all their stuff, in good raiderly fashion.

Of course he doesn’t want Israel learning what he’s up to, so he keeps word from getting back to them by slaughtering every single inhabitant of the lands he raids. That’s an imaginative solution, but except in the case of the Amalekites (where, uh, that behavior is not only sanctioned but demanded by God), it’s really not remotely defensible. This also keeps word from getting back to Achish (that’s an advantage of having your own fanatically loyal troops, I suppose, since they’re the only witnesses) who sensibly concludes that the Israelites have learned of his raids and don’t trust him any more. It’s not entirely logical that Achish trusts an avowed traitor because of his treason, but I assume he’s going on the notion that David has well and truly burned bridges back home. And morally, he certainly has, but we’ll see next week that when things cool down he’ll get to go back and nobody is going to fuss about that pesky little act of treason.

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

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Aid and Comfort (1 Samuel 26–27)

  1. gsanders says:

    I’m surprised I didn’t remember that particular war crime. That said, I could have lost it in all the doubling up. Man…

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