Wibble Wednessday: End of the Line (1 Samuel 28–31)

OK, a nice long one, since I’m so often lame, and was in fact so last week. Also, שנה טובה to all and sundry as we welcome in the year 5775!

Short snarky summary: Witches aren’t all bad. But Saul continues to be a bad’un and hypocrite. He is finally killed, and unlikely circumstance conspires to keep David from actually having to kill him.


So, when we left last time, David had gone over to Achish, king of Gath, who took him in with unusually open arms, given the preexisting history between David and the Philistines (and particularly the Philistines of Gath). We begin this chapter with some dialogue which is arguably attached to the events of the previous chapter, with David raiding the non-Israelites in the land of Israel under Achish’s auspicies. For, in this chapter, Achish is gearing up, not to raid non-Israelite settlements, but to strike against Israel itself. The dialogue between Achish and David on this occasion is maddening in its ambiguity: Achish orders David’s troops out, and David says, (28:2) “You know what your servant must do.” Some translations replace that “must” with a “will” or a “can”. It’s hard to read the meaning of this: is it a boast of prowess and a declaration of enthusiasm, or a guarded acquiescence, or even a warning of potential betrayal? Achish seems to endorse the first reading, since he decides to take David into his special personal guard (either that, or he wants to keep his enemies close…). Oddly, this whole episode, and indeed David’s presence in Gah, ends up being irrelevant as regards the whole brewing war with Israel, as we’ll see.

The rest of Chapter 28, from verse 3 onwards, is an intrusion into the narrative sufficiently interruptive that my copy of the JPS translation actually includes a footnote suggesting it should go after the next two chapters. Be that as it may,in the actual text it appears here, and it jumps the action back to Saul and Israel. It’s reiterated that Samuel is dead (he died back in Chapter 25, and barely got a verse about it)and mentioned for the first time that Saul had forbidden necromancy (possibly due to the Exodus 22:17 prohibition on sorcery, or maybe just because Saul thought communing with the dead was creepy) . This is all relevant because it means Saul has no counselors with a serious line in divination, between the one reliable prophet of God being dead and any means of contacting him being severed. And with the Philistines on the march, he’s worried, and all the usual low-grade divinatory methods fail — he doesn’t have any dreams or prophecies and even the Urim, whatever it is, fail him (the Urim and Thummim, which we’ve seen before, are some sort of divination which we last saw in Chapter 14. A mention back in Exodus 28 suggests they’re somehow part of the high priest’s breastplate). So Saul decides he needs Samuel, even though he had no use for the old coot back when he was living. He hears there’s still a witch in Endor (no, not that Endor. The other one), so he disguises himself and goes off to hire her to raise up Samuel.

As you might expect, she has some doubts about committing a capital crime for hire. Surprisingly, her doubts are stilled by Saul promising that, no, really, this isn’t a trap and he won’t tell anyone. Maybe it was a more credulous time back then. I guess sting operations hadn’t been invented yet. So she calls up the shade of Samuel, and then (for some reason) recognizes Saul and freaks out, but continues with the procedure anyways, perhaps reasoning that if Saul wanted to kill her, she’d be dead, and might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.

The following dialogue is pretty familiar from the first half of the book, from back when its title character was still using up air. Death hasn’t mellowed the prickly prophet, and he picks up pretty much where he left off the last time he saw Saul, saying that God has abandoned him and that he’s going to be stripped of his kingdom. Oh, and he’s going to die, too, within one day. It’s not clear why Saul expected differently, but, then, Saul hasn’t behaved particularly rationally for ten or so chapters, so why would he start now?

Many people have ruminated on what they would do if they knew they had one day left to live (ask me how a panel of three luminaries of geek culture answered the question once!). Apparently, Saul intends to waste his scant few hours of life curled up on the floor and whimpering until the witch-woman, who honestly comes across as a pretty decent sort, begs him to get up and eat something. She slaughters a cow and serves it with bread, in an act of generous hospitality reminiscent of Abraham’s kindness towards three wayfarers, one of whom was God. So I suppse we’re supposed to be pretty sympathetic towards this minor character, despite the Bible’s antipathy towards her chosen profession.

Meanwhile, back in Gath… the chronology gets a bit confusing, because we have a muster and mobilization, which was supposedly the impetus for the whole story from the last chapter. Y’know how I mentioned that the whole Saul interlude looks like it belongs later? This is us probably going back in time a week or so. Blame the dual sources for the David-and-Saul narrative: it explains everything else narratively wonky in the book. Presumably the “Philistines are on the move and Saul freaks out” fragment and the “Philistines are mustering and preparing to move” fragment are from different sources and the redactors just plain put ’em in in the wrong order. Anyways, as part of the muster, non-Gathite Philistines join up with Team Achish, and say what someone should’ve said chapters ago, namely: “Hey, Your Majesty, why the hell are you trusting an enemy agent and war criminal?” They aren’t able to actually convince Achish he’s being an idiot, but to preserve peace Achish consents to leave David and his squad at home for the big battle.

Two interesting notes on this incident: first off, this is a pretty blatant narrative twist to keep David from being on the front lines in the big battle where Saul and Jonathan will be killed (whoops, spoiler!). If I had to guess the redactors added anything, this would be it. For the ancient sources, I’d imagine the myth would come in a circle, with the rightful king killing the false king, and claiming his place thereby. But for the Deuteronomists, who have stories they still want to tell about the young king, regicide (not to mention killing his loverbest friend) might be a bit morally muddling (don’t worry, we’ve still got plenty of morally muddled stuff later in David’s reign) and they introduced this kludge. Second, and perhaps less obvious, Achish professes his personal admiration for David with a rather peculiar valediction, praising him as being “as good as an angel of God”. Now, for that last word, he doesn’t actually use the tetragrammaton, which would be pretty weird; the word is אלהים, which is less definitively a Name of God but which, everywhere in the Bible, refers to the Hebrew God—whom, um, Achish doesn’t worship. I suppose if he called David an “angel of Dagon” it would lessen the praise in the eyes of the Hebrew readers, to whom an avatar of Dagon would most definitely not be an object of praise. But it still feels tonally off, sort of a sacrifice of verisimilitude for public-relations purposes.

Chapter 30 ends up being somewhat irrelevant to the story at hand if a bit relevant to David’s own personal arc. On being sent home to Ziklag, the Philistine territory which Achish gave as a gift to David a few chapters back, David discovers that Amelekites have raided, pillaged, pludered, and generally ruined the place in their absence, and taken all its residents captive. David is dismayed to have lost his wives: his troops are furious at the loss of their families. David calls up his pet priest to put the question to God as to whether he would succeed in a rescue mission (he does the same trick with the priest in Chapter 23, where it’s implied the communion with God arises from the presence of the high priest’s vestments, and that brings us full circle back to Saul’s failed divination with the Urim). Anyways, God promises success if David chases after the raiders, so he does. After shedding a third of his party who are too exhausted to continue, Team David comes across the abandoned Egyptian slave of one of the Amelekite raiders, who is more than happy to betray his former masters and help the Israelites track down the raiders’ camp.

A side note at this point: in standard Hebrew works of the time, the Egyptians were really bad guys. I mean, they were our slavemasters for hundres of years. But they’re less bad than Amalek, who God clearly has some sort of bug up his ass about, since Amalek is the only nation which Israel is instructed, specifically, to genocide, with such force that failure to be sufficiently genocidal is, apparently, what caused God to withdraw his favor from Saul. So here the Egyptian is ennobled pretty much solely by the utter contempt the story has for his masters.

So, anyways, the 400-man troop David has remaining sweeps into a celebrating Amelekite camp and murders everyone except for four hundred soldiers who make a good getaway. This last number leads me to wonder just how big the Amelekite raiding group is. David clearly thought his (original) 600-man army sufficient to catch and chastize them, and yet the escape of 400 of the foe is regarded as a trifle by the text. So either David is massively outnumbered (which isn’t mademention of anywhere) or he’s actually as bad at genocide as Saul is, letting a huge chunk of the enemy escape. But anyways, they rescue all the household goods, the families, and specifically David’s wives, and go back to rejoin the 200-man garrison they left behind.

Incidentally, some cursory readings about this incident indicated that it, too, was a doubling up of an incident we’d already seen due to inadequate integration of disparite sources! It didn’t look like anything we’d seen before—I didn’t recall a story much like this, but oddly, in certain particulars, if not in overall thematic significance, it’s parallel to the story of Nabal back in Chapter 25. As in that story, David departs with four hundred, leaving two hundred behind, and as in that story, the blow to the enemy comes in the midst of a feast, and as in that story, David gains Abagail at the end. Of course, the actual events of the story are completely different, but in a text so full of parallel events, the similarities are striking.

Incidentally, there’s a peculiar legal(ish) codicil to this story: when he reconvenes his army, the four hundred combatants assert that they should have the whole of the spoils, on the grounds that the two hundred left behind didn’t actually do anything. David disagrees, saying that the victory wasn’t theirs, it’s God’s, and that God wanted some to stay guard over their provisions and some of them to fight and that the spoils should be shared equally. The text asserts specifically (30:25) that this is something which should serve as a universal principle.

Also notable in this little otherwise irrelevant little side-story is that David ends the story by sending a share of the spoils to the elders of communities in Judah, which serves after a fashion to mark which side he’s actually on now, since Philistia and Israel are at war; by supporting a specific belligirent he’s repudiating the other one. If, on the other hand, we accept the likely hypothesis that Israel and Judah are and always were sister states rather than a unified whole, it is entirely possible that distributing largesse to Judah is not, in fact, an act of rebellion against Gath, not if there aren’t hostilities between Philistia and Judah.

And finally we get ot the last chapter of this story, and the last chapter of Saul’s life. The great Philistine-Israeli battle, which has been brewing for all these chapters, is finally met on the slopes of Mount Gilboa. Israel is routed, Saul’s sons are killed, and Saul himself, sorely wounded and ashamed to be killed by the foe, commits suicide (after unsuccessfully drafting his assistant to kill him). Isreal cedes an enormous chunk of territory to Philistia, and the Philistines celebrate by mounting Saul’s headless body atop a wall in their new territory. The Israelite locals view this as indecent and humiliating, so they rescue and bury the bodies of Saul and his sons.

And so ends the tale of Saul, and the first book of Samuel. Will the unrecognized young king who has been a vagabond and a traitor actually be able to ascend his throne, and can he bring peace and prosperity to a war-ravaged land? Tune in next time to find out!

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

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