Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Fulgencio Batista of Israel: 1 Samuel 22-31

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

If you're going to be a righteous political revolutionary, you have to have an evil authoritarian dictator to fight, and Saul fits the bill admirably. When he hears that David has fled, he accuses his senior officials of plotting against him and eventually learns that David was spotted with priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech is summoned and doesn't seem to realize that David is in the doghouse - he praises David and pleads ignorance. Saul isn't amused; he flies into a rage and kills 85 priests, including Ahimelech. Saul's men don't stop there: they also kill the entire city of Nob, where Ahimelech was living. Only one man, Ahimelech's son Abiathar, escapes, and Abiathar makes his way to the rebels, where he joins David.

Eventually, David gets around to doing what Israelite armies are supposed to do (naturally): protect Israelites from the barbarous Philistines. His small band races to Keilah to lift a Philistine siege and help the Judeans living there, but the treacherous Judeans thank him by sending a message to Saul saying they know where David is. Saul decides to repay everyone involved by razing the town, but by the time he's ready to begin the siege, David has moved on - fortunately for the residents of Keilah, who are therefore spared. David flees to Ziphite territory, but they betray him too; and then to the Desert of Maon, where Saul's forces finally trap him. But, good fortune! At the last moment, Saul gets an urgent message that the Philistines are attacking, and he rushes his army away to fight this more serious threat. David is spared.

Never let it be said that the author of 1 Samuel lacks a sense of humour! The Philistines retreat, and Saul resumes the chase after David. Completely by chance, the king steps into a cave where David is hiding in order to "relieve himself." Egged on by his comrades, David sneaks up and cuts off a piece of the king's cloak. He then presents the piece to the king as evidence that he could have killed Saul, but has chosen not to. Saul is stricken and begs David's forgiveness for all that he has done. The two men appear to make peace, exchanging oaths: Saul blesses David and asks God to bless him too, and David promises not to "wipe out" Saul and his family once he has become king.

The truce doesn't last - in chapter 26 the two are at it again. Actually, it's not entirely clear why, and the circumstances are sufficiently hazy that we could conclude this is just an alternate telling of the original cave story. The Ziphites betray David again, Saul comes down to find him, but David sneaks into the enemy camp during the night and steals Saul's spear and favourite water bottle. Like before, he then challenges Saul - though this time out of pride and arrogance, rather than guilt and humility, which might be significant or at least noteworthy - and Saul admits that he has done wrong. The two men make peace and go their own way.

This time, David has no expectation that the truce will hold. Convinced that Saul will eventually come after him, he defects to the Philistines along with his entire band, seeking asylum from king Achish in Gath. David and his merry band of mercenaries turn rogue, randomly raiding Geshurite, Girzite and Amalekite territories and murdering everyone they find, before stealing their livestock and even their clothes. Usually I use murder as broadly as possible, but here I use the term in the specific Biblical legal sense: there's no other apt word for what's going on here. David is murdering people so there will be no witnesses left alive afterwards. He has a reason for this: he's secretly lying to king Achish by telling him the raids are actually targeting Israelite communities in Judah.

(Saul has his own problems, as he's presently off consulting with spirit mediums, but I'll get to that in a separate post.)

Eventually the Philistines decide to attack Israel again, and this time Achish demands that David's band go with them. David actually agrees. We don't get to see whether David would actually be willing to kill Israelites to further his ruse, because the Philistine army refuses to march alongside a group of Israelites, so Achish sends David home. Instead, David's men decide to attack the Amalekites, who in the meantime have raided the Negev and kidnapped David's wives. They easily overcome the Amalekite raiders and recover the stolen property and women. David establishes new rules for handling war booty and sends some of the captured treasure to the Judean elders "who were his friends." Hurray for petty corruption!

In the meantime, while David is killing Amalekites, Saul is actually defending Israel from the Philistine invasion. The battle isn't going well: all Saul's sons (including Jonathan) are slayed and Saul's position is overrun by the enemy. Wounded nad surrounded, Saul and his armour-bearer commit ritual suicide so that at least they won't have been killed by the uncircumcised Philistines.

The supposed role of God in this set of stories is intriguing. David basically uses God as an oracle, occasionally engaging in some strategic question-and-answer sessions and usually getting useful results. Saul, too, claims that God is on his side on numerous occasions (see, for example, 23:21, among many others). David actually accepts this - on more than one occasion, he refuses to harm Saul specifically on the grounds that Saul is "the Lord's anointed." At some points God really does seem to be on both sides, but in the end the militarist yardstick may be used to show that the author, at least, favours David: David survives his battle with the Amalekites, but Saul dies fighting the Philistines. The fact that David is chasing down a small raiding party and Saul is defending the homeland from a massive invasion doesn't seem to enter into the equation.