Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Three Stories of the Anointing of David: 1 Samuel 16-17

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

Like several other parts of the Old Testament, there are actually three stories about how future king David meets disgraced king Saul and begins his long climb to the top of ancient Israelite politics. The Bible doesn't actually explicitly separate them, and in fact the first two can potentially be combined so that we have two stories. But even if we do that, the remaining incongruent details are such that you pretty much have to pick one or the other.

It's interesting that the same book is putting a very different spin on the same events - the sort of thing that happened in the two creation accounts at the beginning of Genesis. Later on, different views tended to be separated: for example, the quail stories differ dramatically in Exodus and Numbers, but the perspectives in those stories generally reflect the very different theological and social assumptions made by those two books.

The Divine Calling of David

In the first story (verses 16:1 through 16:13), which is less well known, the prophet Samuel goes to Jesse's house to choose the new king, following orders from God. He picks David, the youngest son, whom Jesse thought such an unlikely candidate that initially he didn't even bother to call David in from the fields, where he was working. Once again, in choosing the youngest, God and his prophet display a complete disregard for the notion of inheritance. This is the priestly narrative of the calling of David: Samuel goes to find a future king, God helps him choose one, and ultimately David is the nominee. Samuel anoints him with oil and "the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in power." God chooses David directly through his priestly intermediaries.

The Political Calling of David

In the secondary story, which is least well known, we start off with the fact that king Saul has gradually become demented since God left him during the war - or, in the words of the Bible, Saul is being "tormented" by an "evil spirit" sent by God. This story begins at 16:14 and goes until the end of the chapter. Saul's attendants, worried about the king, ultimately conclude that as long as he's listening to music, the evil spirit will stay away. I'm a bit skeptical of the logic, but anyways, it seems to work. So they begin searching for the best musician in Israel, and lo! it's David. Saul eventually comes to like David so much that he promotes him from chief musician to armour-bearer.

This story legitimizes the calling of David on the basis of his acceptance by the royal court, i.e. the political structures of Israelite society. It isn't God's prophet Samuel who goes out to find David, but rather "one of the servants" of the court. We know that servant couldn't be Samuel, because the relationship between Samuel and Saul is at this point so bitter that they're not even on speaking terms.

It's possible to harmonize these two stories of the calling of David, because they're not mutually exclusive. In other words, it's perfectly reasonable to say that God sent Samuel to anoint David even while he allowed the Israelite court to select David for other reasons. It does seem mildly improbable - after all, if Jesse wouldn't bother presenting young David even to the chief prophet of Israel, how the hell is this anonymous servant going to have any clue whatsoever that David is a harper? But it could happen.

Ultimately, though, what's most significant is not that these accounts don't jive well but that they signify different things. The first is meant to legimitize the accession of King David on the basis that he was chosen by God's priesthood; the second, on the basis that he was chosen by the royal cabinet. 1 Samuel is a political campaign tool for King David and, just like political campaigns today, they tend to play fast and loose with the facts in order to broaden their coalitions. Just like Stephen Harper or George Bush want to reach out to the religious right and to big business at the same time, or the New Democrats want to ally themselves with environmentalists and unionists at the same time, so 1 Samuel wants to portray David as the friend of both the religious and seculars powers that be.

The Military Calling of God

The third pillar of the new David propaganda tool is the military, and it serves essentially the same function in a new context, though the details are somewhat more difficult to reconcile with the details of the first two stories. Of course, according to my hypothesis, the details aren't important: the main point is (or is supposed to be) that you should love David, because everyone else certainly does.

This time, David's calling occurs in the middle of a war, and it follows the traditional militarist understanding of divining God's will: i.e. military victory equals divine blessing. The Philistines have an enormous veteran soldier named Goliath, supposedly about ten feet tall (the NIV says "3 meters or 9 feet," which aren't exacty the same, so I've rounded up). Goliath wears thick bronze armour and carries a spear with an enormous 15-pound iron point. Goliath challenges the Israelites to single combat, with the victor being the winner of the war, but no one will fight him.

Enter David, who in this story must overcome far greater adversity than he did in the first two. David's elder brothers are in Saul's army already. David brings bread and cheese to his brothers in the army but they dismiss him, saying he has come because he wants to watch the fighting like a child. David decides to prove himself, or perhaps decides he wants a piece of the prize for killing Goliath - rumoured in verse 25 to be wealth, the king's daughter in marriage, and permanent freedom from taxes, which just goes to show you that the priorities in ancient Israel were pretty much the same as they are today.

Undeterred, David goes to Saul on his own initiative and offers to fight Goliath. Like Gideon's army, he makes himself even more vulnerable than you'd think would be militarily feasible - he wears no armour and carries only his sling. As we all know, David famously kills Goliath and then leads the Israelites in routing the Philistine army. Intrigued, Saul asks his general, named Abner, to find out who David is.

The fact that Saul doesn't actually know David, along with the fact that David is a mere shepherd at the beginning of chapter 17, are the key clues that we are dealing with a different story here - remember, in chapter 16 David became armour-bearer on the basis of his musical abilities, and Saul already knew him well before it came time to fight Goliath and the Philistines.

Rather than a coherent chronological account, what we're dealing with is the third of three different stories, possibly originating from different sources but certainly combined here in order to establish David's legitimacy as king of Israel - and, by extension, the similar legitimacy of David's descendants, we must assume.

David is chosen first by the priesthood, and second by the court, and finally by the military. It's not always clear which of these choices is more important, but we can guess - the military story gets a lot more space and time than the other two. It should be noted that all of these at least implicitly suggest that David's anointing was divinely inspired; rather, they just see the sources of that inspiration in different places. The first sees divine inspiration in a ritual of anointing, performed by God's chief prophet. The second sees it in the recognition of the existing political structures of authority. And the third sees it in military victory. Each major social institution in ancient Israel gets to choose the story of David's origins which best fits their own ideological perspective on the government, and everyone's a winner!


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