The David Saga, Episode 4 – David the Outlaw

For week 4 of the Story of David, please read 1 Samuel 23-26. This week’s story is about David’s life as an outlaw and fugitive from Saul.

LAST WEEK: In Episode 3 last week, we saw how Saul sought David’s life on numerous occasions. Saul rightly sees David as the primary threat to his and his family’s continued rule of Israel. Each time Saul pursues David, David is saved from Saul murderous intent.  God rescues David, either through others such as Saul’s children Jonathan and Michal, or directly by making Saul “as one of the prophets.” David comes to be on his own, and seeks aid and comfort from the priestly village of Nob. Because the village aids David, Saul has the village wiped out. David’s family flees to Moab (Ruth the Moabite’s grandson is David’s father Jesse). David himself flees into the wilderness of southern Judah and gathers around himself four hundred other fugitives.

THIS WEEK: In this week’s episode, the conflict between Saul and David continues as the realization that David will be king slowly dawns on Saul. In the story this week, David consolidates his power in the wilderness of southern Judah and increase his mighty men from four hundred to six hundred. David is on the ascendancy once more towards becoming the king of all of Israel, and Saul is weakening even further.

Like all good dramas, this week ‘s episode opens with change in spouses. David having fled from his home, Saul takes his daughter Michal back into his household and marries her out to another man named Palti of Gallim. (25:43). David also remarries, this time to a local man named Ahinoam of Jezreel (a town in southern Judah). (25:44). Almost every episode in David’s life will revolve around a woman – last week it was Michal and this week the woman is Abigail.

The City of Keilah: (ch. 23)

Our story this week opens in the walled city of Keilah located in the lowlands of Judah. The town is being threatened by the Philistines. The Philistines have taken over the threshing floors (which are usually located outside of town near the fields and where the wind blows) and thereby threaten the food supply of the town. Saul, whose job as king is to protect his people from Philistine incursions, is nowhere to be found. Into the breach, steps David. David inquires of God as to whether he should be the one to relieve Keilah. God answers in the affirmative but David’s men are fearful to go up against the Philistine army. Once more, David inquires of God, and once more God says that David will be victorious. David and his now six hundred men go down to Keilah and do battle and prevail in a great slaughter against the Philistines.

Only now, that the Philistines are gone and David’s men are recovering from battle, does Saul decide to show-up. Saul believes that since Keilah has walls, David is trapped. Once more, David inquires of the Lord to ask if Keilah will protect him or turn him over to Saul. Abiathar, the priest through whom David consults God and the sole survivor of the massacre of Nob, says leave the town. The men of Keilah remember Nob, and do not want the same fate. David leaves the town and escapes with his men in the wilderness of Ziph.

At Keilah, we see David performing the role of the king. He protects the town, and neither seeks nor receives any payment. As soon as he puts the town in danger from Saul, he leaves. David is learning to put others interests above his own. On the other hand, we see Saul solely concerned with protecting his throne and not his people. Saul has already annihilated one of his own towns that protected David and is now threatening to do so to a second town. What we also see, is that David seeks God’s guidance through the priest Abiathar. Saul no longer seeks God. Saul is quickly fading.

Covenant with Jonathan: (Ch. 23)

Jonathan is Saul’s son and crown prince. Saul knows that David is not only a threat to his throne, but to his son’s succeeding to his throne. As we saw last week (20:30-34), Saul chastises his son for not seeing David as a threat. The story tells us that Saul keeps unsuccessfully searching for David and his men; however, Jonathan has no problem finding his friend. We can see Saul and his army traipsing through the wilderness aimlessly but with David seeking out and finding his friend Jonathan in the midst of the army.

Jonathan and David meet. (23:15-18). At this meeting Jonathan explicitly recognizes that David will be king and he will not. Jonathan sees in David leadership qualities that he does not possess. Jonathan reassures David, that Jonathan recognizes David’s right to the throne, and that he (Jonathan) would be by David’s side and support David during David’s rule. We do not David’s response – is it assent, trepidation, or gratitude? – all we get from David is silence.

This story tells us is that David is not the usurper of the throne that presently belongs to Saul. Saul’s own son consents to David’s rule. At least this is the conclusion the writer intends us to reach.

Another Narrow Escape: (Ch. 23)

Saul’s pursuit of David pushes David eastward towards the far southwestern coast of the Dead Sea. This area is mostly desert and is sparsely populated with small towns. The scene is similar to a spaghetti western – a barren semi-arid landscape with low-rise mountain ranges. The locals send reports to Saul that David is in the area, and Saul takes off in pursuit. (Tradition holds that David wrote Psalm 54 in recalling this incident.) David’s problem is that he is hemmed in by the Dead Sea to the east and the desert to the south. The only thing standing between David and Saul’s army of three thousand is a mountain. Saul’s men begin to close in on David, and there is no one left to save David from certain capture. When all seems hopeless for David, word comes to Saul that the Philistines have attacked his kingdom. Saul cannot ignore this invasion. He calls off the chase of David and turns his army towards the Philistine threat. Had the Philistine incursion occurred but one day later, David would have been finally captured by Saul. This time it was God acting through the Philistines that saved him.

Nabal and Abigail: (Ch. 25)

The fascinating and sexy part of this week’s episode is that of Nabal and his wife Abigail. Nabal is a well-off landowner on the very edge of southern Judah. “Nabal” means “boorish” while “Abigail” means “joyful” and both characters live up to their names. Abigail is described as “having a good mind and lovely looks.” This is the only time that a women’s mind is described prior to her looks.

In order to support his men, David is operating a protection business for landowners such as Nabal whose pastures would be subject to raids from the Amalekites and other desert tribes. The issue with Nabal is that he never asked for the assistance David had provided. Nonetheless, during the time of festival of the sheep shearing, David sends his men to “request” payment from Nabal. The men greet Nabal with “Shalom, shalom, shalom (peace)” and simply asks for fair compensation for the services that were rendered. Nabal’s answer was a series of four-letter invectives questioning David’s identity, his services, and probably his parentage. Nabal sends David’s men back to David without anything except for a tongue-lashing.

David is incensed and overcome with anger and rage. He tells four hundred of his men to arm themselves and to be prepared to slaughter Nabal and his household. David and his men begin to march towards Nabal’s encampment. One of Nabal’s shepherds, however, goes to Abigail, his wife, to explain the situation and describes to her why her husband is in the wrong. No one, not the help nor the wife, really likes Mr. Boorish. Abigail hatches a plan to save herself and her household.

Without telling her husband, Abigail assembles a gift for David – bread, wine, dressed sheep, grain, raisins, and figs. She sets off with her gifts and her servants to meet David and his men. Upon meeting David, she gives the longest prose speech by a woman in the Hebrew Scriptures (the songs of Miriam, Deborah, and Hannah are longer). She begins her speech with humility before David and goes on to appeal to his better nature. She reminds David that destroying Nabal will not serve David’s ultimate aim of becoming king. Her speech’s length, tone, and substance calm David down, and David comes to realize his great error. David responds “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me . . . blessed be you who have kept me this day from murder.” Abigail saves David from himself.

Thereafter, the story takes an interesting turn. The next morning, Abigail tells her husband what happened. Scripture tells us that as soon as Abigail told him “his heart died within him, and became like a stone. And about ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal dead.” (25:37-38). David then marries Abigail as his second (or third) wife. One of the questions is who killed Nabal – nature, God, David’s men, or Abigail? Throughout the David saga, men who are threats to David always happen to suffer untimely deaths with no apparent responsibility on the part of David. His men simply know how to take care of business without being told. We know that Abigail was smart, beautiful, and spirited. Her speech ends with a request that David “remember your servant.” David was a more attractive option than her current husband. As soon as Nabal dies, David remembers Abigail. The result of Nabal’s death is that David marries Abigail and succeeds to Nabal’s lands. Nabal’s untimely death now means the David has a means of supporting his men. Nabal’s death benefits everyone (except for Nabal).      

David spares Saul: (Ch. 24, 26)

Scripture gives us two versions of David sparing Saul’s life. The compiler of David’s story who wrote the Book of Samuel, used different sources for his material. We have two different versions of how David met Saul – either because David could play the lyre (16:18) or after David kills Goliath (17:56). Both of the stories this week follow the same template that Saul is pursuing David, David is close enough to Saul to steal a personal item from Saul, David shows the item to Saul, and Saul repents of his pursuit of David.

In the first version contained in chapter 24, Saul is hunting David in the wilderness after returning from the battle with the Philistines. David and his men are hiding out in a cave. Saul ventures into the cave to relieve himself. David gets close enough to cut a piece of cloth off of Saul’s robe. David rejects his men’s suggestion to kill Saul because Saul is still king. Once Saul leaves the cave, David calls to Saul and hold up the piece of cloth to prove that he is not a threat to Saul’s kingship. Saul professes that David is more righteous than he and that David will one day be king. Saul only requests that David not destroy Saul’s descendants or Saul’s memory.

In the second version contained in chapter 26, Saul is hunting David in the wilderness after battle with the Philistines. David and one of his men sneak into Saul’s camp at night. The man encourages David to kill Saul but David reject the suggestion to kill the king. Instead, David steals Saul’s spear and water jar that lay adjacent to Saul’s head. David leaves the camp, and calls to Saul from afar. Saul blesses David and returns from the chase.

Both stories show that David has no intention of killing off Saul. David’s unwillingness to kill Saul may stem from David’s virtue or from a simple political calculation that a throne taken by force is more easily overthrown by force. David knows that God has destined him to the throne of Israel, and David realizes that he does not need to hasten his ascension.  

The episode ends with there being a temporary peace between David and Saul. Next week’s episode will focus on the Philistines, David’s alliance with Israel sworn enemy, and the death of King Saul and Jonathan as David looks on.

Save me, O God, by your Name; *
    in your might, defend my cause.

Hear my prayer, O God; *
    give ear to the words of my mouth.

For the arrogant have risen up against me,
    and the ruthless have sought my life, *
    those who have no regard for God.

Behold, God is my helper; *
    it is the Lord who sustains my life.

Render evil to those who spy on me; *
    in your faithfulness, destroy them.

I will offer you a freewill sacrifice *
    and praise your Name, O Lord, for it is good.

For you have rescued me from every trouble, *
    and my eye has seen the ruin of my foes.

Psalm 54 – A Maskil of David, when the Ziphites went and told Saul, “David is in hiding among us.”

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