The first king isn’t working out so well—what with Saul disobeying God and acting deranged—so the Lord dispatches Samuel to Bethlehem to find a replacement. Samuel ends up at the house of Jesse and his sons. Apparently learning nothing from the Saul fiasco, Samuel starts to choose the tall and handsome eldest son as the anointed one. God interrupts irritably and says, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature … for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
This is a remarkable virtue of the Bible! In many ancient myths and holy books, heroes are taller and stronger than ordinary men. But the Bible is full of regular guys. Tall Saul is the exception, the only champion of God chosen for his appearance. (And look how that turned out.) Otherwise, the Bible heroes are average Jobs—frail and cowardly Jacob (rather than manly Esau), stuttering Moses, little Gideon.
Samuel rejects Jesse’s seven oldest sons. Then, as in Cinderella, he asks if there is another sibling. The youngest, shepherd David, is summoned from the fields. The Lord says he’s the one, and Samuel anoints him. (Let me partially retract my comments from the last paragraph. Right after the Lord’s moving speech about how He doesn’t pay attention to appearances, the Bible ogles David, who “had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”)
It’s not clear if this private anointing ceremony actually makes David the king right then and there or whether it just confirms that he will be king someday.
In either case, Saul is in big, big trouble. As soon as David is anointed, the “spirit of the Lord departed” from Saul, and he starts being tormented by an “evil spirit.” (Given his symptoms, it sounds like he’s suffering from something like schizophrenia, or possibly epilepsy, or perhaps a really nasty depression.) Saul is only soothed by music. By coincidence, Saul hears that David is great on the lyre and summons him to court. David quickly becomes Saul’s favorite and calms him with songs whenever the madness descends. This tips us off to David’s slyness. He’s been anointed king by Samuel, yet he reveals nothing to Saul. The whole episode is very All About Eve.
David and Goliath—it’s just as good as I remember! You know the story. The Philistines and Israelites prepare for war. When the armies assemble, the Phils send out their champion, Goliath. He stands either 9-and-a-half feet tall or 6-and–a-half feet tall, depending on which translation you believe. Let’s make him 9-and-a-half feet tall. “The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed 600 shekels.” I don’t know what that means, but it sure sounds scary! For 40 days, Goliath shouts his challenges at the Israelites, and for 40 days, Saul can’t find a willing champion. Jesse sends David from Bethlehem to the battlefield to deliver bread and cheese to his older brothers in the army. David hears Goliath’s challenge, and he’s furious: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” David’s oldest brother, Eliab, chastises him for butting in to the affair. David doesn’t back down, and he’s brought to Saul.
Saul scoffs that David’s too young and inexperienced to fight Goliath. David answers that he kills lions and bears while protecting his flock. But Saul doesn’t really have any other choice, since his men are cowards, so he names David as his champion. David tries on Saul’s armor, but it’s too cumbersome. He goes unprotected into battle, carrying only his slingshot. Naked before God, David embodies manly faith. “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” You know the rest. One rock slung. One dead giant.
I thought this battle of champions was supposed to settle the matter, but it doesn’t. Rather than surrendering, the Philistines flee, and the Israelites chase and kill them. When the battle’s over, Saul asks David who he is, and David tells him that he’s Jesse’s son.
Let’s not dwell on the fact that the David and Goliath story doesn’t make much sense, given what happened in the previous chapter. According to Chapter 16, David was already Saul’s armor bearer and dearest servant. So it’s unlikely that 1) David would be at home rather than with Saul at the battlefield, and 2) Saul wouldn’t know who David is. But, as my friend Sian always says, the Bible is not a book of logic. Also, we can fix this confusion pretty easily. If we assume the Goliath battle occurred, chronologically, in the middle of Chapter 16—after David was anointed, but before he became Saul’s musician—then it coheres.
David rises to command Saul’s army and leads the Israelites to victory after victory. Saul’s envy rises when he hears the people singing. “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” A bout of madness strikes Saul, and he heaves his spear at David in hopes of murdering him. He misses. Next, he tries to snare David through marriage. David keeps saying that he’s unworthy to wed a king’s daughter, but Saul cleverly says that David can marry his daughter Michal if he brings Saul the foreskins of 100 Philistines. Saul expects David will die in the attempt. (This, of course, foreshadows David’s own crime against Bathsheba’s husband.) But the mission is no problem for David, who kills 200 Philistines (100 extra for good measure) and returns with the fleshy bits. (Let’s not dwell on how he got them or what Saul did with the present. Remember that “Hill of the Foreskins?”)
Saul moves on to plan C. He wants to assassinate David and tells Jonathan of the plan. Jonathan warns David. Then, he talks his dad out of the murder, convincing him that David is innocent. Saul promises he won’t try to kill him, and he really seems to mean it. But sure enough, the next time David and Saul are alone together, the king again flings his spear at David, who runs away. Saul sends guards to capture David, but his wife, Michal—Saul’s own daughter, you remember—makes a David doll out of the household idol and hides it in the bed while David escapes. (Is this the first recorded use of the fake body in the bed? Hollywood should have to pay back royalties to Michal’s heirs! A more serious question: What on earth is a household idol? Given God’s countless, crystal-clear prohibitions against idols, why does someone as holy as David keep such a wicked totem in his home?) Saul and his guards keep pursuing David, but Samuel protects the young man. He casts a weird spell over the pursuers, driving them into a religious frenzy—so much so that Saul himself is mistaken for a prophet.
David and Jonathan get ever more Brokeback. The two are thrown together repeatedly, as Jonathan keeps tipping David off about Saul’s plans to kill him. (Saul is enraged that his son has taken David’s side and warns him, rightly, that if David lives, Jonathan will never be king.) Jonathan and David sneak off and swear their love for each other. Later, when David knows he has to flee Saul’s court for good, they rendezvous in a farm field, kiss and weep, and bid each other goodbye. Again I ask: Does this mean what I think it means?
Chapter 21 to Chapter 25
Having made his final break with Saul, David sets himself up as a rebel guerilla, a freedom fighter at the head of a small, 600-man militia. He’s the George Washington of Judea. Saul sinks ever deeper into paranoia. When he hears that some priests saw David and even loaned him a sword, he orders 85 of them murdered and then wipes out the city where they lived. (He has entered that end-stage, homicidal madness that afflicts so many dictators: Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, etc.) One man escapes and finds David, who blames himself for the massacre. He should have known that Saul would retaliate and should have protected the priests.
A lot of you are will bite my head off for saying this, but David reminds me of Bill Clinton (and not for their sexual sins and love of music). Like Clinton, David brilliantly combines two virtues and one vice. He truly loves God. He is profoundly warm and empathetic—he’s constantly feeling the pain of others, as with the murdered priests. Yet he cannily exploits his understanding of human nature for his own advantage. He’s always gaming people, measuring them, working them over to gain an edge (i.e., he adores Jonathan, yet he flips him against his dad).
David’s guerilla army rescues a town from the Philistines. Rather than thanking David for the save, Saul immediately besieges the town to trap David’s army inside. David and his men escape to the wilderness. Saul pursues him, and in a brilliantly cinematic moment—you can imagine it, filmed from above by helicopter—the two armies are on opposite sides of the same mountain, David marching right into Saul’s trap. Suddenly, Saul is summoned away to repel a Philistine incursion. Saul returns with another huge force. David and his men take shelter in a cave. By coincidence, Saul ducks into the cave “to relieve himself.” David’s men urge him to kill the king while he’s vulnerable, but instead, David sneaks up and clips the corner from Saul’s cloak. When Saul leaves the cave, David follows him and confronts him with the torn piece. “See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak, and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life.”
Ever prone to histrionics, the mad king shouts and weeps. He forgives his protégé and apologizes hysterically. “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.” Saul recognizes that David will indeed be king and begs him not to wipe out Saul’s family when he takes the throne. Saul goes home and leaves David in peace. Saul has already promised forgiveness to David three times before and always reneged. I am betting this amnesty won’t last, either. In Saul’s defense, he’s not calculating in his betrayals of David—he’s just so deranged that he can’t help it.
Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at email@example.com. E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)