Looking Through History’s Dark Glass
I saw this photograph of a young Pakistani shepherd and I thought, “I bet this is exactly what David looked like.” How crazy cool is that? Maybe it’s just because I’m a history freak, and maybe you find this sort of thing obvious or boring, but indulge me for a minute. Here’s why it’s cool:
David lived about 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, give or take, so that means that David lived roughly 3,000 years ago. That span of time is pretty much incomprehensible to a human being. Sure, we can count that high, and we can study the artifacts and the history, but we cannot really wrap our minds around people or events from that long ago. Our attention span for intimate relationship with time is really only about a century long. If we venture any further back than that, the world and all of the people who were in it become alien beings, entirely separated from us and our experiences. Nothing looks or feels the same today as it did even 50 years ago, so let’s try to put some perspective on this story we’re about to dive into.
World War I was waged 100 years ago. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were writing their famous fiction 200 years ago. The United States of America was founded 250 years ago. Shakespeare wrote his plays and Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, sat on the English throne 450 years ago. The Crusades ended 700 years ago. And, guys? We’re talking about three thousand years when we talk about David.
Are you seeing the chasm of time here, now? We cannot relate in any kind of real, personal way to any of those eras. We can imagine them. We can study the remnants they left behind and make educated guesses. We can try very hard to put ourselves into their context. The cold truth, however, is that we cannot experience the world as it was, and we cannot think or feel as the ancients thought or felt. The most we can do is arrive at an approximation from the best of our limited understanding. So…
The shepherd boy picture is cool because the boy and his sheep would fit right in if we plucked them from 2016 and dropped them into Ancient Palestine. That. Is. Amazing. If we had a photo of David from 1,000 B.C., it would look just like this kid. If you’ve ever contemplated the vast expanse of history, then that should blow your mind. At the very least, this photograph gives us an image to set our minds on as we go through today’s piece of the biblical text.
Open your Bible and read 1 Samuel 16:1-13.
Today, I’m going to focus solely on 1 Samuel 16:1-13 because this post is meant to lay some foundation for how we’ll be working through this story and some basic “rules” for Old Testament study. Future posts will cover more than one passage at a time, but the narrative comes to a really natural stopping place between 16:13 and verse 14, so that’s what I’m going with. We meet David for the first time in this chapter, and I think first impressions are important. Read it carefully, and then we’ll try to dig into it a bit.
God Chooses a King
God tells the prophet Samuel to stop grieving over Saul and go anoint the new king God has chosen. Samuel is worried about getting murdered by Saul for the treason of anointing a new king, so God assures him this will not happen and gives him a plan. Samuel obediently shakes off his anxiety, defeat, and sadness, packs up his anointing oil, and heads out for Bethlehem.
I want to take a second to point out something that kinda stuck in my brain here. I’m sure that someone, somewhere has written a whole book or two on the theological ramifications of this, but I think it’s enough to simply take note of it:
The people of Israel were invited to participate in the choosing of Saul. They demanded a king. They went through the whole lot-drawing process of tribe, clan, and then family in the choosing. It looked very much like an Ancient Near Eastern form of democratic election. God does not do this with David. Even the prophet Samuel is made to walk in blind. God chose David without any input or participation from anyone else. “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem because I have selected a king from his sons.” That’s it. No discussion. No gathering. No public feast. No lots.
With David, there is no input from humans. God points and says, “that one.” The end. The people don’t even touch this process. This is an important piece for context because God is going to be more heavy-handed with David than with past leaders in several ways.
One other piece to keep in mind as context for this story: David is from the tribe of Judah. Bethlehem, which we discussed at length in my post about the town’s original name, Ephrath, and in my first posting from the book of Ruth, is the seat of Judah and the eventual birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Saul came from the tribe of Benjamin, and we talked about Benjamin and all the connotations of Benjamin v. Judah in the Levite’s Concubine, The Battle of Gibeah, and the Hasty Vows. Saul is not just a Benjaminite, but also from the town of Gibeah. It is just loaded with meaning.
The biblical authors are elevating Judah and censuring Benjamin. Benjamin failed again. Judah will triumph again. This is huge for the biblical authors (and the original audience), so it is not to be dismissed.
The People Fear a Prophet
In verses 4 and 5, Samuel is asked by the town elders if he comes to Bethlehem in peace. They are afraid of him and what God has sent him there to do or say. This strikes a lot of people as odd when they read this for the first time, and it certainly did with me. Their fear of Samuel makes sense, though, in several ways. First, this guy has a straight line from God. God tells him things, and sometimes, those things are about punishment or rebuke. At the end of the previous chapter, Samuel hacked a neighboring king to pieces with a sword in front of God and all the gathered people. Israel’s king was just rejected by God through this same prophet. The elders in Bethlehem were probably worried that Samuel was coming to to kill them all or curse them in some way. At minimum, Samuel was a man of power who was publicly at odds with their king. It was a very sensitive and precarious situation for Samuel to come strolling into Bethlehem that day.
I can’t resist another Lord of the Rings reference:
In many ways, Gandalf the Grey (a wizard) was modeled after the biblical prophets. Whenever Gandalf comes to town, the leaders get upset and agitated because his visits generally mean that bad omens, upheaval, and death are coming. He is a bringer of supernatural wrath and bad news. Gandalf is simply trying to save people and defeat evil forces, but the messenger is often blamed for the trouble that follows.
I think it is this type of fear that is primarily in view when the elders tremble at Samuel’s arrival in Bethlehem.
So Who was Jesse?
Sometimes, the Bible is frustrating because of what it doesn’t tell us. 1 Samuel doesn’t tell us much of anything about David’s dad. We don’t witness the greeting between Jesse and Samuel. There is no physical description of Jesse, no mention of his wife, (in the Talmud, her name is given as Nitzevet), and we don’t know much about him except that he owns some sheep and has eight sons. The book of Ruth tells us about Jesse’s grandparents, Boaz and Ruth, but we don’t know anything about Obed, Jesse’s father.
As Western people, we don’t like holes in the story. What was Ruth’s son like? Was Obed a happy child? Was he picked on for being the son of a Moabite mother? Was Jesse looked down upon for his Moabite grandmother? Was Jesse a kind father, and what was David’s mother like? I don’t know about you, but I want to know these things! The Bible doesn’t say.
When you look into extra-biblical sources on Jesse, you come across a lot of information from Jewish writings and rabbinical tradition. According to the Talmud, Jesse was a leader of the Sanhedrin, and that tracks with Jesse being present when the elders approach Samuel to ask him if he came to Bethlehem in “peace.” Jesse was, according to the Talmud, the chief among those elders. In fact, Jewish tradition says that Jesse died sinless, which is a notion Christians reject entirely since Jesus was the only man without sin in scripture.
I encourage you to dig into all of that if you want to see more. As Christians, we do not give these writings and stories the weight of scripture, but as a lover of history, I don’t ignore them, either. The Jewish people have much more to say about Jesse, David’s mother, and the circumstances of David’s childhood than the scriptural account does…and most of it makes complete sense when read in combination with Psalms 51 and 69 as well as the account in 1 Samuel 16-18. I’ll touch on this again when we get to chapter 17 and discuss David’s relationship with his brothers, but my goal is to study the Bible. It is tantalizingly easy to get lost in the weeds if we start tacking on extra-biblical supposition.
So google it, but do so with perspective. There’s no conspiracy keeping information from you in the Bible. I promise. If it ain’t in there…it’s because it doesn’t belong there. 3,000 years, remember? We’ve had time to review this, and all the questions we might ask have been asked before. There is value in reading Jewish and secular extra-biblical material. The apostles did. Jesus did. The worldview of the Bible’s authors was shaped by many such writings, but if it isn’t in the Bible, don’t treat it like scripture. It is tempting to “go there,” but don’t do it. That’s all I’m saying to you. We’ll look at all the possibilities as we move on.
An Awkward Introduction to Jesse’s Sons
We are introduced to Jesse in verse 5. Samuel is talking to the elders and then, all of a sudden, he’s with Jesse and Jesse’s sons. There are seven sons with Jesse, and Samuel consecrates them before presenting the sacrifice on the altar, which is the pretense God gave Samuel for coming into Bethlehem that day.
In my first reading, I pictured the anointing of David taking place inside Jesse’s home, but that isn’t what the text says. Apparently, this entire meeting goes down at the place of worship and sacrifice in Bethlehem.
The eldest three sons are mentioned here by name, with Eliab being the firstborn and first noticed. Samuel takes one look at Eliab and is sure this man is the chosen king, but almost immediately, God chides Samuel for looking at appearances. “The Lord sees the heart.” We will learn in chapter 17 that Eliab is a respected warrior who serves in Saul’s army, and we can safely infer from Samuel’s response to him that he was handsome and tall, or strong. I’m sure he was impressive. God doesn’t often choose people that other humans find impressive. He picks people who are suited for his purpose, and it comes across as though God is amused and somehow better served by choosing people who, at first, seem very wrong for the job.
Eliab wasn’t the one. Samuel goes down the line, looking at all seven of the young men Jesse has invited to join them. God rejects each one in turn. Remember that Samuel is a prophet, a man of God, and his authority holds sway. When the prophet says, “go,” they run. Samuel invited all of Jesse’s sons. Now, Jesse was with Samuel the whole time, so who was it that didn’t invite David? It wasn’t just Jesse who excluded David. It was also the brothers.
Like the brothers of Joseph in Genesis, these brothers didn’t much care for the baby of their family. That will be made very clear as the story goes on, but the Bible doesn’t say why they disliked David or why they left David out of Samuel’s invitation.
- Maybe it was because these seven sons were all together in town and David was far away in the fields.
- Maybe it was because they heard the prophet was asking for them and they didn’t want to keep him waiting.
- Maybe leaving the sheep unguarded was something their father had disciplined them never, ever to do. That’s very likely, I think.
- Or…maybe they didn’t consider David their equal for some reason (there is a lot of speculation on this, and some of it is quite convincing).
Whatever the reason, David was not initially brought in for the sacrifice with the rest of his male family, and neither his father nor his brothers mentioned David to Samuel, even after every other son had been rejected. Samuel had to press Jesse about whether he had any other sons before anyone told the prophet about David. The other sons were summoned immediately. David was just “the youngest,” out there “with the sheep.”
That is telling. It is important.
Why Would David’s Family Lie?
Before we go too far with painting negative intentions on Jesse and David’s brothers, we should note that Samuel didn’t invite these men to help him choose a king. The real purpose of his visit was not spoken. Jesse was not told that Samuel was there to make one of his sons the next king of Israel. He was told that his sons were to join the prophet in making a sacrifice to the Lord. This would have been an honor, perhaps, but it would not have been something out of the ordinary or seen as a once-in-a-lifetime event that David shouldn’t miss. God’s people made sacrifices to him every day, at least twice per day in accordance with Mosaic Law.
If we aren’t being careful, we can tend to read all kinds of things into the Bible that simply aren’t there. If the brothers left David out on purpose for some nefarious reason, it wasn’t to deceive Samuel and keep David from being king. It couldn’t have been for that reason. They didn’t know why Samuel was there, and the text doesn’t make it clear that Samuel told them why he anointed David that day. Samuel makes it plain that David was chosen by God, and we the readers are told that it means David is going to be king, but in no part of the text does he say to David’s family that he’s there to name a new king of Israel. Indeed, the whole thing seems very odd, and I would imagine they had a very confused conversation about it over breakfast the next morning.
God chose David, and Samuel anointed him right there in front of his father and brothers. He told Jesse that David had been chosen by God, but did he ever tell him what God had chosen David for? It doesn’t say, so let’s not assume. What it does say is that David is back out there with the sheep again later on, so that would seem to indicate that his family wasn’t considering him royalty.
Read vv. 6-13 again. See? So think on that, and as we move forward in the text, we’ll come back to it.
“and the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully on David from that day forward.”
This is the most important line in the entire reading. Before David, no person had ever been given the Holy Spirit as a lifelong companion. The Spirit was given to people for brief periods to accomplish a task or to demonstrate God’s glory. It was always temporary.
Here, in 1 Samuel 16:13, we see the very first time the Holy Spirit ever came to dwell with a human being for the rest of his life. The phrase, “came powerfully upon him,” is the same as we see with Samson, for example, when God gave him the strength to tear apart lions (remember that particular nugget for later) or pull the pagan temple of Dagon down on everyone’s heads.
This presence of the Holy Spirit with us and in us is a gift that you, and I, and every believer in Jesus gets to receive and carry every day, but the Old Testament Israelites didn’t know Jesus. They didn’t have this constant personal fellowship and guidance from God’s Spirit. David was the first person God ever gave that marvelous grace to. It is clear that this meant a new era in God’s pursuit of relationship with his people, and it is one small part of the mosaic in David’s story that makes him a messianic template (which simply means a foreshadowed image of the savior, Jesus).
With that, we’ll close out. I’ll come back next week with the end of chapter 16 and the Goliath story. I’ve included below some words about chronology and how things are a bit out of timeline order in the books of Samuel because I don’t want it to smack you in the face or confuse you when you see it in the next chapters.
Thanks for reading with me.
Chronological Inconsistency in the Text
I want to close out this post with a note about chronology in 1 Samuel. If you read chapters 16-18 as a block, you’ll notice that the story isn’t told in a consistent chronological order, and there is no reason to freak out about that when you see it. Remember our 3,000-year gap and marvel at how this book traveled through all that time and over all of those historical and cultural eras to fall into your hands. It is an utterly mind-blowing miracle.
After the Babylonian Exile, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah under the Persian Empire, there is tremendous evidence of a concerted effort to compile all of Hebrew Scripture together in a coherent way, making it once again accessible to all of Israel. The people had been scattered across the region and oppressed and separated for generations. It was a time of gathering together, and the inspired words of their histories and prophets were of vital importance.
Telling the story of David was more important than telling the history in a post-Enlightenment, chronological style. The biblical authors weren’t putting together Scripture with a view of proving something with empirical evidence. Their goal was to tell the story so that people could see God’s work and presence among his people. In that telling, you will see some time-jumping between chapters 16, 17, and 18. This can be confusing for a Western reader because we concern ourselves with chronology. First came x, then came y, and x probably caused y, which led to z. That wasn’t the concern for biblical authors, so don’t let it upset you. The chronology is easy enough to discern, so I’ll try to help out with that as we go.
On a timeline, the story of David killing Goliath probably (almost certainly, in my mind) came before the events listed in the second half of 1 Samuel. This story is told in kingdom order, not chronological order. We are being told the parallel stories of David’s rise and Saul’s fall. That is the only “agenda” in the telling, and what that means is that we will be told a few bits out of timeline order.
Thanks for reading. I hope it wasn’t too dense. We’ll be back next week with Saul’s “evil spirit” problems and the victory over Goliath.