Fitting Saul and David Together (Part I)

Readers have recognized the intersection of the Saul and David stories as a problem for a long time.  The point where the two characters first come together in I Samuel 16-17 is a confusing sequence of events.  In 16:13 Samuel privately anoints David in front of his family, causing “the spirit of YHWH to come” upon him.  The movement of the spirit to David requires the corresponding departure of the spirit of YHWH from Saul in the next verse, so there are two kings in the story now.  The spirit is upon David, but the crown is upon Saul.  The next story seemingly resolves this tension by bringing the two together.  David becomes Saul’s court musician and armor-bearer, thus bringing the spirit of YHWH close enough to the public king to drive away the “evil spirit from YHWH” that replaces it in Saul’s life long enough for him to function.

The story that first brings Saul and David together creates another problem, though, because it describes David as “a man of valor, a warrior.”  Where did the kid brother whom Samuel anointed as king in 16:13 go?  That character returns in 17:12, a part of the David and Goliath story that introduces us to David as if we have never seen him before.  This David is still a boy who does chores and runs errands for his father and older brothers.  David arrives at the scene of the stand-off with Goliath because his father has sent him to take food to his older brothers who are in Saul’s army.  David and Saul meet again, for the first time, in 17:31-37, when David volunteers to fight the giant, and Saul initially objects because David is “just a boy.”  Where did the valorous warrior of 16:18 go?  After the famous victory over the giant, David and Saul encounter one another a third time, but again seemingly for the first time.  In 17:55-58, Saul sees David fighting Goliath and bringing the giant’s head back to him, but does not know who he is.  The Goliath story becomes more perplexing when II Samuel 21:19 credits someone named Elhanan with the defeat of the giant.  Is the writer telling us at the very end that the David and Goliath story was never more than royal propaganda to begin with?

At the very least, we must acknowledge that the writer of I Samuel received a confusing mixture of traditions about Saul and David, including the three accounts of their first meeting above, and could not fit them all together without creating some narrative incoherence.  That observation brings us back to a question that continually arises in the study of the Pentateuch and its sources.  Why produce the composite text this way, when some fairly minor editing could remove most of the incoherence?  Part of the answer has to be that an ancient writer, like the one who produced the book called Samuel, did not think about sources of information and the production of a literary work the same way we do.  We cannot treat questions about the composition process and the characteristics of the final form separately.


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