Fitting Saul and David Together (Part II)

Before the eruption created by the Noah movie, I had been writing about how a convergence of methods can assist our study of the complex David traditions in the books called 1 and 2 Samuel.  In my previous post I highlighted the incoherent elements of 1 Samuel 16-17, when Saul and David seem to encounter one another for the first time on multiple occasions, and David’s status shifts back and forth from well-known, seasoned warrior to unknown young boy.  I portrayed this as the kind of problem that requires insights from many kinds of methods if we hope to resolve it.

In a recent e-book called King David and His Reign Revisited, which is fascinating both in its content and design, Jacob L. Wright argued that the traditions of Saul and David arose independently.  He identified groups of texts in 1 and 2 Samuel and reassembled them into earlier strands called the History of David’s Reign/Rise (HDR) and the History of Saul’s Reign/Rise (HSR).  Through the careful use of source-criticism, Wright separated the texts about each character that do not involve the other.  Using insights from other approaches, both literary and historical, Wright then considered how and why later writers wove these two sources together and added new material to create what eventually became the book of Samuel.  In some cases the new material is relatively easy to observe.  The account of David choosing not to kill Saul in the cave in 1 Samuel 24:1-22 is an insertion into the section that is primarily about David’s life as a warlord or bandit.  Related stories in 18:10-16 and 26:1-25 about Saul and David make these insertions look somewhat formulaic.  The editors who inserted these stories present a David who had every reason and justification to kill Saul but did not.

The insertions that bring Saul and David together in I Samuel 18-31 bring me back to the problem of their encounters in 1 Samuel 16-17. It is much more difficult to imagine that the final writer/editor of Samuel produced 16:14-23, 17:38-40, and 17:55-58, because they create so much dissonance among themselves and in the surrounding text.  The best explanation for this is that others had already been creating traditions that brought David and Saul together and the writer of Samuel inherited some of these, and some did not easily fit into the narrative as it had already developed.  If this is true, then the effort to connect David and Saul was going on for some time, and involved multiple developers of tradition.  The last of these was the composer of Samuel, but earlier ones could have developed either written or oral tradition, or both.  Other less likely scenarios are possible.  Perhaps one or more of the difficult texts involved just David or Solomon with some other figure who was replaced.  The best candidate for this possibility is the entire Goliath narrative in 1 Sam 17.  2 Sam 21:19 reports that Elhanan killed Goliath.  What if the entire Goliath story in 1 Sam 17 was about Elhanan killing Goliath and David’s name was inserted in place of Elhanan’s?

Why would there have been a sustained effort of significant scope to connect these two figures.  It may not be possible to answer this question in reference to every layer of development.  Wright argues that the HDR and HSR were combined into a single work of literature between 722 and 586, and its purpose was to rally Northern Israelites, defeated and dispersed by the Assyrian army, around Judah and the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem.  This proposal carefully balances the results of literary and historical approaches to the text and solves numerous difficulties.


2 thoughts on “Fitting Saul and David Together (Part II)

  1. Jacob Wright

    I think you are right: these accounts of David meeting Saul suggest that multiple circles were experimenting with the synthesis of what were originally independent traditions. I think my model is fully open to this possibility. Other evidence for it can be found in the doublets popping up all over in the David-Saul combined history.

  2. Mark McEntire Post author

    Thanks Jacob. As I have continued to think about this I wondered how much of the difficulty is removed just by pulling out the Goliath story. The Greek text of Samuel indicates it was an unstable or flexible tradition. For the writer of Samuel, it may have been so valuable as a defense against charges that David was a Philistine collaborator that he could not leave it out, despite the dissonance it creates.


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