Saul continues to provoke battle, while David paves the way for his kingly future.
It is interesting to note the briefness of the statement of the death of Samuel. He is, after all, the one for whom these books are named, and he was the great prophet of Israel. No details of the funeral other than to say that “all Israel gathered.” Does that mean a truce was declared and David came? Does it mean that he didn’t come and was therefore not considered part of Israel anymore? The truth is we just don’t know any of these details, and the chronicler of the story evidently did not consider them worthy of mention. That is significant in itself.
Now comes an interesting story, the one about Nabal and Abigail. It beings on an
interesting note, that probably no one in the history of Israel was ever named Nabal. That’s because in Hebrew Nabal means “stupid.” So the name of the guy is probably an editorial comment in and of itself. But let’s move on.
David has set up this little extortion operation in Judah. He and his men are living in the hills, providing “protection” to those who live in the area. In return, they will occasionally send emissaries to the farmers seeking gifts of gratitude for their “protection.” No gift, no protection. It’s kind of like “Life Lock.” You pay them money, they will protect you; you don’t pay, you are on your own – only in this case, they might come and take what they want even if you don’t want to sign up.
Well, “Stupid” doesn’t want to pay, and David decides he is going to visit him and make him “an offer he can’t refuse.” Only Abigail hears that he is coming and heads him off with gifts and her natural charms. David sees the wisdom of her position and decides to accept the gifts and goes back to his stronghold. Abigail then goes back to “Stupid” and tells him what she has done. He then probably has something like a stroke and dies a few days later. David then sees an opportunity and marries Abigail. Whether that means he got all of Nabal’s possessions, along with his wife, is not mentioned in the story, but one can assume that David’s men ate well for a while.
We also have the brief mention of the beginning of David’s harem, a very kingly thing to have. BTW, do you know the tradition of having multiple wives has a very specific math to it? The process was based upon the idea that if you have one wife, she’ll be lonely. If you have two, they will fight all the time. If you have three, two will gang up on the one. But if you have four, they can choose sides. Go figure.
So Saul hears that David is hiding near Ziph and takes an army down to finish him off, this in spite of the fact that he had previously declared peace between them. It’s hard to move around quietly with 3,000 men, and David gets wind of it. Think of the U.S. Army coming in with a mechanized force chasing the Taliban in Kandahar province. Everybody and his cousin are going to know what is going on.
David decides to infiltrate Saul’s camp and asks for volunteers to go with him. Unlike the Army I was in, he didn’t go, “I need three volunteers – you, you, and you.”
David and Abishai infiltrate Saul’s camp and, once again, David has Saul at his mercy. And, once again, he decides not to kill him – to preserve the principle that one does not raise one’s hand against the anointed of the Lord if you want to be the next king – but to take his spear and his water just to prove he was there. He then ex-filtrates and, from a safe distance, wakes everybody up by telling them what he has done. Saul once again pledges that he will no longer seek to do David any harm and asks him to return. David, quite wisely, decides to decline the offer, and they each go their own way.
So David decides there is no future in this and figures it is time to move to a safer place. He returns to the Philistines, but this time he carries with him an army of 600, so his reception is quite different than before. Now he is a force to be reckoned with, and Achish of Gath (Goliath’s old home town) decides that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” and takes him in. He allows him to settle in Ziklag, and David settles into his work. Only he continues to deceive Achish by telling him that he was raiding in Judah, when in fact he was doing so elsewhere. David covered his tracks well enough by not bringing home any live prisoners, or in fact leaving anyone alive from his raids, so Achish believed him. David thus ensured his safety both there in Ziklag and at the same time made it possible for him to return to Israel in the future. For if he had gone raiding in Judah, that return would never have been possible.
So now it’s crunch time. Philistia is going to war with Israel (think Palestinians and Israelis of today, they never quit fighting), and Achish tells David that he must go along. He is so taken in by David’s duplicity that he makes him his personal bodyguard. David gives him an answer that is quite open for interpretation without making a commitment: “You surely know what your servant will do.” The double entendre of his answer leaves him open to have plausible deniability later on if he needs it. He can say to the Hebrews that he always intended to fight on their side, and at the same time give Achish the assurance that he will be loyal to him, letting everybody hear what they want to hear. Quite the politician, eh?
Saul knows the end is coming. He has been cut off from God for quite some time now and is desperate. So he violates his own law – he’s kind of prone to do that – and seeks out a witch at Endor. He goes to her and has a séance. During this séance, he has her summon Samuel from the dead to tell him what is going to happen. The news is not good: Everything is going to come crashing down on them the next day. The news is devastating to Saul and, after a meal, he leaves to meet his fate.
Well, the fight is coming, and not everybody is happy with Achish’s decision to include David as a part of the army. This is probably a wise decision on their part, because it is doubtful David would have raised his hand against the hosts of Israel. So Achish defers to his generals and sends David back. David plays the hurt soul here and asks what he has done to seem disloyal. Perhaps he is nervous that the Philistine generals are going to disturb his comfy little arrangement with Achish. But Achish assures him that everything is all right between them, and David takes his exit from the battle to come.
There is a fortunate raid on Ziklag at the time. This is perhaps the work of the Lord, giving David plausible deniability once again. He would be nowhere near the battlefield on which Saul will fall. The Amalekites rescue him from the situation by taking all of the families of the men prisoner and heading off in the opposite direction. David gives chase and, with the help of an Egyptian slave, finds the Amalekites and kills all of them and gets back the spoils and the families.
David then settles a bit of rebellion in his own group by dividing the spoils equally among those who made the final assault with those who couldn’t keep up with them. He wanted to make sure of the loyalty of all the troops even though it meant telling some of them that they couldn’t keep what they felt was rightfully theirs. This establishes a principle of egalitarianism within his army and in Israel. In taking this action, he declares that those who stayed behind, and offered a rear-guard protection, were just as valuable to him as were the assault troops. Word of this would get around, and the lowliest of his coming kingdom would feel honored and valued just as much as the most powerful. Good politics on David’s part. You can see he is laying the groundwork for the future.
Note here, too, that David is paving the way for the future. He sends some of the spoils to the rulers of the cities of Judah. They are the closest Hebrews to him and the most logical avenue for his return. So, ever the politician, David is preparing for the future by sharing some of the booty he has gained from his fight with the Amalekites. Note here, too, that he is establishing his alibi with the Hebrews. By sending them gifts taken in a raid conducted at the same time as the battle between Philistia and Israel, he is unequivocally establishing that he was not part of that fight. He was otherwise occupied.
So the big fight comes, and Saul and his army lose big. The army is routed, and Saul winds up being wounded by some archers. Even though Saul begs his armor bearer to finish him off, the man will not raise his hand against the “anointed.” So Saul does the job himself. This little act is recounted for us to once again establish that no one, not even when it is requested by the king himself, can raise a hand against the king.
Jonathan also dies in the battle, and their bodies are taken to Beth-shan for display. This is where the men of Jabesh-Gilead re-enter the story. You may remember that Jabesh-Gilead was the first town Saul had saved when he became king. They haven’t forgotten his act and risk their lives getting the bodies back for a proper burial. After that they sit Caddish, the seven-day mourning for the dead, honoring their fallen king.
A side note here is that, in giving such respect to Saul and Jonathan, they are going to engender the gratitude of the next king, whoever that may be, for they are honoring the office of the king, even though they may or may not have liked him. One of the things they always told us in the Army is that you had to salute the officer, even if you didn’t respect the man. The same principle is demonstrated here, though no point is made of which side of that argument the men of Jabesh-Gilead are on. They are respecting the king, always a good thing for the future.