Old Testament -- historical narrative or myth and legend?

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 22, 2008 4:53 am    Post subject: Old Testament -- historical narrative or myth and legend? Reply with quote

A family member (after seeing History International's episode recently on giants, which criticized the different accounts of Goliath's height for example) sent me this article as pointing out examples of significant problems with the historical accounts of major key events in the lives of, for example, David and Samuel which posits that the Old Testament is full of myth and legend and not historical narrative.

I've seen much written about supposed inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts, for example, which tend to crumble on examination, but I've never seen these and they appear more inconsistent than simply different as compared to the Gospel criticisms.

Does anyone have any input on resolving these seeming inconsistencies in the accounts?


http://www.awitness.org/contrabib/history/jebusite.html wrote:
Multiple sources and editing
in the history books of the Bible

As an interesting example of multiple traditions edited together within the Biblical manuscripts, consider the famous stories of King David, and in particular the story of David and Goliath. Few other legends are so well known, or read so often, and and yet remain so poorly understood. Mythology is the language of religion, but in the Judeo-Christian tradition this has been lost, submerged under the doctrine of inerrant history. Myth is drained of meaning and then Christian apologists struggle to prove that myth is inerrant as history. In this way the Bible, and stories such as that of David and Goliath, which is mythological and legendary in nature, are drained of meaning. Futhermore, it can be demonstrated that the ancient Levitical scribes and priests had no sense of legend and did not understand the language of myth, as is demonstrated in their editing and redaction in the book of Samuel in the Bible, a clear attempt to hide the mythological nature of the stories in the book, and attempt instead to present these myths as history in the Bible. The Bible is left open to constant ridicule, and the church is left poorer, being that one religion with no spiritual connection to the language of myth.

Saul had an evil spirit tormenting him 'sent by God'. (1 Samuel 16:14)

Someone recommended David to play the harp, calling him,
"a brave warrior, a mighty man of war." (1 Samuel 16:1Cool . "David came to Saul and entered his service."
(1 Samuel 16:21)
Saul took a liking to David and told his father,
"'allow David to enter my service,' for, 'he loved him dearly.' " (1 Samuel 16:21)
The second version of their meeting is found at the end of 1 Samuel Chapter 17 . David spoke of killing Goliath, and his words were reported to Saul. (1 Samuel 17:31) Saul did not want to let David fight Goliath, for David was not a trained warrior. David was just a lad and out tending sheep, and his job was to deliver lunch to the soldiers. (1 Samuel 17:1Cool

"You are not able to go to war against the Philistines. You (David) are just a boy, and Goliath is a man of war."
(1 Samuel 17:33)

Saul relented, and
"clothed David with his armor and said, 'go! May God be with you.'" (1 Samuel 17:37)
David killed Goliath. David took Goliath's head to Jerusalem, but he kept his sword in his tent. (1 Samuel 17:54) Jerusalem was not captured from the Jebusites until after David became King (or was it?) and the sword we are told (in another variant) was kept in a temple at Nob. (1 Samuel 21:1) No sooner had David cut off Goliath's head than Saul asked,

"who is that young man?" (1 Samuel 17:55)
David was introduced to Saul
"with the Philistines head still in his hand,"
(1 Samuel 17:57)
and Saul asked,
"who are you?" and David replied, "the son of Jesse."
(1 Samuel 17:5Cool "That same day Saul kept David and would not let him return to his father's house."
(1 Samuel 18:1)
Rather than a harp player the young adolescent boy was made
"commander of the fighting forces," (1 Samuel 18:5)
an act which pleased everyone, including Saul and his officials.
A few verses later an editorial comment is inserted in a futile attempt to harmonize the compounding contradictions and multiple inconsistencies.

"David played the harp for Saul, as he had done before," (1 Samuel 18:10)
for an evil spirit was tormenting Saul. In this variant David was removed from Saul's household and
"made a commander" (1 Samuel 18:13) because, "Saul was afraid of David for he saw that God was with him." (1 Samuel 18:12)

Note that David was living at home and tending sheep just before killing Goliath, and was not living with Saul, and 'playing the harp for him as he did before', as this weak editorial excuse would try to suggest. When David killed Goliath, they do not know each other. 'That same day' David entered the service of Saul. It then follows that David could not have 'played the harp for Saul, as he did before.' The comment was inserted by an editor well aware of the inconsistencies between the two stories, in a futile attempt to reconcile the multiple versions of events and fuse them into one (pseudo- consistent) manuscript.

Also note that another editorial comment was included for the same purpose.
"David occasionally left Saul's house (where he was the resident harp player) to feed his father's sheep in Bethlehem." (1 Samuel 17:15)
This futile excuse is intended to explain why David was not 'living with Saul' and 'playing the harp for him as before' but rather living at home with his father and tending sheep just before killing Goliath.

Note that David is both a 'skilled warrior' and 'a young boy, untrained for war.' David is both 'living at home' and 'living with Saul'. Saul knows David, as his personal harp player, even outfitting him to battle Goliath. Saul does not know who David is, and must be introduced to David after he kills Goliath ("who is that young man?') David enters Saul's service as a harp player, and as 'commander of the fighting forces', on two different occasions.

It is remarkable that a story such as that of 'David and Goliath' could be so famous and so little understood. Another excellent example of the same sort of thing is the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, or the story of the Exodus from Egypt both stories also famous and also composed of contradictory strands of material woven together in a similar way. So it is correct to state that the David stories are contradictory, but of greater interest is to make note of the obviously awkward attempt made at concealment. The editorial revision did not succeed by harmonizing the inconsistent accounts, but instead demonstrates that there was an obvious attempt made to 'harmonize' two stories, that, in their original form, were completely contradictory. Apparently allowing the two variants to exist side by side was out of the question, and we can deduce from this that there were minds at work that could not tolerate contradiction or allow for diversity or uncertainty. So we can note that even during the process of creating the Bible an attempt was being made to support future claims that the book was ‘infallible' as history.

The Bible was obviously composed from different source materials, and it is obvious that the editors made a (foolish) attempt to try to disguise this fact. They worked on the Biblical manuscripts, with an agenda of harmonizing source materials, and yet source material seems to have been preserved. Thus we see a very curious dynamic at work. Certain passages could not be ‘harmonized' and instead were preserved, and, it would seem, then simply ignored.

"With stone and sling shot David slew Goliath of Gath." (1st Samuel 17:50) "Elhanan son of Jair of Bethlehem killed Goliath of Gath, whose spear had a shaft like a weaver's beam." (2nd Samuel 21:19)

Or, then again, perhaps such obviously troublesome passages could simply be rewritten at a later date.
"Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi, brother of Goliath of Gath, whose spear had a shaft like a weaver's beam."
(1 Chronicles 20:5)
As another example of Biblical contradictions, consider the Jewish Testament passage which describes how David took Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The Jebusites, we are told, had made Jerusalem into an impregnable fortress, surrounded by high, thick walls. From their position safe on their wall they mocked David, crying out,

"you'll never get in here. Even the blind and the lame could keep you out." (2 Samuel 5:6)
As the story continues, it turns out that the Jebusites neglected something in their great zeal for wall building. There was a tunnel under the wall of Jerusalem which delivered water to the center of the city. David and his troops poured through this gap in the Jebusite defense and conquered Jerusalem. One must wonder just how foolish those Jebusites must have been to have wasted so much time and energy constructing that useless wall, while remaining blind to such an obvious breach in their defenses.

The Bible is full of conflicting accounts of how various events took place. Even such famous stories of the reception of the Ten Commandments or the Exodus from Egypt are told in multiple, conflicting versions. (See The Golden Calf and the 'historical' chronicles for more details). The story of this water tunnel is no exception. In one version, it was the Jebusites who dug the water tunnel, and then foolishly forgot to defend the hole under their wall. Instead, like some characters from a Monty Python movie, they spent all their time on the wall, hurling insults at David. Then again we are told (2nd Kings 20:20) that it was King Hezekiah of Judah who dug the water tunnel to bring water into the heart of Jerusalem. Full details of the construction work involved were recorded, we are told, in the Book of the Kings of Judah. Wouldn't it be interesting to dig that book out of the ground someday?

One must keep in mind that David was the second king, Hezekiah was an hereditary monarch in the line of David, and he reigned centuries later. This leaves us with the little problem of explaining how David could have invaded Jerusalem via a water gate that would not be constructed until several centuries later. (Perhaps he morphed through solid rock). This is also brings up interesting questions about the dating of some of these fabulous David stories. Some of these David fables appear to have been invented many, many centuries after the times they purport to describe. This is fine, if we understand that we are dealing with fables, and only becomes a problem when people start insisting that such fables are 'history,' and 'infallibly inerrant history' at that.

The stories about David are rife with these sorts of internal inconsistencies and conflicts, often within a single paragraph. Analyzing these stories reveals something of the editorial process involved in manufacturing the Bible. It was obviously spun together like a woven clothe from many different colors of thread.

To illustrate this point I will bring to your attention a couple of very interesting passages from the books of Samuel which tell of 'the history of King David,' of Samuel and King Saul.

"The Philistines were subdued and no longer invaded Israel as long as Samuel lived for the hand of YAHWEH was against them...peace was maintained." (1 Samuel 7:13) In chapter 13, "The Philistines gathered together to fight against Israel." (1 Samuel 13:5) "Samuel left Gilgal and went his way" (1 Samuel 13:15) . "The Philistines gathered for war at Micmash." (1 Samuel 13:11) "No blacksmith was to be found in all Israel, for the Philistines were determined to prevent the Hebrews from making spears and swords." (1 Sam. 13:19) "When war broke out the army had neither sword or spear." (1 Samuel 13:22) "There was bitter war with the Philistines throughout Saul's reign." (1 Samuel 14:52)

Samuel was criticizing the conduct of King Saul and thus still alive. Samuel anointed David as King, and David killed Goliath during the Philistine war. (1 Samuel Chapters 15 and 17) Furthermore, as you can tell by reading the complete account, their was bitter war with the Philistines right up until the day that Samuel died.

I find this particular collection of contradictory stories to be especially revealing, thus particularly useful as instructional material. The conflicts in the stories of the prophet Samuel involve ideological and theological differences, an important lesson to keep in mind, for it has broad applications in understanding and interpreting every other book in the Bible. In one version of events, Samuel is so powerful that he stops all wars and subdues the mighty Philistines simply because he was so godly. Samuel is also presented as a prophetic, religious character much to be preferred as ruling judge and superior to the rule of monarchy. Political and religious commentary is being made here.

The conflicts in the David stories concern factual historical detail and are also political in nature. Was David a harp player or a giant killer? How did David get his start in life? Who killed Goliath? Perhaps it was someone else. Remember that the Judean royal family was an hereditary monarchy descended from David, and you can easily understand how any attack on David was a political attack on the Judean political establishment.

Also interesting to note is the bizarre editorial process, which does not resemble anything that we would call 'editing' or 'error checking' or 'proof-texting' today. Once again, the reason for the unusual editing can be understood when we consider that the documents were edited and assembled by priests, to serve as religious documents, and they worked with an obvious agenda.

There are variant versions of the key events in David's life. If we are looking for factual historical truth in this collection of theological polemics, religious myths, fables, and political propaganda we will be sadly disappointed. The Bible is a religious document, and as such it is a book of myth and legend, and in its time it was also a political document, religion and politics having always been intertwined in human history, and so the Bible is also a book of political propaganda, and not simply a straightforward accurate, objective history of events. Even the book of Kings, which is more historical than the book of Samuel, is a book of theology, and not simply a direct retelling of history. There may indeed have once lived a dog named Spot. Someone may indeed dig up Spot's dog collar and his leash. However Spot cannot be both a purebred Dalmatian and a purebred Bulldog. Either he has spots or he does not. Either he was a Dalmatian or a Bulldog, or, as seems likely when considering these Bible stories, he could have been a purebred Poodle, and neither a Dalmatian or a Bulldog. Whatever the truth may turn out to be you won't simply discover it by 'looking it up in the Bible.'

The story I employed which described David's conquest of Jerusalem was a fable, and probably also a piece of ancient political propaganda, but what a story! Who, after all, can resist these tall tales from the Bible? Never let it be said that the myth makers of the Bible could not keep up with those Greeks and Romans when it came to spinning a yarn. Just how old was that magnificent political hero, David, when he killed Goliath and became a five star general? Twelve? Thirteen? Just how old was Hercules when he rassled his first rhinoceros? We know that just before killing Goliath, David was not allowed to be with the fighting men for he was to young. His job was to deliver their lunch, but such are the magnificent twists and turns of fate in the lives of such incredible heros in antiquity. Lunch boy at noon, five star general by suppertime, appointed to the position to the great acclaim of all the fighting forces, the yarn spinner assures us. In the story of David and Goliath, David complains that Saul's armour is to cramped and uncomfortable. He would prefer to fight Goliath just wearing his shorts an a T-shirt. The story is charming, and it is a justifiably famous fable, but that is all it is, a fable, and just one of so many examples of the same sort of thing in the Bible.
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PostPosted: Sun Jun 22, 2008 12:48 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm still interested in any specific thoughts as to these chronologies, etc., but here is my response to my family member (his question dealt with a bit more than just David's chronology).....


It seems that many preachers (and consequently most church-members) have a superstitious view of all of Scripture that considers it to have been somehow like the stone tablets, infallible even to the grammar and and written by the very hand of God and incapable of error of any kind even in its transcription and translation (particularly "King-James only" folks). Unfortunately, this becomes a bit of a baby and bath water situation, where no textual criticism can be withstood and textual variants of any degree are treated as undeniable proof of the falsity of the bible's claims, historicity, etc. That's the tack taken by most of these "PBS or History Channel-type" programs and especially folks like Elaine Pagels or the Jesus Seminar folks, etc. At first blush, their criticisms sound to many as erudite and full of a modern skepticism that rises above folk mythology and such things as ignorant Christians might believe in the face of real evidence. However, it doesn't usually take much scholarship or even a healthy dose of logic to dismiss most of these folks' criticisms as based in ignorance or clear bias but in any event to see them clearly as the utter fools spoken of in Romans 1:22.

Evangelicals haven't done themselves any favors from their own blind and often ignorant mouthpieces (and all too often from the pulpits). Unfortunately, there is a lot of biblical illiteracy even from the pulpits, and there are a great many preachers and teachers who are going to have an awful lot to answer God about one day, I suspect (and the challenge is not to react too much in skepticism and have THAT to answer for one day, too). The problem starts with what I call "felt-board theology." We have our simplified views of certain bible stories such as Sampson, Joshua, Moses, Noah, Adam & Eve, David & Goliath, etc., and we just can't often enough escape this child's view of Scripture. Some traditions are just so entrenched that even an honest well-intended preacher or teacher just can't deal with them in the 34 minutes they're alloted (or whatever), and so they perpetuate.

Let's face it -- the bible's a tough book as any ancient "collection is -- it's written over a span of time, full of mixed genres we're unfamiliar with, multiple authors, cross-references to unknown texts, difficult cultural assumptions, lost ancient references, often written through emanuenses with their own writing styles, transcribed by scribes, translated by committees, etc. And yet the few so-called "problems" are so few that it is powerful testimony to God's provision and sustenance of His word. However, that doesn't mean it's the "magic book" folks seem to think it is -- it was written by real people to and about other real people, who had varying degrees of inspiration. Add to that the difficult job of canonicity, and it's just a real challenge -- however, to assume the worst as the so-called "scholars" do and assume that any apparent inconsistency is evidence of error (as opposed to our flawed assumptions or understanding) is just silly.

It would be nice if teachers and preachers would just recognize and acknowledge how difficult it is, and increase the humility without which they teach things as dogma that they may not understand themselves. The ignorant ones can almost be excused -- but, the educated are so reluctant to yield on post-reformation doctrines such as the "perspicuity of Scripture" and yield some kernel of an argument to the Roman Catholic church that they have to pretend the Bible is something it isn't. The problem to me is that this is counter-productive. For the weekend pew-sitter, it makes little difference, but to the one who meditates on such things and seeks to understand God's word for themselves, there eventually comes an inevitable (though avoidable) crisis of belief as they begin to suspect even the foundations of our faith when the presuppositions and stories they've been taught as dogma turn out to be less than clear or flat out against the teachings of Scripture, simple logic, or personal observation.

I think I have a "historically orthodox" view of Scripture, though it's a bit rare these days and wouldn't be considered "orthodox" by modern standards (whatever that means). Though many today would criticize me and suggest otherwise, I have a very high view of Scripture -- I believe that the Old Testament Scripture is, indeed, inspired in a way often assumed by the church as to the whole bible -- the hand of God directed these men to keep and record and to later write and document these Scriptures in a supernatural way -- though God guided the preservation of Scripture throughout the ages, I don't extend that supernatural inspiration necessarily to scribes and translators, but enough manuscript evidence remains to believe that what we have is a highly trustworthy account of the things recorded, and that we do have the text of the book Christ Himself acknowledged as Scripture -- I recognize there could be flawed passages, etc. There are clearly textual variants, but VERY few, and none I know about that really matter as to the things important for us to know to understand God's ways, His plans, and the gospel of His kingdom. To require "perfection" of grammar or even insignificant factual evidences is to require more of it than is internally promised. The Old Testament does suggest internally to be the word of God, and even the Sepuagint (certainly read and quoted by Christ and the Apostles) had textual errors (or at least variants) which we know existed at the time they "blessed" them -- clearly they had a different view of and demand for Scripture. However, I believe the New Testament is a different beast - Christ clearly didn't have the apostle's and others' writings in view when speaking of Scripture, and nowhere does it internally or otherwise claim to even be directly inspired. However, the Apostles did claim to be inspired men in their understanding of Christ's teachings following Pentacost, and as they were chosen by Christ to be His spokesmen on earth, I take their words and those of their close contemporaries recording or elaborating their teachings to "contain" the word of God even if the very words themselves aren't inspired. These were real men often writing personal or corporate letters to real men and women about real issues surrounding the teachings of Christ (and sometimes just asking about the "cloak" they left when there last). Since they're no longer with us, this is all we've got, and if we had more that could be honestly shown to be their writings (or Christ's) I would follow them without reservation even if they conflict with my understanding. I have no need or reason to suspect more to be discovered, but if they were, I'd consider them Scripture (even though I subscribe to what would be considered an "open NT canon," I would have a very high burden of proof on authentication). Therefore, while the OT has its own authority to my understanding (attested by Christ), the NT is a derived authority, having authority only to the extent it faithfully represents the actual teachings of the Apostles.

Whether the man confronted by David was indeed a "giant" or just a highly respected and unbeatable warrior is not important to me -- I am fully prepared to (and do) accept the supernatural miracles and workings of God through the ages, but I don't need each of the biblical accounts we hold in that regard to live up to that expectation (least not David slaying a so-called "giant."). Though it can be tough to identify unfamiliar genres, where a text is poetic or apocalyptic in style, it should be interpreted that way. But, I take the bulk of the OT for what it appears to be -- historic narrative -- recognizing that even historic narrative at the time may carry multiple purposes and styles and we can't look at it as we would today's modern one-dimensional chronological approach to recording history. Nonetheless, when it appears to be historic narrative (as Samuel and Kings clearly do) I take it at face value without some suggestion to do otherwise (internally or by the Apostles).

To your question about David, I don't think (and have no reason to believe) that it is parabolic in style -- I take it as simple historic narrative. As to the seeming inconsistencies in 1 Samuel as to the accounts, I haven't looked at them before, but intend to do so (this is what separates us from those 10 minute scholars with superficial research intent on pushing secular dogma as critical reporting or merely seeking to preach to an "overly critical" or suspicious secular choir). As with so many criticisms of the gospel accounts, I didn't have to look far to see some flawed logic and distorted assumptions in the criticisms (especially when we recognize that the narrative at the time was frequently not recorded with any eye toward chronology). I have posted the article you sent me on a bible forum I frequent, and will see what folks have to say, but I also intend to sit down and work through the narrative myself and see where it leads. I'll let you know if I learn anything intriguing. Meanwhile....

I haven't listened to them all, but you may find Steve Gregg's lectures on 1 Samuel 16-18 interesting (starting here http://www.thenarrowpath.com/mp3s/bible/1_samuel/1sa7.mp3). He tends to address things such as this in an honest and open handed nature. You may also find the following article interesting as to the supposed chronological inconsistencies with the life of David ( http://parablemania.ektopos.com/archives/2005/05/chronology_in_i.html -- reproduced below). The thing that "slays me" with these "critics" is how ignorant they are at even the most basic and ancient of commentaries dealing with supposed problems. How much time would it take these guys to pull even the most basic of commentaries on 1 Samuel before relying on myth and propaganda. I think that belies their motives (or at least their sloth). It's not as if they have merely an anti-Christian motive -- I have yet to see one of these "specials" relating to something I do know a lot about (such as patents, the law, sailing, etc. that get even the basic things "right.") I know they have limited research budgets, but if they get even the basic things wrong, why even watch other than for shear entertainment value (which I do enjoy).

http://parablemania.ektopos.com/archives/2005/05/chronology_in_i.html wrote:

Chronology in I Samuel 16:1-18:5
By Jeremy Pierce on May 11, 2005 10:18 AM

A thorny problem in the interpretation of the book of Samuel is the chronology of chapters 16ff. As most commentators look at this section of the book, Saul gets rejected as king in ch.15 (as he had in ch.13), Samuel arrives in Bethlehem to anoint David in the first half of ch.16, David gets called to Saul's side to play soothing music to calm him, a David unknown to Saul shows up to fight Goliath in ch.17, and then Saul rewards David at the end of the chapter. Then early in ch.18, Saul keeps David in his court, which he'd already done at the end of ch.16.

Some people try to avoid the problem simply by saying there are multiple accounts that conflict with each other that were all spliced together by some complete idiot who didn't know how to compile a book to save his life. The problem with such a view is that the author of Samuel is extremely careful, with an overwhelming number of subtle hints here and there and with a fairly consistent unity of style. The sections of the narrative are constructed in clear patterns throughout, with thematic progression and careful literary skill on a much more global level than just with the details within each chunk. There may have been multiple sources for the book, but the author made them his own. He wouldn't have left things so ridiculously conflicting, all within a few chapters, that the common picture you get from modern scholars would result, with this haphazard arrangement of contradictory reports that some editor just threw together because he didn't know what to do with them otherwise.

So what's going on in this section of the book?

The most common suggestion from those who want to defend the author(/editor) from the charge of complete idiocy is that it's just not a chronological account and wasn't intended to be. The most plausible reconstruction I've heard at this point is that David gets anointed, which is followed by the events of ch.17 with Goliath, and then Saul calls David as a musician to soothe his spirit from time to time, which is followed by Saul's permanent calling of David to his court, which is reported both at the end of ch.16 and at the beginning of ch.18 to remind us that we were now at that chronological point again.

I hadn't seen a plausible accounting of why such a masterful author would have chosen this exact ordering until the sermon on Sunday, when our primary teaching elder suggesting the following motivation. Saul was finally rejected in ch.15, and Samuel reports this to Saul at his final encounter with Saul before he dies. He then anoints David in the first half of ch.16, and this event begins the foundation for David's approaching reign. Since David is the primary character of the rest of the book, even while Saul is still king, this makes sense to start out with the foundation of David's reign. The rest of the foundation of the rest of the book is to typify what sort of king David will be like. The people had asked for a king like those of the surrounding nations, and they had gotten one. The chapters between Saul's introduction and his final rejection as the kind of king God will choose typify what Saul is like. He's impetuous, lacking in common sense, favoring mere ritual piety over a concern for right relationship with God, more concerned with what his people think than what God thinks, disobedient to God's commands through his prophet, and so on. Jonathan has served to this point as a stark contrast.

Now the one who will truly contrast with Saul as a different kind of king has arrived on the scene, and the author displays the differences. In the anointing scene, we see that this is God's choice, and God doesn't choose by the outward signs that Samuel expected (e.g. Eliab looks kingly but is not God's choice). Now we see two aspects of David's kingship that will run throughout the rest of Samuel. David is the sweet psalmist who will reorganize worship in Israel. He's the shepherd who cares for his sheep. He's loved by all, including Saul and Jonathan (until Saul's irrational fear of competition gets the better of him). The scene of David calming Saul with his music shows this side of David, and since that's the primary element necessary for kingship it comes first.

Then we see David as the man of war, the man of blood, who kills the giant and cuts his head off. Shortly after that we see him meeting Saul's demand of bring back 100 Philistine foreskins. The shepherd protects his sheep, killing off lions and bears, and David will do the same for Israel against the Philistine threat, pacifying them completely. These sections thus serve as the foundation for the rest of the book by bringing out these features of David in exactly the order the theme requires. There are enough signals, according to this view, that tell us the chronology that this literary pattern is supposed to explain.

I said I think this is the most plausible account of a chronology for this section that takes it as being not in the proper order. This literary explanation does seem plausible to me. If we truly can't reconcile the chronology as the book stands, it might be the most likely explanation. I don't think it's the best approach, however. It occurred to me after the sermon that there was one feature of this account that all the authors I've read have missed, and it turns out that the elder who gave the sermon on Sunday arrived at the same conclusion completely independently of my own thoughts on it. He's now produced an argument that the account as it stands might be in order both thematically and chronologically.


An observation is necessary, first. Even ch.17 has internal problems, when read through the eyes of a modern scholar. I picked up on this when reading through Ralph Klein's commentary on I Samuel. Klein claims that there's a contradiction even in ch.17, because Saul calls for David earlier in the chapter as if he knows who he is but then doesn't seem to know who David is later on when rewarding him. Klein's conclusion is that even ch.17 is spliced together from different sources. This made me look again at both pieces of evidence. Nowhere in the chapter does it say that Saul didn't know David. All it says is that he wanted to know whose son he was. He was told whose son he was at the end of ch.16, but it's much more plausible that Saul would forget whose son he was than that he'd forget who David himself was. So it's not clear at all at the end of ch.17 that Saul doesn't know David. Thus is solved the internal problem of ch.17.

But what's really interesting is Klein's claim that Saul does seem to know David earlier in the chapter. The text doesn't come out and say this, but Saul simply hears that David had said some things and sent for him. The only thing the text reports of their conversation is David's defense of why he thinks he can be a good warrior against Goliath. We get none of the questioning of who his father is that we get both earlier at the end of ch.16 and later at the end of ch.17. Should we assume that Saul already knew who David was? We can't assume that for sure, but we have no reason to rule it out, and it makes sense to read ch.17 with the sense that Saul already had some familiarity with David, which ch.16 would explain. If he furthermore had already developed a liking for David, it might explain why he'd risk a small warrior going against such a huge giant. That strikes me as one of the strangest elements of ch.17. Why does Saul go along with this? The best explanation I can think of is that Saul already knew David and liked him very much, so he was willing to trust him on this.

If this is all right, then it's fairly straightforward to defend both the integrity of the text and its chronological ordering. David was privately anointed. He was then summoned to soothe Saul musically, and Saul called David to enter his service (though it doesn't say explicitly at the end of ch.16 that this was permanent; presumably David went back to shepherding in between). Then the Goliath episode takes place, and Jesse sends David to deliver food to his brothers and check on the battle. Saul trusts David enough to let him fight, and then rewards him afterward. Even though he'd once been told whose son David is, he forgets and asks again. At that point (18:2) Saul calls David to permanent service at his court, and Jesse needs to find a new shepherd.

The thematic and chronological ordering might well coincide. This does take a good deal of thinking through to arrive at, but it strikes me that some of the moves I had to make to work this out are fairly obvious if you just look at what the text says and what it doesn't say. I have to wonder how it is that such good scholars can miss such things, but I think it's from reading these texts with certain presuppositions about how editors uncarefully lift contradictory sources and put them up against each other without much thought. If you don't start with that assumption, you don't get that conclusion.

Addendum: After I wrote this post, I took a look at some of my other commentaries on Samuel, and it turns out Robert Bergen defends the chronology I've just given, though he doesn't do it in exactly the same way. He doesn't make all my considerations explicit, but he does give one further element that I think is worth noticing.

Those who have defended the chronology this way in the past have taken the dubious stance that Saul must simply have forgotten that David was the well-loved member of his court who played music to calm him whenever the injurious spirit would torment him. That seems pretty unlikely, but they usually insist that we see irrationalities in Saul later on. He knows fully that David has had opportunities to kill him but hasn't done so, but he still acts as if David wants to kill him. This doesn't seem to be a memory problem, though, but some element of irrationality, of knowing something but still being unable to overcome his need to remove all competitors, partly due to Samuel's declaration that God had rejected him as king and would replace him with a better man.

Well, Bergen doesn't take that sort of solution, but he does point out one thing that's right about it. If this chronology is correct, then Saul has forgotten whose son David is, which means he's forgotten an important detail about one of his most beloved members of his court. It's much more believable that this is all Saul forgot, but it also makes sense within a more reasonable sense of Saul's having memory problems. He can't even be a good enough king to remember whose son his beloved musician is. If that's the narrator's point of having Saul ask the question at the end of ch.17 that Saul had already asked at the end of ch.16, then it makes perfect sense.
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PostPosted: Mon Jun 23, 2008 8:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Still hoping for help on this one....

Here's a partial response relevant to this inquiry with some specific questions as to the accounts....

my relative wrote:

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None of the apologies below address the description of David as being a "mighty man of valor" when first presented to Saul as his potential harp player, then Saul trying to talk him out of fighting Goliath by saying, "you arebut a youth and he (Goliath) is a trained warrior".

While we're talking about descriptions, we have Saul described as being "head and shoulders taller than any other man", then we have David described as being "head and shoulders taller than Saul". Wait a minute - I just discovered the real giant of the whole narrative... it was David! If the average height of iron age man was 5'3", then Saul must have been 6'5" or better and David 7'9" or better!

I am being facetious, but you get my point. We have to consider literary devices and the "language of mythology" in our interpretation of the scripture. Another interesting thing is when the sons of Jesse are brought before Samuel - the oldest, Eliab, looks kingly, but is not God's choice because God "looks on the inside". But in both the cases of Saul and of David, they are described as being the tallest and most attractive (I thought it didn't matter).

I guess it just would not do to have Quasimodo as the King of God's chosen people?

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 23, 2008 6:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Here's my last response -- I'm still interested in others' thoughts on these questions...


These are excellent questions....


I do think it is critical that we distinguish between manuscript problems and classic embellishment when it comes to the historic narrative of the bible. The hope of our salvation depends on the veracity of not only the accuracy of the doctrinal statements in the bible, but in its historicity – outside of minor textual variations, if we doubt the historic accuracy of the bible, the accounts of Jesus and His miracles and death and resurrection are in question, and so go the support for our faith – as Paul said, we might as well eat, drink, and be merry. I don’t doubt there have been some embellishments in texts through the years (we know of some in modern translations), but basic facts are important. Therefore, I do think we must try hard to reconcile seeming factual inconsistencies before we

I don’t think a “Jesus seminar” sort of “fresh look” at the bible would be edifying, though maintaining a critical eye to questions like this and abolishing unbiblical traditions and childish views such as those portraying David, for example, as a thin rail of a guy trying to keep Saul’s huge armor on should be thrown out of our kids’ curriculum as they perpetuate an uncritical view as they grow up and “learn” to avoid things that don’t sound true in Scripture based on the notions in their heads from their youth.

I actually think David was about Saul’s height (if not larger) when he fought Goliath. Saul had a lot on the line if David lost – there’s no way he would have sent an untested scrawny shrimp of a guy into a duel that would determine the fate of his kingdom. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that Saul’s armor didn’t “fit” David – just that he didn’t want to wear it – I think it might “get in his way” and he was not a warrior accustomed to wearing such things. In fact, David did keep Goliath’s armor and later I think David was wielding Goliath’s sword (it weighed something like 30 pounds, remember) as his weapon of choice against Saul.

The fact that Saul (when chosen as king) was head and shoulders above all other men (Jews) doesn’t negate the possibility that one of the children at the time (David must have been either a child) might one day later rise in stature above that of Saul.

The “mighty man of valor” reference is a bit difficult, but Saul was more than a bit off and his memory and the chronology of the texts is also difficult to pin down. I’ll consider this one further, but it does strike me that David might be seen as a mighty man of valor one day (when being contrasted with your typical harpist) and some time later (when being considered to go to duel against a battle-hardened beast of a man for the fate of his kingdom) be considered a young man (note he doesn’t say “young and wimpy”). In that day, stature was only part of the equation – a battle-proven man who had proven instincts and skills developed over years of battle and training etc. was likely valued over even a young “man of valor”. The fact that Saul wouldn’t want a young man (even a man of valor) to battle Goliath in this situation, doesn’t necessarily conflict with an earlier view that he was seen as a man of valor. (also, it wasn’t Saul that had used that reference, it was the messenger – Saul might have a different perception of David).

The Eliab reference is traditionally viewed as you suggest, but again I read it differently. It’s tough to escape the pre-suppositions we bring from our childhood Sunday School pictograms, but if we look only at what logically follows from the exchange, I don’t see an inconsistency. When considering Eliab, Samuel says “ah, yes, this man is tall and looks kingly, etc.” God corrects him and reminds him not to judge based on that criteria, but it doesn't follow that David didn’t also meet some of those characteristics – we only know that Samuel wasn’t judging David by those criteria after being corrected by God. He could very well have been of some stature even at that time. The fact that he was described as being “tall and attractive” as suggesting some “value” doesn’t mean it “mattered” to Samuel in his selection. Clearly it did not if Samuel obeyed the Lord (which he must have done), but that didn’t mean it wasn’t noteworthy that David was tall and attractive.

When I read the entirety of David’s life, I don’t see a leader whose “story” was embellished by his people like so much of secular literature/mythology. This was a man virtually characterized by his defects and weaknesses – even in the Goliath story, we are reminded of his pride by his brothers. Again, even in the Goliath story, he goes out of his way to respond as one not relying on his own “strength” to best Goliath, but one who faces Goliath with the confidence of one through whom the power of God would be (and had been) portrayed. Much like the accounts of the Apostles' and Disciples' own flaws (and even those of Moses and the other patriarchs), the documentation of his failures as a leader in particular go a long way to help convince me that the biblical accounts are believable and trustworthy. This is a stark contrast to supposedly similar accounts of myth and legend in accounts of others outside the bible, and modern critics' attempts to do so simply fall flat in my eyes and reveal nothing but their own religious prejudice. If anything, the bible stands in stark contrast to other texts of the sort which they try to use by analogy to tarnish the Word.

Like you, my problem lies with the interpreters and commentators who may draw wrong conclusions and rely on traditions (the "church" if you will) -- it's not with the document itself or its authors or subjects.
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