George's dispute with King David

(George Brooks) #1

I have a present for you, @Totti! It’s a substantial excerpt from Tim Callahan’s book, Secret Origins of the Bible. It offers a real taste of “critical thinking”! So read the following section, and see if you agree with the author’s views? Starting in Chapter 9, “From Chaos to Kingship” on page 243 of the book (or page 253 of the PDF file), Callahan explores the origins of King David. Can the earliest of the stories be true? Callahan thinks one version could be true, but not both versions, simultaneously!

I have never read a better, while still brief, analysis of the King David story arc. It is so well detailed, it leaves one with a terrible choice. It is common for Bible fans to treat disparate references to David as all legitimate parts of his back story. But here we are confronted with two different stories… contradictory stories! Granted, the Bible scribes have made an artful masterpiece of sewing the two stories together. But the resulting work is not proof of who David was - - but, ironically, proof that the Bible had to be wrong about some part of David’s story! Let the games begin:

"After the description of Goliath and his challenge, and the statement that Saul and his warriors are dismayed by it, the tale returns to David. Yet it does so in such a way as to show that an entirely different tradition is now being introduced. Verse 12a speaks of David as if we have not yet been introduced to him and his family: "Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah named Jesse, who had eight sons."

The three eldest of these sons are with Saul’s army facing the Philistines. Imparting this information here is a bit redundant, since we’ve been told in 1 Sam. 16:10,11 who Jesse is and that he has eight sons. It soon becomes plain, however, that we are encountering a new tradition about the rise of David, for we are told in verse 15 that David, rather man being with the army, went back and forth from feeding his father’s sheep and being with Saul, rather an odd practice for one who is the king’s armor-bearer.

It is soon evident that in this tradition David is in fact not the king’s armor-bearer or even the man described by Saul’s servants as “a man of valor, a man of war, prudent of speech and a man of good presence” (1 Sam. 16:18). Once David has arrived at camp and hears Goliath’s challenge, he asks what reward the man will reap who kills the Philistine. The soldiers tell him that the king will enrich such a man and give him his daughter in marriage. What is plain from this is that David is quite new at camp and could not possibly be the king’s armor-bearer.

What happens next emphasizes this (1 Sam. 17:28-30):
"Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, "Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know the presumption, and the evil of your heart; for you have come down to see the battle."

And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way; and the people answered him as before."

**A number of things are notable in this telling interaction. First of all, David cannot possibly have been at court, as he was in Chapter 16. Nor can this tradition be part of the story in that chapter, in which Samuel has anointed David “in the midst of his brothers” (1 Sam 16:13) and after which the spirit of Yahweh comes mightily upon David. **

**It is obvious both from Eliab’s accusation and David’s response that David has not been anointed by Samuel, is not a man who knows how to act at court, is not part of Saul’s entourage and is in fact a rather spoiled youngest son. **

Note how Eliab characterizes the task David should be attending to as caring for “those few sheep.” Clearly in his oldest brother’s eyes David is not only spoiled by having only light work, but is shirking even that trivial task. Eliab also sees his youngest brother as blatantly ambitious, which, in fact, proves to be quite true. For his part, David’s response is typically that of a bratty younger brother.

**The words “What have I done now?” could as easily have come out of the mouth of a modern teenager. Note also that David is not even the least bit fazed by Eliab’s anger. Ignoring his brother, he turns to another soldier and resumes pestering that man about what reward one could expect for killing Goliath. **

One of the startling aspects of the material on David, especially the Court History of David, is this sense of modern realism. Particularly when compared to the typological tales of the patriarchs or the mythologized ritual of Samson and Delilah, this material stands out as either a verbatim history or, as . . . a fictional narrative that is surprisingly modern.

Verse 31 serves as a bridge to return us to the material from the tradition of chapter 16: "When the words which David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him."

Had David just been a kid from the country, his words would not have interested the king. If, on the other hand, David is Saul’s armor-bearer, he would not be running about the camp pestering the soldiers about what reward Saul might give to any champion who would kill Goliath, since he would already be privy to such
information. This verse cannot belong to either tradition and must be bridging material inserted by a later redactor.

From this point on until verse 55, we are back in the old epic tradition. David is once more Saul’s armor-bearer. He tells the king that he has often killed lions and bears when they tried to raid his father’s flocks, so he can easily kill this Philistine. David is convincing enough that Saul lends him his armor, but David is not used to wearing it. When David goes out to meet Goliath, they exchange taunts, which is true to the epic tradition.

**When at one point in the Iliad Ajax die Greater and Hector duel, Ajax tells Hector he can have the first spear-cast Hector is somewhat nettled by his opponent’s words and says (Rouse 1954, p. 88): **

"Telamonian Ais, my very good lord! Do not tease me as if I were a feeble boy or a woman, who knows nothing of the works of war." Upon seeing David approach carrying only a staff and a sling, Goliath says (1 Sam. 17:43): “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?” In the MT he then curses David by his gods. The LXX inserts a response from David between Goliath’s question and his curse.

David answers Goliath, “Nay, but worse than a dog.” This would seem to be the reason Goliath curses him. All in all the exchange between Hector and Ajax is a good deal more cordial than that between David and Goliath, each of whom promise to give the other’s body to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field [this is a Persian funeral practice revealed in Homer’s narrative!]; but the similarities of epic tradition that bind the two are a clear indication of the cultural similarities between Homeric Greece and David’s Israel.

Once David kills Goliath, the Israelites utterly rout the Philistines and plunder their camp. David keeps Goliath’s armor but brings his head to Jerusalem (vs. 54). This last act is clearly anachronistic, since David does not capture Jerusalem until several years later. At this point the story reverts back to the tradition begun in Chapter 17, where David is a stranger to the court (1 Sam. 17:55-58):

When Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I cannot tell.” And the king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.” And as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David said,"I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite"

Archer tries to explain Saul’s question as Saul seeing David in a new light. Up until now, he has only seen David’s artistic side. Astounded at his prowess, Saul asks him somewhat rhetorically who he is. However, not only was David initially described to Saul as “a man of valor, a man of war” (1 Sam. 16:18) but Saul even armed David in his own armor until David protested that he could not wear it.

Here again we have the situation where people who claim that the biblical text should be taken literally unless it is clearly meant as metaphor are arguing against what the text obviously says quite literally: In 1 Sam. 17:55-58 Saul does not know who David is. If there were really any doubt whatsoever that these verses are part of a separate tradition from those in Chapter 16 the next two verses should make it obvious (1 Sam 18:1,2):

"When he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house."

Here, in so many words, we are told that Saul took David into his service after David killed Goliath. This clearly contradicts David’s introduction into the court in Chapter 16. Another indication that there are two opposing traditions at work here is the fact that in the LXX the material in 1 Sam. 17:12-31 (in which David is sent by Jesse to provision his brothers and is upbraided by Eliab) is missing.

It is a matter of some controversy as to whether the editor(s) of the LXX excised those verses to make the text more harmonious or if the version in the LXX represents the material as it originally was, and that the MT, which was edited much later, added the rival material.

Among those things that argue for the material in the LXK as being the original story is the fact that a fragment of the story of David and Goliath among the Dead Sea Scrolls gives Goliath’s height as being four cubits and a span (or 6’ 9"), as does the LXX, while the MT has Goliath as six cubits and a span (or 9’ 9") in height. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which date from about the time of Jesus, are the oldest copies we have of actual biblical text, their agreement with the LXX on this point adds to its version’s validity.


1Sa 16:10-11
Again, Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said unto Jesse, The LORD hath not chosen these. And Samuel said unto Jesse, are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep. And Samuel said unto Jesse, Send and fetch him: for we will not sit down till he come hither.

1Sa 16:17-23
And Saul said unto his servants, Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me. Then answered one of the servants, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.

Wherefore Saul sent messengers unto Jesse, and said, Send me David thy son, which is with the sheep.
And Jesse took an ass laden with bread, and a bottle of wine, and a kid, and sent them by David his son unto Saul.

And David came to Saul, and stood before him: and he loved him greatly; and he became his armour bearer.
And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, Let David, I pray thee, stand before me; for he hath found favour in my sight.

And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with
his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.

1Sa 17:25-33
And the men of Israel said, Have ye seen this man that is come up? surely to defy Israel is he come up:
and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give
him his daughter, and make his father’s house free in Israel.

And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this
Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he
should defy the armies of the living God?

And the people answered him after this manner, saying, So shall it be done to the man that killeth him.
And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David,
and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness?
I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou might see the battle.

And David said, What have I now done? Is there not a cause? And he turned from him toward another, and spake after the same manner: and the people answered him again after the former manner. And when the words were heard which David spake, they rehearsed them before Saul: and he sent for him. And David said to Saul, Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine. And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.

Do i think critically?

Callahan may be right in seeing 2 stories here but I think the actual second story starts at 17:12, where David is mentioned “as though he had not been before.” What probably happened was only David’s 3 eldest brothers were named because they were “drafted” among Jesse’s 8 sons to serve in battle. David was being shuttled back and forth between his responsibilities at home and in the court of Saul. Since his father was old, I’m not sure why this should be read as strange. This would make perfect sense of why he would be out of the loop regarding what Saul says concerning Goliath (v. 28-30).

As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, O king, I don’t know.” The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.” As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.” (v. 17:55-8)

Callahan thinks this is proof of a contradiction. But in 16:21, we learn that David was only one of Saul’s armor-bearers. If Saul had several armor-bearers, and if David was being shuffled back and forth from home, and particularly in the heat of a stressful conflict, I’m not sure why it should be surprising that Saul happened to forget whose son was whose.

Just an aside, it should be noted that for every biblical criticism that aims to undermine the trustworthiness of scripture, there is likely already a corresponding scholarly response. I haven’t taken the time to look for any commentaries on the text cited above since I’ve already asked myself the same questions when reading it before. But the Bible has been around for millenia and scarcely any criticism has the potential to present a novel challenge to its reliability.

EDIT: for saying something rude about Callahan.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #3

A casual blog post from Pete Enns I came across the other day also speaks to this topic:

Is that the goal of biblical criticism? Or are you thinking that everytime someone applies the methodology of biblical criticism and it seems to undermind the trustworthiness of Scripture, it has likely already been scrutinized by the community theologians and already dealt with?

Kind of. There are a lot of things that we didn’t know, like any of the tablets from the ANE and the such. Technically those did present novel challenges to some traditional interpretations and ways of thinking about the Bible. Also I’d probably say genetic science and more broadly speaking the theory of evolution have provided some novel challenges to its ‘reliability when interpreted a particular way.’ But that’s not anything new- like the idea of vitalism was linked to Genesis 2:7, or many other Scriptures to geocentrism and in every case the reliability or trustworthiness of the Scriptures as a whole were pitted against knowledge gained another way.

I’d probably also phrase things away from the ‘reliability’ of the Scripture as it sounds a little bit too close to the dichotomy that is presented by say the YEC crowd - it’s either the Bible is true or man’s word is true (regarding science, archaeology, etc.). But instead what is more at stake is merely a particular way of reading the Bible or some kind of interpretation rather than Scripture as a whole. I came up with a principle to describe this idea (at least where scientific inquiry is concerned) where: no scientific knowledge, observation, etc. can ever falsify Scripture as a whole but merely provide a constraint on how one can interpret any given passage. This could be expanded to the idea of Biblical criticism as well.


The latter. I’m using the phrase “biblical criticism” here not in the academic sense but to refer to instances such as the above. Callahan is well-regarded among those zealous to demonstrate contradictions in the Bible.

Fair enough–I think you may be right here.

BioLogos holds that the Bible is the “inspired and authoritative word of God.” I think you’d agree that “reliability” isn’t even as strong a term as “authoritative.” Correct?

I very much agree with this.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #5

Gotcha, I didn’t know of him before this.

Definitely a strong word. I imagine the additional clause appear in my head, ‘authoritative word of God in matters which it claims to speak’ though that is technically another can of worms. Does some form of the documentary hypothesis undermine its reiability? If the Bible is meant to be a reliable history book, then it probably would be less reliable thanks to modern archaeology. But if the Bible isn’t meant to be read that way then even if Callahan is right, then any undermining is less affected.

For myself though, it used to be a scary thing to read of any possible inconsistency or ‘contradiction’ and I immediately began to doubt the entire Bible’s reliability. Perhaps being fed a healthy diet of YEC rhetoric after becoming a Christian set me up to nearly crash years later.

(Randy) #6

Hm, yes. Greg Boyd in “Benefit of the Doubt” wrote how he kept making a different house of cards of theology after his initial mistakes with a strong faith healing type church–when he ran into evolution, then Old Testament as Ancient Literature, etc. He said that as each fell, he grew to finally have more faith in the God of Jesus, rather than of specific interpretations and nuances.


I’m not prepared to speak with much expertise on the documentary hypothesis but would just note that in every generation there are creative new attacks on the “reliability” of the Bible (however you define it). There is a difference between those who “sit under” the Bible with a sincere desire to understand what God is trying to communicate, and those who “stand over” it with the goal of demonstrating its lack of trustworthiness.

I agree with you here. I don’t think the inspired ancient writers were held to the same standards in their historiography and scientific accuracy as we moderns. But I think you’d agree that there are certainly things in scripture that are intended to be taken as reliable history, such as the New Testament claims about Christ.

Edit: typos and large deletions

(Matthew Pevarnik) #8

Righto- I don’t think this one idea can be applied all throughout the text but that leaves me with a rather awkward uncertainty. Do I just assume stories really happened unless biblical criticism, scientific inquiry and/or archaeology suggest otherwise? I.e. authoritative until proven wrong or at least uninformed. Or do I just assume they happened regardless of what any other methods of knowledge happen to find? I.e. authoritative over all other epistemology on every topic. I personally find myself somewhere in the middle- as in authoritative in areas which it intends to speak. But that still again leaves open the ‘areas which it intends to speak.’


No question it was easier back when we thought faithful interpretation just meant taking everything in scripture as the final word on every subject and reading it as literal history whenever possible. But I guess all Bible readers at least to some degree are forced to make interpretative decisions. We want to do it well. I’ve come to think sometimes we just can’t be sure whether something was intended to be read as literal history or stylized myth and I’m okay with that. I see archaeology and science as helpful tools that can help us calibrate the genre and make some of these interpretative decisions more effectively. The Bible is other-worldly and even strange at times and yet God continues to use the words of the ancients to enlighten us with his truth and life.

(Jay Johnson) #10

But this ties authority to historical accuracy. I like N.T. Wright’s view of Scripture and authority.

“The phrase ‘authority of scripture’, therefore, is a sort of shorthand for the fact that the creator and covenant God uses this book as his means of equipping and calling the church for these tasks. I believe this is the true biblical context of the biblical doctrine of authority, which is meant to enable us to be Micaiahs–in church, but so much more in society: so that, in other words, we may be able to stand humbly in the councils of God, in order then to stand boldly in the councils of men. How may we do that? By soaking ourselves in scripture, in the power and strength and leading of the Spirit, in order that we may then speak freshly and with authority to the world of this same creator God.”

Bingo. Many people worry about a “slippery slope,” where they claim that any undermining of the historical nature of the OT will erode trust in the historical nature of the gospels. However, the authors of the NT constructed a “fire break” to prevent that from happening. In gathering information, ancient historians considered the best evidence to be what they had seen for themselves or obtained from eyewitness interviews, using written sources only as supplements to their own inquiries or when no eyewitnesses were still living. The writers of the gospels followed the accepted historical methods of their Greek exemplars, which is clear from Luke’s prologue, John’s repeated emphasis on eyewitnesses, and the frequent naming of persons as witnesses to events in Matthew and Mark. Besides all that, there are the frequent references to witnesses in Acts, and Paul, Peter, and John in their letters all emphasize their first-hand witness to Christ.

When the writers of scripture wish to emphasize the historical nature of an event, they are capable of doing so, and they do it over and over again in the New Testament. There is no “slippery slope” because the apostles “made straight paths” for our feet.

Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3:5-6)

(system) #11

This topic was automatically closed 6 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.