Saturday, December 03, 2005

1 Samuel 21

This chapter begins at what is believed to be Mt. Scopus

near Jerusalem.

1 Samuel 21 is alluded to in the gospels in a way that suggests that the account Jesus knew may have been subtly different than what we have in our Bibles. In Matthew 12:3-4 (also Mark 2:25-6), Jesus says that David and his companions entered "the house of God" and unlawfully ate the consecrated bread. In 1 Samuel 21, the story is substantively different. First, David enters alone. Any companions conspicuously missing. The absence of companions for a high general and member of the royal house is such an ominous sign that Ahimelech (Heb.: Brother of the king) the priest trembles. Second, Ahimelech specifically says that the men can eat the consecrated bread if they are ritually pure.In lectio divinae, the divergence between the description in 1 Sam. 21 and Matthew 12 is a flare signaling either:

(a) editorial tinkering bythe early Christian church or by Jewish editors of the Old Testament,
(b) a divergent oral tradition by which Jesus might have heard the story and the formal tradition, or
(c) an important lesson.

To exclude the first two possibilities, we would need to know when the canon for the Old Testament was finalized. Unfortunately, we don't. As a diagram of the situation by Professor Tyler Williams shows, there was a wide variation in texts during Jesus's lifetime. It's possible that the differences between the tale as told by Jesus and that told here in 1 Sam. 21 reflects different traditions.

Note also that David is probably ritually pure, since he spent at least two nights away from Michal or any other woman. Therefore, assuming Ahimelech is presenting the Law accurately, David doesn't seem to be doing anything actually unlawful by eating the bread. So, our attention should be even more tightly drawn to what Jesus is trying to convey. Finally, Jesus seems to indicate that Abiathar rather than Ahimelech was high priest. For various reasons, this is less definitive than it might seem, but it is yet one more element in which Jesus's account doesn't mesh smoothly with 1 Sam. 21. So, it might be a further sign that we are to pay attention to the discrepancies.

At any rate, David tells Ahimelech a series of lies:

* He's on a secret mission from the king
* He has a retinue, presumably of 4 men (hence he asks for five loaves)
* The men are ritually pure.

Also, note the numerology. Five is a number we associate with power (viz. the Pentagon), and one is the number of God. David asks for 5 loaves of bread, but accepts the bread of the One. This has a parallel with the battle with Goliath, in which David takes 5 stones but uses one. The connection to that battle is intensified when Ahimelech offers Goliath's sword to David and David escapes to... Gath, Goliath's home town!

Goliath's sword was in the Tabernacle, surely a strange place to keep a trophy of war which had last been seen in David's tent(1 Sam. 17:54). It was hidden behind an ephod (priestly apron), such that only priests would have known it was there.

In this chapter, we learn that Saul's head shepherd, an Edomite called Doeg, is present. He will later personally execute eighty five priests, the entire town of Nob, as well as its farm animals. Saul, who refused to commit against the Philistines, is only too quick to order the same against the priesthood of Israel. What is notable is that no Israelite would follow the command to kill the priests and Saul had to rely on a foreigner. Edom was the land of Esau, the hunter, a country that had barred the Israelites passage to Canaan (Judges 11:17), indeed a nation that Saul had had to subdue (1 Sam. 14:47).

David now heads directly into enemy territory in Gath. There, despite his legend as a killer of tens of thousands of Philistines, he plays the madman and is ignored. So, we see a complete inversion, as the head of Israel becomes its enemy and the enemy of Israel receives Israel's anointed one, if not with honor, at least with indifference. One wonders what Goliath's kinsmen thought when they saw his so very distinctive sword in the hand of the one who slew him.