The Complete Book of 1 Samuel
David's always working the angles. Nabal, a "surly and mean" tycoon, is married to the "clever and beautiful" Abigail. David sends 10 of his men to ask Nabal for food. They tell Nabal that they could have stolen his livestock, but they didn't. In exchange for that kindness, they suggest, Nabal should feed David and his militia. Nabal brushes them off, saying, "Why should I feed you rather than my own servants? You've done nothing for me." His rebuff enrages David, who immediately marches his army toward Nabal's farm. Abigail hears that they're coming and thinks fast. She collects huge quantities of provisions and waylays David's men before they reach Nabal. She flings herself at David's feet and begs him not to take vengeance, saying that if he kills Nabal, he will have a guilty conscience. David agrees, but takes all the food. (200 fig cakes! Yum!) Several days later, the Lord smites Nabal. David immediately marries Abigail.
A couple of things about this story:
1) David is such a horndog that he would pick up a widow at a funeral!
2) The first time I read it, I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about David—I've got his name, after all. I enjoyed the meet-cute romance between David and Abigail and shared David's righteous indignation against the miserly Nabal.
But the second time I read it, I was appalled. David is a shakedown artist—this is pure mafia. Look at the facts of the story again: David's men tell Nabal they didn't steal his animals—the obvious threat being: If you don't pay up, we will steal your animals. It's a protection racket! Nabal shouldn't have to feed David's army rather than his own men. David has no claim on his food at all. David marching his army against Nabal is like a capo sending a mob soldier to break a late-payer's knees. Abigail may prevent the violence, but she doesn't stop the extortion. David walks away with all the food he can carry. And Nabal, the victim of this crime, gets smote for his troubles!
As I predicted, Saul's amnesty didn't last. As soon he hears that David is hiding in the hills (the 1100 B.C. version of the "tribal areas," I guess), he leads an army after him. David and his lieutenant Abishai sneak into Saul's camp at night and walk right up to the sleeping king. It's a repeat of David's encounter with Saul in the cave. Abishai begs to assassinate the king, but David—cannily thinking ahead to when he will wear the crown and malcontents will want to kill him—forbids it: "Who can raise his hand against the Lord's anointed?" Instead, David steals Saul's spear and water jar and tiptoes out of the camp. From a far hilltop, David then taunts Saul's commander Abner for not guarding Saul: "You deserve to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, the Lord's anointed."
Saul hears David's voice and calls out to him. David begs for peace. Saul immediately apologizes again and implores David to come back. Knowing just how fickle and deranged Saul is, David doesn't accept the invitation, but he does return the spear and water jar, and they part friends. Saul's farewell to David—the final words between them—are these: "Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them." Ignore the fortune-cookie second sentence. The first sentence is the benediction of a father to his heir: He blesses him and calls him his son. This further legitimizes David's claim to the throne, right?
David is sick of the hassle of living in Israel. (I know how he feels: Israelis can be so rude.) So, he defects to the Philistines. This is shocking! It's like Gen. MacArthur moving to China in 1951 or Condi Rice decamping for Tehran today. The Philistines are tyrannical, thuggish, idol-worshipping, chariots-of-mass-destruction-driving villains, and David has been doing little but murdering them for the past 10 chapters—yet they're still better allies than David's own king. David and his 600 men become a bandit gang. They raid against all the neighboring tribes except the Israelites, sacking towns, slaughtering women, and stealing livestock. It's ugly.
Still, let's note what David does not do during his Philistine exile. He does not worship idols. He may not be particularly faithful during this period—his conversations with God certainly decrease in frequency—but he never abandons the Lord.
Philistine King Achish decides to make war against Israel and tells David he must accompany the Philistines. David doesn't hesitate: He eagerly volunteers to serve as Achish's personal bodyguard.
When the Phils invade Israel, Saul, who's ever-more cuckoo, decides he needs to consult with Samuel. Since Samuel is dead, this is a problem. Saul disguises himself and visits the Witch of Endor. He begs her to conjure the ghost of Samuel. This episode drives home, as if we could have forgotten it, the faithlessness of Saul. He has explicitly banned witchcraft, and the Lord made it abundantly clear back in Leviticus that witchcraft was absolutely, utterly, completely forbidden, an automatic death-penalty offense, do not pass go, do not collect 200 shekels. Yet Saul is so scornful of God that he consults the witch anyway. (Also note that he's so spineless that he can't even make a decision about his war strategy without talking to a ghost.)
Samuel comes when summoned, but he's steamed. He reminds Saul that the Lord "has become your adversary" and that his disobedience has already cost him the kingship. He also mentions the troubling little point that Saul and his sons will die the next day. This plunges Saul into despair, but after a nice steak dinner, he returns to the battlefield.
Achish's generals distrust David—they fear he'll switch sides during the battle—and they beg the king to send him home. So, David goes home and thus misses Saul's last day.
A stupendous digression. David returns home to find that the Amalekites have sacked his town and kidnapped his wives. David and his men weep till they can weep no more. (Young men out there, take a lesson from David: He's a warrior, he plays the lyre—the guitar of his day—and he's not afraid of a good cry. Now do you understand why the chicks dig him?) David prays to God, who tells him to pursue the raiders. As he and his men chase the raiders, they encounter an Egyptian boy, the slave of one of the Amalekites. He was sick, so the Amalekites had left him behind to die. David and his men feed and nurse the boy back to health. He leads them to the Amalekite camp, where they rescue David's wives and kill the raiders. The story hinges on the Egyptian slave boy. Here we have the Exodus tables turned: Instead of Egyptians with Israelite slaves, we have Israelites with an Egyptian slave. Do they maltreat him or set him to work, as the Egyptians did to them? No, they feed him, revive him, liberate him. It's a tribute to David's big heart (as well as his strategic brilliance, since he uses the boy to win the battle). The Bible is surprisingly short on acts of mercy, but this one glows on the page.
Let's also pause for a second to appreciate the structural brilliance of 1 Samuel. Here in these final chapters, the book is jumping back and forth between David and Saul. It's a fantastic contrast. In David's chapters, we witness fidelity, mercy, and martial genius. In Saul's, we see degradation, idolatry, and incompetence. The crosscutting heightens the tension of the stories and prepares us for David's coming triumph.
Back to Saul vs. the Philistines, the Final Chapter. This battle is over before it begins. The Philistines rapidly kill Saul's sons, including David's old favorite, Jonathan. Saul doesn't last much longer. Wounded by an arrow, he begs his servant to finish him off, "so that the uncircumcised may not run me through and make sport of me." The servant refuses, and Saul falls on his sword. The Philistines cut off his head and display it. They also impale his body to a wall. The people of Jabesh—remember that Saul's lone moment of courage occurred when he rescued the Jabeshites from eye gouging back in Chapter 11—hear about the desecration of his corpse. They march to the site where Saul's impaled, reclaim the body, and bury him back in Jabesh. The book ends here. I can't wait to find out what David's going to do as king. A flat tax? Welfare reform? Invasion of Syria?
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.