Joel Baden’s book, The Historical David, is my current reading project.
The presence of the Philistines in Gaza gives the context for the stories about David and Saul. From sources outside the Bible we know that the Philistine presence in Gaza and the Israelite presence in the hill country north of Jerusalem was real in the early Iron Age. According to the Bible, Saul fought the Philistines throughout his time as king. But the polemical point of the narrative seems to be that David was better at fighting them.
However, the Bible is very vague about David’s successes. We do not get much in the way of specific place names or chronology for the battles. Baden says that whenever David succeeds against the Philistines, the immediately following story is about an attempt by Saul to kill him. He takes this as a literary device to highlight the unfairness of Saul’s rivalry.
Baden sees some reasons to think that David’s reputation for having defeated the Philistines rests upon defensive successes, not on his having taken the battle to them. The borders between Philistine and Israelite territory probably were indefinite. So Baden compares the situation to that today in the mountains between India and Pakistan, where there are frequent border skirmishes. These would have taken place in uninhabited areas with no place names.
Although 1 Samuel 18:5 says that Saul put David in charge of the Israelite army, it is unlikely that David would have had a higher rank than Jonathan and Abner from Saul’s own family. More likely is what 18:13 says, that David was “head of a thousand”–not a literal number but a technical term for a military unit.
Baden tries to shed further light on this by considering the military importance of Judah for Saul. Judah was not a part of Saul’s kingdom. Yet Saul needed to protect his southern flank. David’s job may have been to repel Philistine raiding parties along Israel’s southern border.
This role may have lent itself to exaggeration after David became king. It is easy to show such embellishment in the annals of other ancient kings.
The report that David served Saul in a military capacity reflects historical reality. But the stories about David’s early career have the purpose of showing that David was more successful than Saul. They may not give us accurate history.
The other side of this is the depiction of Saul.
The chant that “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.” in 1 Samuel 18:8 serves the purpose of showing David’s popularity and Saul’s foolish response to it. If David had literally killed tens of thousands of Philistines, he would have killed a major part of the population of Gaza. So this is not literal. (Besides “tens of thousands” does not really translate the Hebrew, which just means something like innumerable.)
Saul’s jealousy gets portrayed as irrational. He tries to kill David several times. The story tries to elicit the reader’s sympathy for David and antipathy for Saul. But Baden finds the account unrealistic.
The episode where Saul throws a spear at David makes little sense for several reasons. If David was in charge of a unit in the buffer zone south of Israel, why does the text portray him as living at Saul’s headquarters?
For similar reasons, the marriage of David to Saul’s daughter, Michal doesn’t seem right. When he is forced to flee, why doesn’t she go with him. But the marriage makes David son-in-law to the king, which is an important political point.
The very strange story at the end of 1 Samuel 19 has the purpose of humiliating Saul. According to Baden he ends up laying naked all day mumbling to himself. This is like Shakespeare’s treatment of King Lear. The whole scene is a literary construction.
Baden deconstructs and discounts much of the information about Saul and David in 1 Samuel 18 and 19.
He may be right. But I have some questions about his reconstruction.
First, the find of a big fortress at Khirbet Qeiyafa calls into question the notion that the operation in Judah was on such a small scale. It is hard to tell when it was built. But even if it came later, it seems to show that military operations in the region were a
bigger deal than Baden envisions.
In regard to David living at Saul’s headquarters, chronological displacement of episodes is common in biblical narrative. Baden has already said that David as Saul’s court musician is plausible. So maybe the spear throwing incident reflects something that happened at another time when David was not out guarding the border. David was a musician for Saul when it happened (18:10).
So far I have not noticed Baden dealing with the problem that David was first presented as a court musician and then later Saul sees David and has to ask Abner who he is (17:55). The chronology is off. Maybe sources that do not agree have been conflated.
And regarding the marriage to Michal, I find it hard to see how the narrator could have gotten away with just fabricating it.
Baden’s interpretation of the incident where Saul is felled by the spirit of God and becomes like a prophet seems too negative. He may be right about the literary purpose of the passage, but he leaves me wondering why Saul becoming like a prophet is humiliating. The irony and humor of this passage may be lost to us. The passage is pretty mysterious. I am not sure how this story fits with the theme that Saul becomes unqualified to be king because the spirit of God has left him.
So once again, I find myself wanting to take a little more historically conservative position than Baden. He, of course, is methodologically eliminating information that seems tendentious, that seems too favorable to the narrator’s point of view. That is valuable. But it seems to me that historical deconstructions can also be overdone.
Perhaps the main problem lies in what the narrator has left out. For instance, I can think of a few reasons why Michal didn’t run off with David. But I would have to make them up because the narrator doesn’t tell us. Still, I’m not sure that definitively rules out the historicity of what the story does tell us.