If I disagree with Joel Baden, in his The Historical David, point by point it will get tiresome. It will also give the wrong impression. I basically agree with him that the story of David’s rise is propaganda and that by looking at it critically we can arrive at some semblance of history. Where I will probably often disagree is when he judges certain pieces of the story to be fabrications because they are literary constructs. I tend to think such stories are both literary constructs and based on events.
An example is his reconstruction that after an unsuccessful coup attempt against King Saul, David fled directly into the Judean wilderness. The story in 1 Samuel has him first fleeing for help to the priests at Nob. Baden thinks nothing like this ever happened.
First, was the storyteller really free to just make up a background for so well-known a figure as the high priest, Abiathar?
Second, if this story was just invented, why does it say that the priests at Nob had Goliath’s sword? Wouldn’t they have had his amazing spear like a weaver’s beam? An invented story, it seems to me, would have used the more spectacular weapon. But Baden has already judged Goliath himself to be an invention. I think it is more likely that he existed, but that his death did not directly involve David.
Third, since the slaughter included not just the priests, but all the residents of Nob (1 Samuel 22:19), might this not have been the same incident as the slaughter of the Gibeonites that David avenges? 2 Samuel 21 brings up Saul’s murder of the Gibeonites as though it were an event already covered.
Baden claims that 1 Samuel 22:19 uses literary irony to portray Saul turning the practice of herem (the slaughter of an enemy population including the livestock in holy war) against Israelites. Yes. And the incident at Nob where David takes the holy bread is probably more theological than historical. But I don’t see how that makes it impossible that Saul had a bunch of people killed at Nob in connection with a rebellion by David.
In the future I won’t go into that much detail about my objections.
Baden is probably right about the chronology. David moved against Saul. He failed. He soon ended up in the Judean wilderness. The story in 1 Samuel that has him first visiting Samuel, then going to Nob, and then to Gath probably brings together incidents that happened at other times.
Baden presents a realistic scenario where David has failed to seize power and so finds himself alone and a fugitive. In this circumstance, David goes to the wilderness where he gathers a gang:
“All those who were in trouble or owed someone money or were discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader. He had about four hundred men with him” (1 Samuel 22:2 NET Bible)
In ancient Israel kinship ties are what gave people identity. David gathered people cut off from their families and villages–unsavory people from beyond acceptable society.
Baden argues that it was hard to survive in the wilderness or even in the wooded hills of Judah. David’s gang of outlaws would have needed provisions. So after a Philistine raiding party attacked and pillaged some threshing floors outside of Keilah, David’s people showed up to “save” them–also probably to extort provisions. The citizens did not welcome David;s party and sent word to Saul. David’s gang left. This is behind the story in 1 Samuel 23.
Then, in desperate straits, the gang shows up at the home of Nabal and again seek to extort provisions. Baden takes the figures given for the wealth of Nabal (1 Samuel 25:2) seriously. He suggests that Nabal was chief of the tribe of Calebites.
When Nabal refuses to pay into David’s protection racket, he dies. Baden is convinced that David had him killed. It seems to me that, although the circumstantial evidence points to David and his men, the most you can say for sure is that David was suspected of having killed Nabal.
David took Abigail in violation of Leverite marriage customs (she should have married a relative of Nabal’s), which gave David a claim to Nabal’s wealth. But the immediate result was that David chose to seek refuge with the king of Gath. His men took spoils and women and moved on. The Calebites seem to have been anything but friendly to David at this point.
Although, Baden has accused David of murder, he defends him against the charge of treason. David was never a subject of Saul’s kingdom, which did not include Bethlehem. Now David is a wanted man in Israel. He has made enemies in the area that will become Judah. So David is unaffiliated and already as much a foe as the Philistines. It probably made perfect sense for him to seek an alliance with them.
So David became a vassal of the king of Gath and made his headquarters at Ziklag in the Negev. Saul lost interest in him (1 Samuel 27:4).
The stories about Saul pursuing David in the Judean wilderness probably reflect history in that Saul sent a force in response to the report of the people at Keilah. However, the stories about David sparing Saul’s life are apologetic and unreliable.
One of the reasons I have argued in several other places against the idea that the Hebrews were the same as the Habiru is that Hebrew tradition supports strong kinship and village ties. The Habiru were displaced persons. Yet in his dire situation after making Israel his enemy, David led a band of displaced persons. So Baden has a section called “David the Habiru”.
Another important point is that Baden correctly insists that the tribe of Judah did not yet exist. So the defense of David in 1 Samuel 27:8 ff. that he did not raid against Judah reads Judah’s existence back into the past. He probably did strike against some people who eventually became a part of Judah.