Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

King David, Time Travel, and Whoa, What the Heck is Going on Here!?

David and Goliath

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Here’s something interesting about the story of David that I’ll bet many of you just pass right on by as if no big deal, whatever, but that I don’t pass by because I geek out over stuff like this.

I’m talking about the story of David and Goliath. And there are a few things that happen in that story that should rightly make us want to start paying attention to the details rather than landing quickly on to supposed moral of the story, “You, too, can overcome big odds when God is with you.” Ugh.

Anyway.

And I’m just sort of kidding about the time travel thing, but here’s why I said it:

David and Saul meet twice.

After David is anointed by Samuel as the next king to take over for Saul the Loser King (1 Samuel 16:1-13), we read that the Spirit of God departs from Saul, whereupon he is tormented by an “evil spirit from the Lord,” and the only thing that will cure him is more cowbell—actually someone playing skillfully on a lyre.

Saul tells one of his servants to go find someone like that, and he says that he knows just the guy,

I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him.  (1 Samuel 16:18)

Thus David enters Saul’s service. Saul “loved him greatly,” the lyre playing worked wonders for Saul’s condition, and David even becomes Saul’s armor bearer. You might say that this relationship has gotten off to a wonderful and heartwarming start.

All this is recounted in 1 Samuel 16:14-23.

David and Goliath

But look at what happens in chapter 17, where we meet Goliath.

Goliath the Philistine, who is either 10 feet or 6.5 feet tall (depending on whether you are following the Hebrew or Greek version of the Old Testament—but still big), is issuing his famous challenge to the Israelites: pick your champion and let’s go at it man-to-man. The loser’s people will become servants of the winner’s people.

Of course, we know how this ends, with David and his slingshot. But in our zeal to get to the fighting, we don’t always notice how we got there—and this is where 17:12-31 come into the picture.

First, notice how David is introduced for a second time in verses 12-15:

12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years.  13 The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle; the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah.  14 David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul,  15 but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 

The whole point of 16:1-13 is to introduce David to the reader, but now David is introduced again as if 16:1-13 didn’t exist. Read especially verse 12 out loud to feel the impact.

Also, note that David isn’t in Saul’s “service” (16:21), playing the lyre and bearing his armor. You get the impression that this wasn’t a part time gig but David’s job: be on hand in case Saul has a fit, and be his armor bearer in battle. But now we see David splitting time between the battle and running back home to tend the sheep and then zooming back for provisions for his three eldest brothers.

That just seems a bit odd.

And this section (17:12-31) ends with David clearly sizing up the situation and apparently being the only Israelite even thinking about battling Goliath. And so we read that Saul was informed that this guy David might be willing to fight, and so Saul “sent for him” (verse 31).

That’s a bit odd, too, especially if we jump to verses 55-58, where it becomes clear that Saul has no earthly idea who David is:

55 When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?” Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.”  56 The king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.”  57 On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand.  58 Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.” 

No one’s heard of this kid. It’s possible that Saul is simply a moron, like the boss who can’t seem to remember the name of the mailroom guy—but that explanation just doesn’t feel right. In chapter 17, David came out of nowhere, slayed the giant, and neither Commander Abner nor King Saul knew him, and so David introduced himself to the king.

David doesn’t answer, “Uh . . . dear king . . . I’m the one who follows you around all day with a lyre to calm your nerves. I’m also your armor bearer. I’m sort of a big deal in your life.”

There is some other interesting stuff happening in this story, which we’ll get to soon enough. But what about this double introduction of David? How do we account for it? Time travel? Probably not.

Here we see clear evidence of two traditions, two accounts, of David’s rise to power that the editors of the Bible brought together.

This reflects what Jeffrey Stackert said in a recent podcast concerning the Pentateuch: the editors of the Old Testament aimed for “maximal preservation” of traditions, even if they conflicted. It was more important to these ancient editors who produced the Old Testament to preserve these traditions and put them together somehow, even if awkwardly, than to eliminate them for the sake of achieving logical coherence.

Also, to drive the point home, it might be worth noting that the conflicting parts of this story—verses 12-31 and 55-58—are not found in the Greek translation of this story.

So what? To boil down into one sentence what would be three blog posts : The Greek version (called the Septuagint) was translated from a Hebrew original that did not contain verses 12-31 and 55-58.

In other words, there were originally TWO SEPARATE HEBREW VERSIONS of David’s rise to power. Just for the heck of it, read 1 Samuel 16:14—17:11, and then skip to 17:32 and continue to 17:54. That’s what we read in the Greek version, and it reads smoothly.

But the editor of the Old Testament preserved and combined both Hebrew versions into what we call 1 Samuel 16-17 and inevitably left some logical gaps in his wake.

That’s a less sexy explanation than “SHOCKING EVIDENCE OF TIME TRAVEL IN ANCIENT TIMES,” but it does make a lot of sense.

Image: ‘David et Goliath’, c. 1864 by E. Degas

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