Friday, April 8, 2016

Was David as Terrible as He Seems?

As regular readers know, David has been a frequent subject of my posts. He is just such a compelling character, and his life offers so many illustrations, I can’t seem to get away from thinking about him for long. Fortunately for me, I am not the only one. I received a question this week about the life of David, and in particular, about his behavior in 1 Samuel 27.

David’s Bad Acts?

I discussed this in part in “How Could Jonathan Love David?,” and I’ll provide a bit more detail here. David was a king of Ancient Israel 3,000 years ago, but he didn’t start out that way. What I mean by that is, he was not born to the crown. Instead, he was chosen by God to be the replacement for his predecessor, the wicked King Saul, and Saul’s family. In spite of this, Saul’s son Jonathan loved David. Saul himself, however, had the more predictable reaction of hating David, and sought to kill him on numerous occasions.

1 Samuel 27 occurs in the context of Saul’s threats against David. David had recently escaped Saul, and decided his safest course of action was to seek refuge with Saul’s enemies, the Philistines. Of course, for a long time they had also been David’s enemies, starting with his defeat of their gigantic champion, Goliath. Most of the Philistines hated David, but he took the calculated risk that they were less dangerous than Saul and moved into territory they controlled. With him was what amounted to a private army, their families, and all their possessions.

Providentially, David and his people received a very warm welcome from King Achish of the Philistine city of Gath (Goliath’s hometown). He gave David the town of Ziklag as his own, and under Philistine protection. Then Achish encouraged David to attack the towns of Judah in southern Israel, south and east of Gath. His plan, as verse 12 tells us, was to see to it that David became abhorrent to the Israelites so he could never return. In that way, Achish hoped to gain a faithful and capable servant.

The rest of 1 Samuel 12 shows us that David had different plans, however. He and his men did go out on frequent raids, but instead of attacking the Judeans, they attacked “the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites.” Each time they attacked a settlement, they wiped it out completely so no one could report on what they had done. Then, when Achish asked them about their activities, David would tell him about some town or other in Judah that he claimed to have attacked.

Providing the Context

If you are hearing that story for the first time or the thousandth, it does sound pretty terrible. Hence the question I received. 1 Samuel 27 says nothing about these three groups being at war with Israel, or about God commanding David to attack them. It reads as though he just decided to abuse the largess of a friendly king, slaughter his peaceful neighbors, and then cover it up. And all of this after 1 Samuel 26 in which David had gone to such great lengths to stay free from blood guilt. Is it all as horrible as it seems?


I would say “no,” and I will tell you why as we go along, but I just want to make my perspective clear before moving into the explanation. To start, I want to say something about David’s not wanting to be guilty of bloodshed. We need to be clear about what he meant in 1 Samuel 26:9. David was not concerned to avoid spilling blood. He was a warrior, and that was his stock-in-trade. In fact, he says in 1 Chronicles 28:3 it was for this reason that God would not permit him to build a temple for the Lord. David spilled plenty of blood from Goliath on down. What he refused to do was to shed Saul’s blood.

You see, in spite of Saul’s efforts to destroy him, David recognized the king as the Lord’s chosen and the rightful ruler of Israel. If David had raised his hand against Saul, he would in effect have been guilty of denying God’s right to choose whomever He wanted to be king. It was this offense in particular that David sought to avoid, not killing altogether.


Of course, the Old Testament makes it clear that killing in warfare is different from murder. Allowance is made for the former, but not the latter. If David was attacking peaceful neighbors, was he not still guilty?

To answer this, we need cultural and biblical context. We are, after all, removed by 3,000 years and 6,000 miles from these events. “The Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites” are mentioned without any of this in 1 Samuel 27, but that is because the ancient Israelites to whom the book was written were very well aware of who these people were and what the problem with them was.

To begin with, verse 8 does at least say that “those nations were the inhabitants of the land from of old.” Why does that matter? Because it referred to the command of God in Deuteronomy 7:1–2 and His promise in Joshua 13:1–6. The people David attacked were people the Israelites had been commanded to destroy long before, in punishment for their wickedness and to give rest to Israel. David, in essence, was doing his part.

This has an added emphasis when it comes to the Amalekites who, as Exodus 17:14–16 and Deuteronomy 25:17–19 make clear, had earned God’s especial scorn. In fact, 1 Samuel 15 records that part of the reason Saul was disqualified as king was because of his refusal to prosecute the war against the Amalekites to the fullest.

For another thing, these nations were never peaceful. Border warfare was a constant of life in ancient Palestine, and these three were no exception when it came to taking part. They made frequent forays into Judah, attacking its people and stealing their goods. This reality was part of the reason why God told the Israelites to destroy them in the first place. It is not as if they were entirely innocent.

Understood in the light of all of this, David’s behavior becomes completely justified, even heroic. He attacked these groups not out of a purely selfish desire to plunder and pillage, but out of a responsibility to obey the laws of God. We may not want to see it that way, but we should at least know that is precisely how the first audience of 1 Samuel 27 understood it. To them, David’s behavior here was praiseworthy because he was protecting his people from their enemies and being faithful to the Lord.

Lies and Untruths

But wait—what about the lying? Isn’t lying wrong? Yes, of course it is. However, our society has partially lost sight of something the ancient Israelites understood. There is a difference between a lie and an untruth.

That’s splitting hairs, I realize, but there is a lot of that in life, after all. Let me just say, also, that this is not a line I would recommend anyone try to straddle. Better to err on the side of truthfulness. But the Bible does have a few examples like this where an untruth is the best available option. Besides this one in 1 Samuel 27, there is also the account of the midwives Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus 1 and of Rahab in Joshua 2. In all these cases, someone said something untrue in order to save lives and serve God. Lies, which the Bible condemns, are different. They are told in order to avoid just punishment or to achieve selfish gains. They are never justified because they do greater harm than good.

If the Bible makes this distinction, why do we struggle with it? For one, because it can be hard to tell the difference (which is why I say not to try to straddle the line). But for another, it is because our culture views telling the truth as a moral imperative. I am not sure if Immanuel Kant was the first person to prescribe the idea, but he is certainly the person with whom it is most associated. His belief was essentially that it is never, under any circumstances, morally acceptable to tell any type of untruth, even if it would save someone else’s life. Now of course, humans all lie, and we do it with a fair bit of frequency. But that does not change the fact that Western culture accepts the grounds of the imperative, and looks at breaches of it in the Bible as scandalous. As with the people David attacked, however, this comes from our lack of context rather than any inherent wrong.

I Could Go On…

From a biblical perspective, then, David did not do anything wrong in 1 Samuel 27. He fought God’s enemies and protected His people. This can easily raise other questions about how, why, and if God would want this, but I have already gone too long for one of these posts. The great thing is, though, this is not the end of the discussion. I don’t have the last word. If anyone has more questions or comments, please share them (and I recommend Facebook for that, because Blogger has been a bit unreliable). Put the “forum” in Quest Forums. That’s what it’s for!

All I can really settle here is how this reflects on David. There are quite a few passages that put him in a negative light. 1 Samuel 27 was not meant as one of them. Hopefully I have shown how that makes sense, even if it cannot wrap everything up neatly. But it does demonstrate what I believe the author of 1 Samuel wanted to convey. 

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