The Hebrew Bible King David

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In the first section, I will present my exegesis of 1 Samuel 24, in an attempt to flesh out the character of King David and his intentions. Chapter 24 has been selected because it marks the decisive point in the Davidic Story, in which David first practices restraint in anticipation that YHWH will administer divine justice. This tenet becomes the cornerstone of his reign as King and his role of Israelite hero. It should be understood that I am not interested in searching for the "historical David," as though one could isolate and identify such a character. Rather, I will explore David as a character in a compelling drama who takes on a life of his own. I have used secondary sources for the majority of my Hebrew Bible citations. I have drawn primarily from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), with supplemental additions from my own Hebrew translations. Unless otherwise noted, biblical passages have been taken from the NRSV translation.

In the second section, I will explain Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, which is applicable to showing the development that David undergoes in 1 Samuel 24. Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of stages and is impacted by social experience across the whole lifespan. This theory will provide the lens through which I will investigate this critical event in David's life, found in chapter 24. This process will follow that of Walter Langer's "The Mind of Adolf Hitler."

Following this explanation of Erikson's stages of development, Section Three will examine the rhetoric and action of David as he begins to form his worldview. These actions will then be juxtaposed to Erikson's stages of development. This examination of David's character will mirror the work found in Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence-Erikson's book on the psychological factors surrounding Gandhi's revolution for India. Here I will defend that 1 Samuel 24 contains the pivotal experience in David's life: he views himself not as a military man but a king who is required to practice mercy.


More than any other person, ancient Israel was fascinated by David,

deeply attracted to him, bewildered by him, and occasionally embarrassed by him,

yet never disowned him. -Walter Brueggemann

1 Samuel 24 tells of David's opportunity to kill Saul and bring an end to David's constant running. However, David practices mercy by letting YHWH enact justice according to the divine timetable instead of committing regicide in the moment. David then confronts Saul (by placing the king on trial) in front of Saul's men and YHWH. Chapter 24 resolves with both men going their separate ways in the final verse.

Before grappling with the text, the structure of the chapter must be explored. Chapters 24-26 appear to be a quasi-unit, in which the focus is either restraint when there should have been action or action when there should be restraint; it is David's restraint that is central to chapter 24. David restrains himself because of larger concerns -Saul is "the lord's anointed". Until this point in the narrative, direct confrontation between Saul and David has been avoided. However, chapter 24 presents the reader with their longest direct conversation thus far in the story. These two chapters (24 and 26) are probably alternate memories of the same event remembered via an oral tradition. Neither Saul nor David indicates in chapter 26 that a similar incident had happened before. Both have a similar outline:

A: David is in the wilderness fleeing from Saul. (24:4/26:3)

B: David had an opportunity to kill Saul (24:5/26:8)

C: There is a suggestion that the opportunity is provided by YHWH (24:5/26:8)

D: Due to David's respect for YHWH's anointed, he refuses to kill Saul. (24:7/26:11)

E: David takes a piece of evidence as proof of said opportunity to kill Saul (24:5/26:12)

F: Saul recognizes David's innocence and superiority. (24:21/26:25)

The repetition of this event (though some details are changed) underlines the importance of what is transpiring in the text. By understanding the outline of this literary unit, the reader can now examine the narrative more closely.

The final lines of chapter 23 begin a new chapter in the Davidic saga: "So Saul stopped pursuing David, and went against the Philistines; therefore that place was called the Rock of Escape. David then went up from there, and lived in the strongholds of En-gedi," (1 Samuel 23:8-9). These verses set the stage for chapter 24, in addition to introducing the reader to Saul's incessant pursuit of David. After a messenger interrupts Saul's pursuit of David to announce a Philistine invasion, Saul departs in order to meet the Philistines. Meanwhile David moves to a new region, likely looking for a more secure domicile after the narrow evasion at Selahammahlekoth. No sooner does Saul return, another message is transmitted, "Behold, David is in the wilderness of En-gedi." The fact that the narrator gives no report about the outcome of Saul's battle with the Philistine army, but instead returns to the pursuit of David must be a comment on Saulide priorities. Saul responds to this message by assembling 3000 men.

With his army of 3000, Saul heads in the direction of the "Cliffs of the Wild Goats" to seek his prey. Almost every commentator felt obligated to make some remark about the terrain of this area, usually informing the reader about the topographically distinctive feature of the En-gedi landscape. From these commentaries, the reader learns that this region is (theoretically) ideal for a fugitive, since the cliffs and rocks are perforated with caves. Miscall goes as far as to point out that "wild goat" in Hebrew is spelled the same as "Yael" in Judges 4. Aside from this linguistic similarity, there seem to be other interesting parallels in both narratives (1 Sam 24 and Judges 4:17-21). Both features a powerful figure moving to a safe haven indoors, yet this "safe" area contains an armed enemy. As Saul seeks out David, he adopts a side quest.

As the text continues, the king stops in a cave to "cover his feet" (a euphemism for "to relieve himself.") Perhaps, this is supposed to be interpreted as mockery of Saul -in the same way that the Moabite king, Eglon, was slayed by Ehud (the left-handed man from the right-handed tribe of Benjamin) while in a similar posture. Here in 1 Samuel 24, Saul is the man of Benjamin who is in a compromising position while many of David's men would like to run a sword into his royal belly. However it could also simply be interpreted as the King was unguarded while in the cave as only the most foolish soldier would accompany him at this time. Over the past few chapters, Saul's pursuit of David has been one of uncommon diligence. He has searched the earth for David and his men. However now while not seeking the men out; Saul is completely unaware that they are concealed by the cave.

David's men recognize this opportunity and attribute it to the fulfillment of the divine promise that YWHW will deliver David's enemies into his hand. The Hebrew Bible does not record this promise although it would have been an appropriate promise at the anointment of David. Auld explains this as an unverified quotation: "we readers have never been told of this promise; David has never spoke of Saul as his enemy." In other words the narrator never discloses YHWH's words that would give David a license to act as the people did in the days of Judges: "do whatever is good in your eyes, and there will be no king is Israel," (Judges 17:6). The reason this oracle is not recorded is because it never existed.

But what are these men's motives for fabricating YHWH's words? The group that gathers around David is distressed, discontent, and in debt (1 Samuel 22:2). They have every reason to want Saul dead, in addition to the fact that if Saul is dead, so are their criminal records. This is also not the last time the reader will see the manipulation of divine speech (2 Sam 3). Meanwhile, when Saul walks into the cave alone the odds now shift in their favor: from 3000 vs. 600 to 600 vs. 1. With the odds now on his side and his men calling for Saul's death, David is pressured to act.

As David stealthy approaches the king, he is improvising. This leads to his careful choice to cut off only a corner of the royal robe. What appears to others as "the will of YHWH," for David it is a temptation from which the deity will preserve him. At this time, dealing with the holiness of the anointed is uncharted territory and necessities exploration through trial and error. David's choice to cut the robe is thoroughly ambiguous, yet somehow it is not a violation of the anointed. Without harming Saul, David has experimentally scanned the border between himself and the Lord's Anointed by penetrating the sphere of the holy. This experiment enables David to set a precedent for the nation of Israel concerning sacrilege in connection with the monarchy David's men recommend that David kill Saul even though it is presented in such a way that gives David a choice. David takes the words of his men, "do to him what you think fit," (1 Sam 24:5) literally and gives Saul life. David's men interpret this action as a great failure, if not a betrayal of sorts. They do not see that David has done something fatal on a symbolic level; cutting off the corner of the robe has announced the end of Saul as king. David's originality, his sensitivity to a borderline experience in the heat of the moment transcends the black and white thinking of his men, and provides the future king a mediation position. David has proven that he is a real leader who does not succumb to the popular decision. How David actually cuts the robe of Saul is not clear in the text. However, this act is symbolic of the kingdom having been torn from Saul (in the same manner as Ahijah cutting up his robe in 1 Kings 11:29-31).

After slipping back into his hiding place, David's heart struck him. The same expression is used in 2 Sam 24:10 when David is conscience-stricken after performing a census. However, the census is portrayed as a comparatively serious transgression, whereas the cutting of Saul's robe is commendable given the alternatives. David's express motive for his restraint may be sincere, but it is certainly to his rhetorical advantage -to have his men see him grief stricken in his next speech. This moment of consciousness is also limited, as David quickly begins to address his men. This speech cannot be understood apart from the audience to whom it is delivered. After all, David is speaking to a group who has just created a divine rationale for regicide. Therefore it is conceivable that this same group might be tempted to dream up a divine rationale for murdering another "anointed one." David's speech effectively restrains his men from carrying out their will. With these words David "tears into" his audience. This line appears to show that David is holding his men back from rising up and killing Saul themselves. Thereby he accomplishes this restraint through his rhetoric and not brute force.

"The Lord's anointed" recalls the confusion of chapters 8-16. What does it mean to be "the Lord's anointed," whether it is Saul or David? What power and authority comes from the title? David's viewpoint on not harming Saul expresses that once bestowed; the divine spirit cannot be revoked. Even though Saul has fallen from YHWH's favor, he remains in possession of some form divine spirit until his death and is to be treated in such a manner. Others have seen David in vv.4-6 as self-serving, believing that he shrewdly decided that it would be in his best interest to set an example by refusing to harm the person of the king, thereby establishing a precedent for his future reign. However, in light of the over arching theme in David's life: humans judge by sight while YHWH judges by the heart (1 Sam 16:7), the focus of the verses should be on David's use of his heart to discern appropriate behavior and divine will.

After this momentary moral dilemma, Saul then rises and leaves the cave to continue on his original path without the knowledge that anything had transpired inside the cave. David's subsequent confrontation of Saul in the remaining verses of the chapter are intended to force the message to all present (and the later intended audience) the invalidity and the inappropriateness of Saul's resolve to hunt and destroy David. This speech is of exceptional importance; at 26 lines it is the longest Davidic discourse in the Hebrew Bible. David leaves the cave and calls out toward Saul who shows restraint himself even though David is close, he makes no attempt to capture or kill the rebel. David then proceeds with a speech proclaiming his innocence and pointing out the futility in Saul's pursuit of him. David then accuses Saul of listening to rumors of David's intent to harm the king (though it is important to note that David avoids directly accusing Saul of such a belief by shifting the blame to unnamed informers v10). This is significant first, because David did not listen to the pleas of his men to kill Saul even though Saul does listen to the human urges presented to him. Second, Saul appears to be the villain because he pursued with military superiority a man who had no more significance then the last flea on a dead dog as David quotes.

David repeatedly calls on YHWH to act as judge in the case between these two men. In David's eyes, his loyalty to his predecessor is unquestionable. In his own words Saul is "my lord," "the king of Israel," and most significantly "my father." This use of "father" may be placing an emphasis on his familial tie to Saul as Michal's husband and his subservient position as "son." Saul is portrayed as overcome with emotion at this defense and concedes that David was innocent while he himself was guilty. Here we see the reining anointed king confirm the legitimacy of the secretly anointed. As a result, Saul asks only that David allow his line to survive. While he agrees to uphold this request, David has already symbolically cut Saul's line.

The piece of robe that David now holds in his hand is a symbol of the kingdom itself. Having initially rejected Saul's royal armor and weaponry (1 Sam 17:38-39) because he had not yet passed his test as king-elect and having subsequently received these effects upon his slaying of Goliath (1 Sam 18:4), he is now able to claim a piece of what is rightfully to become his at Saul's death: the royal robe. The robe is at once a complement to the dramatic tearing in 1 Sam 15:27 and the completion of the process of Saul's' rejection. The cloak has become a symbol of the monarchy. As such the cutting of the robe is a much more subtle (and possibly political) way of indicating the end of Saul's reign than murdering the king. The symbolic power of the robe in David's hand is not lost on Saul, since he confesses that David will be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in his hand.  Saul sees the skirt of his robe in David's hand as a symbol of Samuel, of the kingdom and of the lord's rejection of Saul.

There are those who say that, historically, not killing Saul in the cave was David's only option. Some revisionists claim that the traditional reading of David's gesture of restraint is wrong, because restraint was the only choice. Lemche argues, "If David had killed Saul in the cave at En-Gedi, he would without a doubt have lost his own life as well since Saul's army…, including Abner, was camped before the entrance to the cave." While it is interesting to imagine what would have happened if Saul had failed to reappear from the cave, there is no way to accurately predict how an army would react to the death of its leader.

David will not personally attack Saul, regardless of how wicked he may be. He claims "my hand will not be against you." Vikander suggests that the word yad in the Hebrew becomes a keyword in this speech:

The motif yad appears twice in David's speech, emphasizing his potential physical power over Saul, but indicating his acknowledgement that such power must be exercised properly even when the opportunity for improper use arises, as it had in the cave

But David does not seek reconciliation or even a cessation of Saul's pursuit. David appeals to the Deity for vindication and protection; David only asks Saul to recognize that he means no harm to Saul. David appeals to retributive justice as he speaks of evil, sin, and wickedness- "from the wicked comes wickedness," (1 Sam 24:14.) He also seeks judgment of who is right, "I have not sinned against you, but you hunt my life to take it," (1 Sam 24:12). It is here that the reader sees that David's personal actions that have not provoked the royal death sentence against Saul. The fate of Saul is a result of his sins. David's demand is not for punishment to rectify Saul's unprovoked attacks, but rather for Saul's public recognition that his pursuit of David is unjust. David's sparing of Saul's life is now placed in the larger context: functioning as "proof" of David's innocence. This underlies his demand for a clarification, a statement of who is in the right and who is wrong. David's initial sincerity and shock are now transformed into an effective political statement.

David's entire address to Saul is a powerful example of discerning speech, demonstrating his possession of the characteristic attributed to him by one of Saul's noblemen (1 Sam 16:18). It is comprised of persuasive pieces of rhetoric working at various levels, designed to make Saul realize the errors of his ways and discontinue his hunt for David. David's speech is so moving that Saul finally acknowledges (as in 1 Sam 18:8 and 20:20-31) that David is to become king. However Saul never mentions the Lord in his affirmation of David's destiny.  This leads to a series of questions as to why David is to become king. Is he "more righteous" then Saul? Is he better then Saul in a moral, military, or political sense? This section of text surrounds the characters in a frenzy of rhetoric, as both engage in series of questions. These rhetorical questions (v 10, 15 twice, and 17) appear to be forced declarations dressed up as requests for information. An example of the nature of these questions is 24:17 where Saul asks David, "Is this your voice, my son David?" This question is asked after Saul had looked behind him to see who was there, in addition to David just finishing seven verses of dialogue in which he spoke in terms that easily revealed his identity. Brueggemann contemplates if in this question of "is this your voice, my son David," the Deuteronomist is evoking an allusion to the story of Isaac, Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27. It too relates a story of a transferred blessing:

The language is powerfully reminiscent of Isaac, who was feeble and could not identify his son. (Gen 27:18, 31) Is this question placed in Saul's mouth intended to recall Isaac? Is Saul, like Isaac, old and feeble? Is Saul afraid of being duped? Is Saul dealing with a David who is as swift and crafty and unprincipled as the stealthy Jacob? Is David, in this forceful encounter, about to seize something from Saul that is not rightly his, as Jacob seized from Isaac and Esau?

Though his question is rhetorical, there is only one response: "Saul lifted up his voice and wept." (1 Sam 24:16) Like Esau, Saul weeps when confronted with his future and the bleak house wherein he now dwells.

Saul ends his speech in the same manner that his son Jonathan did in chapter 20, by requesting that David not cut off Saul's line of descendents. This raises the question: what king has the house of an enemy in his grasp and allows that linage to continue? In Judges 9, Abimelech destroys the house of his own father, and later kings efficiently destroy rival houses. An oath is sworn by David nonetheless. After David swears not to purge Israel of Saul's lineage, Saul calls off his rampant pursuit and returns home. David and his men, however, do not accompany the king; instead they return to the wilderness. The final line of this chapter suggests that David is still a fugitive. An episode marked by restraint of power ends with the fear of the exercise of power. As presented in this chapter, the resolution is separation not reconciliation; Saul merely acknowledges the destiny of himself and of David.  

Chapter 24 illustrates how David, when confronted with a situation -whether to kill a king already rejected by YHWH and a king who has many times sought to kill David -decides against the obvious answer. Every event in chapter 24 justifies David, even as everything in chapter 15 seemed to condemn Saul. Consider the incident in the cave. The darkness here symbolizes uncertainty concerning how David's certain future meshes with Saul's uncertain end. David's men incite him to violence by telling him that YHWH has delivered Saul into his hands. But what exactly is to be done with Saul? This is exactly what makes this story so suspenseful: once David is chosen and Saul rejected, how will David obtain the kingdom given to him by YHWH? David's decision is not to kill the king and its rightness is symbolized by an action that parallels the action in chapter 15 that symbolized Saul's error; just as Saul tore off the skirt of Samuel's robe, David cuts off the skirt of Saul's robe. The first action is ragged, the second sharp and incisive. The loose ends created by the first account now become clear. David's cutting of Saul's robe mentioned three times in Chapter 24 clearly symbolizes the transfer of royal power from Saul to David.


"The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for."

-Oscar Wilde

This section of the essay will explore one psychological theory that is relevant to David's life. Erik Erikson theorizes that psychosocial development occurs in eight stages which a healthily human will go through from infancy to late adulthood. During each stage a person confronts, and ideally masters, new crises. Each stage compounds the successful completion of each earlier stage. An inability to successfully answer the critical question of any stage may reappear as problems for the individual in the future. In this essay, I will ignore the first three stages as they describe early ages of development in which there is no Biblical documentation for David's life. Below is a list of terms (in order that they appear in this essay) that may be unfamiliar to those without some background in psychology:


Definition of Terms:

Industry - feeling of worth derived from success in a given task

Inferiority- feeling of less importance, valuable, or worthy

Identity- personally knowing who one is

Role Confusion- gaining a view of one's self from others

Intimacy - a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.

Isolation- separation from others

Generativity- the ability to have a lasting impact of future generations

Stagnation- to stop developing, growing, progressing, or advancing

Ego Integrity - to accept the given circumstance and continue with life

Despair- to lose hope  

During the "School age" period (7-12 years of age) an individual battles with the crises of Industry vs. Inferiority and subconsciously questions, "Am I good at what I do?" Allen and Marotz state, "Children at this age are becoming more aware of themselves as individuals." These children will strive towards "being responsible, being good and doing it right" while being more reasonable and beginning to share and cooperate with others. At this stage, children are willing to learn and master complex skills such as: reading, writing, and telling time. They also able to form values, identify cultural and individual differences and manage most of their personal needs. During this stage, children often assert their independence by being defiant, talking back to authority figures, and acting rebellious. Children in this phase need to learn how to succeed. If the child is not allowed to succeed, they will develop a feeling of inferiority or incompetence. However, too much structure will lead to children who are not allowed to act like children, which will cause problems in the future. A balance is needed between industry and inferiority which leads to competency.

During the "Adolescence" period (13-19 years of age) a person deals with Identity vs. Role Confusion, and tries to solve the question" Who am I?" The adolescent is newly concerned with how s/he appears to others. The adolescent must make a conscious search for identity. This is built on the outcome and resolution of conflict in earlier stages. The ability to begin envisioning a future, such as selecting a college or occupation is ideal during this stage. Up to this stage, development depends upon what is done to the individual. From this stage forward, development depends primarily upon what the individual does. From this point on, life becomes more complex as an individual attempts to find their own identity, struggles with social interactions, and grapples with moral issues. The major task during this stage is to discover who one is as an individual separate from their family of origin and as members of society as a whole. Unfortunately, in this process many go into a period of retreating from responsibilities, which Erikson called a "moratorium." If one is unsuccessful in navigating this stage, they will experience role confusion and upheaval.

Another significant task during this stage is to establish a philosophy of life. In this process one tends to think in terms of principles, which are conflict free, rather than reality. The issue is that these individuals do not have much experience and find it easy to substitute these principles for experience. However, one will also develop a strong devotion to friends and causes. Therefore, it is no surprise that most significant relationships are with peer groups at this time. This stage is where I will focus my attention while analyzing the actions of David in 1 Samuel 14.

In the "Young adulthood" stage (20-40 years of age), Intimacy vs. Isolation leads a person to ask the question, "Am I loved and wanted?" In this stage, the most critical events are finding and cultivating relationships. Intimacy refers to a close, usually affectionate, or loving personal relationship with another person. Any individual who has not developed a personal identity will avoid a committed relationship and withdraw and isolate themselves. It is important to note that having an intimate relationship does not indicate a sexual relationship. People can be sexual without being committed and open with one another. True intimacy requires a personal commitment to the other. A young adult must develop intimate relationships by being open and trusting another individual. By not resolving this conflict, the young adult will begin to feel isolated in life. Avoiding these experiences often leads to narcissism and a feeling of superiority to others.

At the start of the Intimacy stage, identity vs. role confusion should be coming to an end although it is still present at the base of the stage. Young adults are still eager to associate their identities with friends because of the desire to fit in. When a person arrives at this stage they should be prepared for both intimacy and isolation, having the capacity to be alone and separated from others. This balance between intimacy and isolation allows for the potential of love with others as a person must know how to be happy with themselves in order to love. Having balance in the Intimacy stage will help in the coming stages when unexpected isolation occurs, e.g. , death of a significant other. In this stage, an individual should be ready for commitment and be able to participate in committed relationships. One's ego should also be prepared for rejection -via the trials of break-ups, isolation, and being alone. People are afraid of rejection, as rejection is painful due to the egos inability to bear pain. Therefore, Erikson also argues, "Intimacy has a counterpart: Distantiation: the readiness to isolate and if necessary, to destroy those forces and people whose essence seems dangerous to our own, and whose territory seems to encroach on the extent of one's intimate relations."

During the stage "Middle adulthood" (45-65 years of age), Generativity vs. Stagnation is the main focus. According to Erikson's definition "Generativity is the concern of establishing and guiding the next generation." Instilling societal standards and disciplines are common expressions of generativity. It is important to note, that simply having children does achieve generativity. The most substantial event in this stage is parenting and answering the question, "will I be able to care and guide the preceding generation?" Every adult must have some way to build and support the preceding generation. Erikson states, "A person does best at this time to put aside thoughts of death and balance its certainty with the only happiness that is lasting: to increase, by whatever is yours to give, the goodwill and higher order in your sector of the world." A focus on the individual's imminent death becomes a handicap going into the next phase of life.

In "Late adulthood" (from 60 years on) the psychosocial crisis becomes Ego Integrity vs. Despair. Someone who can reflect on positive moments with happiness, on negative events with respect, and on regrets with forgiveness and insight will find a new sense of integrity. While those dissatisfied with the life that they have led will fall into depression and despair. The essential question here is, " Have I lived a good life?" A positive conclusion of this crisis is reached if an individual can gain a sense of fulfillment about life, which leads to a sense of unity within themselves and with others. As a result, they can accept death as inevitable. Just as a healthy child does not fear the future, a healthy adult will does not fear death. A negative ending to this crisis causes the individual to fear death.

Psychosocial development as articulated by Erik Erikson explains eight stages through which a healthily developing human should pass from infancy to late adulthood. In each stage the person confronts new crisis with each episode building on the successful completion of earlier phases. If the challenges of each stage that are not successfully conquered, they can be expected to resurface as problems later in an individual's development. The following section will connect how David passes through these stages to his life events.


"Do we, the late-born, really know anything at all about someone who lived in the past?"

-Grete Weil, The Bride Price

Using chapter 24 of 1 Samuel as our case study, the argument can be made that David successfully passes through the adolescent stage of development. Here one can see David attempt to answer the fundamental question of "Who am I?" proposed by Erikson, by wrestling with moral issues. In chapter 24, one can also see David struggle with social interactions with his men in the cave. By gathering a band of fugitives and living as their chief in the wilderness of Judah, David has discovered his natural ability in both combat and leadership thus extending (as Erickson suggests) the link between industry and identity. More importantly, David strives to be a man of divine character which is shown by withholding his own justice from Saul by allowing YHWH to serve as judge and jury (1 Sam 24:12). This refusal to partake in revenge becomes a philosophy of life for David. However, this sometimes functions better as an ideal than a lived reality for the new king.

Another indication of a successful passage of this stage is David's refusal to enact revenge because he is self-aware of his own sin and how this sin negatively correlates with YHWH's treatment of the Israelites. David looks first at his own transgressions and leaves the revenge to his deity. It is important to note however, that David has not transcended the desire for retaliation. He craves vindication in the face of injustice, yet he refuses to take revenge himself leaving both judgment and punishment to YHWH.

Another indication of the successful passage through the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage is how this philosophy on life matures through his lifetime. The very next chapter of 1 Samuel shows Nabal denying David and his men food. This angers both David and the men; although he is bent on revenge, David abstains. Instead "the Lord struck Nabal, and he died," (1 Sam 25:38). Once again, David defaults to the mercy that he learned in his adolescent stage. Even later in life, this time as king, David leaves the punishment of Joab (who slays Abner) to YHWH citing, "May the guilt fall on the head of Joab, and on all his father's house; and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who falls by the sword, or who lacks food!" (2 Sam 3:29.) This pattern of mercy through justice by letting YHWH act as executioner continues late into David's life. Saul, Nabal, Amnon, and Absalom all receive mercy from David, but have deaths that are viewed as judgment from YHWH.

David's heroism does not come from the battlefield but from his heroic mercy. When placed in positions to choose between justice and mercy, David consistently opts for mercy. While this leniency often proves to be problematic, it is never portrayed as a weakness. David's heroic mercy is created and sustained by his faith in YHWH, who is just and whom David can trust to punish the evil he faces (which leads to the next stage of development: Intimacy vs. Isolation). This mercy is a direct result of David's adolescent experience at En-gedi in 1 Sam 24.


"I've heard there was a secret chord

that David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don't really care for music, do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

the minor fall, the major lift

the baffled king composing Hallelujah"

-Leonard Cohen

King David is one of the most well-know Biblical figures, yet little was known to explain how the boy who was anointed king as a child and slew Goliath grew up to be the man that allows YHWH to enact justice on his behalf. This essay explored a critical event in David's life that proved pivotal to the development of his character. Although recent critics emphasize David's deviousness in his ascent to the kingship, they seldom recognize the position in which David was placed. David was bound on one side by his own anointing by Samuel and on the other by Saul's prior anointing. Both came from YHWH and as such, both are to be respected. It is curious that, despite near universal sympathy for Saul in current scholarship of 1 Samuel, few remark on David as the first to exhibit this sympathy. He does not treat Saul as an opponent, but as a threat from which to flee. David does not use his popularity (1 Sam 18:7-8) to undermine Saul's position because David feels pity for Saul. The biblical stories about Saul's last pursuit of David, invite the reader to meditate on the meaning of mercy. Because YHWH's justice compels him to respect the Lord's anointed, David is taught that justice can consist of mercy. For most biblical heroes the meaning of justice is fairly clear. When a hero kills Philistines, he or she is executing YHWH's justice on the uncircumcised; such in the case when David kills Goliath. The punishment fits the crime. Faith here is a simple matter of believing that YHWH will make the smaller force triumph over the enemy. However, David has to show more faith than this in his contest with Saul. In this case, observing YHWH's justice does not mean executing a natural plan of revenge against his would-be murder, but awaiting YHWH's verdict. David has been anointed by the Lord's prophet, Samuel, but he has not gained the right to slay the King: "May the Lord judge between me and you! May the Lord avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you," (1 Sam 24:12). Because David's faith is tested to the extent of trusting in a justice that is not visible to the naked eye, he learns to be merciful.

Saul, although a villain, is mysteriously placed beyond harm's reach by YHWH's anointing. David cannot fit punishment to a crime, and thus discovers mercy. If David is only remembered as the harpist or the slayer of Goliath, he would only be a static character. David's heroism comes not from deeds of war, but from his heroic mercy. Forced to choose between justice and mercy, David consistently opts for mercy. David's heroic mercy is sustained and kept intact through his faith in a deity who alone is just, whom he can trust to punish the evil he faces. Saul, Nabal, Amnon, and Absalon all receive mercy from David's hand, but the accidents that befall them and their ultimate destruction are all seen as the judgment of YHWH.

David's demonstration of mercy in chapter 24, could be described as a variation of the wisdom tradition. Wisdom plays on analogies and opposites: the wise man and the foolish man, the wise wife and the foolish wife (Prov 14:16, 15:21, 18:22, etc) Saul and David are, respectively the envious and the merciful man. Whereas envy wishes ill fortune on the other, thus making them a rival; mercy wills good fortune, thus creating friendship. Whereas Saul initiates their conflict by begrudging David and his "ten thousands," (18:8-7)David brings the conflict to a close by showing mercy to the king.