Jonathan & David:
David's Background

Key Passages: 1 Samuel 16-17

By Bruce L. Gerig

As each flaming oriental dawn summoned the family of Jesse to the olive orchards, the vineyards, the pastures, they would first gather around a primitive stone altar on a rise that dominated Jesse's fields, seeking Yahweh's blessings upon their labor and the day's yield.” Yet, as Jerry Landay notes, it was really in the wilderness, in the mountain silence, and in the forces of nature that the Lord spoke to David and that he came to know his God.1 Since Bethlehem, their home, was located in the central highlands, a mountainous region that was hilly and rocky and without brooks,2 David’s task of caring for the family sheep was not easy. To dispel the loneliness, fear and boredom he experienced during the long days spent alone with his flock, David practiced on his lyre, composing songs of praise and penitence to the Lord. Little did he know that others would come to know of his “compositions on the lyre and the sweet, lamenting voice with which he sang them” – songs of rapture, hope and redemption.3 David played a small, portable lyre (kinnor), which he rested on his chest while plucking its 8-10 strings “with his hand” (16:23), which produced a softer sound than using a plectrum.4 He had a musician’s soul, a love of beauty, and an emotional sensitivity. A second skill that David honed in the wilderness was how to use a sling, which required a well-made leather pouch with cords, round stones, a strong arm and a sure aim;5 and which he used on several occasions to defend his sheep from an attacking lion and bear (17:34-36). David's deep faith, heart-felt psalms, athletic skill, and remarkable bravery would later serve him well and also resonate with Jonathan, who himself was independent-minded, ardently loved Yahweh, and had done heroic deeds in his name.

It is fascinating to look at David’s background, which is described in 1 Sam 16-17. The passage begins with Yahweh rousing Samuel out of his grief over King Saul’s sad performance and the Lord’s rejection of him, to send the old prophet off to turn over a new page in Israel’s history.6 Thus begins the story of “The Rise of David”7 (1 Sam 16 – 2 Sam 5), part of the Deuteronomistic History, the name Bible scholars have given to the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings, which relate Israel’s history from Moses to Babylon and have been identified as an original, unified work by their common structure, writing style, and theological outlook.8 It should also be noted that chs. 16-17 contain 3 different stories, from 3-4 different sources, that have been brought together by the editor. In the first story David is anointed by Samuel to be future king (16:1-13), in the second David is appointed by Saul as his royal musician (16:14-23), and in the third David annihilates the Philistine champion Goliath (17). Because of these different tradition histories, certain contradictions appear in the text.9 For example, David is introduced to Saul three different times – when he comes to court as lyre-player (16:18-21), when he offers to fight Goliath (17:26b,31-37), and after he kills the giant (17:55-58). Of course, we don’t know, maybe the despondent Saul (paralyzed and shamed in his tent by Goliath’s unrelenting mocking) had been drinking too much; and later, when David appears in a new light (as a champion better than Saul and as a prospective son-in-law, 17:25), the suspicious and uneasy king truly wants to know more about this youth.10

In the first story (16:1-13), God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to meet with Jesse and his sons, telling him, “you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you” as future king of Israel (16:3, italics added). God has found in the youngster David what he sought, “a man after his own heart” (13:14); and he intends to shower him with love and attention.11 Abrupt references to Jesse (without added explanation) suggest that he was a well-known figure, as well as a ruling elder in the city (16:3-5); and the later description of David as “a man of valor” (16:18, NRSV), lit. “a powerful man,” points to his coming from a wealthy, upper-class family.12 When Jesse appears with his seven strapping sons (without David), including Eliab the eldest, so tall and handsome, he parades them in front of Samuel – but Yahweh does not choose any of them.13 Finally, Samuel requests that Jesse’s youngest boy be brought in from the field – and no one can sit down (to the sacrificial feast14) until David arrives, and who knows how far away he is or how long that will take!15

After Yahweh’s gentle rebuke to Samuel not to judge Jesse’s sons (or anyone) by their outward appearance (16:7), Samuel was surprised to see that David, when he finally appeared, was “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (16:12, NRSV). Both Samuel and the narrator are dazzled!16 Jerry Landay envisions David as “average in stature, but with finely chiseled Semitic features, dark hair, a ruddy complexion, and almond-shaped eyes of exceptional beauty.”17 Other interpreters hold that David was red-headed, e.g. Louis Ginzberg (citing the Septuagint)18 and the New Oxford Annotated Bible which says that ruddy points to his “‘reddish’ hair and complexion.”19 Later when Michal had to fix up a dummy for David (who has fled for his life) to fool Saul’s soldiers, she puts a large idol on the bed under a cloak, with a tangle of goat’s hair on its head (19:11-13, McCarter20); and Steven McKenzie believes the latter suggests that David had thick, wild, and probably curly hair.21 How striking it is that David’s name means “beloved, darling,”22 so suitable for such a “man of compelling physical beauty”!23 However, David’s family finds it difficult to see his uniqueness, in any sense;24 and so they watch in amazement as the prophet raises his hollow ram’s horn and pours holy oil over the young man’s hair and face25 – and the Spirit of God came “mightily upon David from that day forward” (16:13, NRSV). We see here a “free divine selection,”26 as Yahweh overturns law, tradition and expectation (to honor the eldest) by picking the youngest, smallest, and least-important son, but one who dearly loves God. Yahweh cares little that David and Jonathan will soon develop a very special friendship.

In the second story (16:14-23), Saul is now tormented by an evil spirit (v. 14). According to an ancient tradition, a person once touched by divine spirit can never again be free; so when Saul loses Yahweh’s spirit, an evil spirit arrives to fill the vacuum. Saul begins to show symptoms of paranoia and manic-depression – yet this spirit will play its part in the working out of the divine plan. This is seen as one of Saul’s servants suggests that he bring in a musician to play for him, music being used in ancient times to confront demons and soothe melancholia.27 Another servant knows (providentially) about David and gives the king a glowing résumé, saying that he is “skillful in playing [the lyre], a man of valor [i.e., from a respected family], a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him” (16:18, NRSV). “Prudent in speech” (lit. “clever of word”) probably points to David being discerning, articulate, intelligent, shrewd, and familiar with proper protocol.28 “Good presence” means lit. “[good] form or outline,”29 meaning that he was “good-looking” and “handsome.”30 What seems inappropriate here is “warrior,” which points to someone who has had considerable experience and success on the battlefield,31 hardly consistent with a youth who spends his time “with the sheep” (16:19). Clearly, the pro-Davidic editor wants to portray David here as the best choice for a king in all respects.32 More in context, David is presented as the “ideal young man,” from a good family, a trained fighter, clever with words (like Jacob, Joseph, Esther, and Daniel), and handsome – and yet his success, strength, manners, and looks are the result of divine favor – and they all anticipate David’s rise to power.33 When David finally steps before the king, “Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer” (16:21, NRSV). Three major themes can be seen in this section: (1) Saul is in decline, (2) Yahweh is with David, and (3) Saul is deeply attached to the younger man – which will pave the way for David’s unshakable loyalty to Saul (he will not kill or harm him).34 Although the king’s armor-bearer was usually a man of great valor and a talented warrior, Saul immediately appoints the irresistible David to the post.35 He is smitten with love for David the moment he lays eyes on him; and then and there he names David his weapons bearer, a position of unique intimacy and importance in the royal household.36 Luckily, David is also able to ease the king’s madness through his music.

In the third story (ch. 17), battle lines are drawn at the Valley of Elah (17:2) in western Judah, about 14 miles from Bethlehem and half way to the Mediterranean coast. The Philistines have encamped on one slope and the Israelites on the other side; and the Philistines have decided to use psychological warfare, sending out their champion to offer to fight by proxy.37 The Masoretic text says that Goliath stood 9’9” tall,38 while the older Greek text (the Septuagint) says 6’9” – still tall for this time and place.39 Goliath is dressed in a diverse collection of defensive and offensive weapons;40 but David will quickly note that with his heavy metal-covered body, the giant can hardly walk41 and his face has been left unprotected.42 David’s main weapon is the name of his god.43 But also he has three other advantages: (1) he is able to hide his weapon (the sling), (2) he is able to run quickly (and probably zigzaggingly) toward the giant, and (3) he is able to strike from a distance and with bull’s eye accuracy.44 Although chs. 16-17 have a complex literary history,45 J.P. Fokkelman notes that there is “great internal [literary] cohesion,” seen e.g. in references in all three sections to David being a shepherd boy, to his striking beauty, and to his overall, unfolding qualities.46 Whether the name “Goliath” was later inserted into 1 Sam 17:4,23; 21:9; 22:10 from 2 Sam 21:19 and 1 Chron 20:4-5,47 or whether the later Philistine giant took over the name and weapons style of the “original” is also debated.

Anyway, the Philistine giant, with his intimidating height and bulk, outfitted in full armor and carrying oversized weapons, came out every day into the valley (morning and evening, for 40 days), pacing back and forth and shouting insults and provocations to the Israelites and taunting them: “Give me a man to fight!” (17:4-11)48 In response, the Israelite soldiers were “dismayed and greatly afraid” (17:11), shamed and demoralized. Many of these “soldiers” were simply local farmers who had been mustered to fight, and they had to provide their own supplies.49 So it was that Jesse asked David to carry food to his three brothers who had joined Saul, and to bring back news (17:17-18). When he gets to the Israelite camp, he leaves his roasted grain and loaves of bread (providing a common meal) and 10 cheeses (or slices of cheese), a special gift for the commander, with the supply officer, just as the soldiers are gathering to again receive more of Goliath’s abuse (17:20).50 David is fascinated by the giant’s cries and also overhears the nervous soldiers’ chatter,51 learning that the king has offered to any victor a large bequest of riches, marriage to one of his daughters, and “freedom for his family” (NRSV), probably meaning exemption from taxes and military and labor service (17:25b).52 But whereas the soldiers express resignation, David expresses indignation (Thomas Boogaart) – and his implicit offer to fight the giant (17:26) quickly makes its way to the king’s tent.53 However, when Eliab, the oldest brother, saw David talking to the other soldiers, he “lost his temper: ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you minding your own business, tending that scrawny flock of sheep? I know what you’re up to. You’ve come down here to see the sights, hoping for a ringside seat at a bloody battle!’” (17:28, Peterson) Like Joseph, David was probably not a favorite with his brothers. In fact, Elihu laces his words with contempt.54 In short, “War is the work of grownups, so off with you!” Actually, Eliab can’t stand the idea of the kid seeing the army’s general paralysis and the “failure” of his three “big brothers.” Also, he remembers Samuel’s passing him by in favor of David, and now here is this upstart again!55

When David appears before Saul, the king sees just a “boy” (17:33, NRSV), an inexperienced youth. David argues boldly that if God had given him the courage and strength to routinely kill ferocious animals attacking his sheep, he surely can help him defeat this lowly Philistine (17:34-36). Saul is impressed by the teenager’s chutzpah (audacity and impudence), if nothing else.56 However, David views Goliath as a wild animal, and the shepherd as a wild-animal tamer has the answer!57 Jonathan Kirsch sees something tender and loving in Saul stripping off his own armor and weapons and dressing David in them, although the teenager is too slender to bear their weight, much less do any fighting (17:38-39).58 David rejects Saul’s armor of war – although he will later accept Jonathan’s armor given in love.59 David will face the giant with his God, his wits and his agility, and his sling – not a kid’s toy but a military weapon in ancient times; in fact, entire divisions in armies were made up of slingers. Capable of hurling stones up to over 100 m.p.h. over a distance of more than 100 yards, the sling was a lethal weapon. Sling stones the size of tennis balls have commonly been found by archaeologists at ancient battle sites, and David probably uses his stick (not a shepherd’s staff) to rake up and dislodge stones (17:40).60 Goliath is outraged that a boy with a stick has been sent out to fight him, and the two of them “talk trash” (trade insults and threats),61 while the narrator cannot help but once again draw attention to David’s beauty: “a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance” (17:42ff). Finally, with his faith placed entirely in Yahweh, the living God whom he worships (17:45-47), David runs forward fearlessly to deliver his one devastating strike, after which he speeds over and severs the giant’s head with his own sword (17:48-51). David’s confidence, courage and cunning show him to be a leader and “saviour” of Israel more so than Saul.62 Afterward (17:55-28), Saul’s amazement turns to uneasiness: “Who on earth is this youth?” Saul asks the bare question, “Who are you?” – and David replies, in court style, by naming his father and tribe.63 As David displays the gory head to Saul, the contest between the two begins in earnest.64 The giant’s curved sword (scimitar) ends up in the “tent [of Yahweh]” at Nob (21:8-9), and the head was probably displayed later in Jerusalem.65

David’s life growing up was not easy. His brothers had monopolized their father's favor and attention; and as the “baby" in the family, David was given the most menial chores to do.66 In such a large family with many sons competing for Jesse’s attention, there was probably plenty of rivalry, friction and jealousy, along with teasing and slighting of David, which he had to bear. Perhaps David preferred being alone with the sheep, and he was happy when he could leave Bethlehem.67 His brothers resented the fact that Samuel had chosen Davey over them, and his besting of the three oldest in killing Goliath and becoming a national hero certainly did not improve relations. In his young life, David learned many survival skills, including keeping his thoughts to himself, self-control and keen observation, endurance under stress, inventiveness and adaptability, and how to get along with people who didn’t particularly like him – all the while keeping his faith in God. But also imagine how attractive Jonathan's love would seem, which made David the center of attraction, showered him with words of love and tenderness, and offered him an intimate friendship filled with warmth and support. As Fred Young notes, soon Jonathan and David will find each "in the other the affection that he did not find in his own family."68

Laying out a Time-Frame for Saul’s Reign

FOOTNOTES: 1. Landay, p. 28-29.    2. McKenzie, p. 48,52.    3. Landay, p. 29.    4. Foxvog, D.A. & A.D. Kilmer, "Music," ISBE, III(1986), p. 440-41 - and illus., p. 310; also for pictures of various styles of ancient hand-held lyres, see McKenzie, fig. 8.    5. Cf. Hoerth, p. 256.    6. Fokkkelman, II(1986), p. 114.    7. McCarter 1980, p. 272.    8. McKenzie, p. 26-27,31.    9. Cartledge, p. 199,213.   10. Fokkelman, II(1986), p. 191.    11. Ibid., p. 114,116.    12. McKenzie, p. 52,57.    13. Kirsch, p. 44.    14. Fokkelman, II(1986), p. 119.    15. Cf. Cartledge, p. 202.    16. Brueggemann, p. 123.    17. Landay, p. 27.    18. Ginzberg, vol. 6, p. 247.    19. New Oxford Annotated Bible, 16:12, footnote.    20. McCarter 1980, p. 324.    21. McKenzie, p. 64.    22. Klein, p. 162.   23. Kirsch, p. 45.    24. Cf. Fokkelman, II(1986), p. 131.   25. Kirsch, p. 44; Cartledge, p. 202.    26 McCarter 1980, p. 278.    27. Ibid., p. 280-81.    28. Youngblood, p. 689; McKenzie, p. 60.    29. McCarter 1980, p. 280; Strong, #8389.    30. Cartledge, p. 211.    31. McKenzie, p. 59.    32. Robinson, p. 97.    33. McCarter 1980, p. 281.    34. Ibid., p. 282.    35. Cartledge, p. 209.    36. Kirsch, p. 48-49.    37. Cartledge, p. 214.    38. A cubit = ca. 18” and a span = ca. 9”.    39. McCarter 1980, p. 286,291.    40. Ibid., p. 292.    41. Green, B., p. 286.    42. Cartledge, p. 215.    43. McCarter 1980, p. 294.    44. McKenzie, p. 77.    45. McCarter 1980, p. 299-309; Cartledge, p. 213.    46. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 144-45,201-07.    47. Cf. McCarter 1980, p. 191.    48. Cf. Kirsch, p. 49-51.    49. Cartledge, p. 216-17.    50. Ibid., p. 216-17.    51. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 158.    52. Cartledge, p. 217.    53. Youngblood, p. 697-98.    54. Gordon, p. 156.    55. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 162-63.    56. Cartledge, p. 218.   57. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 172-73.    58. Kirsch, p. 53.    59. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 176-77.    60. McKenzie, p. 77; Hoffmeier, J.K., “Weapons of War,” ISBE, IV(1988), p. 1040.    61. Cartledge, p. 219.    62. McCarter 1980, p. 296.   63. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 193.    64. Green, B., p. 293.    65. McCarter 1980, p. 294-95; Klein, p. 181.    66. Landay, p. 27.    67. Cartledge, p. 212.    68. Young, p. 287.

Breuggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel, 1990.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam. 1), 1986.
Ginzberg, Louis, Legends of the Jews, 7 vols., 1909-1938.
Gordon, Robert, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary, 1986.
Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, 2003.
Hoerth, Alfred, Archaeology and the Old Testament, 1998.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., 1979-1988.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
Klein, Ralph, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1983.
Landay, Jerry, David: Power, Lust and Betrayal in Biblical Times, 1998.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1980.
McKenzie, Steven, King David: A Biography, 2000.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” Abingdon’s Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Young, Fred, “First and Second Samuel,” Wycliff Bible Commentary, 1962, p. 273-305.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, III, 1992, p. 553-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), 3rd ed. 1991.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

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