By Scott Nelson – Lead Pastor
Why David Not Saul? Part 2: Scholarship and the Mirror of the Bible
In last week’s blog, I wrote about the Bible’s answer to the question “Why did God accept David and reject Saul?” The biblical story of Saul paints a picture of a man who was powerful but insecure; he believed in the Lord but never fully followed Him. When Saul made mistakes, he avoided blame rather than repenting, making matters much worse. David lived for the honor of God’s name, evidenced not only in his life but in his legacy of the Temple, the worship of the Lord, and the many psalms bearing his name. David arguably sinned bigger than Saul, but when he sinned he was willing to repent and accept the punishment of the Lord. David genuinely loved the Lord and followed Him devotedly.
The Bible gives a clear, but complicated, answer to our question, but recent scholarship has sought for alternative answers. It is perhaps a weakness of scholarship always to desire to find something new; otherwise one does not get published. Certain sectors of recent scholarship have been very critical of David and skeptical of the Bible’s portrayal of him, assuming the biblical authors/editors rewrote the David traditions to cover up a man who murdered, caused civil war, killed all who opposed him, and hunted down the house of Saul. Some modern authors assume the ancient editors were skilled enough to produce the cover up but not smart enough to read their own writings to understand what they had written. Only the modern interpreter, we are told, is smart enough to see the “real” story buried in the ancient texts.
While David is lambasted by many modern interpreters, Saul is vindicated. Each individual story of Saul’s failures is dissected and reframed, causing the reader to ask, “Was this really so bad?” For example, Saul offering the sacrifice, disobeying God’s word, is explained as a necessary action because Samuel was delayed (1 Sam 13:9-12); Saul’s keeping of the spoils of battle (1 Sam 15:9) is seen as standard practice for the time, even though he clearly disobeyed God’s instructions—which Saul himself admitted (15:24). But any verse that doesn’t fit with the revisionist scheme is viewed as a “later addition” by an editor, providing an easy scapegoat for anything that doesn’t align with their reading of the story. Saul’s madness is explained away, his desire to murder his own son overlooked, and his consulting a witch to raise the dead is given sympathy. Saul is viewed as a tragic character who was treated unfairly by his friends, family, and ultimately God. Why did God accept David but reject Saul? Revisionist writers seem to be answering, “He shouldn’t have been. God was wrong.”
I do not mean to say that all modern Bible scholars are unfair, biased, or revisionist. In fact, I greatly appreciate biblical scholars and the work that they do. Scholarship is a conversation with many different voices. Even when a scholar has a strange interpretation of the text, this helps those who study these books see them in a new light, reassess presuppositions, and strengthen the case for the Bible’s presentation of these characters. The more people attack the Bible, the stronger the case for its authority becomes. There was no coverup or story buried beneath the text; there is just the text—and our reading of the Bible’s stories digs up the deeper issues in our lives.
The Bible interprets us more than we interpret it. Whichever way we respond to God’s word—whether ignoring it, rejecting it, revising it, or obeying it—reveals what is happening in our own hearts and how we are answering the questions of God, meaning, authority, guilt, and self-responsibility. Over one hundred years ago, Gospel scholars began what was later called the “First Quest of the Historical Jesus.” They tried to find the “real” Jesus buried beneath the text, but their scholarship only produced pictures of what the scholars themselves believed (or didn’t believe); their scholarship wasn’t studying the Bible but writing their version of who they wanted God to be. This is, perhaps, the same thing happening recently in scholarship on 1-2 Samuel. This is, in fact, the very thing Saul did (1 Sam 15:13, 20, 24).
As a pastor, I interact with many people and hear hundreds of personal stories every year. The stories people tell reveal as much (or more) about themselves as they do about the story. I enjoy reading a wide variety of scholarship; when I read a scholar who seems to be re-inventing what the Bible is saying, I hear them not telling me about the Bible but about themselves. What has happened in their life? How do they understand God, authority, or Saul’s rejection?
In closing, I invite every one of us to reflect on how we approach God and His word. If we reject the authority of God, we place another authority in its place (ourselves, media, scholarship, etc). If we rebel against the standards of the Bible, we use another standard to judge the Bible, believing our standard more timeless and tested than God’s word. The Bible interprets us more than we interpret it. We can choose to ignore it, re-interpret it, or obey God through it.
Scholarship I have been interacting with:
- Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary, 1988.
- Keith Bodner and Benjamin Johnson, “David: Kaleidoscope of a King,” in Characters and Characterization in the Books of Samuel, 2020.
- Walter Brueggemann, David’s Truth in Israel’s Imagination & Memory, 1985, 2002.
- Tim Bulkeley, “David as Killer: a Reading of David’s Story in Samuel-Kings,” academia.edu.
- David M. Cook, “The King’s Fear of the Lord as a Theme in the Books of Samuel,” Themelios 45:3, 2020.
- David M. Gunn, The Story of King David: Genre and Interpretation, 1978.
- Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “Characterization as Interpretive Crux,” in Characters and Characterization in the Books of Samuel, 2020.
- John Van Seters, The Biblical Saga of King David, 2009.