lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion


The period of the Judges lasted 200 years. It ended when a monarchy was established among the Hebrew people. Saul was the first king of Israel, and he was able to unite the scattered Jewish tribes into a cohesive force. Under his leadership the Israelites claimed victory after victory over their enemies.

Saul was anointed king by the Prophet Samuel, the acknowledged religious leader of his time and the most powerful man in the kingdom. Among other things, Samuel made the military policy of herem - - extermination of all those who lived in conquered territories - - a religious and moral imperative.  There were to be no exceptions. In the name of God, he ordered Saul to go to war: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”[1]

Saul defeated the Amalekites but made the mistake of using his own judgment in sparing the life of Agag, their king. As a military leader, he thought it a good strategy to keep the king as a prisoner. But Samuel was furious: Saul could not be allowed to use his own judgment. A ruler who did this was a danger to the prophet’s power and authority. So he set out for Gilgal where the army was celebrating its victory. A jubilant Saul shouted a greeting: “The Lord bless you Samuel!”[2] The prophet did not bother to acknowledge that salute. Instead, he launched into a diatribe, reminding Saul that he had been a nobody before he anointed him king. Then he accused Saul of treachery and asked “Why did you not obey the Lord,” he said. “I went on the mission assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder . . . in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”[3]

Samuel would not be appeased: he was too threatened by Saul’s successful reign. He told the king he was a rebellious and arrogant man and said that the Lord was going to give the kingdom to “a better man than you.”[4] But it was not the Lord who gave the kingdom to someone else; it was the prophet who, in a secret ceremony, went to the elders of the tribe of Judah. It was a time of bitter tribal rivalries between Judah and King Saul’s clan - - the tribe of Benjamin.

In the presence of the elders of Judah, Samuel anointed David, son of Jesse, as king. And from then on, the Judahites were engaged in behind-the-scenes machinations that would allow one of their own to rule over Israel. It took thirty years before that happened, but the first step toward their goal came quickly.

Saul had begun to suffer from incapacitating headaches and depressions. After the threat to dethrone him, Samuel had refused to see the king or even speak to him again. Saul knew the prophet was planning his downfall, but had no idea of how this would come about. But there were those in the royal household who did know and had a plan.

They told Saul there was a way to overcome his depression: the music of a skillful harpist could drive away the demons that were plaguing him. And they knew just the right person for the job: “a son of Jesse of Bethlehem knows how to play the harp. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.”[5]  After hearing such a glowing recommendation, the king sent for David.

The Bible reports that from the time the young man became part of the royal house-hold, Saul “loved him greatly.”  But from the time he entered the King’s service, David began making the alliances that would eventually gain him the throne. One of his most important allies was Jonathan, the King’s son. Like his father, Jonathan also loved the charismatic David: “Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.”[6]

That covenant was a promise that when David attempted to overthrow Saul and take the throne for himself, Jonathan would support the coup. He secretly assured David that he had enough support to eventually take over the throne. ‘Don’t be afraid,” he said. “You will be king over Israel and I will be second to you.”[7]

In the meantime, Saul’s affection for David was unabated and he kept promoting him. First he was appointed royal armor-bearer and “whatever Saul sent him to do, David did it so successfully that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the people and Saul’s officers as well.”[8]  Eventually, those same officers mutinied against their king, in favor of David.

It took a long while for Saul to realize that it was David and his tribe that was plotting to take over the throne and when he found out, David fled to the wilderness south of Jerusalem.

During the first months that he was hiding out from Saul he roamed the area around the Dead Sea. There were other fugitives hiding out in that desolate region. The Bible describes them as “those who were oppressed, those in distress, all those in debt, anyone who had a grievance.”[9] It goes on to say that David gathered these men together and as the leader of this small army of hirelings,[10] he offered their services to Aschich, the Philistine king. So while Saul was busy fighting off Israel’s enemies, David went to work for them as a mercenary.

 Like everyone else with whom David wanted to ingratiate himself, King Aschich succumbed to the young man’s charm. He accepted David’s offer of service, knowing he had been a favorite son of Israel: the same one who was reported to have killed the Philistine giant, Goliath. And David proved his loyalty to the Philistine king.

“David and his men went out on raids . . . David laid the countryside waste and left neither man nor woman alive but took the sheep and oxen, camels and garments and came back bringing them to Aschich . . . David never brought a man or woman back alive ‘in case’ as he thought ‘they inform against us’ . . . This was David’s practice all the time he stayed in Philistine territory. Aschich trusted David”[11]

Once he had established his credibility with King Aschich, David reverted to his usual method of operation: he began to feather his own nest. He ingratiated himself with the elders of his tribe of Judah by giving them some of the spoils of his battles.

It was only after both Saul and Jonathon died in a battle against the Philistines that David returned to Israel. Saul’s only surviving son, Ish-bosheth, was heir to the throne, but the tribe of Judah refused to acknowledge him. Instead, they repaid David for his favors and backed his claim to the throne. After seven years of unrelenting civil war, David was crowned king. And thus began what scholars call the Golden Age of Israel.

But under the leadership of David, women were increasingly marginalized. The sons of Israel had often bent the laws of marriage in order to give fuller range to their sexual appetites. When David became king he gave his benediction to that practice by taking a number of wives. He did this although Jewish Law specifically forbade the king from having more than one wife.[12]

Whatever the king did was bound to be reflected in the standards of the culture that he ruled.  David installed a harem for his pleasure. Granted, it was a modest establishment, only ten women were kept there. Nevertheless, this blatant use of females as sex objects was foreign to Hebrew standards.

But no one was about to take David to task for any of his actions. A popular song of the day boasted “Saul killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands.”[13] Under his leadership, Israel doubled its territory and gained control of the major trade routes in Palestine. It was the success of his territorial and economic aggressiveness that allowed David to break religious and moral laws with impunity.

The Bible mentions another problem connected with his reign: he maintained a pagan belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice. When a famine devastated the land for three years, he allowed seven men to be sacrificed in order to bring about a bountiful harvest. He handed them over to the Gibeonites who killed and exposed them on a hill before the Lord . . . they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.[14]

In spite of such “flaws” in his character, David is universally acclaimed as a hero who had only one blot on an otherwise unblemished record. Theologians admit that he did “sin” in his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, but other than that, they unreservedly endorse David and his successful reign as warrior king of Israel.

But David was a man who did whatever was expedient in order to achieve his goals. For him, the end always justified the means. The biblical record of his treachery in dealing with Saul and Jonathan is ignored, as is his offering of human sacrifices. And his brutal annihilation of entire towns, when he worked as a mercenary for the Philistines is, overlooked. So is his deathbed scene.

As he lay dying, David called for his son, Solomon. A lifetime of violence was about to end, but there were still some old scores to settle. He made Solomon promise to kill a few left-over enemies. His nephew, Joab, was first on the hit list. Next was an elderly man, named Shimel, who years before had called David a murderer and a criminal for taking the throne from Saul and his descendants.[15]

Although many people find the spectacle of a deathbed vendetta to be less than inspiring, Christian spokesmen are undaunted by David’s vindictiveness. The Evangelical Commentary on the Bible justifies his deathbed demand by explaining that “this is not a matter of personal revenge, but of justice. David leaves it to Solomon to decide how and when these executions are to take place.”[16]  Another scholarly resource reports that it is the victim’s fault and the will of God that Shimel be murdered. “(David’s) dying counsels did not come from personal anger, but for the security of Solomon’s throne which was the cause of God and of Israel.”  It goes on to claim that it was God who inspired David’s death bed vendetta: “David’s dying sentiments as recorded, in the Bible, are delivered under the influence of the Holy Spirit.”[17]

In spite of such rationalizations, some might ascribe David’s deathbed vendetta to an unholy, rather than a Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Solomon carried out his father’s demand for revenge, and the longer he ruled, the more his reign reflected the more dubious aspects of David’s lifestyle.

[1]  I Samuel: 15:3          NIV

[2]  I Samuel: 15:13        NIV

[3]  I Samuel: 15:20, 21  NIV

[4]  I Samuel  15:24, 25  NIV

[5]  I Samuel 16:18  NIV

[6]  I Samuel 18:3    NIV

[7]  I Samuel 23:17  NIV

[8]  I Samuel 18:5    NIV

[9]     I Samuel  22:2        JB

[10]   1 Samuel  30:9     AMP   At its peak, David’s army of mercenaries numbered about 600.

[11]   I Samuel  27:8-12      JB

[12]   Deuteronomy  17:17 NAS

[13]  1 Samuel  18:7    NIV

[14]  2 Samuel  21:9    NIV

[15]  2 Samuel  16:7,8 NIV

[16]  Evangelical Bible Commentary P. 217

[17]  Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Matthew Henry, p. 252

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