The Good News of God's Favor toward His Anointed One

1 Samuel 21-22 5th Sunday after Pentecost — July 9, 2017 (am)


            To set the scene for this morning’s passage, let’s jog our memories about the preceding chapters of Samuel. Last week we looked at a key turning point in David’s story—namely, 1 Sam 18–20. In ch. 18, after David’s victory over Goliath, seemingly all Israel falls in love with David. Saul is none too happy with the attention David gets, realizing that David is no longer simply a soothing court musician but a competitor to his throne. In his jealousy and suspicion, Saul tries to pin David to the wall with his spear on two occasions. Much to the chagrin of the walls of Saul’s house, both times David ducks out of the way. And thus begins for David a long season of suffering and constant flight from the murderous pursuit of King Saul. David is not without help in this season. Saul’s own children surprisingly come to David’s aid, as does the prophet Samuel, so that David’s life is preserved in the face of attacks and ambushes. But from ch. 20 to the end of 1 Samuel, David is on the run as a fugitive, sojourning in the wilderness and in foreign lands, hiding out in caves and forests, trying to stay a spear’s throw ahead of a mad and powerful king. David’s fugitive years are filled with flitting about from place to place.

            Those are the general circumstances in which David finds himself in chs. 21–22 of 1 Samuel. David jumps about from location to location. He can’t get comfortable in one place. Dangers are always just around the bend. At the beginning of ch. 21, he flees to Nob, a few miles south of Gibeah where Saul’s palace was, but he can’t stay there because Saul’s henchman Doeg the Edomite is there. So he leaves the land of Israel entirely, going next to the Philistine city of Gath.[1] But Gath isn’t safe for him, because the Philistines, as we might expect, harbor some grudges against David. After all, David killed the most famous Gathite, Goliath, and has also recently performed a delicate and most unwanted surgery on at least 200 Philistines.[2] Neither Nob nor Gath is safe. So David keeps roaming about. In ch. 22, vv. 1–2, he hides out in a “cave of Adullam,” which is back in the territory of Judah.[3] From there, in vv. 3–5, he again exits the land of Israel to sojourn in Moab.[4] And then in v. 5, being warned by a prophetic word, David goes into hiding in “the forest of Hereth,” back in the land of Judah.

            Clearly, there’s a lot of movement in these two short chapters. David is constantly on the move, constantly on the run from Saul. The setting shifts several times. But there is one setting that binds these chapters together, and it is the town of Nob. In particular, the events that take place at the sanctuary at Nob frame the beginning and ending of these two chapters, helping us see that 1 Sam 21–22 is a distinct literary unit in the overall story of Samuel.

            I want to zero in for a while on what takes place at Nob, because I think there’s more going on there than meets the eye. So turn with me to the beginning of ch. 21, and let’s try to better understand the scene. When David flees from Saul’s palace at the end of ch. 20, the first place he goes, at the beginning of ch. 21, is to the priest Ahimelech who is serving before the Lord at Nob.[5] In 21:1, Ahimelech meets David and asks him, with “trembling,” why he is alone. David responds in v. 2 by speaking of an urgent secret mission from “the king.”[6] We as readers know that this is bunk. The only urgent mission King Saul cares about in these chapters is making mincemeat of David. David is playing his hand at a little deception and indirection here. That much is clear. But what I think is less obvious is this: Whom is David trying to deceive? By far the most common interpretation is that David is trying to pull the wool over the priest Ahimelech’s eyes,[7] perhaps because he thinks Ahimelech won’t deliberately aid a fugitive, or possibly to protect Ahimelech from knowingly conspiring with an enemy of the state.[8] But I think something else is going on at Nob. And I want to suggest it to you this morning for your consideration and further reflection to see if it rings true to the story.[9]

            To get at what I think is going on in 1 Sam 21, let’s ask an important question about David’s itinerary. David fled from Saul’s presence in Gibeah to the city of Nob, to the tabernacle and the priest Ahimelech. David left Saul’s palace in a hurry. He didn’t have time to gather supplies for the road. He bolted with no weapon in hand. David is hungry and defenseless. What he needs is food and a weapon, at least. And the question we need to ask is this: if David needs food and weapons, why go to the tabernacle? What kind of food could he expect was there, except food that is consecrated for priests alone? And what kind of weapon would he expect to find there? Weapons probably weren’t stored at the tabernacle.[10] So why take flight to the sanctuary at Nob?[11]

            I think the answer is that David knew Ahimelech was there as an ally.[12] Clues in the story suggest that David and Ahimelech have already, prior to ch. 21, interacted and worked together as friends. Consider this, for example. We probably wouldn’t expect priests to have weapons lying about, but conveniently for David a sword just happens to be at the tabernacle when he comes calling. And it’s not any old sword. It is none other than Goliath’s sword. Now how did Goliath’s sword make it to Nob? The last time it appeared in the narrative was in 17:54, and there it is in David’s possession as he puts the sword and Goliath’s other weapons into his own tent. The simplest explanation for how Goliath’s sword got from David’s tent to the tent of the Lord at Nob is that David brought it there himself—which is to say, David and Ahimelech already know each other, have already met, have already worked together.[13]

            Ahimelech acknowledges as much during his interrogation by Saul in ch. 22. In 22:15, Ahimelech exclaims, “Is today the first time that I have inquired of God for [David]? No!” Far be it! I haven’t just begun inquiring for David today; it’s been happening for a while, Ahimelech seems to say, So why put up such a fuss about it now? That’s how I understand Ahimelech’s words to Saul in ch. 22.[14] And it underlines the fact that David and Ahimelech have been friends for some time.

            In his great need, David goes to the tabernacle at Nob because he knows he has an ally there, one who will supply him with whatever food is at hand knowing the gravity and need of the hour,[15] one who, as David also well knows, can provide at least one weapon for him in his flight from Saul. David knows already that Ahimelech is sympathetic to his cause, so he doesn’t need to pull the wool over the priest’s eyes. But why, then, does David tell the lie that he tells?

            Hold that thought for a moment, and let’s turn our attention to Ahimelech’s greeting of David in ch. 21, v. 1, because the question he asks David is an important indicator of what’s going on. Verse 1 of ch. 21 reads, “Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’” Ahimelech asks David, “Why are you alone?”[16] Actually, that’s not all he asks. He also asks, “And why is no one with you?” Now what’s the difference between “Why are you alone?” and “Why is no one with you?” Trick question. There’s no difference! Ahimelech asks the same thing twice. It’s like asking, “Why did you eat that apple? And also, why did you consume that red fruit?” It’s needlessly repetitive. I suppose it’s possible that Ahimelech just stutters in his fear. But I think there’s a better explanation. Repetition is a way to emphasize something. Ahimelech is emphasizing, underlining David’s solitude.

            And why might he be so emphatic about this in his first words to David? I think the doubled question is really a warning, an attempt to alert David that the opposite of what he says is really the case.[17] We could call it a verbal wink: Why are you all alone, David, and no one else is here with you (wink, wink)? For as we readers know, Ahimelech and David are certainly not alone at the tabernacle. Another very important person is there: Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen. One of Saul’s informants is at the tabernacle. And that, I believe, is what makes Ahimelech tremble in v. 1 when he sees David approaching.[18] He’s not afraid of David; he and David are allies. He’s trembles because he knows that David might be walking into a trap. So to alert David of the danger there lurking, he tries to tip David off with an oddly repetitive and ironic question. David picks up on Ahimelech’s cue and has to think quickly on his feet, with the result that he makes up a pretty weak story about being sent on a secret urgent mission (I mean, who sets out on a secret military excursion without any weapons?).

            David’s lie is meant to trick Doeg the Edomite not Ahimelech the priest.[19] In fact, David himself tells us at the end of ch. 22 that he was aware of Doeg’s presence at Nob. David says in 22:22, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul.” David knows full well of Doeg’s presence in ch. 21, and his actions and words there should be read in light of this knowledge.[20] For Ahimelech’s part, when Saul accuses him of conspiring with David in 22:13ff., remarkably he does not defend himself against the accusation by pleading ignorance because David deceived him. That would have been the easy out, especially if it had been true![21] But Ahimelech doesn’t protest, saying, “I was deceived!” Rather, he justifies his actions by boldly and courageously appealing to David’s track record and position (much like Jonathan, another of David’s allies, defends David before Saul in ch. 19).[22]

            Tying all these threads together, here’s what I think is going on in these events at Nob. David is not trying to pull the wool over Ahimelech’s eyes in ch. 21. Instead, Ahimelech, who was already acquainted with David and allied to his cause, seeks to alert David of the dangerous presence of one of Saul’s lackeys. And David, picking up on the hints of danger, follows Ahimelech’s lead. Together David and Ahimelech conspire to deceive Doeg the Edomite into thinking that David is not fleeing from Saul but is on a secret mission from him.[23] Saul, when he hears of it, is none too pleased by this alliance and conspiring, as Ahimelech likely expected. And in ch. 22, v. 17, Saul, by the hand of none other than Doeg the Edomite, has Ahimelech and all the priests at Nob slaughtered. In fact, according to 22:19, Saul orders the extermination of all the inhabitants of Nob, together with “ox, donkey, and sheep,” on that sad and dark day.[24]

            So Ahimelech, at great cost to himself, helps David and frustrates the schemes of Saul. I think Ahimelech knowingly helps David against Saul’s desires, which is why I’ve spent some time laying out a case about the precise nature of the deception at Nob. I think when get clear on who’s deceiving whom, on who’s conspiring with whom, we begin to see how bold and resourceful and courageous and loving Ahimelech’s help of David is in these chapters. I encourage you to reread the story in this light and reflect on it further to see if what I’ve offered helps makes sense of the story.[25] But even if I’m wrong about the specifics, at the end of the day Ahimelech still ends up helping David and frustrating Saul.

            And here we can transition to our second point (if you’re following along in the bulletin outline). It’s a very brief point, but important for setting up our final question. What we’ve read today is a story about a priest’s help, whether knowing or unknowing, of God’s anointed one. This isn’t the first time someone helps David in Samuel. Several people come to David’s aid, often contrary to expectations, to help him succeed in the face of Saul’s persecution: Saul’s son Jonathan helps David in chs. 18, 19, and 20; Saul’s daughter Michal helps David in ch. 19, as does the prophet Samuel. Here in chs. 21–22, the priest Ahimelech comes to David’s aid, though it costs him his life. In his years as an enemy of the state, David receives help from all kinds of different Israelite institutions—members of the royal family, a prophet of Yahweh, a priest at the tabernacle. Everyone helps David, so that he survives and succeeds in these chapters. And all this happens because the favor of the Lord has shifted from Saul to David. The Lord is present with David, his favor is upon him, so that David gets the help he needs to survive.

            That’s a crucial theme in this part of the story. The Lord is present with David, causing him to survive and succeed. God’s favor rests on his anointed one. As we saw last Sunday, in ch. 18 that’s stated repeatedly. After ch. 18, explicit statements about the Lord’s presence with and for David are nowhere to be found. That doesn’t mean it’s no longer a concern in the story. The theme, like the Lord, is present throughout. But the narrative no longer tells us expressly that God is present with and for David; rather, it shows us, as it were, through the allegiances of characters and through irony. Those whom we would expect to support Saul are eagerly shifting allegiance to David. Ahimelech helps David, at great cost to himself. These unlikely turns of events happen because the Lord has rejected Saul and anointed David as his successor.[26] The Lord’s favor rests steadfastly on his anointed one. The Lord is faithful to his anointed one. The God of Israel will not abandon the soul of his anointed one to the grave nor allow him to see corruption. God delights in his anointed one; with him God is well-pleased.

            From one angle, it might not seem that God’s favor rests on David. After all, he’s constantly persecuted by Saul. He’s a fugitive, a vagrant with nowhere to call home, nowhere to lay his head. But the amazing thing about the Lord’s favor and blessing is that it abides in, and is in fact administered through, affliction. David’s hardship is not a sign that he is out of God’s favor. Suffering and persecution and loss and distress are not alternatives to prospering in the Lord’s will; in Scripture, they are part the definition of true prosperity in the present age. God’s faithfulness to his anointed one remains in and comes through affliction.

            So as I read the story in 1 Sam 21–22, I discern in the deception that takes place at Nob, in the partnership of the priest Ahimelech with David, a further manifestation of the Lord’s abiding presence with and favor upon David, his anointed one, which is a recurring theme in this section of the story. The Lord is faithful to his anointed one. He loves his anointed one.

            And the Lord’s favor toward and faithfulness to and love for his anointed one is good news. The book of Samuel exists to give us good news and great hope. That’s why God gave it to us. This is what the Apostle Paul tells us unmistakably in Rom 15:4: “Whatever was written in earlier times,” says Paul, “was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Scripture exists to give us hope, the true hope that arises from the only truly good news. The book of Samuel exists as Scripture to give us hope, the true hope of the only truly good news. Somehow these stories from Samuel, this narrative about God’s favor toward and love for his anointed one David—somehow that is supposed to be good news, hope-giving news for us.

            But if you are anything like me, that might not at first sound like the greatest of news. Yipee, God loves his anointed one. What about me? For most of us, bent in on ourselves and self-idolaters as we are by nature, the news we like to hear best is that we are loved (who cares if anyone else is loved, if God’s anointed one is loved?). For most of us, most of the time, the best news is that we are the center of other people’s worlds and the center of God’s world. God has a “me-shaped-hole” in his heart and simply cannot live without filling it! That’s the good news for self-idolaters—it’s that God is the chief idolater, the one who adores and worships and cannot live without mighty, lovely, divine us. (Or, if not God, then at least some man or woman, or my peers, or my children, or my church can’t live without me.) Well the Bible exists to explode our self-idolatry. The Bible exists to ween us off our obsession with ourselves. The Bible exists to help us become what we are not by nature. The Bible exists to give us true hope and truly good news. That’s what the story of Samuel is in the Bible for. But how does it do it? Why is this biblical story about God’s favor and love for his anointed one hope-giving good news for us?

            In order to grasp the biblical logic that makes the news of God’s favor toward his anointed one truly good news for us, we need to notice a pattern in David’s life in the book of Samuel. Here’s a bird’s-eye view of his life: David is delivered from a tyrant king, exiting the land with the king in hot pursuit; he has a long period of wandering in the wilderness of Judea and surrounding regions; but eventually David enters the land promised to him and receives his promised inheritance, which we’ll read about in 2 Samuel. Now does that basic pattern recall any other parts of Scripture? David’s life parallels the story of Israel’s birth as a nation. The Lord delivered Israel from the mad pursuit of a tyrant king, Pharaoh King of Egypt, in the great exodus; the Lord led them through years of wandering in the wilderness; and the Lord brought them safely into the Promised Land to receive their promised inheritance. David’s experience parallels the experience of the nation of Israel.

            And the parallels occur not just in the big picture, but also in the specifics. In Israel’s wilderness wanderings in the book of Exodus, what did the Lord sustain them with? With manna, miraculous bread from heaven. In David’s years of wilderness wandering and roaming, which we’ve begun to read about this morning in 1 Sam 21, what does the Lord sustain David with? With his holy Bread of the Presence. David, like Israel, receives bread in the wilderness in the presence of the Lord. In Israel’s sojourn through the dessert they faced no little opposition from Edom, according to Num 20; and in David’s years of sojourning, who opposes him mightily but one Doeg the Edomite? David relives the experience of Israel.[27]

            The crucial question is, of course, Why? What’s the point of paralleling David’s life with Israel’s story? Here’s my best guess: I think the story of Samuel is teaching us a crucial aspect of what it means to be God’s anointed king. That is, the story of Samuel fills out a royal theology, a theological understanding of what it means to be the Davidic, God-anointed king of Israel. Specifically, it teaches us—through the shape and pattern of the narrative—that the Lord’s anointed one is the representative of the people of God.[28] As we read in Samuel about the experience of God’s anointed one, as we recognize in his story a reenactment of Israel’s story, categories about what it means to be God’s anointed one begin to form in our minds. As we discover that David’s life recapitulates Israel’s history, we grow in our understanding of God’s purposes for his king. As we watch David walking, as it were, in the shoes of the people of God, our imaginations get shaped to better envision what God’s anointed one is to accomplish in and for the world.[29] God’s anointed one, the king of Israel, is called to be and do in his own person what the people of Israel are called to be and do.[30] When we look at David in Samuel, we are to say, “Here is Israel in microcosm, a kind of individual new Israel; here is one who takes up the calling of the people of God; here is a true king of Israel, one who represents Israel.”

            But it’s not only we who look on God’s anointed one and see God’s people represented in him. God himself looks upon his anointed one and recognizes his people represented in him; indeed, God reckons what he sees in his anointed one to be true for his people. God’s anointed one is what Christian theology calls a federal representative, a federal head of the people of God. What God’s anointed one, the representative head of God’s people, accomplishes, what he suffers, what he succeeds in, the spoils of his victory—all of that is, in God’s eyes, counted as belonging to the people whom he represents. The Lord’s anointed one acts in the place of God’s people as a legal representative. What’s true of the Lord’s anointed one is counted as true of his people. We’ve already seen it in Samuel: David’s victory over Goliath is counted as the victory of Israel over Philistia.[31] They didn’t fight and defeat Goliath and the Philistines. But they rejoice as victors. Why? Because what’s true of their representative is counted true of them. The anointed one’s victory is imputed to the people whom he represents. The success and favor from the Lord that he enjoys is extended to all his people as theirs to enjoy.

            And we are now in a position to understand why it is good news for us that God’s favor and delight and love rests upon his anointed one, why 1 Samuel, a story about God’s favor to David, is the best possible news for us today. If we are identified with God’s anointed one—if he is our federal representative, our covenant head—then what’s true for God’s anointed one is also true for us. If the God of Israel looks upon his anointed one with favor, then his favor also rests on those whom God’s anointed one represents. If God loves his anointed one, then so, too, does he love, with the very same love, those who are in the anointed one.

            And God does love and delight in his anointed one. That’s true of David in this story of Samuel we are considering; David enjoys the favor and love of God. It’s also true preeminently of Jesus the Christ. Christ is God’s anointed one par excellence (the word “Christ” simply means anointed one). Jesus is the new and true anointed King whom David’s story gets us ready for by foreshadowing. God’s favor and delight rests everlastingly upon Jesus, his anointed one. God the Father says in no uncertain terms at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”[32] God’s delight and favor rests upon his anointed one. And this is why the prophet Zephaniah can prophesy that a day is coming when the Lord God will rejoice over us his people with gladness and exult over us with loud singing.[33] That can be our hope because what’s true of God’s anointed one is true of us; what Jesus, God’s anointed one, enjoys—namely, the Father’s unending delight and favor—is now ours to enjoy, who are represented by him.

            Jesus, God’s anointed king, also enjoys God’s love. God the Father loves Jesus, his only begotten Son, with a infinite and white hot intensity. The ocean of God’s love has been dumped upon his Son, the true anointed one, eagerly and lavishly every moment since eternity past and the ocean is still full to overflowing, and will be forever and always. If you are in Christ, if the anointed one is your federal representative before God, then that is the very love with which the God of the universe loves you—every infinite drop of it is yours.[34] What’s true of Christ, God’s anointed one, is true of those whom he represents.

            In Christ, there is no more of that crippling doubt about God’s disposition toward us. Is he angry with me? Is he opposed to me? Is he punishing me? Is he oblivious to me? In Christ, there is an answer to the despairing thought that we are, at the end of the day, alone and forgotten. In Christ, there is no more anxious toiling after God’s good will with our own devices, no more competitiveness to show God (and everyone else) that at least I’m better than him or her; at least I’ve never done that; at least I go to church or read my Bible unlike nominal Christians.

            In Christ, God’s anointed one, we can let go of trying to impress God and others; we are freed to admit that we are like the people of David. Did you notice this in the story? In ch. 22, v. 2, we are told that David has begun to gather a people to himself,[35] a kind of a new Israel led by a new king in the midst of an old Israel led by a corrupt king.[36] Who are they? “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul[37]—everyone, that is, who was suffering under Saul’s increasingly tyrannical rule.[38] The people of the anointed one are not terribly impressive. They are the distressed and oppressed. They are the ones buried in loans. They are bitter of soul. That’s ok. The people of the anointed one don’t need to put up a front for others, don’t need to hide their bankruptcy, don’t have to live their lives in the constant worry that others will finally see them for the frauds they are. In Christ, we can have confidence to do something astounding and incredibly freeing: we can admit our bankruptcy! Because what matters most is not our bankruptcy but Christ’s riches.

            If you are in distress, if you’re suffering under the weight of debt, if you’re bitter of soul, if you’re helpless and needy (and that’s all of us), admit it and take heart in the good news: God loves and delights in his anointed one! The favor of the God of Israel is ever upon his Christ! And as we find ourselves in Christ, in our covenant head and representative, that very love and delight is ours to enjoy forever. So turn to the anointed one, the Son of David, as your only hope. Lean on him with your whole being—emotionally, intellectually, practically, ceremonially; lean on him as your source and satisfaction, your motivation and meaning in all things. Follow him where he leads, whether it is to a table of gladness or through the valley of the shadow of death. And finding your life in him, you will discover that what he enjoys is yours to enjoy as well, which is nothing less than God’s enduring favor and steadfast love.

            Father God, your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, himself prayed that the very love with which you love him might be in us and he in us. May it be so. May we know the nearness and riches of your love and kindness this week. Fill us with confidence, born of your Spirit, to live as your church not with a spirit of competitiveness, but in the very unity that you have with Christ and the Spirit, so that the world may know you sent your Son to save the world, we pray, in the name of that same Son. Amen.



[1] Perhaps David thought that this would be the last place where Saul would have expected to go searching for him. See similarly Pamela Tamarkin Reis, “Collusion at Nob: A New Reading of 1 Samuel 21–22,” JSOT 61 (1994): 59–73, at 69.

[2] The Philistines quickly recognize David, and only partially mistakenly call him “the king of the land” (21:11). Technically, they are wrong; David is not yet king. But they speak an unwitting prophetic word. The Philistines’ perception stands in contrast to Saul’s obdurate unwillingness to swallow the hard truth of God’s rejection of him and anointing of David. Cf. Leithart, A Son to Me, 125n2, who tries to underline a contrast between the Philistines’ response to David with Saul’s by proposing (unconvincingly, to my mind) a chiastic structure in chs. 21–22.

[3] That David’s family met David in the cave of Adullam may suggest that they were being threatened by the Saulide pursuit of David. In light of the promise of 17:25, this may be an indirect sign of further corruption in the heart of Israel’s leader (cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 231).

[4] Alter speculates that David may have been calling on family connections, in light of Ruth’s Moabite heritage (The David Story, 135). With respect to the Moabite willingness to cooperate with David, Bodner comments, “One recalls that Saul has inflicted some disaster on Moab (14.47), so maybe the king of Moab is glad to sponsor an opponent to the incumbent king, hoping for a better deal in the event of usurpation” (1 Samuel, 232).

[5] Apparently the tabernacle was relocated there after the desolation of the sanctuary at Shiloh in 1 Sam 4. So far as I can tell, this is the first (implicit) appearance of the tabernacle since ch. 4 (there also implicit). As Bodner notes, this is also the first reported interaction David has with priests of the Lord (1 Samuel, 223).

[6] It has been claimed, at times, that David is being purposefully ambiguous in his words to Ahimelech, which apparently protects David from open deceit and lying (“the king” may refer to Yahweh); see, e.g., J. P. Fokkelman, The Crossing Fates: I Sam. 13–31 & II Sam. 1, vol. 2 of Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1996), 355.

[7] In fact, there are numerous variations of this majority interpretation. For a concise survey, see Matthew Newkirk, Just Deceivers: An Exploration of the Motif of Deception in the Books of Samuel (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 147–48. My sense is that lurking behind many discussions of the scene is a concern to vindicate David of, or distance him from, morally culpable deception (Davis simply skirts the issue by appeal to the modernistic exegetical maxim that narrative “describes not prescribes”; see Davis, 1 Samuel, 217). A better and more appropriate theological toolbox for dealing with deception in the David narrative is provided by Newkirk’s Just Deceivers, though with particular respect to the deception at Nob, I diverge from Newkirk’s analysis (see below).

[8] So, e.g., Davis, 1 Samuel, 216.

[9] Though by far a minority interpretation, what I am proposing here has been argued forcefully by Reis, “Collusion at Nob,” 59–73, and taken up and developed by Bodner, 1 Samuel, 223–39. I largely follow the basic argument of Reis and Bodner.

[10] Cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 227. It is true that weapons were stored at the temple (not the tabernacle), which enabled Jehoiada the priest to arm the captains during the coup of Joash (see 2 Kgs 11:10). But as the text there makes clear, those weapons were King David’s—that is, they were votive weapons rather than weapons for regular use. Peter Dubovský has noted that the Solomonic temple functioned as a “national treasury” (see The Building of the First Temple: A Study in Redactional, Text-Critical and Historical Perspective, FAT 103 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015], 41–42). But that is a description of the later temple, not of the early tabernacle. Ahimelech’s acknowledgement that, excepting Goliath’s sword, there was no weapon at the tabernacle is fully in keeping with what we would expect for that period in Israel’s history.

[11] As Reis notes, David’s flight to Nob is especially head-scratching when we realize that Nob is not on the way to Gath, which is where David flees next. This matter—namely, why David went to Nob in the first place—has typically befuddled interpreters (cf. Reis, “Collusion at Nob,” 60).

[12] Ibid., 224.

[13] See Bodner, 1 Samuel, 228; cf. also Fokkelman, Crossing Fates, 352.

[14] Not all see it this way. Some interpreters argue that Ahimelech did not inquire of the Lord for David, but that Doeg’s inclusion in 22:10 of “inquiring of the Lord” among the forms of assistance Ahimelech offers was a lie. The narrator would not, it is suggested, fail to tell us in ch. 21 about something so apparently important. Doeg lies, and Ahimelech in 22:15 defends himself with the one truth he can stand on (since he could not deny giving David bread and a sword). See, e.g., Reis, “Collusion at Nob,” 70; Alter, The David Story, 137; Bodner, 1 Samuel, 235. However, this reading requires taking Ahimelech’s response in 22:15 as a denial of inquiring that day (see, e.g., Bodner, 1 Samuel, 236), which ignores, and fails to explain, the presence of the finite verb “begin” (הַחִלֹּתִי). Ahimelech denies having begun inquiring that day, for it was something he was in the habit of doing prior to that day (see, rightly, Newkirk, Just Deceivers, 151).

[15] In Bodner’s estimation, the extended words that Ahimelech offers about the bread of the presence indicate his propriety and piety, in contrast to earlier Elide priests known from the narrative (1 Samuel, 226).

                  For a dissenter to the majority interpretation that David eats the bread of the presence as an exception to the law on the basis of more pressing humanitarian need, see Leithart, A Son to Me, 126–27. In Leithart’s reading, David portrays what he does as acceptable not as an exception for charity but because he and his men have “consecrated” themselves “under something like a Nazirite vow” and are thus “holy” (v. 5). That is, “Because they were consecrated as ‘temporary priests,’ David’s men were qualified to eat the bread of the sanctuary” (ibid., 127).

[16] A couple larger contextual matters further suggest something like what I am here proposing. First, the word for “trembling” (חרד) appears earlier in a very similar passage in 16:4. There Samuel goes to Bethlehem on a clandestine mission: “The elders of the city came to meet him trembling [וַיֶּחֶרְדוּ] and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’” Comparing and contrasting the elders’ question in 16:4 with Ahimelech’s in 21:1 is instructive. The question from the Bethlehemite elders is timid and cautious, whereas Ahimelech’s question seems much more direct and outspoken. He seems less unsure of David’s intent in coming, and more concerned about something else (cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 224). Second, we can compare this initial encounter between David and Ahimelech with initial encounters David has with other characters during his time of flight from Saul. In 19:18 David flees to Samuel and immediately “told him all that Saul had done to him.” In 20:1 he flees to Jonathan and immediately asks, “What have I done?” In both of these scenes, David’s encounters involve him, with his first breath, pleading his innocence and recounting the afflictions he faces at the hands of Saul. In ch. 21 when David meets Ahimelech, before he can say a word about his innocence and trials, the priest cuts him off with a direct and oddly doubled question. In my view, the priest is alerting David to something with his question.

[17] Cf. Reis, “Collusion at Nob,” 63–65; Bodner, 1 Samuel, 224. Alter rightly notes the exalted, poetic flavor of Ahimelech’s question (i.e., the form of the question is conspicuous in the narrative), but he takes the doubled-question as underlining Ahimelech’s shock that David was alone without his retinue (The David Story, 131).

[18] Alternatively, it is possible that Ahimelech has some inklings that David is now on the run from Saul as a fugitive, and Ahimelech is fearful of what’s coming on David’s heels (see, e.g., Alter, The David Story, 131). This is a common interpretation, but the point I would underline is that it does not necessarily contradict my proposal. If Ahimelech was fearful of Saul’s wrath following David, then he would also have been fearful of the presence of one of Saul’s lackeys at the sanctuary on the day David arrived. The important distinction I would want to make, however, is that Ahimelech trembles at the threat to David that he knows is present and coming (not only about any possible consequences and reprisals that might fall on his own head).

[19] If Doeg is the object of deception, then we may have still one further layer of the Jacob typology that is at work in this story: “Just as Esau was deceived by Jacob, so Doeg (Saul’s employee) will be deceived by David and Ahimelech” (Bodner, 1 Samuel, 227). Doeg is, after all, an Edomite, a descendant of Esau.

[20] Reis, “Collusion at Nob,” 65; cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 238–39. Bodner comments, “When David thus says to Abiathar that he is ‘responsible’ for the deaths in Nob, it amounts to a confession of the (ultimately unsuccessful) duping of Doeg” (ibid., 239). However, this is to make an assertion that goes beyond what is necessary; it may be only that David regrets coming to Nob in the first place rather than the failed attempt to dupe Doeg.

[21] Contrast Ahimelech’s truthful response to Saul’s accusation with Michal’s untruthful response to Saul in 19:17. Reis comments, forcefully, that Ahimelech’s response to Saul is “incomprehensible if one subscribes to the standard exegesis,” for “One wonders why he does not simply tell the exculpatory truth. Why does he not frankly tell Saul that David deceived him into believing that donating food and a sword would further the King’s business?” (“Collusion at Nob,” 71; cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 236). In general, the response of Ahimelech and his willingness to defend David before Saul in ch. 22 does not mesh with an Ahimelech who fears and trembles at the “powerful king’s retribution” at the beginning of ch. 21 (the quoted words are part of Alter’s characterization of Ahimelech in 22:1; see The David Story, 131).

[22] Reis adds further argumentation in favor of the general point—to wit, David’s request for a weapon appears immediately after the narrator’s mention in v. 7 of Doeg’s presence, in order to highlight David’s awareness of the threat (Reis, “Collusion at Nob,” 68; cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 228). Additionally, as Bodner notes, Ahimelech’s mention of the defeat of Goliath in v. 9 is clearly not for David’s benefit/knowledge and may be viewed as an attempt to intimidate Doeg (1 Samuel, 228).

[23] In Reis’s reading, they are partially or temporarily successful, since Doeg apparently does not go and immediately inform Saul (see “Collusion at Nob,” 69–70).

[24] In other words, Saul enacts the ban of holy war against the city of priests—indeed, against Yahweh himself whom they serve—something he was unwilling to do against the Amalekites earlier in the story in ch. 15 (see Leithart, A Son to Me, 130; cf. Alter, The David Story, 139). Leithart also acknowledges that as an Elide priest (the son of Ahitub according to 22:11; cf. 14:3), the slaughter at Nob is a continuation of God’s judgment against the house of Eli (see further Bodner, 1 Samuel, 235, 237–38.)

[25] I agree with Reis when she says, “An advantage of this reading is that it makes more use of the text than do earlier commentaries” (“Collusion at Nob,” 72, emphasis added). That is, more textual features and conundrums are explained, to my mind satisfactorily, by the interpretation that discerns “collusion at Nob” than are explained in the more traditional interpretation which views David as acting alone in an attempt to deceive Ahimelech. My friend and former colleague Matt Newkirk has offered a several-point critique of Reis’s and Bodner’s arguments (see Newkirk, Just Deceivers, 148–52). In my opinion, Newkirk (1) does not take sufficiently seriously the emphatic doubling of Ahimelech’s question in 21:1; (2) fails to address what I think are some of the strongest points in favor of the proposal of Reis and Bodner (note, in particular, the question of why David fled to Nob and the tabernacle, and the absence of Ahimelech’s appeal to being deceived before Saul); (3) under-appreciates the fact that Ahimelech has already allied with David (something Newkirk himself seems to acknowledge, when he makes the good case on 151 that Ahimelech likely had inquired of the Lord for David prior to their meeting in ch. 21); and (4) offers critiques that, while scoring some good points (e.g., I agree with Newkirk that Reis’s proposal about the mention of “five loaves” is “improbable”), do not undermine anything crucial to the basic interpretation offered by Reis and Bodner.

[26] We could add that, as happens earlier in the narrative, Saul’s efforts to harm David wind up helping David in this section. Specifically, at the end of ch. 22, on Saul’s command, Doeg ruthlessly slaughters all the priests at Nob—all but one, Abiathar. Abiathar escapes from Doeg’s slaughter, fleeing to David with the ephod in hand (see 23:6), which in the coming chapters will help in David’s continued success and survival. Saul sets off a chain of events that will help David escape from Saul.

[27] For most of the points in these two paragraphs, see Leithart, A Son to Me, 116, 118, 123, 127. David’s recapitulative experience with respect to the people of God can be made both at a macro-level—i.e., David reenacts the history of the people of God; and at a micro-level—i.e., David reenacts the histories of Jacob and possibly also Joseph. For discussion of the widely recognized Jacob typology in the David narratives, see Alter, The David Story, 117, 120–21; Bodner, 1 Samuel, 200, 206–8, 223; Leithart, A Son to Me, 102, 115, 118. For a proposal of a Joseph typology also at work (more subtly), see Alter, The David Story, 114; cf. Leithart, A Son to Me, 110, 123–24

[28] The book of Samuel teaches this, but it teaches it not in the form of a treatise or a letter but in the form of a story. This is narrative theology; and, to draw on a category we mentioned earlier, narrative theology is something that typically shows us truths enfleshed rather than tells us this or that statement of truth discursively. To say it differently, narrative means in a way different than other forms of communication (e.g., epistles, wisdom). It is, therefore, of great importance to learn how story means (esp. since the vast majority of Scripture comes to us in story form). For introductory discussion, see my “Narrative Criticism of the New Testament,” in Literary Approaches to the Bible, Lexham Methods Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016).

[29] As Leithart comments, the “literary-historical presentation of David’s life” forms a theological substructure upon which not only NT Christology but also NT soteriology stands. That is, the biblical David (i.e., the David we meet in the book of Samuel) helps us to identify not only who Christ is (i.e., king of Israel, David’s son), but also what Christ accomplished for the good of sinners (he stood in their place as their federal head).

[30] This is part of the point of the Mosaic requirement that the king not amass horses or many wives or excessive wealth and that the king keep all the words of the law “that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers” (see Deut 17:14–20). The king was not to distinguish himself from the people of Israel that he ruled, but to live the life of the ideal Israelite as Israel’s representative.

[31] See, in particular, the terms of the battle laid out in 1 Sam 17:8–9. For discussion of the practice/role of representative single combats in the ANE, see Roland de Vaux, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, trans. D. McHugh (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), 122–35.

[32] The baptism functions in the Gospels as Jesus’ anointing by the Spirit. The baptism sets him apart, or crowns him, as God’s Son, God’s king (cf. Ps 2).

[33] That Zephaniah, in this same prophetic word, speaks expressly of “the King of Israel” in the people’s midst (3:15) might indicate that there is a theological connection here between God’s delight over his people and the identity and calling of the King, along the lines of the covenantal reading of Scripture that I am offering. This suggestion might be strengthened by the close verbal parallels between Zeph 3:14–17 and Zech 9:9–10, the latter of which is a word expressly about the messianic king’s arrival. In fact, some interpreters of John have discerned something like an exegetical-theological juxtaposition of Zeph 3 and Zech 9 in John’s quotation of Zech 9:9 in John 12:15 (see, e.g., Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John, 2 vols.; AB 29–29A [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966–1970], 1:456; Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel according to John, BNTC [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005], 344).

[34] See, e.g., John 17:23, 26.

[35] During his flights from Saul, David is not yet technically king, but he is acting the part ahead of time, because he amasses quite a few followers to command and guide. In several other ways, the narrative characterizes David in royal terms: he is named “the king of the land” by the Philistines (21:11); he engages (successfully) in international relations with the king of Moab (22:3–4); he has the equivalent to a court prophet in Gad (22:5). See further Bodner, 1 Samuel, 232–33; Leithart, A Son to Me, 126, 128–29.

[36] Leithart comments, “Like Jesus, David gathered ‘disciples’ who formed the foundation of a new nation” (A Son to Me, 124).

[37] In 1:10, Hannah is described as מָרַת נָפֶשׁ; in 22:2, the people who gather to David are מַר־נֶפֶשׁ (see Bodner, 1 Samuel, 232). I take this repetition as an indication that the description of David’s people in 22:2 is just as much thematic as it is historically rooted.

[38] Likely also, several mere malcontents and miscreants joined David’s guerrilla army (cf. Leithart, A Son to Me, 128; Alter, The David Story, 135). We might say, in theological and blatantly anachronistic terms, that David’s people is not coextensive with the invisible church but is, instead, a visible church.
                  The text is filled with indirect indications of Saul’s growing tyranny. For example, the danger that David’s family apparently is in at the beginning of ch. 22 signals a breaking of the promise of 17:25 by Saul’s regime (cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 231). Additionally, Leithart reads Saul’s words to the Benjamites (22:7) as an indication that Saul had become precisely the kind of king that Samuel warned Israel about: one who stole away lands to give to his own (see A Son to Me, 129; cf. Bodner, 1 Samuel, 233–34, whose comments are much more precise than Leithart’s with respect to the text of Samuel). Whatever the case may be, the appeal expressly to Benjaminites (and thus northerners) highlights a political-cultural divide in Israel between north and south (note also David’s activities in Judah; see 22:5). As we will see later in Samuel, though he could easily have reproduced Saul’s factiousness from the other side, David instead proves to be a unifying figure, one who will bring about peace focalized around the city of peace, Jerusalem.