My daily reading reached the moment when Samuel anointed David, which is followed immediately by the first meeting of Saul and David:

Now the spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord began to terrify him. Saul’s courtiers said to him, “An evil spirit of God is terrifying you. Let our lord give the order [and] the courtiers in attendance on you will look for someone who is skilled at playing the lyre; whenever the evil spirit of God comes over you, he will play it and you will feel better.” So Saul said to his courtiers, “Find me someone who can play well and bring him to me.” One of the attendants spoke up, “I have observed a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilled in music; he is a stalwart fellow and a warrior, sensible in speech, and handsome in appearance, and the Lord is with him.” Whereupon Saul sent messengers to Jesse to say, “Send me your son David, who is with the flock.” Jesse took an ass [laden with] bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them to Saul by his son David. So David came to Saul and entered his service; [Saul] took a strong liking to him and made him one of his arms-bearers. Saul sent word to Jesse, “Let David remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.” Whenever the [evil] spirit of God came upon Saul, David would take the lyre and play it; Saul would find relief and feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.—1st Samuel 16:14-23 (NJPS)

But the next chapter, after Saul equips David to fight Goliath, we read:

When Saul saw David going out to assault the Philistine, he asked his army commander Abner, “Whose son is that boy, Abner?” And Abner replied, “By your life, Your Majesty, I do not know.” “Then find out whose son that young fellow is,” the king ordered. So when David returned after killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him to Saul, with the head of the Philistine still in his hand. Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, my boy?” And David answered, “The son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”—1st Samuel 17:55-58 (NJPS)

Now, this can't be a contradiction introduced by the editor of the stories, but must be potentially conflicting stories told of Saul and David's first meeting. Is there some way to harmonize these stories or must we be satisfied with a muddled and unclear history?


4 Answers 4


It is important to remember that the "historical books" of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are better called "the earlier prophets." They teach from the prophetic point of view, not simply chronological events. From Hard Sayings of the Bible. It is more important to group things by importance than it is to lay it out chronologically.

17:55–58 Why Did Saul Ask David’s Identity?

Saul’s questions about the identity of David in 1 Samuel 17 create a rather difficult problem in light of 1 Samuel 16, especially 1 Samuel 16:14–23. It would appear from chapter 16 that by the time of David’s slaying of Goliath Saul had already been introduced to David and knew him quite well.

The traditional way of resolving this dilemma in nonevangelical circles is to suppose that these two accounts stem from independent traditions. Thus the confusion over whether David’s debut at court preceded his conquest of the Philistine is unnecessary, since the stories come from different sources and do not intend to reflect what really happened so much as teach a truth. However, this resolution of the matter is not attractive to most who take the claims of the Bible more straightforwardly. The difficulty continues: how could Saul—and Abner too—be ignorant about this lad who had been Saul’s armor-bearer and musician?

Some have blamed Saul’s diseased and failing mental state. On this view, the evil spirit from God had brought on a type of mental malady that affected his memory. Persons suffering from certain types of mania or insanity often forget the closest of their friends.

Others have argued that the hustle and bustle of court life, with its multiplicity of servants and attendants, meant that Saul could have easily forgotten David, especially if the time was long between David’s service through music and his slaying of Goliath. Yet a long period of time does not appear to have separated these events. Furthermore, David was a regular member of Saul’s retinue (1 Sam 16:21).

A third option is to suggest that Saul was not asking for David’s identity, which he knew well enough. Instead he was attempting to learn what his father’s social position and worth were, for he was concerned what type of stock his future son-in-law might come from. (Remember, whoever was successful in killing Goliath would win the hand of Saul’s daughter, according to the terms of Saul’s challenge.) While this might explain Saul’s motives, does it explain Abner’s lack of knowledge? Or must we posit that he also knew who David was but had no idea what his social status and lineage were? Possibly!

The most plausible explanation, and the one favored by most older commentators, is that the four events in the history of Saul and David in 1 Samuel 16–18 are not given in chronological order. Instead, they are transposed by a figure of speech known as hysterologia, in which something is put last that according to the usual order should be put first. For example, the Genesis 10 account of the dispersion of the nations comes before the cause of it—the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The fact that the order has been rearranged for special purposes in 1 Samuel 16–18 can be seen from the fact that the Vaticanus manuscript of the Septuagint deletes twenty-nine verses in all (1 Sam 17:12–31 and 17:55–18:5).

E. W. Bullinger suggested that the text was rearranged in order to bring together certain facts, especially those about the Spirit of God.6 Thus in 1 Samuel 16:1–13 David is anointed and the Spirit of God comes upon him. Then, in order to contrast this impartation of the Spirit of God with the removal of the Spirit from Saul, 1 Samuel 16:14–23 is brought forward from later history. In the straightforward order of events, Bullinger suggests, it should follow 18:9.

First Samuel 17:1–18:9 records an event earlier in the life of David, which is introduced here in a parenthetical way as an illustration of 1 Samuel 14:52. This section is just an instance of what 14:52 claims.

The whole section, therefore, has this construction:

A 16:1–13 David annointed. The Spirt comes on him.

B 16:14–23 Saul rejected. The Spirit departs from him. An evil spirit torments him.

A 17:1–18:9 David. An earlier incident in his life.

B 18:10–30 Saul. The Spirit departs and an evil spirit troubles him.

Thus the narration alternates between David and Saul, creating a didactic contrast between the Spirit of God and the evil spirit that tormented Saul. The focus is on the spiritual state of the two men, not the historical order of events.

Kaiser, W. C. 1997, c1996. Hard sayings of the Bible . InterVarsity: Downers Grove, Il

  • 3
    Could you maybe summarize the material in the quote? I don't mind the length, but an answer that is almost entirely a long quote from another source doesn't really fulfill the SE mission of freely reproducible answers since this will carry the publisher's copyright rather than a CC-BY-SA license intended in the SE model.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 15:08

Interacting with Frank Luke's response, I like the theory proposed by E.W. Bullinger, however it does not seem to fit with what immediately follows in Chapter 18.

First of all I believe that Bullinger is correct in his analysis of the construction of the passage. I agree that the intent is to contrast the Spirit coming upon David and leaving Saul, and that chronology is not a concern. In fact, the slaying of Goliath further emphasizes the fact that God's Spirit was on David and not Saul in that instance. (It is the Spirit that stirs up David's zeal for God's glory and against the giant's blasphemy, while Saul thinks of himself). So, I agree that this is the reason that it is written in this order, rather than trying to be chronological.

However, that does not help us determine the actual chronology. If our intent is to smooth over the two meetings, a possible chronology might be as follows:

  1. David is anointed by Samuel in secret.
  2. David fights Goliath while still an obscure country kid completely unknown to Saul.
  3. David goes back to his field.
  4. Saul's torment drives him to ask for a musician (on the advice of his servant)
  5. Saul's servants remember noticing David - who is now known to them because of the whole killing Goliath thing - playing the lyre and recommend him to the king.

That would make sense of Saul's lack of knowledge of David, since it would just mean that David wasn't the first musician that came to Saul's mind. Saul remembered him as a giant-slayer, not a musician.

That being said, there is very clear chronological language in Chapter 18 that limits us from putting David back in his father's field after the Goliath incident. It says "as soon as Saul finished speaking..." and "Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father's house." (emphasis added) So, while it is not clear that the David of chapter 16 would have been a well-known member of Saul's court, it is absolutely certain that the David of chapter 17 immediately became the most popular man in Isreal of chapter 18. He was not obscure any longer. It would appear that he became a permanent fixture of Saul's court from that day forward, with no provision to go back to the pasture where we find him in chapter 16.

For this reason, I suggest the following 2 possibilities:

  1. David was an obscure member of Saul's court in chapter 16 who was called from Bethlehem by God's providence to be Saul's musician. He was loved by Saul, but was little more than background noise to everyone else in the court. Saul's servants tracked him down, they knew who his father was, and Saul asked them, but it did not seem like particularly salient information at the time, so it went in one ear and out the other. In this scenario, Saul genuinely doesn't remember who David is as a matter of status and lineage, which was suddenly very significant to Saul. Abner probably never paid him any mind; it was Saul's lesser servants that found him. Armor bearer is a military-ish position, but he was just Saul's personal bodyguard, which was not Abner's concern.

  2. Chapter 16:14-23 summarizes the meeting and relationship of Saul and David, and the Goliath incident can be inserted into it as the point at which David becomes known to Saul and his servants. It is conceivable, since David started playing for Saul the day after the victory celebrations (v. 18:10). He may have been identified as a musician after he met Saul and went home to get his supplies and then returned. However, that stretches the language in chapter 16 beyond the limits of natural meaning.

Therefore, while I agree that Hebrew narrative is not restricted to chronological order, I feel that in this case, the most natural reading of the text is to say that it did occur in order. In fact, this follows a similar pattern to the anointing of Saul: he was anointed in secret, he was later chosen publicly by lot, and finally affirmed by leading Israel into battle spontaneously. All of these things were completely providential - neither Saul himself nor Samuel could have arranged events to bring Israel behind Saul if they had tried. Similarly with David: he was anointed in secret, he was selected at random to serve in Saul's court, and finally he led Israel to victory over an impossible enemy, winning their allegiance. None of these events could have been orchestrated by David. This proves that David was God's choice.


By the time we arrive at 1 Sam 16, we note the following background

  • 1 Sam 13 - Samuel had to severely rebuke Saul over the unauthorized sacrifice
  • 1 Sam 14 - Saul acted very foolishly (narcissistically?) in making an oath to prevent the soldiers eating
  • 1 Sam 15 - The incident with the Amalekites and Saul's selfish hording of plunder (rather than destruction) results in God finally rejecting Saul as king of Israel.
  • 1 Sam 16:1-13 - Samuel anoints David as the next king of Israel
  • 1 Sam 16:14-23 - Saul's mental instability has now advanced to the place where he cannot function without a court musician, who become David.

Thus, we see Saul's condition is so poor that his courtiers are beginning to protect him from public gaze. Saul begins to develop paranoia about imagined threats.

Thus, I find unsurprising that while this very minor court employee, David as court musician, is introduced to Saul (1 Sam 16:19, 20), Saul does not really know him and has to be reintroduced to him in 1 Sam 17 over the Goliath incident (assuming they are in chronological order).

By 1 Sam 18, Saul's condition is so poor that he now begins to suspect his most trusted officials of treachery and threats. Unfortunately, Saul eventually looses all hope, consults with witches (1 Sam 28) and ends his own life (1 Sam 31). A very sad story of a man who initially showed such promise in God's service.


Why did Saul ask David for the name of his father in [1 Samuel 17:58]?

King Shaul allowed David to distinguish his family as warriors in the presence of Yisrael's army. David states his father Yishay (יִשַׁ֖י) belonging to the House ( בֵּ֥ית ) of The-Wars / "Ha-Lachemi" ( הַלַּחְמִֽי ) --- not bread "Lechem" ( לֶ֙חֶם֙ ).

1 Samuel 17:58 [MT]

"And Shaul said to him, "Whose son are you, young man?" And David said, "The son of your bondsman, Yishay of House-[of] The-Wars." (וַיֹּ֚אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ שָׁא֔וּל בֶּן־מִ֥י אַתָּ֖ה הַנָּ֑עַר וַיֹּ֣אמֶר דָּוִ֔ד בֶּֽן־עַבְדְּךָ֥ יִשַׁ֖י בֵּ֥ית הַלַּחְמִֽי)

  • "YiShaY" ( יִשַׁ֖י ) = Jesse.
  • "Beyt-Ha-Lachemi" ( בֵּ֥ית הַלַּחְמִֽי ) = "House-[of] The-Wars"

Shaul then wanted to adopt David as a warrior son [1 Samuel 18:2] so that Shaul's name would be remembered / associated with David's victory over Goliath / Galeyat (גָּלְיָ֥ת).

1 Samuel 18:2 [MT]

"And Shaul took him on that day, and did not allow him to return to his father's house." (וַיִּקָּחֵ֥הוּ שָׁא֖וּל בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֑וּא וְלֹ֣א נְתָנ֔וֹ לָשׁ֖וּב בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיו)

  • I am fascinated that you believe בֵּית הלּחְמִי means "House of the wars" when all the lexicons (eg, BDB) say: בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי adjective, of a people the Bethlehemite as per 1 Sam 16:1, 18, 17:58, 2 Sam 21:19. Could you expand on that a bit?
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 21:17
  • Lachem (לָחֶ֣ם) means 'war', found also in Shoftim (שֹֽׁפְטִ֑ים) - Chapter 5 : verse 8 [MT]. -- The Patah (פַּתַח‎) which accompanied the hei (הַ) and lamed (לַּ) in "Ha"-"Lachemi" (הַלַּחְמִי֒) reveals two distinct words "The"-"War[s]". If the Segol (סֶגּוֹל‎) accompanied the lamed (לֶ֙), then 'war' would be transformed into 'bread' Lechem (לֶ֙חֶם֙) found in 1 Shemuel (שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל) - Chapter 16 : verse 20. Commented Oct 7, 2020 at 22:34

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