What does this text mean

1 Samuel 17:15 "but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father's sheep at Bethlehem"

Because at this time he did not seem to be working for Saul, so how was he going back and forth?

  • Welcome to BH and thanks for your question.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Feb 3 at 13:39

3 Answers 3


In vv13-14, we learn that David's three elder brothers "followed Saul" in the sense of being part of the army which Saul had called out to fight the Philistines. Presumably David was also part of the family contingent, so he was "with Saul" in that sense. The apparent difference between David and his elder brothers is that they were in the camp full-time, while he was obliged to travel home at short intervals to make sure that the sheep were not neglected. And also (v17) to take supplies from home back to them. So "back and forth from Saul" really means "back and forth from Saul's army".

  • Great thoughts, but what i find in chapter 16 gives impression that he was already in some way engaged in King Saul's court as Dan indicated in his response.
    – Joseph
    Commented Feb 4 at 22:33

This verse serves to explain how it is that David's story seems to have two beginnings. 1 Sam. 17:12-31 is a transitional section that marks the start of the second story. A footnote in the NABRE explains:

17:12–31 - Here the final editor begins an alternative account of David’s encounter with the Philistine hero, which continues in vv. 50–51 and concludes in 17:55–18:5.

Although this section appears in virtually all English bibles, is omitted by the Septuagint version, which takes a different approach to weaving together the two accounts. The Septuagint reads:

And Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, and they were dismayed, and greatly terrified. (vss. 12-31 omitted) And David said to Saul, Let not, I pray thee, the heart of my lord be dejected within him: thy servant will go, and fight with this Philistine.

Back in chapter 16, David had already been anointed by Samuel and had entered Saul's service as his armor-bearer. This account ends at 16:23

Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take the harp and play, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, for the evil spirit would leave him.

Our version of the story then shifts to describe the Philistine threat and the challenge of Goliath. But this account treats David as if he is new to the story. David is thus (re)-introduced and the OP's quote is included to explain why it seems that David is a new character in the saga. He isn't actually new; he has been going back and forth.

12 David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse from Bethlehem in Judah who had eight sons. In the days of Saul Jesse was old and well on in years. 13 The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to war... 15 David would come and go from Saul’s presence to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

Conclusion: David's coming and going between Saul and Jesse is an editorial insertion explaining how two originally independent traditions about David fit together. The LXX leaves out this entire section, making the two stories appear seamless.

  • Interesting insight s
    – Joseph
    Commented Feb 4 at 22:32

In ancient times, the armies were not professional, in the sense that they were often NOT paid. Each family had to support their family member in the army. Thus, each soldier would have had a messenger travelling "back and forth" to take food and supplies to the army - David was such a courier for his three older brothers.

1 Sam 17:14-19 And David was the youngest. The three oldest had followed Saul, but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep in Bethlehem.

For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening to take his stand.

One day Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted graine and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. Take also these ten portions of cheese to the commander of their unit. Check on the welfare of your brothers and bring back an assurance from them. They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”

Thus, David's task was quite innocent, and he would have been among many such people bringing supplies to the army.

However, David also had a second function as explained in 1 Sam 16:14-23 - as a minor court official who played the harp to calm Saul's developing mental instability. The subsequent story in 1 Sam 17:55 reveals he had not yet personally met David and Abner. Some commentators believe that, chronologically, 1 Sam 16:14-23 follows 1 Sam 17 not before; however, I do not think this is essential as explained above.

  • The cultural context addition brings fresh insights. Thanks Dottard
    – Joseph
    Commented Feb 4 at 22:34

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