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Affable Geek's answer to What does it mean to interpret the Bible literally? mentioned the possibility of non-literalists interpreting the story of David and Goliath as a "tale that grew in the telling." This reminded me of something I read many years ago in a Bible commentary.

It mentioned that several odd discrepancies exist in the details surrounding the story of David and Goliath, making it appear as if another story had been clumsily inserted into the middle of the text by some scribe. Unfortunately, the book was borrowed and I no longer have it, and I don't remember all the points that were made, but the one I remember clearly, because it was so blatant, was how David, once he volunteered to fight Goliath as Israel's champion, was introduced to King Saul as if for the first time, even though he had been serving in the King's court as a musician for quite some time prior to this.

Of course a literalist must necessarily reject this idea that the story is full of later interpolations. How would one account for the apparent discrepancies in the story of David and Goliath, then?

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    Can you provide verse and translation references? I read quickly through 1 Samuel 17, and couldn't find any hint of the discrepancy you mentioned.
    – user971
    Jul 5, 2012 at 20:08
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    The main discrepancy will be between 1 Sam 17:56-58, where Saul asks David who his father is, and 1 Sam 16:17-21 where he clearly already knows who his father is. Jul 5, 2012 at 20:18
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    Maybe Saul just couldn't believe that that guy who couldn't wear his armor was the one who actually just killed Goliath. They would have been watching from a distance.
    – swasheck
    Jul 5, 2012 at 21:15
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    And maybe he just forgot. He's a king with a war going on. He probably has better things to do than keep tabs on the lineage of his staff - even his favorite staff. If the text said something like "Saul had never known who David's father was before that", then we'd have a discrepancy. As it is, it's a big stretch to label it as such.
    – user971
    Jul 5, 2012 at 22:57
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    Another possibility: Who is his father? = Who is this guy?! and is a simple expression of surprise.
    – TRiG
    Jul 9, 2012 at 18:05

3 Answers 3

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When I was a literalist, I believe my take was simply that the text does not demand that it was chronological (and having studied Hebrew since, one does have to admit that the use of the word "wa" similarly does not demand chronology, only some form of relationship between the two). So, if the narrative is taken as,

  • 16 Saul needs a musician and is told about David.
  • 17 is a story about how David and Saul first met.
  • 18 continues from 16.

This actually does make some sense: how would the servants of the king have known of the harp abilities of a shepherd from Bethlehem unless they had some relationship with the boy already?


Addendum:

This position is supported with this article on creation which (while overall supporting an old earth mentality) does make one comment that is on topic here:

in ancient literature, it was common to sequence historical material by topic, rather than in strict chronological order.

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Saul seems to have promised wealth to the family, or at least excempt the father from taxes.

Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.” (NIV 1 Samuel 17:25)

Aside from the lack of need for chronology, among other reasons, is it not possible that the King (who may have noticed the unnoticeable boy around here and there among the many of the Kings servants) was simply more interested in who 'his father was' by the question?

55 As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” (NIV 1 Samuel 17:25)

Again

“Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. (NIV 1 Samuel 17:58)

I really would never have even noticed this 'contradiction', if it was not brought forward. I think we have to read the Bible in a believing state of mind and then put more effort into trying to figure out the cases where a contradiction really does 'seem' to exist.

I am speaking from a literalist point of view.

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One of several Bible commentaries I have explained this point about the fact that David had been in Saul's employ prior to the giant-killing episode, which raises this question as to why Saul then asked who David was. You want to know how biblical literalists cope with an apparent error in the chronology of events.

The need is to first read in 1st Samuel three whole chapters, starting at 15 with what led God to reject Saul as king. The prophet Samuel was directed by God to tell Saul to his face that "Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols. So because you have rejected the command of the Lord, he has rejected you as king" (1 Samuel 15:23). Saul admitted his guilt. Then, in chapter 16 God directs Saul to anoint the youngest son of Jesse, David, as the future king of Israel, resulting in "The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on... Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and the Lord sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear" (1 Sam. 16:13-14).

At that point, Saul's courtiers suggested to him that they find a good musician who could soothingly play the harp whenever Saul became so mentally troubled. One suggested a son of Jesse, the shepherd David, adding that the Lord was with him, and so David began serving in the palace (vs.15-23).

The comment on this in the N.I.V. points out that

"Jesse arranged for David to continue serving Saul while still fulfilling his shepherding duties at home base - see 17:14-15... The intermittent nature of David's service might explain why Saul was unfamiliar with David during the encounter with Goliath - see 17:55-58." (NIV Study Bible pp 493-4)

This part-time service might have been one month on, one month off (for all we know) with another skilled harp-player-cum-armour-bearer taking his turn when David was off. Or, perhaps David's work was when Saul was based at the palace while another person took over when Saul was on the war campaign trail. However, the NIV Study Bible faces up to the peculiarity of 17:55-58 showing that neither Saul, nor Abner (the commander of his army) seemed to know exactly who this David was. The footnote offers an alternative view:

"In light of 16:14-23, it is surprising that neither Saul nor Abner knew who David was. It is possible that the events of ch.17 happened either before or long after David's tenure of intermittent service mentioned in ch16.)" (Ibid. p497)

There simply is not enough chronological detail in the account to establish the matter clearly. But biblical literalists know full well that establishing chronological events in the Old Testament is not an exact science, yet the events recorded did literally happen, even where on some occasions precise dates or sequence of events cannot be established.

The question raised here 9 years and 10 months ago had never occurred to me until I came across this. It has no bearing on whether or not the events happened. If David had been absent from the court during this war campaign (as 17:1-23 shows) Saul would have been so preoccupied with the massive danger of the Philistines bringing about a 40-day stalemate situation, he would have needed reminding about David. And Abner is as unlikely as Saul was to be mindful of one palace-personnel amongst thousand at such a critical battle stage.

The account, being inspired of the Holy Spirit, is what we need to know about those events. If we had needed to know a precise chronological sequence of events, that information would have been incorporated. Yet when books are written by people about historical events without aid of the Holy Spirit, they often chop and change, go back and forth, building up layers. Although I greatly enjoy reading David Schama's historical tomes, I find difficulty following events chronologically because he employs this 'layering' technique, combined with jumping back and forth, nor does he keep repeating dates. Readers are expected to have the wits (and perseverance) to keep up to speed with him!

There are, therefore, a couple of suggestions that can account for lack of chronological clarity, without invoking either a contradiction in the account, or a different version of the story being inserted later.

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