1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23

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1 Samuel 17:1a, 4 - 11,

Background to the Book of 1 Samuel: What is happening in Palestine at this time?

The story contained in the books of Samuel tells of the extraordinary change in the way Israel is governed. Up to this time, there had been various tribes who on occasions had come together to combat a threat from other nations. In each instance in the book of Judges, we are told how a person was raised by God to lead the tribes on this particular occasion. The Spirit of God settles on the person and even when this is not overtly mentioned in the story we are clear by the way the story progresses that we know God's hand is directly involved in the successful consequences.

1 and 11 Samuel tell us about the immense political and new government structures, which take place around the end of the 10th century BCE. The centre of government during the time of the judges was at Shiloh and by the time we get to the end of 11 Samuel, the centre of what is now an empire, has moved to Jerusalem.

The voices for setting up a monarchy became stronger and it fell to Samuel, the last of the judges, to be instrumental in the forthcoming tussle between those who wanted a monarch and those who believed that God would continue to raise up leaders as required.

The amount of material, which focuses on Samuel, Saul and David compared with the space given to the remainder of the Kings of Israel, is quite disproportionate. A total of fifty five chapters is given to these three people and forty seven chapters to all the remaining kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms.

We read in the books of Joshua and Judges about the gradual settlement of the Israelite tribes into Palestine, some encroaching from the south, others from the east and the north. It was clear there was fighting with other tribes and we become familiar with the names of the Edomites and the Moabites. However, the greatest threat became the Philistines who had settled in the west of Palestine along part of the coast. Because they had effected the art of iron casting, they were able to make wheels and other tools which gave them a superiority in war. The settlement process took at least two hundred years from the time the tribes started to enter into Palestine

One of the ancient traditions tells of the conquest of Canaan by slow stages, with each tribe fighting alone or, at best, in coalition with other tribes. Another tradition tells about the invasion, which attacked first the southern hill country, where Judah and Simeon defeated Adonibezek, took Hebron, Debir, and Hormah, but could not gain control of the coastal plain. The house of Joseph invaded the central highlands and captured Bethel. To the north, the tribes of Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali settled among the Canaanites, and, as they grew stronger, gradually forced them into slave labour. To the west, the tribe of Dan was hemmed in against the highlands and could not conquer the plains.

The books of Samuel tell us how first Saul became king and was commissioned to defeat the Philistines that were a very real threat to the survival of Israel. Next, we see the gradual disintegration of Saul's mental and physical health and the rise of David after his defeat of Goliath. David is portrayed positively as he saves Saul's life and negatively as he betrays his own people and fights for the enemy, although never against Israel itself. The Philistines thought he was doing this but David was fighting other tribes and killing everyone so there was no one alive to tell the Philistine commander what David was doing. Some of the negative qualities of David's actions and character are omitted in a later telling of his story (Books of Chronicles). It is well that we remember he was a person of mixed motives, great faith, courage, love, greed, need for power, who killed those in opposition to his desires, he was cruel and had fits of anger. His grief at the death of Saul and Jonathon is beautifully portrayed in the lament of 2 Sam 1:19ff.
In the second book of Samuel, we read of the rise and fall of David's reign.

Dates of the first 3 Kings of the United Kingdom


c.1020-1004 BC


1004 - 965



Context of 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4 - 11, 19 - 23   (What is happening in the literature around 1 Samuel 17; the bigger picture)

This is one of those occasions when it needs to be recognised that the story is part of a much bigger complex. Our culture no longer spends time hearing long stories and people are used to visual rather than sitting around a fire listening to sagas of their past ancestors. It is unreasonable to consider reciting the sixteen chapters (1 Sam 1-16), but you might find it helpful to let people know in a brief synopsis about the story and how it progresses.

This chapter is the second in a much longer saga about the rise of David and the fall of Saul: the unit runs from 1 Sam 16 - 11 Sam 1:27. Chapter sixteen explains why Saul can no longer be King. He was disobedient, one of the major tenets for rejection of Saul as King, by the writer of this history. Saul kept the best of the flocks to give in sacrifice to the Lord and he ought to have destroyed everything, he keeps explaining why he kept the best of the flocks and his excuse is ignored each time. In reflection on this story one cannot but be surprised by the feeling that Saul could not win at this point. David was disobedient and was able to redeem himself by repenting, but this option was not available to Saul. We know that Samuel has anointed David and the spirit of the Lord is upon him, but has departed from Saul to be replaced with a spirit of evil. Whether Saul knows David has been anointed as future king is a mute point because the man who told Saul him about David's character and skills says the "Lord is with him" (16:18). He does not spell out in detail about the role of Samuel anointing David as the future king of Israel. Initially, Saul liked David and there was no evidence of the jealousy, which arose later.

Next, we have the story of the little person defeating the great one by lateral thinking and action. If you hadn't read 1 Sam 16 you would read the end of 1 Sam 17 and believe that Saul doesn't know David at all. The ends of these chapters have quite contradictory statements; read 1 Sam 16:21-23 and 1 Sam 17:55-58. Is Saul so mad that he does not recognise David after him being at court for some considerable period? Is it that we have different traditions, which the storyteller has not reconciled?

1 Sam 18:2 is almost a repetition of 1 Samuel 16:22 but now we have the addition of the relationship that is set up between Jonathon and David. It is described in terms that indicate a very close bonding, which may or may not have sexual overtones. We do not know and rather that argue one way or another all we say it is meant to indicate a love that is very close. The actual phrasing in the Hebrew is rather lovely: "the life of Jonathon was bound to the life of David and Jonathon loved him as his own life". Why is Jonathon not the one to become king? His nature and behaviour is above reproach: his kindness to David and his lack of jealousy are all conveyed to us quite clearly. However, as David became increasingly successful at subduing the enemies of Saul and as the women showed great favour to him, Saul's jealousy was fuelled and he turned against David.

As the chapter continues we read of the workings of Saul's mind, first in his suggestion that David marry his elder daughter which fails to occur because we read that she is married to Adriel. Therefore, because his younger daughter tells Saul she loves David, he agrees that David should marry her. In the following chapters, the story of how the relationship develops between David and Saul's family and the ongoing campaigns against the Philistines are explicated. Saul's hatred grows and David's success against the Philistines grows in equal proportion. The unit finishes with the death of Saul and his family, David's sorrow and he ordered the killing of the person who killed Jonathon and Saul. The final lament is meant to be said by all of Israel. 2 Sam 2 begins the story of David's reign.

Insights/Message of 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4 - 11, 19 - 23 (What insights can we gain from the text and literary structure?)

There are no textual matters that need discussion in that they would impinge significantly on the theology of the passage.

This narrative has a long prehistory which in its present context is a powerful & well crafted story which sets up the hero David from the beginning to end. We are drawn in and given information, which heightens the triumph of David and contrasts this with the helplessness of Saul. We know that Saul is on the downward slide because he is the person who has been commissioned to deal with the Philistines, but he has not been able to generate anyone's courage in 40 days to take on the Philistine's challenge. In contrast there comes is a young lad who is not mature enough to wear a full suit of armour and faces the giant-like figure of Goliath in his shepherd's clothes.

Accordingly, the story begins by setting the encounter between David and Goliath in a very particular place, which was in the hill country about 15 miles SW of Bethlehem. Indeed, it was in the hill country in the frontier land between Israel and Philistia. Each army took its position on a hillside facing each other across the valley, probably a riverbed that was dry in summer.

We are given the background as to how the encounter between David and Goliath is able to happen. It is quite common in a number of cultures for a battle or issues to be decided by each side fielding a contestant and they proceed to act on behalf of the rest. What is emphasised in these verses is the size (6'9" tall) of Goliath and immense amount of armour that he wears. It tells us that by omission no Israelite has had the courage so far to take up the challenge of this giant. Right on cue the hero enters.

In the verses omitted by the lectionary we have the reason why David appears on the scene. Jesse has three sons already in Saul's army and David is sent to take them supplies. Just one little comment slipped into this family background of David is in v.16 - the Philistine had issued his challenge for the previous 40 days. The unsaid comment is that no Israelite had had the courage to accept the challenge. Jesse not only sends food for his sons, but 10 cheeses are sent for their commander.

David appears at the camp and as he hands over the provisions and speaks with his brothers, Goliath appears and shouts out his challenge.

David immediately wants to know what the reward will be for the person who kills the Philistine. What comes after is a very intriguing interchange between David and his eldest brother, Eliab. He has heard David asking questions about the Philistine and his anger is expressed in sarcasm when he asks, "With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness?" The bewilderment of David at this response by his brother seems quite genuine. David repeats his question about reward to the soldiers and gets the same response. The apparent jealousy of the eldest brother to the younger reminds one of the Joseph story.

David goes to Saul and offers to kill Goliath. The ensuing conversation suggests that David and Saul don't know each other, which becomes a certainty in v.55 when Saul asks Abner the commandment of the army "whose son is this young man?" All this is in complete contradiction to 1 Sam 16:19-23. Why is the story set up in this way? Are we seeing different traditions, which had not been integrated properly, or is the LXX version, which omits vv.12-31, 41, 55-58 (but not this conversation in 32ff) the real story. I think we have to deal with what is in the Scripture and ask the theological questions associated with the longer text. The gospels sit next to each with quite contradictory statement about the birth of Jesus and we are used to it. It is similar in the Old Testament: we have different traditions remembered and in many places they sit side by side as in the gospel stories.

David is quite confident with his offer which Saul has doubts about because he is only a boy. Note the author has David speaking first whereas it would normally be the King's privilege. Even here the author is telling us who is the true king. David reminds the king that he has had to deal with wild animals and as God saved him then, so he will save him now against the "uncircumcised" Philistine. This is the second time this adjective is used and makes it very clear that Goliath is not an Israelite and apparently one of the few nations who do not practice circumcision. We forget that there were wild beasts in Palestine that roamed the hills and the role of shepherd was not the nice pastoral walkabout we sometimes depict it. Saul was so concerned he gave David his own armour, which would have been an honour, but of course it is prohibitive to the sort of action that David intends. Therefore, David removes the armour and finds the stones that will best fit and be effective in his sling. David's fervour for the Lord is constantly referred to and especially when David speaks about the "living God". This description makes it clear his God is no idol, which the Philistines would have worshipped, but a living being that is concerned for the people with whom he has made a covenant. Indeed, up to this point David is the only person to mention the name of Yahweh, and now Saul comes in to name God.

The narrator leads the story forward with cleverly crafted speeches.
The exchange of words between Goliath and David serves to show the contempt with which David is viewed by the Philistine and David's confidence in God. David turns the words of Goliath back on himself and predicts the punishment which was meant for David will happen to Goliath. David says he will win, not because of trust in his own prowess, but because God is on his side. This doesn't prevent David from carrying out the action of cutting off the head of Goliath.

One can imagine the two moving towards each other, the very larger than life Goliath all decked out with his armour and the young man in everyday garments in which he would care for the sheep and we can see him take aim and hit Goliath on the forehead. He probably stunned for long enough to for him to carry out the prophesied action of cutting off his head.

The success of David results in the retreat of the Philistines followed by the Israelites doing the usual things, which victorious armies indulge in. The peculiar conversation at the end of the chapter in which Saul and Abner deny totally any knowledge of David is very odd, to say the least.

Message/theology in 1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4 - 11,19 - 23, 32 - 49

The message of this crafted story is part of the much larger history, which tells the people about their kings and why they ended up in exile in Babylon 587 BCE (Deuteronomy - 11 Kings 25). David is set up as the ideal king and in this chapter we see how much his own faith plays a part in the success not only of his defeat of Goliath, but as an essential part of his whole kingship. Gradually we are given this picture of Saul who is failing at a number of levels: here it is his own courage in failing to offer to fight the Philistine himself and in his lack of faith in Yahweh. David is young, untried, a shepherd boy and yet has no hesitation in challenging the Philistine and does it with full trust that God is with him. Very few commentators talk about the aspect of David asking twice about the reward, which the man who defeats Goliath will receive. David checks this out twice that "he will get riches, the king's daughter in marriage and freedom for his family in Israel". There is a side to David, which is out for power and gain, and we do well to remember all aspects of David's character. It is in the end a young inexperienced person who takes on the might of a well-equipped and powerful army through the person of Goliath: and that person prevailed. As the youngest in the family, we see jealousy rising to the surface and families can identify with these sorts of relationship difficulties.

What does it say to us today? That we can take on the force of mightier powers if we truly believe that God is on our side. This does need checking out that what we are fighting for is compatible and congruent with gospel principles. There are plenty of examples in all areas of life where a person has taken on a powerful group: sometimes they been defeated in the short term and sometimes they have won their case. The movements against manufacturers polluting the countryside through careless leakage of chemicals into rivers and lakes have been successful in many places. Small groups of people have confronted government about policy or corruption and brought about change. What is relevant to your congregation? What are the fears of a congregation, which prevent it taking action to confront a powerful force?

Do people trust that God is with them because what they are doing is right in the eyes of God and is compatible with the gospel? This story suggests also that God works through those who like David was looking to the reward. David had courage and he could have been killed; however, he trusted in God, took action and claimed the physical reward.

I think the first ten verses of Ps 9 fit with the theology and it does support the notion that if one trusts in God all will be well.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament: Mark 4:35-41 - while there is no exact OT quote related to this text the whole motif of fear of the dark and the sea, is part of Hebrew culture. They did not view the sea as friendly but an alien place on which they were at the mercy of the elements. The theme of creation as subordinate to God and Jesus is carried through in vv.39-41. In 2 Cor 6:1-15, Paul uses part of a verse from Isa 49:8 in support of his appeal in 2 Cor 6:1 and by identifying with the servant of the OT is giving further authority to his own message. The servant in Isa 49:1-8 is charged not only to be a servant to his own people but a light to all nations. Paul is saying that with the advent of Jesus that time has now come and He, Paul is a servant in line with the one in Isa 49 and the acceptable time of salvation is now (2 Cor 6:2b). The pronoun 'he' at the beginning of v.2 could either refer to God or the Hebrew Scriptures, but most often is understood as the Lord speaking. Paul is using the Jewish interprative technique of Pesher here by which he quotes from the OT (2 Cor 6:2a) followed by an interpative comment (2 Cor 6:2b).

Resources/Worship for 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4 - 11, 19 - 23

Worship and the Old Testament message; are there new ways to present the reading?

The story needs setting in context and this can be done quite briefly. If there are children in the congregation, this could easily be enacted out by them to remind people about it.  Again, use could be made of the Dramatised Bible.

You could invite the congregation to be the two armies and whom would they get to represent each of them. What qualities would they look for?

You could do a David Kossov and speak about the story as though you had been there and witnessed the event.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the books of Samuel, eg. if you want to know more about the Philistines there are details given of several articles/chapters in books which can help with this topic.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the 1990's is more up to date than some earlier works.

Birch,.B. The First and second Samuel. NIB. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Brueggemann,W. First and Second Samuel. Interpretation. Louisville: John Knox
Press, 1990
Gordon, R.P. 1 & 2 Samuel. OTG. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1984
Hertzberg, H.W. 1 & 11 Samuel. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1964.
Klein,R. 1 Samuel. WBC. Waco., Texas: Word Books, 1983.
Mauchline, J. 1 and 2 Samuel. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources: http://nat.uca.org.au/TD/worship/Orders_of_Service/index.html