Did Saul know who David’s father was?

Posted on Jan.05, 2009. Filed in 1 Samuel. Average rating: 3.7 / 10 (Rate It).

In 1 Samuel Saul is afflicted with an evil spirit, and so on the advice of his servants sends to Jesse for his son Samuel. Samuel is reputed to be an excellent musician, and it is hoped that his playing will soothe Saul. When Samuel arrives, he and Saul form a close relationship, and Saul again sends to Jesse to extend David’s stay:

Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’ So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.’ One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilful in playing, a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.’ So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, ‘Send me your son David who is with the sheep.’ Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, ‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favour in my sight.’ And whenever the evil spirit from God cam upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him. [1 Samuel 16:14-23 (NRSV)]

This passage is immediately followed by an account of a war with the Philistines. The Philistine champion, Goliath, challenges the Israelites, who run away in terror. Finally David, an unlikely hero, steps up to the plate and slays Goliath. Saul, who loved David greatly, made David his armour-bearer, and sent to Jesse saying that David had found favour in his sight, suddenly seems not to know him:

When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, ‘Abner, whose son is this young man?’ Abner said, ‘As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.’ The king said, ‘Inquire whose son the stripling is.’ On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. Saul said to him, ‘Whose son are you, young man?’ And David answered him, ‘I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.’ [1 Samuel 17:55-58 (NRSV)]

So did Saul¬†know who David’s father was or not?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    A lot of the Bible is not in Chronological order, and that’s what I would argue on this point.

    Aside from the fact that Saul could’ve just forgotten, it’s more likely the events in Chapter 17 come before 16? Chapter 17 shows David as a boy taking food to his brothers in the army. When David recounts to King Saul how good of a shepherd he was, he probably wouldn’t of had to do this had he been an armor bearer. However, chapter 16 shows him already as a warrior and an armor bearer.

    Is this a real issue?

  2. 2

    johnfoxe, that’s not going to work as a solution.

    1 Samuel 18:2 indicates that David went with Saul that very day, and Saul would not let him return to his father’s house. So if 16:19 occurs after the battle, why would Saul have to send for David?

  3. 3

    For the record, 1 Samuel 18:2 immediately follows David slaying Goliath and reads “Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house.”

  4. 4

    The text does read here as if the events are in order, though I’m not sure we can know how much time lapses between them.

    But johnfoxe had it right in his secondary comment. Saul simply didn’t remember who David’s father was. Would you really expect him to?

    This is not an error in the text, but it does show that Saul had a fallible memory.

  5. 5

    Just as a narrative, if you read the whole thing it certainly looks like two different accounts of how Saul met David have been folded together.

    In 16:22-23 we are told that David has become Saul’s armour-bearer, yet 17:15 has David still feeding his father’s sheep.

    At 17:12 we are told David is the 8th son of a man named Jesse, as if we didn’t already know that.

    And at 17:55-58, Saul calls David “young man” (twice) and “the stripling”. Apparently he doesn’t know David’s name.

  6. 6

    I actually have a bit of an antecdote I like to give when this comes up, to show that Saul forgetting who David was isn’t as absurd as it at first sounds. And I will admit, it does sound absurd at first.

    When I was growing up, I had a best friend named Brian. We went to school together for several years before I moved away.

    Years later, we found ourselves working side-by-side in a local business, but – this is interesting – we worked together for *months* before we recognized each other. Neither of us had had any reason to mention their surname, and we simply didn’t realize who the other was. I want to emphasize, we were *best friends* when we were in grade school.

    To me, this seems like the most likely resolution to the Saul not recognizing David problem. After all, Saul was king – surely he had a LOT of names and faces to deal with. Let alone remembering who David’s father was.

    That’s my two cents, anyhow.

  7. 7

    I believe if we look at this problem from God’s perspective, we can figure it out.

    God calls “…things that be not as though they were.” ROM.4:17 He called Abraham the “father of many nations” in the past tense. (see GEN.17:5)

    The angel of the Lord called Gideon a valiant man of war before he ever picked up a sword.

    With this principle in mind, let’s look at 1 SAM. 15:28, “And Samuel said unto him [Saul], The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee THIS DAY, and has given it to a neighbor of thine, that is better than thee.” Yet, Saul remained king for a number of years.

    In 1 SAM. 16 Samuel annoints David as the new King of Israel even though he is still a BOY (in his teens?).

    During this timeframe Saul is troubled by an evil spirit, and his counselors recommend a harpist.

    One servant boasts of David (16:18), calling him “…a mighty valiant man, and a man of war…and the LORD is with him.”

    Whether the Spirit of God gave the servant those words, or whether he providentially “oversold” David to Saul; GOD placed the boy before the king. As soon as David played Saul was moved to accept him (vs.21).

    Weeks or months go by, and Saul is eventually “healed” (16:23).

    The events of chapter 17 occur YEARS later. Verses 12-15 are parenthetical. Jesse is now an “old man”. His 3 eldest sons are grown and in the army. In verse 15 we find young David back with his father tending sheep. Evidently, after Saul was healed, he had allowed David to return home.

    This makes the second clause of 16:21 “…he became his armour bearer” a FUTURE event; just as David WOULD be a “mighty man of valor” in time.

    To illustrate.

    Jim went to work for ABC Corporation and became the CEO.

    If we know that Jim was hired right out of college, we can safely assume it took him a number of years to reach that position. But it does ot make the statement wrong.

    So in 17:55-58 Saul does not recognize David or remember his father, who he wants to reward (see 17:25).

    Thats my 2 cents.

  8. 8

    David was recommended to Saul by a third party for his singing abilities. That third party knew Jesse, or whoever put him up to the recommendation (Samuel?) knew Jesse. Saul hired David on the basis of the recommendation. Saul never knew Jesse.

    Saul “sent messengers to Jesse”, but it was obviously underlings who wrote the messages and handled the sending of the messengers. Saul probably just said: “Great, get him” (or something equivalent) when the servant recommended David. Whenever Saul needed David, of course, Saul had to send messengers to Jesse, but Saul’s conscious participation in this was probably to say “Get David” or some such.

    Saul, of course, knew who David was by the time David fought Goliath. But Saul does not ask Abner who David is. Saul asks who David’s father is. There is no reason to think that Saul’s knowledge of Jesse would be any greater on the day of Goliath’s death than it was all those years earlier when he sent messengers to fetch David in the first place.

    Remember, before the Goliath story, David’s interaction with Saul was that he sang for Saul. So you can imagine that Saul would say things like “I’m feeling angry. Play something to soothe me” or “Sing a love song” or whatever. In short, David was a valued servant useful for managing Saul’s moods. But that’s all.

    No phrase like “Tell me about your family” was uttered by Saul until the very day mentioned in chapter 17.

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