Saul, David, and Errors in 1 Samuel 16-17?

In the story of David’s rise in Israel there seems to be a discrepancy in 1 Samuel 16-17. In chapter 16 the narrative tells us about one of king Saul’s servants recommending David (Jesse’s son) to play music for the purpose of combating Saul’s evil/bad spirit/mood. However, after David defeats the Philistine Goliath, Saul asks Abner: “Who is this boy’s father?” (17:55). Saul then sends for David to hear David’s answer: “Jesse from Bethlehem is my father.” (17:58). The supposed contradiction is that Saul earlier heard that Jesse was David’s dad, but then later asks about the name of David’s dad.

Of course some critics talk about errors in Scripture, inconsistent variants in the manuscripts and editions, or they talk about different David “traditions” floating around. Many assume it’s just one of those discrepancies or errors in the Bible and that’s that.

However, as with other similar supposed errors in Scripture, there are good explanations. It’s not right or reasonable to ignore the good explanations when we come to parts of Scripture that seem to be wrong or contradictory. Various commentaries on 1 Samuel 17:55-58 give various helpful explanations of why Saul asked for the name of David’s dad. Below are a few:

This discrepancy depends on the insistence that 16:18–22 must mean nothing less than that Saul informed himself fully on everything to do with David’s father, and on a similar insistence that 17:55–58 must not mean anything more than that Saul was interested to know the name of David’s father. Neither insistence is necessary, nor, in the light of the narrative thought-flow, reasonable. Having been supplied by his servants with an acceptable harpist, it was natural for Saul to “request” (i.e. command) his father to let the young man stay at the royal house. It is not true to life to imagine that means that Saul sent the message directly himself—he would have left that to one of the officers who had found and suggested David. It is not even true to life to imagine that Saul thereafter necessarily remembered the name of David’s father, or cared twopence about him, let alone investigated his background, family and all about him. Similarly, it is not true to life to imagine that in 17:55–58 Saul is simply concerned to know the name of David’s father. Saul has just promised to give his daughter in marriage to the man who kills Goliath, and to make his father’s house free in Israel (17:25). Naturally, when Saul sees David actually going out to meet Goliath, and even more so when he sees him returning triumphant, Saul will be concerned to know not just the name of, but everything about, David’s father and the family which, if he keeps his promise, is now to be allied by marriage with the royal family. And we as readers must at this point be made aware that David is of the house of Jesse, for it is the house of Jesse that has at this moment eclipsed the house of Saul in military prowess, and is destined eventually to supplant it as the reigning house. (Barthélemy, Gooding, Lust, and Tov 1986:19–20)

 J. Robert Vannoy, Cornerstone Biblical Commentarya: 1-2 Samuel, vol. 4 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 172.

Here are Bergen’s comments in the New American Commentary:

[Rather than assuming these are contradictory accounts,] A more satisfying reading of the text here is one that sees one or more important plot functions for this flashback section. First, it was included to confirm the accuracy of reports David had heard about Saul’s offer to provide a tax exemption for the family of the Israelite who killed Goliath (v. 25). Saul asked David for his father’s name so that he could properly formulate an edict in behalf of Jesse’s family and perhaps also so that he could learn more about the family background of the one who had earned the right to become the king’s son-in-law.

In a different direction this passage may also function to demonstrate that the Lord’s Spirit was no longer with Saul. Being devoid of the divine Spirit, Saul also was intellectually incompetent. The image presented in vv. 55–58 of a king who cannot remember details related to one of his most beloved and trusted courtiers (cf. 16:21–22) contrasts strikingly with King David later, who, empowered by the Lord, was like an angel of God “to know everything that is in the land” (2 Sam 14:20).

 Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, vol. 7, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 199.

One more. Here’s Matthew Henry:

 Though he [David] had been at court formerly, yet, having been for some time absent (v. 15), Saul had forgotten him, being melancholy and mindless, and little thinking that his musician would have spirit enough to be his champion; and therefore, as if he had never seen him before, he asked whose son he was. Abner was a stranger to him, but brought him to Saul (v. 57), and he gave a modest account of himself, v. 58. And now he was introduced to the court with much greater advantages than before, in which he owned God’s hand performing all things for him

 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 415.

This is a longer discussion, to be sure. The point is that there are reasonable and biblical answers that help us from simply assuming the Bible is wrong. We don’t need to fall into the trap of saying “error” every time we find something in Scripture that doesn’t at first make sense. Finally, we’re just humans with imperfect and finite minds. Now we see in a mirror dimly and are content to trust God’s word as we read it, confessing that “the LORD’s words are absolutely reliable” (Ps. 12:6 NET).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? (Schnabel)

Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture Edited by James K. Hoffmeier, Dennis R. Magary, cover image In the past 100 or 150 years, some scholars have argued that the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) were probably not written by the apostle Paul. There are various theories out there; it’s hard to summarize all the scholarship and positions in just a few sentences. Basically, some argue that Paul couldn’t have written the pastoral letters because they differ from Paul’s other letters in these ways: vocabulary, Greek style, and method of argument/reasoning.

I appreciate how Eckhard Schnabel refutes these critical arguments in his essay called “Paul, Timothy, and Titus: The Assumption of a Pseudonymous Author.”  It’s important to remember that when critics doubt aspects of Scripture, there are almost always reasonable answers to the criticism.  It’s not like no Christian has ever thought about the critic’s criticism!   Here’s an edited summary of what Schnabel wrote in response to the argument that Paul could not have written the pastorals:

First, the Pastoral Epistles are too small for statistical analysis, which according to linguistic experts requires texts with at least 10,000 words. The Pastoral Epistles together only have 3,488 words, which makes statistical analysis a problematic proposition. Also, the fact that the vocabulary of the ten undisputed Pauline letters (2,301 words) is only a fraction of the total number of words in ancient Greek makes conclusions based on the nonoccurrence of words futile.

Second, the analysis of vocabulary is distorted if it is carried out on the three Pastoral Epistles as a group and on the undisputed Pauline Epistles as a group.  Since the authenticity of each letter should be determined individually and not part of an assumed corpus, the problem of statistical analysis is even more pronounced: 1 Timothy has 1,591 words, 2 Timothy 1,238 words, and Titus 659 words.

Third, the difference in distinctive subject matter accounts for vocabulary clusters with unusual words in all Pauline letters.  Vocabulary that is generally acknowledged as ‘characteristically Pauline’ occurs in a very erratic manner throughoutPaul’s letters.

Fourth, the notion that an author has a consistent style is a romantic notion of the modern Western world.  In the Greco-Roman world, the rhetorical ideal was prosopoiia (writing in character or personification).  It is the occasion that determines the style adopted.

Fifth, the dialogical style of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians owes at least some of its characteristics to the use of the diatribe mode rather than to Paul’s personal ‘style’ of writing.

Sixth, both Old Testament quotations and early Christian traditions affect the language of Paul’s letters.

Seventh, discussing the question in terms of Pauline or non-Pauline authorship often does not take into account indications that the process of composition seems to have been complex.  Paul dictated some of his letters…and mentions composers in some of his letters, which means others may have had some part in the formulation of the text.

Eighth, the difference in vocabulary and style between the accepted letters of Paul and the Pastoral Epistles can be explained with the difference between (conceptual) orality and (conceptual) writing.

Ninth, the earliest church fathers, who never doubted the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, were native speakers of Greek whose sense of ‘style’ was surely on par with that of modern scholars, who learn Greek in classroom settings as teenagers or later in life and who never attain the fluency of a native speaker.  The certainty of modern scholars concerning the Greek style of the New Testament documents is more impressive in its audacity than convincing in its cogency.

In sum, the degree of the difference between the style of the Pastoral Epistles and the Pauline letters generally accepted as authentic is a matter of judgment.  The language of the Pastoral Epistles, despite some distinctive characteristics, renders Pauline authorship neither impossible nor implausible.

Eckhard Schnabel, “Paul, Timothy, and Titus: The Assumption of a Pseudonymous Author,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? p. 383ff.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Historical Interpretation of the OT: Three Requirements (Long)

 V. Philips Long wrote a helpful article for the NIDOTTE called “Old Testament History: A Hermeneutical Perspective.”  It’s a very level-headed discussion about interpreting the history recorded in the OT.  One section of the article gives three requirements for the interpreter of OT history.  Here’s a summary of those three requirements:

  1. Literary competence.  It may seem surprising to begin this section on requirements for historical interpretation with an emphasis on literary competence, but any who wish to include the OT among their sources for the history of ancient Israel or, for that matter, those who may wish to dismiss it, must at least recognize that competent literary reading of the OT with a view to discovering its truth claims (historical or otherwise) is a necessary first step….  By ‘literary competence’ I mean a developed awareness of the conventions and workings of a given literary corpus and a consequent ability to discern what kinds of claims a given text within that corpus may be making (cf. Barton, esp. 8–19; Baron, 93). When one is learning a foreign language, one studies the grammar of that language (i.e., the linguistic principles by which it communicates) so as to increase linguistic competence and the ability rightly to interpret individual utterances. By the same token, when one’s aim is to understand individual passages of a “foreign” literary corpus such as the OT (which originated at a time and place far removed from our own), it is immensely useful to learn what one can of the “grammar” of that literature (i.e., the literary principles by which it operates).  …One of the best ways to improve one’s literary competence is to read as much of the literature under consideration as possible….
  2. Theological comprehension.  A second requirement for those who would interpret the OT historically is theological comprehension. Again, just as it may have seemed odd in the preceding section to highlight literary competence as a requirement for historical interpretation, so it may seem odd to stress theological comprehension as a requirement for those who would use the OT responsibly in historical reconstruction. But the fact is that in the narratives of the OT God is a central character, not only present behind the scenes but occasionally intervening directly in the action of the story—e.g., sending plagues, parting seas and rivers, destroying city walls, appearing in visions, throwing enemies into panic, protecting his people, speaking through his prophets, fulfilling their words, and so forth. In short, the God depicted in the OT is not only transcendent but is also immanent in human (historical) affairs. As G. B. Caird succinctly puts it, “the most important item in the framework within which the people of biblical times interpreted their history was the conviction that God was the Lord of history” (217–18; cf. Westermann, 210; Wolff).

  3. Historical criticismThe core story of the OT presents itself as a true story, and not just in the sense that it is “true to life.” The central events of the sweep of redemptive history are presented as real events that happened in the lives of real people (cf. Arnold, 99; Halpern, 1988; Licht, 212–16). Whatever artistic traits may be present in the narratives of the OT (and they are many), it remains the case that most of these narratives present themselves as more than just art for art’s sake. They present themselves not merely as realistic narratives but as referential narratives, as the verbal equivalent of portraits, not just generic paintings. Therefore, unless it can be demonstrated that this assessment of the character of the narratives is incorrect—and there are some who think so (e.g., Smelik, Thompson)—then any legitimate literary reading must take their historical truth claims seriously, whatever one may believe about the truth value of the claims.

    It is necessary to acknowledge the Bible’s historical truth claims not only for literary reasons, but for theological reasons as well. For “in point of fact, the Bible consistently presents theological truth as intrinsically bound to historical events” (Arnold, 99). The religious faith propagated in the OT is dependent not simply on some “story world” but on the real world about which the stories are told. As noted earlier, the God of the OT is the Lord of history, and his self-disclosure and salvific actions are accomplished in both event and word (see Long, 1994, 88–119).

 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), chapter 4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Critical Calvinists and Pride (Hughes, Bridges)

Preaching the Word: Sermon on the Mount—The Message of the Kingdom  One thing I’ve noticed over the years is the fact that some Calvinists are also very critical of others.  I know that some people in general are critical by nature, but to me it seems worse when someone who holds to the doctrines of grace is always super critical about others.  Maybe you’ve seen it: these people are always pointing out the flaws in someone’s theology, they’re quick to find fault in someone’s beliefs, they generally don’t give others the benefit of the doubt, and you won’t hear this type of person speak loving or kind words to those with whom they disagree.  To be honest, I sometimes struggle with a critical spirit, so I’m not claiming the higher moral ground here!  My point is that a critical spirit is not a Christian attitude or mentality.  And further, the more we understand the truths of the doctrines of grace, the more our critical spirit should decrease and decline.  Why?  Because the doctrines of grace kill pride and produce humility.

I appreciate how Kent Hughes describes this as he comments on Matthew 7:1-5:

A critical spirit, a judgmental, condemning spirit, is endemic to the human situation. The media, our social relationships, our schooling, and our work situations are immersed in it. And though we often joke about it, experiencing it is most unpleasant. Few things are more exhausting and debilitating than harsh, unloving criticism.

Even sadder, the church of Jesus Christ is itself full of those who make a habit of criticism and condemnation. Some seem to think their critical spirit is a spiritual gift. But the Lord does not agree. In the opening verses of Matthew 7 (the final chapter of the Sermon on the Mount), our Lord sets the record straight in no uncertain terms. He tells us how we should relate to our brothers and sisters in this matter of judgmentalism, especially in respect to the fact that we will all undergo a final judgment.

…When a critic discovers faults in another, he feels a malignant satisfaction and always sees the worst possible motives in the other’s actions. The critical spirit is like the carrion fly that buzzes with a sickening hum of satisfaction over sores, preferring corruption to health.

…We see critical spirits all around us—in our media, in our schools, in our social relationships. But it should not be a part of the church. May God purge it from our lives and from our churches. We would each do well to ask ourselves, who have I been critical of this week? Has my focus on their faults blinded me to my own? Then we need to ask God to help us see ourselves as we are. (R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 227–228.)

Jerry Bridges also wrote well on this when he discussed sins like pride, bitterness, envy, and an unforgiving spirit:

One of the most difficult defilements of spirit to deal with is the critical spirit. A critical spirit has its root in pride. Because of the “plank” of pride in our own eye we are not capable of dealing with the “speck” of need in someone else. We are often like the Pharisee who, completely unconscious of his own need, prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (Luke 18:11). We are quick to see—and to speak of—the faults of others, but slow to see our own needs. How sweetly we relish the opportunity to speak critically of someone else—even when we are unsure of our facts. We forget that “a man who stirs up dissension among brothers” by criticizing one to another is one of the “six things which the Lord hates” (Proverbs 6:16–19).

All of these attitudes—envy, jealousy, bitterness, an unforgiving and retaliatory spirit, and a critical and gossiping spirit—defile us and keep us from being holy before God. They are just as evil as immorality, drunkenness, and debauchery. Therefore, we must work diligently at rooting out these sinful attitudes from our minds. Often we are not even aware our attitudes are sinful. We cloak these defiling thoughts under the guise of justice and righteous indignation. But we need to pray daily for humility and honesty to see these sinful attitudes for what they really are, and then for grace and discipline to root them out of our minds and replace them with thoughts pleasing to God.  Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1978), 122.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Critical and Opinionated Christians (Manton)

Sadly, some Christians are super critical and overly opinionated.  They constantly criticize others and go around boldly stating their opinion (as if they’re always right).  This is a sign of pride.  Of course, no Christian is perfect – we all struggle with various sins, passions, and evil pleasures.  But it is important for those who follow Christ to be humble, loving, patient, kind, gentle, peaceful, and so forth (cf. Gal. 5:22).  We should fight against being critical and overly opinionated.  Thomas Manton does a nice job explaining moderation and Christian wisdom in his commentary on James 3:17.  He said, “A truly wise Christian is moderate:”

1) In his criticism.  He is not always making the worst of matters but judges charitably and favorably where things are capable of being interpreted without censure.  People who examine everything by very strict rules and use harder terms than the nature of human actions requires may seem to be more wise and perceptive than others, but they show lack of this true wisdom that the apostle commends. Austerity [a severe manner] is the sign of folly.  Wise Christians, in weighing actions, always allow for human frailty.

2) In his opinions.  He does not urge his own opinions too much or wrest those of his adversaries beyond what they intended to odious consequences that they disclaim – a fault that has much disturbed the peace of Christendom.  Charity should consider not what follows of itself from any other opinion, but what follows in the conscience of those who hold it.  A person may err in logic without erring in faith; and though you may show him the consequences of his opinion, you must not make him responsible for them.  To make anyone worse than he is, is the way to disgrace an adversary not reclaim him.

These are good reminders!  Rather than always criticising and voicing our opinion, we should seek the wisdom from above, Christ-like wisdom, wisdom that is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (James 3:17, NIV).

The above quotes are found in Thomas Manton’s (abridged) commentary on James, p. 215-216.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015