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

Giving the Text the Benefit of the Doubt (Blomberg)

After a cursory reading of two texts that seemingly contradict each other, many New Testament critics simply say the Bible has errors.  Their logic usually goes like this: “Mark said one thing, Matthew said another.  Both can’t be right.  Therefore, the Bible has errors and you’re foolish to trust it.”

But it’s not that simple.  Different authors use different methods and different words to write about the same thing.  Some NT authors spoke more generally, some more precisely, but it doesn’t mean they erred or contradicted one another.  Craig Blomberg wrote on this quite well in his essay, “A Constructive Traditional Response to New Testament Criticism.” In this essay, Blomberg goes through a handful of seemingly contradictory NT texts and reasonably explains how they might be harmonized.  At the end of the article, he basically says that even if his explanations are wrong, the point is that there are plausible solutions to seeming contradictions:

“…When one has examined a large number of the apparent contradictions in Scripture and time and again discovered plausible solutions – at times even more than one plausible solution – it is only natural to reach a point where one gives the text the benefit of the doubt on the rare occasions of confronting seemingly more intractable problems.  These are the kinds of replies that are important to give a professor who asks a student, whether Bart Ehrman or anyone else, ‘Why not just admit that Mark [or any other scriptural author] made an error?’

I very much agree.  I’ve had it in my own experience when I thought two texts seemed to be contradictory.  I didn’t know what to think, so I studied the texts and read other authors’ comments on them.  Indeed, I found various reasonable explanations for the seeming contradictions.  I’m at the point now that when I see something in the Bible that seems to be contradictory, I believe the weakness is in my own mind and reasoning, and I give the text the benefit of the doubt.  And, of course, I believe that “the Lord’s word is flawless” (Psalm 18:30 NIV).  My mind, however, is not!

The above article and quote by Craig Blomberg are found in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? edited by James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI


Two (and a Half) New Don Carson Titles

This one is just out: Don Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).  It looks just as promising as most of his other writings.  The first 190 pages or so are essays of Carson’s that discuss the Bible: historiography, literary aspects, hermeneutics, criticism, authority, theology, and other such themes.  The second half of the book – roughly from page 190 to 300 – is a collection of Carson’s book reviews.  These consist of his reviews on books about the Bible, like James Barr’s The Scope and Authority of the Bible, Pete Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, along with several more.  You can get a PDF snapshot of this collection here.

Also, I’ve mentioned this before, but you can also now order his other new one, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010). The God Who Is There is kind of a beginner’s guide to biblical and systematic theology – basically Carson goes through the main themes of the Bible in a way that showcases God’s glory in his work in/through history.  Looks like it would make for good Sunday School or book club material.

This one isn’t really a full book – it is more of a booklet (under 100 pages): From The Resurrection to His Return: Living Faithfully in the Last Days (Christian Focus, 2010).  The publisher says it is sort of a commentary on 2 Timothy 3.  It has to do with Christians living in light of Jesus’ return.  Looks good!  You can see a PDF preview here.



Two Good Reads

A few weeks back I finished this historical biography on Anne Bradstreet (1612-1642) by Faith Cook: Anne Bradstreet Pilgrim and Poet (Carlisle: EP Books, 2010).  This is a great introduction to an amazing Puritan woman’s life, times, and writings.  Anne came to America with some of the first Puritan refugees in the 1630s and faced the tough shores of the American East coast.  Her life was filled with death – many of her children, siblings, and friends died at young ages.  Her poems often reflected this unavoidable reality along with the truth of life after death:

All men must die and so must I
This cannot be revoked
For Adam’s sake this word God spake
When he so high provoked
Yet live I shall, this life’s but small
In place of highest bliss
Where I shall have all I can crave
No life is like to this.

I enjoyed this book; I’ve not read many books about this time period in America’s Puritan history, so it was fascinating.  I recommend it for anyone who enjoys historical biography along with excellent poems of Christian piety.  Faith Cook is a superb author and biographer.  This book will not disappoint.  It would be a good one for a women’s book club at your church.

Another EP book I want to recommend is Every Word Counts by Tom Barnes (Carlisle: EP Books, 2010).  This new book was written in response to the ongoing discussions and debates about the nature of Scripture, including inerrancy, authority, and infallibility.  He starts by very briefly mentioning the Beale/Enns debate, along with other authors like A. T. B. McGowan, John Webster, and Timothy Ward, just to name a few.

This book is helpful because Barnes simply goes through scripture highlighting what it says about itself.  When we talk about if, how, and why scripture is inerrant/infallible, we have to do so in scripture’s own terms.  Of course, this is a key truth to the whole debate.  Barnes talks about Jesus’ use of the OT, the “true” aspect of scripture, inspiration, how scripture is a treasure, and how the church should respond to scripture.  It was pretty straight forward and clear.  In fact, I think it is much more helpful than Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008) because it is easier to read, more level-headed, less polemic, and didn’t overstate premises as much as Erosion.

In summary, Every Word Counts is a great book to read and study if you want a good scriptural summary on the Bible.  I’ll hand this one out to Christians who do have questions about scripture – it will answer quite a few of those questions and give the reader an appreciation for and love of the Bible along the way.

Note: Thanks to EP books for sending me these review copies.

shane lems

sunnyside wa