Troubling Children’s Stories: Evil in David’s Heart

1 Samuel 16:6-13

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”[a] 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

[The majority of interpretive moves in this post comes from the brilliant insights of Pete Enns and Jared Byas found on their podcast, The Bible for Normal People. Eps 89 is of particular interest.]

Samuel, God’s prophet charged with anointing the first two kings of Israel, searches for a king to replace Saul among the sons of Jesse. The first to impress Samuel is the eldest son, Eliab, who is tall and kingly in appearance just like the old king. But God cautions Samuel not to choose based on appearance, explaining that “the Lord looks on the heart.” So, Samuel rejects all of Jesse’s sons until he finally meets the youngest, David. At this moment we discover two important details about David: his physical appearance — ruddy,  beautiful eyes, and handsome — and that God’s spirit is mightily upon him. 

David’s description is reason for pause; after all, if God isn’t concerned with appearances, then why should the beauty of David concern the reader? The description of David’s appearance reminds us that, like Saul who was also chosen by God, we aren’t privy to the inward workings of David’s heart. At his anointing, we are only given an accounting of David’s appearance. Perhaps, David’s heart will be revealed as he grows into his role, something we witnessed in the story of Saul. As David’s story begins, then, we must wonder, will God’s spirit successfully David’s heart towards justice and mercy, or will David succumb to the temptations of kingship? We have high expectations for David, but, just as Samuel is scolded for being too quick to judge Eliab based on appearance, we too should withhold praise. 

The question around the nature of David’s heart continues in 1 Samuel 17 where we read about the Goliath. Saul’s soldiers reveal to David that“the king will greatly enrich the man who kills him [Goliath], and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:25). David overhears their gossip and asks, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel?” (1 Samuel 17:26) The soldiers assure him that he’s heard correctly. David’s eldest brother listens to the exchange and questions David: “‘Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.’ David said, ‘What have I done now? It was only a question’”(1 Samuel 17:28-29). David then turns and continues his inquiry into the nature of the reward for killing Goliath, that is, Saul’s daughter Michal.

In this interaction, David’s eldest brother accuses him of having evil in his heart. We can gather from their exchange that David’s brother anticipates an underlying interest: David wants to confirm that the one who defeats Goliath will be granted marriage to Michal, and through that attain royalty. David’s retort — “It was only a question” — says it all. David seeks power, he is not satisfied with his social standing as “shepherd”; this is the evil in his heart. A brother knows best.

Although too young to be conscripted, David visits the battlefield and challenges the king’s authority on at least three occasions. He walks into the king’s tent, he rejects the king’s armour, and lastly, after defeating Goliath, he carries the head to Jerusalem, a role that belonged to the king. Emboldened by Samuel’s anointing, David, like a shrewd politician, is in search of what he believes to be his God-given destiny. 

David is not exactly the underdog we all know so well. His origin story, in its constant questioning of the quality of his heart, means we should be suspicious of his intentions, and not too quick to valorize his actions. As readers, we are called to carefully ask, “is David following God’s call or going against it?” 

Asking this question in our next post, we’ll turn to three mighty women in David’s life: Michal, David’s first wife, Hannah, Samuel’s mother, and Bethseba, a grandmother of Christ.


Three important things to remember when reading Samuel:

1. 1/2 Samuel was composed by editors after the fall of Jerusalem, or around that time. So they were working with multiple sources trying to tell the story of Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon. They also knew that the kingdom of Israel was a failure. Yet, they are working with stories that praise (and are probably critical) of David and the throne while they, having the benefit of hindsight, know where the throne leads Isreal — into exile. It’s like if we were to tell the story of the Vietnam war using all the movies made of it. We know Vietnam was a disaster, but a lot of the stories praise the war, and they’re not all chronologically (or logically for that matter) consistent. We’d pick and choose and tell our own story based on our perspective — so did the editors of Samuel.

2. What the king’s men do, the king does. In other words, it wasn’t uncommon for a king to get credit for the things his warriors did in battle (or the Psalms he had commissioned). At the end of the book, it talks about David’s warrior Elhanan killing Goliath (2 Samuel 21:15-22). David would have taken credit for this amazing feat and at some point, it would have become a legend. The legend would have morphed into the story that gets recorded (it’s interesting that Chronicles tries to correct this editorial contradiction by saying that Elhanan kills Goliath’s brother, but that seems unbelievable to me considering what’s happening in Samuel). There are around 500 years between when David lived and the recording of Samuel, that’s a long time for a legend to percolate.

3. When you read David and Goliath’s story, there are three obvious clues that something is wonky with the timeline. First, David, a mere child at the time, walks into Saul’s tent and does things that would have gotten him killed; no one would talk to a king like he does. Second, David cuts off Goliath’s head and takes it to Jerusalem. The thing is, it was David that makes Jerusalem the capital of Israel, so Jerusalem doesn’t exist yet when David is supposed to take Goliaths head there… so that doesn’t make sense. Third, Saul meets David earlier in Samuel, David even plays music for him. We read, “And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer” (1 Samuel 16:21). But when David kills Goliath, Saul acts as though he doesn’t know the boy, asking twice about David’s identity (1 Samuel 17). The story is out of place and seems like it was crammed together by editors who weren’t interested in the historical or chronological accuracy of the stories. The editors were interested in telling their own story about David and who he was, that’s the story I talk about in my blog posts because that’s the important stuff (at least I think so).

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