1 & 2 Samuel Week 6

David on the Run: 1 Samuel 21–30

By Sara Koenig
Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: 1 Samuel 21–30


Painted by Simon Bening, Border with Michal Helping David to Escape from Saul (circa 1525 – 1530)
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David’s story has had a number of dramatic highs and lows up to this point: He is anointed, glorified, and loved, but also threatened to the point where he has to flee. In this section of text, the highs and lows continue as David is on the run from Saul. Not surprisingly, these chapters involve a lot of movement from one place to another. These chapters also demonstrate important qualities of David’s character. He is a fugitive, but he is not lawless. Instead he acts like a king, behaving with generosity and courage, leading others, and taking responsibility for his actions. Moreover, David continues to have a close relationship with God. David’s good character and relationship with God are in contrast with Saul, whose character is deeply flawed and whose relationship with God has become almost nonexistent.

Because we know that this stage in David’s life is temporary, it is not too difficult to read. Though he is on the run, he will be settled; though he is a fugitive, he will be king. But we ought not to read this section of text too quickly, nor miss the trauma and drama just because we know it will end well. Even David’s close and favored relationship with God does not ensure a life free from struggles.

With Ahimelech at Nob

The first place David goes to is Nob, a town less than six miles away from Gibeah. There he meets Ahimelech the priest, who is the great-grandson of Eli (1 Samuel 22:9). Ahimelech comes to meet David trembling with fear, which was how the elders of Bethlehem approached Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:4. They, too, were afraid of Saul. David — in a bald lie — tells Ahimelech that he was sent by Saul on a secret mission and asks Ahimelech for whatever food he can provide. The only bread available is holy bread, which according to Leviticus 24:5–9 was only to be eaten by priests. But Ahimelech gives it to David [see Author’s Note 1], along with the sword of Goliath.

According to the Hebrew version of 1 Samuel 17:54, David had placed Goliath’s sword in his tent. The Greek of that verse, however, adds that it was then “placed in the temple of Nob.” Less important than where the sword ended up is the reminder of David’s great moment of victory with God’s help. Indeed, this is not just any sword that Ahimelech gives to David.

With Achish at Gath

From Nob, David journeys at least 20 miles to the Philistine city of Gath, where Achish is king. Achish’s servants, however, know of David. Not only do they identify him as king over his land, but they even know the song that made Saul so jealous in 1 Samuel 18:7. David is so afraid that he pretends to be insane [see Author’s Note 2]. His ploy works; King Achish sees David as mad, and David quickly flees to the cave of Adullam, some 10 miles away.

Though all this occurs in only seven verses (1 Samuel 21:10–22:1), two things are worth noting. First, it is likely that Achish’s words in 1 Samuel 21:15 — “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?” — would have been heard or read as mocking the Philistines, as if they are a group of people whose palace is routinely full of those who are mad. Second, David will return to Gath in 1 Samuel 27, when Achish will play a significant role in protecting David from committing violence against Saul and Jonathan.

In Adullam and Moab

At the cave of Adullam, David is joined by his brothers and everyone from his father’s household. Moreover, it is not only a family gathering; David becomes the captain of “about four hundred” (1 Samuel 22:2). Those who gather around David are described in 22:2 as “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented” [see Author’s Note 3]. Some scholars have seen this as an indication that there was a socioeconomic rivalry between Saul, who came from a wealthy family, and David, who draws more marginalized people to himself.

From there, David goes to Mizpeh of Moab, where he asks the king if his parents can stay there. Perhaps the good relationship David has with this king is because David’s own ancestor, Ruth, was a Moabite. David casually but confidently expresses that God is in control of his future, as he tells the king of Moab that this will be “until I know what God will do for me” (1 Samuel 27:3). Mizpeh is a stronghold, which means that it is a protected and walled city. But David won’t stay in such a protected location. Instead, a prophet tells him to go to the land of Judah, and David goes to the forest of Hereth. That location is not far from Gibeah, which means that David returns to a location that is close to Saul’s castle.

The Massacre at Nob

Doeg the Edomite, who was present in Nob in 1 Samuel 21:7, reappears in 1 Samuel 22, where he tattles on David and Ahimelech (22:9). Saul sends for Ahimelech and the other priests, and they come to him. Saul asks Ahimelech why Ahimelech conspired with David against him (22:13). To this leading question, Ahimelech answers that he knows nothing about that, which seems quite possible since David did lie to him. Additionally, Ahimelech refers to himself as “your servant” (22:15) when talking to Saul.

But Ahimelech’s speech does nothing to assuage Saul, who responds with a death sentence. Saul, who once was a tragic figure, has become so violent as to be evil. Saul orders his men to kill Ahimelech and the other priests, but they refuse to harm these “priests of the LORD” (22:17). Doeg, however, has no such qualms, and he kills 85 priests. Then Doeg attacks the town of Nob; we are told that he kills “men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep” (22:19). Because the verses quickly narrate this horrible massacre, it is worth slowing down to pay attention lest we miss their gravity. The only one who survives is Abiathar, Ahimelech’s son. He fulfills the prophesy given to Eli in 1 Samuel 2:33 that only one will “be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the [other] members of your household shall die by the sword.”

Abiathar escapes and comes to David. David makes a stunning confession, saying that because he knew Doeg would tell Saul, he is responsible for the death of all the members of Abiathar’s family (22:22). We might be tempted to protest such a statement. Surely it is Saul and Doeg who should take responsibility for what they have done! But David gives us an important model for how to admit culpability. Given the structures of evil and oppression that exist in our world and in our lives, we cannot simply wash our hands when horrifying things take place. David also offers Abiathar protection and safety, encouraging him not to be afraid (22:23). In this way, too, David is a model, for he not only gives words of encouragement but also combines them with concrete actions of support.

David Cutting Off a Piece of Saul's Robe (circa 1400 – 1410)
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Escaping From and Encountering Saul

In 1 Samuel 23, David escapes from Saul a number of times and in a number of places: Keilah, Ziph, and Maon. David rescues the inhabitants of Keilah from the Philistines, but leaves with his men before Saul can capture him there. 23:14 tells us that in the Wilderness of Ziph, “Saul sought him every day, but the LORD did not give him into his hand.” Indeed, it is not only that David escapes; God is present with David, protecting him from Saul.

God’s protection, however, does not prevent David from being afraid, as the very next verse records (23:15) [see Author’s Note 4]. In the Wilderness of Ziph at Horesh, Jonathan comes and encourages David, and again the two make a covenant (23:18). This will be the last time the two meet. In the desert of Maon, Saul continues pursuing David but stops when he hears the news that the Philistines are raiding the land. David then goes to En-gedi, where Saul follows him.

It is at En-gedi when David has the first of two opportunities to kill Saul. Saul — still pursuing David — goes into a cave “to relieve himself” (1 Samuel 24:3). While Saul is in this vulnerable position, David goes to Saul and cuts off a corner of his cloak. Then David is stricken with guilt (literally, “David’s heart smites him,” in 1 Samuel 24:5). The reason? Saul is “the LORD’s anointed,” as David repeats three times (24:6, 10).

After Saul leaves the cave, David calls out to Saul and tells him how he spared him. Saul can be confident that David will not commit treason against him, though Saul continues to hunt David. David refers to Saul as “the king of Israel” and to himself as “a dead dog” or “a single flea” (1 Samuel 24:14). While David certainly means this self-comparison with a dog or flea as a way to humble himself before Saul, it also highlights how absurd it is for Saul to continue to pursue the relatively small David.

Saul’s response to David’s speech is to weep. We are not told why: Maybe he weeps over the failed possibilities in his life; maybe he is overwhelmed when he recognizes the relative goodness in David. Then Saul tells David, “You are more righteous than I [see Author’s Note 5]; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil” (24:17). Saul also asks God to reward David, and then states, “Now I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand” (24:20).

Saul may be the last one to know what Samuel, Jonathan, and even we readers have known for some time. But there is something important about the rejected king acknowledging the future of the chosen king. Saul concludes his speech with a request: that David swear by the LORD that he “will not cut off [Saul’s] descendants” (24:21). This is the same promise David had given to Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20, and David now swears it to Saul.

David has one more opportunity, in 1 Samuel 26, to harm Saul. There are several differences in this second instance. Instead of relieving himself, Saul is sleeping. Abishai, brother of Joab, accompanies David in his stealthy act. David takes Saul’s spear and water jar instead of cutting off his cloak. David taunts Saul’s commander, Abner. Saul admits that he has done wrong, has been foolish, and has “made a great mistake” (26:21). And finally, Saul gives David a benediction before they part ways (26:25). This is the last time these two encounter each other; for all the history that is between them, surely it is significant that their relationship ends with Saul’s blessing to David.

Taking (and Losing) Wives: Abigail, Ahinoam, and Michal

The two chapters in which David has an opportunity to harm Saul are divided by the chapter in which David meets Abigail and her foolish husband, Nabal. Nabal’s name means “fool” in Hebrew, and therefore it is no surprise when he behaves foolishly, violating basic social norms of the land. In fact, David is so angered by Nabal’s rude rejection of him and his people that David orders his men to strap on their swords (1 Samuel 25:13). Abigail, who is described as lovely and wise, intervenes by bringing David the provisions that her husband refuses to provide (25:18–31).

When David meets Abigail and hears her speech, he speaks three blessings — to God, to Abigail’s discernment, and to Abigail herself — acknowledging that she has kept him “from bloodguilt” (25:32–34). When Abigail returns to her husband and tells him “these things,” the text states without further explanation that Nabal’s “heart died within him; he became like a stone. About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died” (25:37–38).

Abigail then becomes David’s wife, along with another woman, Ahinoam of Jezreel. In contrast with Abigail, about whom we have heard so much, we only know Ahinoam’s name and the place she comes from.

1 Samuel 25 ends with a brief comment about David’s first wife, Michal, telling us that Saul had given her to another man. This information will be significant later in David’s story. Women are not infrequently “taken” from one and given to another. In fact, the Hebrew language commonly uses “take” as the verb to refer to marriage, as in “he took her to be his wife.” In 2 Samuel 11, however, David will “take” Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah, a man who happens to be one of David’s faithful soldiers.

Back to Achish at Ziklag

In 1 Samuel 27, David returns once again to King Achish at Gath. This time, instead of pretending to be insane, David offers his military service to Achish, who responds by giving David the town of Ziklag as a place to live. While David lives in the country of the Philistines, he fights for Achish and is so successful that the king makes David his bodyguard (1 Samuel 28:2). But at the time when the Philistines are gathering for war against the Israelites, Achish’s lords remember that David is an Israelite who had fought for Saul and of whom the women sang that he killed “his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 29:5; cf. 18:7 and 21:11). They tell Achish to send David back, which Achish does. Therefore, David is not present for the Philistine war against the Israelites.

When David returns to Ziklag, he finds that the town has been raided by the Amalekites. They have burned the city and taken the people captive, including David’s two wives Abigail and Ahinoam. The first thing David does is weep “until he ha[s] no more strength” to continue (1 Samuel 30:4). The second thing he does is “[strengthen] himself in the LORD his God” (30:6). Then David seeks God’s counsel as to whether he should pursue them, and when God tells him to go, David does (30:7–9).

David and his men succeed in their attack against the Amalekites and their rescue of Abigail, Ahinoam, and everything that was taken. In fact, the text tells us “nothing was missing” (30:19). In addition to his successful rescue, David also shows generosity by distributing the recovered goods equally among those who went with him and those who stayed back, a practice which the Israelites continued from that day on (30:24–25).

God’s Answers and God’s Silence

We do see many good qualities of David in these chapters: He is brave, he takes responsibility, he is generous, and he trusts God. We also see Saul’s poor qualities, especially his suspicion and his violence. One poignant aspect of these chapters is that God answers David but does not answer Saul. In a number of places, David seeks God’s advice. And in each one, God answers (cf. 1 Samuel 23:2, 4, 11, 12; 30:8). This may seem unremarkable to those of us who have been raised with an understanding that God always answers, even if it may not be in the matter we like.

But God does not answer Saul when Saul inquires of God. In 1 Samuel 28, God’s silence is repeated. The narrator explains in 28:6, “When Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him.” Saul says in 28:15, “God has turned away from me and answers me no more.” And the spirit of Samuel, called up by the medium at Endor [see Author’s Note 6], explains in 28:16, “the LORD has turned from you and become your enemy.”

While things are not always easy for David, he does have a relationship with God. Having a relationship with God does not guarantee that things will always be easy! But that presence and relationship are particularly welcome in those times in our lives when we feel as if we are “on the run.”

Questions for Further Discussion

  1. What characteristics of David stand out to you in these chapters? What are some positive attributes of David? What are some negative aspects of David’s character? Does it comfort you that God chooses imperfect people to accomplish his purposes? Why or why not?
  2. In 22:22, David takes the blame for the massacre of the priests at Nob. Why would David do this? How does his example serve as a model for us today?
  3. Why does David spare Saul? How does Saul respond in both instances (chapters 24 and 26)? Do you think Saul is genuine in his dialogues with David? Why or why not? How does David’s attitude toward Saul differ from his attitude toward Nabal (chapter 25)?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Jesus refers to this event in Mark 2:23–28 when he explains to the Pharisees why he and his disciples pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath day.


Author’s Note 2

This event gets commemorated in the superscriptions to Psalms 34 and 56.


Author’s Note 3

This last description, translated in the NRSV as “discontented,” is more literally “bitter in spirit.” This is also the same phrase used to describe Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:10.


Author’s Note 4

The Hebrew words for “see” and “fear” are very similar, and many English versions reflect that by translating 1 Samuel 23:15 as “David saw that Saul had come to seek his life.” However, it could also be translated, “And David feared, for Saul came out to seek his life.” Such a translation would fit well with Jonathan’s words to David in 1 Samuel 23:17, “Do not be afraid.”


Author’s Note 5

Judah uses the same comparison with Tamar in Genesis 38:26.


Author’s Note 6

This action on Saul’s part is a sign of his utter desperation. According to 1 Samuel 28:3, and in accordance with laws in Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; and Deuteronomy 18:10–11, Saul had expelled workers of such magic from the land. But Saul is so starved for advice that he is willing to go find a woman who can call up Samuel’s spirit from the dead.


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