“Narrative Intentionality in 1 Samuel 29” by Walter Brueggemann

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Old Testament
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            Brueggemann begins the discussion of 1 Samuel 29 by placing it in context.  1 Samuel 24-26 and 2 Samuel 1-4 constitute a bookend around 1 Samuel 29.  1 Samuel 24-26 are the stories that “prove” David’s innocence of bloodguilt.  David does not take vengeance upon either Saul or Nabal in these passages, illustrating that David is not guilty.  1 Samuel 1-4 are at pains to also show David is innocent of bloodguilt.  Those that are the perpetrators of bloodguilt are punished by death and David laments the killing of those that were connected with Saul.  The lingering uncertainty of David’s innocence is brought to light under these passages.

            1 Samuel 29 verbalizes David’s innocence from an unexpected source: the Philistine king, Achish.  The Philistines are marching against Israel and David is invited to be Achish’s bodyguard.  The Philistine overlords are displeased with this decision and tell Achish to send David away.  Achish pronounces David’s innocence three times, saying he finds no fault, evil, or blame with David.  However, the Philistine overlords are resolute in their decision to send David back.

David’s initial compliance to go with the Philistine armies against Israel places him in a difficult situation.  David has lied to Achish about going on raids against Judah and has instead attacked other nations leaving none alive to report otherwise.  Achish believes David has become a stench to the Israelites and trusts him implicitly.  David is ultimately saved from attacking the Israelites or risking his deception being uncovered by Achish.  The geographical distance between David and Saul may be important for establishing David’s innocence of bloodguilt, however, there is more at play in this narrative.

Brueggemann suggests three different levels of acquittal can be seen in this passage.  First, David is “acquitted by Achish.”  The information that Achish has available to him brings him to the logical conclusion that David is reliable.  The Philistine overlords have no evidence to the contrary.

Secondly, the listeners of this story know that David is guilty.  Achish does not have all of the facts.  David is a potential traitor in the midst of the Philistines.  The Philistine overlords have correctly surmised David’s loyalties.  The narrative leaves it open for the audience to imagine what David might have done had he gone to war with the Philistines against Israel.

Finally, “Having acknowledged David’s culpability with reference to the Philistines, we may at a deeper reading suggest that David is in fact innocent and Achish’s thrice stated verdict is correct, albeit not in the way Achish intends” (29).  David is faithful to Israel, not the Philistines.  So, David’s treachery is interpreted as covenant faithfulness to the Israel community.  The powerful Philistines are humiliated by David’s actions.  “On the face of it, the overlords have it right, but their judgment is of no interest to Israel.  The overlords judge by the self-interest of the Philistines, and that norm has no credibility in Israel” (30).  David is vindicated by the enemy’s own admission.

Brueggemann’s exegesis of 1 Samuel 29, the trial of David, leads him to compare it with a similar situation in the New Testament, the trial of Jesus.  Brueggemann suggests that Jesus’ trial can be read as a Davidic story.  Jesus is three times acquitted by Pilate, the enemy leader.  In the same way that David was both innocent, guilty, and yet innocent, Jesus too can be seen in this light.  Jesus had done nothing wrong.  But, Jesus subverts the empire and is not working in conjunction with it, but Pilate does not see this.  Jesus is really guilty.  But, Pilate pronounces Jesus innocent, but not in the way that Pilate thinks.  He does not have all of his information, but Jesus is vindicated by the words of the enemy leader.  Pilate and Achish are men “in the middle.”


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