“As soon as Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, ‘Abner, whose son is this youth?’ And Abner said, ‘As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.’ And the king said, ‘Inquire whose son the boy is.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
One of the questions that quickly comes to the mind of the perceptive reader here is how chapters 16 and 17 can be harmonized. One seems to say one thing and the other another thing. This is the kind of apparent conflict that gives critics of the Scriptures plenty of ammunition to fire away at its credibility…or so they (and sometimes we) think. But, while this is yet another place where things are harder than usual to understand at first glance, a little bit of thinking reveals that it does not pose nearly the challenge that it seems.
Here’s the problem: At the end of chapter 16, Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit of some kind. His servants, searching for some way to relieve him, learn about a young man named David who can play the harp beautifully. Figuring the music might help calm their master, they send for the young man to come and play. The music does the trick and soon he becomes Saul’s court musician. We are even told that Saul comes to love David and makes him his armor-bearer. But now, in chapter 17, we find Saul acting like he’s never met David before and doesn’t have any idea who he is. So then, which chapter came first? It seems like chapter 16 does, but then how do we explain the apparent inconsistencies?
I think there are two things to keep in mind here. First, our initial assumptions are important. Are we coming at the text from the standpoint of inerrancy or something less than that? If we are willing to entertain the notion that the text could very well have errors in it, these apparent inconsistencies can be simply accepted as actual inconsistencies, and we can just move on. It may even be that this whole story of David and Goliath was made up to create a literary apologetic in favor of David’s kingship over and against Saul’s. But, that approach to the text leads to many problems in other ways and places and ultimately proves itself inadequate at a number of levels which can be explored in another setting.
If we are using the position of inerrancy as our guide, our task is more difficult because we must explain places like this. With that in mind, here’s something else to hold in our focus as well. Our expectations of specificity and factual accuracy in historical reporting are not the same as theirs were. We can’t assume ours onto them or else we won’t be able to understand what’s going on well.
In this case, reading chapters 16 and 17 as linearly consistent isn’t the best way to read them. It could be that they happened at roughly the same time such that there is much overlap between the events. The beginning of chapter 16 and David’s anointing comes first up through where David is called to play music for Saul.
At this point we need to keep in mind that just because Saul gave his servants leave to conscript David into service, doesn’t mean he paid any attention to who he was or where he was from. David was simply a court musician. Saul was the king. He didn’t care about David other than that his music tended to create a calm atmosphere in the throne room. And, the very end of chapter 16 is a summary statement whose historical placement is not necessarily clear or important. It could be that David played for many years before his esteem was so elevated in Saul’s eyes.
From there, we can turn to the events of chapter 17 up through this tail end. Saul may have recognized David somewhat, but in the moment of Goliath’s threat was more worried about that more pressing issue. Here, with the threat absolved, he focuses in on learning more about this brave, young warrior.
At this point we can go back to the summary end of chapter 16 and the note about David becoming Saul’s armor bearer. Their relationship grew from there (at least until the events of chapter 18 when Saul’s insecurity leads to jealousy and the things falling apart from there).
Now, is this totally clear at first read? No, but that doesn’t mean I just made it up to solve an apparent problem. The Scriptures were written a long time ago. How they wrote and thought aren’t the same as how we do. If we try to read it through the lens of our literary assumptions, we’ll never be able to understand it quite right. It is when we take the text on its own terms and endeavor to look at it through the lens of its original author and audience that it will start to make sense. This takes a bit of work and sometimes creativity, but that just makes reading that much more interesting. The Scriptures are right and true in everything they affirm. That doesn’t mean they’ll always be easy.