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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament CommentaryKeil & Delitzsch


David's Flight to Nob, and Thence to Gath - 1 Samuel 21:1-15

After the information which David had received from Jonathan, nothing remained for him in order to save his life but immediate flight. He could not return to the prophets at Ramah, where he had been miraculously preserved from the first outbreak of Saul's wrath, because they could not ensure him permanent protection against the death with which he was threatened. He therefore fled first of all to Nob, to Ahimelech the high priest, to inquire the will of God through him concerning his future course (1 Samuel 22:10, 1 Samuel 22:15), and induced him to give him bread and the sword of Goliath, also, under the pretext of having to perform a secret commission from the king with the greatest speed; for which Saul afterwards took fearful vengeance upon the priests at Nob when he was made acquainted with the affair through the treachery of Doeg (1 Samuel 21:1-9). David then fled to Gath to the Philistian king Achish; but here he was quickly recognised as the conqueror of Goliath, and obliged to feign insanity in order to save his life, and then to flee still farther (1 Samuel 21:10-15). The state of his mind at this time he poured out before God in the words of Psalms 56:1-13; Psalms 52:1-9, and 34.

Verses 1-9

1 Samuel 21:1-2

David at Nob. - The town of Nob or Nobeh (unless indeed the form נבה stands for נבה here and in 1 Samuel 22:9, and the ה attached is merely ה local, as the name is always written נב in other places: vid., 1 Samuel 22:11, 1 Samuel 22:19; 1 Samuel 21:1; Isaiah 10:32; Nehemiah 11:32) was at that time a priests' city (1 Samuel 22:19), in which, according to the following account, the tabernacle was then standing, and the legal worship carried on. According to Isaiah 10:30, Isaiah 10:32, it was between Anathoth ( Anata) and Jerusalem, and in all probability it has been preserved in the village of el-Isawiyeh, i.e., probably the village of Esau or Edom, which is midway between Anata and Jerusalem, an hour from the latter, and the same distance to the south-east of Gibeah of Saul (Tell el Phul), and which bears all the marks of an ancient place, partly in its dwellings, the stones of which date from a great antiquity, and partly in many marble columns which are found there (vid., Tobler, Topogr. v. Jerusalem ii. p. 720). Hence v. Raumer ( Pal. p. 215, ed. 4) follows Kiepert in the map which he has appended to Robinson 's Biblical Researches, and set down this place as the ancient Nob, for which Robinson indeed searched in vain (see Pal. ii. p. 150). Ahimelech, the son of Ahitub, most probably the same person as Ahiah (1 Samuel 14:3), was “ the priest,” i.e., the high priest (see at 1 Samuel 14:3). When David came to him, the priest “ went trembling to meet him ” ( לקראת יחרד ) with the inquiry, “ Why art thou alone, and no one is with thee? ” The unexpected appearance of David, the son-in-law of the king, without any attendants, alarmed Ahimelech, who probably imagined that he had come with a commission from the king which might involve him in danger. David had left the few servants who accompanied him in his flight somewhere in the neighbourhood, as we may gather from 1 Samuel 21:2, because he wished to converse with the high priest alone. Ahimelech's anxious inquiry led David to resort to the fabrication described in 1 Samuel 21:2: “ The king hath commanded me a business, and said to me, No one is to know anything of this matter, in which ( lit. in relation to the matter with regard to which) I send thee, and which I have entrusted to thee (i.e., no one is to know either the occasion or the nature of the commission): and the servants I have directed to such and such a place.” יודע , Poel, to cause to know, point, show. Ahimelech had received no information as yet concerning the most recent occurrences between Saul and David; and David would not confess to him that he was fleeing from Saul, because he was evidently afraid that the high priest would not give him any assistance, lest he should draw down the wrath of the king. This falsehood brought he greatest calamities upon Ahimelech and the priests at Nob (1 Samuel 22:9-19), and David was afterwards obliged to confess that he had occasioned it all (1 Samuel 22:22).

1 Samuel 21:3

And now what is under thy hand? give into my hand (i.e., hand me) five loaves, or whatever (else) is to be found.” David asked for five loaves, because he had spoken of several attendants, and probably wanted to make provision for two or three days (Thenius).

1 Samuel 21:4

The priest answered that he had no common bread, but only holy bread, viz., according to 1 Samuel 21:6, shew-bread that had been removed, which none but priests were allowed to eat, and that in a sacred place; but that he was willing to give him some of these loaves, as David had said that he was travelling upon an important mission from the king, provided only that “ the young men had kept themselves at least from women,” i.e., had not been defiled by sexual intercourse (Leviticus 15:18). If they were clean at any rate in this respect, he would in such a case of necessity depart from the Levitical law concerning the eating of the shew-bread, for the sake of observing the higher commandment of love to a neighbour (Leviticus 19:18; cf. Matthew 12:5-6; Mark 2:25-26).

(Note: When Mark (Mark 2:26) assigns this action to the days of Abiathar the high priest, the statement rests upon an error of memory, in which Ahimelech is confounded with Abiathar.)

1 Samuel 21:5

David quieted him concerning this scruple, and said, “ Nay, but women have been kept from us since yesterday and the day before.” The use of אם כּי may be explained from the fact, that in David's reply he paid more attention to the sense than to the form of the priest's scruple, and expressed himself as concisely as possible. The words, “if the young men have only kept themselves from women,” simply meant, if only they are not unclean; and David replied, That is certainly not the case, but women have been kept from us; so that אם כּי has the meaning but in this passage also, as it frequently has after a previous negative, which is implied in the thought here as in 2 Samuel 13:33. “ When I came out, the young men's things were holy (Levitically clean); and if it is an unholy way, it becomes even holy through the instrument.” David does not say that the young men were clean when he came out (for the rendering given to הנּערים כּלי in the Septuagint, πάντα τὰ παιδάρια , is without any critical value, and is only a mistaken attempt to explain the word כּלי , which was unintelligible to the translator), but simply affirms that קדשׁ הנּערים כּלי , i.e., according to Luther's rendering ( der Knaben Zeug war heilig ), the young men's things (clothes, etc.) were holy. כּלים does not mean merely vessels, arms, or tools, but also the dress (Deuteronomy 22:5), or rather the clothes as well as such things as were most necessary to meet the wants of life. By the coitus , or strictly speaking, by the emissio seminis in connection with the coitus , not only were the persons themselves defiled, but also every article of clothing or leather upon which any of the semen fell ( Leviticus 15:18); so that it was necessary for the purpose of purification that the things which a man had on should all be washed. David explains, with evident allusion to this provision, that the young men's things were holy, i.e., perfectly clean, for the purpose of assuring the priest that there was not the smallest Levitical uncleanness attaching to them. The clause which follows is to be taken as conditional, and as supposing a possible case: “ and if it is an unholy way.” דּרך , the way that David was going with his young men, i.e., his purpose of enterprise, by which, however, we are not to understand his request of holy bread from Ahimelech, but the performance of the king's commission of which he had spoken. כּי ואף , lit. besides (there is) also that, = moreover there is also the fact, that it becomes holy through the instrument; i.e., as O. v. Gerlach has correctly explained it, “on the supposition of the important royal mission, upon which David pretended to be sent, through me as an ambassador of the anointed of the Lord,” in which, at any rate, David's meaning really was, “the way was sanctified before God, when he, as His chosen servant, the preserver of the true kingdom of God in Israel, went to him in his extremity.” That פּלי in the sense of instrument is also applied to men, is evident from Isaiah 13:5 and Jeremiah 50:25.

1 Samuel 21:6-7

The priest then gave him (what was) holy, namely the shew-loaves “ that were taken from before Jehovah,” i.e., from the holy table, upon which they had lain before Jehovah for seven days (vid., Leviticus 24:6-9). - In 1 Samuel 21:7 there is a parenthetical remark introduced, which was of great importance in relation to the consequences of this occurrence. There at the sanctuary there was a man of Saul's servants, נעצר , i.e., “ kept back (shut off) before Jehovah:” i.e., at the sanctuary of the tabernacle, either for the sake of purification or as a proselyte, who wished to be received into the religious communion of Israel, or because of supposed leprosy, according to Leviticus 13:4. His name was Doeg the Edomite, הרעים אבּיר , “ the strong one (i.e., the overseer) of the herdsmen of Saul.”

(Note: The Septuagint translators have rendered these words νέμων τὰς ἡμιόνους , “feeding the mules of Saul;” and accordingly in 1 Samuel 22:9 also they have changed Saul's servants into mules, in accordance with which Thenius makes Doeg the upper herdsman of Saul. But it is very evident that the text of the lxx is nothing more than a subjective interpretation of the expression before us, and does not presuppose any other text, from the simple fact that all the other ancient versions are founded upon the Hebrew text both here and in 1 Samuel 22:9, including even the Vulgate ( potentissimus pastorum ); and the clause contained in some of the MSS of the Vulgate ( his pascebat mulas Saul ) is nothing more than a gloss that has crept in from the Itala; and this is still more obvious in 1 Samuel 22:9, where נצּב והוּא is applicable enough to עבדי , but is altogether unsuitable in connection with פרדי , since נצּב is no more applied in Hebrew to herdsmen or keepers of animals, than we should think of speaking of presidents of asses, horses, etc. Moreover, it is not till the reign of David that we read of mules being used as riding animals by royal princes (2 Samuel 13:29; 2 Samuel 18:9); and they are mentioned for the first time as beasts of burden, along with asses, camels, and oxen, in 1 Chronicles 12:40, where they are said to have been employed by the northern tribes to carry provisions to Hebron to the festival held at the recognition of David as king. Before David's time the sons of princes rode upon asses (vid., Judges 10:4; Judges 12:14).)

1 Samuel 21:8

David also asked Ahimelech whether he had not a sword or a javelin at hand; “ for I have neither brought my sword nor my (other) weapons with me, because the affair of the king was pressing,” i.e., very urgent, נחוּץ , ἁπ. λεγ. , literally, compressed.

1 Samuel 21:9

The priest replied, that there was only the sword of Goliath, whom David slew in the terebinth valley (1 Samuel 17:2), wrapped up in a cloth hanging behind the ephod (the high priest's shoulder-dress), - a sign of the great worth attached to this dedicatory offering. He could take that. David accepted it, as a weapon of greater value to him than any other, because he had not only taken this sword as booty from the Philistine, but had cut off the head of Goliath with it (see 1 Samuel 17:51). When and how this sword had come into the tabernacle is not known (see the remarks on 1 Samuel 17:54). The form בּזּה for בּזה is only met with here. On the Piska, see at Joshua 4:1.

Verses 10-11

David with Achish at Gath. - David fled from Nob to Achish of Gath. This Philistian king is called Abimelech in the heading of Ps 34, according to the standing title of the Philistian princes at Gath. The fact that David fled at once out of the land, and that to the Philistines at Gath, may be accounted for from the great agitation into which he had been thrown by the information he had received from Jonathan concerning Saul's implacable hatred. As some years had passed since the defeat of Goliath, and the conqueror of Goliath was probably not personally known to many of the Philistines, he might hope that he should not be recognised in Gath, and that he might receive a welcome there with his few attendants, as a fugitive who had been driven away by Saul, the leading foe of the Philistines.

(Note: This removes the objection raised by modern critics to the historical credibility of the narrative before us, namely, that David would certainly not have taken refuge at once with the Philistines, but would only have gone to them in the utmost extremity (Thenius). It is impossible to see how the words “he fled that day for fear of Saul ” (1 Samuel 21:11) are to prove that this section originally stood in a different connection, and are only arbitrarily inserted here (Thenius). Unless we tear away the words in the most arbitrary manner from the foregoing word ויּברח , they not only appear quite suitable, but even necessary, since David's journey to Abimelech was not a flight, or at all events it is not described as a flight in the text; and David's flight from Saul really began with his departure from Nob. Still less can the legendary origin of this account be inferred from the fact that some years afterwards David really did take refuge with Achish in the Philistian country (1 Samuel 27:1-12 and 1 Samuel 29:1-11), or the conjecture sustained that this is only a distorted legend of that occurrence. For if the later sojourn of David with Achish be a historical fact, that popular legend could not possibly have assumed a form so utterly different as the account before us, to say nothing of the fact that this occurrence has a firm historical support in Psalms 34:1.)

But in this he was mistaken. He was recognised at once by the courtiers of Achish. They said to their prince, “ Is not this David the king of the land? Have they not sung in circles, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? ” (cf. 1 Samuel 18:6-7). “ King of the land ” they call David, not because his anointing and divine election were known to them, but on account of his victorious deeds, which had thrown Saul entirely into the shade. Whether they intended by these words to celebrate David as a hero, or to point him out to their prince as a dangerous man, cannot be gathered from the words themselves, nor can the question be decided with certainty at all (cf. 1 Samuel 29:5).

Verses 12-13

But David took these words to heart, and was in great fear of Achish, lest he should treat him as an enemy, and kill him. In order to escape this danger, “ he disguised his understanding (i.e., pretended to be out of his mind) in their eyes (i.e., before the courtiers of Achish), behaved insanely under their hands (when they tried to hold him as a madman), scribbled upon the door-wings, and let his spittle run down into his beard.” The suffix to וישׁנּו is apparently superfluous, as the object, את־טעמו , follows immediately afterwards. But it may be accounted for from the circumstantiality of the conversation of every-day life, as in 2 Samuel 14:6, and (though these cases are not perfectly parallel) Exodus 2:6; Proverbs 5:22; Ezekiel 10:3 (cf. Gesenius ' Gramm. §121, 6, Anm. 3). ויתו , from תּוה , to make signs, i.e., to scribble. The lxx and Vulgate render it ἐτυμπανίζειν , impingebat , he drummed, smote with his fists upon the wings of the door, which would make it appear as if they had read ויּתף (from תּפף ), which seems more suitable to the condition of a madman whose saliva ran out of his mouth.

Verses 14-15

By this dissimulation David escaped the danger which threatened him; for Achish thought him mad, and would have nothing to do with him. “ Wherefore do ye bring him to me? Have I need of madmen, that ye have brought this man hither to rave against me? Shall this man come into my house? ” Thus Achish refused to receive him into his house. But whether he had David taken over the border, or at any rate out of the town; or whether David went away of his own accord; or whether he was taken away by his servants, and then hurried as quickly as possible out of the land of the Philistines, is not expressly mentioned, as being of no importance in relation to the principal object of the narrative. All that is stated is, that he departed thence, and escaped to the cave Adullam.

Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/1-samuel-21.html. 1854-1889.
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