One potentially confusing aspect of David’s story is that he is introduced to Saul in 1 Samuel 16, where he is brought on to the king’s staff as a talented musician. But later on, in 1 Samuel 17 it might seem like Saul has no idea who David is. Is this a contradiction in the Bible?
Liberal scholars will often claim there are multiple versions of the David Legend which have been woven together into the whole story we read today. Liberals claim that these stories are not real history, but have been edited together to present a fanciful version of Israel’s kingship history. Does this apparent discrepancy between 1 Samuel 16 and 17 indicate we should not take Scripture at face value as a historical narrative?
The Background of the Interaction between David and Saul
David is introduced the first time to Saul in 1 Samuel 16:14-23. An evil spirit from God comes to terrorize Saul, and so Saul asks his servants to provide a young man who can calm Saul down with music. Providentially, David (who was just recently anointed as the future king by Samuel) is chosen to play for Saul. The text says, “Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor bearer” (1 Sam 16:21).
When the narrative of 1 Samuel 17 picks up, it is an indefinite period of time later (possibly even a couple years later), and as the Philistines begin a campaign against Israel, David is at Bethlehem tending his father’s sheep. When David goes to the battle front to check on his brothers, he hears Goliath’s blasphemy and accepts the giant’s challenge.
In the aftermath of David’s marvelous victory, Saul doesn’t appear to be familiar with David, and asks Abner to find out who the young man’s father is (v. 55). Saul had previously sent messengers to David’s father, Jesse, asking for David’s musical abilities (1 Sam 16:19). Is it possible that this is a separate legend which tells of David meeting Saul for the first time?
A Plausible Explanation for Understanding the David and Saul Saga
We need not suspect that Saul failed to recognize David. In fact, the very notion that Saul sent for David when he heard David’s words; and that he let David go out and fight speak to the probability that Saul had been long impressed with this young man. It was not the first meeting of these two, which gives greater credibility to the idea that Saul would have let David go out and fight Goliath.
As for Saul not knowing David’s father, this detail likewise has an explanation. It was originally a servant of Saul who told him of Jesse’s son, and Saul dispatched messengers on his servant’s information without ever meeting the father. If Saul had ever known David’s father’s name, it is likely that the intervening time and psychological episodes often experienced by Saul would have made recalling this information difficult. But now that David had attained an emotional victory over Goliath (and the Philistines), Saul wanted to take quick action and make good on his promise to “make his father’s house free in Israel” (1 Sam 17:25). In the end, it seems likely Saul remembered David, but since there is no indication he had interacted with Jesse directly, he was likely scrambling to find out about David’s family post-victory.
In conclusion, although the narratives of 1 Samuel 16 and 17 are sometimes put forward as contradictions, there is no need to conclude that these narratives are a compilation of different legendary tales. If allowed to flow in a natural chronology, the details of the story do not contradict. Rather, they make sense in light of the chaos which surrounded Saul’s life and his lack of interaction with David’s family. Thus, we should be content to read the stories of David as a complete sequence, gleaning from the details and observing intriguing truths about the David and Saul saga.