The Discovery of David


The relationship between young David and King Shaul was, to say the least, very complicated. David had been secretly anointed by Shmuel, and Shaul was still the reigning monarch. As David’s military career grows in success after success, Shaul begins to suspect that the young man from Beit Lechem may be the man prophesied to take away his throne. The conflict that ensued was inevitable.

What is difficult to understand is the nature of the setup. Why did God give Shmuel the order to anoint David while Shaul still reigned? Furthermore, how is that a meaningful thing to do? What does it mean to have two anointed kings of Israel? It seems absurd, and leads to an absurd dynamic. Let’s hold this question in abeyance till the end of the paper.


Another classic problem in this part of the book of Shmuel is the double introduction of David to Shaul. David is brought before Shaul as a minstrel, and then again as a warrior. The odd thing is, on both occasions David needs to be introduced to Shaul. Why doesn’t Shaul know who David is already. Let us look at both of these stories.

Soon after his being anointed, David finds himself being summoned before the king. Although we as readers know the purpose of this summons, David does not. Imagine his fear of Shaul’s wrath, worrying that his secret future coup has been discovered.  Here is the story as it appears in Shmuel, chapter 16:


13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him (David ) in the midst of his brethren; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.

יג  וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת-קֶרֶן הַשֶּׁמֶן, וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו, וַתִּצְלַח רוּחַ-יְהוָה אֶל-דָּוִד, מֵהַיּוֹם הַהוּא וָמָעְלָה; וַיָּקָם שְׁמוּאֵל, וַיֵּלֶךְ הָרָמָתָה.

14 Now the spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD terrified him.

יד  וְרוּחַ יְהוָה סָרָה, מֵעִם שָׁאוּל; וּבִעֲתַתּוּ רוּחַ-רָעָה, מֵאֵת יְהוָה.

15 And Saul's servants said unto him: 'Behold now, an evil spirit from God terrifieth thee.

טו  וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי-שָׁאוּל, אֵלָיו:  הִנֵּה-נָא רוּחַ-אֱלֹהִים רָעָה, מְבַעִתֶּךָ.

16 Let our lord now command thy servants, that are before thee, to seek out a man who is a skilful player on the harp; and it shall be, when the evil spirit from God cometh upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.' {P}

טז  יֹאמַר-נָא אֲדֹנֵנוּ, עֲבָדֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ--יְבַקְשׁוּ, אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ מְנַגֵּן בַּכִּנּוֹר; וְהָיָה, בִּהְיוֹת עָלֶיךָ רוּחַ-אֱלֹהִים רָעָה--וְנִגֵּן בְּיָדוֹ, וְטוֹב לָךְ.  {פ}

17 And Saul said unto his servants: 'Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me.'

יז  וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל, אֶל-עֲבָדָיו:  רְאוּ-נָא לִי, אִישׁ מֵיטִיב לְנַגֵּן, וַהֲבִיאוֹתֶם, אֵלָי.

18 Then answered one of the young men, and said: 'Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Beth-lehemite, that is skilful in playing, and a mighty man of valour, and a man of war, and prudent in affairs, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.'

יח  וַיַּעַן אֶחָד מֵהַנְּעָרִים וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה רָאִיתִי בֵּן לְיִשַׁי בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי, יֹדֵעַ נַגֵּן וְגִבּוֹר חַיִל וְאִישׁ מִלְחָמָה וּנְבוֹן דָּבָר, וְאִישׁ תֹּאַר; וַיהוָה, עִמּוֹ.

19 Wherefore Saul sent messengers unto Jesse, and said: 'Send me David thy son, who is with the sheep.'

יט  וַיִּשְׁלַח שָׁאוּל מַלְאָכִים, אֶל-יִשָׁי; וַיֹּאמֶר, שִׁלְחָה אֵלַי אֶת-דָּוִד בִּנְךָ אֲשֶׁר בַּצֹּאן.

20 And Jesse took an ass laden with bread, and a bottle of wine, and a kid, and sent them by David his son unto Saul.

כ  וַיִּקַּח יִשַׁי חֲמוֹר לֶחֶם, וְנֹאד יַיִן, וּגְדִי עִזִּים, אֶחָד; וַיִּשְׁלַח בְּיַד-דָּוִד בְּנוֹ, אֶל-שָׁאוּל.

21 And David came to Saul, and stood before him; and he loved him greatly; and he became his armour-bearer.

כא  וַיָּבֹא דָוִד אֶל-שָׁאוּל, וַיַּעֲמֹד לְפָנָיו; וַיֶּאֱהָבֵהוּ מְאֹד, וַיְהִי-לוֹ נֹשֵׂא כֵלִים.

22 And Saul sent to Jesse, saying: 'Let David, I pray thee, stand before me; for he hath found favour in my sight.'

כב  וַיִּשְׁלַח שָׁאוּל, אֶל-יִשַׁי לֵאמֹר:  יַעֲמָד-נָא דָוִד לְפָנַי, כִּי-מָצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָי.

23 And it came to pass, when the [evil] spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took the harp, and played with his hand; so Saul found relief, and it was well with him, and the evil spirit departed from him. {P}

כג  וְהָיָה, בִּהְיוֹת רוּחַ-אֱלֹהִים אֶל-שָׁאוּל, וְלָקַח דָּוִד אֶת-הַכִּנּוֹר, וְנִגֵּן בְּיָדוֹ; וְרָוַח לְשָׁאוּל וְטוֹב לוֹ, וְסָרָה מֵעָלָיו רוּחַ הָרָעָה.  {פ}


Clearly in this episode David is not a nameless servant in Shaul’s service. His musical skills have brought such comfort to his King, that Shaul sends a personal request for his continued presence. Yet both before and after David’s battle with Goliath, Shaul asks his general Avner to identify this brave young fighter and his family. This is related in chapter 17.


55 And when Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said unto Abner, the captain of the host: 'Abner, whose son is this youth?' And Abner said: 'As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell.'

נה  וְכִרְאוֹת שָׁאוּל אֶת-דָּוִד, יֹצֵא לִקְרַאת הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי, אָמַר אֶל-אַבְנֵר שַׂר הַצָּבָא, בֶּן-מִי-זֶה הַנַּעַר אַבְנֵר; וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְנֵר, חֵי-נַפְשְׁךָ הַמֶּלֶךְ אִם-יָדָעְתִּי.

56 And the king said: 'Inquire thou whose son the stripling is.' {S}

נו  וַיֹּאמֶר, הַמֶּלֶךְ:  שְׁאַל אַתָּה, בֶּן-מִי-זֶה הָעָלֶם.  {ס}

57 And as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand.

נז  וּכְשׁוּב דָּוִד, מֵהַכּוֹת אֶת-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי, וַיִּקַּח אֹתוֹ אַבְנֵר, וַיְבִאֵהוּ לִפְנֵי שָׁאוּל; וְרֹאשׁ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי, בְּיָדוֹ.

58 And Saul said to him: 'Whose son art thou, thou young man?' And David answered: 'I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Beth-lehemite.'

נח  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו שָׁאוּל, בֶּן-מִי אַתָּה הַנָּעַר; וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד, בֶּן-עַבְדְּךָ יִשַׁי בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי.


What happened here? Why did Shaul seemingly forget who David was and need to dispatch his general to identify him? Biblical critics have claimed that this double introduction of David to Shaul is a vestige of two competing legends of the “David meets Shaul” story. The editor of the book of Shmuel simply included both stories as they came down in tradition. One focuses on David as a musician with a beautiful soul that reaches out to others, and the other presents him as the warrior of God who steps on the battlefield with complete faith. These competing traditions, they say, record two different explanations of which unique quality of David first brought him to the attention of Shaul.

I suppose that this is possible, but it suffers from an obvious problem. Why would such a skilled and artistic editor have been so sloppy? The sages of Talmud say that the book of Shmuel was assembled from different documents, written by Shmuel, Gad and Natan the prophets. The editor(s) assembled these documents into a masterful work of biblical literature. Sefer Shmuel is my favorite book in Tanach, having the best qualities of a book of the bible and a modern novel combined. Would these masters of literary craft have accidentally or intentionally left such a glaring plot flaw in the story? It seems unlikely.

That having been said, the basic question is a good one. Why does Shaul ask for David’s identity when he obviously knew him? I believe that the solution to the mystery lies in these seemingly innocuous verses from chapter 14:


49 Now the sons of Saul were Jonathan, and Ishvi, and Malchi-shua; and the names of his two daughters were these: the name of the first-born Merab, and the name of the younger Michal;

מט  וַיִּהְיוּ בְּנֵי שָׁאוּל, יוֹנָתָן וְיִשְׁוִי וּמַלְכִּישׁוּעַ; וְשֵׁם, שְׁתֵּי בְנֹתָיו--שֵׁם הַבְּכִירָה מֵרַב, וְשֵׁם הַקְּטַנָּה מִיכַל.

50 and the name of Saul's wife was Ahinoam the daughter of Ahimaaz; and the name of the captain of his host was Abner, the son of Ner, Saul's uncle.

נ  וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת שָׁאוּל, אֲחִינֹעַם בַּת-אֲחִימָעַץ; וְשֵׁם שַׂר-צְבָאוֹ אֲבִינֵר, בֶּן-נֵר דּוֹד שָׁאוּל.

51 And Kish was the father of Saul, and Ner the father of Abner was the son of Abiel. {S}

נא  וְקִישׁ אֲבִי-שָׁאוּל וְנֵר אֲבִי-אַבְנֵר, בֶּן-אֲבִיאֵל.  {ס}

52 And there was sore war against the Philistines all the days of Saul; and when Saul saw any mighty man, or any valiant man, he took him unto him. {P}

נב  וַתְּהִי הַמִּלְחָמָה חֲזָקָה עַל-פְּלִשְׁתִּים, כֹּל יְמֵי שָׁאוּל; וְרָאָה שָׁאוּל כָּל-אִישׁ גִּבּוֹר, וְכָל-בֶּן-חַיִל, וַיַּאַסְפֵהוּ, אֵלָיו.  {פ}


It seems to me that the main character in both the pre and post Goliath story (from chapter 17) is not Shaul or David, but rather Avner ben Ner. Notice that it is made clear that Avner is asked to identify David before the battle with Goliath, and is standing with David afterwards. Why is Avner’s presence focused on at all? The story could have been easily told without mentioning him.

As is indicated in chapter 14, verse 52, security problems plagued Shaul’s reign. He began to assemble the first standing army in the history of our people. Clearly, Shaul could not have done this without the help of his staff. They identified and conscripted any man who seemed to have the makings of a good soldier. Included in this military draft, were the three oldest sons of Yishai, David’s big brothers. It is a recurring element in these early stories of David, that hardly anyone saw his potential as a leader or warrior.

Who would have been in charge of this rounding up of soldiers of Israel? Who collected all of the men who stood trembling at the taunts of Goliath? Who ran the program of military conscription that overlooked David both in Yishai’s household and in the household of the king himself?! None other than Avner ben Ner, cousin of the King and captain of his hosts.

When David steps up to face Goliath, Shaul ribs his cousin, asking him if he knows who this brave boy is. Avner has no idea. When David is brought back by Avner, Shaul asks the youth to announce to his cousin which household he comes from. There is an implied criticism of Avner, as if to say, “didn’t you go to the house of Yishai and come back with three men? Didn’t they shirk in terror at the taunts of the Philistine? How did you miss this youngster?”

This is, of course, a gentle rebuke. By referring to David as a youth and stripling, Shaul is being ironic, (David was “more of a man” than any of the assembled) but he is also softening the criticism of his cousin’s lapse. David did not, after all, look or act like the kind of warrior who could challenge Goliath. This is the point of the story, and the reason for its inclusion. Avner is yet another character who mistakes outward appearance for inner potential, and thereby misses David completely. He is not the first character in these chapters to do so. David’d father and brothers, Shmuel, and Shaul all seem to have made the same mistake. (see the rest of chapters 16 and 17 for the details)

In fact, David being the minstrel of Shaul would probably have made him less noticeable to Avner, not more. It seems unlikely that Avner searched the ranks of poets and musicians when assembling the hosts of Israel. It may very well have been David’s sensitive soul and musical talents that kept him under Avner’s radar.  This is the point of the story, and it unites both “introduction” episodes into one. David’s combination of qualities was so rare and unique, that everyone had trouble figuring out what he was all about, including those closest to him. Only God and an anonymous young man in Shaul’s court recognized the astonishing range of talents possessed by young David.

Basically Shaul is setting Avner up. He wants to see the look on his general’s face when he finds out that he has passed by the “stripling” and simply never noticed him.


Now back to our original problem. Why did God want David anointed while Shaul still reigned? What does it even mean to have two men anointed king at the same time?

Our third Rosh Kollel, HaRav Moshe Lichtenstein, wrote a series of articles on Jewish political theory. They appear online at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Bet Midrash. (it is definitely recommended reading and can be found at )


In the series, Rav Lichtenstein writes:

“there is a dual element involved in the mitzvah [of appointing a king]:

a) appointment of a sovereign who has the authority of government as the state's executive arm; and

b) the personal election of a monarch as representative of Divine action and presence upon earth.

In this [latter] capacity, he is a sacral figure, sharing certain common characteristics with a kohen (gadol). This latter role is unique to the Davidic lineage and does not apply to other monarchs.”


In other words, there are two aspects to being a king of Israel. A king is both the official leader of the people, and also God’s representative to the people. A chief executive who is not a descendant of David is the former but not the latter. (see the article online for proof)

Later in his paper, Rav Lichtenstein specifically mentions that the status of Shaul is unclear to him. I assume that by this he means that he is not sure if Hashem has bestowed upon Shaul the status of the sacral figure described above. Perhaps he simply had the status of leader of the people.

I would like to submit the possibility that Shaul was in fact given this sacral status. This would help to explain the awkward nature of the David/Shaul dual anointment.

Shaul when originally anointed as king was given the role of the representative of Divine action. Then in the stories that follow he is anointed two more times! These seemingly redundant ceremonies represent his acceptance by the people. (first some, and then all) It is these ceremonies that bestow upon Shaul the status of sovereign who has the authority of government as the state’s executive arm.

Shaul derives his right to rule the people from the will of the people. This is never lost by Shaul during his lifetime! After his sin with Amalek, however, God removes from Shaul his status as Divine representative. Shaul is the anointed leader of Israel, but no longer the anointed chosen of God. Shmuel informs Shaul that his kingdom has been torn away from him and given to his better. This refers to the sacral status of God’s representative.

God demands that Shmuel anoint the newly chosen person as soon as possible. (Shmuel, in his mourning for Shaul’s loss of status, had delayed) When anointed, David becomes the sacral representative of Divine will on earth. He proves that he is deserving of this status, when he fearlessly approaches Goliath in the name of God. David does not see himself entering battle as David, but as a manifestation of God’s will, and therefore invincible. (It is a sad irony that Yonatan, Shaul’s son and heir, exhibited the same traits before the battle of Michmash)

After the death of Shaul, David is reanointed in Hevron by the assembled leaders of Israel. The covenant framed at that event grants him, for the first time, the status of leader of the people. Once again, like Shaul, David is first anointed to grant him sacral status, then again later to wield executive power.

If this approach is correct, then we have a better understanding of the bizarre stage when there were two anointed kings. For that time, Shaul was leader of the people, but David was the sacral figure representing God’s will. Two kings representing the two parts of kingship.

(Parenthetically, this distinction would also explain Moshe’s two attempts to escape the role that God is giving him at the beginning of sefer Shmot. Although Moshe’s arguments seem redundant, he is actually trying to get out of two different jobs. In chapters 3 and 4 it is the role of leader of the tribes of Israel that Moshe does not want. However, in chapters 6 and 7 Hashem is forcing Moshe to become His representative to Pharaoh.  I believe that a close reading of these chapters proves this assertion.)


We see from the answers to both questions that David possessed an exceptionally rare set of characteristics that qualified him both to be the representative of God to Israel and the head of Israel’s executive branch. He was the prototype of a king of Israel. Therefore he received the promise from God that the sacral status of king would always be bestowed upon his descendants. Of course, the status of leader of the people was, and is, held by those not necessarily having Davidic heritage.

I would like to conclude with a strange observation and suggestion. The book of Shmuel contains a literary paradox. It tells the story of the dynasty granted to Israel, and it also has a clearly anti-dynastic theme. Various characters have sons who do not live up to their fathers’ greatness. Eli, Shmuel and David each have children who fall into sin and failure, betraying the values that their fathers lived by. Yet each of these fathers expected their sons to succeed them. The irony is that the only person to have a son worthy of succeeding him was Shaul. If anything, Yonatan surpassed his father. Yet Yonatan is not allowed to follow his father.

Is not the author/editor reminding us something that we know all to well from history? Dynasties don’t work.

So then what form of government will we adopt in the age of the Mashiach? Perhaps we will vote for a leader from among the Davidic family. Perhaps there will be a ruling elite of bnei David. It would be similar to the “caste” system of the cohanim. (not to mention America’s own informal ruling elite “system” – our last presidential election was between the son of a Senator and the son of a President!) Perhaps there will be a division of power between the two aspects of a king, and the role of sacral figure will lie in an institution separate from the executive branch of government.

Only time will tell.