The “Barbaric” Bride-Price, and Saul’s Sinister Motives

In 1 Samuel 18:17, Saul offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to David. Now, remember that Saul had promised this for the man who killed Goliath, so he’s really just getting around to something he has already promised. He offers his oldest daughter, Merab, to David, asking in return for David to continue to fight his battles, because Saul thought to himself, “Let not my hand be against him, but let the hand of the Philistines be against him.”

Saul is still focusing on how he can get rid of David.

But David declines the hand of Merab, and she’s given to another man.

Verse 20 explains that Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, loved David. And when Saul found out, it pleased him—not because his daughter might then be happy… not because he could then reward David the way he had promised… but because he assumed she would then be a distraction to David, and perhaps at last the Philistines would prevail against David. Saul sends his servants to suggest this marriage to David, and David replies, in verse 23, that he has no way of paying the bride-price.

Now, I would say the concept of the bride-price is salt in the wound of our sensitive, politically correct, romance-is-everything society. Daughters being rewarded to warriors and arranged marriages are barbaric enough. But then the groom has to pay the father-of-the-bride money as compensation? This is basically purchasing yourself a wife like she’s a piece of property, right? Well, no, it’s not that simple—or that barbaric.

We have to understand that the family, for most of history, was an economic unit of society. Your household was your livelihood. And children were a blessing not just because they’re a delight to have around, but because they contributed to the household economy—and with numbers come stability and security. Well, when you had a daughter, she was loved by the family, and she participated in the household enterprise, but it was understood that she was at some point going to leave and become a part of someone else’s household; and she was then going to be contributing and benefiting their family, and their clan. So, as a gesture of gratitude and good faith, the groom would give a sum of money to the father of the bride as a recognition that as he gave his daughter to be married, his household was also losing a valuable contributor to their welfare. That’s the point of the bride price—that’s most of it. The other side of it was that it proved that the groom was, as they say, all in. It was a way of showing that he had skin in the game. He showed he was serious. He really was going to take care of his bride.

David is saying that he can’t give a gift of the amount that would be appropriate for the king’s daughter. That’s what he means when he says, “does it seem to you a small thing to become the king’s son-in-law?” He’s saying: it’s not. To marry Michal, propriety would demand a gift to Saul that David could never afford. So, Saul replies that he’s perfectly fine with receiving no money from David if David is able to deliver to him the foreskins of a hundred Philistines. Now, that seems bizarre, and it is… but collecting a body part of the men you’ve killed was a fairly common practice in order to count the dead, or sometimes as a temporary trophy; and collecting foreskins was the way to ensure that it was actually Philistines he killed, and not fellow Hebrews. Yes, it’s gross. The point, though, is that Saul is simply trying (still) to get David killed. This is stated explicitly in verse 25: “Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.” So this whole time, Saul is just trying different things to get David killed. After he couldn’t do it himself, he’s now tried several ways to get David killed by the Philistines. But David always finds success and victory. In this case, David takes his men and kills twice the number of Philistines Saul required.

Now that’s a way to get a wife!

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And David His Ten Thousands

After David defeated Goliath, spoke with Saul, and made a covenant of loyalty with Jonathan, Saul made David commander of his armies, and he was successful wherever Saul sent him out. As David and the army were returning home from a campaign, the women of the cities were coming out and singing to one another as they celebrated, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:6–7)

It is a common feature of Hebrew poetry for one or more terms in the first half of a phrase to be increased or intensified in the second half. This rhetorical feature is called numeric progression. An example of numeric progression is, “six things the Lord hates, yea seven are an abomination to him.” This doesn’t mean that the Lord only hates 6 or 7 things, nor that the prophet forgot about the seventh item and then added it. It’s a poetic feature. It’s a form of parallelism. This particular variation of this progression in 1 Samuel 18—1,000 to 10,000—is used elsewhere in Scripture as well. In Deuteronomy 32:30, in the song of Moses, Moses uses two layers of numeric progression in the parallelism in verse 30. He says “How could one have chased a thousand, and two have put ten thousand to flight?” Notice the progression from one to two, and from one thousand to ten thousand? In Psalm 91, David has the same progression in verse 7: “a thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand.” David again, in Psalm 144, says, “may our sheep bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields.” And Micah similarly uses the plural in Micah 6:7, “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?”

So, when the women are singing praises about Saul and David. The fact that they go from “thousands” to “ten-thousands,” is not necessarily a direct jab at Saul. It’s a common and expected rhetorical progression. The women singing likely did not intend to anger the king by implying David’s superiority. But, nevertheless, they ascribed to Saul the thousands, and to David the ten thousands, and Saul is quite perturbed by that choice of wording. He takes offense at their placement of David in the intensified half of the parallelism, so he becomes suspicious of David and keeps his eye on him from that point forward. And (in a somewhat ironically prophetic manner) he says, “what more can he have but the kingdom?” (1 Samuel 18:8)

Now, that could be taken as a bit of an overreaction on Saul’s part. David hasn’t given Saul any reason to think that he wants to be king; and, as far as we know, Saul is still unaware that David actually was anointed to be king. But, in reality, Saul’s point is that if David has been given honor above the king himself, it is a great threat to the king. Remember, we have very little capacity to understand the significance of public honor and shame in that culture. And for Saul to recognize (rightly or not) that David is being honored above him—the king himself—then, for all intents and purposes, David has become the leader of Israel even though he has no crown. This is extremely significant; and the words of Samuel from chapter 15 may be ringing in Saul’s ears—that Yahweh would give Saul’s kingdom to another man, a neighbor who is better than Saul. Saul thus gives in to jealousy, anger, and fear, and, as we know from the following narrative, this leads to disastrous results.

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The Political Friendship of David and Jonathan

In 1st Samuel 18, after David killed Goliath and then spoke with Saul about receiving his reward, Jonathan, it says, “loved him as his own soul.”

Today, people can’t accept strong, deep friendships between men as just that. We think it’s weird, or somehow inappropriate, or we cheapen those strong masculine friendships with terms like “bromance” and jokes about getting a room. And it does certainly make it worse now that various perversions are so prevalent. But what’s going on here in 1st Samuel 18 is not in any way romantic. In fact, though there certainly seems to be a genuine brotherly affection between David and Jonathan that develops, I don’t think this is even primarily an emotional or affectionate love being spoken of.

In certain contexts, the term love has definite political overtones. To us, the word love almost always has a passionate meaning to it, but the Hebrew term primarily refers to choosing to be devoted to someone. In a political context, then, this devotion is what we might call loyalty, or allegiance. That’s what seems to be going on here. Jonathan (who is quite a bit older than David, remember) evidently does become a close friend of David’s, but what’s significant to note is Jonathan’s response of allegiance and loyalty to David in contrast to Saul’s jealousy and fear of David.

The content of the covenant between David and Jonathan is not explained, but a covenant is simply a solemn compact taken with oaths of loyalty; the covenant made here probably has something to do with Jonathan’s personal allegiance to David as the man who would one day lead Israel. It’s not clear how much Jonathan knows, but his transferring of his robe and armor to David implies a recognition of a transference of Jonathan’s own status as heir to David.

At the cost of his own inheritance and potential rise to the throne (at least in the eyes of his father and the typical expected custom), Jonathan swears fealty to David, because he recognizes that God’s will must be honored and pursued above all else.

In contrast to Saul’s reaction to David of jealousy and fear, Jonathan models the proper response to the Lord’s anointed: loyalty. Now, we see this in concrete historical terms in the life of Jonathan and David. But, without reading into the text, we can still extrapolate the principle out that leads to our response to Christ. The actual, primary meaning of the event is not directly to point to Christ. But the leap is not as far as we might at first think. David, as the anointed king who would become the ancestor of the ultimate anointed king (the Messiah who would redeem and reign over the whole earth), actually becomes a paradigm and a type (a foreshadowing) of that messianic king. So, as we see Jonathan’s response to the arrival of the anointed king, we do see a model of our own proper response to the anointed king Jesus: loyalty.

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The Seat of the High Priest

Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. But this man, Christ, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” — Hebrews 10:11–12

Under the Israelite sacrificial system, the priests stood because their work was never done. In the temple, there were no chairs or benches for the priest to sit down on because that might give the impression that the priests’ work was done, but the priests’ work was never done—there were always sacrifices to be made. The sacrifices of the lambs and bulls and goats could never take away sin (Heb. 10:4); they could never cover the offense of man’s rebelliousness against the almighty Creator. But they pointed forward to something that could.

When Jesus Christ, as high priest, offered Himself as the perfect, sinless, sacrificial lamb of God, Hebrews 10:12 makes a huge deal of the fact that Christ sat down. He sat down because His work is finished. And verse 18 says, “Where there is forgiveness of sin, there is no longer any offering for sin.”

There’s no more sacrifice to be made because sin has been dealt with. You can’t do anything to save yourself; you can’t do anything to help God save you; there are no more sacrifices to be made; the work is complete.

And the next verse says that He is now waiting until His enemies are made His footstool. You see, Jesus is coming back as a conquering king, and he’s going to establish his kingdom here on earth, but that’s not what He did the first time He came. He came to offer himself as a substitute—a sacrifice to take the penalty for sin that we deserve, to bear our shame, to cover our guilt, to die the death that you and I deserved to die.

And if we believe Him, if we trust in His death in our place to take away the penalty for our sin, He promises to resurrect us to eternal life in His kingdom.

A Most Offensive Bible Verse

I recently came across what I think must be one of the most politically incorrect verses in Scripture:

“The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a youth left to himself brings shame to his mother.” — Prov. 29:15

Every element of this verse is offensive to modern sensibilities: 1) the rod of correction; 2) the need to impart wisdom (especially by painful correction); 3) the folly of letting a child do things his own way; 4) the reality of shame; 5) and—particularly—the idea of an unruly child bringing shame on a parent.

Totally offensive, right? And yet, remember, this is inspired Scripture.

That Goofy-Looking King David

In a recent post on King David, we saw that (unlike humans) God looks on the heart… because he can. The contrast of that familiar verse (1 Samuel 16:7) is not: man rarely looks at the heart, but he really should more often. The point is that man is only able to look as far as the outward appearance; but God is able to examine the thoughts and intentions and character of the inner man. You may want to read that article before going on.

So then, the prophet Samuel has been sent to anoint Saul’s replacement—to find the man that God had chosen to be king over Israel. Jesse has seven of his sons come before Samuel; and each time, the Lord tells Samuel no, that’s not him. Samuel thus says to Jesse, “the Lord has not chosen these; are these all the sons you have?” Jesse explains that there remains the youngest, but he’s keeping the sheep. So Samuel has him send for David, and verse twelve says that David “was ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was of good appearance.”

Now, wait a second. Why does it say David was handsome? Why does it draw attention to his appearance? Folks generally react to that revelation for two basic reasons. First: we’ve been taught our entire lives that David was a scrawny, unfortunate looking preteen. And second: we’ve assumed and read right into the text a contrast between his good-looking brothers, and the homely-looking David—who gets a pass only because, although Samuel withdrew in disdain, the Lord was paying attention solely to David’s heart.

We’ve often heard that David was a “redheaded, snot-nosed little kid.” But that’s not the picture Scripture gives at all. He’s a young man. And it doesn’t say, “unlike his brothers, he wasn’t pretty to look at.” He’s much younger—and evidently not as physically imposing as Eliab—but he nevertheless is physically appealing.

“Ruddy,” by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean red-haired. It doesn’t say anything about his hair at all. It’s much more likely that it’s talking about his skin—his complexion. And some of the translations that render it as “healthy” are closer to the idea. It means a glowing, healthy youthfulness—not redheaded.

We tend to assume a contrast between his physical appearance and his heart, but that’s not really what seems to be going on. God has just said that man only looks “to the eyes,” but the Lord looks all the way to the heart; but then it draws attention to David’s “beautiful eyes” (meaning he had bright eyes, he was healthy and vibrant, he was handsome). The point is not that although he was scrawny and ugly, he had a good heart.

He has a really great personality though.”

The point is that David is the whole package. His youth is a problem—Jesse brings attention to it, and then Saul in the next chapter points it out as a problem for the battle—but his appearance wasn’t anything unfortunate.

And he wasn’t necessarily small and scrawny either. I don’t think that Saul, who was physically impressive, was being a blundering idiot when he offered his armor to David. And when David put Saul’s armor and sword on, the reason he gave for not using it is not that he was tripping and falling because of how oversized it was for him, but rather that David had not tested them—he hadn’t trained in them.

Samuel is introducing David to us as the paradigmatic, archetypal model of a righteous and godly king—with exemplary features, both physical and spiritual. Put aside your preconceived notions about David. We’re learning about the real man—the 11th-century shepherd who became the most powerful military leader in Israel… The king whose descendent will sit on the throne of Israel and rule all nations with a rod of iron, establishing perfect and everlasting justice and peace over all earth—far as the curse is found.

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