Problem: Saul forgets who David is
Verses: 1 Samuel 16:14-23, 17:55-58; Status: Minor

There seem to be two accounts in the Old Testament about how King Saul met David, who would later become king himself. The first version indicates that Saul, apparently suffering from mental illness (a "harmful spirit from God"), sent for David after hearing that he was a skilled lyre player. This is 1 Samuel 16:21-23:

And David came to Saul and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, "Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight." And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him. (ESV)

The second account is in the next chapter, where Saul agrees to let David try to slay Goliath, and then inquires about him. This is 1 Samuel 17:55-58:

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." And as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. And Saul said to him, "Whose son are you, young man?" And David answered, "I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite." (ESV)

It seems that Saul did not recognise David. However, it's worth noting that Saul does not ask who David is, but rather who his father is. Why this is important to him is not clear, but it's nowhere stated that he didn't recognise David himself. If he merely forgot who David's father was, the problem is very mild.

However, this explanation is made more tricky by the fact that Saul calls David "this youth", "the boy", and "young man", all of which suggest he didn't recognise him. David wasn't wearing armor, so that can't be the reason. I suppose that it's possible that Saul's mental illness was particularly severe at this point, which can always explain a great many things.

The non-inerrantist explanation is that there were two different versions of the same story, which at some point were merged together into the final version which we now have: a merging that was not quite seamless, however.

Updated: Summer 2008

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