Sunday, November 9, 2014

David pretends to be mad


10 ¶And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.
11 And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?
12 And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.
13 And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.
14 Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me?
15 Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house? (1 Sam 21:10-15)

As context for this, David goes to Gath after he has collected Goliath’s sword and the shewbread from Ahimelech the priest, and before that, he took his leave from Jonathan, since it was plain that Saul was evil-disposed to him.

It’s pretty startling he goes to Gath, considering Goliath the Philistine was from there.  Maybe David hoped that Gath would be the last place Saul would look for him and hoped he would be safe there.  He evidently trusted that no one from Gath would have a clue who he was.

Sadly, he was wrong.  Achish’s servants somehow recognize David and connect him with the song the Israelite women had sung of him about how Saul killed thousands and David ten thousands.  It is interesting that they know enough to have heard the song, but not enough to realize it was an exaggeration.  Instead, they interpret it to mean that David has to have become king or succeeded to the throne on the grounds that he is 10 times better a warrior than Saul.

We see from this that the song has some legs to have spread so far.  The only other way the servants could have known about it is if they had been in Israel at the time.  But if they had, they probably would have learned the correct context and true status of David.

So the servants inform their king about David, presumably while David is standing there, and David gets very worried because now he doesn’t know what to expect.  Any hopes of blending in are gone.  But it is unclear what Achish will decide to do.  If he thinks David is king of Israel, he may kill him or enslave him or torture him or deliver him to Goliath’s family for their revenge, or whatever.

The other problem David has is that if he tries to explain the song and argue that he’s not king, he may be disbelieved anyway on the grounds that he is being cowardly out of self-preservation.

What to do?

David pretends madness to demonstrate his harmlessness.  We don’t get a full recitation what all he did, but the text tells us he scrabbled at the gates (which would have seemed really crazy if he pretended he was desperate to get out when he was already out and the gates were wide open) and he let his spittle fall on his beard (essentially drooling).  These two actions show us he pretended histrionic delusions and loss of control of his bodily functions, which would excite both pity and disgust.

They finally are convinced of his harmlessness and he leaves.

What can we learn from this story to help us today?  I think it shows how exaggerated statements about people spread and can eventually cause unintended harm.  The women who sang that song probably never imagined that the lyrics would put David at risk among his enemies.  They would have been horrified if they knew.  Ironic that even exaggerated praise (as well as insults or gossip) can harm.

Another lesson from David’s experience might be from the fear that David had.  It is clear from the story that he wanted to stay anonymous among the Philistines and having his cover blown made him fear what they would do to him.  But suppose he had made an offer like Ammon made in the Book of Mormon, to dwell among them and serve the king perhaps until his death?  In this way, he could have made his notoriety into an asset for service instead of a point of fear.  It is worth noting that later David comes back to Gath with an army of 600 men and offers his services to this same king, so it is possible that he needed a chance to do this over.

How has trying to be of service helped you overcome fear?