Chapter One Research Notes
I’ve been sharing research images for The Giant Slayer on Facebook (and gathering them on Pinterest) to help curious and studious readers get even more accurate in their imaginings about life 3,000 years ago.
This post collects all my notes about Chapter One: Bethlehem. Late summer, 1028bce in one handy location.
David carried himself as stiff and straight as a dried stalk of white squill…p. 1
All his brothers had gotten to spend their twelfth year at Father’s side. This was supposed to be his year.p. 1
This idea was based on a sermon I heard that talked about how, for a boy, that year between 12 and 13 was an important one. It was his last year before he’d take on a status that wasn’t quite man, but wasn’t boy anymore, either. There was no formal education with a school that children would go to at this point in Israelite history, so education would be done by the parents, in the course of doing the work the children would be engaged in.
The trip to Uncle Jonathan’s took twice as long as usual.p. 1
Later in David’s life, when he is king of all Israel, we get this in 1 Chronicles 27:32, “Jonathan, David’s uncle, was a wise counselor to the king, a man of great insight, and a scribe,” so I planted the seeds of that relationship from his childhood, and made Uncle Jonathan a wise advisor already in his boyhood.
“I like to mix thorns in with the mud. Make it less pleasant for whatever dug this in the first place.” Uncle Jonathan pointed at a pile of thornbush several paces away. “Your first job is to break off the thorns, and then gather them and put them in this slurry. Use the fat end of my staff and your feet.”p. 1
Thornbush is the descriptive name I give to a very common plant in wilder parts of Israel, Poterium spinosum (also called Sarcopoterium spinosum or Thorny burnet). I can just imagine stomping on that and getting a thorn in the ankle (which is what happens to our hero, and doesn’t help his emotional state when he’s already feeling rejected by his father).
“You’re the youngest of eight sons. Stop acting like you’ll ever have anything of your own…. Stop trying to prove that you’re better than your brothers. After I’m gone, you’ll be in one of their households….If you don’t stop showing off, I wouldn’t blame them for pulling a Joseph on you and selling you to slave traders.”p. 2
David is hurt and angered by these words from his father, but the thing is, according to the customs of the time, his father is correct. The youngest son had little standing in the family, and the sooner David gets used to that, the better. Moreover, this family has no patience for the youngest to rise above his siblings. In fact, it feels wrong when he does. Israelite society is not individualistic, so rising above the group and “being a star” is not a value for them like it is for us. This also sets the reader up for understanding how Jesse could not immediately send for David when Samuel asks to see his sons: even if he didn’t actually forget about David, this Jesse could plausibly avoid calling the little show-off down from the hills for fear that he’d overshadow his older brothers yet again.
Also, there is debate whether David is the youngest of 7 or of 8 sons. Here is the list of children of Jesse and Nitzevet (the Bible does not name the wife of Jesse, but the Talmud does, so I went with that name):
- Zeruiah (daughter and mother of David’s bff Joab)
- Abigail (daughter)
- Elihu (this brother is not listed in all genealogies of David)
The issue lies in two passages of Scripture: 1 Samuel 16:10-11 which describes the anointing, and Samuel rejecting 7 sons of Jesse and asking for any more and Jesse admits that the youngest is in the hills with the flock, making David the youngest of 8, and 1 Chronicles 2:13-15 which names only 7 sons of Jesse. So what do we do with that? I don’t know. Perhaps one brother died before the writer of Chronicles made his record. But in any case, I chose to go with the 1 Samuel number.
The hills were the one place David was supposed to be free from his older brother. Eliab always said he’d go to Sheol before he’d set foot there again.p. 5
Sheol is the pit; a place where the dead go, deep in the earth. At this time in the biblical literature, sheol is not the same as the Greek understanding of Hades or the Christian understanding of Hell. It is a place of darkness, of bleakness, where the dead are.
It was never smart to keep Eliab waiting, so he tore down the hill, leaping over rocks and skidding on loose sand and gravel, his tunic flapping between his legs.p. 6
“Don’t get your loincloth in a bunch,” Eliab said.
The basic item of clothing would be a tunic: two rectangles or squares of cloth sewn up the sides, leaving arm holes and a neck hole. My theory is that they often wouldn’t have sewn sleeves; that way, the tunics could have been passed among family members of different sizes and you wouldn’t be cutting away any of the precious fabric you’d worked so hard to produce. David and his family were small town, rural people, so their clothes would have been woven by Nitzevet and the wives of the many brothers at home out of the fleece of the sheep and hair of the goats that the family kept. A working tunic would probably have been knee-length, or at least adjusted with the belt to be knee-length so David would be free to walk around the hills. The loincloth would have been their version of underwear.
Ozem jerked his shoulder away. “Don’t have to rub it in.” He snatched the thick, knotted end of David’s staff.p. 6
We like to think of a shepherd’s staff as having a crook on the end, but this is another possibility, given the materials they’d have ready to hand: a shoot from an olive tree, with the knot end remaining to give the staff some heft for poking slow sheep and tossing the staff ahead of the shepherd to show the sheep where to go.
“What’s going on is there’s a feast but Father stuck me with the flock.” Ozem yanked the staff away and stalked up the hill. “Did you fat tails miss me? I didn’t miss you!”p. 6
Poor Ozem. When Samuel came to town, they wouldn’t have waited for David to drive the flock into Bethlehem, so one of his brothers would have had to replace him out in the hills. The sheep wouldn’t have been the ones we’re used to seeing here in the West, but the fat-tailed breed that still makes up 25% of sheep bred in the world. Ferrel Jenkins shot a lovely photo in April 2019 of a fat-tailed ewe and lamb just outside of Jerusalem. Go here to see it.
“There are lions.”p. 6
David warns his brother Ozem, who’s going to be left with/stuck with the flock as oldest brother Eliab drags David off to meet Samuel. Here is the kind of lion he’d be talking about: the Persian lion, panthero leo persica.
“Came in this morning. Scared Father and the elders half to death.” Eliab snorted. “You should’ve seen them, wringing their hands, worrying like old women. My wife’s father piled dirt on his head.”p. 7
Several verses in the Bible talk about this practice of throwing or piling dust on one’s head during times of great distress (Ezekiel 27:30, Lamentations 2:10, Job 2:12, Joshua 7:6, 2 Samuel 15:32, 2 Samuel 1:2, Revelation 18:19). Referencing the practice here is a fun way of illustrating how the Bible describes Bethlehem’s reaction to Samuel’s arrival: “the elders of the town came trembling to meet him. ‘What’s wrong?’ they asked. ‘Do you come in peace?'”
“Remember when Grandfather Obed would tell the old stories?”p. 7
David is the son of Jesse, who is the son of Obed, who is the son of Boaz, and Boaz was the son of Rahab–which means that Obed would have some great family stories to tell. Like how his mother Ruth had left her people in Moab to travel to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, saying, “Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.” Like how his father Boaz had noticed Ruth in the fields and then discovered her sitting by him in the middle of the night and then married her. Like how Boaz’s mother Rahab was saved by the Israelite spies when the walls of Jericho came down. Pretty exciting family tree.
Eliab cut him off with a glare and walked past the well.p. 8
David stopped to wash himself, but Eliab grabbed him by the upper arm and hauled him away.
“But I need to—”
“I’ll make sure you’re purified, alright.” Eliab’s smile was mean. “Who knows what you’ve been touching out there by yourself all day. We need moving water. Burak Spring still has some runoff.”
This is Eliab using Israelite customs to bully David, treating him as if he’d done something to make himself ritually unclean while he was in the hills with the flock. I have them go to Burak Spring, which probably doesn’t exist. There was a stream called Ain Burak that fed the Solomon Pools in Jerusalem, that had water that went all the way to Bethlehem (according to a Wikipedia article), so that was enough information to make up a tiny spring that burbled out of the ground near Bethlehem.
David had been summoned by the prophet who’d brought Israel and Judah back to good standing with the Lord.p. 9
Samuel had been the assistant to the priest Eli, and lived at the Tabernacle, since he was a little boy. Eli let his two sons take charge of many priestly duties and they were cheaters and frauds, so the people of God suffered. Eventually, God allowed their enemies to steal the sign of his presence: the Ark of the Lord. The Israelites got it back, but, as 1 Samuel 7:2 picks up the story, for 20 years after that, “During that time all Israel mourned because it seemed the Lord had abandoned them.” After that 20 years, Samuel put out the word: ““If you want to return to the Lordwith all your hearts, get rid of your foreign gods and your images of Ashtoreth. Turn your hearts to the Lord and obey him alone; then he will rescue you from the Philistines.” They did, and the Lord followed through on his promise, and Samuel became Israel’s judge (until they demanded he give them a king).
We’re only a little lower than angels,p. 9
yet You crown us with glory and honor.
This is Psalm 8:5, except put in first person (we) instead of third person (him), as most translations render it.
When they were within sight of the threshing floor at the edge of town, Eliab squared his shoulders and stuck out his chest. He dug his thumb between David’s shoulder blades. “Make an effort.”p. 9
Threshing floors were open spaces where farmers would take the stalks of grain they’d just harvested; they’d spread them over the ground and lead their oxen or donkeys to walk over the grain, often around and around in a circle. Then, when the kernels have been separated from the stalks, they’d use pitchforks to remove the stalks and toss the remaining material in the air so the wind would take away the unusable parts, called the chaff, leaving the heavy, usable kernels behind. When not in use, they were often excellent meeting spaces for village gatherings, particularly when edged by a low stone wall.
His father stood and waved from under the big tamarisk tree. The stranger next to him must be the prophet.p. 10
In 1 Samuel 22:6 and 31:13 big things happen under tamarisk trees in areas near Bethlehem, so I make the anointing happen under one. It’s interesting, because in so many photos, it’s still the only tall tree around, which it sounds like it was in Bible times too, otherwise it wouldn’t have been notable enough to be named in the biblical record.
Nobody had taught him how to address a prophet. A bow was always appropriate, but he bent all the way over, because a dip of the head didn’t feel like enough.p. 10
In the middle of David’s bow, the prophet removed an ox horn from his belt. David straightened. “I’ve washed in the spring, my lord.”
“Hush.” Samuel raised the horn above David’s head and tipped it.
It wasn’t water; it was oil.
Recent analysis of 2,900-year-old cattle remains found in Israel showed that the oxen then were a mix of zebu and taurine breeds with short horns, so picture Samuel pulling a horn like one of these off his belt, fairly short, not a sharp curve.
The oil was warm, and surprisingly heavy. It smelled like cinnamon and tree sap. David closed his eyes as something he couldn’t explain seeped through him. It uncoiled from the top of his head, down through the center of his body to every finger, every toe, through every hair. He flexed his hands.p.10-11
The oil itself, various translations describe as “olive oil” or just “oil.” In other places in the Bible and in cultural records contemporary to that time, anointing oil is described as being perfumed, so I chose to have it smell different from the olive oil David would have at home, to emphasize that something unusual is happening.
Without planning on it, he found himself walking to Samuel. “Excuse me, my lord.”p. 13
Samuel turned around and clucked at him. He took the cloth that covered the bread platter and sopped up the oil still pooled on David’s hair. “Adonai himself will tell you when the time is right.” He wiped David’s face and neck more tenderly than his own mother ever had.
Christian writers and speakers use the names God and Yahweh for their Holy One, but Jewish writers and speakers never spell out or pronounce those names, using G-d and YHWH instead. Although I am a Christian writer, I wanted to, as faithfully as I could, present a more ancient Israelite mindset. So when I attended an event and heard a crowd of Jewish people reciting Psalms and calling the Lord Adonai, I thought it sounded lovely and intimate, and I knew I had the name that David and Samuel (and sometimes Saul) would call the Lord–the name that would indicate a more personal relationship with the Spirit of the Lord, and not just a formal cultic relationship.
To endure decades of tending the flocks?p. 13
My bad! I tried so hard to weed out all the contemporary measurements of time and space but this one snuck through. The ancient Israelites did not have our metric system of counting years in multiples of tens, or decades. I’ll have to take that out of a future version.