Wednesday-Weird-Bible-Verse: 1 Samuel 18:27 – an unusual wedding gift

December 14, 2011 — 30 Comments

I blogged about why I am going to be posting weird sounding verses from the Bible here. As often as I can on Wednesdays, I will post about an unusual sounding verse and try to offer some explanation of it. In the first one I wrote about the verse from 2 Kings 2:23-25 where Elisha gets made fun of by some youth for being bald. Elisha then calls a curse on them and two bears kill all 42 boys. So there are plenty of very weird passages from the Bible to be looking at. As I said in the first Wednesday-Weird-Bible-Verse entry that I am interested in these strange sounding verses:

  • For one, they are Scripture. And if all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:15-16) then we shouldn't ignore them.
  • Secondly, the internet and Twitter and Facebook are flooded with Christians posting the nice, cheery types of BIble verses already (which I love as it is encouraging to read cheery Bible verses about the truths of Scripture). But I think if we only are reading or focusing on the nice, encouraging cheery verses, then we can subtly only paint one part of the BIble to the exclusion of other parts. Or get only one understanding of God's character and the full Bible narrative and neglecting parts we don't like. It's easy to just focus on the nice, cheery understandable verses (which is needed and wonderful!). But we better not ignore God's Word and also explore the not-so-cheery-verses and not-too-easy-to-understand often weird sounding verses as well. 
  • Thirdly, there are a bunch of web sites and in several of the neo-atheist writings out there who are understandably pointing out the bizarre and troubling sounding Bible passages. I don't blame them for thinking how crazy the Bible allegedly sounds based on singling out these passages. But often what happens is the verses are not studied in their specific cultural context or how they fit in the whole Bible narrative. So as Christians we should be apologists in studying how to respond to when the very strange, often violent, sexist-sounding, bizarre verses are singled out and pointed to. 

So there are multiple reasons for looking at these types of verses and posting most Wednesdays on one. *I'll be interacting with any comments here, but mainly posting further comments on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DanKimball 

The weird verse for this week, is the story of David being asked to get 100 foreskins as a wedding price for a bride, and that is crazy enough sounding. But he didn't just get 100, he went and got 200 of them and killed the men he cut the foreskins off of. I can't comprehend this whatsoever.  

The verse is 1 Samuel 18:27:

"David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage"

In reading this story straight from the Bible, it even states how after David brought the forsekins back to Saul that they counted them to show how many there were. What an incredibly weird image of David standing there counting out 200 foreskins. I have beeen fascinated with the life of David lately having studied through the his story in the Hebrew Bible/First Testament (I try not to say "Old Testament" as that can subtly indicate it isn't valid or important. So I use the term "First Testament" or "Hebrew Bible" instead). But what is fascinating to me is that David was truly a man after God's heart - Acts 13:22. We hear sermons about his life and of his great faith. We do hear sermons about David's sin with Bathsheba and that he murdered her husband. The story does tell how he did grieve and repent afterwards (2 Samuel 11-12) and he wrote one of the most beautiful songs of sorrow and repentence in Psalm 51. But at least in my experience we don't hear in sermons some of the other strange things he did as a man seeking after God's heart in his time period. Killing 200 men to give their foreskins to his future father-in-law, polygamy with over 10 wives at once, having multiple concubines and the violence he participated in is so incredibly over the top as recorded in the Scriptures. 

With trying to understand the killing of 200 men and removing their foreskins as a wedding gift, I have copied and pasted below an explanation of this from the Zondervan Old Testament Bible Background Commentary. I won't comment further, and it is something I can't understand as we are not from that culture. But here is the explanation of the wedding gift of 200 foreskins: 

"Price for the bride (18:25). Twice Saul offers to make David his son-in-law. This second time he seems less mindful of the promise made earlier (17:25), which he may have regarded as no longer valid, and he is more intent on David’s proving his martial skill (or dying in the attempt!). Payment of a bride price was common in the Old Testament world, as it is still in some cultures today. It was the prerogative of the bride’s father to set the price, and Saul sets it dangerously high at a hundred Philistine foreskins. Body parts (heads, hands, etc.) often served as trophies of war, and Saul’s unusual choice is designed to assure that David actually kills Philistines—other of Israel’s neighbors were likely circumcised (see comment on 14:6).

Merenptah’s Great Libyan War Inscription from Karnak repeatedly mentions that the “phalli with foreskins” were being collected from slain enemies. This shows that the request made of David is not that odd. David meets Saul’s challenge twice over, presenting two hundred foreskins (v. 27). Saul views this success as evidence that Yahweh is with David (v. 28), and his fear of him grows into full-blown enmity (v. 29).

Armies would remove body parts from the slain enemy to number the casualties. Though often heads or hands, in this relief (below) it is a pile of phalli reminiscent of David’s collection of Philistine foreskins."

Foreskins

I can't comprehend at all how this could have been a common practice in that culture and am very glad we don't live in that culture anymore. But I can say that I am also glad the Bible does include these stories. The Bible isn't all cleaned up and all the stories cheery and shiny. There are stories and things in the Bible which we may never understand in this lifetime. But for me, this actually brings more confidence about it's inspiration. The Bible is not all edited and superficial. The faults and sins of human beings (even Bible heroes) are kept in the Bible. I can totally understand why critics of Christianity claim the Bible sounds bizarre and crazy at times. It does sound crazy and bizarre at times. But I also know we as Christians need to be studying these weird and bizarre parts of the Bible, just as we study the cheery parts of the Bible. If we desire to be respected today, then we should students of Scripture and not just the parts we like. But it's not just knowledge or even trying to explain the BIble itself for Christians to gain respect from others. We most of all need to have lives that reflect the teachings of Jesus in how we live in this world today. And I am glad that culture has changed and we aren't in the times of David and that Jesus changed so many things for us.

So that is the Wednesday-Weird-Bible-Verse for this week. I will post another weird-sounding verse next Wednesday. 

 

Dan Kimball

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author of "Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus In The Mess of Organized Religion" and "They Like Jesus But Not The Church" . On staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA.
  • http://www.westcoastwitness.com Wes Woodell

    Okay – so David is my favorite biblical character besides Jesus. I’ve read this story I don’t know how many times, but was just in tears laughing about how weird it is since you called attention to it. Ha!
    Glad my father-in-law only asked me to take care of his daughter! :)

  • Dan

    Wes — it is interesting as I have heard sermons on the life of David but I have never hear this story mentioned. Nor do you hear about his 10 wives and multiple concubines and a bunch of other very odd things he did in the average life of David sermon. May not have been odd in that culture, but interesting these things are when you stop and actually ponder about them about things he did. I had a couple of David stories I will post about in this Wednesday-weird-verses posts. Thanks for sharing your comment here!

  • http://ricknierwoo.blogspot.com Rick

    I can’t help but picture David counting them out for Saul like someone might count hundred dollar bills.
    ‘There’s 198…199…200! All the foreskins you wanted, and more, boss.”

  • Dan

    Rick! oh my! What a fascinating thing to imagine – how did they go about counting them? And when received, did the father-in-law dump them out of a bag and count them to make sure they were all there like a cash money transaction? Never a dull moment reading the Bible…..

  • http://profile.typepad.com/kompani101 Kompani101

    Does that not make David a mass killer if he killed 200 people? Didn’t God give the comandment ‘Thou shall not kill’? I am very confused.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/dankimball DanKimball

    Kompani101 – yes, we see God actually reprimanding David and not allowing him to build the Temple for his violence. David said to his son Solomon when he said he couldn’t build the Temple:
    “My son, I had it in my heart to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars. You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth’” (1 Chronicles 22:7–8)
    Still a very weird and sad story from the Bible.

  • BJN

    Yes, celebrate the brutality and ignorance of bible stories. It’s sooo intellectual.

  • Dan

    BJN – who is celebrating the brutality of the Bible story? It is horribly sad, but because it is in the Bible and one of the most well known people in the Bible (David) we are trying to make sense of the story in its cultural context.

  • Rocket Jay

    I agree with the sentiment that the term Old Testament is somewhat dismissive. I had settled on the term Original Testament. Now I will mull which term I like more Original or First Testament.
    Hebrew bible is incorrect, that would imply its contents are not relevant to followers of the Christian and Muslim faiths.

  • Dan

    Rocket Jay — Thanks for the comment and input! When I use the term “Hebrew Bible” it is because almost all of it was originally written in Hebrew. There’s a few chapters written in Aramaic, but almost all Hebrew so I am referring to the language it was written in. Hope that makes sense. But understand the point you are making. Thank you!

  • Rob

    It seems to me like you can’t interpret 1 Chronicles 22:7–8 that way. God doesn’t seem to expressing disapproval of David’s bloodshed here, just that the temple should be built in a time of peace – a grant from God Himself. (1 Chronicles 22:9-10). The Bible indicates that God was pleased with David’s foreskin collection – it says that this was the moment Saul realized that God was with David (1 Samuel 18:29). And of course, the extensive bloodshed that David commits throughout his life is at least sometimes at God’s specific order – for example, God orders David to kill Philistines before he’s king in 1 Samuel 23:2-4 and after he’s king in 1 Chronicles 14:10. And God is hardly expressing criticism of David’s wars in the Bible, even when he slaughters everyone, men and women, so that they tell no tales (1 Samuel 27:8-11). I think it’s great that you’re looking at the weird and difficult parts of the Bible, but then you really have to grapple with them, not just explain them away. Good luck with the rest of your series!

  • http://www.ricksparks.com/twitter Rick Sparks

    The Original Testament is filled with fucking nonsense. I’d like to know what you think of the deity described by scripture calling bats BIRDS. With FEATHERS. (Leviticus and Deuteronomy)

  • Aryeh

    1) The commandment is literally “Thou shalt not murder”. To this day there is a vast legal (and ethical) gulf between killing and murder.
    2) There was a running war between the Israelites and the Philistines, so this wasn’t just a random killing spree, it was a raid against enemy soldiers.

  • JG

    Imagine if you got up one morning, got on CNN, and read a story like this happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran. Islam, the violent religion. OK. Sure.

  • Jesse Achtenberg

    Hey Dan -
    Found this through BoingBoing. Great blog. Love your in-depth research.
    Gotta say though…even though it’s not something I’m overly invested in, I also take some issue with “Hebrew Bible.” You may not realize that “Bible” is a term used in general conversation pretty exclusively for the Christian Testaments. It’s dismissive to tag the most sacred document of the Jewish religion that way. You wouldn’t call the Koran the “Muslim Bible,” I suspect. Or think of a term like “Indian Summer.” Far from being a celebration of something intrinsically “Indian” about that time of year, it takes “Indian” to mean something closer to “false summer.” It’s a kind of linguistic colonialism.
    What’s good about “testament” is that it’s a religiously neutral term. And honestly, what’s wrong with “Old?” There are lots of positive associations with age – wisdom being only one. Newest isn’t always best.
    Cheers!

  • Dan

    Hi Jesse! I think in my pre-Christian days and since I have been a Christian the term “Bible” was used for the compilation of of both Old and New Testament. When you see a Bible, they contain both. I understand that it is mainly Christians who are probably the ones carrying them around when you see the traditional looking leather Bible with the word “Holy BIble” on them. But I would guess the majority of them which Christians have or you see in bookstores contain both Old and New.
    With using the word “Hebrew” I am referring to the language it was written in. So it wouldn’t be like Muslim Bible, as that is the faith. The language the Old Testament was written in is Hebrew, so that is why I sometimes use that term because of that. I guess you could then call the New Testament the “Greek Scriptures” as they were written in Greek.
    The reason I am sensitive to the “Old” and “New” is that I heard a religious non-Christian Jew say that when you call their Scriptures “Old” and the Christian additional Scriptures “New” it makes theirs feel like they are now out of date. Where the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is not out of date at all, but it contains the first covenant (the word covenant means testament).
    Thank you SO much for your thoughts and comments here!

  • Dan

    JG – yes, it would sound horrific and wicked hearing about someone doing that today for sure. It was horrific and wicked back then too although more common in that culture.

  • Dan

    Hi Rick!
    That’s a great question! What you have to do is to look back on that culture and time period in how things were classified. Our modern taxonomy system and how we today categorize animals is based upon Linnaeus’ taxonomy in Systema Naturae (1735). So our categories of thinking about this was not established back then obviously.
    In today’s world we categorize books according to the Dewey Decimal Classification System or the Library of Congress Classification System. So back then they did not use these types of modernized ways of looking at animals or birds. It was more on function as in creatures that flew.
    So God did not classify animals 3,500 years ago according to our modern classification system. As far back as Creation, God has divided animals into very basic, natural groups. He made aquatic and aerial creatures on day five and terrestrial animals on day six (Genesis 1:20-23,24-25). Similarly, in the first 23 verses of Leviticus 11, God divided the creatures into land animals (11:2-8), animals “that are in the water” (11:9-12), “birds” (11:13-19), and flying insects (11:20-23). He did not divide animals into mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. In fact, the group of “creeping things” mentioned later in Leviticus 11 (vss. 29-30; cf. Genesis 1:24-25) includes both mammals (e.g., mice) and reptiles (e.g., lizards).
    Clearly then, God divided animals according to their locomotion and environment rather than whether or not they have hair, lay eggs, and nurse their young.
    With the English word “bird” when is used for the category in which bats are listed. Remember that is an English translation from the Hebrew. Actually, the term “bird” in Leviticus 11:13 (as well as Genesis 1:20-30) is translated from the Hebrew word ‘ôp, which literally means “flying creatures” (Harris, et al., 1980, p. 654; cf. Brown, et al., 1993).
    It is derived from ‘ûp, meaning to “fly, fly about, fly away” (Harris, et al., pp. 654-655). That this word is not used solely for “birds” is evident from Leviticus 11:20-23, where it is used with sherets in reference to “winged creeping things” (ASV), i.e., flying insects.
    So that is why we have to explore the culture, what the specific Hebrew word was etc. – so we don’t just read a verse and make a conclusion about something. Hope this helps respond to your question! Thank you for commenting!

  • Dan

    JG – yes, it would sound horrific and wicked hearing about someone doing that today for sure. It was horrific and wicked back then too although more common in that culture.

  • http://www.ricksparks.com/twitter Rick Sparks

    Sorry, Dan, but your answer is quite a dodge. And, unfortunately, is one I’ve encountered too many times during my discourse with religious apologists.
    First, let’s take your claim that the deity in the Original Testament was referring to “winged creeping things.” If you read the Hebrew Bible, it is quite clear the word is translated as “OWPH.” According to Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary, the definition is “fowl- with feathers.” The verses I was referring to are in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. They are repetitive sections in which the deity of scripture is clearly outlining which FOWL are not to be eaten by folks. We know bats are NOT fowl (they are, of course, mammals), and they certainly don’t have feathers. So, one of two things happened here; the character you call “God” doesn’t KNOW bats aren’t fowl, or the people who wrote the book didn’t. (Or, and this is just fun speculation for non-theists, it is possible that the person(s) responsible for writing the book wanted to clue people in to the fact that it is an untrustworthy source of information.) If the book can’t get such a small thing as whether or not a bat is a bird, how can anyone take seriously the tome’s claims regarding the supposedly supernatural?
    Your reference to Genesis amuses me, because it brings up another point. That being, in Genesis 1 the supposed order of creation is plants, then animals, then humans. However, in Genesis 2 the book clearly states man is created and plopped onto a barren plateau, THEN plants & animals are created, and then only AFTER the first man whines that none of the critters are a suitable “help meet” is a the first woman fashioned from one of his ribs.
    What’s the point of being MALE if no FEMALE was intended?
    To address your point about folks who are intelligent having decided to become religious (with some grave concerns over your desire to claim Peter Hitchens was ever non-theist), it is a fact that every human on this planet uses his or her ability to rationalize as best they can in order to fit into the world as they determine works for them. I’m sure you also know full well that more people are taught to believe in a nebulous, loving deity based on the religion their family adheres to LONG BEFORE developing to read (and understand) the scripture related to the beliefs imposed upon them… let alone examine the historocity of their specific denomination’s invention!
    And another thing, and this should be of utmost importance to all who call themselves Christian, there are over 33,000 known versions of Christianity. I’d wager it actually enters into the millions, what with every person’s ability to hold varying sets of beliefs within a denomination as they relate to their specific lives. That means even if Christianity is what could be called the “right” religion, the odds are severely against anyone engaging in the correct version.
    For those who are reading this and may not be able to connect the dots there, that means the majority of self-proclaimed Christians will not be enjoying a seat in an everlasting ethereal lounge after death (if one exists, of course, for which no one has ever proven we should believe it does). Do the math, folks.

  • Dan

    Hi again Rick!
    thank you SO much for taking the time to respond. It is difficult to go back and forth in blog comments, so I do thank you.
    I tried to express my primary point was that when we look at the Old Testament or New Testament we can’t be reading it through our modern lens. So categories of species like we think of them were not in existence then. God communicates to people in ways they understood. Like when we read in the Old and New Testament God referring to our “heart” in a way that is stating it is where our emotions or thinking comes from. To primitive people of the time, they did think that. It isn’t as though God did not know human biology but for people of the time the language matched what they understood.
    With Genesis 1 and 2, there is no dilemma in that to me at all. It is not written to be looked at via our modern lens. If you read it literally, then chapter 1 has the earth created before the sun, and there is light before the sun and plants before then. Where the church has got into trouble is trying to see it in a way we would like to read it vs. asking what was God trying to communicate to a people group who was in Egypt for several hundred years and they worshiped the sun, moon etc. – and God was now bringing them out of Egypt and the point was telling them He is the creator of the sun and moon. And people of that time period were interested in function not science. A great book to read on this is by Hebrew and Old Testament professor John Walton who wrote “The Lost World Of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate”. It raises the possibility of how when we read the Creation account by trying to think it is supposed to be teaching the order of creation etc. – we may very likely be missing the whole point of why it was written and all the discussions and debates on 6 Days or Genesis 1 and 2 is not what it was written for. I can’t do justice on this in a paragraph here, but I don’t personally get into those debates as we likely are debating about something irrelevant in what the Bible is teaching there (or not teaching there).
    I think I have to disagree with you that everyone has a theist upbringing – as I know many Christians who were raised in atheist homes. I know many atheists who have become Christians. And I know stories of those who grew up Christians who later became atheists. But I do think there is something to consider that there are rationale intelligent thinkers like the ones I mentioned earlier, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis (who ended up writing some strong Christian apologetics writings)… JRR Tolkien is the one who after many discussions convinced Lewis about Christianity.
    Ultimately, you can’t prove there is a God and neither can one prove there is no God. it is a matter of faith either way when pressed and thus the debate goes on for centuries. But I do know that Christianity has done some embarrassing things in history and hypocritical. As atheists too. But Christianity and the church has also done a lot of positive.
    We won’t solve it here in blog comments, but I truly do appreciate and take your comments seriously. And I thank you for the challenge you bring to not be naive about beliefs and that you take the time to do your homework about this.
    Thank you!

  • Rob

    God can’t be reprimanding David for his violence here. As I noted above, God himself ordered David to war against the Philistines, and the Bible views the episode with the foreskins as showing that God was with David. God also doesn’t object to any of David’s warring throughout Samuel and Chronicles, and it’s not like the Bible is shy in these books about God disapproving of David: God punished David for the census (2 Samuel 24:1-16), and he kills David’s child over his murder of Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 12:7-18). If God is reprimanding David in Chronicles, He is reprimanding David for what God himself condoned. But He’s not actually reprimanding David at all, but instead saying that the temple will be built during the peace that He gives to Solomon.

  • stayzuplate@gmail.com

    Did you ever stop to think that this might be the result of a translation issue? Keep in mind how many times the bible has been re-translated, often with censorship, etc. involved.
    Try to go back to the oldest version you can of this passage to see if it still talks about counting foreskins. I would imagine the philistines were probably castrated or otherwise dis-engendered and not circumcised.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/dolphinexplorer Dolphin Explorer Crew

    maybe the bible sounds odd at times because humans wrote it and we can be exceedingly odd. But you wouldn’t expect a God to be exceedingly odd like this, so perhaps the bible is nothing more than the production of odd humans. Isn’t that the most likely scenario.

  • Korey

    You wouldn’t expect a God to be exceedingly odd like this? How would you really know that? The multiplicity of bizarre and exceedingly troubling aspects to existence itself doesn’t preclude God. It does preclude perhaps the gods we invent.

  • Dan

    Hi Stayzuplate!
    Great question! But yes, the translation I used (NIV) is a brand new one based on the most recent manuscripts and scholarship. There are other current more literal word for word translations (the NIV is translated to be true to the original but put in readable English as we speak today) – and the others also are close to this. So it isn’t a translation issue.
    Dan

  • Dan

    Hi Dolphin Explorer Crew!
    I think my presupposition is that I don’t know what God is like apart from what general revelation shows (the beauty of creation that points to a Creator) and then looking at what Scripture says “God” is or isn’t. I wouldn’t personally want to paint who God is, as I would do it in my own liking and personal thinking vs. what God reveals Himself to be. Hope that makes sense. Thank you for your comment!

  • http://danielcooley.com Dan Cooley

    I think the opposite is true. All other religions (and some of what is posted here) is an attempt to make God into our image – a God we like because He is like us. The Bible shows us a God who makes us into His image. The odd passages make it seem less likely, to me anyway, that this book was written by humans.
    By the way, GREAT blog Dan!

  • http://CrisisMaven.wordpress.com CrisisMaven

    “… am very glad we don’t live in that culture anymore …” – Oh, you mean it would be much better to live in a culture that poisons mothers and children with agent orange which to this day is responsible for terrible handicaps and stillbirths etc … or using depleted uranium in “liberating” the Yugoslavs, the Iraqis or the Libyans causing mutilations for thousands of years to come (that list is a very abridged version). The Lord would call that a hypocritical message, no doubt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DanKimball Dan

    CrisMaven – There are myriads of horrors in our world today of course that none of us would want to experience or ever wish upon another and ones we should be standing up against, as many do and try to change the horrors from happening. I was referring to the specific Bible verse mentioned not trying to make a statement about all the evils of the world today. Thank you for your comment!