Why Did Saul not Recognize David After Killing Goliath?


54 And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent.

55 And when Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said unto Abner, the captain of the host, Abner, whose son is this youth? And Abner said, As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell.

56 And the king said, Enquire thou whose son the stripling is.

~ 1Sa 17:54-56

Wikipedia tries to explain this with some dubious “scholarly” research.


The earliest manuscripts, such as the fourth-century AD Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 do not contain the verses describing David coming each day with food for his brothers, nor 1 Samuel 17:55–58 in which Saul seems unaware of David’s identity, referring to him as “this youth” and asking Abner to find out the name of his father. The narrative therefore reads that Goliath challenges the Israelites to combat, the Israelites are afraid, and David, already with Saul, accepts the challenge.[6] This removes a number of ambiguities which have puzzled commentators: it removes 1 Samuel 17:55–58 in which Saul seems not to know David, despite having taken him as his shield-bearer and harpist; it removes 1 Samuel 17:50, the presence of which makes it seem as if David kills Goliath twice, once with his sling and then again with a sword;[7] and it gives David a clear reason, as Saul’s personal shield-bearer, for accepting Goliath’s challenge. Scholars drawing on studies of oral transmission and folklore have concluded that the non-Septuagint material “is a folktale grafted onto the initial text of … 1 Samuel.”[8]

~ “Goliath”, section “David’s Age”, Wikipedia

All I have to say about that is “perhaps, but not very likely”.  Being the curious sort, I looked up the old UCG Bible Reading Program on this section.

In the wake of David’s victory, Saul asks whose son he is. The Nelson Study Bible comments: “How does this question fit with the fact that David had been serving as a musician in Saul’s court (16:18-23)? Saul’s unstable mental condition (16:14, 15) may have affected his memory. Saul may have recognized David as his court musician but forgotten the name of David’s father. He would need to know it in order to reward David’s family (v. 25). It is also possible that in his question, Saul’s principle interest was not David’s identity, but the possibility that David was a contender for the throne of Israel” (note on 17:55).

~ UCG, “David Defeats Goliath”, Good News Bible Reading Program, November 2002 (bolding mine)

It could be that Saul could not remember David’s father, even though he specifically took steps to let him know that he wanted David to stay with him.

22 And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, Let David, I pray thee, stand before me; for he hath found favour in my sight.

~ 1Sa 16:22

Of course, we also do know that Saul was afflicted with an evil spirit, so it is possible that his madness had gotten to the point where it affected his memory.  We later see Saul promising to leave David alone, only to later on go off chasing after him.  While Saul was disobedient, one has to wonder how he could forget his oaths so easily.

In addition, let’s not overlook a fourth possibility.  Perhaps Saul was so envious that he only feigned not remembering, as though that anything David did prior to that was nothing special.  Perhaps we already see the seeds of jealousy, which will eventually lead him to seeking David’s life.

So, why are none of these particularly satisfactory to me?  One puzzling thing is that Abner did not know who David was either (v 55).  However, even before that, there is an even better reason to question any of these explanations.  Perhaps it can be summed up in v 17 of chapter 17:

17 And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp of thy brethren;

~ 1Sa 17:17

If this was after David already was in Saul’s court, then why was he at home to begin with?  This more than anything else tells me that he was still at home tending the sheep.

20 And David rose up early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the trench, as the host was going forth to the fight, and shouted for the battle.

28 And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.

~ 1Sa 17:20, 28

So, it appears that Saul really did not know who David was because he really had not yet been placed in Saul’s court.  That does away with the trying to explain it away with Saul’s madness or forgetting David’s father to begin with.

It also, however, does fly in the face of some scholars wanting to do away with portions of 1Sa 17, however.  I instead maintain that chapter 17 is fine just as written.  There is no need to throw any of it out.

In fact, there really is a very simple explanation in which none of either chapters need to be altered or done away!

I’ve explained before that the ancients, which would include the human authors of the Bible, had a different view of time than we have.  I suppose it is in part a product of digital watches, atomic clocks and artificial lighting.  We precisely time things so commercials can run, we can churn out items faster on an assembly line, we literally program electronic gadgets to do things at specific times, and so on.

The Bible often takes a more imprecise view of time.  I think that’s why sometimes the description of the holy days is so precise.  “In the evening”, literally precisely at dusk, is when the Passover lamb was to be slain (Ex 12:6), and not during the daytime or nighttime.  The fast for the Day of Atonement was to be “from even unto even”, meaning that no portion of it whatsoever was nourishment to be ingested (Lev 23:32).

Critics of the Bible often point out that there are “two accounts” of creation in the Bible, and that Genesis 1 and 2 don’t necessarily agree with one another.  However, there really is no disagreement unless you are actively looking for a contradiction!  Even as a youth, I could understand that chapter 2 was simply a recount of events with some additional details filled in.  One would think that supposedly mature, full-grown adults could easily figure this “dilemma” out!

We actually see this done several times in the Bible.  Perhaps no book of the Bible is filled with more insets than the Book of Revelation.  One of the hurdles with coming up with an accurate timeline of events is because so many of the chapters overlap one another.  That’s why the 3-1/2 year period leading up to the return of Jesus Christ is key.  It is expressed in different ways, and it and Christ’s actual return are two of the very few anchor points that exist in the entire book.

Seems that only by looking really hard do I find too many commentaries that agree with my assessment.  Fortunately, one which does is Apologetics Press, which isn’t some fly-by-night commentary.

Paul Tobin, in an article titled “Internal Contradictions in the Bible,” summed up the skeptic’s argument by stating that 1 Samuel 16 “clearly shows that David…was known to Saul. Yet a little later, after David’s fight with Goliath, Saul is made to enquire from his chief captain as to the identity of the giant slayer (I Samuel 17:56). And he is again made to inquire from David who he is, when he should have known this all along” (2000). Allegedly, the Bible’s portrayal of Saul’s ignorance of David after Goliath’s death is proof of the Bible writers’ imperfection when penning the Scriptures.

First of all, it is imperative for one to recognize that, as with other Bible passages, nowhere in 1 Samuel 16-17 are we told that all of these events occurred in chronological order. Although throughout 1 Samuel, there is a general, sequential progression, such does not demand that every event recorded in the book must be laid out chronologically. In fact, within chapter 17 there is evidence that this is not the case. For example, the events recorded in 17:54 (i.e., David putting his armor in his tent, and taking the head of Goliath to Jerusalem) postdate the conversations mentioned in verses 55-58 (as verse 57 makes clear). More precisely, verses 55-56 synchronize with verse 40, while verses 57-58 could be placed immediately following verse 51 (Youngblood, 1992, 3:703). And, regarding chapter 16, who can say for certain that David was not already playing the harp for Saul before Samuel anointed him? First Samuel 17:15 indicates that “David occasionally went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.” Perhaps it was during one of these furloughs that he was anointed as the future king of Israel (16:1-13). Unless the text clearly distinguishes one event as occurring before or after another, a person cannot conclude for certain the exact chronology of those events. Just because one historical event recorded in the Bible precedes another, does not mean that it could not have occurred at a later time (or vice versa). Truly, the ancients were not as concerned about chronology as is the average person in twenty-first-century America.

~ Eric Lyons, “Did Saul Know David Prior to Goliath’s Death?”, Apologetics Press (bolding theirs)

I have one additional comment to make on this, that to me clinches the deal.  When David’s name was brought forth as a potential candidate to play the harp for Saul, how was it that anyone knew his name?  That’s easy if it occurred after he killed Goliath!  Preachers make a big deal about how David had no armor, and he could not use Saul’s since he had not “proved” it.  He did not tell Saul of his military exploits when he volunteered to fight Goliath.  His obvious lack of military experience was why his brothers and not he himself was fighting in the battle, not to mention his age.

33 And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth [therefore, he was under 20, which was when men in ancient Israel could fight], and he a man of war from his youth.

34 And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock:

35 And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.

36 Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.

37 David said moreover, The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the Lord be with thee.

~ 1Sa 17:33-37

Yet, again, what was it that made David stick out in the minds of Saul’s servants?  Even Abner should have known who David and his father were!

17 And Saul said unto his servants, Provide me now a man that can play well, and bring him to me.

18 Then answered one of the servants, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the Lord is with him.

~ 1Sa 16:17-18

They knew David’s father, and they knew David to be a “man of war”!  How?  He killed Goliath!

Commentaries are great tools, as they can give another point of view to an unclear subject, but the best explanation is always to let the Bible interpret the Bible and rely upon other sources secondarily.