I was asked this question about the events of 1 Samuel 17:
In 1 Samuel 17:55-57, Saul seems to be unfamiliar with David and who he is, even though he was played the harp to give him relief from the evil spirit that was from God. He was clearly told by his servant in 1 Samuel 17 who David’s father is. Would you please clarify why Saul seem so confused about David’s and his family after he killed Goliath?
This is a good question, and one that has been asked often throughout the centuries. Out of all the solutions to this “problem” that I have seen, these seem to me the three best possible explanations:
Option #1 is that 1 Samuel 16:18-23 is an example of time compression, which is used in the Old Testament in places. The most famous example is Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1:26-30, God creates man, and the details or chronology is compressed into those few verses. Then, in 2:4-24, the Bible gives us details of the creation of man.
So, in 1 Samuel 16:18-22, we are told that Saul sought someone to play for him, and David was suggested. We are told that Saul loved David and he became his armor bearer, etc. Then we are told that Saul told Jesse that David would remain in his service. Then, in 1 Samuel 18:2, we are told that Saul kept David in his service permanently after the events of 1 Samuel 17. If this is time compression, then though Saul was told in 1 Samuel 16:18-19 who David was, and though David played for him, he did not take notice of him until the events of 1 Samuel 17. 1 Samuel 16:18-22 compresses time. 1 Samuel 17:1-18:2 gives details of what happened that led Saul to promote David to armor-bearer and tell Jesse that David was to stay in his service. In this case, 1 Samuel 16:23 is just a description of David in his initial service as Saul’s harp player, when Saul didn’t care who he was.
Option #2 is that parts of chapters 16, 17, and/or 18 are the work of a redactor who added to the original author’s work to fill in details of David’s life. Maybe the explanation at the end of chapter 16 is a later addition, or maybe the end of chapter 17 and the beginning of chapter 18 are the addition.
Option #3 is that this is all written chronologically by one author, and Saul’s question in 1 Samuel 17:55-58 is about David’s ancestry (“who’s son is this?”), not David himself. Saul knew who David was because he served him, but after seeing him in battle, he wondered about his lineage. The problem with this view is that David would have most likely already been with Saul at the battle since he was his armor-bearer (literally “weapon carrier”).
I think each of these views have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are all plausible to me.