restricted access The Heart of Yhwh ’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel
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The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel

According to 1 Sam 13:14, David is “a man after [Yhwh’s] own heart.” Traditionally, this passage has been read in light of the full biblical witness of David, in which he is described as the founding king of Israel’s dynasty (2 Samuel 7), the pious poet (Psalms), and the paradigmatic “good king” (Kings and Chronicles). In the context of this full and overwhelmingly positive image, the phrase “a man after [Yhwh’s] own heart” has been understood to mean that David is a man whose character Yhwh somehow found most exemplary.1 When scholars try to understand what it is about David that allowed his kingship to be upheld but Saul’s to be removed, they often appeal to this verse to suggest that it has something to do with David’s heart.2 However, in his 1980 commentary on 1 Samuel, P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., called this traditional understanding of 1 Sam 13:14 into question by arguing that the phrase “a man after [Yhwh’s] own heart” refers to David as a man of Yhwh’s own choice.3 In this understanding the phrase says something about Yhwh’s heart, [End Page 455] not David’s. This interpretation has since been followed by the significant majority of Samuel scholars.4

This virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship,5 which understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character, calls for a reexamination of this key text. The purpose of this essay is to take a closer look at the ambiguous phrase “after his heart” (כלבבו), first in its own context, then within a wider set of texts in 1 Samuel that appear to be developing a motif of the heart of Yhwh’s chosen agents (1 Sam 2:35; 10:9; 16:7). I will argue that, while the phrase in question is potentially ambiguous, when it is read carefully in its immediate context and within the larger narrative framework of 1 Samuel 1–16, it seems most logically to be stating something about the heart of Yhwh’s chosen agent. We will conclude by exploring some of the implications of this study for understanding at least one aspect of the larger thematic framework of 1 Samuel.

I. “A Man after His Own Heart”: 1 Samuel 13:14

1 Samuel 13:13–14 contains Samuel’s rebuke of Saul for not keeping Yhwh’s command.6 After telling Saul that had he followed Yhwh’s command his kingdom would have been established forever, Samuel declares to Saul, “now your kingdom will not be established, Yhwh has sought for himself a man after his own heart [איש כלבבו] and Yhwh has appointed him as ruler over his people because you [End Page 456] have not kept what Yhwh commanded you” (1 Sam 13:14).7 The unnamed future ruler turns out to be David. The key phrase, “a man after his own heart” (כלב בו איש), is indeed grammatically ambiguous. It can be read in the traditional sense as a statement comparing David’s heart to Yhwh’s own heart, reading the preposition כ as a comparative.8 But it can also be read following the more recent proposal as an idiom describing Yhwh’s choice.9

There are biblical examples of both of these usages. An example where the phrase כלבב means “according to one’s own choosing” is Ps 20:5 (Eng. 20:4), which reads, “May he [Yhwh] give to you according to your heart [כלבבך].” In this context, the phrase means according to one’s own desires.10 An example where the phrase כלבב means that one’s heart is like the heart of another is the refrain in Kings that negatively judges each king by stating, “his heart was not completely with Yhwh his God as was the heart [כלבב] of David his father” (1 Kgs 11:4; 15:3). This usage is meant to compare one person’s heart to another...