My first case study in inerrancy comes from the story of David when he was on the run from King Saul.
1 Sam. 26:5-16:
5 David then arose and came to the place where Saul had camped. And David saw the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the commander of his army; and Saul was lying in the circle of the camp, and the people were camped around him.
6 Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.”
7 So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and behold, Saul lay sleeping inside the circle of the camp with his spear stuck in the ground at his head; and Abner and the people were lying around him.
8 Then Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand; now therefore, please let me strike him with the spear to the ground with one stroke, and I will not strike him the second time.”
9 But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’S anointed and be without guilt?”
10 David also said, “As the LORD lives, surely the LORD will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish.
11 “The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’S anointed; but now please take the spear that is at his head and the jug of water, and let us go.”
12 So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the LORD had fallen on them.
13 Then David crossed over to the other side and stood on top of the mountain at a distance with a large area between them.
14 David called to the people and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Will you not answer, Abner?” Then Abner replied, “Who are you who calls to the king?”
15 So David said to Abner, “Are you not a man? And who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not guarded your lord the king? For one of the people came to destroy the king your lord.
16 “This thing that you have done is not good. As the LORD lives, all of you must surely die, because you did not guard your lord, the LORD’S anointed. And now, see where the king’s spear is and the jug of water that was at his head.”
I wonder if you notice the issue. It is not easy to find, but it is very interesting (at least to me). Here we have David, the heroic and God fearing protagonist, being in error. I will explain the error in just a moment.
Let me give you some background to my hermeneutics (method of interpretation): Generally, I follow a rule in narrative portions of Scripture. I allow for error in the “bad guys” but don’t expect it from the “good guys.” In other words, when the Bible has put someone in a positive or authoritative light (such as Peter in Acts 2), most of the time what they say can be trusted. For example, when Daniel (who is a very flat yet godly character) speaks, there is not any reason to think that what he says contains error. Therefore, we can build doctrine from it. With “bad guys,” such as Satan, Nebuchadnezzar, and Job’s friends, it is hard to know whether to believe what they are saying.
Now, back to our current passage. David here is at the height of his heroic ventures. It is not possible for him to be in a more Godly light. He is the one who trusts the Lord. He is the one who will not usurp authority from “God’s anointed.” He, as we follow the narrative, is the one who acts on behalf of God. So there is no question as to his status at this point in the narrative. However, David makes a false accusation against Abner and calls for his execution based on this false accusation. Abner had fallen asleep and failed to protect King Saul when David took the spear from where he slept. David goes a distance away and brings an indictment against Abner for not protecting the King implying that it was his negligence. But the text tells us that it was not Abner’s fault. Verse 12 says that the Lord was responsible for Abner’s inability to protect the King: “So David took the spear and the jug of water from beside Saul’s head, and they went away, but no one saw or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a sound sleep from the LORD had fallen on them” (Emphasis mine). David, in verse 16, says wrongly to Abner: “This thing that you have done is not good. As the LORD lives, all of you must surely die, because you did not guard your lord, the LORD’S anointed.”
So David was in error and called for the wrongful execution of the King’s guard.
You may say to me that this has no theological relevance one way or another and is incidental to the story. I would agree. However, we must let this story nuance our understanding of inerrancy a bit. My definition of inerrancy is that the Bible, when interpreted correctly, is true in everything that it intends to teach. My assumption is that not everything in the Bible is intending to teach something. Like here, there are many things that might be incidental to the main story line. Most importantly, the main characters can be in error in these incidentals. That is as far as I am willing to go with this right now.
The question becomes: could the main character in a narrative, when presented in a positive light in the story, be wrong about doctrinal issues as well as historical issues? In other words, is what the main character says aways what the Bible is intending to teach or can it be that the Bible is simply accurately recording what the main character says without putting a theological stamp of approval on it? I am going to leave this one alone for now, but we will look deeper into this when we look at James in Acts 15.
I do, however, want you to notice two things particular to this passage:
1. The text does bring light to the narrative by giving the reader an insider’s understanding of what actually happened. Therefore, we might be able to create a tentative rule that says this: We can assume that the protagonist of a narrative, when presented in a positive light, always speaks truly unless the text states otherwise. I am not sure that this will aways work though.
2. It was David, a character in the narrative, who was wrong, not the author of the book of 1 Samuel. This is important to notice. The author of Samuel was accurate in his understanding and accounting of the event. Therefore, there is no actual error in the text, only from David, a character of the story.
Ultimately, this is an issue of interpretation, not necessarily inerrancy. However, this does help us to adjust a bit in our understanding of what inerrancy means. Inerrancy does not always, in my opinion, guarantee the truthfulness of the characters in narratives, even when they are godly heroes.