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.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    40 replies to "Case Studies in Inerrancy: 1 Sam. 26:5-16"

    • Truth Sleuth

      Interesting thoughts. I would think that this falls under the category of showing the protagonist with flaws included. I would say that this shows that even the Biblical heroes are susceptible to sin and error just like everyone else, and not an actual error in the transmission.

      I usually give a similar response to people who point out that David had many wives and concubines and a harem and that since he was a man after God’s own heart, that must mean that God approves of that and is sexist. I say that just because action, speech or behavior is recorded in the Bible doesn’t mean that God always endorses that behavior, depending on context of course.

      Good mental exercise!

    • C Skiles

      Michael, if I understand you correctly you are saying all inerrancy is claiming is that the event was accurately recored. I agree.

      It seems that we try to make inerrancy too complex. I think that the degree to which those who hold to an extreme literal interpretation are not allowing for the different types of literature/writings which are present in the cannon and thereby come across as ignorant. Don’t get me wrong I appreciate the respect & love these people have for God’s word, it’s just that it seems a bit counter productive to stop using good common sense when it comes to these matters.

    • cherylu


      You made this statement, “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.”

      I agree with the main thrust of your arguments in this article. However it seems to me that this passage DOES teach something. I think I am basically saying the same thing as Tuth Sleuth did above. To me a passage like this teaches us that even the great heroes of the faith were men like us and that they could and did make mistakes and sin. In other words, by putting this type of incident in the Bible we learn that indeed there is no man that is righteous in himself.

      I don’t know if that will hold true for every incident that maybe seems “incidental” in the Bible, but it seems to me that it certainly does in this case.

    • Dave Z

      To me a passage like this teaches us that even the great heroes of the faith were men like us and that they could and did make mistakes and sin. In other words, by putting this type of incident in the Bible we learn that indeed there is no man that is righteous in himself.

      I’ll take a guess that Michael will go for the “authorial intent” defense here. And I’d agree. It seems like a stretch to say that Samuel was trying to teach that David was in error. You’d think he’d have pointed it out if that was the case. Of course, we can learn from it, but it doesn’t seem to be the intent of the text.

    • Archie Dawson


      I think I agree with your point on inerrancy but the example seems to imply that if God wills that someone perform an act (like fall asleep) then that person can’t be responsible for the act. But, from what I know about your views, that doesn’t sound like something that you would hold so maybe I’m missing something…

      When I read that passage, it seemed to me that God had them fall into a deep sleep but they probably had ‘no problem’ with that. And if it wasn’t against their will then they could reasonably be held responsible for it. I see a similar principle at work when God hardened Pharoah’s heart. You hold Pharoah responsible for his acts while his heart was hardened, right?

      I don’t mean to get off topic but this is the strongest issue that your post raised for me since I generally agree with you on inerrancy.

    • Sam H

      I agree with Archie. David wasn’t wrong in his judgment. Abner wasn’t relieved of his responsibility just because of the deep sleep from the Lord. Human responsibility does not presuppose human freedom, but rather God’s Sovereignty. Apparently Saul realized Abner’s plight of “deep sleep” (he experienced it himself) and showed mercy to his commander in spite of himself. So I don’t see this passage as having any relevance to inerrancy.

    • Ed Kratz


      The point about whether David was correct is certianly an incidental to the narrative. Incidentals are not unimportant, but we don’t build doctrine off of them.

    • Amy Jo Garner

      I don’t see David’s error in this passage. Abner did sleep through David’s infiltration into the camp. In my mind, that fact that the deep sleep was induced by the Lord further underscores David’s correctness in this situation. By Divine mandate, Abner could not that night or any night protect Saul from David. God had chosen David and it was fruitless and pointless for Saul to continue to try to kill David. David calls both Abner and Saul out for their foolishness. I see nothing in this passage that would cause me to doubt the inerrancy of scripture.

    • Ed Kratz

      Thanks so much for everyone’s contribution so far.

      I don’t see that anyone would have to doubt inerrancy because of this. This is not even listed as one of the “problem” passages. So my point here is not necessarily to deal with a difficulty in sustaining the doctrine, but to show how the doctrine is nuanced by our interpretation.

      This particular exercise is to show how, in my opinion, inerrancy does not mandate that everything the Bible says is accurate, including, as illustrated above, David in his prime of godliness.

      However, some of you have shown that you do indeed interpret the passage first through your grid of inerrancy. I do find this problematic as part of my argument through this series is that we need to be careful that our doctrine of inerrancy does not determine the interpretation of the passage.

    • CMWoodall

      How do you know the author of the book of 1 Samuel is presenting the truthful actions of the character in the story? How do you trust the author?

      How do you know if the author is presenting a godly hero?

      If your doctrine of inerrancy does not determine the interpretation of the passage, then what guides it, and what validates your interpretation?

    • Hodge

      I agree with the view of inerrancy, but not the assessment of this passage. David is clearly mocking Abner to communicate something to Saul (i.e., I am more protective of the king than his chief guardian). I would also agree with others that, in the Book of Samuel, the responsibility of the actions of people, even though directed by God, remains intact. Hence, Abner is at fault for not protecting the king, even though God caused him to go into a deep sleep.
      I just wouldn’t list this as a good example.

    • MikeB


      How did anyone use a grid of inerrancy to interpret here? Not sure I follow.

      Reading the passage we can trust that this event really happened just as recorded (the main point of inerrancy:accurate). This passage is certainly open to interpretation as to whether David was wrong in his accusations against Abner but inerrancy does not seem to be at stake. I think both sides have cases (I have not thought about this passage this way before) – 1) David was wrong because Abner was in a God induced sleep or 2) David was not wrong because Abner is still culpable even if the sleep was induced by God.

      Since this is a narrative (nothing to suggest otherwise) it would be wrong for us to take a third (albeit contrived) interpretation of the passage and say David never stole Saul’s spear or never accused Abner. That makes David bad (stealing and lying) and a man after God’s own heart would not do these things so I will assume it really is an allegory for something else.

    • Xander

      Wasn’t the statement that David made true though? It wasn’t good that Abner and the guard had fallen asleep while protecting the Saul. The punishment for the act is death. Is the problem that they should not be held accountable because God gave them into the sleep?

      I think I see where you are going with this and it is rather interesting. I am not sure that I agree that the incidentals are not always intended to teach something. Usually when these stand out, I find that a new part of the lesson is becoming apparent. I look forward to the next part.

    • cherylu

      CMP re comment # 8,

      I’m thinking of verses in II Timothy 3 that speak of ALL Scripture being useful for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness.

      How do “incidentals” fit into that? Do you believe there are just parts of Scripture that are put in but don’t fit into that overall statement?

      Even if the human author didn’t particurly use that bit of information about David to teach, reprove, etc., does that mean that the Holy Spirit did not have a purpose for it being there that fits in with the overall picture of why He gave us the Scriptures?

    • mbaker

      Interesting that the faults of God’s chosen are chosen to be recorded in scripture as honestly as their anointing. That simply adds to the case for inerrancy/infallibility in my opinion, because if this was merely a case of men recording events as they saw them at least, those things which showed weaknesses as well as strengths would have probably been left out. That they were not proves more and more to me that the scriptural narratives were not merely an historical recording of events. So many of them like this one show how fallen even the most chosen of God is, and why we cannot survive or do anything good apart from His grace.

    • clearblue

      I think you’re interpreting David’s words too woodenly here, Michael. As one of the other commenters noted, this is trash-talk or mockery. It’s purpose is to wake everybody up, to cause a huge stir, to brag about infiltrating the camp, and to embarrass Abner that someone got right through to the King.

      We use the same sort of taunting language when we do things like beating someone at some sport when they had previously bragged about being much better than us, or when our team beats their’s at some big match, etc.

      Furthermore, how do you draw the conclusion that what David said was incorrect? Saul was such a paranoid psycho by this stage that it was quite possible he would kill his bodyguards for failing in their duty – he already had the entire priestly family of Abimelech slaughtered (including children and animals), because he suspected Abimelech of colluding with David.

      I think this is a poor example of the point you are trying to make about innerrancy.

    • rayner markley

      I see no reason to say that David knew God was causing the sleep; thus, David was stating his honest belief. This discussion topic is about accuracy (inerrancy), not about truthfulness or about personal responsibility. Accuracy is what accords with the historical fact. A clearer case of truthfulness would be Moses telling Pharaoh he wanted to take the Israelites to the desert to sacrifice for a few days when he knew that they wouldn’t return. But even if Moses was lying, it wouldn’t be a case of errancy.

    • Ed Kratz

      Exactly. I am glad you get it!

    • Hodge

      I don’t agree that inerrancy has anything to do with accurately recording what occurred either. That is sometimes the case and sometimes not. It depends upon what is being communicated. Anyone who has take a course in the Hebrew Synoptics will understand that the same event will be presented differently (which one was reality?). The issue is what is being taught by the narrative. I think we should also make the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive presentations of truth. The former cannot be broken down into the individual propositions that make it up, but instead must be gained through the larger literary argument. The latter can be taken in smaller and larger pieces.

      BTW, I do think that, as stated before, the idea that this particular passage displays David’s error, is itself a mistake that seems oblivious to the language of debate and warfare. Is Elijah in error for saying that Baal is asleep? Is Rabshakeh in error because he claims that the Lord has told him to come against Jerusalem? This bold mockery is the language of battle and displays the craftiness of the opponent.

    • Jason D.

      Just cause God caused the sleep doesn’t alleviate the responsibility… that would be like saying, “Because God did not give them regeneration they are not responsible to exercise repentance and faith.”

      If that man was supposed to guard the king and failed then he is responsible. That simple, no?

    • jim

      It will be interesting to see the next case study. My belief is a little more broader than most here, perhaps. I believe that there are “Mistakes”no “contradictions” as seen here in 1 Sam. The intent or message of the bible remains inerrant, the human component of the writings may be in err but are recorded truthfully.

      I get more bent out of shape with “Just cause God caused the sleep doesn’t alleviate the responsibility… ” I tend to agree with him on this issue. If God caused a great sleep, there was no way that anyone would have performed any differently. Is it sinful to have God rule your life? To control you in such a manner. I would say , NO…..a small no!!!!

      Looking forward to next case study. I would like it on the sign above Jesus cross. You can’t mistake actual words for intentionality.

      In Christ,

    • Hodge

      “You can’t mistake actual words for intentionality.”

      Jim, ironically, I would use the same to show the difference in authorial intent.

    • #John1453

      It is proposed as an inerrancy rule that a passage is inerrant if it is an accurate recording, such that the passage recording David’s mistaken belief that Abner was responsible is inerrant because it accurately recorded. If so, then Genesis 1 could be an inerrant recording of a incorrect belief held by Israel. That is, it’s an accurate recording of early Israel’s version of the common ancient near east creation myth. Israel’s distinctive telling of the myth being that it puts its own god, Elohim, in the role of creator.

      Thus, just as we are not to believe that Abner was really responsible in the real world (though that was believed by David in his understanding of the world), we are also not to believe in the creation myth. We are then to correctly interpret these accurate records. The correct interpretation of a story that includes David’s mistaken belief is that God was protecting David, etc., not that Abner was morally responsible. The correct interpretation of the creation myth is only that God/Elohim/Yaweh/Christ did it, not that it happened in six days by way of audible spoken Hebrew words.

      I also agree that one must also decide if the form and content of David’s language reflects some ANE idiom or idiomatic form of war speech, before one can say that David was in fact mistaken about Abner’s responsibility.


    • jim


      “You can’t mistake actual words for intentionality.”

      Jim, ironically, I would use the same to show the difference in authorial intent

      Touche, I see your point!

    • Bryant

      I know this is stretching the OP, but, what about source documents that may have been used in compiling a particular book, in this case Samuel. How then would one determine accuracy (inerrancy) in assuming authorial intent? This can be a case of oral tradition that is passed down until penned by the inspired author. Would then this as for an example, the Chronicles and kings not be an example of an original source used, but two different (however small the variances) story lines. How can one know with certainty which one is the real McCoy?

    • Hodge


      Most scholars today recognize that the study of source material is diachronic, and since it is placed within a whole piece of literature, is conformed to its literary purposes. Hence, the intent is found in the compilation of the book, not within the individual sources that may have been used for varying reasons within its tradition history. For instance, when the Chronicler quotes Samuel/Kings as its obvious source, it conforms those traditions to its message. Hence, no one claims inerrancy for the original noncanonical traditions, but for the final form of the Biblical books.
      I think the last question assumes a belief in the historical accuracy idea that I of course would not hold either. The question is what is Book A teaching, not Does Book A or Book B record the actual events as they happened (as though that is possible to do in the ancient world anyway)?

    • Forrest

      What is inerrant in the bible is the truths that we are to learn from the stories such as this one about David. The bible is not a history book. It is a book about God’s history with mankind and what God wants to teach us about Himself. Errors by characters in the bible do not make it any less truthful about the character of God, the truths that He gives us in His word or about our relationship with God.

    • Clark Coleman

      Post 13, MikeB: “That makes David bad (stealing and lying) and a man after God’s own heart would not do these things so I will assume it really is an allegory for something else.” Would a man after God’s own heart commit adultery with Bathsheba, and arrange for her husband to be killed in battle? Perhaps you are misinterpreting what it means that David was a man after God’s own heart.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      “for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD”S anointed and be without guilt”?
      “When he comes he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin”, the sin of Jesus’ crucifixion, but what has been done that has increased this sin to be inclusive?

    • Clark Coleman

      Post #30: I have no idea what you are trying to say. Perhaps you should re-phrase.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      The popular common assumption of Jesus’ crucifixion is the idea that it has resolved all issues of guilt for any one who thinks it has. However since Jesus’ is the LORD”S (God’s) anointed and hands were streched out aganist him to crucify him those who did became guilty. But the guilt of crucifying him wasn’t confined to only those who crucified him instead it was imputed to everyone ref. Jn. 16:8. How is one historical unrighteous act imputed unilaterally and perpetually? CMP’s text promted me to connect Jn. 16:8.

    • Clark Coleman

      We are not having the guilt of crucifying Jesus imputed to us. We have guilt for our own sins. Jesus is accepting punishment on our behalf for our own sins, not for sins imputed to us because of the crucifixion.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Mr. Coleman isn’t it true that a person who paticipates in the Lord’s table makes himself guilty of the Lord’s body and blood?

    • Clark Coleman

      No. Where did you get that idea? Are you talking about participating unworthily (see 1 Cor. 11:27-29), eating and drinking as if at a banquet, or just participating?

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Mr. Coleman,
      It is not an idea of mine. Study the scriptures yourself.
      “May their table be a snare and a trap for them.”
      “For God has prepared a table before Me in the presence of My enemies.”
      Doesn’t that table sit right down front of every so called Christian church house in existance? You are misleading yourself by thinking one becomes guilty of the Lord’s body and blood by participating at this table as eating and drinking as if at a banquet. One becomes guilty of the Lord’s body and blood at this table by NOT discerning that the Lord’s body and blood is an accountable sin for each man to repent of. And then he participates upon the basis of approving of Jesus’ crucifixion, which is actually the sin of murder caused by bloodshed, as a direct benefit for himself, as you have done, and they were taught prior to crucifying him. Do not think the inclusive pronoun “them” is a reference to the Jews. For they have enough trouble just by crucifying him and they do not observe the Lord’s. The offense of Jesus’ crucifixion is imputed to every Gentile who dares to think, discern, that he has gained direct advantage for himself by another man’s murder caused by bloodshed. The Lord’s table is actually a snare and a trap for God’s set purpose to show that the Lord’s death caused by bloodshed has not exonerated any man of anything.

    • Clark Coleman

      So, you think that the Lord instituted the Lord’s supper as a trap for us? And were you the first Christian in history to figure this out?

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Since it is stated in the scriptures and both are direct quotes of Jesus, who is the first authenic Christian, I think it would be a strech to accept assigning the credit to me. As he said “If you would have believed Moses and the Psalms you would have also believed Me.” That you in fact don’t, it is not my problem. I rather think that it is only profitable to accept what he says is true first then work to figure out why what he said is true.

    • Clark Coleman

      Jesus did not state in the scriptures that the Lord’s Supper was instituted as a trap for Christians. I am sorry, but I have to conclude that there is no way to have a productive discussion with you.

    • Theodore A. Jones

      Neither did I say that the Lord’s table is a snare and a trap for the authenic Christian. But He does say that that particular table has been prepared by God and placed in the presence of his enemies. And the only places that table is found is in contemporary so called “Christian” church houses. The Lord’s enemies are those who are occupants of the pulpits in those places not the persons on the benches. The Lord lothes preachers and has never met one he does not hotly dislike for they lie to the people.

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