As the saying goes, “Context is king.” Nowhere have I seen that so practically displayed as in Israel, where passages from the Bible spring to life in the context of their physical locations. Nagging questions get answered with a glance and a footstep.
Few biblical vignettes puzzled me more over the years than that found in 1 Samuel 24. Let me try to set the stage. King Saul and his men were chasing David – knowing the young man was ordained by God to be Israel’s ruler. David and his men flee into the wilderness region known as En Gedi, and are hiding in a cave. It was into that very cave which King Saul entered to “relieve himself.”
David and his men conspire about whether to attack him. How easy it would have been! As it happened, David snipped a piece of Saul’s robe (without the king’s knowledge), but regrets it as a cowardly act and forbids his men from taking action.
So it always puzzled me… How were David and his men not seen? How were they not heard? How could David have moved close enough to cut Saul’s robe without the king knowing it?
Well, it turns out very easily. The cave features a massive waterfall and raging stream that carved the cave from fragile rock. Back then, the cave would have been pitch black, the floor littered with man-sized chunks of rock. Several dozen men could have been standing there yelling and never be heard. The king would have had to carefully disrobe before going his, er, task.
When you stand there, it all makes perfect sense. All sorts of nefarious actions could have happened in that space.
While Saul was a dishonorable king, David did not want to begin his own kingship in a dishonorable way. While Saul would probably have thought nothing of killing David with his pants down, David wanted Saul to keep his dignity. David wanted to honor God, even in the darkness of a cave against a man who wanted him dead.
When my wife and I stood at the mouth of the cave, looking down at the Jordan River below and marveling at the beauty of the place, it was hard not to think of the pressure to “win at all costs.”
The lesson at En Gedi reminds us that the ends cannot be justification for the means. If we want to be honorable men, we must behave honorably – even when it is inconvenient, even in the darkness, even when our friends tell us otherwise. As a self-governing people, we must first be able to govern ourselves.
That is, perhaps, the most important context for each of us.