Dress Code Violations: Saul and David in the Cave

Egyptian Tomb Paintings Showing Captured Peoples

One of the classes I teach at Florida College is an entry-level freshman survey called Old Testament History and Geography. Right now, we’re blitzing through David’s story and working our way toward the divided kingdom, where I spend more of my time. There are a lot of really fascinating, and occasionally bizarre, episodes in David’s life, but one of the most puzzling for folks–once they slow down enough to read what it says–comes from the well-known story of David in the Cave with Saul.

When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” Then Saul took three thousand of his troops and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats’ Rocks. When he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, Saul went in to use the toilet. But David and his men were already hiding in the innermost parts of the cave. David’s men reported, “This is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you!’” So David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. But afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.” So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul, who got up, left the cave, and went on his way (1 Sam 24.1–7).

Although the freshmen always titter about the fact that Saul is using the bathroom when this happens (one student yelled out, “How did that happen?! I’m always super aware when I’m that vulnerable!), the bigger question is what is going on with Saul’s robe?

When Saul is exposed before David, his men see SaulBa’s vulnerability as the fulfillment of a (made up? otherwise unknown?) prophecy where God would give Saul into David’s hand and David could kill him (24.4). But, instead of killing Saul, David “merely” cuts off the hem of his garment. But why? And–if the standard explanation that I’ve seen and heard is right, that he cut it off as proof to show Saul that he had him in his power but let him go–why does David’s heart strike him as though he has done something truly terrible? That answer lies in the ancient concept of clothing.

Clothing is a Big Deal ™ in the ancient world.

  • Clothing is expensive: Joseph gives his brothers changes of clothes as part of their royal gifts, equivalent to about 50 shekels of silver, or two slaves (Gen 45.22). Samson makes his bet for the obscene number of thirty changes of clothes (Jgs 14.12–13). Samuel’s mother, whom the story indicates is part of the upper class, brings him one change of clothes each year (1 Sam 2.19). Jesus’ clothing is one of the main pieces of loot for the soldiers at his crucifixion (John 19.24). Clothing was not the disposable, off-the-rack sort of thing we generally consider it, today.
  • Clothing is a marker of status: Joseph’s favored position with his father is marked by his special coat (Gen 37.3–4). Joseph shows favor to Benjamin by giving him more clothes than his brothers (Gen 45.22). Jonathan recognizes David as a brother when he gives him his cloak and weapons (1 Sam 18.1–4). The Romans had a number of laws which forbade the clothing of higher classes being worn by lower classes. Clothing was important because it allowed people to know–at an instant–whether they were higher or lower than you in the social ladder.
  • Clothing is a marker of identity. When the Egyptians take prisoners, they make sure to get the clothing right to indicate the nationalities of the conquered. In ANE art, the only people who are portrayed as naked are slaves–those who are without identity or personhood. This same concept of identity is the major factor at play in most of the laws about clothing in the Law of Moses (for example, the question of “cross-dressing” in Dtr 22.5 isn’t really about women not being able to wear pants, but not pretending to be men and vice-versa).
Lybian, Nubian, Syrian, Shasu, Hittite

One of the most famous laws about clothing and dress (as well as why all Orthodox and some Conservative Jews wear tassels!) appears in two different versions:

You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together. You shall make yourself tassels (fringe?) on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself (Dtr 22.11–12).

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel (fringe?) for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God (Num 15.38–41).

The fringe, or tassels, of the garment were required by the Law because they differentiated the wearers from the surrounding Canaanites; they were meant to remind the Israelites that they followed the LORD and did his will because he had saved them from Egypt. It reminded them of their special identity. The identity-marking nature of the fringe or tassels of garments is still present throughout the ANE and used for a number of different cultural rituals: since most people were illiterate, contracts were often “signed” by pressing the tassel or fringe into the clay tablet. Obviously, no one would be able to tell one tassel-imprint from another, but it worked because people thought that some of their essence, or soul, or identity was contained therein! To provide another example, when divorce was initiated, the fringe of the divorced wife’s robe was cut off or her robe stripped (Ezk 23.25–26; Hos 2.3; cf., CAD S 233). When Samuel tells Saul that God no longer allows him to be king, this announcement is punctuated by Saul ripping off the fringe of Samuel’s garment as he walks away (1 Sam 15.27–28). In the opposite, a claim of commonality or protection can be made by extending the fringe of one’s garment over someone else (e.g., Ruth 3.9). In other words, the fringe of one’s garment was one’s identity, and the removal or addition of that fringe was tantamount to the person. So, now let us return to David\’s actions.

When David was hiding the the cave, his men are urging David to kill Saul. David doesn’t kill Saul, but he does cut off the fringe of Saul’s garment. But, after the heat of the moment, David realizes that he has done something truly terrible and repents. David didn’t repent because he had messed up Saul’s nice robe; he wasn’t terribly upset because he had gained proof–as he would, later (cf. 1 Sam 26.12)–that he had let Saul live when he had the chance to kill him; he repented because he had raised his hand against the LORD’s anointed (24.7). He had attempted to steal Saul’s identity, to make himself king of Israel by taking the fringe of his garment! This, in his mind, was the same as attempting to kill him. And it is for that reason that he asks for repentance.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that there are a lot more passages and stories in the Bible about clothing than you originally thought; nearly every one has to do with identity and status. List some of your favorites in the comments.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

3 thoughts on “Dress Code Violations: Saul and David in the Cave

  1. Is this too long of a garment…1) In the beginning God created man & woman in His image.A) Most of us know “the rest of the story”: [Gen 3:6-11, 21-23]B) Another early dated passage about clothes is from (Job 1:20-21)C) From these ‘beginnings’ 2 themes are found that occur throughout the OT: Nakedness is a surprisingly common theme in The Prophets.Clothing also takes on significant importance in a variety of contexts. EG Israel had to clean their clothes at Mt Sinai for worship. Ex 28:40-43 we read of special ‘breeches’ for the priests.Note also their tunics & turbans were for glory & beauty! The H. Priest’s robes take 38 verses of Ex 28 to describe. Ex 28:3 says God gave The Spirit of wisdom to the weavers. So, as one came closer to God’s presence the clothing details increase.As w/ Adam, God gave the right clothing for His presence. D) There are several other stories in scripture with significant clothes. App: On the way home today ask your kids. They’ll know some:Joseph’s “coat of many colors”? Lydia, the seller of purple. The wilderness miracle of clothes that never wore out! 2) The Prophets Continue To Discuss Clothing: Many of us are familiar w/ ancient mourning practices mentioned earlier: Fasting, weeping, & wearing ashes after tearing your garments!A) But notice what God asks for in Joel 2:12-13:B) Again, God makes clothes to cover nakedness in [Ezk 16:8-14]C) One of the rare scenes of Satan in the OT uses this theme. [Zech 3:1-7] This courtroom scene is a moving OT depiction of God’s grace! D) Isaiah adds to this in a passage that Jesus later says is about His people: -Isaiah 61:10 alluded to by Jesus in Luke 4:17-22


  2. 3) So, is it any surprise that Jesus makes so much use of clothing? We’ll be selective & limit ourselves only to two miracles & His departure. A) Luke 8 records a fulfillment of Malachi 4:2 Healing in His wings…The lady was healed just by touching the hem of His garment! B) In the healing of “Legion” when the man is possessed he is naked: Lk 8:27 says Jesus met a man “who had not put on any clothing for a long time, & was not living in a house, but in the tombs.” He was naked, vulnerable. But after he was healed God left him clothed & at peace [Lk 8:34-39].C) And finally, like Isaiah, Jesus used clothing as a metaphor: [Lk 24:49]Luke defines the “power on high” as a baptism in [Acts 1:4-5]App: Do we see how prevalent the theme is? How do we use this? A discussion on clothing can be a “door of opportunity” for evangelism. Do you know someone who loves clothing? So does scripture! 4) Peter & Paul’s References to Clothing: A) Yes, Paul talks about what we usually call “modest dress.”But, I hope we recognize there is so much more than “covering up”. 1Ti 2:9-15 says not to seek attention by wearing ‘costly garments’. The same happens in [1 Peter 3:3-4]. The focus is on inner character. B) When asking “What can Christians wear?” there are more questions: How does “take up your cross & deny yourself” affect our view of dress? Do we have the liberty to wear whatever we want to? 1Cor10:23C) Peter & Paul’s greater concern should also be our concern: In Gal 3:27 Paul says all men need to be clothed with Christ! Paul regularly says to put on Christ/the new man. Rom13:14;Eph4:24D) Do we think more about our outer clothing or our inner character? Beautiful clothes can’t hide greed, meanness, impatience, & anger. And here is the Good News: ALL can be transformed. We don’t simply wear Christ, trying to look like Him. Paul says that Christ will live in us! [Rom 8:9-11] That is an interesting fashion design, clothed from the inside! Can it get any better?? It does…5) The Greater Clothing That Is Coming (The Revelation) A) Paul describes our resurrection in terms of clothing. 1 Cor 15:49-58 For this perishable must put on the imperishable! & [2 Cor 5:1-5] B) And so Jesus tells Sardis those who overcome will be given… Rev 3:5 Later in Rev 7 it is garments washed in the blood of The Lamb. C) And finally, the clothes fit for The Wedding of The Lamb [Rev 19:7-9]


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