The story of David and the three warriors in 2 Samuel 23:13–17 (with its parallel narrative in 1 Chronicles 11:15–19) is only a few verses long, though we get more of the 'back story' of some of these mighty men in the chapter as a whole. The sequence of actions in this specific narrative is coherent: David expresses a desire to drink the water of the well of his native town of Bethlehem, then occupied by a Philistine garrison. Three of David’s heroes break through the camp and bring him water. But instead of drinking it, David pours it out to the Lord.
Although the story possesses a clear structure, its meaning has often been questioned. It has been suggested that David’s action of pouring away the water must be regarded as ungrateful, rendering his men’s valiant efforts meaningless. The story thus contains a hidden accusation that David needlessly jeopardized the lives of his soldiers. Alternatively, the opposite has been postulated, that the story is ad maioram gloriam regis (to the greater glory of the king). On this reading, David should be praised because he overcame his selfish desire for the water through a last-minute act of self-control. Realizing his sin, he refused to indulge in the fruits of that sin, and thus he resisted drinking the water. The story can also be understood in a profane context as a reconnaissance mission by David’s courageous and brave warriors, as well as in a religious context as a glorification of Yahweh by the libation of the water as a sacrifice for God.
Visual interpretations of this story respond variously to these ambiguities—and to some extent sustain them. Several altarpieces of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries which depict the episode focus on themes of faith and adoration (see Kipfer 2018: 6–16). Later visual interpretations, especially engravings from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Kipfer 2018: 16–17), focus instead on themes that are less specifically religious—prioritizing aesthetic effect and emphasizing moral points. The landscape painting by Claude Lorrain primarily stresses the humble reaction of David, and his abstinence and self-control in refusing to drink the water which the three men drew at the risk of their lives.
Both types of images are very typical of their time. The altarpiece-fragment by the Master of the Antwerp Adoration Group, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, was probably made for a devotional context and focusses on a typological and allegorical reading. Meanwhile, Claude’s landscape painting showing David and the Three Heroes at the Cave of Adullam was likely to have been made as decoration for a palazzo in Rome and belongs to a profane context. Its focus is on the moral and aesthetic interpretation of past events, which are treated as history. It renders the story in a way that is as faithful as possible to the scriptural account, but it seeks to be an edifying chronicle rather than presenting us with hidden spiritual meanings.
These two types of images are an excellent example of the hermeneutical shift during the period. Richard Simon (1638–1712), Jean le Clerc (1657–1736), Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1766) and others had striven to ascertain the text’s original meaning in its historical context, and thus its ‘literal sense’ (sensus literalis historicus). The biblical stories were not understood any more as axiomatic truth but were increasingly analyzed through a ‘historical-critical’ method. This new understanding of the biblical text also influenced visual interpretations. Depictions of stories from the Hebrew Bible began increasingly to attempt a life-like depiction of historical reality.
This is not to say that painting ceased to have any moral or religious meaning. At that time the concept of the similitudo temporum still played an important role: a belief that the past, present, and future are identical and that situations in antiquity are repeated in the present day. This concept was especially influential from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century (e.g. Machiavelli, Discorsi I.2; Justus Lipsius was taking up this term in his interpretation of Tacitus; Iusti Lipsi Epistolae I,81 00 00 H, 24–7; see Quaglioni and Comparato 2007: 80; Papy 2005: 66). Pagan-antique figures and Old Testament characters were taken as positive or negative examples in early modern times.
It is therefore likely that the image by Claude Lorrain intended a moral dimension by stressing the humble reaction of David—his abstinence and self-control in refusing to drink the water.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when images changed their function and were not used anymore to instruct the viewer, the story of David and the three warriors finally ceased to be of significance. The topic faded into oblivion and was not taken up by artists any more.
Kipfer, Sara. 2018. ‘David as Saint and Hero in Visual Art (2 Sam 23:13-17 // 1 Chr 11:15–19)’, in Bible in the Arts 2 (BiA), available at: https://www.bibelwissenschaft.de/die-bibel-in-der-kunst/
Papy, Jan. 2005. ‘Neostoizismus und Humanismus. Lipsiusʼ neue Lektrüe von Seneca in der Manuductio ad Stoicam philosophiam (1604)’, in Der Einfluß des Hellenismus auf die Philosophie der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Gábor Boros (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz), pp. 53–80
Quaglioni, Diego, and Vittor Ivo Comparato. 2007. ‘Italy’ in European Political Thought 1450–1700: Religion, Law, and Philosophy, ed. by Howell A. Lloyd, Glenn Burgress, and Simon Hodson (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 55–101