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
8 These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-bassheʹbeth a Tah-cheʹmonite; he was chief of the three; he wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he slew at one time.
9 And next to him among the three mighty men was Eleaʹzar the son of Dodo, son of Ahoʹhi. He was with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle, and the men of Israel withdrew. 10He rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand cleaved to the sword; and the Lord wrought a great victory that day; and the men returned after him only to strip the slain.
11 And next to him was Shammah, the son of Agee the Harʹarite. The Philistines gathered together at Lehi, where there was a plot of ground full of lentils; and the men fled from the Philistines. 12But he took his stand in the midst of the plot, and defended it, and slew the Philistines; and the Lord wrought a great victory.
13 And three of the thirty chief men went down, and came about harvest time to David at the cave of Adullam, when a band of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephʹaim. 14David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. 15And David said longingly, “O that some one would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate!” 16Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem which was by the gate, and took and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, 17and said, “Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.
18 Now Abiʹshai, the brother of Joʹab, the son of Zeruʹiah, was chief of the thirty. And he wielded his spear against three hundred men and slew them, and won a name beside the three. 19He was the most renowned of the thirty, and became their commander; but he did not attain to the three.
20 And Benaiʹah the son of Jehoiʹada was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds; he smote two ariels of Moab. He also went down and slew a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen. 21And he slew an Egyptian, a handsome man. The Egyptian had a spear in his hand; but Benaiʹah went down to him with a staff, and snatched the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand, and slew him with his own spear. 22These things did Benaiʹah the son of Jehoiʹada, and won a name beside the three mighty men. 23He was renowned among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David set him over his bodyguard.
24 Asʹahel the brother of Joʹab was one of the thirty; Elhaʹnan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem, 25Shammah of Harod, Eliʹka of Harod, 26Helez the Paltite, Ira the son of Ikkesh of Tekoʹa, 27Abieʹzer, of Anʹathoth, Mebunʹnai the Huʹshathite, 28Zalmon the Ahoʹhite, Maʹharai of Netophʹah, 29Heleb the son of Baʹanah of Netophʹah, Itʹtai the son of Riʹbai of Gibʹe-ah of the Benjaminites, 30Benaiʹah of Piraʹthon, Hidʹdai of the brooks of Gaʹash, 31Abi-alʹbon the Arʹbathite, Azʹmaveth of Bahuʹrim, 32Eliʹahba of Sha-alʹbon, the sons of Jashen, Jonathan, 33Shammah the Harʹarite, Ahiʹam the son of Sharar the Harʹarite, 34Eliphʹelet the son of Ahasʹbai of Maʹacah, Eliʹam the son of Ahithʹophel of Gilo, 35Hezro of Carmel, Paʹarai the Arbite, 36Igal the son of Nathan of Zobah, Bani the Gadite, 37Zelek the Ammonite, Naʹharai of Be-erʹoth, the armor-bearer of Joʹab the son of Zeruʹiah, 38Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite, 39Uriʹah the Hittite: thirty-seven in all.
10 Now these are the chiefs of David’s mighty men, who gave him strong support in his kingdom, together with all Israel, to make him king, according to the word of the Lord concerning Israel. 11This is an account of David’s mighty men: Jashoʹbe-am, a Hachʹmonite, was chief of the three; he wielded his spear against three hundred whom he slew at one time.
12 And next to him among the three mighty men was Eleaʹzar the son of Dodo, the Ahoʹhite. 13He was with David at Pas-damʹmim when the Philistines were gathered there for battle. There was a plot of ground full of barley, and the men fled from the Philistines. 14But he took his stand in the midst of the plot, and defended it, and slew the Philistines; and the Lord saved them by a great victory.
15 Three of the thirty chief men went down to the rock to David at the cave of Adullam, when the army of Philistines was encamped in the valley of Rephʹaim. 16David was then in the stronghold; and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. 17And David said longingly, “O that some one would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate!” 18Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem which was by the gate, and took and brought it to David. But David would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, 19and said, “Far be it from me before my God that I should do this. Shall I drink the lifeblood of these men? For at the risk of their lives they brought it.” Therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.
20 Now Abiʹshai, the brother of Joʹab, was chief of the thirty. And he wielded his spear against three hundred men and slew them, and won a name beside the three. 21He was the most renowned of the thirty, and became their commander; but he did not attain to the three.
22 And Benaiʹah the son of Jehoiʹada was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds; he smote two ariels of Moab. He also went down and slew a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen. 23And he slew an Egyptian, a man of great stature, five cubits tall. The Egyptian had in his hand a spear like a weaver’s beam; but Benaiʹah went down to him with a staff, and snatched the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand, and slew him with his own spear. 24These things did Benaiʹah the son of Jehoiʹada, and won a name beside the three mighty men. 25He was renowned among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David set him over his bodyguard.
26 The mighty men of the armies were Asʹahel the brother of Joʹab, Elhaʹnan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem, 27Shammoth of Harod, Helez the Pelʹonite, 28Ira the son of Ikkesh of Tekoʹa, Abi-eʹzer of Anʹathoth, 29Sibʹbecai the Huʹshathite, Iʹlai the Ahoʹhite, 30Maʹharai of Netophʹah, Heled the son of Baʹanah of Netophʹah, 31Ithai the son of Ribai of Gibʹeah of the Benjaminites, Benaiʹah of Pirʹathon, 32Hurai of the brooks of Gaʹash, Abiʹel the Arʹbathite, 33Azʹmaveth of Bahaʹrum, Eliʹahba of Sha-alʹbon, 34Hashem the Giʹzonite, Jonathan the son of Shagee the Harʹarite, 35Ahiʹam the son of Sachar the Harʹarite, Eliʹphal the son of Ur, 36Hepher the Mecheʹrathite, Ahiʹjah the Pelʹonite, 37Hezro of Carmel, Naʹarai the son of Ezbai, 38Joʹel the brother of Nathan, Mibhar the son of Hagri, 39Zelek the Ammonite, Naʹharai of Be-erʹoth, the armor-bearer of Joʹab the son of Zeruʹiah, 40Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite, 41Uriʹah the Hittite, Zabad the son of Ahlai, 42Adʹina the son of Shiza the Reubenite, a leader of the Reubenites, and thirty with him, 43Hanan the son of Maʹacah, and Joshʹaphat the Mithnite, 44Uzziʹa the Ashʹterathite, Shama and Je-iʹel the sons of Hotham the Aroʹerite, 45Jediʹa-el the son of Shimri, and Joha his brother, the Tizite, 46Eliʹel the Maʹhavite, and Jerʹibai, and Joshaviʹah, the sons of Elʹna-am, and Ithmah the Moʹabite, 47Eliʹel, and Obed, and Ja-asiʹel the Mezoʹba-ite.