The ancient world had a custom for nearly every occasion. When it came to identity and intent, formalities were carefully observed because the ancients were often suspicions of each other’s motives. This verse is an interesting example of such.
In this passage, Jesse’s older sons are encamped with Saul’s army at Gibeah and the young David is being sent to inquire of their well-being. So that David might be welcomed into the camp and be able to visit with his brothers, Jesse sends a gift of ten cheeses to their chiliarch, the captain in charge of a 1000 men. Cheese was a generous and welcome gift (ancient armies foraged for their food). Such an appropriate gift would demonstrate David’s (Jesse’s) peaceful and friendly intentions of only seeking information.
Cheese is a very ancient food. It is believed to have originated about 3000 BC, the approximate time that sheep and goats were being domesticated in Egypt and Sumer. In those hot climates, cheese was the only form in which milk could be stored for any length of time. Cheese was a favorite food item, and the desire for it quickly spread throughout the Arab world. Cheese became a valuable trade item.
To make cheese, the ancients stored milk in containers made from animal skins and inflated internal organs. There it was allowed to sour and turn into curds and whey. The curd part was then strongly salted and pressed into cakes. At first the cakes were soft, but in the hot climate, they quickly dried and became hard, crumbling when sliced. The texture of these cheese cakes was similar to the feta cheese of today.
From John Lewis Burkhart : "It may be observed that cheese is not at the present day (1831) common among the Bedouin Arabs, butter being decidedly preferred. But there is a substance closely corresponding to those mentioned in 1 Samuel 17(18) and 2 Samuel 17(29) consisting of coagulated buttermilk, which is dried until it becomes quite hard and is then ground. The Arabs eat it (mixed) with butter." (From Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, Vol.1, p. 59-60. Published 1831, London.)
Again, the second half of this verse also shows the same suspicious nature, even among family members to each other. The phrase “take their pledge” is Jesse demanding David bring a personal item or object belonging to each brother that would assure Jesse that each still live and had not fallen in battle. Pledges were something that the receiver could easily recognize as honest proof that fulfilled the inquiry or request.
Pledges came in many forms.
From Rev. John Roberts: "Among the Hindus, a person in a distant country will send to those who are interested in his welfare a ring, a lock of hair, or a piece of his nail, as a 'pledge' of his health and prosperity. ("Oriental Illustrations of the Sacred Scriptures", p.169. London, 1844.)
There are also some notations that give spoils taken in battle as a Pledge. Such booty might be sent home to a wife and children, not only to assure that the husband and father still lived, but to maintain the family living while he was away at war.
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