This next step in the history could more accurately be called Samuel, Saul, and David, though it includes a string of other telling characters along the way, including Hannah, Eli and his wayward sons, plus Jonathan and his sister Michal. Indeed, no other Biblical character is portrayed as more vividly human — virtues and serious faults — than David, from his humble rise and military victories to his uniting the country as a kingdom. He’s capable as a combatant and commander, yet compassionate and loyal, even poetic, as the Psalms attributed to him attest.
Presenting this as one book, as the Hebrew Bible does, rather than two as the Christian Bibles do, makes more sense to me. The usual division reflects the overflowing of the narrative into two scrolls, which also occurs for Kings and Chronicles. In my overview, I’ll view these books as complete units but make citations that match the two-part convention. And, for these and the remainder of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, I turn to the New Jerusalem translation.
Stepping back from its character-driven narrative, a reader can trace an equally important consideration taking shape: the confederation of Twelve Tribes is not functioning satisfactorily from the perspective of the people, who clamor for a king — one like other countries, as they argue.
For Samuel, who is not only a prophet and priest but also, like his sons, a powerful judge, this conflict builds into the political drama that sustains the book. And, like Eli, his mentor, whose two sons transgress their responsibilities as priests, Samuel’s two sons, Joel and Abijiah, become corrupt as judges. Their biased verdicts, in fact, are one of the arguments the people give in demanding to be ruled by a king instead (1 Samuel 8), which Samuel counters in a detailed argument on the disadvantages of a monarchy — nearly a premonition of what will happen under Solomon before shattering into two opposing countries. Any union is tenuous. Even in the beginning, when Samuel finally relents and chooses a monarch — by casting a lot — he finds he’s still dealing with a divided populace. One the one hand, “The people then said to Samuel, ‘Who said, “We must have Saul reigning over us? Hand the men over, for us to put them to death”‘” (1 Samuel 11:13), while on the other hand, as he replies, “But when you saw Nahash, king of the Ammonites, marching on you, you said to me, ‘No, we must have a king to rule us’ — although Yahweh your God is your king. So, here is the king whom you have chosen; Yahweh has appointed you a king” (1 Samuel 12:12-13).
In being pressured into the role of kingmaker, first handing over rule to Saul, a man of who fails to live up to his great promise, and then clandestinely to David, Samuel creates a rarity among ancient nations: a prophet who stands as a balance of power, keeping the monarch subject to a greater deity rather than becoming a god-king himself. This establishes a unique polity for the Hebrews, and amid the political intrigue that follows, Samuel has to warn the people in the aftermath of military defeat, “Do not transfer your allegiance to useless idols which, being useless, are futile and cannot save anybody; Yahweh, for the sake of his great name, will not desert his people, for it has pleased Yahweh to make you his people. … But, if you persist in your wickedness, you and your king will perish” (1 Samuel 12:22-24, NJB).
It’s a theme that will continue throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, along with another, the control of the Cult of Sacrifice. Quite simply, Scripture takes a dim view of kings — and, in the end, even David’s rule has abysmal failures.
Again, Samuel’s rebuke of Saul and, by extension, the people is prescient (1 Samuel 15:22-24):
Is Yahweh pleased by burnt offerings and sacrifices
or by obedience to Yahweh’s voice?
Truly, obedience is better than sacrifice,
submissiveness than the fat of rams.
Rebellion is a sin of sorcery,
presumption a crime of idolotry!
The book overflows with the failures of arrogance.
As Jerome Charyn notes in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, amplifying 3:1: “The First Book of Samuel is about the presence and absence of voices, the history of a tribe that has become tone-deaf. The Hebrews have forgotten how to listen. They cannot hear God’s voice. The Lord is absent from their lives. The go into battle with the Lord’s own Ark and lose it to the Philistines. It’s a sad and evil time for the Hebrews.”
And that’s for starters.
I have to admit an ongoing difficulty in relating emotionally to the significance of the Ark in their journey from Sinai. Mentally, I can appreciate their intensity in preserving the central artifact of their culture and identity, the way Americans would to the Declaration of Independence, in an admittedly lesser degree with, but my modern mind cannot encompass the ancient worship of an idol as an awe-inspiring, terrifying presence. The Ark remains, in its own unique way, a representation of the absence of an idol-god as well as an acknowledgement of the vital place such physical artifacts occupied in the ancient mindset. It’s fair to ask just what equivalents exist in contemporary societies. The descriptions of the Ark have me picturing a kind of coffin or puzzling box of transport. Is there really anything inside? Does anyone ever even get to view the stones, which somehow resemble the bones or other relics of later saints? Do the high priests ever touch them or use them in worship?
And here we are, with its stupendously reckless capture in battle. (I lean with those scholars who argue that the event happened not in 1 Samuel 4 but later, in the defeat of Saul and Jonathan, at the end of 1 Samuel). After its return, both David and Solomon desire to keep it close to the royal hand, along with the worship.
In the intrigues that follow, it’s natural to start cheering for David to replace the faltering Saul. We do, after all, believe that good will triumph over evil, or that competence will beat incompetence, and knowing the upcoming outcome of this story merely intensifies its narrative.
Charyn, though, puts a different spin on the story. “I never cared much for David. The little giant-slayer is as competent as any Boy Scout. He has no demons to upset him. … He’s the darling of the nation, the bringer of song. David is like a musical score.”
Even his seeming mercies sting, as happens when he and his men confront the king who’s out to murder them. Saul “enters a cave near Wild-goats’ Rocks in order to move his bowels in private,” but rather than slaying his opponent, David moves “while the king squats” and cuts off the skirt of Saul’s robe. Leaves him exposed. And even while David allows none of his men to kill the king, his heart still smites the king, as 24:5 observes.
In contrast, according to Charyn, “Israel’s first king haunts us like no other character in the Bible. He’s as bewitched as our own century. Eaten with guilt, isolated, utterly without the Lord, he could have come out of Kafka’s parables or Borge’s bookish tales. I’ve lived with that maddened king most of my life. He sticks to my dreams.”
For Charyn, “Saul is this catatonic Everyman: godless, alone, with the mocking sound of the turtle in his head. We ourselves are armored like Goliath and Saul. … He’s always melancholic, afraid to rule. … Saul’s disease is the terror of a man who’s lost the voice of God. He seeks God and finds only demons. … The voices in his ear gradually darken.”
It’s easy to name similar leaders in our own time and recent history.
“Saul’s handsomeness wasn’t enough. His very selection ruins him. He was a little too handsome, a little too tall. And it’s the awfulness of his fate — the king as a doomed man — that moves the modern reader.”