My training in political theory and policy analysis has me pondering these episodes by asking, “How else could a people of God have been governed?”
In Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Lore Segal casts the problem this way: “The story tests government by kingship, a possibly sinful experiment for a people who had the Creator of the universe Himself for its King and chose instead to have Samuel choose them a human one so that they could be like, and could fight like, all the other nations.”
How could a nation, especially one surrounded by hostile armies and marauding bands, be able to act decisively in maintaining a space where they could advance their unique religion and its way of life?
In practice, the libertarian rule of judges broke down into small, uneven fiefdoms. And the Jews — or proto-Jews, this being the narrative of their evolving identity — were a contentious group. David’s great achievement was in uniting them as one, albeit at great cost.
As far as I can see, the ancient mindset presents no alternative to the model of a king, or at least a smaller version like sheik. The Greeks have not yet experimented with democracy. Even Plato’s Republic takes the royal model to an extreme where the monarch is largely isolated from human experience, as if that would make him a more rational (and thus presumably effective) decision-maker. The Hebrews respond with the idealized concept of Messiah.
The two scrolls of Kings in my straight-through reading of the Bible turned my understanding of King Solomon 180 degrees. Forget the self-serving propaganda in the text. Counter it with the evidence his clerks insert, perhaps on the sly. Wisest man? The story begins with King David’s greatest error, the coronation of Solomon, who soon executes his own half-brother Adonijah and his first-cousin Joab. (What kind of family loyalty is that?)
That, after David has been forbidden to build the temple because he has blood on his hands. And now we’re to accept that Solomon is allowed to build a court for the Ark because his hands are clean? No, this no longer squares.
Even Solomon’s Jewishness becomes suspect. He has a foreign mother and takes on foreign wives. He worships their gods. The temple extravagance appears to reflect the temptations of worldly rivalry and enhancement of Solomon’s standing at home and abroad more than an acknowledgement of the Unseen Deity of the Covenant.
Is this building for the glory of God? Or of a man sitting at the head of his nation? Or is it essentially Solomon’s royal chapel, after building temples for his wives’ pagan gods?
Revisiting this project, I find a note suggesting that Solomon had miniatures of the temple distributed throughout the land, perhaps to rally support for its construction.
Despite the claims of his toady court scribes (his faithful propagandists), what is typically viewed as the glorious epitome of the descendants of Jacob looks instead more a mirage.
Solomon’s aspirations and excesses imposed heavy tolls on the Israelites. How long could they sustain it?
Not long, as we’ll see.
One lingering question is how much of the codification of the Hebrew scriptures begins to shape up during his reign, with the collecting of written manuscripts, many of them possibly copied and edited by anonymous literate women of the court? His father, King David, instituted the role of court scribes and recorders and instructed his son to do the same.
With Solomon’s death and his son Rehoboam’s arrogance and oppression, the nation collapses into two kingdoms: Judah, retaining Jerusalem, and Israel to the north. This becomes both a political and religious schism, as 1 Kings 12 details.
The ensuing narrative, based on the overlapping reigns of the king one country and then the other and back again, is difficult to follow, even before the boilerplate repetition of their sinful lives plays out. The intent of this parade of mostly evil, often inept, monarchs is tragic. Dramatically, I think it would play better as over-the-top comedy. This is what you get for insisting on a king, you unfaithful idiots.
Structurally, presenting the parallel histories of the two countries would be difficult under the best of circumstances. How would this work orally if Israel were voiced by one performer and Judah by another? On the page, having two distinctively different typefaces to represent each country might be helpful.
Apart from David, the kings who rule the two Hebrew nations turn out to be a string of disasters, many of them offering sons and daughters to the pagan gods as sacrifices either by the sword or burning them alive. How does the Jewish legacy even survive under such political rule? God is opposed, even oppressed!
More telling is the sense of kings in general as being shallow and weak. In addition to those heading Judah and Israel, those in Esther and Judith illustrate this sense.
But as the epitome of weak kings, who could surpass Ahab and his tyrannical wife Jezebel, in the northern kingdom, countered by the prophet Elijah? (Easily overlooked in that conflict is Elijah’s raising of a widow’s son from the dead, 1 Kings 17:17-24.) A rich mixture of warfare, conflict between religions, murderous corrupt politics ensues, “And indeed there never was anyone like Ahab for double dealing and doing what is displeasing to Yahweh, urged on by Jezebel his wife” (1 Kings 21:25). And when he dies, “the dogs licked up the blood, and the prostitutes washed in it” (1 Kings 22:38).
That part of the story continues with far more about Elijah’s successor Elisha, considered the lesser of the two prophets. Among his miracles is a multiplication of loaves (2 Kings 42-44), foreshadowing the two events in the New Testament gospels.
Reading the Bible straight-through, I could no longer deny the obvious. The bulk of the Hebrew Bible identifies the Holy One primarily as a war-god. For those of us in the historic Peace Churches (Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, and Friends/Quakers), this can be problematic, but it’s also an obstacle for many others in the general public, especially those who blame religion rather than economic inequities as the primary cause of armed conflict.
It’s too easy, by the way, to make an assumption that the Israelites alone were to blame as the aggressive, blood-thirsty gang through all of this. A broader history would point out they faced strong hostilities from all sides. Indeed, the number of other players and their city-states appears overwhelming. Don’t be misled by the general usage of the word kings in the translations to denote sheiks, along with our lack of familiarity with a landscape of what we likely assume was nations rather than the more likely scattering of small city-states. Our grasp of the blood-filled action is easily muddled.
For me, a key passage comes 2 Samuel 11:1, which my New Jerusalem Bible presents as, “At the turn of the year, at the time when kings go campaigning.” You might think they were seeking votes for an upcoming reelection. More directly rendered in the Contemporary English Version, we get, “It was now spring, the time when kings go to war,” or in the more sonorously roaring lines of the King James as “And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle.”
Here, then, warring sounds more like a major league sport, a time of plundering and ravaging one’s lesser opponents before going home with trophies or shattered dreams and grudges to nurse till next year. How many dead bodies are there, anyway, or how much gore? Is this sustainable? It’s got to be hyperbole, right? Like the claim, “We’re gonna cream ’em.” We could be dealing with gangs, mobs, or tribes as well as athletic teams and sports pages headlines or barroom boasts. Think, too, of big-screen action-adventure movies or the total number of killings a typical child sees growing up watching TV or even the post-game interviews where key players give thanks to God for their winning. (The passage, by the way, is repeated verbatim in 1 Chronicles 20:1.) Exterminations? Unlikely, considering how many opponents remained to return again.
Naturally, I want to tone all this down. In a nuclear age, when annihilation hangs over more than city-states and genocide runs rampant, to read chapters or books of the Bible as endorsement for such action is utter lunacy. The bigger picture, I feel, is that these stories show the ultimate failure of such policies. But that requires close reading of the full history rather than heated short sections.
Take, for instance, the size of the cities under consideration. Archaeological evidences suggest that few were larger than 5,000 population, although Babylon under Neb may have reached 200,000, with most of the populace going out to farm the surrounding countryside. A thousand to two thousand may have been much more common — for comparison, just one packed New York City subway train holds 1,200 to 1,800 riders. They’d fit easily into many of the city’s theaters and concert halls.
Does this help deflate the impression of the victories? It does for me, especially when other scholars weigh in that there’s no evidence for the eradication claimed and that linguistic research in fact points to the assimilation of the earlier peoples in the Holy Land.
Still, identifying the Holy One primarily as a war-god skewers our comprehension, imbuing it with Y-chromosome attributes. This deity hovers somewhere over the combatants, if not actually leading them from the vanguard. Combined with the male-fertility deity attributes, the impression of a male God is inescapable.
Indeed, in referring to Yahweh Sabaoth, “Lord of Hosts,” starting in 1 Samuel 1:10, the text means “Lord of Armies.” We soon have David’s army and champions (sounding like sports teams! could that be a clue?) reinforcing the image. Yes, there is also a repeated them of smaller, motivated, disciplined Israelite forces outwitting and outmaneuvering larger masses. And, yes, we humans do seem to love cheering on our teams, as long as they’re winning.
The stakes here, though, are high. Defeat can mean death or enslavement.
As a theology for public consumption, I suppose this is fine if you’re winning, but it does lead to a crisis when you’re not.
And while this experience of the Holy One can be applicable on the battlefront, how does it sustain family life at home, including the crops and children, or a people in times of peace?
How do we reconcile close combat with the Torah’s prohibitions against contact with blood or dead bodies? Do we get an explanation anywhere in these later texts?
As the narrative of Samuel’s priestly influence spills over to the second scroll, the focus shifts to David.
In my straight-through reading of the Bible, I came to this section expecting to revisit the golden age of Jewish history, the reign of its golden boy, the one Jerome Charyn has already seen in his own contrarian light as an irritating Boy Scout. In another commentary in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, Lore Segal extols David, who “plays more roles, in more situations, than any modern protagonist: he is a boy warrior, musician with healing powers, poet laureate, court favorite; for a while he is the leader of a band of marauders who massacre alien cities. He is a monarch, general, diplomat, a natural at public relations, a public man with a private life — a careful son, an irritating younger brother, a loving and faithful friend, the husband of a harem that includes one very angry wife; the father of children who make him howl with grief, an adulterer who plots murder, a penitent, a frequent mourner, and an old man, at last, who meets a new Goliath and can’t do anything about it — can’t make love, can’t keep warm.”
Well, that briefly encapsulates the book of Samuel. Segal says, “The story tests government by kingship, a possibly sinful experiment for a people who had the Creator of the universe Himself of its King and instead chose instead to have Samuel choose them a human one so that they be like, and could fight like, all the other nations.”
What I see in my reading this time, though, is that for all of his talents and triumphs, David’s reign is highly flawed. This is no golden age — indeed, there’s no golden age anywhere, not somewhere in my Quaker legacy nor in American history, no, nowhere, is there? David executes messengers, his enemies within and without his circle are not imaginary, he’s a disaster as a father, how else can we view the rape of a daughter by her stepbrother or the rebellion by another son? And that’s before his selection of the wrong heir to the throne, a king whose oppression will lead to rifting the nation and the eventual evaporation of ten of the twelve tribes of Jacob?
Yes, the storytelling is masterful, as Segal explains. “The Bible’s writers might have attended a course in ‘creative’ writing they tell so little, render so much, use so few adjectives and fewer adverbs. … The Bible does not know the formulation ‘King Saul felt that …’ or ‘saw that …’ or ‘thought that …’ except, wonderfully, when we look downward with the eyes of the King of King Himself at our own ubiquitous wickedness, before the Flood, and He tells His own heart that He regrets that he ever made us.”