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.”
Segal’s analysis of Second Samuel focuses on the marvelous technique of the storytelling and its understanding our own limitations as listeners. My reading, in contrast, picked up on its many themes that continue today, even in the face of the concept of separation of church and state that’s so central to the American experiment.
Is it possible that no earthly kingship in all the Bible will ultimate be viewed as “good,” but only that less bad is the best we can do? How does the Holy One want us to govern the events of daily life, to provide the protections necessary for peace and the free practice of our faith?
It’s easy to lose sight of these crucial threads amid all of the continuing warfare with neighboring city-states or even the court intrigue in a story like the one of Saul and David.
The political stakes are high, with the death of participants a repeated outcome, whether in the rivalries between Saul and David or among those of David’s wives and concubines and their sons. And in the outcomes, David more than once stands on the side of injustice.
Yes, we also see the theme of the war-god continue and develop, here in the praise of David’s elite champions, especially.
What I’d now like to hear is just what impact all this had on the Israelites themselves, for better or worse, and how they adapted. How much of their unique identity and mission, in fact, was due to their faithfulness more than the political intrigues swirling somewhere above them — or, perhaps more accurately, off in the newly transformed city of Jerusalem.
Could it be that unsung heroes resembling Boaz, Naomi, and Ruth are the true preservers of the heritage? Where do we find the story of the plain village women in general?