Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Fourteen: 1 Samuel 21 – 2 Samuel 15
The second half of 1 Samuel and the first part of 2 Samuel recounts the decline of Saul’s reign and the establishment of David’s. Much of 1 Samuel is devoted to describing Saul chasing David and his few hundred followers throughout the kingdom, coming close to capturing him a few times but never quite succeeding. Each time, in fact, David is able to turn the tables and nearly kill Saul instead, much to that king’s chagrin. This section is most interesting in that it illustrates how two anointed kings, one of Israel and the other of Judah, take different approaches to dealing with a competing power who has been chosen by god (Saul disregarding god’s will, as usual, and David following it quite strictly). In addition, after the death of Saul and Jonathan, we are shown David’s goodness and his political savvy, as well as his fatal flaw.
The Witch of En-Dor: Even though the story of the Witch of En-Dor is rather brief, I’ll be honest and admit that I always remember it because her homeland shares a name with Endor of Star Wars, Episode VI (“Return of the Jedi”). It is a fascinating and important moment in Saul’s history, though. As king, Saul outlawed all witches, seers, etc., because they were aligned with the old, polytheistic gods and not the Abrahamic monotheistic god coming to prominence. In his desperation, though, after suffering serious losses to the Philistines and threats from those loyal to David, he tells his generals to find a seer who can consult a “familiar” and tell him his future. The witch brings Samuel from the dead, and the news is about as bad as can be. Not only is Saul doomed, but his sons are going to die, too. I find it rather odd that, at this point in the bible, when historically Saul is moving away from the old gods and in factthe later writers had already moved on definitively to monotheism, they would insert such a pagan anecdote.
Saul or Ahab?: The last part of 1 Samuel makes for great reading, especially for those familiar with the story ofMoby-Dick. Just as Ahab is consumed with a desire to get revenge on the white whale that maimed and humiliated the captain, so is Saul consumed with a desire to destroy David, his biggest threat. There’s a common theme of self-conscious leadership in these two stories that is beyond compelling and, in both cases, the results are rather tragic. In Ahab’s case, the tragedy is that he gives up his own life seeking vengeance upon a creature that committed an unconscious crime—it acted as an animal should; and in Saul’s case, his lust for power and neurotic self-doubt caused him to turn on perhaps his most loyal attendant. In the pursuit of David, Saul twice exposes himself to danger and is offered freedom by David, who could have killed him both times but chooses not to. When Saul learns his lesson and has finally decided to leave David alone, he falls to the Philistines, as do his sons.
Absalom, Absalom!: For the most part, David is one of the godliest men of the Old Testament, especially for such a successful leader. He refuses to kill Saul, for example, even after being anointed by god, because Saul had also been anointed and to assassinate him would be to blaspheme against god’s wishes. Even the best of us are doomed to fall, though, and David’s weakness comes in the form of a beautiful woman named Bathsheba. One day, David catches Bathsheba bathing nude and decides he is going to have sex with her, even though she is married to Uriah, one of David’s loyal generals. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and David panics. First, he twice tries to get Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife so that they can pretend it is his child. But Uriah is a committed soldier and refuses to go home and seek pleasure while his comrades are at war. So, in desperation, David orders Joab to send Uriah to the front lines and fight to the death. In this way, David breaks four of the ten commandments: he covets his neighbor’s wife, he lusts, he commits adultery, and he commits murder. God is nothappy with this situation and promises to punish David’s line. Ultimately, a few things happen: first, David and Bathsheba’s son dies. Then, David’s own son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister Tamar; then, David’s other son, Absalom, kills the half-brother for that crime. Finally, after years in self-exile, Absalom returns to his father’s good graces, via Joab, only to begin plotting to usurp the kingdom of Israel from David. What a mess!
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Dear Jonathan: When David hears that Saul and Jonathan have died, he cries, “how are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). He also remembers Jonathan by exclaiming, “thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:25-27). How romantic, and tragic. Later, when David learns that Jonathan’s crippled son still lives, he takes him in and offers him permanent protection, in honor of his father’s friendship.
Israel: After David comes to power over all Israel, he decides to make the city of Jerusalem capital for the kingdom. This is clever from both a military and a political perspective. David, of Judah (in the south), needed to ensure that he could not be accused of favoritism by the northern Israelites, nor could he look like he was abandoning the southerners; so he chose a city right on the border between the two, which had been controlled by the Canaanites. The city was also heavily fortified, especially the high-walled area known as Zion, so taking it ensured a more secure strategic position. From Jerusalem, David would rule a kingdom of about 30,000 square miles, or approximately the size of the state of Maine. This was a golden age for the Israelites but, in fact, the kingdom was rather small and feeble comparatively. The Egyptian and Hittite empires that preceded it, for example, were much larger, as would be the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires to come later. Ultimately, the rise of an Israeli Empire was only possible by accident, because it just so happened that no secure Asian power existed at this time.
Common Kings: The selection of the first two kings of Israel is interesting. Saul was chosen from the most minor of the tribes at the time, an oddity; and David was the youngest son in his family, another strange choice. What are we to make of the fact that these two, specifically anointed by god, come from such common backgrounds? It is also interesting to remember that the rise of David is foretold earlier in the Old Testament: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab” (Numbers 24:17). David certainly does shine, and his reign is much longer than Saul’s. He is told by god, through Joab, that the sword would always be upon his family, and he does indeed crush the Moabites (despite the fact that his ancestor, Ruth, was one).
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