What We Can Learn From the Book of Kings

Review: 'The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel' by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes

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October 8, 2017

A more dramatic story than that of Israel's first kings as told in Samuel I and II is hard to imagine. But law professors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes in The Beginning of Politics take an unusual approach in viewing Samuel as "a profound work of political thought" in which the absorbing narrative is constructed in order to highlight the central structural themes about the nature of political power and its effects on those who wield it. In their reading the hero is neither Saul nor David but the anonymous author who has "produced what is still the best book ever written in the Hebrew language" embodying lessons as relevant today as they were then.

Halbertal and Holmes point out the sharp contrast between the ambivalent, if not outrightly hostile, attitude of the Book of Samuel toward kingship compared with that of surrounding cultures. They note that "in the political theology typical of the great land powers surrounding ancient Israel, the king was either a God, an incarnation of a God, or a semi-mythic human king who was elected by the gods to serve as a necessary mediator between the divine order and the human world."

Unlike these cultures, the Jews had relied on charismatic warrior-chieftains to lead them against foreign threats. But these leaders did not become dynastic rulers. As Gideon, one of these divinely appointed deliverers, says when the people ask him to rule over them: "I will not rule over you nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you."

When the Jews, threatened by repeated invasions, ask the prophet Samuel for "a king to rule us, like all the nations," he practically mourns. The Lord says, "Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for it is not you they have cast aside but Me they have cast aside from reigning over them." In fact, God compares the request for a king to idolatry. "Like all the deeds they have done from the day I brought them up from Egypt to this day, forsaking Me and serving other gods…"

The author of Samuel does not confine objections to kingship to religious grounds. In one of Samuel's most famous passages, the people are warned that a king will take their sons for himself to man his army and to harvest his fields, and will take their daughters "as confectioners and cooks and bakers." In other words, the king they see as a guardian against foreign attack will ultimately hurt them—"as for you, you will become his slaves." Halbertal and Holmes show how Samuel's author uses the stories of Saul and David to reveal the dangers.

Chief among them is what Halbertal and Holmes call "the grip of power," as the aim of those who attain sovereignty "is often reduced to nothing more exalted or idealistic than staying in power." They see Saul as a prime example, for he is introduced in the story as an unassuming, unambitious, and considerate young man who hides when he is called to be anointed king. He turns into a madman bent on power, who repeatedly tries to kill David in order to preserve himself and his lineage on the throne.

When power's main end becomes preserving power, it leads to what Halbertal and Holmes refer to as "instrumentalization," a bulky term that refers to turning what should be ends into means. Such ends as love, justice, duty, loyalty, and morality become useful tools. For example, Saul is delighted when his daughter Michal falls in love with David because he thinks he can use her love as a means to kill David. According to the writers, David instrumentalizes the sacred when, fleeing Saul, he persuades the priest Ahimelech to help him by pretending he is acting as an agent of Saul, thus making the priest complicit in his escape and leading to the massacre by Saul not just of Ahimelech but of all the priests of Nob.

Halbertal and Holmes, moreover, argue the dynastic solution to the problem of succession is inherently unstable for it "leads to the next generation being entitled, competitive and impatient." David's problems with his sons pitted against each other and against him illustrate the difficulties.

To Halbertal and Holmes, "what makes the [Samuel story] so alive to the touch even today" is "its analysis of political power, an analysis that we believe to apply not only here and now but whenever and wherever structures of power exist."

But while this interpretation of Samuel will appeal to political scientists, to the believer, Jewish or Christian, or even a secular reader drawn by the rich humanity of the narrative, it will seem simplistic and reductive. For example, for Halbertal and Holmes, Saul's madness is fully explained by Samuel's warning to him that the kingship would be torn from his hands. They write: "So thoroughly does hereditary sovereignty captivate the one who wields it that the fearful anticipation of losing it, even for one who did not originally seek it, suffices to unhinge the mind." Maybe. The text makes it seem more likely that Saul was mentally ill—"an evil spirit from the Lord began to terrify him." If Saul was sick, it puts his behavior in a different light. There is a problem with mining the story of someone who suffers from mental illness for political lessons.

As for "instrumentalizing" the sacred in misleading Ahimelech, David is a young man running for his life in desperate need of food and a weapon. You don't need to be a power-seeker to deceive a priest if the alternative is death. David will later take responsibility for the deaths of the priests of Nob, telling the sole survivor, "I am the one who caused the loss of all the lives of your father's house." This is because he had seen Doeg, a member of Saul's court, in Ahimelech's entourage and knew he would report back to the king. But what Halbertal and Holmes fail to note is that David had no way of knowing that Doeg would lie in his report, making it appear that Ahimelech had been a knowing co-conspirator against Saul. Had Doeg reported honestly, Saul would have known that Ahimelech had been deceived. David might well have assumed Saul would do no more than rebuke the innocent priest for his gullibility.

While they caution that "attempts to unmask David as nothing but a cynical opportunist fail to do justice to the many ambiguities woven artfully into his story," Halbertal and Holmes do not begin to do justice to what David Wolpe in his David: The Divided Heart calls "the most complex character" in the Bible. David sins repeatedly—having his loyal soldier Uriah killed to cover up David's adultery with his wife is the most blatant of those sins. But Wolpe is right that the evidence in Samuel is that David’s central character trait is faith. God repeatedly forgives him, says Wolpe, because "one of David's most distinguishing features was the sin he avoided: idolatry." And so, when Nathan tells David of God's displeasure at what he had done to Uriah the Hittite, Wolpe writes, "Here is what David did not do: He did not have Nathan put to death." His reaction is acknowledgment and penance: "I stand guilty before the Lord!"

David's behavior in other critical matters suggests he acts out of genuine religious conviction. Once king, he wants to build a temple to the Lord, which would certainly have expanded his prestige and power, but when Nathan tells him his hands are too bloody for the task. David relents without question. And there are, of course, David's writings, his Psalms, which are full of praise for God, to whom he gives all the credit for his successes. The message King David seems to be sending throughout his reign is that not he, but God is king.

Halbertal and Holmes bring a valuable added dimension to the reading of the Book of Samuel. But it will be a distorted one if the reader does not take care to explore other studies that focus on the human understanding and subtlety of this great narrative.

Saul and David were both believing kings. This was true of only a handful of Israel's rulers. Most did "what was displeasing to the Lord." Even King Solomon turned away from God in the end, incredibly building altars to a variety of gods to please his foreign wives. To minimize the faith of Saul and David, to distill down their reigns chiefly to cold political calculation does a disservice to their legacy.

Published under: Book reviews