The Bible in and as History: Samuel 1

Samuel is one of the books that is a single work in the Hebrew Scriptures but is divided into two books in the Christian Bible, and most specifically in the King James version I am reading.  I looked a little bit into the alterations and devisions and such, and it seems a consequence of translations, though the specifics of the whys also seemed to veer into hypothesis, conjectures and ‘pop history’.  What does seem clear is that the translation  into the Greek and Latin, and than later into English, caused the devision, though whether it was done for political reasons, or as a consequence of technology(one possibility I heard was that it was to enable each book of the bible to be on a certain length of scroll, though given the lengths of some of the previous books that aren’t divided, I’m a little skeptical on that).

The first part of Samuel chronicles first the rise of the Prophet Samuel as a leader of the Israelites and his triumph over their enemies, who in this text are most often, though not always, represented as the Philistines.  His specific triumphs are phrased in a way as to be indicatives of his morality as a leader, but I think it’s what happens after his ‘victories’ that is the most interesting beginning of the works narrative.

After his Victory, despite it in fact, the people of Israel call for a king.  Samuel basically gives them some warnings about the subject and they demand a king so one is to be chosen by God.  Samuel is a true prophet, and thus hears the voice of God, leading to the choice of Saul as the first king of the Israelites.

Saul is chosen by God, and has a bit of a good run, but ultimately fails in his duties as King and thus loses God’s protection and guidance.  This is caused by several things, among them Saul’s failure to complete the genocide of the Amalekites.  Despite the command of god he spares some of the people and their livestock, though the text seems to want to make clear that the motivation here was loot and slaves rather than any element of mercy or altruism.  Again we are struck with the theme of obedience to God’s will being supreme and having negative consequences on earth.  In this case, both the loss of Saul’s divine guidance and approval and eventually his life and dynasty, but also negative consequences for the Israelites.

Beyond Saul’s rise as King we have the tale of the earlier life of David.  David is presented in a bit of contrast to Saul.  Saul is grand and mighty; David humble and effacing.   Saul trembles before the Philistines, while David, armed only with a staff and sling, goes to confront their legendary Champion, Goliath.  This conflict, which of course has become basically proverbal in English does have the established meaning of a small figure facing off against a much stronger foe, though the tale is more centrally, I think, setting up David as the next Divine King.  That is, Goliath beats the tar out of those who oppose him and all the others are afraid to face his challenge.  David doing so and triumphing is evidence of his support from God.

There are than Conflicts between the Isrealites and the Philistines.  David’s various triumphs, and than a slowly growing divide between ‘The House of David’ and ‘The House of Saul’.  Repeatedly we are presented with David as a supremely moral person who rejects notions of being king.  This is an interesting and repeated narrative both in the ancient and recent world.  The ‘kingdom refused’ to demonstrate the moral worthiness of a ruler.  Having to it that adage that those who are the best rulers are those who want to rule the least?  David’s refusal to either take the throne or to directly oppose Saul or his family I think, from a historical point of view, also goes to establishing David’s later legitimacy as king.  That is, he can be shown not as an usurper, which can be seen as an accusation easy to hurl if you read between the lines.

In this I mean that if we strip away much of the religious and personal history, what the story is like is this; Guy becomes king through support of the priest class and the people.  Guy is a so-so King but not he greatest military leader.  One of his military leaders rises to prominence and eventually supplants him after the Kings death at the hands of his enemies and an on-going conflict between his heirs and said military leader.  In this we see a historical structure made to reduce accusations of illegitimacy or despotism.  David can be the divine king because Saul had lost God’s favour.  David refused the crown when he could have easily taken it by force.

I was struck actually, by a similarity between this legend and the idea in Chinese history of the Mandate of Heaven.  Briefly, the Mandate of Heaven was an idea that emerged after the Zhou dynasty supplanted the Shang dynasty.  The idea was that ‘Heaven’ granted divine favour to a dynasty, and when that dynasty stepped away from the will of heaven, the mandate could be withdrawn and given to another.  This thus made the Zhou legitimate.  They were not merely a military power usurping the power of ‘rightful’ kings, but new legitimate rulers with support from heaven.  This motif would repeat over and over again in Chinese history, but what interests me is that this idea of a divine transference of legitimacy to rule appears in these two cultures separated by both time and space.  We see there a social dynamic with regards ritual, religion and spiritual space in that appeal to the divine, the supernatural, can have a political dimension.

The narrative in Saul 1 ends, if not abruptly, than obviously.  We are leading into a conflict between the House of Saul and the House of David.  One in which the later will ultimately be victorious of course, but I’ll have to wait to find out how.


Next Week:  Samuel 2, the return!


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