Saturday, May 17, 2008

2 Samuel 1-6: David, King

David Mourns Saul

The narrative of 1 Samuel continues unbroken into the Book of 2 Samuel. A messenger from the battle in which King Saul has just fallen runs exhausted into David’s camp. He tells how the battle went against the Israelites, and how Saul, surrounded by chariots, had attempted suicide. But he apparently botched it, and, impaled and helpless as the Philistines pressed closer, he asked the messenger to finish him off. Afterwards, the messenger manages to sneak the crown and royal armband off of the battlefield and, three days later, delivers them to David.

David and his men are distraught by the news, and fall to weeping. They pump the messenger for as much information as he can give. Then, they execute him for having killed the king. No doubt the messenger, who had followed the king’s orders, and then voluntarily fled three days across the desert at enormous personal risk in order to protect the emblems of royal power, dies with a look of considerable surprise on his face. And to put the situation into full context, let’s remember that David had intended to be part of the army that attacked Saul, and was mighty peeved when he wasn’t allowed to participate.

David himself seems to have forgotten the last several years of hostilities between himself and Saul, and breaks into a long sentimental song about the late king with the highly quotable line how the mighty have fallen! (1:19) There’s a stanza about Jonathan in there, too, which rings oddly on the modern ear:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
Civil War

So now Israel has lost its first king. As is often the case in such situations, there is a secession crisis. With God’s guidance, David goes to Hebron and sets himself up King of Judah. All of the other tribes fall in behind Saul’s son Ish-Bostheth. Things get a little hard to follow – ambiguous pronouns can be a bitch in the Bible – but there are some brawls, and battles, and plenty of tension between the two courts.

In general, David’s fortunes are on the rise, and Ish-Botheth’s on the wane. Although we aren’t given any real details, the general impression is that Saul’s son is pretty ineffectual as a ruler. A key moment comes when Ish-Bostheth pisses off his right-hand man, Abner, by accusing him of sleeping with the late king’s concubine. Abner goes over to David, bringing the support of most of the local leaders with him. All of this is about as riveting as most accounts of small town politics, when you don’t happen to live in the small town.

With Ish-Bostheth’s administration crumbling, two of his own military officers kill him and bring his head to David. “Here is the head of Ish-Bostheth son of Saul, your enemy,” they tell him, “who tried to take your life. This day the Lord has avenged my lord the king against Saul and his offspring.” (4: 8)

David does not receive this gesture of support as they expect, however. As with the messenger who finished off Saul, he has these two guys killed and their mutilated bodies hung by the local watering hole, where everyone will have to see them at least a couple times a day. If this seems a little ungrateful from a man who they have just made the undisputed king, it’s interesting to note that a consistent theme of all of these stories of young David – that you must never harm a king, because the king is anointed by God – is going to serve him awfully well, now that he is himself the king.

David in Charge

The King! David, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, marches on an impregnable fortress-town of the Jebusites called.... wait for it.... Jerusalem! Somehow, it’s not clear exactly how, they manage to take the place. As the prosperity of David’s reign expands, he builds up the town and has a royal palace built for himself. He defeats a few Philistine invasions. In a big national celebration, he has the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem, confirming the “City of David” as the Israelite national capital, both political and religious.

David takes place in the general partying down that accompanies the arrival of the Ark, and his first wife Michal takes him to task for acting so common. They have a big fight over it, which may also reflect some bottled up tension about how he had her dragged away from her second husband, whom she married while David was out in Philistine territory with his band of bloodthirsty brigands. It just goes to show that even powerful celebrities must sometimes deal with marital discord.

Next Week: What will David do next?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

1 Samuel 23 - 31: The Many Moods of Young King David

So, to bring us up to date: After centuries of loose rulership by "Judges," the Israelites asked the religious leader Samuel to appoint them a king. Samuel picked Saul, who has proven to be a good military and administrative leader, but who has fallen out of God's favor for neglecting the details of His instructions. Samuel has privately annointed David as a replacement king, and although nobody knows about that he's the king-in-waiting David has become very popular after his colorful dispatching of the Philistine champion Goliath. Saul sees David as a rival to the peoples' affection, accurately enough, and has made several attempts on his life. Because of this, David has fled out into the desert, where he has begun to attract a band of followers.

It's an unstable political situation that all this is going down in, and things don't get any more stable in the final chapters of 1 Samuel. Here's what happens:

1 Samuel 23 -- David, the Heroic!

David hears that an Israelite city called Keilah is under siege by the Philistines, and rides down to save the town. He is victorious, but Saul, hoping to trip David inside the walled city, then leads the army toward the site. David escapes into the countryside, but the locals tell Saul (who is the King, after all) where David is hiding. We're on the verge of a showdown when Saul has to move his army elsewhere to deal with a fresh Philistine incursion. David establishes a secure hideout in caves near the Crags of the Wild Goats.

1 Samuel 24 -- David, the Merciful!

With the Philistines taken care of, Saul continues the search for David up in the hills. One day, Saul steps into a cave to take a leak, unaware that the cave is crawling with David and his well-armed henchmen. However, David merely cuts off a little scrap of Saul's robe; the king never even realizes there are other people in the cave.

After Saul leaves, David goes out and shouts at him. See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! he says. I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. (11) David claims that he is not a rebel, and just wants to be back in the king's good graces. Ashamed of his behavior, Saul admits he has been being a jerk, and says may the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands (19-20) David is reassured, but is nervous enough to stay in the caves rather than going back home.

1 Samuel 25 -- David, the Thug!

Samuel dies. I guess we won't be seeing any more of him. OR WILL WE.....?

Meanwhile, David moves into the Desert of Maon. There is a household living nearby headed by a couple named Nabal and Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, we learn, but her husband... was surly and mean in his dealings (3), not unlike the situation here at Castle5000. David's gang has been providing protection for the area, making sure that nothing gets stolen, but when he sends the boys around to ask for food, Nabal tells them to get lost. David, keen to find a workable solution to the standoff, decides to kill Nabal and everyone in his household for this injustice.

Word of this gets to Abigail, who leaps into action, puts together as much food as she can scrounge up, and meets David and his death squad en route. She eloquently offers up the food, and David is grateful both for being fed and for being deterred from making the hit, which he realizes -- a bit belatedly, it seems to me -- would have been a sin. He is so grateful, in fact, that after Nabal dies of natural causes a few weeks later, he takes Abigail as his third wife. Hmmm....

1 Samuel 26 -- David, Who Doesn't Believe in Regicide!

Saul saddles up his army and rides out against David again. This is presented as duplicity or malice, but one notes that David has been running something of a protection racket out in the hills, so this might also be interpreted as the kind of legitimate anti-briggandage activity you want from your king. Whatever. David sneaks into Saul's camp at night and takes the spear and water jug from beside him as he sleeps. Having left the camp, he scolds the king's men at a distance for not having given their master adequate protection, and lets Saul know that his life has been spared a second time. The Lord delivered you into my hands today, but I would not lay a hand on the Lord's annointed, he yells. (23) Saul is again moved, gets choked up, blesses David and predicts that great triumphs are in the young man's future.

1 Samuel 27 -- David, Slayer of the Innocent!

David sees the writing on the wall, however -- to use a Biblical reference we haven't got to yet -- and determines to leave Saul's lands before the king changes his mind again. He sets up household in the land of the Philistines, where his band makes their living by looting and killing. Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes. (8) This is not, I might add, because of any special instructions from God. Instead, David is just killing anyone who might inform on him to the Philistine authority. (11)

I hadn't known much about David before this reading, but had always had an impression of him as a heroic and morally upright figure. I am surprised to see that, here in his adult life, he is so far a minor warlord noteworthy mostly as an extortionist and a murderer. You learn a lot when you read the Bible.

1 Samuel 28 -- The Witch of Endor

Saul is fighting with the Philistines again, and he's nervous that God will no longer talk to him. He disguises himself and goes to a witch in Endor, who raises Samuel from the dead. Samuel tells Saul that he is doomed and will die in battle against the Philistines the next day.

This chapter is so downright weird that I looked into it a little bit. Apparently, this little black-magic ghost story was always seen through the ages as a fairly obvious example of how you can't take the Bible literally, before the big 20th Century boom in fundamentalism. Also, it's the probable source of the name of Endora, in Bewitched. Again, you learn a lot....

1 Samuel 29 -- David, Traitor to His People!

The King of the Philistines leads his army against Saul, and David enlists himself and his men... on the Philistine side! The Philistine generals don't trust him, though, so the Philistine king sends him packing home, grumbling.

1 Samuel 30 -- David suffers a setback, but comes out smelling like a rose

When David and the men get back to the settlement where he has been living, he finds that Amalekites have raided it while they were gone, burned it, and abducted all of the women and children. After having wept aloud until they had no more strength to weep, David and the guys take off in pursuit. Through a lucky break or two, they find the Amelekites a few days later, and fight a day-long pitched battle, after which they recover not only their wives and children and property, but also the phat loot that the raiders had been stealing from everyone else in Judah. There is great rejoicing as David splits the bounty with great fairness among his men, sending portions also to various local rulers and political connections.

1 Samuel 31 -- Saul's Unhappy End

The Philistines turn out not to have needed David and his men anyway. They triumph easily over the Israelites. All of Saul's sons -- including David's buddy Jonathan -- are killed in the fighting, and recognizing his situation as hopeless, Saul falls on his own sword. The Philistines lop off his head when they find his body, then tack his headless corpse up on a city wall to advertise their triumph. Bad form. No one likes a gloating winner.

...and that brings us to the end of 1 Samuel. With Samuel having died -- although we can't really say he's been resting comfortably in his grave, what with the necromancy -- it is a little surprising that the next book is called 2 Samuel. Maybe we'll find out why! Or maybe it's just a random naming convention.

Next Time: We start 2 Samuel!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

1 Samuel 17-22: Underdog Makes Good!

The story of David and Goliath, told in 1 Samuel 17, is remarkable in being exactly what I remembered from Sunday school. Young David is sent to the battlefield to bring bread to his older brothers, who are serving in the army, and there he sees how terrified the troops are of the Philistine champion, Goliath. I'd be terrified too. Goliath is 9 feet tall, wears 125 pounds of armor, and wields a spear with a 15 pound tip. This is not a small man. But the little shephard beans him in the forehead with one shot from his sling, and down he goes.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath
Interestingly, this clash of champions only kicks off the battle, rather than serving as a way of avoiding it. The whole idea of a battle between champions is that the side whose champion wins will get the privileges of winning without the necessary bloodshed, but when David saws off Goliath's head to finish him off, the Philistines run in panic and the Israelites make chase and attack them. So, although David taking out Goliath swings morale and initiative to the Israelites, it can't really be seen as decisive to the battle. After all, he only killed one guy out of a whole army.

Rembrandt, David Presents the Head of Goliath to King Saul
Anyway, after his high-profile triumph, David is a real hero. The people become increasingly fond of him, and he befriend's King Saul's son Jonathan. But Saul himself grows jealous of the young boy. He gives David increasingly dangerous military missions, hoping that he'll die in action, but David always prevails. Raising the stakes, Saul promises his daughter Michal (no relation) in marriage to David if he will produce 100 Philistine foreskins. Never one to shrink from a challenge, David goes out and kills 200 Philistines, cuts off their... well, you get the idea. Not only does David survive the mission, Saul has exchanged the princess for a bucket of foreskins. He could have done better.

Note: The battle of David and Goliath are a popular subject for children's tales, but they never mention the bucket of foreskins. Why do you suppose that is?

The Psyche of Psaul

It's hard to diagnose people who lived thousands of years ago -- especially since, technically, I'm not qualified to diagnose anybody -- but you have to wonder is Saul has some organic mental health issues. He needs David around to soother him during his frequent bouts of possession by evil spirits, but he's also so jealous that he's trying to have the boy killed. Saul also has extreme anger-management issues, on two occasions attracking David with a spear and completely freaking out on his son when the young man intervenes on David's behalf.

It's a bad scene, and after the second spear incident David gets the heck out of Dodge. Jonathan and his wife Michal help him escape. Saul, however, has really lost it at this point, and he goes chasing David into the wilderness. Learning that a priest has innocently given David some bread and Goliath's old sword, Saul explodes with rage. The priest had no reason to think that David was not still in the king's favor, but no matter. The hapless guy is executed, along with 85 other priests, all of their families, the entire population of their town, and all of the livestock.

Chagall, David Saved by Michal
David, meanwhile, has been keeping himself scarce, hanging out in such places as the Cave of Adullam, the court of the Moabite king, the Forest of Hereth, and Bag End in the Shire. No, just kidding with that last one. Saul's increasingly erratic and draconian reign is increasingly alienating and displacing more and more people, and many of them find their way to David's hideouts. By the end of today's reading, he seems to have a small rebel army in the making.

Next time: Usually, when there's a rebel army gathering, rebellion is a safe bet.