GOD OR KING?
– AN UNRESOLVED QUESTION –
Comments on the First Book of Samuel
Before you read the historical accounts of the Bible, you must see the Jewish history as ours. We read the Old Testament because it was the Bible for Jesus Christ. Through Him, the Old Testament has become our Holy Scriptures. We are reading the Bible of the Jews as a history of their search for God. Our search is the continuation.
For the believers of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism the real power belongs only to God. Then comes the next tricky question: Who among us should exercise power on behalf of God. It’s tricky, because no human could hear or see God. Therefore we can not tell for sure who speaks for God. Anybody can lie and says this is the word of God and say “do as I tell you.” And many do. The question is still unresolved. Too many people claim such right, and I say they are all wrong. The Pope claims it: and he is wrong. History proves that he was wrong a number of times. Ayatollah claims it. Dictators, political leaders, fundamentalist religious leaders and preachers claim the divine authority and condemn, and even sanction murders of, those who don’t agree with them. The First Book of Samuel tackles this challenging question in the story of the anointment of the first king of the Jews. When you read the stories of Saul and David, you will realize how reluctant God was giving any human such power as the one kings (in today’s terms political leaders) exercise.
It is poignant that people demanded a monarchy in order to help them fight a war better and kill more enemies. “God is on our side” therefore why shouldn’t God give power to an exceptional human an authority and power to kill as many enemies and win. After Moses, starting with Joshua, every leader whose job it was to speak on behalf of God to resolve disputes (called Judges). They also had to be strong in battles. At least one of them was a woman, Deborah, a very smart tactician, Gideon, and a strong but tragic figure, Samson, etc. However, as the Jews found themselves fighting better organised enemies like Philistines, they wanted and demanded an autocratic and strong leader like kings of other nations, which the Jews hadn’t had so far.
Samuel, the last of the judges, by then concentrated on interpreting the will of God, delegating the fighting part to soldiers, was dismayed, because he thought the demand of people showed distrust of his words. But God told Samuel that it was lack of faith in God not in Samuel. The liberator from slavery in Egypt meant nothing to people any longer: short memories. They want a leader who fights better and wins.
It is interesting that according to the Bible the institution of monarchy is, for that matter all human political institutions and governments are the indication of lack of faith in God. Does that mean a true form of government is theocracy (direct rule of God, like Iran)? We are still struggling to find a solution to that question: “Who should possess the absolute power?” In the history of the Jews, in the end according to Samuel, God relented and allowed Samuel to choose a king of the Jews. The message is: all human authorities are a compromise stems from inadequate faith in God and must be placed under a constant and vigilant scrutiny.
Samuel warned them that a king would force his arbitrary will on them, force them to kill and be killed. King would take their women, property, and freedom at his whim. Ten Commandments were thrown out of the window as far as the kings were concerned except the first three commands! People have no way to balk. But for people, winning wars is top priority even at the price of their freedom and moral compromise. Doesn’t that sound familiar? We surrendered a lot of freedom after 9/11 in the war on terror and allow questionable practices as necessary evil.
What then are the criteria to choose an upstanding man to be a king? No woman was considered though there had been many strong and wise women. Even in England, in the 21th Century, the law of succession was changed to allow the first-born woman to ascend to the throne at last. (Queen Elisabeth II would not have been the Queen, if she had a younger brother. Princess Anne would have been the first in line of succession in stead of Charles.) Anyhow, Samuel found Saul. He was a good looking tall man. There are many other criteria to make a man worthy to be a king, but good looks and big stature came first. Sounds familiar? We are obsessed with superficial “Barbie and Ken” looks. The tall handsome Saul’s attraction is the same as Diana and Kate phenomena. In our TV dominated culture, good look still counts in politics. Nixon lost the election because Kennedy was better looking: “five o’clock shadow” during the TV debate killed Nixon’s chance of winning.
There are other qualities worthy to be a king: strong in battle, popular among people, ability in poetry and music (David became Saul’s confidant because of his poetry and music), etc. But where is an ability to discern the will of God and do the right thing? This final criterion seems to have distinguished David from Saul, and let David win God’s favour. But David too was fraught with weaknesses: adultery and murder among them. But he got away with it, and became the model of a saviour of the nation. What is interesting about the Bible is: it does not hide the ugly side of the heroes. Some accounts of Saul and David’s behaviours are quite disgusting. The Bible does not hide them.
The scholars who engage in textual analysis say it is because the books of Samuel and subsequent historical books, are the collection of two different traditions: one from the North where Saul’s tribe Benjamin lived, and the other from the South where the tribe of Judah from which David came. North and South hated each other. So the scholars say: the bad reporting on Saul was written by the Southern people and anything bad about David comes from the North. At any rate, this makes the Bible unique among ancient legends. More often than not, histories are written by winners, making the winners look always good and the losers always bad. The Bible says, on the other hand, all humans have limitations; they are both good and bad, none perfect.
Eventually the Jewish kingdom split up after Solomon’s death into Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom. They fought each other for a long time. Weakened by civil wars, both kingdoms were conquered and vanished, and the united Jewish nation never came back until 1948. The Jews have dreamed of the return of King David ever since. But that’s another story: Read the books of KINGS.