Sample text for Give us a king! : Samuel, Saul, and David : a new translation of Samuel I and II / with an introduction and notes by Everett Fox.


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Counter Introduction

Not long ago my wife was teaching the book of First Samuel to a thirteen-year-old student. As the two of them read chapter 8, which narrates how the Israelites clamored for a king and how God responded to their request, he looked up at her and said, "I don't see what this has to do with my becoming a computer programmer."

From at least one person's perspective, then, the book of Samuel -- for it was a single book in its early written form -- is not a book for the turn of the century or the millennium. The balance of the world's people no longer concern themselves with kings or prophets; God is not the determining factor in either foreign or domestic policy in America; and the notion of community, whether cemented by external threat or internal bond, has been reduced considerably from what it once was. In such a world, which seems impossibly distant from eleventh century B.C.E. Palestine, the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David would seem to have lost their currency or their power to grab the imagination.

But the century that has seen the previously unimaginable advances in science and technology that have absorbed our budding computer programmer's attention has also been filled with overpopulation, exploitation, war, and genocide. It has pushed the great human questions of morality, dignity, and justice to their limits.

The book of Samuel is concerned with what are perhaps the two most important problems arising from these issues: those of personal responsibility and leadership. Samuel's narratives center around the choices made by individuals and collectives, leaders and the communities that select them, and around the consequences of those choices. Embedded in the larger collection of stories that stretch from settlement (the books of Joshua and Judges) through monarchy and eventual collapse several hundred years later (Kings), Samuel reflects a people's struggle with what it means to ask for leadership, how the leaders measure up to the task, and how the ideals of a culture fare in that process.

The stage is dramatically set in I Samuel 8. Throughout the preceding book of Judges, the Israelites, an entity living precariously in the central hill country of Palestine, have relied on a charismatic system for protection against their enemies. Judges presents a series of rulers, appointed by God and possessed of military skills, who time and time again bail their tribal followers out of situations of foreign domination and oppression. But this system of instant heroes who somehow always show up to rescue the people eventually breaks down. The Israelites are unable to sustain what the Bible sees as the rule of God, a form of governance that depends, in Martin Buber's words, on "pure voluntarism," a community's determined effort to realize the ideal society.

The cause of the people's plight, in the view of the books from Judges through Samuel and Kings, is that they put their trust in fertility gods like Baal and Astarte and abandon their traditional (or at least ideal) reliance on a God of justice. At the end of the last judge's -- Samuel's -- career, this is what leads the Israelites to make the fateful move of requesting a king, "to lead us" so "that we may be like all the other nations." In response, God comes to Samuel in a vision, saying "they have rejected me": the people, in the name of security and a desire to fit in with the world's definition of success, have put the old standards of justice and right on the back burner. Samuel, speaking to them in God's name, is quick to point out the dangers of what they are requesting. His speech on "the practice of the king" (8:11-18) tells the Israelites what they can expect of such a system. It is built on the repetition of one key word: take. Kings will ultimately act in self-interest; they will seek to accumulate, and in that process the older tribal system, which depends for the ordering of society on families and elders, will be disrupted and violated. Samuel's prophecy turns out to be right on target: kingship, coupled with the abandoning or erosion of time-honored traditions, leads in the book to a fratricidal, unjust, and ultimately defeated society.

This view of power is presented through the careers of three major characters -- Samuel, Saul, and David. The narrative emphasizes the forbidding tasks with which they are charged, and the result is not encouraging. Samuel is chosen as a prophet in his childhood and fulfills his mission faithfully, only to fail in the obligation of passing the mantle to the next generation. Saul is chosen as Israel's first king and is granted military success, only to see his leadership dissolve into tentativeness, rejection, and paranoia. And finally, David, chosen to found a dynasty "for the ages," is remarkably successful in his public endeavors, only to come perilously close to losing it all through his private actions. Driven from the throne by his own son, he is saved solely by the disobedience and ruthlessness of his subordinate, Joab.

In these dramatic stories, and the complex way in which they are played out, lies the kernel of a concept of what it means to be human and have leaders. Israel, from Judges through Kings, agonizes over the shortcomings of its leaders, men who are called upon to remain true to an ideal (the "covenant" between God and Israel) and who fail again and again to realize it. These books, to be sure, record the leaders' successes, but they are more interested in their failures, and it is in confronting their failures that the reader is empowered to ponder the meaning of responsibility and leadership for our own time. The narratives in Samuel -- unlike later, selective retellings in Jewish and Christian tradition such as the biblical book of Chronicles, which present the major characters in a positive and even idealized light -- unfold in a way that cautions human beings about the exercise of power and takes offenders to task.
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Nowhere is this as clear as in the case of the book's main focus, David. As the character whose name appears more often in the Bible than that of any other human being, and whose story is "its longest continuous story" (Marcus), he occupies a central place in the biblical compilers' world of ideas and images. In David we encounter a leader whose rise and decline are a match for any modern example. As a youngest son and a shepherd, he rises from powerless beginnings; his youth is marked by unparalleled success as soldier and incipient leader; he is loved by women and by Jonathan, the crown prince (who should be his rival); he miraculously escapes death on numerous occasions in his flight from Saul; his path to the throne is enabled by overzealous subordinates, whose bloody deeds on his behalf somehow do not reach as far as their master; and ultimately he is able to unify a tribal society, secure lasting peace, and create a new order based on a triad of dynasty, royal city, and temple. What a success story! Yet at the very moment that worldly success betokens divine and human approval of David, his own actions topple him from the summit. He commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband Uriah murdered in II Sam. 11 and is condemned and punished in chap. 12. Immediately a grave series of events follow, rape and murder perpetrated by and among David's own children, that themselves lead to a terrible and costly revolt.


Thus, in broadest perspective, the portrayal of David in Samuel, far from being an idealized hero account, is predominantly one of struggle. It is not even a full biography (see Smith), but is dominated by what Buber rightly characterizes as "two great stories of flight." That is, the Bible's central human character spends more time in running than he does in victory parades or on the throne. By the end of the book David is back in Jerusalem, restored as king -- but just barely, and it comes as no shock to the reader when we encounter, in the opening of Kings, a David who is enfeebled in virtually all the areas that he had previously mastered: military leadership, sexual prowess, and decision-making. Only in political ruthlessness does he retain any of his old flair, and that surely cannot be viewed as a virtue.

David's story in Samuel thus illustrates a wider truth: the fate of the Bible's characters is one means through which it confronts the areas of personal responsibility and of leadership's most problematic aspect, the abuse of power. No one in the Bible gets away with anything -- not Jacob, the ancestor of Israel, not Moses, the liberator and lawgiver himself, and not even the charismatic and beloved David, much as he is said to "strengthen himself in YHWH his God" (I Sam. 30:6) and despite the fact that he is credited in biblical tradition with writing some of the world's great religious poetry in the Psalms.

The Bible supplies a second answer to the challenge posed by kingly power: the counter-institution known as prophecy. In the biblical world this transcends the popular conception of "prophesying" (prediction), and becomes the most passionate, trenchant form of social criticism. The paradigm of the prophet who, at great risk to his own life, confronts the king, the nobles, and even his own people in the name of the truth, is central to the biblical mind-set. Prophecy's first great exponent is Moses himself. In standing before Pharaoh, Moses sets the tone for all later prophets, who are charged by God with confronting kings in the halls of power.

These great dissenters figure powerfully in the book of Samuel as well. Samuel, who is portrayed in the book as a prophet from childhood, undoes God's choice of Saul as king (I Sam. 13 and 15), and confirms this act of "rejection" from the grave (chap. 28) in the Hebrew Bible's only presentation of a ghost. David, at the height of his temporal power and success (he does not even feel compelled to lead the troops in battle any more), is confronted by the prophet Nathan's deceptively simple parable of the poor man and his lamb and then by his ringing denunciation of the king's double crime of adultery and murder (II Sam. 12). After these confrontations the book receives the only possible positive resolution, from a third prophet, Gad. He announces God's punishment for a further presumption of power: David's taking of a census, a king's exercising God-like control over the lives of his subjects.

This focus in Samuel, which undoubtedly betrays the hand of later prophetic circles in its composition, reflects above all the Bible's great concern with justice. I Sam. 8 makes it clear that, unchecked, kings will take and not give, that they will look to expand their power rather than providing for a just society. And this is borne out by the stories that begin in Samuel and continue through Kings. Time and again in these texts the people are ill-served by their kings. In their rush to be like everyone else, the Israelites are turned toward idolatry, that is, toward what the Bible regards as misplaced values; they find themselves oppressed by the upper classes and their tribal way of life threatened by kings; and they are forced into wars of rebellion against great empires, whose might they are in the end unable to withstand. The final editors of this part of the Bible, sitting in exile in sixth century B.C.E. Babylonia, looked back on the entire history of Israelite monarchy and, as they mourned their losses, understood that there was something about that early request for a king that was intimately related to their present plight.

This understanding of history is not a conventional one. It is not a list of kings, their battles and building programs, or a series of essays on economic cause and effect. The modern historian, to be sure, will find that kingship was undoubtedly useful and even necessary to the survival of ancient Israel (cf. Meyers). In addition, there are strong ideological influences in the text; there is much in Samuel that functions as an apology for David, in order to justify the persistence of his dynasty into later times (Brettler 1995). But Samuel's understanding of history is, in the main, a judgment of leaders and events by the standards of the biblical covenant. Despite a solid core of traditions that chronicled support for a dynasty, praise for a city and a Temple, and, after their destruction, fervent prayers for their restoration, ancient Jews somehow understood that what matters to a community in the long run is not power but right. It was this vision, born of bitter experience and ultimately powerlessness, that perhaps enabled them to survive the experience of exile and return to create and sustain a culture that spawned Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

And so, in the end, our young computer programmer's question can only be dealt with if we turn the question back to him. He should be asked: What does computer programming have to do with creating the just society? What will you do to ensure the flourishing of a just society? And what will happen to society if it seeks, and finds, leaders who are not just?

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I have suggested that the book of Samuel conveys its prophetic message of social and political criticism through the situations experienced by its characters. But it also does so by means of a second aspect of literature: the allusive quality of language. It is here that translation, if done carefully, has much to contribute. I will present only one set of examples to illustrate what I mean.

Robert Polzin, in his brilliant study of Samuel, draws our attention to the way in which a number of both major and minor characters die. Not only are they assassinated or killed in battle, but they frequently lose their heads. Thus David chops off Goliath's head (I 17), Saul is dismembered after his death by the Philistines (I 31), his son Ish-Boshet's head is brought to David for reward (II 4), the rebel Absalom meets his death as a result of his head becoming stuck in a tree, and the head of the rebel Sheba son of Bichri is thrown off the battlements of Abel, effectively ending the last threat to David's throne (II 20). Polzin (1993) sees these deaths as thematically connected, forming an important symbolic clue to the book as a whole:
However clearly we see this seizing of the head as stylized imagery for the grasping of kingship, the semantic fullness of "head" here is scarcely exhausted. For from the beginning of his career to the end, David's character zone is intimately connected with the head as a locus of guilt and death. For one thing, David, wittingly or unwittingly, is constantly associated with the contemplated or actual beheading of his enemies. . . . the head [also] functions as the locus of the guilt and sin of David's enemies. . . . the heady bloodshed surrounding David still remains a significant means by which he rose to become "head of the tribes of Israel (1 Sam. 15:17) and "head of nations" (II Sam. 22:44).

But it turns out that the head is not the only body part to have interpretive value in Samuel. The heart, too, comes into play, particularly in the memorable cycle of stories that recounts Absalom's rebellion against his father David (II Sam. 13-20). The tone is set already in the opening story, the rape of Absalom's sister Tamar. Amnon, the crown prince, pretends to be ill and requests that his half sister make levivot, usually translated as "cakes," for him. The noun occurs four times, and the root appears twice more in verbal form. But as some interpreters have noticed, the homonym (levav) means "heart," and the verbal form of l-v-v occurs in the Song of Songs (4:9, "You have captured-my-heart" [JPS]). So a word connected with seduction in love poetry is appropriate enough in the mouth of the lovesick Amnon, and on this and other grounds (see notes below) we are justified in translating levivot as "heart-shaped-dumplings."

From this opening salvo we are prepared for permutations of the word throughout the story. Absalom, on hearing that Amnon has raped Tamar, counsels his sister not to "take it to heart" (13:20); when the moment is right -- Amnon's "heart is merry with wine" (13:28) -- Absalom has his henchmen murder Amnon; King David, misled by the resulting outcry into thinking that all of his sons have been killed, is corrected by Jonadab, who informs him that Amnon alone is dead and tells him not to "take it to heart" (13:33); Joab, David's chief of staff, notices that the king's "heart is toward Absalom" (14:1), and reconciliation is therefore necessary; but eventually, of course, Absalom rebels against David, and meets his end at the hand of Joab, who drives three darts "into Absalom's heart" as he swings in "the heart of the oak" (18:14). There are several more idiomatic uses of the word in the story (14:13, 15:10, 16:3, 19:15); but the significant ones occur in 15:6, where Absalom "steals the hearts" of the men of Israel: in 19:8, where Joab urges David to "speak to the hearts" of those same men; and in  19:15, where the king "inclines the heart of the men of Judah" toward him.

This key word, which is usually translated out for idiomatic reasons (JPS variously renders the above examples as "cakes . . . keep in mind . . . merry . . . think . . . mind . . . chest . . . hearts . . . placate . . . hearts, respectively), is probably a "leading word" in Martin Buber's definition, that is, a word used thematically to point to a major message in the narrative. It seems to me that it functions here to highlight the issue of who will exercise leadership over Israel, David or Absalom. In the language of the text, this comes down to who will command the hearts of the people, the king chosen by God or the upstart who has driven his own father out of Jerusalem, and who in words, at least, has sanctioned his murder. By presenting different uses of the leading word, but retaining the sound links between different passages, the text encourages readers themselves to "take to heart" the painful lessons of this narrative, one that begins with a lovesick prince but whose roots lie in another affair of the heart (the David and Bathsheba incident).




Having begun with heads and hearts, we may make a final, broader observation. Samuel is a book that talks about deep and visceral emotions. Characters' feelings are frequently described as "bitter" and their behavior as "rough," and they express extreme "distress" and "upset." But the text is visceral in another, quite literal way. From head to foot (cf. II Sam. 14:25), the human body absorbs a good deal of the book's energy: We move from Absalom's hair -- cause of his pride and perhaps of his death -- to failing eyes and broken neck (both Eli's); ears (Saul's) are avoided; hearts weaken and are stirred; some hands slacken, while others are ready to close in on David; ribs are pierced in revenge and assassination; feet (Mephiboshet's) are lame; the blind and the lame seek to bar David's takeover of Jerusalem; and, not least, genitalia, notably David's, become the cause not only of personal but also national disaster. The Bible, like other ancient Semitic literatures, frequently makes reference to parts of the body in both its narratives and its poetry, but Samuel uses them to a remarkable degree.

What could be at work in such a literary onslaught of limbs? Polzin's initial observation, that the text is concerned with the "heads" of society, and that this bodes ill for those who keep their heads as well as for those who lose them, is germane here. One is reminded of a passage from Isaiah (1:5-6), in which the prophet tries to convey the all-pervading corruption of Judean society: "Every head is ailing, / And every heart is sick. / From head to foot / No spot is sound: / All bruises, and welts, / And festering sores --  / Not pressed out, not bound up, / Not softened with oil" (JPS). I believe that the same imagery is at work in Samuel. This book, conceding to Israel its heroes and its monarchy, nevertheless wishes to suggest the inherent sickness of the Israelite body politic, and does so literally. The request for a king, and its fulfillment, leads to a communal illness, which in the Bible's view can only be purged away in the purifying fires of exile. The Judean community, ruled over by the House of David, cannot survive as a society that is rotten from top to bottom, presided over by morally ailing heads of state.

* * *

After all is said and done, we are still left with Samuel's greatest enigma, the figure of David himself. As recent interpreters have pointed out, he is a man whose feelings are often hidden from us, a man who is acclaimed and loved by others (including his readers) but of whom it is never said that he loved anyone (Steussy). How may we reconcile the book's complex portrait of him with what he came to mean to generations of Jews and Christians? David, after all, was already an extremely important and positive symbolic figure in the Bible. Over time he came to stand as the unshakable symbol of God's eternal promise of a political continuity and a holy city that would never disappear. This conviction, for Jews, remained firm even in the face of destruction and exile, and crystallized in the image of "Messiah son of David," a future God-sent king of David's line who, unlike most of the biblical kings, would not fail, and who would usher in a final age of peace and prosperity for all humanity.

For early Christians as well, David naturally was connected with the figure of the Messiah, both as a foreshadowing of Jesus, in the person of the popular ancient symbol of the "shepherd king," and as his ancestor. It is no accident that the Gospel of Matthew, the opening of the New Testament, begins with the phrase, "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (NRSV). David thus provides the crucial link between Christianity's literary and biological ancestors, the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, and the new community of believers.

Should we write off this posthumous David, beloved paragon of piety, as simply the product of wishful thinking? Or should we dismiss his at times problematic behavior, as portrayed in Samuel, merely as part of a critical tradition that crept its way into an otherwise unblemished account of a glorious past? To go in either direction is to lose the richness of David. It is more likely that Samuel's morally compromised figure of David has been retained by Jews and Christians precisely because of his depth and suitability as a mediator between the human and the divine.





Like most religions, both Judaism and Christianity came to cultivate the concept of human redemption, the idea that human beings are capable of rising beyond their flaws and, through deeds and/or faith, of helping to perfect the world. David, as a man who is sincere but hardly a saint, has through the ages provided a powerful model for repentance. In the Bathsheba episode he immediately and unflinchingly admits his guilt; in the book's final story, where his exercise of royal power (census-taking) leads to a plague among the Israelites, he accepts responsibility and places his fate in God's hands. He emerges from Samuel as a humble and humbled king, who points the way to the possibilities of genuine change.

Then, too, the choice of David as the forerunner and forefather of the Messiah touches upon a fundamental mystery in the Hebrew Bible, the reason for Israel's becoming the "Chosen People." Throughout Genesis, God favors younger sons -- Isaac, Jacob, Joseph -- over firstborns without explaining why (see Geller). The reader is left to contemplate the mystery of God's preferences, which seem arbitrary; the constant recurrence of the younger son motif undoubtedly reflects a major anxiety in Israelite culture. But it is precisely through the issue of whether David, the archetypal younger son, is a usurper or the true king, that the most vital question is mediated: Are the people of Israel merely a small, helpless band of latecomers on the ancient Near Eastern scene, or are they God's elect? Like the second-born Jacob, from whose God-given name Israel the people derives its own, David and his struggles become absorbed into the "Children of Israel's" national character. Warrior, ascender to kingship, singer of sacred songs, sinner and repenter, a man whose exploits and tribulations are celebrated by the great bards of ancient Israel, the David portrayed in these pages is the very image of ancient Israel's struggle to understand itself. As such, he is at the core of the rich legacy bequeathed to us by the book of Samuel.


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