Before reading 1-2 Samuel, I’d heard speculation that the figures depicted – particularly Saul and David – were not historical. Having now read the books, I find that it rings authentic. There are (almost) certainly fudges, exaggerations, and propagandic spins, but the characters and their conflicts had a completely different feel from what we’ve mostly seen so far. In Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua, there were elements that I found odd, bits that modern believers would generally find embarrassing (I would hope), but there was always a sense of purpose behind the stories. The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, to use one example, there was a clear sense of theological purpose, even if that underlying purpose has been lost.

In 1-2 Samuel, however, I didn’t get the sense that there was a purpose to having David become a bandit after leaving Saul’s court. It didn’t seem to have a point, except that the author was trying to mitigate the negative stain of it on David’s reputation by trying to spin him as a freedom fighter/vigilante police.

King David, by David Clayton, based on Westminster Psalter, c.1200

King David, by David Clayton, based on Westminster Psalter, c.1200

That said, there’s no question that much was exaggerated. I don’t buy for example, that Saul and David ruled over territories that were quite so large as claimed. Just to engage in some wild speculation for a moment, the sense I got was that Saul was raised as a leader of the Benjaminites. At the time, Benjamin was powerful enough and offered up enough resistance to antagonists like the Philistines that they were able to receive tribute in exchange for protection – forming a confederacy that was a little more solid than what we saw in Deborah’s narrative in Judges 4-5.

Meanwhile, David came to Saul, possibly as a court musician. Perhaps Judah was already starting to cause problems, or perhaps David attempted a coup (a failed coup might have become retold as David staying his hand and sparing Saul by choice) to make Judah the central/leading tribe of the confederacy. It might instead have just been a personal issue between the two men. Either way, David ended up being cast out and living as a bandit for a while before joining the Philistines. During this time, he got leadership experience and amassed a personal army of not-inconsiderable might. He was also buddybuddy with the Philistines, who posed the greatest threat to the confederacy. It was this alliance that occasioned Saul’s death (I suspect that David was at the battlefield, since his alibi, presented in 1 Samuel 29, just seems a little too convenient, though there’s no reason to believe that he personally killed Saul).

With the Hebrew confederacy in turmoil after a major loss to the Philistines and the death of its figurehead (presumably along with enough sons to make succession an issue), David saw an opportunity and returned to his home in Judah. It’s possible that he had a family claim to the Judahite leadership, though the sense I get was that he was just good enough at politics to convince the Judahites to make him their leader and mount a challenge against the already much weakened Benjaminites – who were now not only dealing with enemies from nearly all sides, but also seem to have had a fairly weak (and possibly quite young) king.

This lead to a sort of civil war between two tribes competing for primacy in the confederacy – one that David ultimately wins. But with the resentment of the Benjaminites, the cultural differences between Israel and Judah, the precedent of inter-tribal conflict, and the conflicts within David’s own family, it seems that his rule was marked by rebellions as the culture group messily evolved into a nation. Still, David managed to keep the confederacy together even after the pressing danger of the Philistines was over.

Not only is it a good story, it’s a plausible one, too. It just feels true, at least in kernel form.

The Characters

Saul was a very inconsistent character, which makes sense if his portion of the narrative was cobbled together from different sources. He seemed hard yet sympathetic at times – which makes sense if he was truly able to unite the tribes for such a long time. At other times, he seems vindictive, petty, and erratic.

If the text was generally composed (or at least compiled) by pro-David propagandists, this all makes a good deal of sense. They would want to disparage Saul just enough to make it clear that David’s succession was a good thing, but without disparaging him so much that anyone might think that maybe this whole monarchy thing was a bad idea. This would particularly be the case for the earliest sources, while it was still thinkable for the tribes to exist without a king.

There are hints about Saul that go unexplored, like his zealousness in “purifying” his newborn nation. I wish there was more information about his rule, more clues to help me decide if it was the work of a cultic zealot or a shrewd politician who understood that the inter-tribal variations would have to be stamped out if the nation wasn’t soon to dissolve back into its separate groups (or, perhaps most likely, a combination of both).

Much more time is spent with David, and we hear more both about his policies and about his family life. What we see isn’t pretty. He’s clearly politically savvy, holding the nation together through multiple challenges – both internal and external. Privately, however, he comes off as a complete douche – particularly where women are involved. In fact, I can’t recall a single time in all of 1-2 Samuel where a woman is brought up in relation to David and isn’t in some way harmed by him (either explicitly or it’s strongly hinted at). Over and over again, he sees a woman he likes, causes the death of her husband, and takes her. His own daughter is raped and he seems to regard it as little more than an unfortunate “boys will be boys” incident. He leaves his concubines – women who are completely dependent on him for their safety – behind in a city that is about to be taken by an invading army, then shuts them away under guard when they are, predictably, raped.

When I think of how many times I was told in Sunday School that David is the “ideal king,” and that we should hope for a leader like David, I can’t help but feel my stomach churn a little.

Theology

One of the more interesting aspects of 1-2 Samuel has been the evidence of change from what we’ve been reading. God is no longer speaking directly to anyone other than prophets, and even then it’s coming in the form of divination techniques like oneiromancy or using special divination stones. To me, it’s an indication that we’ve left Mythic Time, and have entered into mythologised/fudged historical time.

One element that stood out for me, particularly toward the end of 2 Samuel, was the idea of God’s ultimate power. Theologically, it was more important to show that God was the Big Boss than it was to show him being kind or consistent or making sense. So we God get angry at the people, so he orders David to take a census, so he can punish the people for David’s census. It makes no sense whatsoever unless we begin with the assumption that God is the ultimate power, responsible for all things. It’s the same theology we saw so much of in Exodus, where God keeps hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

If I remember correctly (and it has certainly been a while), this is quite a change from the more limited, local-seeming God of Genesis. I’d be interested in knowing if this is due to geographical differences, or an actual evolution in theological thinking. My best guess would be that the stories of Genesis were, for the most part, commonly known folk stories recorded by scribes who did not alter too much. Moses, I think, began that way, but was adopted by “schooled” theologians, who had time to bring plenty of their own thinking to the story before it was committed to writing. David’s history, clearly court-writing, seems to be see the practical application of “school” theology in interpreting history.