Thibble Thursday: No basis for a system of government (1 Samuel 8–12)

Didn’t I say I was going to focus and knuckle down? Sorry ’bout that. I’ve been busy — my girlfriend’s moving in, which, according to at least one midrashic redaction I’ve read and can now no longer locate, makes me liable for two of the three unforgivable sins. Oh, well. The main sin I’m worried about is slacking and not giving you your daily dose of Bibble, so let’s get it going.

Short, snarky summary: Israel wants a king. They get a king. Samuel is pissy about the entire affair.

One odd thing about the books of Samuel is how little Samuel himself is actually in the damn things. I mean, we’re told he’s a great leader who made many true prophecies, but only one of those prophecies (about the sons of Eli) is actually given in any detail, and his leadership is more an informed than a demonstrated ability (certainly we see nothing of his hand, much less his skill, in either the disastrous loss of the Ark or the hardly less disastrous recovery). And by chapter 8, he’s an old spent man passing on the reins of leadership, so really, he’s surprisingly ill-described and rarely used, particularly for a guy with two books to his name (2 Samuel is, I venture, unique in that it is a Biblical book named after a figure who is neither a character in that book nor its ostensible author nor the intended recipient).

But, anyways, the end of Samuel’s leadership is a segue into the development of the monarchy. The Deuteronomists have a kind of conflicted attitude towards the monarchy as it stands: they approve wholeheartedly of the Davidic line, but are actually kind of ambivalent about sovereigns from outside of that dynasty (in particular, the kings of Israel after the Israel/Judah split). So the first king, who isn’t David, is not actually someone the Deuteronomists are in a hurry to vindicate, which means that, at least at this point in the narrative, their mouthpiece Samuel isn’t going to be much of a monarchist either.

This all comes out in chapter 8. Samuel’s sons, previously unmentioned, are leaders, but we are specifically told they’re not honest or good leaders, and Israel isn’t keen on raising them to Samuel’s seat, and since there aren’t any other prophets around, they tell him to appoint a king instead, “like all other nations”. That last bit aside, this request actually seems pretty reasonable (and the last bit is objectionable only in the whole Israel-is-super-special framework which occasionally lays over the work more heavily than other times). But Samuel goes off on this wrathful prayer jag, and is basically validated by God’s assurance that, yup, the people asking for a king is totally a betrayal of their trust in God and they’re gonna get it. Samuel then returns to the people and says, essentially, “I’m going to give you a king, but you’re not going to like it!”. The following 9 verses are this extraordinary tirade about the abuse of power by monarchs, who will conscript and tax and just plain seize away all the common people’s property and children.

All this kings-are-evil stuff kind of stands in contrast to (a) the Deuteronomists’ love affair with the Davidic dynasty, and (b) Deuteronomy 17:14–20 pretty much explicitly invites the Israelites to establish a monarchy.

Spoiler: David is actually a lot worse about all that abuse-of-total-power shit than Saul is, which makes you wonder just whose side the Deuteronomists are on.

Speaking of Saul, he’s going to make an appearance in chapter 9. We’re treated to a rustic tale which is maybe meant to be a bit comical: the son of a well-off but fairly insignificant Benjaminite family, Saul, loses one of his father’s donkeys, and wanders all over with a servant looking for it without success. Eventually the servant suggests that there’s a seer living nearby who might help them find the donkey. Saul runs into Samuel, and asks, “where’s the seer live?” and Samuel says, “I’m the seer!”

Cute and light, although it doesn’t make much sense, and serves simply to further muddy Samuel’s position among the people of Israel. If he’s just this traveling wise hermit, the story kind of works. But the autocratic de facto leader of the entire Israelite nation? I’m not seeing anyone saying, hey, we should contact our ruling priest to see if he knows where our donkey is. Rulers have people for that sort of thing (and people to stand between them and folks who want that sort of thing).

But it’s lucky for the story that Samuel and Saul are able to meet this way, because Samuel tells Saul, in veiled terms, that he is going to be Very Important and they need to have a meeting. Oh, and those donkeys have been found, too. Saul is pleased but bewildered by this development, and kind of passively takes part in dinner and an informal anointment. But Samuel has a big processional formality planned in Chapter 10, too: Saul is being sent on a tour to the cities of Gibeah and Gilgal, and on the way he’s going to intercept pilgrims and prophets, and take part in their revels (inccluding, apparently, prophesying at the latter visit). Predicting and planning this whole itinerary is, frankly, a more impressive prophesy than any others we’ve seen by Samuel to date. And apparently it all goes down as planned: were I Samuel, I might worry that Saul won’t prophesy on cue, but apparently he does. Then Samuel meets up with him and announces Saul’s kingship, and all Israel celebrates and sends gifts, except for a few sneerers.

Nobody’s entirely certain what Saul should do or how at this point in the narrative, so Chapter 11 makes it abundantly clear that he’s going to be a war leader. Raiding Ammonites have harried a defenseless town, and are demanding as a ransom that all the men of the town gouge an eye out (which sounds pretty unreasonable to me, but, hey, they’re the villains). They then give the elders of the town a week to think about this proposition, which seems unusually accommodating, during which time they contact Saul, who musters 300,000 (or possibly 330,000, see below) men who then completely rout the Ammonites.

A curious comment on that mustering figure. No, not that it’s unfeasibly high, because we’ve already been over the ridiculous and often contradictory muster sizes. No, the odd bit is that the men are divided up by allegiance: 300,000 from Israel, and 30,000 from Judah. But in the context of the story at present, that division is completely anachronistic! Judah was part of Israel, at least until the kingship of Rehoboam. Now, this may itself be ahistorical: Judah and Israel were definitely distinct entities by the time of the Babylonian exile, but there’s little evidence, as far as I know, that they were ever a single political entity. So I see two possibilities in the narrative here: either Saul ruled over a unified Israel, and the division presented was an anachronism introduced by the redactors for whom that division made perfect sense as the status quo; or Saul was an acknowledged coalition leader between the separate but culturally similar states of Judah and Israel, and the revolution described later had always been nascent in the never-quite-unified state.

Anyways, in the wake of this victory, the scoffers are chastened but not punished, and Saul’s cemented his right to the kingship. Samuel’s not quite done, though, and he has a parting shot in Chapter 12, because there seems to be a tradition since at least Moses that the retiring leader gets to deliver a long-winded speech and a curse or two. He has a brief, rather opinionated retelling of the narrative from Exodus through Judges, with a liberal helping of “every time you prayed, God helped. Every time you relied on your own power, you got fucked.” Asking for a king, he argues, falls into the second category, and now that you got him, you’re stuck with him. Just to prove his point, Samuel calls up a storm to prove to the people that they have done wrong. And of course they repent of their wickedness, but it’s too late to repent of the king, so, tough luck there. If Samuel wanted to win this fight, maybe he should’ve laid on the pyrotechnics before acceding to their demands.

Next time: Saul manages to fuck up. Damn, that was quick.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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