Sunday, June 22, 2008

Does Israel Need a King? Final Reflections on the Books of Samuel

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

It's a little hard to know what to make of 1 and 2 Samuel. In these books Israel undergoes a bloody transition from the failed anarchy of the Judges period to a supposeldy superior state-based society led by a human king. It's supposed to be a bottom-up transformation - this time God still chooses the king, but the decision to create the state isn't his. It's the people's. And it seems to be an unwise choice, so far.

On the one hand, 1 Samuel in particular is pretty critical of the state. 1 Samuel 8 is practically a Christian anarchist's creed. Samuel himself, who only lasts for a few chapters of this lengthy work, isn't a king - and he's one of the few really praiseworthy characters portrayed in the narrative. The kings are more dubious characters - God seems to be deliberately mocking Israel when he chooses the incompetent buffoon Saul as the first king, and he lets the country be destroyed in civil war as a result of the appointment of the second king (David). If Joshuan militarism is correct in suggesting that God's will is shown through military success, as 2 Samuel seems to imply, then David ought to have been a fantastic king - yet despite being undefeated in battle for the most part, he's plainly much less than perfect as a statesman. And despite the fact that he's supposed to be a man after God's own heart, he's a blasphemer, an adulterer, and a murderer. (Also an extortionist, but that's not explicitly one of the commandments.)

On the other hand, there's a distinctly pro-monarchist flavour to Samuel, which becomes most explicit by the end of the second book, which basically descends into bombastic militarist and monarchist propaganda, tempered only by the strange story of the census in chapter 24. Multiple stories are presented to prove that David was chosen as a great king by God, by the state, and by the military. He slaughters Israel's enemies and ultimately leads the land into peace (though there's a great deal of bloodshed along the way).

The elitist slant of the book becomes especially obvious as the people become, in David's own words, "just sheep" - huge quantities of lives to be traded, whipped, and occasionally sacrificed in order to see whose side God is really on. Despite his numerous personal faults, David is a great king - and because he's a great king, he's allowed to survive crimes which God's own law says he really ought to be executed for, multiple times over. At the end of the day, God is on David's side, because David is the king. The priesthood is now not only marginalized but explicitly subordinated to the state, which supplants the role of priest and prophet as chief spokesperson for God.


radical royalist said...

So, do you draw the conclusion that a Monarchy would be the most apt form of state?

Blaisteach said...

I draw the conclusion that the author of 2 Samuel thinks so. Personally, I disagree with that author.

I am skeptical of all forms of state, but particularly of those with autocratic tendencies.