Tuesday, 5 June 2007
Samuel and Saul, Pt. 2
Right, says Samuel, the Eternal has spoken. Saul, get yourself down to the city of the Amalekites and kill everybody. Why? Because we have a grudge that goes back generations. Show no mercy, not even to the kids and babies, Yahweh says exterminate! Capisce?
Welcome to 1 Samuel 15.
Now Saul is still new to the job, but he takes the initiative. Maybe I have to slaughter those poor sods, he thinks, but there are Kenites in that settlement too, and Moses' father-in-law was a Kenite...
So Saul surrounds the town and sends word out: Kenites may leave! One imagines that they hot-footed out of there quick smart.
Then there's the bloodbath. Men, women, little children. Dachau would have looked mild by comparison. Everyone dies in pools of their own blood and feces except the king, a gentlemen by the name of Agag. Saul's intentions toward Agag are unclear because interfering old Samuel arrives on the scene before we can find out. Remember, it's Samuel who has commanded this atrocity in Yahweh's name.
Saul sets up a victory stele to commemorate the glorious smite-fest, and greets the prophet (who arrives after the deed is done) with the words "I have carried out the command of Yahweh."
Samuel is a narrow, rigorous soul with monochrome vision. Saul interpreted his (or Yahweh's - same thing apparently) command, keeping Agag aside and reserving the best of the Amalekite herds to sacrifice to the Eternal. Not good enough, shrieks Samuel, who proceeds to throw one of his famously thunderous hissy-fits. Saul confesses his error like a naughty schoolboy, and begs the crusty old drama-queen to "worship the Eternal" alongside him so he will not be shamed in front of his men. Most modern translations imply that Samuel then relents and does so, but Hebrew scholar Robert Alter (The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel) blows the whistle and explains that the thrust of the passage is that Samuel walked away in a huff leaving Saul to look like an idiot. Mercy and forgiveness (or even common courtesy) are beyond the scope of the seer's fanaticism.
Check out verse 29: "the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he" (says Samuel) is not a mortal, that he should change his mind."
Which is pretty weird considering that he has indeed changed his mind according to both verse 11 and verse 35 in this same chapter!
But, as Alfred E. Neuman says, "what me worry?" Someone who should worry though is Agag, who emerges with either "mincing steps" (Alter) or "haltingly" (NRSV), depending on which translation you prefer. Either way, his highness is about to become mince.
"And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal."
No quick and merciful death this. Agag is ritually butchered, dismembered, all - incredibly - to please Yahweh, by the very hand of Yahweh's franchise holder.
Some commentators go all gooey over the idea that Samuel was truly fond of Saul, and was heartbroken at his "rebellion" (Robert Cohn's article in the HarperCollins commentary speaks of Samuel's "abiding love for Saul.") Poppycock. Samuel was a vindictive power tripper par excellence who would make the late Ayatollah Khomeini (or possibly even David C. Pack) look like a fuzzy liberal.
But did it really happen? The story is gruesome, but so is Hansel and Gretel. Are we dealing with history here, or something else. And could this series turn into a twenty-first century version of Basil Wolverton's Bible Story? Well, clearly it's a no to the last question, but the others will be tackled next time!