Thursday, 7 June 2007
Samuel and Saul, Pt.3
The issue in 1 Samuel 15 is a genocidal God. It takes special pleading to retrieve some decency from this disturbing tale, and the fact that some people even try indicates that their bibliolatry has long since moved beyond harmless wackiness into an apologetic for evil.
If we can cross our fingers and whistle through passages like this, what else will we ignore? They brought it on themselves? They were immoral? God has the right to take the life he has created? One is reminded of the advice the papal legate gave to the commander of the assault on the city of Beziers in 1209. How, the officer asked, are we to distinguish between the good Catholics and the wicked Cathars when we take the city? The legate reportedly replied: Kill them all, for God knows his own.
It is in revulsion to that kind of obvious evil that many of us fled from mainline Christianity to find something finer, more idealistic and truer in a sectarian community like the Worldwide Church of God. That quest may have ultimately proved a delusion, but the question remains: how can we make sense of sociopathic prophets like Samuel?
Some comfort might be found in the discovery that the historical books of Judges through Kings are relatively late creations, known to scholars as the Deuteronomistic History. The consensus is that they were created around the sixth century BCE, and that many of the events they relate are pure fiction. Not that most scholars were keen on the idea at first, but the archaeology of Israel just doesn't support the stories. Jerusalem was, for example, not a great city at the time David and Solomon were alive and the text is full of anachronisms such as the armour Goliath is described as wearing. At best David was a local warlord and Solomon a relatively minor figure. Saul? Who knows. A historical figure may well underlie the stories, just as real institutions like Opus Dei and the Louvre appear in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. But history it is not, and nor are the Deuteronomist's accounts. The idea of history as an objective retelling of the past was still far in the future when 1 Samuel was written, or Homer's Odyssey for that matter.
The Samuel stories are, however, powerful narrative, and Saul is a tragic character: arguably the only truly tragic character in biblical literature. The man who is singled out - against his own will - for the honor of being Israel's first king, is again singled out as the enemy of God, rejected without hope of redemption, tormented with an evil spirit from the hand of Yahweh. The shy young man who hides from the kingmaker is fated to die, along with all his descendants, and be replaced by a brigand, protection racketeer, adulterer, mercenary and murderer who - in the final insult - will be described by the Deuteronomist as "a man after God's own heart."
For Saul it is, to say the least, tough luck. Reading these books in a literal, fundamentalist sense is to feel the need to call evil good. But on another level they are an invitation to grapple with some pretty intense issues, and that, I believe, is their abiding genius.