How to read Samuel and Kings

Guercino_Saul_Davide

“Saul Attacking David” by Guercino (1591-1666), (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome).

My title sounds a bit presumptuous: as if anyone needs to be told how to read the Bible! It’s really a kind of postscript to my previous posts about the possibility that David was a narcissist (yes, I know I said I was finished with that subject for now, but I thought this further note was important).

Some people react to the suggestion that David had a personality disorder by countering that he was “a man after God’s own heart” and he wrote so many beautiful psalms he must be a model of Godly behaviour. All I need to do really is to remind people that he was an adulterer and a murderer to set aside any notions that he was a paragon of virtue. But I should also restate something which I argued in earlier posts about the phrase “a man after God’s own heart”. For the full explanation you should read my posts here (and here and to a lesser extent here) but in a nutshell I explained that the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English. The phrase “after [God’s] own heart” translates a single Hebrew word כִּלְבָבֹו. It literally means “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.) [1] In other words, David is not being commended for being God-like, but rather the text reads as a simple statement that the choice of David as future king was God’s and God’s alone to make – God was following his heart in choosing David.

I could look at the David-psalms another time, but for now I want to comment on how we read the heroic stories about David in Samuel and Kings. It would be relatively easy to read these books as simple history: someone (or a group of people) was simply writing down the historical facts to record the history of Israel and Judah. But if it is simply history the writer has been very selective. A lot of important information has been left out and there is a serious imbalance in the amount of detail given about each king. If it was “simple history” we could expect, for example, that the most attention would be given to the longest reigning monarchs, yet some important long-reigning monarchs are glossed over. In any case, all history-writing has an agenda. A writer can never be totally dispassionate about the subject and will always portray his or her characters in a certain light, even when they are historical rather than fictional characters. So what could have been the possible agenda of the writer(s) of Samuel and Kings?

There are three main views about this:

  1. A large section of Samuel-Kings is sometimes called “the Succession Narrative” (also known as the Court Narrative, 2 Samuel 9 – 1 Kings 2) because it is argued that the writer is justifying the rightfulness of David’s claim to the throne, and the claims of his descendants to rule Judah at least, if not all Israel. In this reading Saul and his descendants (initially Jonathan and Ishbosheth) are portrayed as being weak, disobedient or otherwise unsuitable to rule Israel, while David is divinely-selected as God’s own choice. Of course, Samuel’s account of Saul’s anointing and enthronement reveal that he too was God’s choice. Reading Samuel-Kings as having an emphasis on God’s promise to David of a dynasty also ties in with messianic themes in the prophets, some psalms, and in the New Testament. These connections seem to emphasise the accuracy of reading Samuel-Kings as a kind of introduction and background to the Messianic Age. for There are several weaknesses with this view, and while some scholars still maintain it there tends to have been a shift away from it.
  2. There is another view that the writer(s) of Samuel-Kings was actually critical of monarchy in general and his goal was to demonstrate that none of the kings, from Saul, through David and Solomon, and down to the last of the kings before the exile, were any good. In his mind the institution of monarchy was flawed and even those with the best prospects of success (such as David) still failed miserably. This view argues that these histories were written during the exile (we can be certain of that because Kings ends with Jehoiachin going into exile in Babylon, so it couldn’t have been written earlier than that), while those in exile were discussing and planning their return from exile and what kind of government they would need. This writer argued against a return to monarchy because it was kings that got them into this mess in the first place! A good case can be made for the writer(s) to have been a priest or priests because when the exiles did return they abandoned any attempt to restore the monarchy and instead it was the priests who were most influential and powerful in rebuilding the nation.
  3. A third view combines these two options, although it in no way contradicts the second view. It argues that the material for Samuel and Kings was sourced from various earlier documents (official histories, stories, legends, etc) and put together over a period of time. At various stages through their history the work was updated to include the latest kings and events, and some of the earlier material may have been modified at the same time so that the story flowed smoothly. The final stage of editing would have been in the exile. This option explains why some of the material appears to be contradictory – as material was added which differed in some way from earlier material, little effort was made to ‘harmonise’ all the details. There is good evidence from elsewhere that ancient record-keepers didn’t have the same preoccupation with harmony and consistency that modern writers do, and they wouldn’t have had a problem with internal ‘inconsistencies’. This view makes good sense of conflicting data, and is consistent with what we might expect about ancient record-keeping and history-writing.

To me, the second and third options make a great deal of sense. David is portrayed as part of the problem: a deeply flawed person who established a dynasty which was never able to get it quite right, and which eventually led to Judah’s demise.

____________________

[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary(AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.

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