Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kingship in 1 and 2 Samuel (part 1)

Last semester, I wrote a research paper on 1 and 2 Samuel, which were originally one book. The book can be described as a history of Israel’s transition from being ruled by local judges to being ruled by a king. I focused on two passages, one of which made this transition look like a good thing, and one that made it look like a mistake. In a series of posts, I’m planning to lay out my argument and show how there’s actually no contradiction if we understand the passages appropriately. This first post will present the problem and explain the approach I’m taking.

1 Samuel 8 is a good example of an apparently anti-king passage. Here’s my (greatly exaggerated) paraphrase:

People: We want a king.
Samuel: Israel has no king. Israel needs no king.
People: We know we don’t have a king. That’s why we want one, dummy.
God: Samuel, calm down. Let them have their king They’re not rejecting you …
People: Ha! Told you so.
God: … but they are rejecting me as king over them.
Samuel: Ha! Told you so.

Samuel then goes on to explain that the king will take their sons, their daughters, their crops, their animals and so on. So, it seems like this is saying that any human king is illegitimate, that God is the only rightful ruler of Israel and that human monarchy is inherently oppressive.

Skip ahead to 2 Samuel 7. David had become king and is more or less established so he calls the prophet Nathan.

David: I’ve got a great idea! I’m going to build a house for God!
Nathan: Yay!
God: What? I never said I wanted a house. Nathan, tell David I don’t need him. I established Israel – and David. Without me, he’d still be chasing sheep around the hills of Bethlehem. But I like David. I’m going to build him a house. One of his sons will build a temple for me. His descendants will be my sons, and his dynasty will last forever.
Nathan: What he said.
David: Yay!

So here God approves of kingship and gives David’s dynasty the right to rule. God even calls the king His son, which means that the king has a unique relationship with God. This is an incredibly positive view of kingship that even gives the king spiritual authority.

So what’s happening?

Many scholars say these passages come from different sources that were edited into one text. But that’s a little too simple. If we look deeper, there is a way to reconcile them – to see when kingship is good and when it’s bad. The text is actually more sophisticated than we realize if we write the passages off as a difference of opinion. But we don’t realize this unless we’re willing to think about it more.

There’s another reason to go for a reading that combines the two views. Even if a certain book of the Bible contains multiple sources, someone must have combined them. Any book of the Bible deals with intense religious, political and ethical issues. It seems unlikely that an editor would include texts that contradicted his or her deeply held beliefs without modifying them enough to remove all difficulties. Thus, the editors must have understood all the passages in a way that did not contradict their actual opinions.

I’m going to use a few posts to explain how this actually works. I hope it will help us understand these texts better. But more importantly, I hope to use this as an example of how looking at the Bible as a unified whole lets you understand it in a more sophisticated way.