The Book of Samuel
By Nahum Gordon
Fancy an exciting, fast-moving story about power struggles, with a generous measure of lust, murder, possible homoeroticism, suicides and the occult thrown in for good measure? Rising above the sensationalism, if you are curious as to how Israel transforms itself from a loose federation of tribes into a nation-state, then this two-volume book is for you. It is also THE antidote to hero worship. The flaws of three of our most famous heroes – Samuel, Saul and David – are exposed mercilessly. By contrast, the actions of a fourth, Jonathan, are nothing but meritorious. He manages to be loyal to both his father, Saul, and his brother-in-law, David, without compromising his principles.
The core of the book is to be found in Part 1 Chapter 8. The Ark resides at Shiloh. Samuel is its guardian. He is also a prophet – an intermediary between God and His people – and Israel’s final judge. When he is old, he appoints his two sons to succeed him as judges, but they are corrupt. The people believe that a monarchy, not judges, will bring stability and continuity. Samuel and God are furious for different reasons; the former because his nepotism has been frustrated and the latter because He feels that Israel has rejected Him as their king. Both want a theocracy, but neither can deny the people. The man God chooses as Israel’s first monarch is Saul from the smallest tribe, Benjamin, that was almost wiped out in a civil war. An unassuming, naive soul, he does not want the job, but proves to have leadership and military skills, creating a unified army that can try to defeat the technologically superior Philistines.
However, Saul is soon found wanting by Samuel and God. Someone “better” than him will establish a dynasty. The spirit of God abandons him and he is left to rot on his throne. He tries to communicate with God but is ignored. He succumbs to manic depression and paranoia, almost murdering his son and his son-in-law in bouts of insanity. His story is one of tragedy and disappointment, of Shakespearean proportions. If ever there was somebody who was set up to fail it is Saul. And Jonathan, a worthy heir, dies by his side. I doubt that the author(s) intended this reaction, but neither God nor Samuel come out of this account with any credit.
Saul’s successor, David, from the tribe of Judah, will frequently consult God and has no problem receiving answers directly. They are on the same wavelength and David’s faith is rewarded with an assurance that his dynasty will be eternal. God does not renege on His promise, even after David has committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, a loyal soldier. Everything starts to unravel. Firstly, the baby from the affair dies. Why does an innocent have to pay the price for its parents’ sin? Then, David’s oldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and David does nothing, while another son, Absalom, exacts revenge without being punished. He later repays his father’s love by initiating a coup from within Judah which almost succeeds. It is ironic that, for all his political scheming and the incarceration or elimination of perceived rivals from the House of Saul, David is betrayed by his own tribe and by his favourite child, the only human being he truly loves. This is the reward for an ambitious, emotionally retarded scoundrel.
If I have whetted your appetite, then I suggest you read two translations with commentaries: Robert Alter for a modern outlook and A.J. Rosenberg in the Judaica Series for a traditional approach.
Nahum Gordon is a founder member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.