“The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel” by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes— The Evils of Power

Halbertal, Moshe and Stephen Holmes. “The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel”, Princeton University Press, 2017.

The Evils of Power

Amos Lassen

The Book of Samuel is universally acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of biblical literature. The book’s anonymous author was more than an inspired storyteller; he was also an uncannily astute observer of political life and the moral compromises and contradictions that the struggle for power inevitably entails. Moshe Halbertal’s “The Beginning of Politics” looks the story of Israel’s first two kings in order to unearth a natural history of power thus giving the reader a forceful new understanding of what is arguably the first and greatest work of Western political thought.

Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes show how the narratives of Saul and David cut to the core of politics and explore themes that resonate wherever political power is at stake.  Saul’s madness, David’s murder of Uriah, the rape of Tamar, and the rebellion of Absalom are stories that deepen our understanding of the necessity of sovereign rule and its costs to the people it is intended to protect and to those who wield it. Coming out of these stories are themes of “the corrosive grip of power on those who hold and compete for power; the ways in which political violence unleashed by the sovereign on his own subjects is rooted in the paranoia of the isolated ruler and the deniability fostered by hierarchical action through proxies; and the intensity with which the tragic conflict between political loyalty and family loyalty explodes when the ruler’s bloodline is made into the guarantor of the all-important continuity of sovereign power.” Taken as a whole, “The Beginning of Politics” is an important and timely meditation on the dark side of sovereign power and the enduring dilemmas of statecraft.

The real value of “The Book of Samuel”  is that is gives us a first look into the dynamics of early politics. We read of Saul, sitting on the heights of power, holding the spear which he has twice used to try and kill David. The text goes on to provide a wide range of penetrating political insights. “Though the biblical narrative of Saul and David has been the subject of much literary analysis, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes examine  it in a fresh way through their focus on politics. They make a persuasive case that the biblical writer evinces probing insight into the consequences of the pursuit of power, insight that is still relevant to the political constellations of our own era. The new study
contributes to biblical scholarship as well as our understanding of politics in general. We see how the calculations of political rulers may be hurt by their attempts to hide their intentions and by chains of obedience and violence that escape the control of those

Before the monarchy, the tribes of Israel were unable to defend themselves against outsiders, and occasionally became involved in civil war. They called for a monarchy- a solution which created its own problems and it is here we begin with King Saul who is contrasted with his successor David. At first, Saul is uninterested in being king but his desire to maintain power for himself and his male descendants drives him first to manipulative behavior and then to paranoia and insanity. Ironically, Saul sacrifices his daughter to reach this goal- first by sending the man she loved (David) on what Saul thought would be a suicide mission against the Philistines, and later by directly trying to kill him. Later, Saul is manipulated by courtiers into massacring a village full of priests because one priest in the village helped David. On the other hand we have David who, at first, is always sane and in control even though his motivation is unclear (power vs. piety).

Eventually, David too behaves in unambiguously inappropriate ways. He has an affair with Bathsheba and has her husband killed to avoid detection. There are many battles beginning with heir apparent Amnon raping a half-sister and causing her brother Absalom to have him killed. David first expels Absalom, then allows him to come back to court, and then shuns him- causing Absalom to begin a violent rebellion and eventually be killed by David’s henchmen. At the end of David’s life, another son, Adonijah, proclaims himself king, and David stops this by proclaiming another son, Solomon, king. And after David dies, Solomon has Adonijah executed.

David’s family relationships were toxic and Halbertal suggests that these problems are likely to occur in a hereditary, patriarchal monarchy. A king is likely to indulge his sons as David did, because male heirs insure the dynasty as everlasting. The sons all want to be king and so are eager to fight each other.

If David was a man who followed after God’s heart, then Samuel’s narrative shows that covenant is more about God’s character and not us as the human agents who always imperfectly try to keep our side of the agreement.

What makes the Book of Samuel unique for its time is its unflattering description of its characters. Rather than presenting a monarch as a god/king as was common in ancient near east/neighboring accounts of tribal monarchs, the author of the Book of Samuel portrays its kings, Saul and David, as men who are subject to the influences and corruptions of power.

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