Tag Archives: King Saul

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

What King Saul’s Story Can Teach America

Anti-Trump protest in Portland erupts in violence.
Anti-Trump protest in Portland erupts in violence.

It’s been a difficult few years for America. The lines of division have been drawn sharply and the recent Presidential campaign has accentuated that division. Sadly, hateful rhetoric from a bitterly fought campaign, has now spilled out into the streets of America in the form of protests and violence. We are all aware, however, that this violence is not new. The riots sparked by the shootings of black men and the deadly assault on police officers provide the terrible proof that America was already deeply divided. Does division originate from the bottom up or the top down? In other words, what is the source of division? Some maintain that it comes from divided families and communities only to explode on a national level. Others attribute it to leaders. Perhaps apathetic leaders only concerned with keeping the status quo. Or perhaps leadership that uses harsh divisive rhetoric. Interestingly, the story of King Saul in 1 Samuel addresses this question.

A case can be made that division comes from the top and the bottom of society. In fact, the books of Samuel testify to this truth. When values are forsaken, families are damaged and when families are damaged, communities, and eventually the nation, is damaged. However, corrupt leadership also has a profound effect. “As goes the king, so goes the nation,” could be one way of summing up the stories contained in both Samuel and Kings. These truths were brought home to me a number of years ago as I researched and wrote a book on 1&2 Samuel entitled, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. I was struck through my study that a book about leadership (i.e., kingship) was also a book about families. These two themes interact so closely in 1&2 Samuel that it is impossible to separate them.

What follows is an excerpt from my book Family Portraits. This excerpt is taken from the introduction of Saul’s family (pp. 100-102). It was written long before the recent election but some of the principles in it point to lessons that are timely. What I seek to do here is provide my original words (in italics) which I will then reflect on at the end of this post in light of the recent election.

The Divisiveness of King Saul

Saul's kingship further divided the people of Israel.
Saul’s kingship further divided the people of Israel.

Saul’s family is introduced in 1 Samuel 9:1 with a four-person genealogy, reminiscent of the introduction of Samuel’s family in 1 Samuel 1:1. This similarity, as well as the narrator’s glowing introduction of Saul and his family, leads the reader to expect great things. Saul’s father, Kish, is described as a “man of valor” (“a mighty man of power”—NKJV), while Saul is twice described in positive terms—“handsome” (literally, “good”) and “taller than any of the people” (9:2). If outward appearance can be trusted, then 1 Samuel 9:1–2 holds out great hope. The discerning reader, however, has learned from Eli not to jump to conclusions too quickly.

While there are some storm clouds on the horizon, the story of Saul seems to get off to a good start (1 Sam. 9–11) before things go wrong (1 Sam. 13–31). Saul inspired the fierce loyalty of many, such as the Ziphites (23:19–24) and the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead (31:11–13). On the other hand, he could strike out violently against his own people (the priests of Nob—chap. 22), including members of his family (Jonathan, 20:30–32). As a result, even Saul’s children are torn between loyalty to their father and the “beloved” David (18:1–4, 20). Both Jonathan and Michal struggle with remaining true to their father while protecting David (19:11–17; 20:31–32). However, it must be said that Jonathan remains with his father even in death (1 Sam. 31:2); and, in spite of everything, David’s eulogy is a moving tribute of his loyalty to Saul (2 Sam. 1:19–27). Even those whom Saul pushes away are drawn to him! This tug-of-war, which results in great tensions, is an important theme in the story of Saul. Consequent divisions are not only evident in his family, but also in the nation he ruled. With the death of Saul the nation erupts in civil war (2 Sam. 3:1).

A reader can find him or herself with conflicting emotions about Saul. In spite of his failings, he evokes sympathy. Saul is not so much the sort of character you “love to hate” as the kind you “hate to love.” Interestingly, commentators are as divided over Saul as his own nation was. Some see him as a victim of a predetermined fate, while others see him as a man whose disobedience cost him a kingdom. Saul remains a divisive character to this day! Any treatment of his family must therefore reflect this truth. Saul’s ability to polarize not only extends to Jonathan, Michal and David; division follows his family even after his death. Abner and Ish-bosheth become alienated from one another (2 Sam. 3:6–11), as do Mephibosheth and Ziba (2 Sam. 19:24–27). Another descendant of Saul, Shimei, is a vocal supporter of the division caused by Absalom’s civil war (2 Sam. 16:5–13).

Jesus said, “every…house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt. 12:25). This truth is part of the reason that the house of Saul deteriorates from strength (1 Sam. 9:1) to weakness (2 Sam. 3:1). The main reason, however, is Saul’s failure to honor the Lord.

(2 paragraphs omitted from original)

family portraitsAlong with David, Saul and his family dominate the narrative of 1 Samuel chapters 9–31. David and his family are the main focus of 2 Samuel, yet Saul’s family continues to play an important role. Although a lot of material is devoted to the reign of Saul, we learn of God’s rejection of his kingship and dynasty rather quickly (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:28). This means that a major portion of the story focuses on how Saul and his family deal with this rejection, and how they treat his future replacement. This theme raises an important question that everyone must confront at sometime. How should we respond when someone is chosen or favored over us, especially when that person ends up in the position we once occupied? In Saul’s case it is not simply a matter of David being favored over him, but one in which he disqualified himself through sin. The narrative teaches us that a response of pride, envy, and a refusal to repent, leads to a dead end for Saul—quite literally!

This kind of attitude can lead one to strike out blindly against his own family (1 Sam. 20:33), contributing to its breakdown and destruction. Not only can such a mindset affect an individual, it can permeate a family. Thus all those who follow in Saul’s footsteps—Abner, Ish-bosheth, Michal, Shimei, and other descendants of Saul—meet a similar fate. Saul’s obsession to destroy David leads to the destruction of many in his family, not to mention the political chaos and destruction that accompanies it. How true it is that the one consumed with hatred ends up destroying him or herself as well as the ones he or she loves.

Hatred and bitterness will destroy a family (and a nation); but just because a family becomes consumed with animosity does not mean that every member must conform. The books of Samuel continually affirm our freedom to choose. No matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves, our attitude and response are still our choice. While Samuel has godly parents and follows the Lord, and David’s sons have a godly father but do not follow the Lord, Jonathan stands alone in these books as a godly son with an ungodly father. Ungodly parents are no excuse for children to continue down the same path. Each must make his or her own choice. Jonathan is an example to all that the cycle of ungodliness can be broken. This beautiful example, followed by his son Mephibosheth, is the silver lining in a family clouded with self-assertion and pride. While it is true that Jonathan’s loyalty leads him to die beside his father, his humility and selflessness point the way to a future for Saul’s family. Jonathan’s love and devotion to David turn the family’s fortunes from a path of hatred and death to one of life and hope. Jonathan’s example points the way for us as well.

Reflections

Unlike King Saul, America has a tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.
Unlike King Saul, America has a tradition of the peaceful transfer of power.

Although I certainly have strong political opinions like most Americans regarding the recent election, my aim here is to note some of the principles enunciated above. These biblical principles can help guide our response to, not only this election, but future behavior.

  1. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Saul looked good for the nation but turned out to be a disaster. The lesson of not being deceived by first impressions is an important message in 1&2 Samuel (I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. See HERE). Just because someone “looks good,” doesn’t mean they are. Conversely, sometimes people who make unfavorable impressions can surprise us. Admittedly, neither candidate in this recent election made a good impression. It was frequently stated that no matter which candidate won the presidency, they would go down in history as the most unpopular president ever elected. Now that the election is over, I suggest that we not jump to conclusions, but allow our judgment on the future president to be based on his performance. Does he keep his campaign promises? Does he treat others fairly? Does he seek justice? Does he promote the welfare of the country? Only the days ahead can give us clear answers to these questions.
  2. There are two reactions to losing power. One reaction is the Saul reaction–cling to power no matter what the cost. Even with a divine word to the contrary, Saul held tenaciously to power. The result was violence against individuals (David) and families (the high-priestly family), and eventual civil war among the nation. One of America’s great traditions is the peaceful transfer of power. We were reminded of this the day after the election in President Barak Obama’s speech congratulating President-elect Trump on his victory (if you haven’t seen it or need a reminder, click HERE). This peaceful transfer of power was further symbolized by President Obama’s invitation to Donald Trump to visit him at the White House the following day. For those who believe Scripture, we know that God puts kings (or leaders) in positions of power (e.g., Daniel 4:17). The books of Samuel clearly announce this at the outset in the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:6-8. A peaceful transfer of power is best for all. It is far superior to Saul’s way, and it recognizes that a Greater Power has ordained the earthly powers. America would do well to continue this tradition.
  3. Corrupt government harms a nation (I know how obvious this statement is, but you wouldn’t know it was obvious by the way most governments are run!). Saul is pictured as a leader who begins humbly and achieves a certain amount of success (1 Sam. 11). However, as Saul becomes more self-consumed his actions and policies prove detrimental to the nation of Israel. No human government is perfect, this is why Christians look forward to the rule of Christ. However, leaders should strive for “justice for all” as the America pledge of allegiance puts it. In fact, it is likely this American slogan is derived from biblical statements about the just king (e.g., 2 Sam. 8:15; Ps. 72).
  4. We need more Jonathan’s! Jonathan wasn’t worried about “what he deserved.” His humble approach was more about what was best for the nation. He was content with the position God had placed him in. His concern wasn’t winning or losing, but seeing justice and righteousness prevail. Americans would do well to follow this example and relinquish the “entitlement mentality.” As John Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” As a Christian, it goes beyond even this, asking ourselves how we can reflect God in our attitudes and actions.
  5. Beware of hateful intentions, words, and actions. Saul’s hateful response to those around him destroyed his family and caused havoc and destruction within the nation. Ironically, Saul struck out in hatred even toward those who were on his side! David was a loyal follower but became public enemy number one. Saul even threw a spear at his own son because Jonathan refused to condemn an innocent David (1 Sam. 20:32-33). All of this is evidence that hatred blinds people to the truth. Hatred destroys all in its path. If our nation is to survive, then we must be a nation that puts hatred behind us, seeking reconciliation and peace.

Consider Purchasing Family Portraits as a Gift This Christmas. Available at WestBow Press, Amazon USA / UK and various other internet outlets.

God’s First King: The Story of Saul

God’s First King: The Story of Saul

God's First King by Shaul Bar is available through Cascade Books and Amazon. See the links below.
“God’s First King” by Shaul Bar is available through Cascade Books and Amazon. See the links below.

In God’s First King: The Story of Saul, author Shaul Bar, seeks to “rediscover Saul,” and “to have a better understanding of his achievements and failures as the first king of Israel” (p. xvii). Being a professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis, one of the unique features of Bar’s approach is “to look at the subject from additional perspectives including those of the Talmud and the Midrashim [ancient Jewish commentaries] and the Jewish medieval commentators” (p. xvi). Of course Bar is also conversant with the modern scholarly literature on Saul and frequently interacts with it. His study of Saul’s kingship utilizes various approaches including literary, historical, and archaeological.

Since Bar’s ultimate goal is to rediscover the historical Saul, he takes a topical approach in God’s First King. His treatment is divided into the following chapters:

  1. The Search for a King–looks at the events of 1 Samuel 8-11 which includes Israel’s demand for a king, Samuel’s denunciation of kingship, and the story of how Saul becomes anointed as the first king.
  2. Saul’s Wars–focuses on Saul’s battles with the Philistines (including the Valley of Elah–1 Sam. 17), the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15), and his wars in the Trans-Jordan including especially the Ammonites (1 Sam. 11).
  3. Saul versus David–examines Saul’s troubled relationship with the future king of Israel. This chapter looks at various events from 1 Samuel 16-26.
  4. Feuds in the King’s Court–looks at Saul’s troubled relationship with other individuals including Samuel, Jonathan, his courtiers, and his daughters.
  5. Saul a State Builder–presents a convincing argument that the transformation from tribal confederation to state, legitimately began with Saul (others would argue it began with David).
  6. Saul and the Witch of En-dor–examines 1 Samuel 28
  7. The Last Battle–not only looks at the chapters describing Saul’s death (1 Sam. 31; 2 Sam. 1), it also examines the establishment of David’s kingship by looking at the fate of Saul’s house as recorded in 2 Samuel 2-4, and 9 (i.e., stories about Ish-bosheth, Michal, Abner, and Mephibosheth).
  8. Conclusion–provides a brief summary of Bar’s study on Saul.

God’s First King: Strengths

The author of "God's First King," Shaul Bar holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature from New York University, and serves as Director of the Bornblum Judaic Studies program.
The author of “God’s First King,” Shaul Bar holds a Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Literature from New York University, and serves as Director of the Bornblum Judaic Studies program at the University of Memphis.

Bar’s familiarity with other Ancient Near Eastern sources, often provides parallels to the biblical account, or insights into it. For example, the statement that Saul was “head and shoulders” above everyone else in Israel (1 Sam. 10:23) suggests that height was an important consideration for kingship in the ancient world. Bar cites the story of Athtar who sits in “Balu’s seat.” Athtar’s problem is that his feet do not reach the footstool and his head does not reach the top of the seat. “Thus because he is too short, he was rejected as king” (p. 17, n. 65). In another example, Bar notes that Nahash’s action of gouging out the right eye of the Israelites (1 Sam. 11) “is attested to in the  Ugaritic literature, where it is classified as a curse” (p. 36). One final example is Saul’s statement to his courtiers that he had supplied them with fields and vineyards (1 Sam. 22:7). Ancient documents from both Ugarit and the Hittite empire demonstrate “that a king gave estates and land property to his officials as a reward for services or for ensuring their loyalty” (p. 101).

The comments from the Jewish sages are at times amusing. For example, when the women meet Saul and inform him how to find Samuel their comments are quite verbose (1 Sam. 9:11-13). Bar states, “The Gemara comments: ‘Because women are talkers’” (p. 12–apologies to the ladies reading this post. Remember the Gemara said it, I didn’t!).

My favorite chapter in God’s First King is chapter 5 entitled, “Saul a State Builder.” Some scholars argue that Saul’s kingdom was no more than a minor fiefdom. However, Bar argues convincingly that Saul was responsible for many of the elements necessary for establishing a kingdom. He looks at several words, easily overlooked by a less-informed reader, that demonstrate an organized military and political system. The expression, “servant of the king,” frequently appears in Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian sources, as well as Saul’s court, as a reference to officials and functionaries at court (p. 93). Doeg is not only a mercenary soldier who slaughters the Lord’s priests, he is also Saul’s “chief herdsman,” which designates an official who is in charge of the king’s property and herds (p. 94-95). The Hebrew word for “lad” in political contexts can be translated as “steward,” and this is its meaning when David calls Ziba “Saul’s steward” (p. 95).

Bar also notes that, “Taxation is one of the first signs of a monarchy,” and examines several words demonstrating that Saul collected taxes from the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam. 10:27; 17:9, pp. 95-97). Special terms for the military, plus mention of payment for soldiers (1 Sam. 22:7), demonstrate that Saul had a professional army (“chosen ones,” “those who obey, who answer the call,” and “runners” [who go before king’s chariots], are all technical military terms–pp. 97-103). Bar has an interesting discussion of Saul’s capital Gibeah. He notes that the establishment of a capital is a sign of monarchy and talks about the archaeological excavations that have uncovered a palace from Saul’s time there (pp. 103-106). Bar concludes that, “Saul was indeed a state builder. He transformed Israel from a loose federation of tribes into a state with a capital, religious center, army, and taxes.Saul laid the foundation for the monarchy that would ultimately be fully developed under David and Solomon” (p. 109).

God’s First King: Disagreements and Weaknesses

Saul's visit to the witch of En-dor
Saul’s visit to the witch of En-dor

While it is very interesting to see what the ancient Jewish sages, rabbis, and medieval commentators taught on a given passage, it is difficult to determine Bar’s stance toward many of these observations. Does he quote them for the purpose of agreement or disagreement, because they are traditional, or just because they are interesting? In a number of instances, it is hard to tell. For example, in the chapter on Saul’s visit to the Witch of En-dor, readers are often curious why the woman only recognizes Saul once Samuel appears (1 Sam. 28:12). Bar notes that, “According to the talmudic sages and traditional commentators, including Rashi and David Kim[c]hi, the dead rise feet first. Samuel, however, arose in the normal upright posture, out of respect for the king. Seeing this, the woman realized the identity of her visitor” (p. 111). This is certainly an imaginative interpretation! But Bar does not commit himself as to whether he agrees or disagrees. He continues by citing the view of Josephus and then a more modern German scholar, but we never learn whether Bar agrees with any of these interpretations. In another instance,  commenting on Michal’s possession of idols (1 Sam. 19:11-17), Bar notes that Rabbi Joseph Kara, says that it is alright to consult the teraphim when one’s life is in danger! (p. 80). This is a clear violation of the Scriptural injunction against idolatry, but Bar does not offer any disagreement with the statement.

My biggest disagreement with Bar is his utilization of the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Bar believes that since the author is sympathetic to David, his portrayal of certain circumstances cannot be trusted. He writes, “It is unlikely that David was behind the death of Saul as some scholars posit, since he could have accomplished this much earlier [so far, so good in my opinion]. Yet, he was behind the death of Abner and Ish-bosheth. . . .The sense is that the author wanted to whitewash David’s actions” (p. 139). Again, I refer readers to other posts on my blog (e.g., here, and here, or see my book Family Portraits, p. 265) for my disagreement on this issue (perhaps in the future I will devote a post to it).

In the “Conclusion” Bar drops the biggest bomb of all: “We believe that it was the hand of a sympathetic author from the Davidic circle that was responsible for all the negativity surrounding Saul’s portrayal” (p. 141). Really? All the negativity in Saul’s life can be attributed to a Davidic author? Apparently Saul was a paragon of virtue until that crafty author got ahold of his story! In the end, it seems that Bar agrees with some of the Jewish sages who sought to turn Saul’s negative qualities into positive ones. For example, Bar notes that the sages “changed their interpretation concerning his sin in the war against Amalek so that the sin is portrayed favorably” (p. xv). In another instance he points out that they portrayed Saul in a favorable light by giving a different interpretation to the murdering of the priests of Nob (p. 77). Again, it is not clear whether Bar accepts this interpretation or not. Based on his concluding statement, it appears that he sides more with the sages than with the biblical account. If he does, I am in strong disagreement. Even if he doesn’t I can’t agree with his interpretation of Saul’s (and David’s) story.

Conclusion and Evaluation

In spite of a number of disagreements, there is much to be learned from God’s First King. If one is aware of Bar’s presuppositions (and like myself disagrees with them), the fish can be enjoyed while spitting out the bones. If one is looking for a historical approach that utilizes insights from other ANE cultures to illuminate Israel’s history, Bar’s book provides some interesting insights. If one is more interested in getting at the message of how Saul is portrayed in 1 (&2) Samuel, then there are commentaries and other studies that would prove more beneficial.

Many thanks to Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock, for providing a review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.

God’s First King: The Story of Saul is available at Cascade Books and Amazon USA / UK

ISBN: 9781620324912
Pages: 180
Publication Date: 6/27/2013

The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner

The Importance of Biblical Names

Biblical names frequently have significance to the story in which they occur.
Biblical names frequently have significance to the story in which they occur.

Although, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” the same cannot be said for biblical names. Most who study the Scripture are aware that biblical names have significance. A name may say something about a character’s personality, or contribute in some way to the narrative in which that person appears. One of the most obvious examples of this is the name Jesus. Matthew relates the following instructions by the angel of the Lord to Joseph: “You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Of course the name, Jesus, or in Hebrew, Yeshua, comes from the word “to save,” and means “He will save.” On a few occasions, names are purposely changed in Scripture to suggest that person’s destiny, as in the case of Abram’s name being changed to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), or Jacob’s name being changed to Israel (Gen. 32:27-28). The same is true in the New Testament, where Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (Matt. 16:17-18).

I have found in my own experience in Bible study that names usually have some significance for the narrative in which they are found. Sometimes the biblical authors draw attention to the significance of the name (as in the cases above), but more frequently, the reader is left to see the significance for him or herself. For those who would have originally read these texts in Hebrew or Greek, the meanings of these names and how they relate to a particular story, or carry a particular significance, would have been more obvious. But since all of us are separated from the original culture of the Bible–being some two-to-three thousand years removed from it–and since a majority don’t read the Bible in the original Hebrew or Greek, the significance of many biblical names goes unnoticed.

From time to time on this website I’ll be posting articles on biblical names whose significance might not always be clear to those reading an English Bible. I’ve decided to launch this series by looking at the biblical character Abner, and the meaning of his name. Abner was the cousin or uncle of Saul (it’s not quite clear which he was), and commander of Israel’s army. The following information consists of several excerpts from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel (the excerpts are placed in italics with a few minor alterations for the sake of this article). The excerpts are taken from the chapter entitled: “Abner: Strong Man in a Weak House.”

Abner: The King-maker

The biblical name, Abner, means, "My father is a lamp." The photo above is an example of an ancient Hebrew lamp.
The biblical name, Abner, means, “My father is a lamp.”

Abner’s name means, “my father is Ner,” (the first time Abner’s name occurs in the Hebrew text, it is spelled “Abiner.” Abi = “my father”). On nine occasions he is called “the son of Ner” (the passages are: 1 Sam. 14:50; 26:5, 14; 2 Sam. 2:8, 12; 3:23, 25, 28, 37). The name Ner, however, means “lamp,” and thus “Abner” means, “my father is a lamp.” In my opinion, it is interesting that “ner” is found in the name “Abner,” and also that he is called the “son of Ner” nine times! This seems excessive by any stretch, and suggests that the author has a deliberate reason for including it so many times. The word “lamp” is used on several occasions in the books of Samuel and Kings to refer to kingship (2 Sam. 21:17; 1 Kings 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kings 8:19), and several verses hint at the fact that Saul’s family was desirous of the kingship from the beginning (1 Sam. 9:20–21; 10:14–16). Abner is not only a powerful man, but, as we shall see, also a man who likes to wield power. Therefore, it is no accident that this man (whose name means “My father is a lamp”—think “king”) is introduced as the king’s right-hand-man, and later will fancy himself as a king-maker (2 Sam. 2:8; 3:12). The story of Abner is intimately connected with the story of the “ner ” (lamp/kingship) of Israel. (Family Portraits, pp. 136-137)

Abner Makes Ish-bosheth King (2 Samuel 2:8-9)

Following the death of Saul, David is anointed king in Hebron over Judah (2 Sam. 2:1–3). This could have been an opportunity for the entire nation to unite under David’s leadership, but instead we are informed that “Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim; and he made him king” (vv. 8– 9a). Note the two ways Abner is identified in verse 8. First, Abner is called the “son of Ner”—as if we need reminding! This is the first of six uses of this appellative in 2 Samuel 2–3, its high concentration suggesting its connection with kingship. As “son of Ner” Abner acts as king-maker. Second, Abner is identified as “commander of Saul’s army.” It is his rank and the loyalty of his troops that give him the ability to make Ish-bosheth king. (Family Portraits, pp. 139-140)

Abner Seeks to Make David King of All Israel (2 Samuel 3:12-21)

After agreeing to bring Israel to David, Abner departs in peace only to be murdered by Joab.
After agreeing to bring Israel to David, Abner departs in peace only to be murdered by Joab.

Following a break with Ish-bosheth (probably because Abner realizes that David is much stronger and will soon rule all of Israel), Abner seeks to bring all Israel under David’s rule. After rallying the support of Benjamin, Saul’s own tribe, Abner sets off with a delegation to seal the deal (v. 19). Once again Abner regards himself as a king-maker, as he says, “I will arise and I will go, and I will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires” (my translation—v. 21). Note the triple “I” with Abner as subject, balanced by the triple “you” referring to David. Abner is proclaiming that he is the one who will make David’s dreams of kingship come true. Furthermore, it is probably not accidental that the appellative “son of Ner” is found on people’s lips four times in this section (v. 23, a soldier; v. 25, Joab; v. 28, David; v. 37, the narrator), reminding us that the “lamp man” is at work once again, attempting to put his own stamp on the kingship of Israel (Family Portraits, pp. 148-149).

Conclusion: Biblical Names Can Enhance the Meaning of a Character or Passage

In conclusion, Abner’s name contributes to his actions in the story. Just as he is constantly seeking to have a say in who will be king, so his name, Abner son of Ner, declares that he sees himself as a king-maker. The irony in Abner’s name is that he resists the real king (David) and when he finally reconciles himself to David’s kingship, it is too late. Joab’s sword puts an end to any hopes that Abner might have had of being second-in-command, or perhaps of manipulating David the way he had Ish-bosheth. Abner always backed the wrong horse. First it was Saul, then it was Ish-bosheth. This so-called “king-maker” did not recognize the real king until it was too late. And thus, Abner’s own name reveals that he is not the man he, and perhaps others, thought he was.

For more information on Abner, pick up a copy of Family Portraits. Family Portraits is available through Amazon USA / UK and WestBow Press, as well as Logos.com

Reconciling Violence and Kingship

Reconciling Violence and Kingship

Reconciling Violence and Kingship is available at Wipf and Stock Publishers
Reconciling Violence and Kingship is available at Wipf and Stock Publishers

Reconciling Violence and Kingship is a study of the beginnings of the Israelite monarchy based on an examination of Judges 9, 17-21, and 1 Samuel 9-11. In this book author, Marty Alan Michelson, proposes that a new understanding of the establishment of Israel’s monarchy is possible when the above texts are viewed through the lens of Renee Girard’s philosophical theory of institutionalized violence. This theory involves the “textual interplay of desire, mimesis, rivalry, and scapegoating” (p. 2–more on this below). Along with Girard, Mickelson contends that institutionalized violence leads to social stability (p. 8). To put it in Mickelson’s words, “In this study we will demonstrate that in the storied movement toward monarchy, the chaotic violence becomes controlled violence that prevents its further escalation. Through the monarch, violence is transformed into an event that, while violent, reconciles conflict that might otherwise lead to chaos, dissolution, or anarchy” (p. 2).

For those of us not familiar with Girard’s theory, Michelson offers a summary. Michelson does not dwell on a definition of desire perhaps because it seems self-explanatory. We have all experienced that inner want that drives us in seeking to obtain an object, goal, status, or even another person. Desire, however, can result in conflict when people seek the same object, goal, or agenda. Girard further argues that people imitate one another in their desires and actions (this is referred to as mimesis). “This imitative rivalry, compounded by a sense of lost self to the other’s goals, creates an irresolvable conflict. One or the other rival must be removed. Girard hypothesizes…that it is at the point of irresolvable conflict that an alternative emerges” (p. 9). This alternative involves redirecting the violence toward a separate victim, the scapegoat. In other words, better that one dies for all, than for all to die.

Saul cuts up his oxen to summon Israel. This account vividly recalls Judges 19.
Saul cuts up his oxen to summon Israel. This account vividly recalls Judges 19.

What does all of this have to do with the chapters in Judges and 1 Samuel that Michelson focuses on? Michelson is more than a philosopher,  he is a biblical scholar, and a major portion of his book is focused on looking at each passage in its context. He notes that each of the texts, are not only connected by containing the theme of kingship, they also speak of desire, and rivalry that leads to uncontrolled violence. For example, Abimelech kills his brothers and destroys several cities (Judg. 9). Members of the tribe of Dan threaten Micah, steal his priest and destroy the town of Laish (Judg. 17-18). A Levite’s concubine is violently raped which leads to her dismemberment and all out war between Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, nearly wiping out the entire tribe (Judg. 19-21). The uncontrolled violence witnessed in the Book of Judges finally finds its solution in Saul’s action in 1 Samuel 11 when Saul cuts up his oxen into 12 pieces, mimicking the action of the Levite with his concubine in Judges 19. This act rallies all Israel to his side bringing unity and resulting in Saul’s coronation as king.

Why All the Fuss About Girard?

Renee Girard
Renee Girard

When I began reading Reconciling Violence and Kingship I must admit that I was concerned about a method which seemed to approach the Bible (or at least these texts) through a certain pair of colored glasses. Michelson addresses this concern. He states, “…it is not our intent here, after having read the narratives, to lay over them a sort of ‘Girardian Grid’ that says, ‘This text is Girardian because we can connect these dots’…these stories share coherence and literary tradition regardless whether Girard helps us read them” (p. 155). Michelson believes that reading these passages with a “Girardian hermeneutic” “helps us read the cultural issues of kingship emerging in Israel’s history” (p. 155). However, he also emphasizes that this approach does not prove how kingship emerged.

Overview of Reconciling Violence and Kingship

The contents of Reconciling Violence and Kingship are as follows:

Chapter 1 Thesis and Scope of the Study–Michelson lays out his purpose and methodology, outlines the basics of Girard’s theory, and presents an overview of each forthcoming chapter.

Chapter 2 Composition and Kingship in the Deuteronomistic History–Michelson presents a brief history of source critical study on Deuteronomy – Kings with attention to the treatment of the claims that these books include both  pro-monarchical and anti-monarchical sources. Michelson’s rationale for this chapter is “…to set the groundwork for viewing the strengths of a literary and anthropologically informed Girardian reading of these texts.

The meat of Michelson’s book is contained in chapters 3-5 where he examines each text of his study using the new literary approach popularized by such scholars as Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative).

Chapter 3 Abimelech: Judges 8:29-9:56

Chapter 4 Micah, the Levite, and the Concubine: Judges 17-21

Chapter 5 Saul and Kingship: 1 Samuel 9-11

Chapter 6 Assessing a Girardian Hermeneutic within this Study–In this chapter, after a further explanation of Girardian theory, Michelson reviews each text through that lens. In his own words he states, “I will demonstrate that Girard helps us look at and understand the formation of kingship in Israel’s history, without necessarily telling us that this is definitively ‘the way’ that kingship emerged in Israel’s history” (p. 13).

Chapter 7 Summary and Conclusions

Strengths and Weaknesses of Reconciling Violence and Kingship

Marty Alan Michelson, author of Reconciling Violence and Kingship
Marty Alan Michelson, author of Reconciling Violence and Kingship

In my opinion the true strength of Michelson’s book is found in his close reading of the biblical texts he has chosen. As noted above, this discussion occurs in chapters 3-5. The insight that impacted me the most was the positive spin that Michelson puts on the beginning of Saul’s story in 1 Samuel 9-11. Although I was familiar with a number of the parallels between Judges 19-21 and 1 Samuel 11 (e.g., both texts speak of Gibeah, the Benjamites, and the town of Jabesh Gilead, and in both texts a former living entity is carved into 12 pieces). I had always looked at the similarity in these chapters as ominous signs of what was to come in Saul’s kingship. Michelson, however, effectively demonstrates that these common motifs are there to emphasize the positive difference that Saul makes. The horrific dissection of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 only leads to further bloodshed in Israel. Conversely Saul’s dissection of his oxen rallies all of Israel who “come out as one man” (1 Sam. 11:7)–another expression shared by these stories (cf. Judg. 20:1)– resulting in victory.

Michelson, like Girard, also makes much of the idea of “sacral kingship.” This expression carries both priestly and sacrificial connotations. I was impressed by Michelson’s careful reading of 1 Samuel 9 and 10 and all of the priestly allusions that can be found in Saul’s initial encounter with Samuel. The Bible certainly reflects a close connection between priesthood and kingship beginning with Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20), David and Solomon’s offering of sacrifices (2 Sam. 6:17; 1 Kgs. 8:64), and finally Jesus Himself who is both High Priest and King (Heb. 7). Along these lines, allow me to chase a brief rabbit trail that has nothing to do with the book under review. I believe it is incorrect to interpret Saul’s offering of sacrifice in 1 Samuel 13:9 as the sin for which he is rebuked. It not Saul’s offering of the sacrifice per say, but his disobedience to God’s word by not waiting for Samuel to come and offer the sacrifice (1 Sam. 10:8; 13:13).

As regards Michelson’s use of Girard’s theory, the big story of the Bible certainly substantiates this viewpoint. As humans we run after various desires, which lead to conflict. That conflict often escalates into a violence that threatens to consume us. But God has provided a scapegoat, Jesus, the King. And through His sacrifice it is possible to find at-one-ment and peace. Whether the same theory can be applied to Saul’s kingship or not, I’m not sure. I wasn’t completely convinced by Michelson’s argument. I do find it ironic, however, that though Saul brought a measure of peace and unity through the scapegoat process, his later reign reflects once again the violence and chaos of the Judges period as he slaughters the priests of Nob (1 Sam. 22) and relentlessly pursues David.

Samuel anoints Saul.
Samuel anoints Saul.

Most of what I would term “weaknesses” relate to matters of interpretation. This is probably a poor term to use, since my interpretation is also far from infallible. But having noted my reservation of that term, I will point to two examples where I differ with Michelson. In the introduction, Michelson justifies narrowing his study to 1 Samuel 9-11 for the following reason: “…chapters 9-11 exclusively and uniquely treat the introduction and acclamation and inauguration of Saul as king principally apart from the activity of Samuel” (p. 6). I believe this point not only gives too little credit to the part Samuel plays in the overall account, but also, and most importantly, leaves out the important part that God plays in the inauguration of kingship in Israel. Since Michelson is looking at the narrative to ascertain the history behind the story and the philosophical and anthropological elements involved in kingship, perhaps his lack of focus on God in this story is understandable. But it is hard to understand his downplaying of the important part that Samuel plays in the story. After all, it is Samuel who announces to him “And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not on you and on all your father’s house?” (1 Sam. 9:20). It is also Samuel who invites him to the feast (1 Sam. 9:22-24), the kind of feast noted elsewhere when kings were anointed (1 Sam. 16; 1 Kgs. 1). It is Samuel who anoints Saul, and Samuel who gives him 3 signs of confirmation (1 Sam. 10:1-10). Furthermore, it is Samuel who instigates the public casting of lots in choosing Saul (1 Sam. 10:17ff.) and Samuel who calls the people together at Gilgal to publicly acclaim Saul as king (1 Sam. 11:14-15). To be fair to Michelson, his point is that Saul is only acclaimed king in 1 Samuel 11:15 and that prior to that, the narrator uses the term nagid (“prince” is one translation of this significant term). However, it seems difficult to overlook the important part that Samuel plays in 1 Samuel 9-11.

Secondly, I was surprised by Michelson’s understanding of Judges 18:30. This is the concluding comments of the story concerning Micah, the Levite, and the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan steals Micah’s idols and his Levite (who has been acting as a priest for Micah’s household). The Danites destroy the inhabitants of Laish (which becomes the city of Dan), and set up their own idolatrous worship. At this point, Michelson states, “…we are introduced to a new priest, Jonathan, son of Gershom of the tribe of Manasseh” (p. 80). My understanding, and that of other commentators (e.g., Daniel Block and Barry Webb in their Judges commentaries), is that Jonathan is none other than the Levite of the story. His name has been withheld to this point because the writer desires to shock the reader with who this unnamed Levite actually is. According to the text Jonathan is the son of Gershom, the son of (not from the tribe of as Michelson translates) Manasseh. But scholars are aware that the name “Manasseh” has been tampered with and should probably read “Moses.” In Hebrew, an extra “n” has been partially inserted into the name. The scandal of the story is that this unnamed Levite who participated over an idolatrous shrine in the house of Micah and who became priest for the Danites, was none other than a descendant of Moses! To interpret the mention of Jonathan in Judges 18:30 as a “new priest” who is being introduced, is not only very anticlimactic, it fails to account for why at this late stage the narrator would introduce a new character. Especially a character with a name, when throughout the narrative most characters (except for Micah) are nameless.

One can judge for oneself whether the above examples are true weaknesses or not, but one definite weakness in Reconciling Violence and Kingship is the editing. It is unfortunate that this wonderful book is so riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The errors also extend to wrong Scripture notations (e.g., 1 Samuel 7 on p. 127 should read 1 Samuel 8) and the mixing up of names  (twice on p. 79 the name Micah is used when it is the Levite who is being referred to, and on p. 103, “all the men of Jabesh-Gilead,” should read “all the men of Gibeah.”). One has the impression that this book was quickly rushed to press rather than given the editorial attention it deserved.

Conclusion

If you’ve stayed with me this far, you probably recognize that this book is most suited for the scholar and the serious student. It engages with philosophical concepts and is conversant with what is going on within the realm of scholarly studies on the Deuteronomistic History. However, a serious layperson could certainly benefit from the insights found in chapters 3-5. On a final note, I’d like to mention that Marty Alan Michelson has become a cyber-buddy of mine. I deeply appreciate his enthusiasm for the study of Scripture and his warm personal demeanor in all of our correspondence. Marty please feel free to comment on this review. If I have misunderstood or not represented some of your views properly, I would welcome the opportunity to hear from you and set the record straight. Meanwhile for those of you who would be interested in some of Marty’s teachings on the Books of Samuel please click on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZN47b_SfQZE

Reconciling Violence and Kingship is available at Amazon USA / UK

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