David, Saul, & God: Book Review

David, Saul, & God: Book Review

Paul Borgman, David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story (Oxford: University Press, 2008), 335 pp.

David, Saul, & God is also available at Amazon USA / UK
David, Saul, & God is also available at Amazon USA / UK

After reading Paul Borgman’s David, Saul, & God, I felt like I often do after devouring a satisfying meal. It is definitely one of the best books that I have read on 1&2 Samuel. Borgman’s careful attentiveness to the repetitive patterns in the books of Samuel, as a way of unlocking its understanding of David, Saul, & God, is refreshing and insightful. Borgman contends that uncovering and solving the questions posed by the story of 1&2 Samuel “depends on close attention to the dozen or so broad patterns (he actually enumerates 11) of repetition governing the narrative’s progress” (p. 3). Borgman makes the helpful suggestion that, “The story’s modern audience often misses answers to the central questions driving the drama of David’s story because the text is read in a straightforward manner, rather than in the circular way demanded by the ancient text’s dependence on patterns of repetition. That is, recognizing a developing pattern requires a remembering of what has gone before, a circling-back action of the mind” (p. 4, emphasis mine). Readers would do well to heed Borgman on this point, not only regarding David’s story, but Old Testament narrative in general.

David, Saul, & God: The Main Course

Paul Borgman's book David, Saul, & God is full of "food for thought."
Paul Borgman’s book “David, Saul, & God” is full of “food for thought.”

David, Saul, & God consists of 9 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Among the 11 repetitive patterns discussed such as “David’s Multiple Introductions” (pattern 3), “Saul’s fear” (pattern 4), “Sword and Spear” (pattern 5) and “News of Death–Public and Private Davids” (pattern 9), I would like to note two that I found particularly insightful. Readers of 1&2 Samuel have often noted that there is a theme of “Failed Fathers” (Borgman’s pattern 8), but to my knowledge, no one has explored its significance until Borgman (but see my book Family Portraits, where I explore the connection between family failures and national consequences). The failed fathers of 1&2 Samuel include Eli, Samuel, and, especially, David. Borgman notes that the pattern of failed fathers has, in each case, important consequences for the nation of Israel. Eli’s failure with his sons leads to a national crisis in which the Philistines defeat Israel and capture the ark of God (1 Sam. 4). David’s over-indulgence with his sons Amnon and Absalom, similarly leads to national disaster (2 Sam. 13-20). Borgman writes, “Just as Eli did before him, David falters grievously as a father, with momentous negative consequences for the people he is supposed to be ruling” (p. 121). The difference with David, however, is a twist in the pattern, which occurs as he nears death and his son Adonijah attempts to take the throne (1 Kings 1). In this scene, David refuses to allow his self-indulgent son to take the throne. Borgman states, “At his physically weakest…David nonetheless rises to the occasion, evidencing the listening capacities we have seen in the past: he is receptive to advice from good people in the interest of Israel’s well-being” (p. 133). He continues, “What breaks this pattern of fathers-sons-death is the strength of a father standing up to an ill-directed son–displeasing that son for the sake of a greater communal good” (p. 139). Although this last example falls outside the bounds of the Samuel narrative, scholars are well-aware of the close link between the books of Samuel and Kings (especially the first 2 chapters of 1 Kings).

Paul Borgman, author of David, Saul, & God.
Paul Borgman, author of David, Saul, & God.

The second pattern I would like to note (Borgman’s 11th pattern) concerns the contrast made between Saul and David at the end of 2 Samuel. Readers are often puzzled by what appears to be a miscellaneous grouping of material found at the end of 2 Samuel in chapters 21-24. Scholars now recognize that this material is artfully arranged with a chiastic structure as follows:

A  Saul sins, 3 year famine, resolution (2 Sam. 21:1-14)

      B  David’s warriors, leadership (2 Sam. 21:15-22)

         C David’s poem concerning blamelessness and God (2 Sam. 22:1-51)

         C’ David’s poem, ideal ruler and God (2 Sam. 23:1-7)

      B’ David’s warriors, leadership (2 Sam. 23:8-39)

A’ David sins, 3 days plague, resolution (2 Sam. 24:1-25)

Borgman spends chapter 9 looking at the outer two stories of the chiasm (A & A’) involving Saul and David (in chapter 8 he explores the inner parts of the chiasm). Building on the insights of Herbert H. Klement he points out that, “What emerges clearly is the stark difference in the sinning of Saul and that of David” (p. 205). “Not only is there none of Saul’s equivocating response to wrongdoing, there is in David what is inconceivable for the Saul we meet early in his story: a radical willingness to look at himself critically, and further, to offer his own suffering on behalf of communal well-being” (p. 213, see 2 Sam. 24:17). By the end of the story, Borgman contends that we are able to understand why God chose David over Saul. David is a man who, not only repents when he sins, but in 2 Samuel 24 recognizes his own sin without the intervention of prophet or anyone else, and then offers himself in order to protect the nation. As David’s character unfolds throughout the story, we not only learn who he is, but we learn more about who God is.

Odysseus and his men put out the eye of Polyphemus the Cyclops (The Odyssey)
Odysseus and his men put out the eye of Polyphemus the Cyclops (The Odyssey)

In the conclusion to the book, Borgman contrasts the hero Odysseus (and the gods) from Homer’s The Odyssey with David. His purpose is “to shed another angle of light on the dynamic among David, Saul, and God” (p. 221). Here are a few of his observations: “David inhabits a moral world…quite different from that of Odysseus” (p. 227). “David learns and changes from experience to experience; Odysseus, however fascinating, becomes more of what he has always been…” (p. 235). “Athene’s focus in The Odyssey is helping Odysseus become more of what he is, while the biblical God helps David become more of what he can become. But this development is not for David’s sake alone, or even primarily, but for the sake of this God’s unchanging will for communal well-being.” Borgman’s final line of the book is fitting: “In coming to see David, we have come to understand the story’s God as well” (p. 244).

David, Saul, & God: The Hor d’Oeurves

imageI realize that in any fine meal the hor d’oeurves are served before the main course, but please indulge me. After all, it’s my metaphor! Since hor d’oeurves are side items to develop one’s taste for the main course, I think the metaphor is appropriate here. Throughout his book, Borgman carries on a conversation with other scholarly points of view. He does this some in the text itself, but more thoroughly in the endnotes (57 pages of them!). A lot of modern scholarly treatment of David, Saul, & God (meaning the characters in 1&2 Samuel, not Borgman’s book), in my opinion, has fallen prey to the prophet’s critique that some “call evil good, and good evil” (Isa. 5:20). In other words, many make Saul the “good guy,” or, more accurately, “the victim,” while David and God become “the bad guys.” Borgman argues strenuously, and I believe effectively, against such an interpretation throughout his book. Again and again, he demonstrates how the repetitive patterns in 1&2 Samuel clearly picture Saul as the “bad guy” (my terminology), God as just and compassionate, and David as, at first mysterious, certainly far from perfect, but ultimately, a man after God’s heart. Rather than crafting his own portrait of David, Saul, & God (and misrepresenting the text as some do–at least in my opinion), Borgman allows the text to speak through his careful reading of the repetitive patterns he explores.

David, Saul, & God: The Bones

bonesThere actually aren’t many “bones to pick” over in this book. In fact in terms of Borgman’s treatment and methodology, I have no quarrel whatsoever (although there are, of course, a few places where I have a slightly different view from him). My complaint lies with the poor editing of David, Saul & God. The book is filled with grammatical and spelling errors and has the appearance of being hastily prepared for publication without being carefully proofread. Errors of every kind exist, from missing words, to words occurring in the wrong order, to wrong numbers for the endnotes, as well as endnotes missing entirely! Perhaps the most glaring error is the spelling error that occurs in the title of chapter 9. It reads in large letters: “Chiastic Conclusion: Final Contrast, Soul [instead of “Saul”] and David Sinning.” Hopefully in a future edition, these errors will be caught and corrected. Although the errors mar the aesthetic quality of the book, the content more than makes up for this inadequacy. I highly recommend David, Saul, & God to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of 1&2 Samuel.

Purchase David, Saul, & God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story at Amazon USA / UK

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