Reconciling Violence and Kingship
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.
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?
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
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’s 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.
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.
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
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