Reading the Jewish Book of Samuel, Part One and Two
I was delighted to read the two books of Samuel in the old testament in the last week, as part of my Great Books readings.
The two books form one story, which is the transition of the rulership of Israel from priestly judges to kings. One can assume this is the shift from oligarchy, or perhaps a federated tribal system, to a centralized monarchy.
In many ways the books of Samuel parallel the Annals of Tacitus when he writes about Tiberius. The same transition from a loose system of government to a focused one is taking place. But in the books of Samuel the transition is located in a kind of primitive mythical state of consciousness.
That is not to say the history is not good. Rather, the characters about which the history are written think in simple terms about complex issues. For example, time and time again, reading about Saul's psychotic jealousy and David's brutal and ruthless realpolitik, I find evidence of the most base desires and instincts in these folk heroes. And what are we to make of Jahweh himself, a character who seems at best whimsical? At times the god of the books of Samuel kowtows to the Israelites, and at other times he reacts with brutal unfairness. The Jahweh of the books of Samuel makes Homer's Zeus look positively humane!
In any case, the way the story is written is remarkable given its antiquity and coherence. I found it an enjoyable read somewhat similar to reading a Robert Jordan fantasy novel, and just as barbaric.
Some subjective impressions:
I keep wanting (as Harold Bloom adjures us) to admire King David, and finding in him nothing to admire beyond the machiavellian intrigue of a Renaissance head of state. I find his brutality disarming. Is this is the blessing of Jahweh, the mercy of the Israeli's? Obviously harsh times require barbaric measures, but more than once I find myself dismayed by David's ethical conduct.
Absalom is an sympathetic character. The tragic dimensions of father against son seem obvious to me, with Greek drama under my belt, but to the historians of old Israel they see only a harsh justice against he in whom Jahweh is not pleased. Absalom dies and David triumphs, but one cannot help but wonder what kind of king Absalom would have made instead of Solomon.
I notice the high quality of the story. Knowing the end of the story from earliest childhood, I cannot help but find these histories exciting reading. At times I try to reconcile this violent and primitive folk story with what I know of Jesus, and cannot. The books of Samuel fall so far short of the gospels as to be hardly of the same dimension of existence. Jesus is to David like salt is to sand; Christ accumulates on top of the ancient king's story without being at all the same as it.