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The Beginning of Politics:
Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel

by moshe halbertal and stephen holmes
princeton, 232 pages, $27.95

Jews and Christians ought to be proud of having a Bible that contains pro-God and anti-God material. Not many religions can boast of sacred scriptures that provide support for the opposition party. One of the favorite bits of such opponents is God’s weakness for that shepherd boy made good, David. Unmasking the biblical David as a distasteful antihero is a preferred sport of biblical scholars. There are dozens of books and articles from the past half century, all arguing that, far from being the Boy Scout of popular imagination who slew Goliath, the David figure who supplants Saul as king in Israel is a devious, double-dealing thug. The point of playing armchair umpire over David as mercenary and king is to blow the whistle when one catches this rogue being unforgivably forgiven by God. How can the Almighty have such low standards? It is not as if the scholars had discovered some new evidence about David. All of the material for “unmasking” David is staring us in the face from the Hebrew Scriptures. But to make it look new, the scholars have discovered (that is, hypothesized) that the Books of Samuel have merged two texts, a pro-monarchial text that does public relations for David, and an anti-monarchial text that reveals the true story of David’s double-dealing.

Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes’s book does not dismiss these speculations about pro- and anti-monarchial background sources in 1 Samuel; nor does it indulge them. Rather, The Beginning of Politics takes the Books of Samuel as it finds them and asks why the characters of Saul and David are so much at odds with themselves. David is conflicted all the way down. Israel’s second king constantly behaved in ways that can be interpreted in a good or a bad light because that is what he is. Halbertal and Holmes recognize that we don’t need to hypothesize pro- and anti-monarchial biases in the text: All we need to do is treat the figure of David as a politician.

Israel’s demand for a king and God’s accession forced Saul, then David, into playing the role of king. David supplants Saul as king, but it is not all gain, because the demands of the monarchy must supplant all of David’s other moral affections. David’s “ambiguity” is reinforced by the requirements of the role he must play. The authors tell us that “Attempts to unmask David as nothing but a cynical opportunist fail to do justice to the many ambiguities woven artfully into his story. But it would also be naive to locate David wholly on the side of innocence. . . . He was a thoroughly political being operating in a violently competitive environment.”

Ethicists anguish over the extreme demands made by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, but more absolutist still is the demand that God originally makes of Israel. The people must forgo a human king and rely solely on the divine Monarch. Under constant threat of attack from Philistines, Amalekites, and others, the people of Israel demand of Samuel that he petition God to give them a normal, worldly political system with a king and standing army. God is angered but accedes to their request, giving them first Saul, and then, when he fails to make the prophetic grade, David. But as it turns out, kingship in Israel is like what Mencken said of democracy: “The people get what they want and they get it good and hard.” God’s punishment of Israel’s request for kingship is not external, like fire and flood, but gets applied through the process of politics itself.

Halbertal and Holmes explain how original the Book of Samuel is. In it we see the emergence of a secular politics, one in which the king is not a god or even the son of God, but simply a man among men. “The beginning of politics” of the title is finely described: There is no politics, in our sense, until the role of the king is differentiated from that of the prophet and priest. Halbertal and Holmes show that what happens next, for both Saul and David, is that both are compelled to turn others, even beloved daughters and sons, into means to political ends. The nascent politics in the Book of Samuel shows itself to be the realm of instrumentalization. Nothing is sacred, so nobody, not even a family member, is an end in himself. Everything becomes a means to the end of retaining political power. Even the seemingly all-powerful king becomes a slave to the demands of the political.

As a consequence, the dynastic king is professionally at odds with himself, because the moral demands of paternity and the role of father must be subordinated to the demands of kingship and hanging on to power at all costs. This is an insightful point. The authors use it to explain the scene when Jonathan asks David to make a covenant with him. The “covenant” between Jonathan and David, made at the former’s behest, is not just a sign of their beautiful friendship, but a pact that David will not kill his friend when he comes into power. Maybe the authors exaggerate the element of politics as power, imposing that single theme everywhere, but they nonetheless shed light on turns in the story which otherwise resist analysis.

Thus, The Beginning of Politics is able to show how David’s ability to be all things to all men is what enables him to survive his wilderness years, on the run from the murderous Saul, and seize the kingship when his pursuer falls at the hands of invading armies. But his duplicity over Bathsheba and Uriah will later “paralyze” David before his adult sons. In the eyes of his sons, the adulterous and murderous David loses moral authority as father and man. He retains only the relative and covetable authority of a king. The scene in which David learns that his henchmen have killed his would-be usurping son Absalom is one of the great set pieces of tragedy in world literature. Absalom’s death was a political necessity, but David, who has hitherto been a creature of politics, recognizes now his need to be a father, a human being.

As Halbertal and Holmes see it, God in the Books of Samuel is like a retired boss, who plays only a minor part in the story after Saul’s takedown and David’s anointing. The one flaw in this approach is that they do not do justice to the way in which divine absolutes, even though largely absent after Samuel anoints David, set the stage for the profound and worldly drama of politics. The background presence of God and his absolute, eschatological moral demands may be what enabled the authors of Samuel to see the political soul as ambiguous and complex. God’s disapproval of the call for a human king—and with human kingship the political soul—may seem overwrought, but the darkness of his disavowal is what enabled the ancient historians to depict David as no sacred figurine but rather a man whose “motives are genuinely multiple and mixed.” 

Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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