Of Kings and Prophets: Pilot – A Review

I have eagerly waited for an updated cinematic or television adaptation of the narratives of 1-2 Samuel, specifically the Saul and David stories, which are ripe with dramatic subjects. The new ABC series “Of Kings and Prophets” shows promise in fulfilling my desire for such an adaptation, though it has some mostly negligible flaws. Regardless, it provides an opportunity for popular conversation about some troubling biblical topics that are often swept under the rug of pietism and biblical fundamentalism.

A fair amount of “Game of Thrones envy” sets the tone for this gritty dramatization of the biblical narratives of Saul and David. There is plenty of blood, plenty of sex, and plenty of unsettling ideas such as the slaughter of women and children in battle, though to be sure, the Bible itself is full of blood, sex, and genocide. We teach our children, as we have grown up with ourselves, a sanitized version of the story of David. Sunday School felt board presentations of David and Goliath never touched upon concepts of genocide-as-holy-war, polygamy and concubinage, or the brutality of daily life in early Iron Age Palestine. While some parents may still be cautious of allowing their children to view this “biblical” drama, it does contain a measure of reality that most of us have remained blissfully unaware of, because, well, when was the last time any of you actually read all the way through 1-2 Samuel? (And those of you who would respond “I just read it!” will be the exception that proves the rule.)

The acting is excellent, for what I can observe with an untrained eye, and the sets spectacular (though to be sure, Gibeah would have been much, much smaller than portrayed in this series). I was delighted to see that a large number of the actors actually looked like Middle Easterners. I mused that, perhaps some of the Hollywood whitewashing recently brought into the public critical eye was being corrected. Then, my delight was abated by the snow-white English actors portraying the series TWO MAIN CHARACTERS, David and Saul. The contrast was a little jarring, both in visual and ethical tones.

The story for the first episode was good for a pilot, introducing the characters and the basic concepts that we have to grapple with vicariously through the characters. Saul appears, perhaps, as a more sympathetic figure than he is portrayed in the Old Testament. He expresses moral outrage at Elohim’s command to slaughter women and children, which is not found in the Scriptures, which presents Saul’s violation of the ban on the Amalekites as being for his own selfish gain, not out of any genuine revulsion to holy war.

(As an aside, part of the difficulty of presenting a narrative of the books of Samuel is that the books show multiple layers of redaction and sources coming from diverse places. Putting them together in a coherent narrative is almost impossible. For example, the narrative of David and Goliath in the Masoretic Hebrew is a splicing together of two separate narratives, one of which does not appear in the Old Greek/”LXX”. Thus, when the series presents David as an already-grown man who goes to kill the lion and becomes Saul’s court musician, there is some necessary narrative license that the writers are taking. I’m okay with it, personally, though it may seem a little “forced.”)

And it is this very thing, the biblical practice of genocidal holy war, which troubles us the most today, and I am pleased to see the series truly struggling with the issue of religious ethics, especially on this particular issue, which is something we must have a serious conversation about if we are to maintain an ethical integrity as “biblical” Christians, for we can no longer ignore the issue, not in a world of extremist jihadi terrorism and the so-called “war on terror.”

It is an unavoidable fact that the biblical narrative as we read it advocates a sort of institutionalized and ritualized genocide known in the Hebrew Old Testament as ḥērem, usually translated as “put under the ban” or “devoted to the Lord.” Not all war conducted by the Israelites was of this nature, though when it was, it was treated as a matter of cultic orthodoxy, the violation of which was a “heresy” of sorts punishable by death. When YHWH called for ḥēremthe people put under “the ban” were to be killed — men, women, children, and animals, every living thing — and all of their property burned to the ground. It was as if the people under the ban were made into a sacrifice that the Israelites were to slaughter as an offering to YHWH. The violation of this practice would be nothing less than an act of desecration.

We might question today whether the practice of ḥērem was ever actually carried out as described in the Old Testament, or whether it was instead a later narrative device that has little or no historical factuality. Truly, though, it doesn’t matter, for it is apparent that some people at some point in time thought such a thing was ethical, even divinely sanctioned, and that alone is troubling enough.

I expect this series to continue to struggle with this issue, and I do hope it does. The manner in which the pilot episode broached the subject of the dubious moral quality of a God (Elohim) who cannot be questioned has profound implication for Christians of all sects and denominations who blithely accept as ethical concepts such as the eternal condemnation of the wicked in Gehenna. Regardless of where you or anyone comes down on that issue, the fact that the morality of such a thing fails to bother the great majority of Christians strikes me as a frightful thing. We need to have these conversations. We need to be challenged on these issues, even if we do not change our views.

For my part, I have come to understand the religion of ancient Israel to be quite primitive by current standards as was the entire civilization of the Iron Age. Similarly, their conceptualization and understanding of God was equally primitive. The trouble is, when we read the Bible, we read our own understanding of divinity, morality, and what is “civilized” back into the text, and we expect these “kings and prophets” to be operating under the same philosophical assumptions and civilized social standards that we do. But they didn’t, and just because they appear in “our” Bible does not excuse them or make their conduct appropriate.

I believe the key here is to understand that God, objectively understood, works in and through the conventions of civilization as it develops through history. The Holy Trinity was not revealed in all of its Nicaean fullness to Abraham, even though he saw the three Angels of the Lord. The “Kings and Prophets “of the Old Testament worked within the limited understanding they had within the political, social, and religious systems that they had. I do not think it is appropriate for us to assume that the figures of the Old Testament somehow worked with a greater understanding of divinity than their own civilization would allow. That’s not how revelation “works.” (Cue Han Solo meme).

I do not believe we should read the Old Testament or even understand YHWH of the Old Testament as being a definitive revelation of God. Rather, our definitive revelation of God should be found in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos, Immanuel, who reveals the Father to us. It is in the light of Christ and the Paschal Mystery that every page of Scripture should be read.

Now, this does not make the subject of genocidal holy war in the Old Testament any easier to accept, but it may give us some measure of comfort knowing that if we are prone to take the Old Testament at face value, we may want to reevaluate our hermeneutics. Nevertheless, I welcome “Of Kings and Prophets” to give us a chance to have this and other important conversations about religious ethics and how we are to understand the Old Testament, which does often read more like Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings.

I hope to do a similar, if not smaller review each week after I watch the episode, so stay tuned!

 

*ADDENDUM* At the prompting of a commenter, I would also remark that the pilot episode stays fairly true to the biblical narrative with the above stated caveats. The problem, though, is assuming that the biblical narrative is something that *should* be adhered to, because we must understand the biblical narrative to be its own artistic (literary) rendering of the David and Saul story, which should not be taken to be completely historically factual, as if someone was following around these people with a camcorder or tape recorder and then writing down their words and actions in a journalistic fashion. That’s not how the Bible works, again to memify Han Solo. The Bible is an icon, an artistic image, not a reproduction of factual events. In this sense, “Of Kings and Prophets” participates in the same artistic mythopoesis as its source material, and it will naturally and necessarily depart from its source material as a function of its own artistic genius. We should not look for complete fidelity to the biblical narrative, but rather celebrate a new artistic interpretation of the same material as a way of understanding how our own culture and society encounters the biblical text. For example, the biblical text itself has no apparent problem with genocidal holy war, and Saul never shows any trouble with it on moral grounds, as I stated above. It is a necessary departure from the biblical narrative, where we portray our own uneasiness with the practice. This is a good and welcome departure from the biblical narrative that is its own hermeneutic reflecting the moral canons of our society. In this way, the series sets itself up to tell us as much about our own times as it will of the early Iron Age.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks Eric. I saw the trailers for this (online, as I do not have TV) and my initial reaction was being appalled that our secular media was going to abuse yet another passage of scripture.

    I like your take on the issues presented though and look forward to your thoughts as the series progresses.

  2. If we are to read the Bible literally, that literally means ‘literarily’, is my understanding, ‘as literature’ (whatever its genre, i.e., poetry, epic, history, prophecy, wisdom, etc.) Somewhere I read that when the ‘semitic mind’ wants to theologize or make a point, it tells a story, as opposed to other cultural ‘minds’ that might philosophize, systematize, experiment or seek out data, etc. I have no idea whether any of that is ‘correct’, but it sets up an interesting question about what 1-2 Samuel are and what they are doing. Is it ‘just a story’ told in a specific literary way to make a specific theological point? and is that (or can that be) just as true, accurate, and ‘literally’/’literarily’ true as taking the ‘plain meaning’ of the text as ‘true’?

    And if that is all true, is that also the explanation for the problem many have had regarding not so much Genesis 1-2 but Paul’s use of Genesis 1-2 (specifically Adam) in his theology of Christ, the New Adam? That is, if the semitic mind of Paul is theologizing by telling a story, do the ‘historical’ details of the story (as told and/or as may or may not have taken place in history) even matter?

    And if this is a path the Church takes us down or if this path is true, what is/is not lost? What questions does it open up? Does it matter that the Fathers might have assumed these stories were something more like ‘history’? What does that do to their reliability as authorities? Or, is their retelling of the stories little more than the Bible’s own retelling of the stories – and we simple read ‘history’ and ‘reality’ in to them when they were only ever meant to be ‘stories told’ to a theological end? After all, once you say a metaphor means something is ‘like’ another, it stops being a metaphor (and turns into a simile). Does this way of reading the OT, NT, and the Fathers’ reading of the same change anything for Orthodoxy? Does ‘literal’ = ‘historical’ or ‘literary’ all the time? Does the plain meaning of a text always have to be true alongside the typological, allegorical, ‘spiritual’, multilayered meanings of a text, or do some of them give way some/much/all of the time in this or that genre of text?

    1. Therefore, is the call to genocide in the story of 1-2 Samuel ‘literarily’ more like the Church’s lenten admonition that, “Happy shall he be, that shall take and dash thy little ones [children] against the rock. Alleluia.”?

      Fr. Stephen Freeman, following the Fathers and the liturgical texts of the church, explains the decidedly non-‘literal’ meaning of the text thus:

      “In Orthodox tradition, the fathers interpret the last verse as a reference to the ‘little thoughts – the logismoi‘ and dashing them against the Rock, who is Christ. Thus we rise early in the day and dash our wayward thoughts against the Rock of Christ who frees us from their tyranny. Alleluia.”

      Thus, the plain meaning of a text need not always be true alongside more ‘spiritual’ meanings, or have been the original intent of the author/Author. (Your discussion of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Virgin Birth would seem to agree with the fact that the real Author’s intent need not have been understood or intended by the original human author.)

      If I am understanding this or explaining it well, then so much for a dead letter, ‘Scalia-like’ originalism when it comes to biblical exegesis. 🙂

    2. There is a lot to unpack here, and most of it I would prefer to address in separate and dedicated posts. The issue of what did or did not happen historically and how we interpret the Bible as-is are two different but related issues. The former is epistemological, the latter is hermeneutical. Regarding history, I think it should be quite apparent from even a cursory glance at the critical scholarship that what the Bible gives us access to as far as historical knowledge is minimal. It gives more, for example, in 1-1 Kings, but where we do not have extra-biblical evidence to corroborate the biblical narratives, we are largely left in the epistemological dark, i.e. we have no way of knowing that we know what actually happened. The Bible is a literary work, and so its narratives are not historical in the way we think of modern historiography. If we demand the Bible to be that, we are asking it to do something it is incapable of. On the other hand, faith is something that is capable of shedding light in the epistemological darkness. We may not “know” that Moses existed or lead an exodus out of Egypt, but we certainly may believe it, as long as it remains a justified belief that does not contradict empirical evidence that we do have and do “know.” Finally, where knowledge of factual history is minimal or even when the Bible seems to contradict history, a proper iconological hermeneutic allows us to ascribe value and meaning to the Bible, where its historical value and meaning may suffer under critical scrutiny. As you mention, this is the same hermeneutic of the Apostles and the Fathers, so even when critical scholarship “bursts our bubble” so-to-speak, our hermeneutic remains intact. We do not need the Bible to be a source of verifiable, factual knowledge about history. In some cases it is, and in others it is not. Rather we can rely upon the Bible to be a source of spiritual knowledge perceived by faith as the hermeneutical canons of our Holy Tradition are applied to it.

  3. Even though I am fundamentalist who refuses to sweep troubling biblical topics under the rug, I thoroughly enjoy your articles. I think I will pass on this series, since I did recently re-read Samuel and, in my view, Hollywood has not gotten a single bible story right since “The Ten Commandments”.

    BTW, David is thought by many to have been a freckled face read head. He certainly had the temper.

  4. Question – having found out recently that this was a project spearheaded by Reza Aslan, how much does this kind of feel like, I don’t know, a religious studies scholar trying to do popular entertainment?

  5. Could you provide more details on this statement?

    “For example, the narrative of David and Goliath in the Masoretic Hebrew is a splicing together of two separate narratives, one of which does not appear in the Old Greek/”LXX”.”

    Which passages specifically are you referring to here? Are there any other similar examples in the books of Samuel or Kings?

      1. Just comparing the texts, I found two blocks that are not found in the Septuagint:

        1 Samuel 17:12-31:

        12 Now David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehemjudah, whose name was Jesse; and he had eight sons: and the man went among men for an old man in the days of Saul.
        13 And the three eldest sons of Jesse went and followed Saul to the battle: and the names of his three sons that went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next unto him Abinadab, and the third Shammah.
        14 And David was the youngest: and the three eldest followed Saul.
        15 But David went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.
        16 And the Philistine drew near morning and evening, and presented himself forty days.
        17 And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp of thy brethren;
        18 And carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge.
        19 Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines.
        20 And David rose up early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the trench, as the host was going forth to the fight, and shouted for the battle.
        21 For Israel and the Philistines had put the battle in array, army against army.
        22 And David left his carriage in the hand of the keeper of the carriage, and ran into the army, and came and saluted his brethren.
        23 And as he talked with them, behold, there came up the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, out of the armies of the Philistines, and spake according to the same words: and David heard them.
        24 And all the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were sore afraid.
        25 And the men of Israel said, Have ye seen this man that is come up? surely to defy Israel is he come up: and it shall be, that the man who killeth him, the king will enrich him with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father’s house free in Israel.
        26 And David spake to the men that stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?
        27 And the people answered him after this manner, saying, So shall it be done to the man that killeth him.
        28 And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.
        29 And David said, What have I now done? Is there not a cause?
        30 And he turned from him toward another, and spake after the same manner: and the people answered him again after the former manner.
        31 And when the words were heard which David spake, they rehearsed them before Saul: and he sent for him.

        1 Samuel 18:17-19

        17 And Saul said to David, Behold my elder daughter Merab, her will I give thee to wife: only be thou valiant for me, and fight the Lord’s battles. For Saul said, Let not mine hand be upon him, but let the hand of the Philistines be upon him.
        18 And David said unto Saul, Who am I? and what is my life, or my father’s family in Israel, that I should be son in law to the king?
        19 But it came to pass at the time when Merab Saul’s daughter should have been given to David, that she was given unto Adriel the Meholathite to wife.

  6. Re: not taking God as depicted in the OT as a definitive revelation of God–

    I used to fall into this camp, but I’ve since fallen out of it, for a few reasons. First, Jesus, as a Jew for whom the Old Testament are THE Scriptures (ignoring for a moment the fact that the canon was relatively porous, numerous books that we do not today consider canonical were read as inspired scripture by Second Temple Jews, and numerous different textual traditions were active and all accepted and acknowledged as authoritative), clearly understood the God depicted and described in those Scriptures to be his Father. Jesus rarely “apologizes” for the Old Testament, and he occasionally says and does some rather brash and Old-Testament-God-like things (e.g., purifying the Temple with a whip, proscribing harsh punishments for people who fail to repent/offend the little ones, etc.). Moreover, some pretty Old-Testament-God stuff happens in the rest of the NT (God strikes Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying, the horrific scenes of judgment in the Apocalypse, etc.). In essence, like Jesus, the NT doesn’t seem to feel the need to apologize for the OT, or to try and “spiritualize” and work around difficult and violent passages; St. Paul, in fact, happily includes genocide as one of the mighty acts of God done on behalf of Israel in preparation for the Gospel of Christ (Acts 13:19).

    Second, and related to this, I think that modern theology has bitten off more than it can chew in trying to ascribe violence or non-violence to the essence of God, and that this complicates our reading of the Bible. I think both the violence of the LORD who is a man of war (Ex. 15:3) and the covenant of peace offered through the Christ who commands Peter to put away his sword (Mt. 26:52) can be held together within an apocalyptic and economic hermeneutical lens. Christ commands nonviolent love for enemies not in a condemnation of violence in and of itself per se, but in order to turn his disciples’ attention to the fact that the real war and the real enemy–the true enemy of Israel, especially–is not the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, or the Egyptians, but the Accuser and his forces who manipulate these pagan empires to oppress God’s people. As St. Paul says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12). Under the Old Covenant, before humanity was freed from the oppressive reign of Sin and Death, it was often necessary to engage in physical violence with the pagan world to preserve the people of God.

    I’m not suggesting that this model removes the moral question–“How can a good and all-loving God condone violence against any of the creatures made to bear his image and likeness?”–but I am suggesting that it does a better job of harmonizing the Testaments than do allegorical projects. Moreover, one can mount a serious argument that the spilling of human blood is indeed a grave injustice in the eyes of the God of Israel. He curses Cain for murdering Abel, Lamech for murdering the young man, and an essential part of his covenant with Noah is that God will avenge personally the blood of any human person spilled upon the earth (Gen. 9:5-6). God excludes David from the right to build the Temple because he has spilled so much blood (1 Chron. 22:8). In essence, we have to be willing to acknowledge that the one whom Jesus came to reveal is the God who both hates humans shedding human blood but is also a Man of War and willing to use violence to accomplish his ends if necessary in the OT. Does that make God morally culpable? Maybe, if he were human, and we were able to hold him to human standards, but we are not able so to do. We are in his image, accountable to obey him and reflect the image given us in Christ, but he, conversely, is not obligated to adhere to our moral conceptions, even if they are injunctions he has given to us.

    This leads me to my main point, which is that this way of thinking usually produces a kind of psuedo-Marcionism. I’m not accusing you (of all bloggers) of such a fault, but I do think that such an attitude is ironically active amongst many biblical scholars (as someone training in the field at the turning point of the undergrad/graduate level). We worship the God of the Old Testament. He is fully revealed in Christ, but we only understand that revelation and are able to articulate what God has done through Christ “according to the Scriptures”–i.e., through the prophetic nature of Israel’s Scriptures. Jack Miles, an author with whom I certainly disagree about most major theological topics, was nevertheless correct to see the antinomy presented by the two Testaments, referring to Christ as a “Crisis in the Life of God”: Israel’s Warrior God turns his sword toward Satan and Death, because what’s the point in saving Israel from the pagans if everyone dies in the end anyway? We have to live in that antinomy, as Christians. By living in that antinomy, rather than trying to find our way out of it, we will find a more clarificatory answer, I wager.

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