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 ḥērem, the 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.