A Review of
The Beginning of Politics:
Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel.
Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes.
Reviewed by James Honig
My Sunday School memories of the David stories are full of heroics. David, the cheeky adolescent who slew a giant. David, the brilliant warrior who pillaged the pagan Philistines. David, the great King who made God’s people into a great power. David the poet who wrote so many of the psalms, giving testimony to his strong and reliable faith.
In seminary, while David was still an icon of godly leadership, his dalliance with Bathsheba was also used as a cautionary tale for would-be pastors “not to get yourselves in trouble.” I still remember the lessons from David’s life and leadership that Eugene Peterson extracted from the pages of First and Second Samuel in Leap Over a Wall. In all of it, David was lifted up as a godly man after whom one could model one’s life.
David fell a few notches after reading Geraldine Brooks’s novel, The Secret Chord. Brooks didn’t uncover any biblical stories that I didn’t already know. Instead, her treatment of the stories pulled down some of the curtains of piety through which I had filtered those stories. I began to see David’s actions as cunning, violent, and abusive towards some of the people closest to him.
Then comes this book: The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel. In it, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, both professors of Law, take a careful look at the lives of Saul and David through the stories in First and Second Samuel with an eye towards uncovering insights into the nature of political power. Neither Saul nor David come across as heroic; rather they are portrayed as two potentially great kings who became obsessed with gaining and keeping power.
Beginning with the Israelites’ fateful longing for a king in the manner of the other nations, and the shift from “God is the king,” to “the king is not a God,” Halbertal and Holmes argue that the author of First and Second Samuel chronicles the insidious nature of human political power and the idolatry that follows when humans transfer their allegiance from God to human leaders. Through an analysis of the Saul and David stories, they argue that though politics is an overpowering human necessity, we humans will never escape the self-defeating betrayals that lie at the heart of political power. Over and over, the authors demonstrate how the gain of political power by individuals leads to decisions that are not necessarily the right course of action for the subjects, but are precisely the required action to consolidate and strengthen the hold on political power.
Saul is portrayed as a relatively innocent young man who was unwittingly thrust into the kingship. Once he became king, he became obsessed with keeping the power, and later in his reign became paranoid that everyone around him was out to get him. For instance, Halbertal and Homles analyze at length the story of Saul and his massacre of the priests of Nob. After a frustratingly unsuccessful attempt to capture David, Saul eventually arranges for the execution not only of the principal players in David’s escape, but others whose only crime was that they happened to be present when David escaped. “Focused exclusively and obsessively on clinging to the throne, Saul treats those around him as nothing more than means for shoring up his power.”
With regard to David, the authors draft an argument that David engulfed his entire household in death and violence as a means to ensure dynastic succession. Yet the very death and violence that David both actively and passively unleashed virtually had the opposite effect, leading to the death of nearly all of David’s male offspring other than Solomon, and eventually to the chaotic, unstable, and violent struggle for the kingship of Israel and the eventual divided kingdom.
As a Christian pastor whose only way of coming at the biblical text is to gain insight into how God is at work in the world and what that might mean for me and the faith community I serve, it was initially a little jarring to read a book based on the biblical text that was uninterested in lessons for the faithful. Those looking for insight into how Saul, David, or the stories from First and Second Samuel fit into and inform the covenant history of God and God’s people likely will be frustrated. It just doesn’t have much to say about salvation history or the community of the faithful.
But those interested in insights into human nature, the drive to gain and to keep political power will find incisive commentary. Halbertal and Holmes mine the depths of these ancient stories and in their razor sharp analysis draw conclusions that are not only timely, they help understand the nature of politics as it unfolds in the daily news feed. What’s uncanny and a little frightening is the sharp parallels between these ancient stories and what we see playing out on the screens of our televisions and the pages of our newspapers. While the stories of how political power gets played are relevant around the globe, they are particularly relevant to readers who live in the U.S. We are experiencing a time of extreme political partisanship and blatant strategies to gain and consolidate power. Neither red nor blue are free from blame. Politicians never tire of claiming they are acting on the will of “the American people,” yet their actions betray that they are far more concerned with gaining the political upper hand and strengthening their political power.
Once I got past the reality that this commentary was unlike any other I’ve read and accepted it on its own terms, I found the book to be rich and insightful. And from that perspective, the incisive analysis of these two authors will reward the careful reader with understanding as fresh as the new day.