February 2010

David the King: David in Gath and the Ghost of Samuel

Jewish culture has a complicated history with its sense of nationhood. Like any people, we strive to have a sovereign country of our own, yet so much of Jewish identity comes from the experience of being the outsider. All but one of our biblical founders, Isaac, spent a great deal of time as guests in a foreign nation and the epic story of our culture takes place entirely in transit. Even outside of the texts of the Torah, Jews have built our heritage from the perspective of the international, perpetual wanderer. Yiddish is every bit as Jewish as Hebrew and it is a hodgepodge of different languages from across Europe. Modern synagogues owe as much of their structure to the designs of our Christian neighbors in America as to our constantly evolving drive to reform. In Jewish culture, to be an outsider is to be at home. Perhaps that is why David, a king among kings, experiences one of the most important moments of his life in a foreign country.

David the King: Naval and the Spear of Saul

A common literary convention in the texts of the Torah is to juxtapose two seemingly unrelated stories that reflect the same values. One is usually a small, individual case and the other a large, "main arc" story on the same subject. This method is a lot like legal precedent. By reviewing an individual case that would be very relatable to common people and then showing how it's similar to a larger idea, these stories denote a worldview that includes a universal system of justice. What's right and good for the small is also right and good for the royal. Toward the end of First Samuel, just such a device is employed to teach a lesson about protection and responsibility.

David the King: Confrontation at En-Gedi

It's easy to see biblical texts as being a glorification of war. There are dozens of instances of God telling various leaders to bring the sword to one enemy or another. There are many layers to this theme, but it should be noted that Judaism now and in its most ancient form has never called war a good thing. More to the point, these texts never encourage us today to seek conflict. In the book of First Samuel there is a lot of fighting. It is a text that came from a period of near constant conflict. As such it is important to look at the moments when violence is averted and the message those moments are designed to convey.

David the King: The Destruction of Nov

The story of Saul and David is nothing less than the chronicle of a revolution. As First Samuel draws on, more and more people get caught up in the conflict. So much of this setup provides insight into how the people of Judah in exile viewed themselves. It's important to remember that, like much of the written Torah, the earliest parts of this story were put to parchment during the Babylonian captivity while the final version of the text wasn't solidified until a period of major reform after the return. One way or another, the revolutionary overtones in First Samuel are strong and intrinsically tied to the values of those who wrote and preserved it.