May 2010

David the King: Judah, Israel and the Assyrian Empire

In chapter 20 of Second Samuel, the House of David goes to great lengths to quell any further civil unrest between the people of Judah and the rebelling elements of Israel. David isolates his ten concubines in the very definition of a gilded cage, a clear indication of some perceived taint caused by Absalom and a meaningful reference to David's own disastrous romantic decisions. David also sends Joab, his most trusted lieutenant, to deal with any betrayers who would replace Absalom as a new champion of the kingdom of Israel. Directly following Absalom's defeat in the forest of Ephraim, the people of Israel maintain a vocal opposition to the rule of Judah, though they don't take up arms. Sensing a new rebellion in the making when Amasa, one of David's advisors, fails to organize the leaders of Judah following the rise of a popular dissident named Sheba, David orders the death of Amasa and the pursuit of Sheba before further trouble can arise. In this chapter, David's justice is swift, brutal and designed to shock the Israelites into submission.

David the King: The Death of Absalom

As the story of David approaches its end, there is a sense of weariness throughout the text. Though David had never been a particularly wrathful figure throughout his life, in those final years when his leadership was constantly in question he was particularly unwilling to exact vengeance of any sort regardless of how egregious his enemies were. David's sympathy and fairness are why, despite his failings, we still talk about him as if he was an admirable figure. Unlike Saul, David is never entirely consumed by the cruelty of the world or the disturbing ease of destruction afforded to him by his throne. David's early years are all about elevating him from his low, unassuming origins and his later years are all about humbling him. The admirable thing about David isn't that he's an unbeatable warrior, a singular poet or even a favorite of God. His greatest quality is his tenderness, his ability to find mercy and justice when he has every reason to bring down the full force of his crown.

Jews, Jazz and Civil Rights

In the first half of the 20th century, American Jews participated in what can be called the first fully integrated cultural movement in the history of the United States. That movement was jazz music, the beginning of nationwide pop and an artistic playing field that invited people from all walks of life to join in. Together with other American minorities, Jewish musicians contributed to the most influential genre of music in history and the culture it helped create.

David the King: Shimei of Bahurim

The war between King David and his son Absalom is a particularly personal conflict. Aside from the fact that it's a war between a father and son, most of the major tactical maneuvers on both sides rely upon the shifting loyalties of trusted friends and family, some of whom have histories with the House of David stretching back several generations. It's at this point in the story that it becomes apparent just how complex the drama has become. Small slights and minor mercies from previous chapters end up manifesting as life-or-death political decisions, though this isn't really depicted as being a good thing.

David the King: Absalom's Betrayal

Judaism is a very old faith and as such it is very concerned with cycles. The philosophies of antiquity saw a world that both constantly changed and also fell into patterns. The seasons move in a cycle, the structure of a family is nothing if not a series of rotating roles and even the biggest things in nature, like the moon and stars, seem to move in a pattern. The main thrust of Judaism is to decide which cycles to perpetuate and which ones to end. The earliest iteration of the faith grew out of a desire to end the cycle of warring civilizations toppling one god only to replace it with another. In time, this philosophy came to encompass a universal application of law rather than the caprice of powerful individuals. The Books of Samuel are a treatise on this belief of law above kings. Rather than strictly depicting a society that is made better by a proper adherence to the law, it tells the story of the cycle of destruction brought about by monarchs.