#1 Players upon Thrones: Kings and Queens of Israel part 1

This episode examines the historical setting that led to the first king of Israel; the Prophet Samuel; and the reign of King Saul.

For more than a thousand years, the nation of Israel was led socially and politically by monarchs. Kings and queens of the Jewish people gained the throne of sovereign power through a wide variety of means: some through Divine selection, some through inheritance, and others through violent rebellion. Most were exceptional, but some were banal; many were wicked, but a few were righteous; most were hated, but some were truly loved. David explores the historical role of Jewish kingship, outlines its main epochs, discusses every monarch in their historical context, delves into remarkable personalities and seeks to understand the dramatic events that drove them or defeated them.


Episode Transcript

Right. Good morning. Good afternoon. Let me look at you all. It’s nice to see everyone here for the beginning of a whole new odyssey and adventure. Let me just explain to you what we’re going to do over the next few weeks, so that those of you who are in the wrong course can quickly find other things to do. Although I would venture to say that this is going to be exciting. I’ll just wait for people to settle.

So those of you who are here would probably be aware that we’re going to look at the concept of kings and queens. We’re going to look at the concept of sovereignty and the history of the kings of Israel. And over the course of the next few weeks, we’re going to look at about, well, we’re actually going to look at over 50 kings and queens. We are doing a thousand-year period that really covers the whole range of historical personalities and events that incorporate this concept of the idea that the Jewish people have a king. It’s not something that simply exists in the comic books. We actually did have kings and queens. It might seem a bit untenable now although ugh some are calling for that framework to be re-instituted.

And there are obviously with that kind of project, you have a number of different potential candidates putting up their hands. Obviously as my name is David Solomon I’m clearly a front runner in that, but it’s a fascinating journey. But one of the things I want us to bear in mind right at the beginning is that everything we discuss does have a kind of resonance or echo that we might pick up on today because of historical circumstances. And we need to always bear that in mind.

What would it look like if we were to reinstitute that today and what relevance is it and why are we looking at this? And what does the idea of sovereignty give the Jewish people? And what does it detract from them? So, we’re going to look at a lot of people. But today I’m more or less going to kind of introduce the topic and I’m going to background the rise of the concept of kings and whereas as I said, we’re going to look at over 50 different personalities today.

We’re just going to look at two and that of course is because the two that we’re looking at today really act as the prototype for everything that’s going to unfold afterwards. If we understand the personalities and the circumstances behind these two kings that I want to look at today at the very beginning of kingship, then it gives us an insight into what’s going to unfold over the next thousand years. That’s how significant it is. Come in. But of course, as with all things we need to background it all – it’s warm in here, which is nice. Is everyone okay, temperature wise? Yeah, everyone’s good? Okay.

Now obviously our major source for our knowledge of the kings of Israel is of course the Bible, the Tanach. I know some of you who just sat in Paul’s talk on biblical archaeology; I’m sure he went into the idea that the Bible is not just a complex document in itself, but is complex from a historic graphical point of view. The extent to which we are able to draw from the Tanach an absolute picture – historically. I’m looking around this room and I’m feeling that I might be able to have a little bit of latitude in what I can say about the Tanach without people write into the AJN (Australian Jewish News) and saying that I’m basically a whatever it is that I am. Because the Tanach is a document that can act as a historical guide. It’s most certainly based on historical sources and is itself a historical source in many, many ways. But as scholars have realised there are aspects of the Bible that we have to approach with a little bit more …a little bit less – what’s the word I’m looking for? We have to be sometimes a little bit sceptical about its portrayal in terms of our reliance. What is amazing about the Bible? What is absolutely incredible about the Tanach, is that it doesn’t really conflict with the archaeological picture that we have.

So, there is nowhere we say in the Bible, oh that’s obviously nonsense. And I’m pointing to this right from the beginning because I want to talk right now about a bit of an issue in relation to kingship that really set it off, which is a kind of a paradox that anyone who has studied the Bible is aware of. And that is the fact that in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is one of the five books, it’s the fifth of the Five Books of Moses. The book is Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy). It’s a very clear injunction there in chapter 17, which Moses gives to the people as they’re on the verge of entering the land, where he’s reviewing all of the major issues and all of the major laws pertaining to building this new society that the Jewish people are charged with building in the Land of Israel.

And there is an injunction there that says: som tahsim alekha melech – you shall surely appoint for yourself a king, you’ll place upon yourself a king. And then the Book of Deuteronomy in the next few verses goes on to enumerate the various aspects of a king, mostly to indicate what it king should not do: shouldn’t have too many wives; shouldn’t have too many horses; shouldn’t do this and do that. And the king’s job is basically to be a kind of a divine representative.

Always bear in mind that when we talk about the concept of melech, talk about the concept of a king, that is the only appellation applied to any function within the authority structure of Israel that has some kind of relationship with the Divine. G-d is never called a prophet. G-d is never called a priest, but G-d is called a king. When we appoint a king, we are appointing someone that has that kind of divine authority and that divine representation, and that’s important to remember. We have this injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy: you’re going to appoint yourself a king, you’re going to come and you’re going to say – oh we want to be like the goyim (the other nations). It literally says that we want a king.

Now that seems apparently – and some of you will have already come across this problem – to conflict with what happens when we actually go to get a king. Because in the Book of Samuel, which we’re going to discuss in some depth today, when they go to appoint a king, the great spiritual leader of the age, Samuel. You would imagine if you were reading the narrative simply as it unfolds in the Bible that someone like the Prophet Samuel has read the book of Deuteronomy – and yet when they come to him and they say: oh, we’d like a king. He says: you don’t want a king. Why you want a king? And he reads the call for a king as a rejection of divine authority, as a rejection of G-d. And that’s a major kind of paradox that we have to resolve.

Many commentators have come along and philosophers and thinkers in the Jewish world have tried to resolve that. This idea of divine authority is fraught to some extent in the kings, is fraught with paradox. But we also need to remember that the Book of Deuteronomy itself – and once again I’m looking around the room and I’m just flinching myself in preparation for any response to this – might contain aspects that may have been revealed a little later than we may otherwise assume and could carry a certain political agenda.

(Audience member speaks). And we’ll look at that. There’s a very distinct point in the history of Israel where the Book of Deuteronomy fits very neatly. If it was to have been composed, then I’m not saying it was, but I’m saying that we need to remain open to that possibility in terms of being able to resolve this apparent textual and historical paradox. Do the people of Israel need a king and do we want a king? And what are the circumstances by which the notion of a king would arise? And would those circumstances be relevant today?

That’s what I want to look at primarily. And we’re going to. I’m going to set the scene and then maybe in the second half after the break – not maybe, but we will – we’ll look at the two kings that really embody the two fundamental ideas about kingship that emerge. And then for the next few weeks we’re going to look at 50 people that really follow in that stream. The first thing we need to understand is when are we talking about?

Just let me….(audience member speaks). No, because I don’t want people to think that I’m taking a totally sceptical view of Tanach or the Bible, but what I am doing  is I’m reflecting the contemporary discussion amongst historians and archaeologists today. I’m sure you would be aware of that there are two basic approaches to looking at the Bible as a historical source in relation to archaeology and in relation to the other sciences by which we understand the past. Either you use archaeology as your baseline and you say, well, if it’s not there, then the Bible made it up. That’s the extreme view. Or you take the Bible as your historical guide – and I can tell you that if any other nation had any document anywhere near the Bible, they would be doing that. You take the Bible and you go: well, the Bible talks about this place and that event, let’s go and find it. And you use the Bible in order to guide you to have a greater illustration of what’s happening there. And the two of them together come to create our picture of the past. Both sides of this have very strong proponents and very strong and impressive archaeologists and historians. And what is remarkable about the Bible is that despite pushing, we haven’t found any real conflict. In fact, it’s incredible that the Bible is able to describe the events of a thousand years ago – no other document can do that – and reflect the historical picture that every other piece of data seems to conform with. We don’t want to get too overly sceptical about the Bible, but there are certain ways in which we need to, if we talk about it with a capital H, historical document, we need to be a little bit sceptical and open our minds to the possibility of what’s happening. But there’s no question that the people of Israel objectively, according to all opinions, had kings and queens and it all starts, well, we know where it starts…

Where are we now? What are we going to call now? 2000. I’m going to use the secular dating system. (Writing on the board.) So, let’s call this zero. Okay, so that’s 2000 years. Sometimes we get blasé about this and we just shoot out these numbers. 2000 years. Did you have any idea about how many people around the world now are sitting in rooms discussing the history of their own kind of ethnic identity 2000 years ago? And 2000 years ago is kind of a little bit recent in Jewish history. But 2000 years ago brings us more or less to the end of the Second Temple Period.

And so, the thousand years I’m really looking at is this framework here, around about minus 1100. And what does the world look like in minus 1100? What does it look like? Well, it is really in the middle of this revolution that is happening that we call the Iron Age. It’s now a complicated picture what we understand about the development of iron. Iron is a major technological shift for humanity. There had been iron around for a while. People had been using iron for thousands of years, but the iron that they had been using was more or less from meteorites and things like this. It was recognised as a very, very useful kind of element. It seemed to have features to it that made it more workable in some ways than bronze, which had been the standard metal for a long, long time. Bronze being an alloy of copper and tin and was reasonably accessible and reasonably easy to make. Iron didn’t seem to be able to be shaped in the same way.

Areas of Habiru PioGal; © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0; © Sweet Publishing / CC-BY-SA-3.0; the Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC-Zero [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The big technological shift that happens around this period is the ability to smelt it and to create. The real technology in iron development is about kilns and about ovens and about how you get that process that can draw iron out to the point – and melted to the point – where you can shape it . There were early experiments and successes with mixing iron with carbon to create very early forms of steel. And what that meant was that you could then very quickly – much more easier than bronze – equip an army with materials that would enable it to function very, very effectively.

Now, what historians of this age will tell you and what we know – and there’s a lot that we don’t know – but we know what we don’t know, if you understand what I mean. What that means is that for the couple of hundred years between about minus 1300 and minus 1100 something happened – and we don’t exactly know what – but historians refer to that period as ‘The Catastrophe’. The catastrophe was all the way right across the band of civilisation that went from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Yep? And that obviously includes the Land of Israel. But this, this entire are- because trust me in 1200 BCE, everything else was a boch (primitive and uncivilised place). I mean this was a boch but this was like first class boch and everything else was awful. Not awful, but no flush toilets. Everything from Mesopotamia to Egypt underwent some kind of destruction. There was a wave of destruction there –  and we know that most of the places that of archaeological interest are burnt at that level – and show signs of tremendous destruction and no one really knows why. The historical circumstances behind the Catastrophe we don’t know, but the whole civilisation structure that had been built up between Mesopotamian Egypt collapsed violently during those couple of hundred years.

Now, historians speculate. I think I know why, but of course that’s just an opinion and some historians agree with what I think or rather I agree with what they think and others have different views. But it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that as soon as you have an invention of a new technological device that can be used for weaponry, you’re going to see a trail of destruction over a large area. But we don’t exactly know the circumstances. What we do know is that in the wake of the Catastrophe, in the power vacuum created during this period two civilisations of interest to us emerge in the Levant. (Audience member speaks) They’re placing it roughly between around minus 1300 and minus 1100 – that couple of centuries period. It may have been a shorter period, but that’s when they locating it – a complete collapse of this civilisation structure.

Two new civilisations, both of which are in the sense comprised of displaced peoples emerge in that vacuum in the Levant. One of those civilisations is a Semitic civilisation comprised of a loose confederation of tribes who share a common ancestor myth. And that civilisation – when I say ‘civilisation’, I’m using that term in inverted commas,  I don’t want people think that there’s once again, no flush toilets yet and there’s no monorail. But that civilisation which arises in the Levant is of a Semitic origin and it shares a common ancestor myth that they had been previously living in Egypt and the Egyptian society had collapsed also in the wake of the Catastrophe. This loose confederacy of tribes emerged here and takes on the name Israel. And the other civilisation of displaced peoples that emerges in the Levant and in the southwest Levant during the wake of the Catastrophe is an aggregation of people that had flown in from the Aegean and Phoenicia as well as some of the older Canaanite elements. And that civilisation we now know as Philistia.

Yes (audience member speaks). Oh, very, very good. I’m using the term Israel because we call that civilisation Israel. It may be that they adopted that name emergent from their own sense of their own mythical picture of what was happening and that they may have referred to themselves more in terms of Hebrews. They definitely had a distinct language and a distinct culture, and it was what we now understand to be Hebrew. And there are a lot of different theories about the origin of Hebrew and where that comes from and so on. And they may have even referred to themselves as the Egyptian documents seem to refer to them as the Habiru.

Judah is much later by all accounts as we are not yet Jews. So, we’re either the Habiru or, we are part of this nation which we now refer to as Israel – which is a very important part of our whole ancestral myth. But Israel was a loose confederacy of tribes that shared this common myth and language and little else that also had in a sense of common religion. But that religion itself was complex and no one seems to agree on what it meant – which is not so different from today. Philistia on the other hand, once it got itself organised, was a far more rigid and controlled structure. Philistia, based predominantly in the area that we would now call Gaza – but really as far as Ashkelon and Garth, Ekron and Ashdod and these other places – created an entity that historians now referred to as the pentapolis, which was a structure of five city states that shared a common economic and military outlook.

Philistine pentapolis CCO

They were not a homogenous people, the Philistines. There were elements of their culture that clearly came from the central Mediterranean, from the Aegean, and there were elements of their culture that came from Phoenicia and other places with whom they had very, very good economic relations. So, Philistia has some advantages, but it has some problems. Similarly, Israel who are inhabiting the interior and the hinterland of the Canaanite regions have advantages and problems. Philistia’s advantages are that it has very good economic relations with Phoenicia, so it partakes in that whole coastal economy that is happening there.

It’s extremely important to understand the influence of Phoenicia -which is kind of like Lebanon and that whole coastal region around there – in terms of the trade that lubricating the economies of all of these places. Philistia had access to the iron that was being developed by Hittite and other civilisations also in the general Middle Eastern area. And of course, Philistia had access to fishing and they were a highly militarised society. Their disadvantage was that after a certain point, when your population gets to a certain point – and all of you who start civilisations will know this – there’s something you need beyond economic connections. You need government. Philistia had government, it had kings and each of these cities states it was very control.

But you need an agricultural base. You need farming, you’ve got to give your people wheat. You’ve got to give your people basic staples that for which you need land and you need arable land and you need land that you can cultivate. That is precisely what Israel had. So, Israel did not have any of the – and I’m using Israel as that confederacy of tribes – did not have access to the coast economically. And they didn’t have iron, they didn’t have iron. They didn’t have access to iron. And they didn’t have the same kind of military set up. And there were a much less controlled society. But they did have land and they occupied some of the most fertile parts of the whole of the Levant – particularly the Jezreel Valley and so on.

And what it was going to become known as Samaria as well as even parts of southern Israel. If you look at the geography of the whole of the Middle East, the line that shows you where cultivatable land, which depends purely on rainfall, is the line that goes, something like that. I mean, and not including Egypt, because that depends on the Nile, and not including southern Iraq, Mesopotamia, which depends on the rivers, but pure rain fed cultivation comes just down the top of the Negev and that part of Israel. Israel had land and obviously it got to the point where Philistia, with its militarised society and the growing population they needed to feed, started to make incursions into Israel into the land that was occupied by the civilisation in the centre of the country. Everybody follow that picture so far?

(Audience member speaks). Well we’re going back into the midst of the past. If we use the term Israel, we are using that as a collective term to describe this entity that is going to become the Kingdom of Israel. And at this particular time, just as this lady said, they might not have seen themselves as that -people tend to identify their own cultures primarily by their language as well as by their place. But they are developing a whole type of understanding of their place in the world and the religion that is based on the uniqueness of their location, with very, very strong Semitic elements involved.

Now that is the situation that is described primarily by which book of the Bible? I thought that I would just get the answer from all. Please don’t make me make send everyone head home to read the whole Bible. That is the exact picture that is described in the Book of Judges. That is the Book of Judges’s historical setting. That’s what makes the Book of Judges so remarkable is because it is one of the oldest texts of the Bible by anyone’s account. But it seems to describe exactly the historical picture that we now understand of this area. The Book of Judges will tell you again and again that everything was basically a balagan (mess). Everyone was doing what they thought was the best thing to do. There was no centralised authority. The Book of Judges tells you again and again: Ain melech beYisrael – there is no king in Israel. There is no central authority: Ish hayashar beainav yaaseh – everybody was doing what they thought was the right thing to do in their own eyes.

And there were crises and there were dramas. And this collective entity kept getting threatened. Philistia is not such a big entity, so much in the Book of Judges just yet. There is an uneasy alliance that has happened. There is a period in the timeframe described by the Book of Judges which deals with a couple of centuries where there is an uneasy alliance of subjugation between Israel and Philistia and a kind of a military rule, where Philistia actually has a military outpost stationed in Israel. But for the most part, this confederacy of tribes we call Israel is dealing with entities that are more to the east and the south that are causing them grief – and the north to some extent. And when that grief happens, each tribe is dealing with it, in their own way and under their own circumstances. Sometimes in cooperation with a couple of the other tribes, but mostly they are seen as localised events. If something happened in the north of the country and that tribe had to deal with it, then the closest tribes to it might get sucked into that drama, but it wouldn’t affect anyone else.

This is a very, very important thing to understand. There was no real cooperation between these tribes. Incidentally, it’s important to remember that some of the tribes were shifting their locations, famously. Well famously the tribe of Dan, which was originally located down here near Philistia and basically were driven out by the pressure of the Philistinian expansion that went all the way to the north and captured the city of Layish in the north of Israel and reoccupied their tribal grounds there. So, there was a constant state of flux.

12 Tribes of Israel Map
12 Tribes of Israel map

This picture that is portrayed in the Five Books of Moses about the tribes going into the land of Israel and everyone’s going to settle their own allotments and sit under the grape vines is a nice picture, but it didn’t necessarily work out that way and the historical pressure. There are some significant – one second – tribal entities that are emerging and we are going to get some strong tribes out the 12 tribes. We’re going to get some strong tribes that appear to have more clout than the others notably. The two that emerge from that period are the tribe of Judah who are located in the south of the country and the tribe of Ephraim who hold the basically the fertile Jezreel valley. Jerusalem at this stage is not a Jewish possession. It is not a possession of Judah. It is not a possession of Israel. It is in fact a Jebusite stronghold. There is an uneasy alliance with the Jebusites. They were allowed to retain the city fort of Jerusalem, which was in the centre of the country and not an easy place to conquer and basically everything was happening around it. And the Jebusites were located there during this period.

(Audience member asks: Do we know approximately how many people might have made up the tribes?) It’s a question that is difficult to answer. Do we use the figures that are projected by the Bible? And sometimes the Bible uses figures that are sometimes open to a little bit of scepticism. It’s not impossible. I have a feeling that in future generations, some historians might look at the figures that are produced by our generations and call them exaggerations, right? When we talk about six million Jews died in the Holocaust and so on and already people start saying: oh, really? Those numbers. So, when the Bible tells us that 75,000 people are wiped out in a battle, we can say: really? But the fact is that we don’t actually know that those numbers are wrong.

But it would seem to me that maybe in this area, in Israel – if I was to take a kind of a general stab at the picture that’s being produced by both the Bible and historians – is that there’s maybe a million and a half people living in that area. But that itself could be at the upper scale of it and they may be a similar number in Philistia – if you account for everybody, based on the numbers that are given in the description of the battles. So, you extrapolate from battles, but no one’s going around with a census form then. Exactly.

Did you have a quick question? (Audience member speaks). That’s okay. I mean, (audience member question). Yeah, I with everybody else in the room. When you paused after the word ‘penis’, all of us were wondering: where is this going? But obviously you’re asking about things like circumcision, which is a good question. And in fact, we have direct references to that exact concept. One of the distinct features of this Semitic society – and they were not the only one to do this, but they made a big deal of it – was, in fact, circumcision. Circumcision was actually known amongst other Semitic ethnic entities here in the Arabian Peninsula and so on, but they made a big deal of it and the Philistines did not.

Yeah, (audience member question) I haven’t mentioned it, but I’ve thought of it and I was thinking about it even as I was talking, but the picture is complex. The picture is complex. I will grant you this. That’s a good observation. But I want to be honest about it because it’s very easy to go in and say: ah, these people believed in one G-d and they said the Shema (prayer) every morning. Judaism itself – or what was going to become Judaism – the religion of Israel is in a state of evolution and flux. There may be aspects of it that you wouldn’t necessarily recognise and there may even be aspects of it that the Melbourne Beth Din wouldn’t exactly call kosher. There is an evolution of the idea, but what’s very important about what you said is that there is a distinct notion of monotheism, as a contrast to paganism, that is evolving. And the main difference between monotheism and paganism at this stage – there’s going to be other differences that are going to emerge – but the main one at this stage is that monotheism demands not only a belief in one entity, one divine entity, but that there is an ethical relationship that is demanded of human beings. The extent to which the emphasis on that ethical relationship is placed is open to discussion at this very early stage – it’s going to become a priority, but I’m now located at this very early stage.

Also. I mean you only have to read the Book of Judges to realise…. Who has read the Book of Judges? So, it will astonish you. If you look towards the end of the Book of Judges – and in fact, I have to deal with that now because otherwise we won’t get anywhere – and you read the story of the idol of Micha and that anyone could set up their own cultic religion in Israel and have heaps of people follow them. Now there was a spiritual centre for an emergent picture. There was a spiritual centre – and actually, it’s very good that you raised it that, because towards the end of the Book of Judges you start to see a coalescence of this idea of monotheism – there was a cultic centre for the main divine entity that Israel saw as it’s guiding G-d. Remember that at this stage, we’re not yet even at the stage where G-d is the only G-d. G-d is simply the greatest G-d. And that’s the one G-d, and worshiping idols is pointless… (audience member question)…pointless and forbidden.

And the cultic centre is emergent in a place called: where is the cultic centre of the religion of Israel? Where they are worshiping this one G-d. It’s not Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a Jebusite city. It’s not Samaria. Now when I say it, you’re all going to go: oh! It is of course Shiloh. No one gave thought to the fact that there could be a centralised authority of the tribes. One of the great judges that’s talked about – one of these heroes that emerges in the Book of Judges, because every 30 or 40 years you would have a crisis that would have to be dealt with by one of these heroic figures and they would emerge, deal with the crisis and then retire back to the farm. There was no thought that they would then establish some kind of ongoing authority. The greatest example of that in the Book of Judges is, of course? Samuel’s not in the Book of Judges. Samuel is in the Book of Samuel.

Maarten van Heemskerck 024
“Gideon thanks G-d for the miracle of the dew” Maarten van Heemskerck [Public domain]

The Book of Judges has quite a number of heroes in it, but the big hero for this point about saying: I’m not going to rule over you and my sons are not going to rule over you; I’m not interested in the king; I’m not interested in being a king. They came to him, they said: we want you to be our king; you are amazing and we want you to be our king. And he goes: I don’t want to be your king; I want to go back to my farm and paint. No, he didn’t say “and paint”. Who was that after he shmeissed Midian? Who said it? Gideon – have a read of it. Chapter six and seven of the Book of Judges – an amazing story. And they went to Gideon and they said be a king and he goes: I’m not going to be a king and my sons… as it happens, after Gideon died, one of his sons then decided: oh, you know what? Dad was wrong. I think I will be king. But he didn’t last long.

And so, this is illustrative of the fact that not only did they not have a central authority, they didn’t really want a central authority. But the expansion of Philistia forced all sorts of different pressures. By the time we get to after 1100, especially by the time we get to around minus 1050, Philistia is really attempting to expand. They are highly industrialised, relative to that time. They are highly structured. They have a very, very strong and disciplined army and they are making serious incursions. As I said, to such an extent that even caused the forced removal of one of the tribes of Israel to the north.

The big decisive moment that shifts everyone’s consciousness about all of this, when suddenly people realise: oh my gosh, we really need to change the way were doing things, was, of course – like this pink, but it’s not really appropriate – the Battle of Aphek. Now at the battle of Aphek, this is after a couple of hundred years of Israel surviving these types of incursions from neighbouring tribes, but the Battle of Aphek, which is one of the great decisive battles described in the Bible – and we do have some archaeological backing for the events of the Battle of Aphek. At the Battle of Aphek, not only did Israel lose that battle and undergo tremendous incursions by the Philistines, but they also lost their greatest cultic objects.

Because the Ark of the covenant – by this time we had developed the idea that this G-d that had taken the tribes of Israel out of Egypt and had settled them in the land and had a covenantal relationship with Israel. This is what I was saying before – in the early stages we’re still in flux, but now we seem to be developing a unified theology about this. And that was embodied in the cultic mode of worship in Shiloh with the priesthood. And they had an Ark. The Ark of the Covenant contained the tablets of the ten commandments and other very, very sacred objects. And that was often taken to the battle field and was a rallying grinder, but also a huge psychological and – if you read the Bible and the Bible embellishes a lot – it was almost like a kind of a spiritual technology, almost like a weapon that emanated some kind of energy that allowed Israel to vanquish its enemies.

DuraSyn-NB1-Eben Ezer battle-The Ark
Wall painting in the Dura Europos synagogue, North wall, B register : battle of Eben Ezer, left part — the Ark taken.

But at the Battle of Aphek, the Ark of the Covenant was captured. It was subsequently returned, but it was captured. And this caused a big shift of thinking amongst all of the tribal entities in the land of Israel. One of the consequences of Aphek was not just that the nation was shocked by the capture of the Ark, but that we see the decline of the priority of the institution of the priesthood. The whole of the priesthood underwent a kind of deconstruction. And what arose in its place was the beginning of the notion of the prophet/judge, the shofet (judge) who was also a navi (prophet) – kind of like an oracle, like someone who could conduit divine wisdom; who G-d spoke to directly – a bit in the mode of what we understand from Moses. That, of course, is embodied in the figure of the Prophet Samuel. Samuel is kind of like a Moses figure. He’s not a priest; he’s not a king – he’s a prophet leader.

He is not just sitting in a cave somewhere and people go and ask him questions. He is roving around the country and he’s guiding the nation to what they should to be doing. (Audience member question). Yeah. They’re now an ‘Am’. The word ‘am’ means nation.

Yes. (audience member question).  When you say the concept of kings wasn’t around, even if we look at Abraham historically, there’s a concept of kings. There’s a concept of kings in the Book of Genesis; there’s a concept of kings in surrounding nations. Abraham is fighting kings in this time. Oh, and this timeline that is 600-700 years earlier, they were kings, but not kings. Not the kings of Israel. No, no. (audience member question). Philistia didn’t exist in the time of Abraham. Yup. Just go on. I’m really wanting to understand your question. Correct. Previous, it was a concept of kingship.

No, that’s what I’m saying. No, 600 years before there were kings, but not governing Israel. They were just in the surrounding area. Even now there are kings. There are kings in Philistia – Philistia has five kings. In fact, there were kings all over. I’ll even go further to underscore your  observation – that the confederacy of the tribes of Israel, we are the only entity without a king. That’s the unique thing and is a very important in underlying what I’m about to talk about because that’s the very point made by the Prophet Samuel who had already gathered the people some years after Aphek.

The Philistines were on the rise again and he gathered them proactively at a place called Mitzpah. It’s very important to understand. And that’s the second big battle against the Philistines. And that is a cultural, religious, spiritual, national, psychological turning point. Go and read that because the gathering at Mitzpah is where Samuel says to them: we can only survive if we are united and if we are united behind G-d and if we are united behind the idea that what we really share is an understanding of our destiny, our covenantal destiny in this place, and that we really are guided by G-d to be here. If we just unite and believe that then we will be victorious against any enemy.

Following this incredible gathering of all the tribal leaders and all the major representatives of all the tribes that Mitzpah, they then head off to the battlefield and they shmeissed (destroyed) the Philistines and the Philistines don’t really raise their head for some time. They do. Again, they will return, but they are subdued for quite a while and in fact the Philistines decide that they are never going to invade Israel again so long as Samuel is alive. Samuel acted as a conduit for that. So, between Aphek and Mitzpah – and this is a big thing I want to point out because I’m hoping that some of you will go home and read the Bible and see this is that that is the key point…

(Audience member question). There is no such thing as inter-marriage in those days because everybody was inter-married. In other words, there wasn’t a concept like…(Audience member speaks) Look… there’s no question that the people of Israel were endogamous. That means that you married within the tribe. You married within the nation. But marriage itself was of a kind of a slightly different perspective. I can’t go into this in too much detail. Sorry. It was an issue 500 years later with Ezra. That’s when it becomes critical. That’s what the… that’s a totally different point in history 500 years later and that, and that is where Ezra comes back from Persia, Babylon and finds a whole lot of people… all these guys have married local girls and he said: That’s not on.

But here, we are in such a state of flux that we have to be careful not to project our Gen 17 (Australian Jewish demographic survey) findings back onto Ancient Israel to say: oh, they were intermarrying because marriage itself was a different thing. Like with some of these figures that some of the great heroes of Israel at this time, it’s nothing for the Bible to say: oh, he was wandering around there and he went and visited a harem. Right? Can you imagine that? I mean, just reading that … Do you know what I’m saying? So, it’s a bit different. And marriage itself it was a different kind of thing. But yes, it’s a good point. They were endogamous, they did try. What was of concern was the circumcision issue. That was definitely of concern.

So, when Samuel got old…. We’re going to take a break in a couple of minutes. We’re going to be in trouble in terms of what we got to talk about. But when Samuel is old, the elders of the tribes approach him basically and say: well, you’re old, what’s going to happen now you have managed to unify these tribes under the authority of G-d and under the authority, spiritual and ethical authority that you carry because you’re a great person and you lived through it all? You lived through it all. Samuel lived through Aphek, he lived through Mitzpah and he lived through all of these tumultuous events.

Hm (audience member question). Philistia is not getting any weaker and we are still not coalesced properly. We still don’t have access to the various technologies we need. We’re still underdeveloped and we’re still in a sense militarily undisciplined and under unified. We actually think that this whole setup that we have where we don’t have a central authority and we don’t have a king might not work going forward and we need a king. We need a king just like all the other nations have a king. And the primary role perceived by the elders of Israel who approached Samuel for a king was someone to lead us into battle. Yeah, we need a Monash (General Sir John Monash). We need someone who we can march under and who’s going to unify the tribes and lead us into battle – because that’s what all these other nations have and that’s what makes them militarily successful.

Samuel’s response to that is the great paradox that I spoke about at the very beginning. Samuel’s response to that was one of tremendous offence. He saw that as a complete rejection of Israel’s divine destiny. “You are”, he said to the people of Israel, “A totally unique national entity in the world. You do not have a flesh and blood king because your king is G-d and all of the awful things that a king is going to do – he’s going to do to you to the point where you’re actually going to cry out to G-d because of the afflictions that your own king is going to put on you over the course of the next thousand years. You don’t want a king. Trust me, you don’t want a king. It’s true. The whole concept of king – this is not Samuel, this is me – is really a kind of conceptual error. It creates a loop in history that the whole concept of the Messiah is really designed to close. The messiah’s whole point is to close the whole program of king. Okay? So, the messiah is the last king. Okay?

And then we can move back to the priest Samuel entity, but doing it properly because we have a complete relationship with the divine and we do not need a representative. Look at all the things that have emerged from the concept of a king, not just abuse of power, but entire theological offshoots from Judaism based on this concept of king, of messiah, of representative, of substitute.

This is Samuel’s big argument. It was not simply a political argument of the time of the day. It is a huge theological argument. And G-d says to Samuel: you’re right, but don’t take it personally – they’re rejecting me, says G-d, not you. So built into the Bible itself, plain right there in the text is G-d saying: a king is a rejection of the divine at the same time that it’s a representation of the divine.

Very quickly (audience member question). No, because I believe totally when I read the story of Avraham and when I think about the concept of the avot (fathers) and I think about Avraham, I don’t think of Avraham as a type of imposed authority figure. Avraham is someone who literally is encouraging people to be the best that they can be and to bring out the spiritual potential of the world. Avraham is simply the proto-tzadik, the proto-righteous person, that believes and it has an ethical relationship with humanity and with one G-d. That’s why Avraham becomes the father of all Abrahamic religions. He seems to be the only person in the Bible to some extent – also, Moses as well – that seems to be able to balance this concept of power. But most human beings can’t deal with power. And Avraham does, and Avraham is not an imposing power figure. Yeah (audience member question) No, well, his sons were corrupt and the rest of the Bible tells us, and they said: your sons are just not at your level. But he had not given thought to that succession. I’m sure he did think about it, but he didn’t – do you know what I’m saying? There were plenty more prophets. But in his age they wanted – and we’re going to look at prophets; in fact, we’re even going to look at more prophets today – but they wanted a military figure. They wanted a ruler. They wanted someone impressive that would go out and lead the nation unified into battle. All right, we’re going to take a short break now for five, 10 minutes… It’s 2.30 and therefore I have just made an executive decision. When you’re speaking about such a massive topic over six weeks, the big key – as you can imagine for me in the last few days thinking about this – is to really try and structure it.

And I got a little ambitious with today’s talk and so I’m going to cut back. So, in the notes – when I hand them out at the end – you’ll see what I was wanting to talk about and we’ll have to leave till next week. I’ve got a feeling that I think that I just need to take it a little bit slower. Also some of you – those of you who are asking questions about how the picture that I’m presenting matches up against the kind of accepted narrative that we have – should realize that I’m trying to tread a path here that ameliorates between the accepted narrative and the historical picture.

One of the advantages of that is that things are going to happen in the narrative that we are going to unfold historically that creates tremendous questions and surprises if we go into that period with some kind of accepted normative narrative from today. Do you understand what I’m saying by this?

If we look at everybody running around there as pure monotheists and against inter-marriage and against all the rest of the things that we take for granted in the Jewish world today, and we go back and we projected back there, we’re going to have even more questions. So, I’m just treading carefully. I’m not saying that there isn’t some kind of coalescing happening towards a unified concept of G-d as a single entity with ethical demands, a universal G-d. But that picture the we have is really about to evolve in the next few hundred years in this very complex interplay of kings and prophets and priests and so on. The Jewish contribution to the world is always ongoing. We’ve never just arrived at it. We are a continuum in the world and this a crucial phase in that development.

But very quickly (audience member question). Because that’s very quickly going to become Israel. It’s that part I’m taking… (audience member speaks) No. But Israel, the concept of Israel is part of their common myth. But Israel is not the country. Don’t get confused with Israel, the country. It’s Israel the people. The reason I’m adding this is because when I say the word ‘Israel’ internally to myself, I think of Israel the people – I don’t think Israel, the country. Israel happens to be the State of Israel since 1948. It is a country like Australia is a country. But the concept of Israel until 1948 – if your kids were here, I would explain to them – was the people. You know what I’ll do for you? I’ll make you happy. Yeah. I’m going to put this: Am Israel, the people of Israel.

But I can tell you that when you open history books, they’ll talk about Israel, the nation. The people of Israel can be in exile and they’re still called Israel. We, the Jewish people living in Melbourne, are Israel. There’s a very important incident that I did not mention before the break. And it’s pivotal. I should have discussed it before I discussed the Battle of Aphek. That was remiss of me but during the break I realised that I hadn’t mentioned it. It’s very crucial.

Within this loose confederacy of tribes, there is a very complex interplay in dynamic between those tribes. As I said, sometimes there are alliances of two or three tribes at a time that affect or try and resolve a local crisis. There’s no overall consensus until the end of the Book of Judges, when all of the tribes come together to do something horrendous – the almost complete genocide of one of the tribes. And that is, incidentally, probably the first time that the tribes all come together to actually do something as a unified project. That’s 11 of the tribes getting together to wipe out one of the other tribes.

But it’s also probably the first instance of social media that we see in history. Does anybody not know what I’m talking about? Who knows what I’m talking about? We don’t have time to go into the incident, but there was a horrendous incident that happened in a place called Gibeah – or Givebaya in English – which was located in the tribal area of Benjamin. A woman was brutally assaulted and killed by a whole group of people. Her partner, who was also a victim in this situation, sent parts of her body to all the different tribes and said: look at this horrendous thing that has been perpetrated in Benjamin. And so all of the tribes coalesced to demand the perpetrators be brought out and killed and face justice. And the tribe of Benjamin wouldn’t let them go, wouldn’t give them up. So, all of the tribes unified and came to Benjamin and almost wiped out the entire tribe. They were a few hundred men of Benjamin who survived and they were able to continue the line of Benjamin. But Benjamin suffered an almost complete annihilation.

This is a significant thing. In fact, so much so that the tribes were a bit concerned about what had happened and subsequently tried to repopulate Benjamin and to find wives for these remaining few Benjamite men. The Book of Judges is very brutal. They went to the one town that had not participated in the war against Benjamin and they wiped out the men of that town and got the women to wander through some fields and the remaining Benjamite men would simply jump out and grab them. And that was seen as a just and reasonable way of solving their marriage crisis. That town is very significant. What town was that? I’ve got a whole other board here. What town was that? That town is Yavesh Gilad, which you’ll see written in English as Jabesh Gilead. All right. That was the town the women were taken from to repopulate Benjamin. It’s a significant town and you’ll understand why. That’s at the end of the Book of Judges and then we enter the next book of the Bible – the Book of Samuel.

Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bibel in Bildern 1860 083
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld [Public domain]

Samuel is the massive transitional prophet, as I said, that oversees the rise of the concept of the king. Benjamin is a very reduced entity. So much so that only a few men from Benjamin went to fight the Battle of Aphek because it had taken quite some years to repopulate Benjamin. And that is why it is remarkable, and in the sense why Samuel is a master politician. One of the reasons, I mean, Howard was talking to me during the break about that. How could it be that there were no kings in Israel? Even with the tribes not having their own local kings? T

here must have been an adherence to some kind of origin story about them being an entity on the land. And I’m granting that for sure. With all of the flux and uncertainty that we have about what people actually thought in this period, what is almost definite is that they did ascribe to a certain kind of narrative and myth. They all saw themselves as a different kind of entity in the Middle East, a different kind of nation, a different kind of destiny. But they, as I said before the break, they went to Samuel and they asked him for a king. And one of the great problems is that who’s going to be that king – especially now that we have quite a vile, strong contest for power between strong tribes like Judah and Ephraim.

Who’s going to be this king? It’s all very well asking for one, how do we elect them? Samuel was in the fortunate position of having a rather intimate relationship with G-d. And G-d said: don’t you worry about it, I’ll find the right person. And that of course led to Samuel selecting the first king of Israel who, amazingly, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin. It’s very important to understand that that Benjamin had undergone a horrendous history in recent generations and had been deeply reduced and was now considered kind of…everybody looked down on Benjamin. It was a master stroke. And the person that he chose to be the first king of Israel was, of course, Saul.

Saul was a farmer. He was a son of Kish. He came from Gibeah itself, where the family had holdings. His father was a respected elder who participated in various tribal councils. But, once again, Saul was surprised as anybody when…Those of you who are familiar without this happened know that Saul was a reluctant candidate. He was an ordinary person. He was a farmer. He was tall and by all accounts quite a hunk. And we know that he stood head and shoulders above everybody else. The Bible tells us that he went wandering with his servant because they lost a flock of donkeys – what’s the collective for donkeys? It doesn’t sound right, not a flock. They lost some donkeys and they went wandering looking for them. And they ended up near Ramah where Samuel was living. And so they thought: you know what? We’re going to ask the prophet.

But while they’re having this discussion about whether to go and ask the prophet, all these young girls are kind of giggling and laughing and flirting around Saul because he’s this dude standing there – so, we know he had a certain charisma, but he was a fairly ordinary person. He had a wife, he had a concubine – as you do – he had a few kids and he was basically a man of the farm. He wasn’t even really a military person per se, but he went to see Samuel.

As soon as he walked in Samuel was given the green light and said: see this guy standing there asking about his donkeys? Anoint him. He anointed Saul and Saul’s first reaction to this was one of complete confusion. All I wanted to do is ask the prophet if he knows where my donkeys are and he ends up anointing me as the King of Israel. No one was told. It was a very private business. He took him out in the field. He says, I’m an anointing you to be a ruler over Israel, right? He’s pouring the oil on his head. We didn’t even have the mode by which the king was supposed to be appointed.

The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, does not say when you have a king, you’re going to anoint him. There are very complex and detailed rules about how you anoint the high priest, but nothing about a king. So, everything was a bit ad hoc and Samuel smeared some oil on him and said: I’m the prophet, you’re now the King. And Saul says: what do I do? And Samuel says: all right, just go home. So, he went home. Very interesting metaphor that that Saul was looking for lost donkeys. It gives us a kind of a insight into the nature of Saul and the nature of how he was saying to rule. When we look into the future – like we look at David, David is told: you’re going to be a leader, you’re going to be a shepherd; you’re going to actually lead. But Saul is wandering looking for his lost animals. And that’s kind of the feeling you get about Saul. Shortly after Samuel reconvenes all of the tribes of Israel.

(Audience member question) No, Shiloh was destroyed. This is after Aphek and it’s after Mitzpah. He reconvenes them at Mitzpah, which is very important because Mitzpah represented the unity of the tribes that had won that war against the Philistines. He reconvened them at Mitzpah in order to announce the king and everybody, the whole nation is standing there going: tell us who the king is. And Samuel says, it’s actually a guy that I’ve anointed from the tribe of Benjamin called Saul, the son of Kish. And everybody’s going: okay, where is he? And he couldn’t be found because he was hiding. Saul was hiding amongst the baggage that people had brought to this conference. Imagine a massive conference in a hotel to announce the king of Israel and the candidate is out in the lobby somewhere hiding in a closet.

They brought him out. He’s taller than everybody, but there’s a lot of people going: nu behmet? Really, him? Even then Saul doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. Samuel goes: here’s your king. And they go: okay, there’s the king. You asked for a king so I gave you a king. Now what? No one knew what a King of Israel is meant to do. I’m not exaggerating. Read the Tanach. Read the Bible. You’ll see he doesn’t know. No one knows. So, in the absence of any other plan, he goes home – he goes back to his farm and just hangs out.

Yeah, (Audience member question). We’re not seeing it. The whole institute of the priesthood is going to come back. In fact, we’re going to see a whole interaction with priests and we’re even going to see a high priest. But at this point, really when you look at what happened to the house of Eli and so on at Aphek, and the loss of the Ark, there was a tremendous loss of prestige and authority for the priesthood. They had gone into some kind of institutional sublimation. (Audience member question) Yeah, but it’s not even raised in his discussion with them back at Ramah when they had come and asked him for a king. He doesn’t even say that.

I think that Samuel himself had an ambivalent relationship with the priesthood. Samuel remember had grown up in Shiloh and had seen priests firsthand and realised that priests were functionaries of the altar and functionaries of the sanctuary, but they weren’t necessarily the people you want to trust with power.

(Audience member question). No. The Mishkan was after Aphek. The Ark was taken by the Philistines and then returned and then was sitting at a Kiryat Garim for a while and at various other places that the Ark was located, but there’s no concept of the Mishkan. They had built a tent for the Ark, so it could be housed with dignity, but there’s no Mishkan. All of that was destroyed in Shiloh. Mishkan is the tabernacle that was built in the desert to house the Ark.

(Audience member speaks.) He recovered the Ark. No, not from Shiloh. From where it had been in various other places. We know that Shiloh was destroyed because not only does it talk about it in the Bible, but hundreds of years later when the Prophet Jeremiah is warning people of the destruction of the temple. And it’s worth saying that because we’re in the nine days right now – the ninth of Av is this weekend. He talks about the fact that if you don’t believe that G-d will destroy the temple, then go and look for Shiloh today. Shiloh and the sanctuary were destroyed, but the Ark was still around but it was housed at different places. Saul goes back to Gibeah and he’s farming. He is the king, but only in name – and only because Samuel smeared some oil on him and announced him at the big conference. But there’s no other program. He really doesn’t know what’s expected of him.

This is amazing because it shows us that not only were they not used to having a king – even when they got one, they didn’t have any idea what a king is supposed to do. Which is, by the way, what would probably happen today, I would imagine. But Saul wasn’t going to try and assume powers. He was given a retinue of soldiers that were following him around that probably annoyed him more than anything else, but he was just a farmer.

That changed – and this gives us an insight into the nature of the early concept of a kingdom of Israel – when one of the adversaries of Israel, not from Philistia but from a neighbouring ethnic entity called… sorry? (audience member speaks)

There is an ethnic entity called called Amon, the Ammonites. The Ammonites had threatened a town here – Yavesh Gilad came back into the story again because Yavesh Gilad was under siege by the Ammonites and the Ammonites said to them: subjugate yourself to us. And they said: okay, we don’t really have any choice here because Israel doesn’t have a unified army and we don’t really have any kind of mechanism by which we can resist this kind of subjugation. So, we’ll come out tomorrow and we’ll formally surrender. And the Ammonite leader in classic style – as is so often the case with the hubris of corrupt leaders – said: yeah, you’re going to come out tomorrow and surrender and then I’m going to remove an eye from every single one of you as a sign of your subjugation. This was an obviously horrendous, barbaric threat. And they said: well, okay, can you give us a week to think about that? And during that week they sent a message in desperation. They knew that there’d been this kind of king dude that had been appointed. So, in desperation they sent a message to Saul.

And that is the moment at which Saul begins to take on a new persona because he suddenly becomes emotionally engaged. Until now we’ve seen Saul as just a farmer who just wants to be a nice guy – a farmer and not really involved in any of the current issues that are threatening Israel. Now Saul becomes incensed and he takes the yoke of his oxen – this obviously a big wooden thing that’s sitting on his ox’s his neck – and he breaks it into 12 and sends a part to all of the tribes of Israel.

This is amazingly reflective of what had happened at the end of the book of Judges. And he says: any tribe who doesn’t participate with me in this war against the Ammonites to save the town of Yavesh Gilad, what I’ve done to this yoke will be done to them. The Ammonites had an army of 30,000 men with which they were bullying this town and within a few short days, Saul turned up at the Yavesh Gilad to face the Ammonites with an army of 300,000 soldiers. He completely overwhelmed the Ammonites and smashed them within a few hours. They were history.

That is the big turning point in Saul’s kingship. Following it, Samuel says: let’s all reconvene now because I think you’ve seen what you need to see. They reconvene. And this time they did not go to Mitzpah, but they reconvened at a place that is going to become kind of like the Westminster Abbey of Israel, the place where so many of the kings of Israel are going to be crowned. That is the Gilgal. It could be that Gilgal is called Gilgal because it relates to the word galgal, which means a wheel. And it may well be that it was a kind of a huge circular area in which all the tribes sat around this massive circle and in the centre of it the prophet anointed the king. Saul’s big anointment doesn’t happen until after he has shown the effect of the king in providing a unifying military force. And from that moment, Saul is now melech – he’s now king. He built himself a palace and is a completely different person after the war and the  recapture of Yavesh Gilad.

(Audience member question) I believe that it’s Givat Shaul. Okay. It also in Ramah, I think also he built one near Ramah. Yeah. (audience member question: Are Archaeological evidences for these spaces?) Certainly for Gilgal. They’ve done some archaeology. There’s nothing conflicting with these events in the archaeological records that we have. But no, it’s not like there’s a rock that says: hi, I’m Saul. I was here and you know…

Those of you who’ve read the Book of Samuel will know that Samuel is very complex – not Samuel, that Saul becomes a psychologically complex figure. He does have a series of successes as a military leader. He does manage to unify the tribes. He does give the nation of Israel a sense of focus, a leadership. He is a strong leader. Certainly symbolically, he sets up some basic infrastructure as well that Israel had never had. And one of those was a sense of structure and discipline to the army. Who did he put in charge of the army? If I say these names, they’re important. Who was in charge of Saul’s army? That became a new pattern that gets carried over to further kings. The king was not official. He was the head of state and he was the ruler, but they always had a general that was leading the army for them. In Saul’s case it was his cousin Abner. Abner was the head of Saul’s army.

He went about creating a large army of reservists and a specialised smaller professional army that would deal with most issues. They would only bring in the nationwide army if it was needed, but all the tribes sent young men to be a part of professional army so that they all had a representation in it. These things are important. We take them for granted, but it’s very detailed. The way that it’s described – the way that Saul sets up the army. Saul was effectively a military ruler because those were the concerns of the day.

(Audience member question) Yeah. I think he would have good advisors. Abner and other people seem to have more of a grip on military culture and strategy than Saul did. Now Saul’s reluctance gives place to Saul’s notion role as a unifying military leader. But Saul also realised that he had to develop some kind of relationship with the Prophet Samuel. At the end of the day what we start to see are the cracks in the institutional authority of Israel. Who, at the end of the day, is the ultimate authority? Is it the king that has been anointed by the prophet and who is a kind of divine focus of representation for the divine, this concept of melech or is it the prophet? Or is it the prophet who has a direct conversation with G-d who is the final authority? All of that got tested big time with Saul, with Shaul, after some serious successes in battle.

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton of Stretton - Google Art Project
Jonathan’s Token to David – Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton [Public domain]

Saul also has a son, several sons. His most famous son of course is (audience member speaks)….No, David is definitely not Saul’s son. Saul’s chief ally and head of his army is Abner and his son is Jonathan – also tall, young strapping man of tremendous ability. And if you read there, you’ll see that Jonathan is not just simply another figure. He alone, with a small cohort, took out an entire Philistine garrison. He was a tremendous warrior and a very, very likeable fellow.

Here is the other cornerstone of that complex interplay of authority. You’ve got the king, you’ve got the prophet, and you have the people. There is a huge incident where the people stood against the king on a certain decision in relation to Jonathan – who Saul had accused of betraying him. The people said: we will not let that happen; we will not let you punish Jonathan. Saul was caught in this vortex between the people and the prophet and his own desire to be the authority figure he needed to be. All of that came to a head in the famous Chapter 15 of the first Book of Samuel, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with. You are because when I tell you what’s in it, you are going to go: ah, I knew that – I didn’t know it was Chapter 15, but I knew it was that.

Saul is told by Samuel that G-d wants him to make a war against one of Israel’s traditional enemies from the Torah. Israel has lots of enemies – had lots of enemies, then has lots of enemies now. Israel had a very big enemy that emerged from the Five Books of Moses. The only enemy that Israel was told they had to wipe out – not just defeat – and that was the nation of Amalek. Saul was told to go and fight Amelech and wipe them out. This is a divinely ordained genocide. I’m not going to go into the nuances and details and problems of that right now because that would take us in another direction. It’s not a simple business and you can’t just do it off your own bat, can you? You need a prophet to tell you that.

Nevertheless, Saul was told, and it’s very clear from the text that just as we sitting here in the Jewish Museum in Melbourne today might have a problem with that, Saul also had a problem with that. It wasn’t that simple for Saul, but he was told by the prophet he had to do it. They went and wiped them out – well, sections of it, because we’re going to see, Amalek keeps coming back. So, there was, they didn’t kill them all, but they wiped out a whole section of it except for the king.

And this is a tremendously enlightening episode in the book of Samuel about Saul’s kingship. Saul spared the life of Agag, the king of Amalek. And in a way Samuel’s anger when he discovers this is kind of understandable. If you are given a divine command to genocide – to kill – everybody, then you’ve got to kill everybody. You can’t kill everybody except someone that you have a personal relationship to. Saul saw Agag as a king and said: well, you know, I mean everybody else – yeah, kill them. But he’s a king – I’m a king. Would I want that happening to me? Kings have got to respect each other.

Gustave Doré Morte Agag
Gustave Doré Morte Agag [Public domain]

So he kept the king alive. He also kept all of the cattle and livestock as well, which is also corrupt in a way. No one is saying that genocide is what people should be doing. But if you are on divine mission of genocide, then you compromise that. If you’re going to say: well, except for my mates and except for the livestock, I’ll kill everybody else.

So when Samuel turned up and heard the bleating of the sheep and saw Agag sitting there and Saul said: Nu behmet (oh, really?). He’s a king; I’ve killed everybody else I don’t have to kill him.  That is the moment where Samuel decided that Saul was no longer the right person to be king. It was a massive test of obedience to divine will.

Now we can look at this and we can say, well, Samuel is the representation of G-d. And in fact, if you are reading it from a rabbinic perspective, and if you are reading it from the perspective where the winners of history are the prophets, then you would side with Samuel’s view. If you were reading it a little bit more cynically – not even cynically, but to look a little deeper – you might see inside that episode the beginnings of this struggle between these institutions of prophecy and kingship. Samuel’s real issue was the fact that the divine authority for the war against Amalek had to come through Samuel and that Saul had compromised it and disobeyed it. When Samuel rebukes Saul famously, he then turns around to leave and Saul realizing that he had screwed up lunges forward to grab Samuel in some kind of desperate apology. He grabs his coat as Samuel is leaving and rips it. And that is the point at which Samuel turned around. I mean, to rip the prophet’s coat- you don’t want to do that. Samuel turns around. This is, by the way, after Samuel had taken Saul’s sword and sliced off Agag’s head with it and then turned around, marching out – and Saul had lunged forward, ripped his coat and Samuel turns around and utters the famous words: just as you have ripped this coat, so shall the Kingdom of Israel be ripped from you and your family. This was massive because by this time Saul had started to understand the potential of being a king and he saw the kingship as something that he would be able to confer on his son Jonathan and would have an ongoing destiny of kingship for the tribe of Benjamin.

Kings do get concerned about succession and they do want to see their children – their sons, their grandsons – takeover after them. This was a big moment that plunged Saul into one of world literature’s most phenomenal descriptions of clinical depression. Incredible. And he becomes depressed and even starts kind of losing it – and he loses his military prowess. They’re still okay. They’re still secure, but things are no longer as they were and the Philistines are starting to expand again. Saul loses it right at the moment where Israel needed a strong, moral and secure leader. Immediately afterwards, Samuel realises that it’s not so simple. The fact that Saul’s going to lose the kingship, that Saul is going to have to be replaced, and replacing Saul is not going to be a simple business.

However G-d says to him… I got to tell you that G-d does not get invested after this in the kings except on a couple of occasions in during the next few hundred years that we’ll see – only once or twice does G-d actually get involved and even that is only in the northern kingdom. We’ll discuss all that next week and what that means. But G-d tells Samuel that he is going to enable him to find the next candidate. And, of course, that next candidate is someone equally oblivious to the concept of power because he is a young shepherd boy from a family in Judah. He’s not the oldest son. In fact, he’s the youngest of eight brothers and he is hardly known by anybody. He spends his time wandering around the fields playing musical instruments and looking after sheep and generally wasting…

(Audience member speaks) Joseph is way back… Samuel goes to the house of Yishai, the house of Jesse, in the town of Bethlehem. And ends up having a bit of a meal and anointing David. It had to be kept very quiet. If Saul had found out, not only would he have had David and probably his whole family killed, he would have had Samuel killed. Saul was not to know – so much so that when David was brought to play music for Saul because people had mentioned his name as someone who could come in and play the harp nicely – Saul is sitting there and he doesn’t even realize that David has actually been anointed as his successor.

Saul and David Rembrandt or workshop [Public domain]

David’s big moment, of course, is Goliath. And the battle against Goliath in which every single line there – have a look at every single line – is a metaphor. He rejects the king’s armour. Saul says: take my armour. He goes: nah, it doesn’t fit me. And he goes and he kills Goliath. We’ll look at that next week in a little bit more detail. But that’s the moment really where you start to see the psychological cracks really begin with Saul. This 14 year-old boy went out and fought this massive giant and no one else was willing to do it.

And of course, subsequently in the course of his breakdown, Saul develops this unbelievable obsession. So, the last few years of his kingship, he’s actually employing the resources of his entire professional army running around the countryside in what is effectively a civil war trying to capture David and quell the rise of David’s popularity. This also created tremendous complex dynamic with the tribe of Judah. If you’re trying to hold the tribes together – and Judah was increasingly becoming more and more dissatisfied with Saul’s rule and more and more going over to David side although David had his own issues with Judah. He had to placate the elders of Judah before he could move forward and become a king in his own right.

What really did Saul’s head in, beyond everything, was not only did he have this upstart threat running around, but David had become best mates with Saul’s son Jonathan and David had married Saul’s daughter Michal. So his son-in-law and his son’s best mate was his biggest threat. (Audience member question). That was the famous thing when he said to David: oh yeah, I’m okay if you married Michal. But as a wedding present, I want you to give me a bridal price, I want you to bring me a hundred Philistines foreskins. He gave that challenge to him completely assuming that he would be killed doing it. (And that’s flashing at me and David, okay – not the foreskins, the phone.) David came back with 200 foreskins.

So, it was like, now we have got to the end so I’ll tell you what happens. Obviously we’ll go over this a little bit next week, but in the end Saul eventually lead to the army out against the Philistines in the famous, fateful battle at Gilboa. You know where Gilboa is – and some of you have been to Gilboa. What’s the famous kibbutz there that creates most of the cucumber pickled cucumbers that we eat come from that region? But you can still see Gilboa. Some of you are aware that on the eve of the battle, Saul had gone to visit the witch of Endor and had raised Samuel from the dead to ask him how this battle was going to go. And Samuel had said to him: how’s the battle going to go? I’ll tell you this time tomorrow evening, you and your sons are going to be with me.

Louvre rosa apparition
L’ombre de Samuel apparaissant à Saül chez la pythonisse d’Endor Salvator Rosa [Public domain]

Saul and Jonathan and all his sons, in this incredibly pathetic scene, are overrun by the Philistines army on Mount Gilboa. Saul asks his sword bearer to help him die because he doesn’t want the Philistines to kill him. And the Philistines took Saul’s body and severed his head and stuck it on a pike outside the walls of the city in Philistia. And a very brave group of men went and salvaged Saul’s body and brought it back and gave it proper burial rights. Men from where? Yavesh Gilad. The whole thing is connected. Yavesh Gilad was the very first town that Saul had saved to establish his kingship. At the end, they are there for Saul.

We will continue that next week. I’m sorry that my structure got thrown out a bit. You’ll see that if you take the notes that I’ve covered most of it. But I was going to talk about David that was too ambitious. So, we’ll do David and beyond next week. Over the next six weeks, we will cover all of the 50 kings of Israel.


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