The problems of power: First and Second Samuel

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

There are a few carefully selected stories from the two books of Samuel which occur in the lectionary. There is a larger number in those churches which use the continuous Old Testament lectionary. This wider selection is not surprising, as these books tell the story, often quite critically, of the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. They also present a warts-and-all picture of the man who would come to be revered as the ideal king, David of Bethlehem.

King David Playing the Harp (detail), Gerard van Honthorst, 1622, via Wikimedia Commons

The book begins with the story of Samuel’s birth to Hannah and Elkanah, though Hannah, desperate to conceive, is the main character. Her story, and that of the eventual birth of her son as an answer to prayer, is echoed by Luke when he comes to tell the story of Mary and Elizabeth at the beginning of the gospel. Hannah gives her miracle baby, Samuel, back to God and he is brought up in the sanctuary at Shiloh. He grows up to become a prophet ruling Israel after the fashion of the judges (see this post), through charismatic authority.

The Israelites remain impressed by Samuel, but have no confidence in his sons. They become convinced that their fortunes in the face of Philistine hostility will only improve if they adopt the idea of monarchy, and so they ask Samuel for a king. This is seen as a rejection of God’s direct rule, and Samuel tells the people that kings are basically corrupted by their power, but if they want an autocrat they will have to live with the demands of one for their taxes and indentured service.

The first king (and in these early stages “king” means little more than war leader) chosen is Saul. Initially portrayed favourably, he is then presented as descending into madness, exacerbated by his jealousy of the up-and-coming David. Behind the scenes (we as readers know this, Saul as a character does not) God has decided David should inherit Saul’s kingdom, and Saul is unfit to lead.

Eventually David becomes king, but he remains troubled by war and conflict, including civil war with his own son. He is pictured as both fervent for God, and corrupted by the power he has. One particularly powerful story illustrating this is included in the lectionary.1

David desires Bathsheba, whom he has seen from his palace taking a rooftop bath. Bathsheba, however, is the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Eventually, David arranges to have Uriah placed in the most dangerous part of the battle, and Uriah is killed. David thinks he has got away with it, until he is confronted by Nathan the prophet, who strips away the pretence. David confesses, and is both punished and pardoned by God. Later, Psalm 51 would get associated with this story, as David’s psalm of penitence.2

David may be the hero, but he is shown to be deeply flawed and corrupted by his power. What saves him is his willingness to acknowledge this and repent. Yet in the story of Nathan confronting him, we see what becomes a key pattern for later prophets and for the church in its turn. There is nowhere in scripture a divide between religion and politics. Speaking truth to power is an essential calling of those who are called to be God’s ministers.

In making David a model king, later Jewish and Christian storytelling rather airbrushed some of the complexities of David aside. Yet acknowledging that people, politics, and the exercise of power are always complex is an important part of making good decisions. At its best the story in the books of Samuel, blending various traditions about David together into a not-quite-seamless whole, keeps David’s imperfections in view, and makes it clear that even absolute monarchs are accountable for their actions.


Notes

  1. Year C, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
  2. The heading to Psalm 51 says: “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” No-one quite knows how to interpret these headings. Is it a claim David wrote it, or the name of a collection? The closing verses seem to suggest it belongs in the time of Exile. Is “Psalm of David” a reference to a collection – a hymn book if you like? Or, rather like our own use of responsorial psalms, is it a suggestion that this psalm should be sung as a response to the story of David, Nathan and Bathsheba?

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