IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO
Li’l David was small, but oh my!
Li’l David was small, but oh my!
He fought big Goliath
Who lay down an’ dieth!
Li’l David was small, but oh my!
The first of my Bible book posts covered the Torah five; the second post outlined the three books opening the Christian-labelled 'Historical' section. From five to three - it might appear that I had an intention write about just one.
So here it is (accidentally) - 1 SAMUEL.
I don't plan to cover the remaining 57 books one at a time. As previously said, I'm neither a theology nor religious scholar; the purpose is to layout a narrative that I've had time to read, and reflect on how it has informed my version of Western culture.
Which this week has generated enough material to reflect on one book, and within that, just one chapter. We'll get to that in a short while..
THE KING'S SPEECH
Samuel - who is in the book, not just its title - wears many hats. First, he's the last of the Judges, the tribal leaders responsible for the overall Israel nation. A lot rides on his shoulders. Secondly, and more importantly in the running order of the Old Testament, he is a Prophet.
Prophets can be thought of as front of house spokespeople for the Man upstairs. Moses was a Prophet (bringing the Ten Commandments), there are five major and twelve minor Prophets in the middle of the Bible. Eventually Jesus will appear as a Prophet.
We normally associate prophesy with the future. That's not always the case biblically. Think more in the 'wise person' mold, telling uncomfortable truths to those who don't want to hear them. When Israel are expelled from the Promised Land (*Babylonian alert), the Prophets will take a lot of fime explaining what they did wrong and how to make good.
As judge and prophet, Samuel spends much of Chapters 1-8 telling the Chosen people why things are going to hell and a handbasket. Especially when they are invaded by the Philistines whose prize is the Ark of the Covenant.
(Sidebar: It doesn't end up in a warehouse. The Philistines give the Ark pride of place in a Dagon temple. Remember that diety at the end of Samson and Delilah? Some believers never learn.)
After so many home truths, the people do what people tend to do when being advised to do Option A. "We want Option B!" - in this case, to be ruled by a King. Because everyone else - including the Philistines - has got one.
BETTER CALL SAUL
Samuel points out that God is the King, and given the past support (Exodus from Egypt, entry to the Promised Land) it seems a little ungrateful to want him traded-in. But as Prophet, he is given the go ahead to organize a 12-tribe lottery to select the man for the job.
(If this all rings a distant Brexit bell, let's look on the upside - that people have been, are, and always will be, people.)
Once chosen, Saul defeats the Ammonites, proving himself to lead in battle. That's the kind of leader that Israel wants; able to maintain a standing army - and win. But God has doubts.
With a win under his belt, and the public behind him, Saul starts on his next campaign, this time the Philistines. But rather than wait for Samuel to bless the army, Saul needs to be seen in charge. He commits a sacrificial sin, which prompts a godly thumbs down. But after this rejection as king, he is not immediately removed from the story.
Dramatically, he remains as a stark contrast to the God's type of king: David.
THE GOOD SHEPHERD
The second half of 1 SAMUEL plays out the conflict between outgoing and incoming monarchs. And while you are probably aware what the House of David (and his Royal City) will come to mean, it is Chapter 17 of the book which is best known.
A few words about the set up. Reading thus far, you know that the Philistines don't get on with Israel. To put it in further context, in the thirty-one chapters of 1 SAMUEL, they are at war in Chapters 4, 7, 13, 14, 17, 19, 23, and 31.
So perhaps it's understandable when halfway through this seemingly endless conflict, someone comes up with an alternative approach: Rather than throwing yet more men to the slaughter, let's try one-on-one. Best man against best man, winner takes all.
The Philistines put forward Goliath, "whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze". He's a one-man heavy infantry.
Unsurprisingly, there isn't a queue of Israelis volunteering to take up the challenge. But if there had been, perhaps the humble, lyre-playing, poet/shepherd David would have been forgotten.
You know how the story plays out in Chapter 17, even if you have never read it. The attributes of the hero and the challenges of the opponent have become archetypes that chime with everyone, everywhere, throughout time.
In C15th Florence, Italy, the Office of Works for the Cathedral commissioned a series of sculptures of Old Testament figures. Artists Donatello, Agostino, and Rossellino all started, but not much was finished, and the project seemed to be forgotten.
A quarter of a century later, a huge block of prepared marble in a quarry was rediscovered, and the project - to sculpt David - was re-commissioned, this time to a 26-year old Michaelangelo Buanorotti.
Started in 1501, the work was completed in 1504. The statue stands 5.2m and weighs 5.4 tons. It is not an understated David. Paradoxically, it does break from the traditional posture in Renaissance paintings of David holding Goliath's decapitated head, or in sculptures with the head underfoot. Instead, the figure is preparing to fight - a stone in the right hand, a sling draped over the left shoulder.
If the young Michaelangelo wasn't personally 'David' enough, then the people saw the symbolism of the statue. As an independent city-state Republic of Florence, they were under pressure from all sides, especially the power of the Medici family. And there is one reading that when the statue was first installed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, the eyes were directed toward Rome.
Fast forward to early C20th USA. George and Ira Gershwin had already enjoyed twenty years of success; songwriting (Fascinatin' Rhythm), musicals (Lady Be Good and Strike Up The Band), and classical forms (Rhapsody in Blue). Then in 1935, composer George decides to write an opera, based on a play about 'a disabled black street beggar trying to rescue a woman from the clutches of her violent and possessive lover, and her drug dealer'.
Michael Feinstein, musician and archivist for the Ira Gershwin estate, takes up the story:
"It was a very volatile period in our history... 1935. It's the Depression. And when George undertook the writing of Porgy and Bess, everybody was against him.
"He was considered by some to be a Tin Pan Alley guy, and how could he have the nerve to try and write an opera? The classical world said, oh, this is absurd. Who does he think he is?
"The Jewish community was agog. Of course, the Black community said our own people should be writing about our race. Who is this guy to do it? I mean, everybody was against him. Except he had this vision and he had to fulfill it. And he absolutely believed in what he knew was inside of him. And that's what's so extraordinary.
"And even after it opened and it was financially a failure, he still maintained that it would one day be regarded as his greatest work. And, of course, he was right."
So if you are going to use song to express how a character (drug dealer Sportin' Life) has lost - perhaps never had - any faith, and simultaneously express your own uphill struggle, what better opening verse than David taking on Goliath?
Italy 1504, Americal 1935. Same David, two interpretations. One, a large, public version to promote a city-state's confidence. Two, a "Li'l David" to expand the incredulity that an event ever happened.
And the David-Goliath metaphor goes on and on and on, be it in sport:
... in seed saving ...
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING
While Chapter 17 is the centrepiece of 1 SAMUEL, the story doesn't end here. The victory causes as many problems as it solves. Specifically, a reigning monarch rarely relishes a whipper-snapper taking all the public glory. 'Who does he think he is?'
For the rest of the book, Saul actively seeks David's life. (Even this doesn't escape musical treatment. Like Gershwin, Danish composer Carl Neilsen only wrote two operas - but he still chose Saul and David for one of his works.)
David escapes and lives in exile, a parallel of the past and the future of the Israel people. On two occasions, he returns to Saul's encampment and with the opportunity to cull his ruler, then spares his life. If you insist having a king, that's the role model which Samuel the Prophet promotes.
Eventually, at yet another battle against the Philistines, Saul is mortally wounded. He acknowledges that the game is up, and asks to be ended rather than left for torture by the enemy. At least that's a gracious exit.
And we are left like children at Saturday morning pictures, having to wait for the next episode to know what becomes of David and his people. Given that the New Testament mentions King David nearly 60 times, many mentioning direct descendency to Jesus, that's a clear enough clue.
Unless, it ain't necessarily so.
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