Chapter 6: The United Kingdom
The period of the Judges lasted 200 years. It ended when a monarchy was established among the Hebrew people. Saul was the first king of Israel, and he was able to unite the scattered Jewish tribes into a cohesive force. Under his leadership the Israelites claimed victory after victory over their enemies.
Saul had been anointed king by the Prophet Samuel, the acknowledged religious leader of his time and the most powerful man in the kingdom. Among other things, Samuel made the military policy of herem a religious and moral imperative--one that brooked no exceptions.
Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"
Saul defeated the Amalekites but he made the mistake of using his own judgment in enforcing herem. After a successful battle he spared the life of their king. He also took some live animals away from the battle. He did this believing the Lord would be pleased to have them offered as sacrifices. And as a master tactician, he thought it good strategy to take King Agag as a prisoner.
But when Samuel found out that Saul had done this he was furious. Saul could not be allowed to use his own judgment. A ruler who did this was a danger to the prophet's power and authority. He set out for Gilgal where the army was celebrating its victory.
A jubilant Saul shouted a greeting: "The Lord bless you Samuel!" The prophet did not bother to acknowledge that salute. Instead, he launched into a diatribe, reminding Saul that he had been a nobody before he anointed him king. He accused Saul of treachery and asked "Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on [take] the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?" The king did not understand Samuel's anger.
"But I did obey the Lord," he said. "I went on the mission assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder...in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal."
But Samuel would not be appeased; he was too threatened by Saul's successful reign. He told the king he was a rebellious and arrogant man--then he equated arrogance with idol worship. "Arrogance [is] like the evil of idolatry." According to this reasoning, an arrogant Saul was an idol-worshipper, so he could no longer be king. Of course Samuel attributed this dethronement to God and told Saul: "The Lord has rejected you as king over Israel."
It is a measure of Saul's lack of arrogance that he did not argue with Samuel. Instead, he asked for forgiveness: "I have sinned. I violated the Lord's command and your instructions....Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord."
But Samuel did not forgive him; he told Saul that the Lord was going to give the kingdom to "a better man than you." And to further enforce his own authority, he ordered that the Amalekite king be brought to him. The prophet led the man to the altar at Gilgal and there he "hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord."
Shortly after this incident, the same hands that butchered Agag secretly anointed a new king of Israel. Samuel's newly appointed king was David, son of Jesse. He was from the tribe of Judah and his appointment laid the foundation for a brutal civil war with the tribe of Benjamin: Saul was a Benjaminite.
The prophet consecrated the young man in the presence of his tribe's elders, and from then on they waited for the day when one of their own would rule over Israel. It was a long time before that happened, but the first step toward their goal came quickly. Saul began to suffer from incapacitating depressions.
Samuel refused ever to speak to him again and the beleaguered king knew the prophet was plotting his downfall. There were those in the royal household who took advantage of the situation. They told Saul there was a way to overcome his depression: the music of a skillful harpist could drive away the demons that were plaguing him. And they knew just the right person for the job: "a son of Jesse of Bethlehem knows how to play the harp. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him." After hearing such a glowing recommendation, the king sent for David.
The Bible reports that from the time the young man became part of the royal household, Saul "loved him greatly." But from the time he entered the King's service, David began making the alliances that would eventually gain him the throne. One of his most important allies was Jonathan, the king's son. Like his father, Jonathan also loved the charismatic David: "Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him."
Saul kept promoting David. First he was appointed royal armor-bearer and "whatever Saul sent him to do, David did it so successfully that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the people and Saul's officers as well." Eventually, those same officers mutinied against their king, in favor of David.
It took a long while until Saul realized it was David who was trying to take his throne, and when David knew he had been found out, he fled for his life. While he was hiding out in the wilderness south of Jerusalem, Jonathan went to see him. He reassured his friend that he had enough support to eventually take over the throne. Then he offered to join forces with David against his father, providing that when David was king of Israel, he would be second-in-command.
It was a strategic move for Jonathan. With Saul as king, he had no assurance of power--it was unlikely that he could even survive. Those plotting to overthrow his father were growing in numbers and in power, and they would see his son as a threat to their takeover. Alive, Jonathan would be a center around which Saul's followers could rally, even after the king had been deposed. But the covenant he made with David was never put into effect. A year later Jonathan died in one of Israel's endless battles with the Philistines--he died in the same skirmish that claimed the life of Saul.
Until the king was dead, David had not been able to set foot in Israel. During the first months that he was hiding out from Saul he roamed the area around the Dead Sea. There were other fugitives hiding out in that desolate region. The Bible describes them as "those who were oppressed, those in distress, all those in debt, anyone who had a grievance." It goes on to say that David gathered these men together and as the leader of this small army of hirelings, he offered their services to the Philistine king. While Saul was busy fighting off Israel's enemies, David went to work for them as a mercenary.
Like everyone else with whom David wanted to ingratiate himself, King Aschich succumbed to the young man's charm. He accepted David's offer, knowing he had been a favorite son of Israel: the same one who was reported to have killed the Philistine giant, Goliath.
But David proved his loyalty to his former enemy. "David and his men went out on raids...David laid the countryside waste and left neither man nor woman alive but took the sheep and oxen, camels and garments, and came back bringing them to Aschich...David never brought a man or woman back alive 'in case' as he thought 'they inform against us'...This was David's practice all the time he stayed in Philistine territory. Aschich trusted David."
Once he had established his credibility with the king, David reverted to his usual method of operation: he began to feather his own nest. He ingratiated himself with the elders of his tribe of Judah by giving them some of the spoils of his battles. This was why he never took prisoners: someone might tell Aschich what was taking place. By slaughtering all the inhabitants of a town, he insured that this would never happen.
But after Saul and Jonathan died fighting the Philistines, David returned to Israel. The king's only surviving son, Ish-bosheth, was heir to the throne, but the tribe of Judah refused to acknowledge him. Instead, they repaid David for his favors and backed his claim to the throne. After seven years of unrelenting civil war, David was crowned.
His reign marks the beginning of the period that scholars call the Golden Age of Israel. During that time the female principle had no part in forming the nation's policies. They were years in which the male power principle reigned supreme. As this rule of coercive power continued to bring wealth and renown to Israel, the role of the female was completely eroded. Women are barely a postscript in the biblical history of the era. This was a departure from patriarchal times, when Jewish women were at least an integral part of their nation's history. Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel were just as important to the story of Judaism's development as were their husbands, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But under the leadership of David, women were increasingly dehumanized. The sons of Israel had often bent the laws of marriage in order to give fuller range to their sexual appetites, and when David became king he gave his benediction to that practice by taking a number of wives. He did this although Jewish Law specifically forbade the king from having more than one wife.
Whatever the king did was bound to be reflected in the standards of the culture that he ruled. Consequently, David's polygamy both symbolized and encouraged the continuing denigration of women. And he did not stop at polygamy; he also installed a harem for his pleasure. Granted it was a modest establishment--only ten women were kept there--nevertheless, this blatant use of females as sexual objects was another step taken in the degradation of women. That it was tolerated by the people and the prophets of the time bears witness to the debasement of women that had taken place among the descendants of Sarah and Abraham.
That debasement came easily to a nation successfully annihilating its enemies and increasing its territory by removing all restrictions from the male power principle. A popular Hebrew song of the time boasted, "Saul killed his thousands and David his tens of thousands." Unrestrained by any ethical considerations, Israel doubled its territory under David's leadership and gave the Hebrews control of the major trade routes in Palestine. It was the success of his territorial and economic aggressiveness that allowed David to break the religious and moral laws with impunity.
His betrayal of Saul, who loved him, as well as his total disregard for the people he killed in the service of the Philistines, mark David as a man who did whatever was expedient in order to achieve his goals. For him, the end always justified the means.
The unrestrained male principle that characterized David's life also marked the lives of his male children. The Bible reports their participation in such events as incest, fratricide, attempted patricide, and the public rape of the women of David's harem.
The Bible mentions another problem connected with David's reign: he maintained a pagan belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice. When a famine devastated the land for three years, he allowed seven men to be sacrificed in order to bring about a bountiful harvest.
He handed them over to the Gibeonites who killed and exposed them on a hill before the Lord...they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.
In spite of many such "flaws" in his character, David is universally acclaimed as a hero who had only one blot on an otherwise unblemished record. Theologians admit that he did "sin" in his affair with Bathsheba, and they castigate him for causing her husband's death. But other than that, they unreservedly endorse David and his successful reign as warrior-king of Israel.
The biblical record of his treachery in dealing with Saul and Jonathan is ignored, as is his offering of human sacrifices. And his brutal annihilation of entire towns when he worked as a mercenary for the Phillistines, is overlooked. So is his deathbed scene. When he was dying, David called his son Solomon to his bedside.
A lifetime of killing was about to end, but there were still some old enemies left; he made Solomon swear that he would avenge him. The Bible records the last words of King David: "Remember you have with you Shimei, son of Gera....Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood."
When Solomon became king, he carried on the violent tradition of his father. He began his reign with fratricide. His older brother, Adonijah, was the legitimate heir to the throne and having him killed was the best way to insure that this brother would never press his claim.
Like his father, Solomon also established a harem. But he carried out that tradition on a much grander scale: he kept a harem of 300 women. He also had 700 hundred wives. And like David, Solomon believed in the power of human sacrifices. He had altars built for his wives and together they worshipped Molech and Chemosh--gods who were especially gratified by the sacrifice of children. In building and worshipping at those altars, Solomon started a practice of human sacrifice among the Hebrew people that could not be eradicated for 500 hundred years.
Despite the violence and depravity that marked the kingship of both Solomon and David, biblical scholars continue to refer to their reigns as the Golden Age. They overlook the bloodshed and brutality of the era because they, like the people of that time, judge its success by the fact that it was a time when great wealth and power accrued to Israel.
But that success was necessarily short-lived. The nation was unable to survive its own imbalance--its lack of any input from the female principle. Neither could it survive the inequities and brutality of its public policies. When Solomon died, the Golden Age of Israel died with him.