The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel

The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel

by Moshe Halbertal, Stephen Holmes


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The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel by Moshe Halbertal, Stephen Holmes

New insights into how the Book of Samuel offers a timeless meditation on the dilemmas of statecraft

The Book of Samuel is universally acknowledged as one of the supreme achievements of biblical literature. Yet the book's anonymous author was more than an inspired storyteller. The author was also an uncannily astute observer of political life and the moral compromises and contradictions that the struggle for power inevitably entails. The Beginning of Politics mines the story of Israel's first two kings to unearth a natural history of power, providing a forceful new reading of what is arguably the first and greatest work of Western political thought.

Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes show how the beautifully crafted narratives of Saul and David cut to the core of politics, exploring themes that resonate wherever political power is at stake. Through stories such as Saul's madness, David's murder of Uriah, the rape of Tamar, and the rebellion of Absalom, the book's author deepens our understanding not only of the necessity of sovereign rule but also of its costs—to the people it is intended to protect and to those who wield it. What emerges from the meticulous analysis of these narratives includes such themes as the corrosive grip of power on those who hold and compete for power; the ways in which political violence unleashed by the sovereign on his own subjects is rooted in the paranoia of the isolated ruler and the deniability fostered by hierarchical action through proxies; and the intensity with which the tragic conflict between political loyalty and family loyalty explodes when the ruler's bloodline is made into the guarantor of the all-important continuity of sovereign power.

The Beginning of Politics is a timely meditation on the dark side of sovereign power and the enduring dilemmas of statecraft.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691174624
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 419,517
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Moshe Halbertal is the Gruss Professor of Law at New York University, the John and Golda Cohen Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and professor of law at IDC Herzliya in Israel. His books include Maimonides: Life and Thought (Princeton), which won the National Jewish Book Award. Stephen Holmes is the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law at New York University. His books include The Matador's Cape: America's Reckless Response to Terror.

Read an Excerpt

The Beginning of Politics

Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel

By MOSHE HALBERTAL, Stephen Holmes


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8489-6


The Grip of Power

Our author's initial and arguably most striking revelation concerning power is that the paramount aim of those who successfully attain supreme authority is often reduced to nothing more exalted or idealistic than staying in power. This obsessional fixation on the means and trappings of power, independent of the greater or lesser purposes it can serve, defines not only the psychic life of many of those who exercise great political power, but also the way in which politics is institutionally structured to sustain and secure the ruler's privileges and capacities. Whenever retaining hold on high office, rather than realizing an ideological vision or implementing a political program, becomes the dominant aim of politics, sovereign power becomes for its wielder an end in itself, even while being publicly justified as a means for providing collective security. Although power is always justified to subjects as a means of repelling foreign conquest and attaining other collective goods, for the one who exercises it, sovereign power may easily turn into something desired for its own sake. This inversion of a means into an end, all too common in modern as well as archaic politics, causes another inversion in turn. As power becomes an end for a sovereign clinging desperately to it, other intrinsically worthy ends turn into disposable means. Rulers who wield their authority in the service of power as an end in itself regularly convert such ends as love, loyalty, the sacred, and moral obligation into mere means for eliminating dangerous rivals and staving off the loss of power, a loss that they morbidly dread.

Instrumentalizing such inherently valuable ends and turning them into mere means has a further fateful consequence for human politics. Since sovereigns are always able, and often tempted, to turn morality into an instrument, their observable actions become chronically ambiguous. Observers of such sovereign actions find themselves in perennial doubt as to their genuineness. Is the moral justification adduced by the wielder of power a mere pretext covering a purely self-serving political motivation, or is the action principled and driven by a moral quest? As our author details with exceptional subtlety, the irresolvable ambiguities of political action and passion are rooted in the deeply enigmatic and hugely consequential relation between public justification and private motivation. Although — and indeed because — the instrumentalization of morality is pervasive in political life, the political and the moral are thoroughly intertwined in ways in which even the sovereign himself cannot always disentangle. The exploration of these interconnected themes — the double reversal of turning means into ends and ends into means that lies at the heart of politics and the resulting ambiguity of political action — runs through much of the Book of Samuel, but it initially comes into focus as our author meticulously examines the corrosive impact of the psychological and political imperative to retain power on the life of Saul, the first king and the first genuine political figure known to the Bible.


Saul makes his first appearance in the chapter that follows the request of Israel for a king and God's initially indignant and ultimately resigned acquiescence. Introduced as the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin, Saul is described as "a fine and goodly young fellow, and no man of the Israelites was goodlier than he, head and shoulders taller than all the people" (1 Sam 9:2). Saul had the physical stature of a leader, but the sequence of events that follows makes clear that he was anything but an ambitious young man craving power and political authority. It is no accident that the narrative of Saul's journey away from home — a journey that leads to his anointment by Samuel as the future king — began with Saul seeking something trivial; he was sent by his father with one of his lads to retrieve some lost asses. After searching a large terrain and failing to locate the asses, Saul exhibited a sensitivity and uncertainty incompatible with crassly cynical ambition or a burning lust for power. He addressed the accompanying lad: "Come, let us turn back, lest my father cease worrying about the asses and worry about us" (1 Sam 9:5–6). Saul was a considerate and decent son, worrying about his father's worrying. So the lad, his inferior, took the lead, making sure that the quest did not end prematurely: "Look, pray, there is a man of God in this town, and the man is esteemed — whatever he says will surely come to pass. Now then, let us go there. Perhaps he will tell us of our way on which we have gone" (1 Sam 9:6–7). Drawing a sharp contrast between Saul's irresolution and his lad's initiative, our narrator has Saul voice an additional worry: "But look, if we are to go, what shall we bring to the man? For the bread is gone from our kits and there is no gift to bring to the man of God. What do we have?" And the lad answers: "Look, I happen to have at hand a quarter of a shekel of silver that I can give to the man of God, that he may tell us our way" (1 Sam 9:7–8). Not Saul but the lad carried the cash that could be offered to the man of God (who happened to be Samuel), and Saul merely followed his lead. Although tapped to become king, Saul is artfully portrayed as the diametrical opposite of a political schemer consumed by naked ambition. Before acceding to the throne, he bears absolutely no psychological resemblance to the voracious monarchs whose insatiable craving for ever-greater power at the expense of their people's well-being was the subject of Samuel's prophetic warnings.

Saul did not covet power. Power coveted him. Stung by what he apparently felt was a personal betrayal, Samuel initially took no action to fulfill the people's demand for a king. Indeed, a hapless Saul, singled out for the throne by God, had to be brought before the prophet: "At this time tomorrow," God said to Samuel, "I will send to you a man from the region of Benjamin and you shall anoint him prince over My people Israel" (1 Sam 9:16). Approaching Samuel for oracular help in tracking down the missing asses, Saul was stunned by Samuel's suggestion that what he had found instead was the hereditary kingship: "And as to the asses that have been lost to you now three days, pay them no heed, for they have been found. And whose is all the treasure of Israel? Is it not for you and all your father's house?" (1 Sam 9:20). Saul responded in character with wholly unfeigned modesty: "Am I not a Benjaminite, from the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my clan is the least of all the tribe of Benjamin? So why have you spoken to me in this fashion?" (1 Sam 9:21). Disregarding this palpably sincere protest, Samuel proceeded to anoint the hitherto ambitionless Saul. Samuel then demonstrated his prophetic gifts by accurately foretelling events that will occur soon thereafter, thereby convincing Saul that he was indeed destined to become Israel's first king.

Staged without witnesses on the outskirts of town, the clandestine anointment of Saul by Samuel is followed in the narrative by a public coronation at Mizpah, which again serves to underscore Saul's natural reluctance to assume the power that has been so unexpectedly thrust upon him. In the presence of all the people, a divinatory procedure was enacted in the form of casting a lot meant to reveal the monarch already selected by God. The lot fell first on the tribe of Benjamin, and then on the clan of Matrit, and finally, from among that clan, the lot fell on Saul. After the identity of the new king was thus made known, a strangely embarrassing moment ensued. Saul, the chosen one, couldn't be located: "and they sought him but he was not to be found" (1 Sam 10:22). When he was discovered at last hiding among the gear, the people dragged Saul to a kingship that he had unequivocally never sought for himself:

And they ran and fetched him from there, and he stood forth amidst the people, and he was head and shoulders taller than all the people. And Samuel said to all the people, "Have you seen whom the LORD has chosen? For there is none like him in all the people." And all the people shouted and said, "Long live the king!" (1 Sam 10:23–24).

In this oddly graceless coronation ceremony, distinguished by Samuel's residual resentment and Saul's embarrassingly humble demeanor, a handsome but ambitionless king-designate was grudgingly enthroned.

Unlike someone long preparing to assume power, Saul didn't move swiftly to exploit the momentum of his coronation and consolidate his authority. The public gathering at Mizpah ended in anticlimactic dispersal: "Samuel sent all the people away to their homes. And Saul, too, returned to his home in Gibeah, and the stalwart fellows whose hearts God had touched went with him" (1 Sam 10:26–27). It is no wonder that Saul's slinking back into private life was followed with words of derision spat out by some skeptical and oppositional voices among the people: "And worthless fellows had said, 'How will this one deliver us?' And they spurned him and brought him no tribute, but he pretended to keep his peace" (1 Sam 10:27). But why exactly does the author of Samuel make sure that we see Saul as wholly devoid of lofty ambition and craving for power? It is sometimes said that the only one who can be trusted with power is the one who doesn't seek it. Yet our author, in these passages, obviously wished to convey a diametrically contrary thought. The account of Saul's first two coronations prepares us to see how the intoxicating appeal of supreme power will overtake even a character as naturally uncalculating, unassuming, and unenterprising as Saul.

The real establishment of Saul's authority and the emergence of a structure that resembles a permanent and concentrated political force capable of taxation and conscription occurred through neither clandestine anointment nor public coronation, but only after a decisive victory in war. As told in 1 Samuel 11, the Ammonite king Nahash offered a humiliating pact to the people of Jabesh-gilead, who were situated at the easternmost and therefore highly exposed margins of Israel's tribal settlements. The proposed pact included the gouging out of the right eye of each of the men of Jabesh-gilead, marking their defeat and subjugation in a permanent and visible facial defect that also rendered them unfit for military self-defense. Messengers from the city of Jabesh-gilead were urgently dispatched to Saul's residence at Gibeah to plead for reinforcements. Saul, the newly selected but still reticent king, hadn't yet assumed leadership. He was still working the land as a private farmer:

And, look, Saul was coming in behind the oxen from the field, and Saul said, "What is the matter with the people that they are weeping?" And they recounted to him the words of the men of Jabesh. And the spirit of God seized Saul when he heard these words, and he was greatly incensed. And he took a yoke of oxen and hacked them to pieces and sent them through all the territory of Israel by the hand of messengers, saying, "Whoever does not come out after Saul and after Samuel, thus will be done to his oxen!" And the fear of the LORD fell on the people, and they came out as one man. (1 Sam 11:5–7)

Meant to humiliate all Israel, the Ammonite king's proposal roused Saul from his retreat into private life, dramatically overcoming his residual disinclination to exercise the royal office to which he had been raised. Acting in a way reminiscent of the charismatic ad hoc leaders portrayed in the Book of Judges, Saul's call for arms, including his threat to destroy the economic livelihood of any community within the Israelite federation that failed to send troops to lift the siege of Jabesh-gilead, was spectacularly successful, leading him to an utter rout of the Ammonites.

Writing about a world where battle-hardened tribes fought for exclusive control of fertile land, the author of Samuel was well aware that decisive victory in war is the most effective way of establishing political legitimacy. Following Saul's victory we are told: "And the people said to Saul, 'Whoever said, "Saul shall not be king over us," give us these men and we shall put them to death.' And Saul said, 'No man shall be put to death this day, for today the Lord has wrought deliverance in Israel'" (1 Sam 11:12–13). This was the moment when Saul began to act like a king. He established a permanent court with a small standing army; he would no longer be found plowing his fields. Military victory gave him a taste for power and the confidence to assume it. Even the hesitant and ambivalent Samuel was swayed by Saul's success in war. In the wake of victory, the prophet initiated a third coronation, this time wholeheartedly accepted by the people and by Saul himself:

And Samuel said to the people, "Come, let us go to Gilgal and we shall renew there the kingship." And all the people went to Gilgal and they made Saul King there before the Lord at Gilgal, and they sacrificed their communion sacrifices before the Lord, and Saul rejoiced there, and all the men of Israel with him, very greatly. (1 Sam 11:15)

From this point forward, the author of the Book of Samuel will turn his penetrating gaze to the radically transformed inner life of the originally unassuming and modest person who first had power thrust upon him and only afterwards was seized by the power that had descended upon him unsought.

Whether attained by craft or by chance, great power has a way of defining the person who wields it. Finding themselves venerated by those around them, the supremely powerful almost inevitably begin to worship themselves. Once such intoxicating superiority is tasted, relinquishing it can be experienced as an obliteration of the self. This is especially true for an office that can be bequeathed to one's heirs, a promise or expectation that gives its present occupant an intimation of immortality. Even Samuel — the boy with no dynastic pedigree, who was born to a barren woman as gift of God, and who was brought to the center of leadership as a challenge to a corrupt dynastic priesthood — displayed fierce resistance to the loss of great hereditary power. In his old age, Samuel wished his sons to inherit his leadership role even though they were plainly unworthy. He felt personally betrayed by the people who rejected his sons. And he was seemingly forced by God to anoint a king against his will. Despite Saul's initial victories over the Ammonites and other tribal enemies of Israel, Samuel continued to resent the king he had anointed, and his seething resentment will inflict continuous blows on Saul until the very end. Though Samuel had witnessed firsthand Saul's personal reluctance and innocence, he couldn't resist treating Saul as an illegitimate usurper of his own role and power. A young and inexperienced king was destined to make mistakes. And Samuel, as we will see, did more than his share in pushing Saul to, and over, the brink.

Besides providing a telling and astute commentary on the complex role of religion in stabilizing and destabilizing political authority, the trap that Samuel arguably laid for Saul in order to undermine his confidence in the future also lets us glimpse the particularly problematic form of instrumentalization that will play such a prominent role in the narrative to come. Following Saul's first and clandestine coronation, we are told that Samuel commanded Saul to wait at Gilgal for seven days until he arrived to officiate over a burnt offering to God. The narrator is careful not to say that this command was God's. It was initiated by Samuel, presumably motivated by his desire to be in charge and to ritually validate the properly hierarchical relation between himself and the new king. In the meantime, the Philistines were mustering for war, and Saul, who had enlisted the people of Israel, was waiting with increasing impatience for Samuel, whose delayed arrival was encouraging rampant desertion among the soldiers. Desertion was to be expected, as forces who are gathered for war but who do not engage tend to disperse. But it also reflected Saul's tenuous authority over an incompletely unified tribal confederation. As time passed, Saul's army shrank to a minuscule rump, and the remaining troops were paralyzed and frightened. A sacrifice had to be offered to restore the soldiers' sagging morale by eliciting God's assurances about the outcome of the battle, and Saul, who by now despaired of Samuel's arrival and who was laboring under the pressure of his disintegrating army and the threatening Philistines, initiated the offering without the presence of the prophet. As recounted in the story, the timing of Samuel's arrival seems far from accidental. He arrived at Gilgal almost immediately after the frantic Saul had offered the sacrifice on his own:

And it happened as he finished offering the burnt offering that, look, Samuel was coming and Saul went out toward him to greet him. And Samuel said, "What have you done?" And Saul said, "For I saw that the troops were slipping away from me and you on your part had not come at the fixed time and the Philistines were assembling at Michmash. And I thought, 'Now the Philistines will come down on me at Gilgal, without my having entreated the Lord's favor.' And I took hold of myself and offered up the burnt offering." (1 Sam 13:10–12)


Excerpted from The Beginning of Politics by MOSHE HALBERTAL, Stephen Holmes. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Text and Translation xi

Introduction: The Emergence of Politics 1

1 The Grip of Power 17

2 Two Faces of Political Violence 67

3 Dynasty and Rupture 100

4 David’s Will and Last Words 144

Conclusion 163

Notes 175

Index 207

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