May 4: 1 Samuel 16:13-15 etc (continued)

1 Samuel 16:13-15

In the previous note, we considered the role of the spirit (j^Wr) of God in determining and guiding political leadership in ancient Israel. In the case of the Judges, this involved primarily military leadership in times of warfare and national crisis. Previously this was also true of Joshua, though the Scriptures also mention the wisdom he possessed due to the presence/activity of the divine spirit. With the Judges, as also Saul and David in the book of Samuel, the spirit of God is said to “rush” (vb jl^x*) upon them, indicating a rather violent sort of experience. This was fitting for the inspiration of prophetic ecstasy as well as for the strength and aggression needed for military action.

Overall, these traditions suggest a concept of charismatic leadership, understood as being the product of possession by a divine spirit. In the ancient world, gifted individuals were seen as possessing such a spirit; the word genius in English preserves a vestige of this original meaning. The signs of such giftedness could be superficial, drawing on certain aspects of personal appearance, as well as based on the obvious markers of natural ability and skill, physical strength, etc. For example, Saul possessed these natural signs (1 Sam 9:2), making him a clear candidate for leadership. David in his own way had these same attributes (of beauty, strength, skill, etc)—cf. 16:18; 17:1-18:8—though the narrative in Samuel also makes certain efforts to downplay this, as a way of emphasizing the unique choice of David by YHWH (16:6-7, etc). An important detail in the narrative is David’s musical ability, in addition to all the other factors (16:16-18, 23), which serves as a clear contrast to Saul’s deteriorating condition.

Once God’s spirit “rushes” to David (16:13), it is clear that Saul can no longer serve in this role as leader, according to the ancient principles of charismatic leadership. In the very next verse we read:

“And (the) spirit of YHWH turned (away) from (being) with Ša’ûl, and an evil [hu*r*] spirit from YHWH terrorized him.” (v. 14)

While God’s rejection of Saul is explained, to some extent, in chapter 15, according to the prophetic viewpoint of the author, it scarcely suffices as an explanation for the phenomenon narrated here. It is difficult for modern-day readers to understand the ancient worldview, with regard to the cause-and-effect of certain psychological and physiological conditions. To begin with, the idea of an “evil spirit” (hu*r* j^Wr) does not necessarily imply the kind of malevolent personal power we often associate with the term. Rather, it is “evil” (ur^) in the sense that it is the cause of something bad—such as illness, incapacity, or any manner of misfortune. In the ancient Near East, virtually any physical or mental illness was seen as caused by the activity/influence of a deity or spirit. This same worldview existed among the Israelites, and is clearly reflected in numerous passages throughout the Old Testament. However, from the standpoint of Israelite monotheism, all such divine activity was under YHWH’s control, and the spirits causing disease and death were sent by Him. That is why the text can state that the evil spirit comes from YHWH—just as He sends out a lying/deceitful spirit in 1 Kings 22:22-23. It is only much later that a more dualistic worldview developed, whereby the the spirits/powers causing evil were seen as operated separately from God (and opposed to him).

It is clear from the narrative that Saul is struck by a certain kind of illness—we would probably refer to it as a mental or psychological disorder (such as schizophrenia)—marked by paranoia, outbursts of anger and violence, etc. This serves as the basis for the conflict that arises between Saul and David. At first, the king is soothed and helped by David, through his musical ability (16:16, 23). This is described, from the ancient viewpoint, in terms of the evil spirit “turning away” (rWs, the same verb used in v. 14) and leaving Saul:

“And it was (that), in (the) (evil) spirit [j^Wr] of the Mightiest coming [i.e. when it came] to Ša’ûl, and Dawîd took the harp and made music (on it) with his hand, (then) there was spirit/breath [jw~r*] (again) for Ša’ûl, and (all was) good with him, and (the) evil spirit turned (away) from (being) upon him.” (v. 23)

The relationship between the noun j^Wr (“breath, spirit”) and the related verb jw~r* (“breathe”) here is hard to convey in English translation. It is a reminder that the fundamental meaning of the root jwr is not “spirit”, but “breath” or “wind” (i.e. something blowing).

1 Samuel 18:10-11; 19:9-10

This same scenario is described again in 19:9-10, but this time David’s playing, apparently, is not enough to ease Saul’s illness. Things had deteriorated for Saul, and the king lashes out at David with violence:

“And the evil spirit of YHWH came to be to [i.e. upon] Ša’ûl, and he was sitting in his house and his spear (was) in his hand, and Dawîd was making music (on the harp) with his hand. And Ša’ûl sought to strike at Dawîd with the spear [and in(to) the wall], but Dawîd got through (away) from (the) face [i.e. presence] of Ša’ûl, and the spear struck in(to) the wall, and Dawîd fled and made (his) escape on that night.”

There is a doublet (a second version) of this tradition in 18:10-11, part of the complex situation surrounding the composition of these narratives, and how the various historical traditions were preserved and included. There are several details which strongly indicate that 18:10-11 genuinely represents a second (separate) preserved version of the historical tradition:

    • When the evil spirit comes upon Saul, he “acts like a ayb!n`” (vb ab*n` in the reflexive hithpael stem), that is, like an ecstatic inspired prophet; the spirit also “rushes” (vb jl^x*) on Saul, as it does upon the prophets and charismatic leaders (cf. above). Here, this is probably meant to convey several things:
      • The violent character of the spirit’s influence, resulting in unusual and aggressive behavior
      • That Saul was “raving”, seemingly out of his mind, uttering strange words
      • That he was truly possessed by a divine spirit, as the ecstatic prophets were—only this time it was an evil spirit of God (i.e. sent by God), which results in more negative and destructive conduct.
    • Saul’s intent to harm David is expressed: “I will strike Dawîd…”
    • It is said that David evaded his attack twice (an allusion to the second version of the tradition in 19:9-10?)

It is interesting that, in the overall course of the narrative, after this episode Saul again is struck by the ecstatic prophetic spirit (19:18-24). This largely repeats his earlier experience narrated in 10:5-12; it contains the same elements—the role of Samuel, a group of ecstatic prophets gathered together, a sacred “high place” site, etc. However, this time Saul arrives with the evil intent of arresting David, and the onrush of the (prophetic) spirit serves to waylay these efforts, disabling Saul for a full day and night. These two parallel scenes frame the period of Saul’s role as divinely-inspired leader. The first precedes the coming of God’s spirit on him (11:6), and the second follows the departure of that spirit (16:14ff). It is a vivid reminder of how closely connected the prophetic spirit was to the tradition of charismatic leadership in the ancient world.

In light of this theme of God’s spirit departing from a person, it is worth considering the famous expression of this idea in Psalm 51; this we will do in the next daily note.


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