Is Saul Also Among the Prophets?

It’s pretty obvious that the Bible contains a lot of contradictions, although those who believe the whole thing to be the totally accurate Word of God tend to either ignore them or come up with convoluted workarounds. The way I see it, every text has some level of bias, and nobody back the Iron Age Middle East was even attempting to write just the facts. But as a collection of texts written over centuries, the Bible contains multiple viewpoints on various issues. The people who combined multiple stories into the books that we have today did their best to make things work with each other, but the seams still show. As I remember reading before, it looks like the scribes didn’t want to completely remove significant stories even if they weren’t totally in line with the prevailing beliefs of their own times. I’ve seen secular interpretations that really seem to show a much more positive message.

The Bible has it that a bunch of people migrated from Egypt to Canaan and killed all the natives they could find, using the justification that they all claimed descent from a rich chieftain who lived there 400 years previously (or maybe only about half that), then arranged themselves into tribal territories based on which of that chieftain’s sons was their ancestor. I’ve also seen it proposed that several Canaanite tribes banded together with refugees from other countries and created a nation. The latter sounds more inclusive, as well as less violent and less incestuous. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me for the Israelites to have formed tribes while in Egypt, all get together for the journey to the Promised Land, then divide up into those same tribes again. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened, but it really seems more likely to me that this was a symbolic origin story presenting the ideal of a united Israel, which might never have existed in reality, or at most existed for only a short time.

Many such myths give a nation a founder with the name of the country itself, but it’s unlikely that too many countries were started by a single family. I guess Pitcairn Island is kind of like that, but its population is only around fifty.

Recently, I was thinking about the refrain in the book of Judges, stated four times, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” But as the Deuteronomistic History continues, we’re told that most of the kings in Israel and Judah were terrible. So did the writer like the IDEA of monarchy but not always the practice, or were there different authors with different viewpoints at work? A little of both, I would suspect. Samuel, a prophet and priest, is presented as the de facto leader of Israel until the people demand a king, which he takes as an affront. He does anoint one, however, then gets mad because Saul doesn’t do everything he says up to and including genocide.

Not that Saul is at all a nice guy according to the biblical narrative, but his main sin in Samuel’s eyes appears to be having his own ideas about how to rule and deal with enemies. As an atheist, I find it interesting to look at the Bible as the work of several different unreliable narrators with their own agendas. The impression I get is that there were a few different factions at work in Israel and Judah, with the kings having absolute power in theory but in practice being limited somewhat by the influence of the priests and the prophets. The latter claimed to have a direct channel to God, so the monarchs would ignore them at their own peril. Of course, they didn’t all agree with each other. Jeremiah told the king to surrender to the Babylonians, which seems like it would make him a traitor to his nation, but I’ve often seen it suggested that he’s the one who put most of the history into a somewhat coherent narrative, so it’s not too surprising he’s shown as being in the right.

One recurring point in these books is that it was the Jews themselves who were responsible for the fall of their countries due to not following the law that Yahweh had clearly laid out for them. But were they really as clear as the history claims? The Bible makes the Israelites come across as almost comically stupid, repeatedly being directly told by Yahweh not to worship other gods, then immediately turning around and saying, “Hey, let’s worship other gods!” But really, how would the average person know whom to trust? They’d likely go along with whatever their community had been doing, and if that meant worshipping Asherah along with Yahweh, they’d just continue to do that unless they had an immediate reason not to. That doesn’t explain the people who supposedly talked directly to God and still screwed up, like Solomon, but that’s still taking after-the-fact writings at face value. The main things the kings are criticized for isn’t incompetent governing, although that comes up too. It’s more that they didn’t maintain the particular interpretation of Yahweh worship where He’s the only god the people were allowed to worship, sacrifice can only be made at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the priests have to be descendants of Aaron.

If Moses was the main prophet and founder of the nation, why was it his brother who got the job of leading the worship, especially when he’s the one who, after Moses was gone for a while, said, “Screw it, let’s worship a cow instead”?

What I’ve read indicates that there were competing priests who claimed descent from Moses, but they lost prominence over the years. What we have is a national history that doesn’t always come out in favor of the nation’s leaders, but rather of the religious leaders who are constantly trying to tell them what they’re doing wrong. In the books of Kings, Josiah is presented as the best king of the Davidic line, as he promoted the monopoly of the temple cult.

He also reigned at at time when the power of the Assyrian Empire was waning, so his reforms might not have mattered a whole lot in the fate of the country, although they definitely did in the development of the Jewish religion.

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