I was recently thinking about King Saul. If it’s been a while for you, Saul was the “first king” of Israel, according to the books of Samuel. Saul had a problem. That problem’s name was David. David was younger, more popular, a gifted musician and lady’s man. In sudden fits of rage Saul tried to kill David, more than once. An unstable man was in charge, but claiming God’s sanction he was safe from any kind of impeachment. In the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be king.” So Israel limped along under weak leadership until Saul got himself killed in battle. I couldn’t help think that this story shows just how relevant the Bible remains today. Mad kings are difficult to displace. They have their fans and, to quote Alfred, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
David’s reign was no picnic either. He had his Bathsheba affair, and was constantly making war as well as love. He pretended to be insane to save himself from Saul, but he was loved by Yahweh and thrived. Oh, and he wrote the book of Psalms. It’s a bit of a shock when this much feted king gives Solomon, his son, his last words. Instead of some pious sentiments or perhaps a last-minute poem, his final instructions are a hit list. “I promised not to kill Shimei, but you made no such promise.” Wink, nod. And Solomon reigned, bragging of groping a thousand women. One of the one percent, he was fabulously wealthy and ultimately couldn’t hold his kingdom together. And none of this is even prophecy!
Why do we put up with mad kings? The world is full of good, and able people. They have a very difficult time getting elected in a democracy. They had trouble even when it was a monarchy. Yes, power corrupts. We know that. Those who are truly mad, however, learn to live by gaming the system. Lies are alternative facts and truth is fake news. Other elected officials, apparently incapable of reading the newspapers, follow the leader. Like lemmings, they ignore the cliff just ahead. Ironically the Bible has a role to play in all this madness. In fact, many people seem to think Israel had a cozy little history. They’re the ones who’ve never read the Good Book. Even during the golden reign of David there were schisms and political murders. All you need to do, however, is say God told you to, and even a madman can become a saint.
Having a life-long phobia of mental institutions, I shy away from situations that refuse to make sense. Some have attributed this to my having had an alcoholic father and responding with an über-rational expectation of analyzing how other people would likely act. Whatever its cause, the fear is real. So thirty years ago, when I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I assumed it would be the last time. It was a relatively recent movie at the time, and it was required viewing for one of my college courses. With my phobia I really couldn’t get beyond the heebie-jeebies to consider what was going on beneath the surface, which is to say, most of the movie. Well, a few decades will cure many ills and I sat down to watch the movie again and my own experiences of asylum-like, heartless institutions in the intervening years had indeed hardened me a bit. I noticed much that I’d missed the first time around. For one thing the story of King David kept coming to mind.
For those who read the Bible somewhat objectively, David is a player, and not always the most admirable character. He has a subtle charm that wins the reader of the books of Samuel back time and again. He steps into a situation where his ambition is held back by a kind of Nurse Ratched named King Saul. So what does David do? He pretends to be insane and runs off to join the Philistines. He gathers a band of miscreants about him and goes to towns taking what isn’t his. He even brings a forbidden woman into his house. As R. P. McMurphy goes through these same shenanigans, he comes to really love young Billy (Saul’s son Jonathan). In the course of the movie our ersatz David takes a suffering nation and heals it. There, however, the parallels end and Ken Kesey’s story takes over.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Kesey intentionally drew on the story of David—that would be crazy talk—but I do often wonder about the aphorism attributed to his son Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun. There were those who felt that Solomon had lost touch with reality as he sat down to write Ecclesiastes. The great stories, in some sense, have already been told. But not all. Those of us who write seek new truths, and sometimes use ancient sources to do it. David is remembered as one of the great biblical characters. One of the reasons, undoubtedly, is that he is so fallibly human—he’s not impossibly pious like Moses, or unfailingly sad like Jeremiah. He is a good man with peccadilloes for which we are willing to forgive him just for the pleasure of watching him go on. No, Kesey may not have had the Bible in his hand as he dreamed up the character of R. P. McMurphy, but he produced a true representation nevertheless. Of course, I might just be insane myself.
Posted in Bible, Literature, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bible, Ecclesiastes, Ken Kesey, King David, Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R. P. McMurphy, Samuel
Absalom was the first of the big-hair rock stars. According to the book of 2 Samuel, his hair was so luxuriant that he had it cut once a year and it weighed two hundred shekels (about five pounds, not sterling). This little bit of foreshadowing in 2 Samuel 14 will appear again in the story of Absalom’s demise, as he is caught in a great oak tree by his untrimmed hair. I’ve always related to Absalom on the coiffure issue—I don’t like getting my hair cut. In my more self-analytical moods, I relate it to having stepped on a bee’s nest as a child and having received multiple stings on my bare legs. That horrible buzzing of bees in my ears stayed with me, and whenever the girl at SuperCuts grabs the clippers and the bee-like drone nears my ears I flinch in terror. Like Absalom I have rather an abundance of hair, and so when I’m shorn, it is easily noticeable. I don’t like people to comment on it, however. One of the most banal phrases, not to mention an utter tautology, is when someone smartly observes, “you got a haircut.” With what am I to follow this up? “Yes—I was feeling a bit too much like Absalom in the forest of Ephraim where Joab found him dangling in the tree after David followed the advice of Hushai instead of Ahithophel”?
While walking through a mall recently, I commented to a friend how all the stores seemed to be clothing and shoe stores. You never find a bookstore any more, or museum shops, or anything approaching profundity. People really mostly care about what they look like on the outside. I’m more of an interior guy. Not among those generally cast among the hunky, good-looking examples of masculinity, I’m small, bookish, and still wear clothes that I’ve owned for two decades. My hair is usually out of control as well, but not in a fashionable Einsteinian way. I am, I fear, the heir of Absalom.
Religion used to be a source of profundity. It was, once upon a time, the queen of sciences, and philosophy was her handmaid. Seeing the way that religion appears in the media today, however, I’d have to guess she’s been shopping at the mall. Those who measure religion by the cut of her hem rather than by how deep her thoughts may be, have brought her into the limelight of popular culture. She used to be all about the meaning of life and offered a reason for many of us to get out of bed in the morning. Absalom’s trouble started out when he fell in lust with his half-sister Tamar. His addiction to appearances led him to bad decisions that ultimately divided David’s kingdom and cost him his very life. And I guess that’s the price you pay for not getting a haircut on a regular basis.
Posted in Bible, Consciousness, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 2 Samuel, Absalom, Hair, King David, philosophy, popular culture, queen of sciences
Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.
The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?
Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.
Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?
Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.
Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)
Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.
"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Creationism, Current Events, Genesis, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Psalms, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged abortion, Answers in Genesis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Daniel, Exodus, Garden of Eden, Jericho, Joshua, Judges, King David, Lion's Den, NeoCon, Rick Perry, Samson, Tea Party
All conspiracy theories and history’s mysteries aside, there are some interesting correlations between the ancient Egyptians and the pre-European “New World.” Temples, pyramids, and large ceremonial structures are among the common features they share. Perhaps it is inevitable that where a ruling class becomes oligarchic that grand structures to their greatness will follow. Some factors transcend all times and cultures. It may be no surprise then, as MSNBC announced yesterday, that tunnels have been discovered under the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. The tunnels, first noticed under the temple of Quetzacoatl, may be the entry to the tombs of the royalty, not unlike Old Kingdom Egypt. This great pre-Colombian city was already abandoned by the time the Aztecs came along. They gave the city its current name, a title that may be translated as “the place where men become gods,” according to Mark Stevenson of the Associated Press.
Not being an expert on ancient Americans, it is difficult to interpret all this information. Having read extensively on the ancient Near East, however, the parallels are unavoidable. The place where men become gods may well apply to several aspects of ancient Near Eastern thought as well. Not only the Egyptians, but also most ancient peoples attributed divinity to their kings. We have no personal statements from such rulers indicating their personal satisfaction at having been considered better than their fellow citizens, although one might speculate that captains of industry and finance share those views today. The ancients, however, seem to have taken this literally. Kings were gods. When kings died, and were conveniently no longer observable, they were among the unseen realms of the divine, continuing to influence the world from beyond the grave.
Even the Bible shares, to an extent, the idea of divine kingship. David comes pretty close to the mark in the books of Samuel, and certainly the idea had appeal in the pre-monotheistic eras of ancient Israel. The place where men become gods is, however, in the imagination. The great and powerful pharaohs do not govern the affairs of modern Egypt, nor do the shades of Assyrian and Babylonian emperors protect the war-torn realities of life in Iraq. We don’t even know who built Teotihuacan. The fate of divine kings, it seems, is to grow obscure and irrelevant to all but historians and reluctant school kids. There are those who still aspire to divine kingship. They may have lives of immense wealth and power, but if they read a little more history they would glimpse their own fate in the tombs of the divine kings.
Posted in Archaeology, Bible, Current Events, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Posts
Tagged Aztecs, Divine kingship, Egypt, Iraq, King David, oligarchy, Quetzacoatl, Samuel, Teotihuacan