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Kings and politics

History: The view from the Prophet Samuel’s front-row seat

Kings and politics

King David (center) and Uriah (left) (The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

More than 3,000 years ago, the people of Israel crowned a human king against God’s warnings. Before then, Israel stood apart from other ancient kingdoms by recognizing God’s exclusive kingship. Then, Israelites got the king they demanded—and saw every warning come true.

The Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel mark the first shift in Israel from divine sovereignty to dynastic monarchy. In The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel (Princeton University Press), Jewish professors Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes bring out the power of “the first and greatest work of Western political thought.” The two books of Samuel are not political tracts, a manifesto, or a biography, but books about politics, the first literature in world history to document truthful, even unflattering accounts of its nation’s leaders. Halbertal and Holmes analyze it brilliantly—and that’s why their book is our History Book of the Year.

The authors recognize that God is “certainly no subject for systematic critical scrutiny and political analysis,” but the humanly flawed Saul and David certainly are, and their stories provide timeless truths about why and how people have gained, abused, and lost power over three millennia. As Chapter 3 of Genesis shows what happened when God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to disobey, so 1 Samuel shows how God granted Israel its desire—“that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” The rest of 1 and 2 Samuel explores the consequences of that desire: “If the sovereign is powerful enough to protect the people against hostile neighbors, he will also be powerful enough to abuse the people for reasons having nothing to do with collective security.”

(Matt Rose)

That’s what happened with Saul, a once-humble, once-ambitionless man who turned into a paranoid blood-hunter, bringing doom upon himself and others. Rulers think they wield political power, but “political power wields rulers, toying with their motivations, aspirations, and inhibitions.” That’s also what happened with David. While Saul’s extreme insecurity and self-pity led him to distrust everyone and slaughter the innocent priests of Nob, David’s sense of entitlement and self-indulgence at the peak of power led him to kill Uriah. So secure was David in his authority that from the detached comforts of his palace he murdered his loyal soldier in the battlefield.

Halbertal and Holmes portray David as not quite the lion-wrestling, giant-lopping, harp-plucking, God-loving poet of Sunday school. Here, he’s a “master of masked intentions” who cunningly stood by while the Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle and killed Saul and his sons. His ostentatious kindness to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth may really have been a clever way to imprison Saul’s last remaining descendant in his court. No longer a figure of moral authority after the Uriah incident, David becomes weak and blind, allowing his own sons to manipulate and betray him.

The Beginning of Politics introduces the dynamics of power with God’s warning about worldly kings. The author of 1 and 2 Samuel performed “an act of witnessing” Israel’s political project and then warning, “Beware of what I saw and have told you.” As astute and fascinating as it is, The Beginning of Politics misses out on a larger truth: Samuel is just one book under a grand narrative of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As the authors themselves acknowledge, God never withdrew from human events. David, like Saul, was a royal sinner, but God still called him a man after His own heart and used David’s utterly flawed, very messy line to bring the one true and eternal King.

Short list

The Second World Wars 

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson combines expertise about both ancient Greece and modern war to present a comprehensive look at not just war but The Second World Wars plural. Not only were the wars against Germany and Japan largely distinct, but so were the wars on land, at sea, and in the air—and Hanson brilliantly shows that once the wars became global, Germany and Japan had nothing to look forward to except utter destruction. Hanson also shows how all the technical innovations—saturation bombing, rockets, aircraft carriers, massive tank envelopments—didn’t change fundamentals of barbarity or geography.

The High Cost of Good Intentions 

John F. Cogan

John Cogan’s history of federal entitlement programs warns us that the ice we skate on has grown thinner decade by decade. Both Democrats and Republicans are now kicking the can down the road, apparently uncaring that the iceman cometh in a few years. Cogan provides useful case studies of measures that were sensible, self-limiting, and freedom-enhancing like the GI Bill, and current ones that grow as each benefit expansion leads to future entitlements that leave worthy original goals no longer recognizable. As annual deficits lead each year to record-breaking debt expansion, it doesn’t seem that we’ll learn—until it’s too late.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich 

Norman Ohler

Norman Ohler’s tautly written account, based on previously overlooked documents, shows the role of drugs in fueling Hitler’s rapid rise during the 1930s and sensational fall during the second half of World War II. Among the conclusions: Methamphetamines distributed to millions of soldiers made possible the blitzkrieg that killed France in 1940. Hitler became dependent on a witch’s cornucopia of heroin and other drugs during World War II. Tragically, the mass lessons Germans learned—live by meth, die by meth—have not been absorbed by many addicted Americans, but Ohler provides a valuable lesson: Dance with the devil and die.

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World 

Eric Metaxas

Eric Metaxas is the best storyteller among Luther’s many recent biographers. He describes “comically bungling and tragically scandalous” popes and a heroic but very human Luther who is brave not because he lacks fear but because he fears—yet still stands immovable before previously irresistible papal pressure. Metaxas shows how Luther wanted to save the Roman Catholic Church from itself and didn’t become a fiery opponent of the whole structure until it gave him no choice: Luther’s opponents were “unmoored from the rock of the Scriptures … blithely floating down the river toward a great cataract and didn’t seem to notice.” —Marvin Olasky

Archiv Gerstenberg/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Bubnov (Archiv Gerstenberg/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

The house revolutionaries built

Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton University Press) is an immense historical and publishing achievement: 1,104 pages of astonishing research available in hardback for under $30. I wrote about it in last month’s survey of 100th-anniversary-of-tragedy books (see “Revolutionaries dug a pit and fell in,” Nov. 11) and noted sagas such as the life and death of Andrei Bubnov, the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, who emphasized the need for Stalin’s opponents to be “squashed like vile vermin,” but did not like being treated like a cockroach himself.

The House of Government is not our Book of the Year in history because we emphasize books for typical WORLD members: well-educated and thoughtful, yet unlikely to dive into a book this long. But those who want to get a granular feel for revolutionary lives and saw reading War and Peace as a walk in the park—let me know what you think. —M.O.

Please read the next section in our 2017 Books of the Year issue: “Fragile philosophy

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 11/22/2017 02:03 pm

    Uh-oh.  I smell speculative cynicism in The Beginning of Politics.  David was not in a position to help Saul at Gilboa without putting his relatively small force at risk of annihilation; and Mephibosheth had brethren still alive who David did not touch until the Gibeonites asked for recompense for Saul's sin against them.  Nonetheless this may be a book that I will place in my library.

  • John S
    Posted: Thu, 12/07/2017 12:05 pm

    right.  I know this article is a brief summary of the book, so hopefully the picture of David is more nuanced - to include the man 'after God's own heart', how he is a type of forerunner of the Christ, the one God used to pen a large amount of his written Word, and the man commended for his great faith in Hebrews. 

  •  Cavanaugh's picture
    Posted: Wed, 03/21/2018 03:26 pm

    I just finished the "Beginning..." book and have to say this is the first time I was disappointed in a WORLD book review.    I would likely still have bought and read the book – but the high praise of the review wrongly set expectations (and left the undiscerning reader {not that this would have been the typical WORLD member!} unprepared for some major Ivy League biblical criticism).

    There are now many underlinings in my copy – mostly of their “sophisticated” assessment of human intent and their insuppressible acclaims of the brilliant, but unknown, author.   But I believe the two weaknesses I caught way back in the Introduction show the fundamental errors in their thinking:

    They do not understand the Sovereignty of God

    They appear completely clueless about the power of Inspired Scripture

    So what value does the book have (and why will I keep in my library – though with an inside the cover disclaimer for that future too-trusting reader)?  In a mere 173 pages the book does make (or infer} several important points – that are timeless in this broken world:

    Power Corrupts – bad men and good men

    Even a man after God’s own heart is very far from perfect – i.e. God is not a perfect form of us, rather we are merely a weak shadow of Him (my phrase – not theirs)

    For sophisticated author[s], there are many ways to explain away sin

    Politics are messy – at all levels

    Man will never create the Utopian version of this place

    God was right, again!