What Are You Reading and Why?

The Beginnings of Politics

Moshe Halbertal & Stephen Hollmans, Princeton University Press, 2017

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The biblical book of Samuel is a book of political thought; it does not paint a flattering portrait of any of the work’s principle characters (eg Samuel, Saul, David, Absalom and a handful of others); no one party or individual is endorsed.  In the pre-Samuel period no standing army was established and no unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved. No standing army was established and no enduring unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved.

No single stable ruler capable of asserting his supreme authority over tribes and clans often embroiled in blood feuds could emerge.  But a supreme authority is the underpinnings of any human political order.  This is why all political entities aim to organize a smooth transfer of power one leader to the next.  Dynastic-monarchy offers one possible solution to the problem of regional continuity; the bloodlines of the king’s family provide a possible nonviolent transfer of power.  Dynastic succession is the experience of the Samuel-era Israeli state as dynastic succession seeks to provide unity and continuity. The price paid by the people for this is the imposition of taxes and military drafts.

In detailing the rise and rule of two very different kings, the writer(s) of Samuel focus on the concept of power that refuses to acknowledge moral restrictions for living among their supporters.  They end up using the power they have been granted for the welfare of the community by clinging to political power for its own sake (eg Saul’s plot to have David killed, 1 Samuel 18); the writer(s) of Samuel point out the need for community of sovereignty.  The author of Samuel does not argue against the dynastic solution to the continuity problem, but points out what centralized power inflicts on the ruler and on his children, mingling family love and political ambition.

The Beginnings of Politics is a powerful treatment of political implications of power in politics, whether in David’s time or in ours.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.