Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Sefer Shmuel

So this afternoon I read the end of Sefer Shmuel I for a shiur. The shiur focused on the chronology, which is problematic and confusing, but preparing, I was more struck with the tragedy of the whole story. All the characters are so miserable in their own complicated ways.

I mean, obviously we feel bad for David, who is not only described as perfect and holy, horribly tormented and oppressed, but also gets all of Tehillim for us to feel his pain. But all of the other characters have their own twisted storylines of tragedy interweaving so that the sefer is like a really good novel, but not a very happy one.

Take Michal: falls in love with David, gets lucky enough to marry him. Early in the marriage, her father tries to kill him, forcing her to turn against her father and not see her husband again for quite a while. Meanwhile, she gets handed off to another husband as revenge against her husband's 'rebellion'. The new husband seems quite fond of her and maybe she's vaguely happy. In any case, soon enough she gets taken back to David in another power statement. Yay, true love. Except that he's picked up another couple of wives in the meantime, who already have kids by him and everything. The only other time we see her, she's trying to assert her dignity and acting very acerbic to the husband that we were told she loved; he snaps back at her and mentions that G-d likes him better than her and her father's household (all meanwhile dead). She has no more children to her dying day, possibly because her husband no longer likes her. Oh yeah, and fun little point- her five children, as survivors of Shaul, are given by her husband to be murdered to buy off Shaul's blood guilt.

Or Yonatan: he may have gotten the hang of it that David will be the next king, but he's willing to accept that. He doesn't believe that his father would really try to kill David, but when convinced, he's takes David's side and gets cursed out in front of the whole court. Other than meeting David in secret from time to time, he has no contact with him until his last battle, where he probably dies under the impression that David is fighting on the other team.

Or Shmuel, who selects Shaul as king and then is told by G-d to reject him. He is upset but still has to be the one to yell at Shaul pretty forcefully. While still feeling bad about this, he is told to get over Shaul and commit treason against him by picking somebody new.

But Shaul is really the most tragic character of all. He's really like the figure in Greek myths who tries to thwart the oracle and never does. It's not clear whether he believes Shmuel that he's been rejected as a king- maybe he thinks it's later down the generations, or that he'll die early, or that he can repent. But in any case, as soon as this happens, G-d deserts him- something we probably can't imagine never having had G-d rest upon us- and instead a depressed, raving sort of mental illness attacks him. The harp player he finds helps out, except that pretty soon he becomes a national hero, that everybody seems to like better than him, who can fight the battles that the king should be handling, but can't since G-d doesn't like him anymore. He sees everybody in the nation falling in love with David- his own son, his daughter, the people, and probably he remembers the prophecy and gets freaked out. But there's nothing he can do. He tries to fight it. He sends people to get David and finds that his daughter and son and personal prophet who anointed him and (he thinks) all the priests are with David. He tries to chase him himself and ends up naked, raving in public and being mocked by the entire nation. For years, he tries to catch David, occasionally coming to himself beset by remorse. The whole effort just sends away his best warriors so that they're not there for the final battle that kills him. Maybe if he hadn't, he or one of his sons might have survived. Maybe if he had been willing to let David be king, it would simply have been a son-in-law coming to power instead of the son, who seems sort of okay with the whole idea. But he can't accept it, partially because a king can't accept people rebelling, especially when their fatal flaw has been to not be assertive enough, and partially because he can't, physically can't survive assuming that G-d really has rejected him.

His death is perhaps the only heroic part. He realizes that G-d has entirely left him- no prophets, no priests, no spirit of G-d- and he turns to witchcraft that he feels are so evil that he tried to anihilate them. And he is told that he will lose the war, that he and his sons will all die. Everything he wanted to deny is true, undeniably so. It is with a sort of tragic grandeur that he goes to field, knowing that he will die, determined to do so with the modicum of dignity left to him. He dies alone, killed by himself, possibly finished off and certainly looted by a passing stranger, but I think that his death was as a king.


Halfnutcase said...

I did not realize that the book of my namesake was so, sad, depressing and tormented. I'm really going to have to really study sefer shmuel sometime, I'd been meaning to, but wow.

I never realized just how much, just how it was.

anonym00kie said...

i just started learning sefer shmuel tonight.. so... no spoilers for me :)

Tobie said...

hnc- the first part is pretty cheerful, but once you hit 15 or so, it's just one big ongoing tragedy.

anonym00kie- hope I didn't ruin anything too big ;)

Halfnutcase said...

since you seem so slow getting riled up about something then perhaps you should say something about this: