< Back to front page Text size +

Unjust Biblical deaths

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 23, 2009 02:12 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Ian McShane, in "Kings," NBC's quasi-Biblical tale

Motivated in part by the arrival of David Plotz's "Good Book" and partly by publicity for the NBC series "Kings," I've been reading the Old Testament -- specifically Samuel 1 and 2. Plotz, the editor of Slate, set himself the task of reading the entire Bible and recording his reactions after realizing how little he knew about Biblical history. Kings, meanwhile, which stars Ian McShane -- the formidable Al Swearengen in "Deadwood" -- is a reworking of the story of the Israelite kingdom, reset in a parallel-universe New York City.

We all know God works in mysterious ways, but I find myself making pencil marks next to especially capricious executions and other punishments, then trying to figure out what ethical system might justify them.

Consider this case: Saul, David's predecessor as king, became jealous of David shortly after he slew Goliath. Tension grows between the two and David finally joins the Philistines to make war against Saul and the Israelites. (It has been decreed that David will soon dethrone Saul.) Overwhelmed in the attack, Saul decides to fall on his sword rather than surrender.

Soon after, a man comes to David to report that Saul has died. "How do you know?" David asks. The man explains that he had come upon Saul, who had somehow survived the self-impaling. But Saul was in such agony that he begged the man to kill him. So the man complied, convinced Saul would die shortly in any case,. (Samuel 2, 1: 7-10.)

David then orders the man killed on the spot, on grounds of having killed someone who was once "the Lord's Anointed." (Samuel 2, 1: 14-16.)

It was the Lord's Anointed, however, on the brink of death, who asked that he be nudged over the edge. As a foot soldier, faced with such a request, would you 1) obey Saul?; or 2) disobey him, prolonging his agony? The man chose "1" and got the death penalty.

Perhaps it is trivial to raise issues of "fairness" in relation to bit players in a narrative of such grand sweep. And maybe the man was a mere invention of one of the authors of Samuel. But still. When you dealt with Al Swearengen, you might end up with your throat slit, too -- but at least you'd know why, as you lay there in your own pool of blood.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

2 comments so far...
  1. Don't miss Judges 19! (It's not clear what role Jahweh takes in the proceedings.)

    Posted by R J Keefe March 23, 09 05:11 PM
  1. I recommend Robert Pinsky's "The Life of David."

    Posted by jhm March 24, 09 09:14 AM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


Browse this blog

by category