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.
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