Was King Saul a wife-beater?

I know the title sounds like a tabloid headline.  But, I have my reasons for asking.

There is a difference between hearing the exact words of a biblical character and hearing the voice of that character. As we have just seen in the series of posts about Stephen Cook, Deuteronomy revives the voice of Moses at a much later date. Something like that seems to be going on in the Gospel of John with its Jesus-discourses as well.

But for the purpose of getting closer to actual history the speeches in the Bible, which may not convey the exact words of a character, sometimes help us see what likely actually happened.

I have already talked about Samuel and his cutting down the Amalekite king, Agag. The narrative makes it about Saul failing to carry out the ban and kill all the Amalekites and all their cows.  As Cook showed, the ban is sometimes symbolic for the editors of the historical books. Killing all the Amalekites (and their cows) has become a call for a much later generation not to tolerate non-Yahwist religion.

So what really happened? If Samuel killed Agag in real history, the voice of Samuel that we hear in 1 Samuel 15:33 points to retribution as the actual motive. The verse may not be Samuel’s exact words, but, since it provides a more plausible motive for the execution than the narrative it is embedded in, it has a better claim to reflect history.

I would apply this also to the voice of King Saul that we hear in 1 Samuel 20:30 where he calls Jonathan’s mother a “perverse, rebellious woman.” It is precisely because this is out of left field, so to speak, that I suspect there is something really historical about this–perhaps the authentic voice of Saul.

Ahinoam was Saul’s wife (1 Samuel 14:50), probably the mother of both Jonathan and Michal.

An Ahinoam was an early wife of David.  She was a Jezreelite (1 Samuel 25:43).  She was the mother of Amnon, David’s first son (2 Samuel 3:2).  She along with sister wife, Abigail, was abducted by the Amalekites (1 Samuel 30:5).

Ahinoam is not the name of anyone else in the Bible.

Jon Levenson has argued that the two Ahinoams are the same  (Jon D. Levenson, “1 Samuel 25 as Literature and History,” CBQ 40 [1978] 27).  He pointed to 2 Samuel 12:8 where the prophet Nathan, speaking to David for God, says:

 I gave you your master’s house, and put your master’s wives into your arms (NET Bible).

Objections to this might be that if Ahinoam was Jonathan’s mom, she would be too old for David and that, since David married Michal, he would have been married to both mother and daughter.  But this was probably not too kinky for the time and culture, for example, some of the Egyptian royal marriages.

Consider that one of the purposes of royal marriage was to cement political alliances. David’s Ahinoam was from Jezreel.  Jezreel was a political entity loyal to Saul (2 Samuel 2:9).  Israel Finkelstein (The Forgotten Kingdom) has argued that Jezreel was the key to power in the northern Levant both for Labayu in the Amarna period and a few centuries later for Saul.  So (and we can only conjecture) was Saul’s marriage to Ahinoam part of the way Jezreel joined Saul’s kingdom?  It is striking that David from Judah would marry someone from Jezreel.  Her defection to David would have been a blow to Saul.

Another weird thing about royal sex and marriage was that rebel leaders sometimes slept with the king’s women as an act of rebellion or empowerment.  Look at 2 Samuel 3:7 and, especially 2 Samuel 16:22:

So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and Absalom had sex with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel (NET Bible).

If I was making an HBO film about this, I would have Absalom do them all in a single orgy, rather than separately.  Maybe he did.  (I recently streamed HBO’s Rome).

My point here is that Saul’s rant to Jonathan may be the actual voice of a man stung by a wife’s betrayal.

There seem to be both manic and depressive episodes in Saul’s life.  As a historian I would not try to diagnose Saul over 3,000 years of time.  But if I was a historical novelist, I would write Saul as prone to domestic abuse.  I would write David as someone who saved the mother of his friend from a dangerous man by putting her under the protection his house through marriage.

The most likely thing historically, however, is that there was a power play involved and little romance or chivalry (against this, romantics might point to David’s heroic rescue of Abigail and Ahinoam in 1 Samuel 30:18).  It is possible that Ahinoam really was a “perverse, rebellious woman”.  Alternatively, Saul’s slut shaming may reflect the dark side of his own personality.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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