Claude Mariottini caught me in an inadvertent historical “error” (or is it an error? it is accurate according to the MT) when he noticed my reference to King Saul’s “two year” reign in my post, “Saul: The King Who Should Have Never Been.” I hadn’t meant to make a point out of how long his reign actually was historically; while some scholars would agree with the MT and maintain that Saul’s reign was only two years, most would suggest there is a textual error in the MT. My concern in the post, however, was not how long the historical Saul may or may not have reigned, but rather, I was making a point about the anti-Saul polemic in Samuel and especially in Chronicles.
That being said, I find Saul’s problematic regnal formula in 1Samuel 13:1 intriguing. A quick look at the Hebrew text of this verse will quickly highlight the problems with this verse:
Literally translated the text would read: “Saul was son of __ years when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.” There are two issues with this verse.
The most obvious problem with this verse is that there is no number associated with Saul’s age when he took the throne. The Hebrew convention to say someone is twenty-five years, for example, is to say literally, “he was son of twenty and five years.” This is more than likely a textual problem.
The second issue is both grammatical and historical in nature. Historically, most scholars consider two years to be too short for Saul’s reign if you need to fit all the events narrated in 1Samuel. Grammatically, the syntax of the regnal formula is usually an cardinal in absolute state followed by the absolute noun “years”; in this verse you have a cardinal in construct form followed by an absolute noun (e.g., in 2Samuel 2:10 Ishbaal’s two-year reign is found with the expected form: וּשְׁתַּיִם שָׁנִים מָלָךְ). This departure from the standard formula may suggest a textual issue where some numbers dropped out.
When we look to other textual witnesses, there is little help. Codex Vaticanus omits the verse, while some of the Lucianic Greek manuscripts put Saul’s age at thirty, but they reproduce the two year duration of his reign. The Aramaic Targums translate the verse creatively as “Saul was like a one year old with no sins when he became king; then he reigned two years over Israel.” Josephus puts Saul reign as twenty years long in Ant. 10.143, but as forty years in Ant. 6.378 (The latter agrees with Acts 13:21). And modern scholars have suggested a bunch of different numbers (For a good discussion trying to figure out how long Saul’s reign actually was, I encourage you to check out Claude’s post, Rereading 1 Samuel 13:1; Chris Heard over at Higgaion also has a related post dealing with the length of Saul’s reign on the Accordance timeline).
All of the apparent textual issues aside, I still wonder if the MT text may be purposeful — it would certainly fit in with the anti-Saul polemic found in the Deuteronomistic History, Chronicles, and other parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Esther). I recall a course I was in at the University of Toronto with Dr. Stanley D. Walters on 1 and 2 Samuel and I believe he suggested that the reading of the MT was intentional. This is also the perspective of Hertzberg in his commentary on Samuel in the OTL series. He suggests in regards to the awkward syntax of the MT’s two year reign that
the number is given because it was the later view that Saul was actually ‘king’ for only quite a short time (cf. also on 15.1). In fact, the number 40, which is geven both in Josephus and in Acts 13.21 as the length of Saul’s reign, may originally have stood here; as has been said, it would have been replaced by the figure two on dogmatic-historical grounds” (I & II Samuel: A Commentary, p. 103; emphasis mine).
Thus, while historically Saul’s reign was perhaps over a decade or two, in reality, from a theological perspective, his reign was only two years since Yahweh removed the crown from him and “turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (1Chron 10:14). And the MT reflects precisely this theological reading.
The DVD of the first — and last — season of NBC’s biblical drama, Kings, was released yesterday (Michael Green, 2009; IMDb; Buy from Amazon.ca | Amazon.com). The thirteen episode series is a modernized and very creative retelling of the biblical story of the reign of King Saul and the rise to power of King David found in the books of Samuel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.
The series opens with a young man being called into his rustic farmhouse to watch on TV the dedication ceremonies of a new capital city. This young man is David Shepherd. The scene then shifts to what appears to be the royal palace in Shiloh, the new capital of the Kingdom of Gilboa. The city has all the trappings of a modern city, yet is ruled by a benevolent monarch, King Silas Benjamin (played wonderfully by Ian McShane). King Silas addresses his people and forthrightly expounds on God’s blessing upon Gilboa, its new capital Shiloh, and upon his kingship.
The series narrates the rise of a naive David, initially through his heroic blowing up of a “Goliath” tank, and the demise of Silas, and slowly becomes a tyrant who has lost the favour of God.
There is much more I could say about this TV series, such as the clever way it harmonizes the problematic introduction of David to Saul in the Bible (did David first come to Saul’s attention as the boy who defeated Goliath or the young musician whose playing soothed Saul’s tormented spirit — see 1Samuel 16 and 17) in episode 8, or how it portrays the subtle intrigue within the royal court (which is present in between the verses of the biblical text, although most devout readers miss it).
All in all I found the series quite engaging. Its look is lavish, the dialogue is clever and intriguing. It doesn’t follow the story of David and Saul slavishly, but is a very creative adaptation that is both faithful to the contours of the biblical text, yet doesn’t fear to push the envelop in controversial ways (such as the closeted homosexuality of King Silas’s son and heir apparent, Jack Benjamin).
The first season ends with King Silas surviving a failed coup and David fleeing for his life into Gath. Unfortunately, because Kings got cancelled, we will never see how the series presents the eventual rise of David Shepherd to the throne.
Check out this sermon on the phrase “him that pisseth against the wall” from the KJV of 1 Kings 14:10. The phrase also occurs in 1Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1Kings 16:11, 21:21, and 2Kings 9:8. The rendering by the KJV, while perhaps vulgar to modern ears, is a word for word translation of the Hebrew.
While I — along with this preacher — lament modern translations that simply render the Hebrew idiom with the English term “male” I do so for very different reasons. In absolute contrast with the meaning of the passage, the ludicrous message the preacher takes from the phrase is that “real men” pee standing up (and I would add, should never lift the toilet seat!). If this preacher would have cracked the cover of even the most useless Bible Commentary, he would have discovered that the expression is contemptuously comparing males to dogs who “piss against the wall.” Thus, I don’t think modern translations bring out the connotative meaning of the original Hebrew by the non-vulgar translation as “male.” See my post Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations (On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning).
Well, enough preamble, here is the sermon in all its glory:
The most recent volume of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly has an interesting article by David Bosworth entitled, “Evaluating King David: Old Problems and Recent Scholarship” (CBQ 68  191-210). Bosworth examines a number of recent academic biographies of the biblical figure of David and argues that these recent portrayals say more about the modern authors and their methods than the ancient monarch. The monographs that he engages are:
I think that Bosworth makes a number of valid points. Halpern and McKenzie both present a picture of David as a villain by reading between the lines of the text and favouring a propagandistic interpretation. With this approach David becomes a murderous usurper. Steussy’s approach is a bit more balanced, according to Bosworth. Unlike Halpern and McKenzie, she has no interest in uncovering the “real” David, but instead explores the portraits of David throughout the Scriptures — including the book of Psalms. The edited work by Desrousseaux and Vermeylen includes essays that — like Halpern and McKenzie — take a propagandistic reading, while Dietrich’s sophisticated reading is more akin to that of Steussy.
I personally find elements of a propagandistic reading plausible, but I appreciate Bosworth’s point that leaders are often accused of more crimes than they actually commit! Moreover, Bosworth points out the problems with equating apology with indictment and indictment with history — politics of any age are never so simple!
After evaluating modern critics, Bosworth investigates David among his ancient contemporaries. As it turns out, David’s biblical portrait, while similar to ANE royal account, is more complex. As Bosworth concludes, “the text is not as simple as ‘royal propaganda.’ It shows an awareness of the problems involved in evaluating great figures who succeed in establishing positive institutions at the expense of usurping prior institutions” (p. 209).
All in all, Bosworth’s article is worth taking a gander at — as are the books noted above. Of course, when all is said and done, perhaps the “Biblical David” is the only David we can ever recover.
I recently bought on eBay a DVD with a silent film from the early 1900s about Saul and David. The amateur DVD is entitled, “Early Religious Films” and besides the film on Saul and David, it includes two other early Jesus films. Matt Page over at Bible Film Blog purchased the same DVD and has blogged on the two Jesus films here and here, and the Saul and David film here. As Matt noted in his blog entries, identifying these films is a bit challenging. The distributor who made the DVD from old reels doesn’t have any further information on the films included. In particular, a major problem with the Saul and David film is trying to determine whether or not it is one film or two. Matt thinks what is on the DVD is actually two films, a film called “David and Saul” and another film called “The Death of Saul.” Matt’s summary of this film is excellent and I encourage you to read it. I thought I would offer my own slightly different take on this early film about Saul and David.
According to my research, in the early 1900s there were four films made that focused particularly on the reign of Saul, the first king of Israel, and his stormy relationship with David. My primary sources for this information are:
As I piece the various lists together, there are four early films on Saul and David. In chronological order they are:
Saul and David. This early American film was directed by J. Stuart Blackton with the scenario written by Madison C. Peters. Produced and distributed by Vitagraph in 1909. [Noted in Campbell and Pitts, 3; Solomon, 5, 166; IMDb]
The challenge with identifying the film on the DVD is that, based on the intertitles, it appears to be two films spliced together. The first three intertitles include the title “David and Saul” in small print at the top of the frame; then there is a full-frame intertitle introducing “The Death of Saul” while the rest of the intertitles in film have “The Death of Saul” in small print at the top. In addition, while there is remarkable consistency between the two sections in regards to costuming and it appears Louis Ravet plays Saul in both parts, the actor playing Saul’s son Jonathan is different between the two sections.
Matt Page identifies the first part with the 1911/12 film “David and Saul” and the second part with the 1912/13 film “The Death of Saul.” This identification is more than likely correct, since both films are by the same studio. From the discussion in Abel (which is based on the version of the film in the Library of Congress archives), however, it is clear that the “Death of Saul” on the DVD does not include its original beginning. Perhaps that is why excerpts from “Saul and David” were included at the beginning.
What should be clear from this discussion is that figuring out the early history of Bible related films is challenging to say the least!
The origin of the film aside, the version that I have consists of two main sections, Saul and David and the Death of Saul. Here is my breakdown and discussion of the two parts (my divisions are based primarily on the intertitles):
David and Saul
This part of the film may be divided into three sections based on the intertitles. It’s camera work is pretty basic, consisting of almost exclusively of stationary longshots.
David, conqueror of the Philistines, asks Saul to Keep his Promise [to give his daughter Michal in marriage]
This section is based on 1Sam 18:27 and has David returning from battle, being greeted by a portly Jonathan, and being given Michal in marriage by Saul.
Jealous of David’s Popularity, Anger Invades Saul’s Heart.
This section consists of five scenes. The first has Saul in his palace looking out at the crowds who are evidently praising David’s military prowess (inspired by 1Sam 18:7). The second scene, based on 1Samuel 19 (cf. 19:1, 17), shows a confrontation between Saul and a group consisting of Michal, Jonathan, and some others. Saul is evidently asking for the whereabouts of David, but he leaves none the smarter. The third scene shows a dejected looking David and his motley crew of followers at the cave of Adullam (1Sam 22:1-2). Note that Matt Page identifies this scene as “David feigns madness whilst in hiding” based on 1 Sam 21:10-15. The problem with this identification is that the setting is does not appear to be Achish and David doesn’t look too insane (at least he’s not scratching marks on gates or drooling). The fourth scene is very roughly based on 1Sam 22:6-18. It has Saul going to the sanctuary at Nob and confronting Ahimelech the priest about David’s whereabouts (I say only roughly, since in the biblical account the priests are brought to Saul). Ahimelech refuses and is then killed by a nasty looking Doeg the Edomite. The fifth and final scene of this section has Saul and his guard leaving in search of David.
Fatigued, Saul Seeks Repose in the Cave where David was Hidden.
This third and final section appears to be cut off prematurely. It is made up of two brief scenes based on 1Sam 24:1-3 (not 1 Sam 23:24-28 as Matt Page suggests). The first has Saul and his guard coming to a cave in the wilderness of En-gedi and Saul going into the cave to relieve himself (for more on the euphemisms used in this passage see my post here). The second scene shows David and his followers within the cave hiding themselves from the approaching Saul.
The Death of Saul
The second part of the film is, as Matt noted, of a higher quality and shows more innovation in camera work. It includes a pan shot as well as some ambitious outside action shots. It consists of seven parts of various lengths.
Saul Decides that the Priests and Other Inhabitants of the City shall be Slain.
This scene somewhat accurately represents the story in 1Sam 22:11-19 where Saul (in his palace) decides to kill Ahimelech and put the entire city to the sword. Interestingly, Abel, in his discussion of the film, mistakenly identifies the besieged city as Keilah (1Samuel 23). This is quite unlikely, especially considering Saul gave up his expedition against Keilah once he heard that David had fled the city.
Saul Seeks the Witch of Endor.
This section consists of two scenes based on 1Sam 28:3-8. The first has Saul encamped at Gilboa in fear of the Philistines who are assembled against Israel at Shunem. While the second has Saul leaving camp with two men to inquire of the medium at Endor since the Lord did not answer him. This second scene includes a primitive pan shot as the three men are walking towards Endor.
The Witch Evokes the Spirit of Samuel. This section, taken from 1Sam 28:8-25, begins with a scene with Saul and the two men coming to the cave where the witch lives and then there is an interesting close-up bridge shot of Saul going down the narrow tunnel to the cave entrance alone. The scene where the disguised Saul asks the witch to consult Samuel has some interesting camera shots. Samuel appears on the cave wall with a flaming special effect and fade in shot and then later disappears with a straight cut. Samuel’s message to Saul, paraphrased from 1Sam 28:18-19, is included on an intertitle. Interestingly, the next three sections of the film are introduced by intertitles including excerpts of this message.
Thy Armies Shall be Delivered unto the Hands of the Philistines.
This section starts with Saul returning to the Israelite encampment, cuts to an amazing scene of the Philistine army rushing the Israelites, and ends with Saul and his army rushing out to meet them.
Thy Sons shall Perish. This brief scene includes a son of Saul coming back from battle and dying in Saul’s arms (if this is Jonathan, then it is a different actor from the first film as noted above), Saul lamenting and then falling on his sword.
They Sword shall Avenge the God of Israel. This final scene shows Saul dying — with, of course, the sword handle appropriately protruding from his belly!
There are a number of noteworthy things about this early film. First, as perhaps is clear from the various departures from the biblical storyline, that even in the early days of cinema films were interpretations of the biblical story. The scenario writer and director crafted their story with liberty to modify the biblical version as they thought appropriate. Second, what the film chose to focus on is interesting. The attention given to the massacre of the city of Nob and the visit with the witch of Endor likely stem from a number of things, including the simple desire to show off some of the special effects. Finally, I have to concur with Matt Page when he notes, “the most successful biblical films have been those that use less familiar material to challenge our pre-conceptions, or are at least more concerned with trying to explore their protagonist’s motives.” In this regard, I found this film to be quite intriguing.