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Saul, Uzziah, and the Hasmoneans: Part I

July 12, 2010

This is a longer post, and so I have broken it into two sections. The first section will marshal evidence for a particular view of what exactly happens to Saul to cause him to lose his kingship. The second section will discuss how Christians might apply this to ideas of authority more broadly.


1 Samuel 13 contains what appears, at first glance, to be a strange tale about how Saul, newly crowned king, loses the favor of God that led him to be crowned. Saul has been crowned in Chapter 10, not particularly long before this passage in terms of pages, but he has, by Chapter 13, already fought an important battle. The implications of the opening verse of Chapter 13 also seem to be that Saul reigned, or had then reigned, for some time. Also in between Saul’s coronation and Chapter 13 is Chapter 12, where Samuel steps down from his position as judge over Israel. When Chapter 13 begins Saul is has established himself as Israel’s sole monarch.

This said, the main action in Chapter 13 concerns a battle against the Philistines. Saul has gone to war but has, as would have been customary among most ancient armies, waited for a priest to perform sacrifices and bless the army before actually engaging in combat. This priest is Samuel, functionally the high priest, and Samuel is later than even the seven days he had said it would take him to meet the army, and so Saul performs the sacrifices himself. Samuel arrives just as Saul is finishing up and delivers an oracle of destruction. The exact intent is unclear, but perhaps unimportant, since either reading means that Saul will not establish a dynasty (whether or not Saul loses the kingship himself at this point or not).

Secular historians have had a number of takes on this story, and I intend to work within a secular framework for the rest of this section, and address what a Christian reading adds in the next one. I am doing this primarily because I find many of the reconstructions to be shortsighted, and I wish my readers to understand the problems with these ideas, which are now distributed in a number of public media. The first set of problematic reconstructions depend on a fairly simple idea: the stories of Samuel, Saul, and David are fabricated. They may have started with a legendary name, but they certainly didn’t start with any real information. (This idea generally presumes that these stories were first written down during the Babylonian Exile.) I find this idea to be rather odd. Certainly we should expect that the Israelites had stories about their national origin. Equally certainly we should expect that they would not willingly accept someone replacing these stories entirely. We could believe, perhaps, that kings could be inserted between legendary figures and stories made up for them, but it is hard to believe that there was not a legend (true or not) of the first king.

This leaves us only with the reconstructions which assume that the authors or editors of the Old Testament had, at least, pre-existing stories of David and Saul with which they had to work. These reconstructions often assume a fairly simple story: Saul began the monarchy, but when the monarchy was new another man (David) successfully usurped the throne. Since David began the Judean monarchical dynasty the Judean writer-editors of the story cleaned the story up to make this all okay. The incident with Samuel exists to show that it was okay for David to usurp the throne because God wanted him to do so.

I will assert that even for an atheist it makes more sense to believe that the Saul-Samuel conflict is historical, as is the story of Samuel anointing David as an opposing king. My evidence is as follows.

First, Samuel was the former leader of Israel. We might well expect there to be clashes between the old and new leaders, especially as Samuel made it clear in the run-up to Saul’s coronation that both he and (he says) God are unhappy with the monarchy. We are even privy to some of Samuel’s dialog with God where God tells Samuel that the people are not rejecting Samuel as their leader but rather God Himself. Clearly Samuel has not departed from leadership quietly and willingly. Saul has just usurped Samuel’s job a second time in 1 Samuel 13, and this time he does not have the popular mandate to do so. There’s ample motive for the conflict.

Second, Samuel represents a power block within Israel, namely the priests. Priests in Near Eastern societies were often aristocracy, and could use this power against kings. The power of the priesthood derived from the function of the priests. As 1 Samuel 13 demonstrates the priest was believed to be required so that the troops might ask their god to fight for them. Many other parts of daily life might require the priests to offer sacrifices, proclaim forgiveness, or judge issues of cleanliness or certain sorts of guilt. Even sanitation workers (who are not generally respected for their position but, like priests, perform an essential daily function) have shut down modern metropolises in strikes, and priests were capable of wielding additional power against the king in the form of religious statements against him.

Indeed, some three hundred years before the time of Samuel, Saul, and David the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten attempted some large-scale religious reforms that emphasized the god Aten at the expense of Amun-Re and the priests of Amun-Re. Some historians believe that this was actually the point of the reforms, to undermine this powerful priesthood. Akhenaten succeeded, perhaps in part because the pharaohs had already dealt to some extent with priestly power by declaring themselves living gods. (Most Near Eastern rulers appear to have claimed to be gods, the sons of gods, or at least the high priest, which would give them some religious counter-fire against the priesthood.) However, Akhenaten’s successors were weak, and his most famous successor (and probably son) Tutankhaten is known to history by the name he adopted two years into his reign, Tutankhamun. It appears that the young king (he would have been in elementary school in our day and age when he took the throne) could not rule effectively against the entrenched anti-Atenist forces, and that his name change and reversal of Akhenaten’s reforms were meant to placate or befriend the priesthoods of the old gods, probably especially that of Amun-Re.

If Saul was attempted to weaken the priesthood by taking some of its power for himself we might expect to see additional evidence of this, and indeed we do. In 1 Samuel 22 we see that the priesthood has aided David against Saul, and Saul orders the slaughter of an entire priestly village. (This also explains the coronation of David, as a counter-king who will respect the priests.) What’s more, there are at least two other incidents in Israel’s history in which kings attempt similar things against religious resistance, and one incident in which the priests help overthrow a monarch they dislike.

The first story is in 2 Kings 15 and 2 Chronicles 26. These both record the events of the life of the Judean king known either as Azariah or Uzziah. The account in Kings is much shorter, but both Kings and Chronicles agree that Uzziah was a leper when he died. Chronicles includes an explanation for how Uzziah became leprous. The claim is that Uzziah “when he had become strong” became prideful and entered the Temple to offer sacrifices in a manner that was only allowed for priests. The high priest argued with him, insisting that it was not fitting for anyone not of the priestly lineage to do this, and when Uzziah pushed the issue he was struck with leprosy. (Whether or not our hypothetical historian believes this story is immaterial: someone wrote it down, and so someone, either the original players or the fabricator of the story, thought this was a credible and serious conflict.)

The other story of monarch-priesthood conflict comes from between the Old and New Testaments, and involves no miracles to disturb the secular historian. Around 160 BC the Maccabees rose up against their Seleucid rulers and established a free (or at least free-er) Israel. The new ruling dynasty, the Hasmoneans, appointed themselves to be the high priests as well as monarchs. The origins of the Pharisees are also found here: they are the group that opposed this union on religious grounds.

In 2 Kings 11 we find the final story. The usurper-queen Athaliah begins a purge aimed at wiping out any legitimate male heirs, and the priesthood colludes with several other factions to rescue and hide one of these heirs, Joash, from Athaliah. The man who seems to be running this plot is Jehoiada, a priest, who eventually decides the boy is old enough to rule (he’s eight, but this judgment may have more to do with making sure the boy survives the diseases of early childhood than any actual fitness for rule) and gathers the other players to plan and then execute (successfully) a coup against Athaliah.

The story of Saul should then seem simple and straightforward. Saul, the new king, sees that the priesthood is an important and potentially threatening power block. He acts to undermine its power by usurping part of its leader’s (Samuel’s) role. This backfires dramatically when Samuel (and, it seems, much of the rest of the priesthood) backs an opposing king, David. This even explains other strange things about the David-Saul story, such as David’s unwillingness to kill Saul, the Lord’s anointed. In doing so David the usurper avoids setting a precedent that he who kills the king becomes the king. He also strongly establishes the idea that the monarchy gains its legitimacy from God, a huge power boost to the priests. (This will perhaps remind some readers of debates in medieval Europe about whether kings were self-coronating or if they must be crowned by the Pope.) Christian or atheist the story seems clear, and it is about the power and independence of the priesthood.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2010 4:29 pm

    Cool historical perspective! One connection I couldn’t make, what does putting Joash in a leadership role have to do with childhood ailments?

  2. Eric permalink
    July 14, 2010 5:05 pm

    Here’s my thinking:

    At age eight Joash is not fit to rule. Therefore, if you are OK putting him on the throne at eight why not two? One reason might be that, at age eight, he’s a lot less likely to die before producing an heir. A lot of childhood mortality happens before age five.

    Now, something else might be at play. Perhaps Jehoiada requires seven years to gather support. Perhaps Athaliah’s reign really began to come apart seven years in. But I think that even there the fact that an eight year old will probably survive to produce and heir is important. After all, Jehoiada wasn’t just gathering support against Athaliah but for Joash, and nobody wants to bet on someone who has a fifty percent chance of dying from diarrhea before establishing a dynasty.


  1. Saul, Uzziah, and the Hasmoneans: Part II « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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