avid is the master of walking the fine line between innocence and manipulation.” In that single sentence regarding King David, we can see both the strengths and failings of The Beginning of Politics, the new study of the biblical book of Samuel by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes.
Halbertal and Holmes have taken one of the most imbricated tales of history—the story of the rise of David and his protean conflicts with his mentor-predecessor-rival King Saul—and sought to deduce certain political themes from it. Some of their observations are deep and resonant. But throughout they struggle with the slippery reality that a great story resists reduction of this sort. Classic narratives defeat analysis by those who view such stories through too narrow a lens. Fairy tales have morals; more complex stories must embrace human contradiction.
The authors pay proper homage to the true hero of the book of Samuel—its author, who they defensibly claim is “the greatest author ever to write in the Hebrew language.” We do not know anything about the author, but, in their view, this individual was an outsider with deep knowledge of the court and an astonishingly insightful observer of human nature and political interaction. The novelistic quality of the story attests as well to the author’s artistry, a combination of gifts rare enough in any age. What makes this text so strong and yet so inconclusive is that David cannot be boiled down to an essence. His artistry and compassion are accompanied by clever ruthlessness. Several times in the story his enemies are killed, but he retains “plausible deniability.” He remains far from the action and then even takes vengeance on occasion upon the slayers of his enemies. David’s hands appear clean even when we suspect they are blood- and mud-soaked.
As we would expect with two such able observers—both are professors of law at NYU, with Halbertal a leading scholar on Maimonides and Holmes an expert in constitutional theory—there are many penetrating observations here about dynasties, their dangers, and the rippling effects of attaining and losing power. Halbertal and Holmes see the paranoia of King Saul less as mental illness and more as political condition: “Manipulating everyone in sight leads the sovereign to distrust those around him, since he will naturally project his own scheming and manipulative style onto his courtiers and retainers.” They offer an acute analysis of the way the paranoid is shaped by schemers around him, because of paranoia’s “fluid malleability, vulnerability to manipulation and tendency to uncontrolled expansion.” In such moments the authors provide a careful reading that offers insight into the workings of power.
But at too many other moments Halbertal and Holmes descend into the pedestrian. They do not have much that is original to say on the subject. They observe that “when it helps consolidate rather than undermine the ruler’s hold on power, justice is much more likely to be done.” Well, yes. Or this: “Where the choice comes down to killing or being killed, the very distinction between the moral and the instrumental, so important to those of us uninvolved in power politics, may effectively disappear.” I would hazard a guess that when it comes to killing or being killed, the distinction between the moral or instrumental disappears for those not involved in power politics
Lover, betrayer, poet and warrior, and so much more, David left a legacy that expands beyond the confines of the house of worship into art, music, literature, and political theory. David is a protean being who deployed the multitude of his gifts skillfully enough to survive and die, unlike most ancient kings, peacefully in his bed. Halbertal and Holmes have given us a read of Samuel heavy on political lessons, but as they themselves recognize, it is just a chip off an inexhaustible block that is the ongoing study of the astonishing ancient king of Israel.