Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: Consolidation of Power

The Consecration of Aaron, Holman Bible, 1890

Religious and secular authority are combined in a new power structure both in this week’s Torah portion (Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:41) and in the haftarah reading (2 Samuel 6:1-7:17). In the Torah portion, Moses (the prophet and de facto ruler of the Israelites) consecrates his own brother Aaron as the first high priest. In the haftarah, King David installs the Ark of the Covenant in his new capital and serves as a priest.

Both stories include a reminder that the religion of the Israelites is perilous. After Aaron’s four sons are consecrated as priests, two of them bring incense into the tent-sanctuary without permission, and God kills them. (See my post: Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.) When King David is bringing the ark to Jerusalem and one of the ark’s priestly attendants steadies it with his hand, God kills the man instantly. (See my post: Shemini & 2 Samuel: Segregating the Holy.)

Yet the consolidation of religious and secular authority is apparently worth the danger to both Moses and David. In Leviticus, Moses is following God’s instructions for creating the priesthood and inaugurating the tent-sanctuary. But in 2 Samuel, David figures out what to do on his own.

The king before David

David became the second king of Israel after a career as a musician, a warrior—and a rival of the first king, Saul.

Saul was a tall, handsome young man searching ineffectually for his father’s lost donkeys when the prophet Samuel secretly anointed him king. Samuel then told Saul to walk to a meeting of tribal leaders.

Saul Prophesies with the Prophets, sketch by James Tissot, circa 1900

“And … you should come to the Hill of the Gods, where there is a Philistine outpost. And it will happen as you enter the town there, you will encounter a band of neviyim coming down from the hill-shrine, preceded by lute and drum and flute and lyre. And they will be mitnaviym. And the spirit of Y-H-V-H will come over you powerfully, vehitnaviyta along with them, and you will be transformed into another man.” (1 Samuel 10:5-6)

neviyim (נְוִיאִם) = professional ecstatics; prophets. (Singular נָבִיא.)

mitnaviym (מִתְנאבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy, raving, acting like an ecstatic; speaking prophecy.

vehitnaviyta (וְהִתְנַבִּים) = and you will act like an ecstatic.

It happened just as Samuel predicted.

And [Saul] finished meihitnavot, and he entered the hill-shrine. (1 Samuel 10:13)

meihitnavot (מֵהִתְנַבּוֹת) = from raving, from speaking in ecstasy.

The neviyim who came down from the hill-shrine were not prophets like Samuel, but professional ecstatics who were moved by the spirit of a god connected with the hill-shrine.1 Saul was moved by the spirit of Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel. Religion in the hill-country of Canaan at that time seems to have been a mixture of practices prescribed in the Torah and the customs of indigenous polytheists.

After Saul arrived at the meeting, he was chosen king by lot, and then everyone went home. But the next time a belligerent chieftain attacked an Israelite clan, Saul rallied the disorganized Israelite tribes, led a united army to battle, and won. Apparently his experience of raving and/or dancing in public had indeed transformed him.

Saul began a long campaign against the Philistines, who had been migrating in from the Mediterranean coast and capturing the hill country where the Israelites lived. But he did not follow Samuel’s orders closely enough for the prophet’s satisfaction, and Samuel secretly anointed a new king, a boy named David. Saul began having episodes of mental illness, and he hired David to soothe him at those times by playing the lyre. Then David volunteered for single combat with the Philistine giant Goliath. He became a successful and popular warrior and military leader, and Saul became insanely jealous. Saul ordered David’s murder, and David fled.

After King Saul died in a battle against the Philistines, David became the king—first of Judah, then of all the territory of Israel. He captured the southern part of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his new capital, the City of David.

David as king, ecstatic, and priest

Meanwhile, the prophet Samuel has died, and there is no one in the land with his religious authority. King David, always inventive, figures out in this week’s haftarah how to acquire some religious authority himself.

His first idea is to move the Ark of the Covenant into the City of David. Back when the prophet Samuel was a child, the Philistines had captured the ark in battle. But when they brought it home, it destroyed one of their own idols and caused two plagues, so they returned it to Israelite territory. During all of King Saul’s reign, the ark remained near the border in a private Israelite household at Kiryat Yearim. (See my blog post Pedudei & 1 Kings: Is the Ark an Idol?)

Then David and all the troops that were with him got up and went … to bring up from there the ark of God … And they mounted the ark of God on a new cart. (2 Samuel 6:2-3)

And David and the whole house of Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with lyres and with lutes and with drums and with castanets and with cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)

In other words, they were acting like the band of ecstatics that Saul had joined on his way to become king.

19th-century engraving featuring a sedate David with robes instead of eifod

The cart tips, and the attendant walking beside it lays a hand on the ark to steady it. He dies instantly.

And David was afraid of God that day, and he said: “How can the ark of God come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)

King David leaves the ark at a nearby house. But three months later he is told that the household has prospered because of the ark. David returns and escorts the ark the rest of the way to the City of David. Once again he behaves like an ecstatic overcome by the spirit of God, “whirling with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14). This time he wears a priest’s linen tabard (eifod).2 King David is deliberately combining a priest’s garment with ecstatic dancing.

And they brought the ark of God, and they set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it. And David brought up rising-offerings and wholeness-offerings in front of God. And David finished bringing up the rising-offering and the wholeness-offering, and he blessed the people in the name of God of Armies. Then he distributed to all the people, to all the multitude of Israel, to every man and woman, one round loaf of break, and one pan cake, and one raisin cake. And all the people left, each to his house. (2 Samuel 6:17-19)

Burning the animals offered to God is a priest’s job. So is blessing the people in the name of God; the high priest Aaron blesses the people in the inauguration in this week’s Torah portion.3

When David first fled from Saul, the priest Ahimelekh gave him and his men some of the priests’ bread.4 But King David has more resources than a priest, and distributes largesse like a king.

Thus the crowd at the ceremony in the City of David sees David as an ecstatic and a priest as well as a king. Secular power and the religious power of priest and prophet are consolidated in one person.

It is understandable that David wanted to cement his position as king by becoming a religious authority as well. But in today’s heterogeneous world, that kind of consolidation is dangerous.

The idea of “a wall of separation between church and state”5 has been promoted since the 17th century in northern Europe and America as a means to ensure religious freedom. All citizens must obey the laws of the government, but the rules of a particular religion must not become the law of any government.

This hands-off approach would have been unthinkable in the Ancient Near East, where every city and country had its reigning deity. And according to the Hebrew Bible, religion was inseparable from government in Israelite kingdoms. Many of God’s laws concerned relations between individuals. Citizens were defined by their inherited religion, and even resident aliens were required to refrain from work on Shabbat.6 But they were not required to make offerings on Israelite holy days.7

Later in the Hebrew Bible, kings sometimes keep tame prophets to say that God supports the government’s position. But God makes other prophets speak out against the policies of kings.

I am an American and a Jew, and I worry about recent calls for making some of the rules of conservative Christian religions (such as those on abortion) the law of the land. When a government and a particular religion are consolidated in the modern world (as in Iran and Saudi Arabia), the result is usually the oppression of minorities and dissenters.

May we all avoid taking King David’s path.

  1. Later in the bible God wants every hill-shrine (bamah, בָּמָה) destroyed (cf. 1 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 17:9-11, 2 Kings 23:8-20, and Ezekiel 6:1-6). But these shrines pass without comment in the two books of Samuel.
  2. But he apparently omits the linen breeches priests must wear; one of his wives complains later about how he exposed himself (2 Samuel 6:20-22). See my blog post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: a Dangerous Spirit.
  3. Leviticus 9:22.
  4. 1 Samuel 21:4-7.
  5. Thomas Jefferson, 1902, on the First Amendment to the United States constitution.
  6. Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14.
  7. Numbers 9:14.

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