23 April 2010

The Robe of Power: An Example of the Literary Genius of the Bible Writer, Samuel

By Timothy S. Wilkinson


My earlier blog discussed the genius of the authors of the Bible, a genius that is sometimes not apparent because it is lost in translation. Over the course of the next few blogs I wanted to share some of the literary elements of the David story that have impressed me. I hope that they might help some of my readers to look at the work of Samuel, Nathan, and other Bible writers in a new way.

Samuel, in particular, was skilled at layering complex metaphors into his writing. The first one of these that we will consider is the me’il: a cloak or coat. Samuel (and his successor, Nathan) uses this as a symbol of authority and rulership throughout Samuel’s life—and even after it.

The garment is introduced in 1 Samuel chapter 2 verse 19, where we learn that every year Samuel’s mother, Hannah, brings him a new meil woven by her own hands. The verse first points out that Samuel wore an “ephod”—an apronlike garment worn by the priests and Levites when they were serving at the Tabernacle. This is Samuel the Levite, the Prophet-to-be. But he is also Samuel the child, and his mother’s annual weaving of a “cloak” for him reminds us of both her sacrifice and the struggle that Samuel faced all his life: his dual identity as a hero and leader and a simple man plagued by his own doubts and fears.

In chapter 15, verse 27 Samuel’s childhood “cloak” has now become his robe of office. After the Prophet denounces Israel’s new king, Saul, Saul makes a desperate attempt to get Samuel to help him save face before the people. He grabs Samuel’s meil and, as Samuel walks away, tears it. Once again it appears as a symbol: the tearing of the cloak becomes the tearing away of royal authority from Saul. (We also get a glimpse of Samuel’s personality here in his wit at immediately turning this event into the basis for a poetic denunciation).

The next appearance of the cloak is in chapter 18 verse 4. Following David’s defeat of the giant Goliath, Saul’s firstborn son Jonathan (the crown prince of Israel) offers his meil to David. Once again it is a symbol of rulership. Jonathan’s bestowal demonstrates his willing transfer of his rights as crown prince to David.

Samuel and Saul’s estrangement in chapter 15 began with Samuel’s using a meil as a symbol of Saul’s rights as ruler. In chapter 19 verse 24 Saul comes in pursuit of David, chasing him to the School of the Prophets run by Samuel in Samuel’s hometown of Ramathaim. Samuel defends his School with supernatural power, and Saul strips himself naked and writhes on the ground for a day and a night, humiliated. This becomes the ultimate fulfillment of Samuel’s prophetic statement: Saul strips himself of his royal garments, or divests himself of his kingship.

In chapter 24, Saul is using his army to hunt David through the wilderness, determined to find the young man and kill him. But David has his own army, a gathering of malcontents whom he has welded into a deadly guerrilla army. While Saul “eases nature” in a cave, David sneaks up and cuts off the “skirt” of Saul’s meil. (1 Samuel 24:6) David almost immediately regrets the action. David’s remorse over his cutting off the skirt of Saul’s cloak is more understandable when we now see the meil as a symbol of kingship. David has here “cut away” the kingship without divine authorization.

In confronting Saul over the above incident, David now uses the scrap of cloth he had cut from Saul’s me’il as a symbol of his own power over Saul—yet another example of “he who has the cloak has the power.” (1 Samuel 24:12)

Saul, having chosen to take a firm stand against Jehovah’s anointed one, David, spirals toward his ultimate destruction. Earlier in his reign he had instigated a campaign against the spirit mediums, or witches, who were operating in Israel. Now, in a desperate attempt to learn what to do (since Jehovah will no longer answer him), Saul goes to the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:8). This is the penultimate instance of clothing as a symbol of rulership. Just moments before learning of his own impending death and the final transfer of power to his enemy, David, Saul removes his clothing yet again in order to put on a disguise and avoid being recognized by one of the witches he had condemned. Just a few verses later (vs. 14), the “ghost” of Samuel supposedly appears. (Clearly this is not actually Samuel’s ghost—whether it is a malevolent spirit or simply the illusion of a clever hoaxer is a subject for another time). But “Samuel” is identified by—of course—his prophet’s meil.

Chapter 31 records Saul’s death at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. In verse 9 he is once again divested of his clothing, lying naked in his final defeat.

I do not believe that Samuel and Nathan manipulated the truth to include such interesting and complex metaphor. They developed this account in the way that every brilliant writer does—by finding and highlighting thematic elements that helped them to convey the subtext of their work. In upcoming posts, I will discuss further examples of their literary skill in putting together a story that has captivated readers for 3000 years and provided the basis for one of the greatest legends of all time.

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