10 November 2010

The Madness of King Saul: Mental Illness in Ancient Times

by Timothy S. Wilkinson 

               Hollywood loves stories about demon possession; it has become a mainstay of horror movies. The Exorcist, the Exorcism of Emily Rose, Paranormal Activity, and The Amityville Horror all purport to depict actual cases of demon possession.  Emily Rose is based on the experiences of Anneliese Michel; The Exorcist on a patient with the pseudonym Robbie Manheim; The Amityville Horror on the Lutz family of Amityville, New York.
                Despite Hollywood’s assertions, though, all three of these famous cases are highly controversial—and not just among skeptics. Independent legal and scientific inquiries into all three share a common theme:  in all three cases, doctors and researchers have claimed that mental illness, not possession, was the culprit.
                Of course, some believe this diagnosis is based primarily on a refusal to believe in the supernatural. It should be noted, though, that many of the people who question the validity of these accounts do believe in demonic possession—they just didn’t see clear evidence of it in these cases.
                People have been confusing mental illness and possession for millenniums. It wasn’t until the time of Hippocrates that “doctors” even began to consider “madness” as a disease. The Greeks identified melancholy, hysteria, and phobias in their medical literature, but well into medieval times it was commonly believed that madness was the work of malevolent (or sometimes benevolent) spirits.
                Long before this, though, Bible writers were describing the symptoms of mental illness in amazing detail. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. In the book of Daniel chapter four Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of the greatest empire in the world, was struck with madness that sent him from his throne into the forests and fields where his hair and nails grew long and “vegetation he began to eat just like bulls” (Daniel 4:33). Modern doctors would call this lycanthropy, defined as the sickness of people who believe themselves to be changed into an animal, and who imitate the voice or cries, the shapes or manners of the animal.
                But an even more fascinating case, in my opinion, is that of King Saul. Saul belonged to a prominent Israelite family. When he was chosen as king he was also shy—he hid among the supply wagons to avoid being brought before all the people and crowned. Initially he was a good king—although his shyness seemed to continue to manifest itself in that he refused to live the life of a king, instead remaining in his family home and plowing his fields himself.
                By the time his successor, David, entered the picture, though, Saul had changed. He began to suffer fits of depression. His advisors recommended music therapy, and a teenaged David was brought in to play the harp for him. Shortly thereafter, David became a national hero when he slew the Philistine giant Goliath, and at that point Saul’s madness became much worse.
                When David returned from another battle against the Philistines, Saul interpreted the people’s celebration of David’s victory as a personal attack. Twice while David was trying to soothe the king with the harp, Saul attempted to kill the young man by throwing a spear at him (1 Samuel 18:11). Saul believed David was after his throne, and hatched elaborate plots to have him killed. When these failed, Saul again attacked David physically, and the young warrior fled from the palace into the wilderness.
                Saul’s son, Jonathan, recognized his father’s madness for what it was and confronted him about it. Saul’s response was to accuse Jonathan of being in league with David—and even to throw a spear at his own son one evening during dinner.
                Saul now began to hunt David through the wilderness, intent on destroying him and anyone who allied themselves with him. This might seem understandable for a king who believed his throne was in jeopardy, but what is telling is the strangeness of Saul’s attitudes during this period. Gathering his followers at his home in Gibeah, Saul begins to whine about his predicament: “You have conspired, all of you, against me; and there is no one disclosing it to my ear when my own son concludes a covenant with [David], and there is no one of you having sympathy for me and disclosing to my ear that my own son has raised up my own servant against me as a lier in ambush the way it is this day” (1 Samuel 22:8).  Next, he has an entire town of priests and their families slaughtered for daring to help David—but then, when David confronts Saul (yelling down at him from a mountaintop in the wilderness), Saul bursts into tears and begs David’s forgiveness.
                Some time later, David has the chance to kill Saul and refrains; in the exchange between the men Saul once again bursts into tears, blesses David, and tells him that, with God’s help, David will be successful in taking over the king’s throne. He follows up this admission by continuing to hunt David through the wilderness.
                In the end, King Saul fell upon his own sword after a battle. But looking over his actions, it is not hard to identify symptoms characteristic of paranoia. The official “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” of the US mental health industry gives the following as symptoms of paranoia:
  • unfounded suspicions; believes others are plotting against him/her
  • perceives attacks on his/her reputation that are not clear to others, and is quick to counterattack
  • maintains unfounded suspicions regarding the fidelity of a spouse or significant other
Additional symptoms can include dramatic mood swings, melancholy, extreme anger or fear, and the belief that anyone who disagrees with the sufferer is part of a plot or conspiracy against him.
All of these are manifest in King Saul. In recording these details, the Bible writer Samuel may have inadvertently provided us with the first diagnosis of paranoia.

02 November 2010

There Is the King Sitting In the Gate: City Gates In Bible Times

“There Is the King Sitting In the Gate”
City Gates in Bible Times
by Timothy S. Wilkinson

The Eternal Throne Chronicles take readers through many of the wars and battles fought by the nation of Israel in the years leading up to and during King David's reign. In trying to accurately capture the experience of warriors during that time, it is helpful to get a clear picture of the fortifications relied upon by ancient armies.
          The cities of ancient Palestine, like all cities for thousands of years, relied on massive walls for their defense. The city’s gates were the weakest point in its defenses and so, logically, they had as few as possible. Most early and all smaller cities had only one. The idiom “to take possession of the gate” meant to conquer or overcome. Gates were such an important element of defense that much superstition surrounded their construction among the pagan nations. Canaanites frequently offered a human sacrifice when putting up a gate.
                Biblical descriptions and archaeological discoveries have shed light on ancient gates. The 107th Psalm describes doors plated with copper and held closed with crossbars of iron; this would help to reduce the risk of fire. Babylon apparently had such gates (Isaiah 25:2). Some ancient Syrian cities have been found with gates of stone, solid slabs more than ten feet high.
                As siege equipment and techniques developed, the designs of walls and gates improved to match. Kings built gates with overlapping walls  in which two gates, one inside the other, formed a courtyard between them. Alternatively they would put walls at right angles to each other to form a similar courtyard; these were arranged so that entering attackers would have to turn left, exposing their right (shieldless) side to attack. Often the passage through the vestibule would have as many as six pilasters arranged in parallel sets, narrowing the passageway at three places. Rooms formed in the corners were used as guard chambers. This courtyard served a dual purpose: it forced attackers to penetrate two gates and it allowed defenders to dump hot oil on and shoot arrows at attackers from the walls all around them.
                Typically towers were constructed on either side of gates to bulwark the fortifications and and to serve as lookout posts. Sometimes small, door-sized gates (called posterns) were installed near the gate. These gave easier access to the city during peacetime, and allowed the defenders to release attacking sorties during a siege.
                The shade provided by the walls made the gate a good place for public assembly and public proclamation. They often had rooms in the walls for merchants to stay in. People gathered at the gate for legal judgments, to conduct business, and to hear the latest news (Deuteronomy 16:18; 2 Samuel 19:8).
                The great city of Jerusalem had a number of famous gates that helped define the parts of the city.
Sheep Gate
This gate was rebuilt by High Priest Eliashib, named because sheep and goats were brought through it—either for sacrifice or to bring them to the nearby market. It is believed that the gate was located near the temple.
Fish Gate
Hezekiah built this gate next to the fish market. This became the passage through which Tyrian fishermen brought their wares.
Gate of the Old
Apparently this was one of the original entrances to the city.
Gate of Ephraim (Nehemiah 8:16)
This guarded one of the northern entrances to the city, so people leaving through it would be traveling in the direction of the tribe of Ephraim’s territory. Near this gate was a large public square that was filled with tents and temporary shelters when the people celebrated the Festival of Booths.
Corner Gate (2 Chronicles 26:9)
This gate was, of course, located at one of the corners in the wall. Apparently it was near the Tower of the Bake Ovens, where the city’s commercial bakers made their wares.
Valley Gate
This marked the exit from the city that led to the great garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehinnom).  Jerusalem’s inhabitants carried or carted their refuse to this valley and tossed it into smoldering fires that were fed continuously with sulfur and lime. From this constantly burning vale comes the word gehenna, one of the words translated as “hell” in the King James Version of the Bible.
 Gate of the Ash-heaps
Alternatively known as the Dung Gate or the Gate of Potsherds, the latter probably because here fragments of broken pottery were ground to make cement commonly used for plastering water cisterns. The Valley of Hinnom and the spring at En-rogel are near this gate, and both of them were known for their high-quality clay deposits. Many scholars believe that this was the center of the potter’s industry. Just across the Valley of Hinnom from this gate was the now-famous Potter’s Field, purchased by the Pharisees with the 30 pieces of silver returned to them by a remorseful Judas. This was a busy gate, since it guarded the primary route to the spring at En-rogel where many citizens went for water.
Water Gate (Nehemiah 8)
Not far from the temple area was the spring of Gihon. Inhabitants of Jerusalem going to the spring for water would pass through the Water Gate. Here Ezra congregated the people to hear a reading of the Torah and to build shelters and tents to celebrate the Festival of Booths.
Horse Gate
Our modern view of gates is shaped by the huge examples found in late Medieval castles (or at least in Hollywood portrayals of those castles). Gates, though, were made as small as was practical—a narrower opening was more easily defended. The Horse Gate was a wider gate designed to accommodate the passage of teams of horses, chariots, and wagons. This gate gave access to the palace and temple, likely destinations for mounted travelers.
Inspection Gate
This was also known as the Gate of Muster and the Gate of the Guard. It seems to be a location from which soldiers and armies sallied forth; its name also obviously indicates that it provided room for commanders to inspect their assembled troops before marching.