Politics in the Hands of Sinners

The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes Review
D. Kyle Trowbridge

D. Kyle Trowbridge

Contributor at Christianity Now
Kyle is currently a student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, pursuing a Masters in Theological Studies. His main interests are located around the intersections and cross-tensions of 20th century ecclesiastical, political, and cultural theologies. He and his wife, Trena, live in Indianapolis with their two dogs, Paxton and Leland, and their cat, Sameya. They are members of Northminster Presbyterian Church.
D. Kyle Trowbridge

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During the turning year of World War II, 1943, Canadian historian George Norris Cochrane addressed conference goers with these words: “It is a weakness of contemporary political liberalism that it shrinks so painfully from the problem of power. And it is precisely this weakness which has exposed liberal democracies to the crisis of our time, a crisis from which they can escape only as they succeed in facing the duty of making a fresh analysis of this—perhaps the most baffling—problem of human life.”[1] Power still eludes much of our popular and democratic conversations surrounding politics, which instead is dominated by rights-talk, fairness, “democracy,” “populism,” or the last tweet from the President. And though Cochrane makes this claim towards political liberals, and I myself am one of those too, the same may be true of Christians, and of all theological bends. My hunch is that power—and an honest assessment of it—gets in the way of our idealized views of how the world should look and operate, or what it should transform into. But there are stories in our own tradition that understands the perversity of real, actual existing politics, and we can stand to learn from them.

In their brilliant book The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes offer up an interpretation of the text as one of the first analysis of political realism. The author of Samuel, they suggest, “didn’t write a political book…but rather a book about politics.”[2] Halbertal and Holmes have sought to untangle partisan interpretations to advance a thesis that focuses “instead on its copious insights into the nature of political power in general.”[3] Both authors teach law at New York University, while Halbertal is also a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and professor of law at IDC Herzliya. They have constructed a tight, creative, and accessible read for an academic publication. It is a book that seminaries could immediately assign, but it is also accessible enough for many churches to use in their adult education courses.

The chapters are divided by specific political questions. First, how competition of power between Saul and David leads to chaos. Chapter two discusses how paranoia and fear are often driving factors that lead to sovereign or state violence against a civilian or civilians, how the chain of command makes moral judgements about fault and guilt difficult, especially when we are talking about political killing or war. And chapters three and four describe the difficulties of balancing familial and political loyalties when the only guarantor of political power is one’s lineage and bloodline.

Halbertal and Holmes make it clear that the author of the book of Samuel isn’t writing a partisan telling of the story. The mysterious author takes no sides. It’s neither a partisan polemic nor an idealistic critique. This is a “book about politics in which its author’s distance from all political factions allowed for the creation of a genuine masterpiece of political thought woven ingeniously into a naturalistic retelling of dramatic historical events.”[4] For this to be a book about on-the-ground politics, God’s presence is minimized, though he does play a role in the storytelling. The author of Samuel doesn’t try to look at the events from a Gods-eye view or by telling the story as if he was God: God finds a place within a new order that God begrudgingly accepts against his will. Samuel is about the temporal and messy nature of actual-existing politics. It’s not about God’s will, the Kingdom of God on Earth, not about God as countervailing force against human authority, nor an analysis of the eschaton. It’s a telling of the political desires, strategies, actions, and moral dilemmas of human politics. This new political theology in the book of Samuel, “the king is not a God,” replaced both the ancient Near Eastern “the king is a God,” along with the Hebraic “God is the king.” Humans wanted monarchy over divine rule, God granted their wish, and humans received the costs and consequences that bore out of it.[5] In this review, I will highlight two major themes: Saul’s coming to power and his eventual downfall, and David’s killing of Uriah—and the problem of the chain of command.

In the first chapter, we are introduced to a dilemma plaguing Saul, the first significant political figure in the Bible, per the authors. Saul has recently been chosen to be king, a responsibility he never coveted. But the people demanded it nonetheless, and God told Samuel to anoint Saul as the new king of Israel. This is a story of transformation, and the degrading effects of power on the political psychosis. Saul never wanted to be king. Saul never sought the power. Power chose him. And in the process, power transformed Saul. After defeating the Ammonites, a military victory that cemented Saul’s power, he forms a standing army and permanent courts, “he would be no longer found plowing his fields.”[6] In the process, Saul wins over the wary Samuel, who then anoints Saul for the third time—a blessing shared by the people, by the prophet, and the new king. It is here where we begin to see how power manifests itself in Saul’s personality. As Halbertal and Holmes note, “whether attained by craft or by chance, great power has a way of defining the person who wields it.”[7] And their rivals, too.

Though Samuel eventually anointed Saul, he never bought into the young king’s legitimacy, and continued to spring traps for his downfall. Over time these traps—most importantly the last, God’s rejection of Saul’s legitimacy—wither away at Saul’s confidence. He no longer had God’s backing. All he possessed was the power of the office, and the office is all that he identified with. And so, when his rival David emerges, Saul thinks only of the consequences of losing power, and not the ethical question of whether killing David is right or not. Suspicion, rivalry, and the desire to maintain power is what the authors want us to focus on, and the selfish desires that arise from it. When it comes to rivals, the refusal to follow moral rules and legitimate political methods, “seekers and wielders of sovereign authority end up using the power they have been granted for the welfare of the community for the hollow purpose of clinging to political power for its own sake.”[8] Such is the story of Saul. A farmer who never wanted to be king ends up a moral monster because he was corrupted by power, became paranoid, isolated, and fearful, and never bought into the finitude of his own knowledge and authority.

Throughout the next chapter, Halbertal and Holmes deal directly with David’s murder of Uriah, and the political problem of the diffusing of responsibility. Sovereigns, kings, prime ministers, and presidents act from a distance. They give orders that flow through countless others, and eventually—and usually always—fall on someone else’s responsibility to execute. As the authors say, “the longer the chain, the greater the power of the sovereign who acts invisibly through its multiple links.”[9]

Furthermore, there’s nothing within the chain that guarantees the order will be executed cleanly—which is surely David’s wish. Uriah needed to be killed because of his possible knowledge of David’s affair with Bathsheba. David’s order to kill Uriah has no friction, though. It’s an idealized version of the outcome that he desires. The facts on the ground showed a much different story. To kill Uriah, Joab dutifully sets the table, but to put other soldiers’ lives at risk in the process. In the end, it’s not just Uriah who is killed, but a host of guiltless soldiers had to die for Joab to successfully complete his mission.

No matter who ended up finally committing the crime, David still ordered the murder. But in this chain, there is an economy that erases the responsibility from the initial wrong-doer. David effectively becomes an autonomous subject, detached by distance from the crime, and like so many other examples of state-sanctioned violence throughout the history of the world, truth and responsibility are easily rendered “faceless.” David showed no remorse for his actions or the outcome because he was concerned with the power that needed to be maintained, and Uriah’s potential knowledge of David’s affair was the problem to be solved. Regardless of what eventually happened to Uriah, the chain, as the authors say, is ultimately deployed to solve a problem, lack of knowledge or consequences be damned. As Halbertal and Holmes note, “far from being chosen independently of available means, ends-in-view are inevitably aggrandized by swollen means…wielders of great power do what they do simply because they can…rather than rulers wielding political power, political power wields rulers…sinners with the instruments of sovereign power at their disposal, for instance, that than feeling the pangs of remorse are irresistibly tempted to ‘fix’ things.”[10]

Historically, nothing has been shown to be beneath politics or political office. In the era of the Trump presidency, as buffoonish, dangerous, and hostile to decency as it is, it still must be taken realistically. Unlike Saul, Trump wanted power. Like Saul, if reports are true, the President is reported to be cut off, or has cut himself off, from many people, and including some of his closest advisors. He has surrounded himself with comforting voices that won’t push or challenge him. If they do, they’re fired or they eventually quit. His advisors give him the information that he wants to hear to placate his ego. He is isolated, disconnected, and petulant. And though his relationship with the Republican party still seems strange, he has other “private or factional interests”[11] to look out for: mostly himself and his assets once he returns to private life. But I want to also push in the other direction. Democratic politics (or “the people”) can also foster many of the same tendencies. Majorities, be they in numeric or persuasive power, can also entrench into defensive postures and uphold and maintain political power for the sake of bias, nostalgia, or convenience.

The book of Samuel—and this book of interpretation—sits nicely in the tradition that helpfully calls on us to strip out idealized visions of what politics is or how it operates. Psychology of political power changes over time, from ruler to administration. The faults of some, decadence and entitlement, may not be the faults of others, isolation and paranoia. Whoever is in charge, no matter the ideological program or party that is behind the political leader, power is the tool that is both used for the collective interest of subjects and the individual interest of the leader. As the authors charge, the book of Samuel, and “its anatomy of sovereignty applies not only to dynastic kingship in a tribal society but, with suitable modifications, illuminates important features of every political order, including the welfare state, the liberal state, and so forth.” And though possibilities always lurk whenever power is utilized, a cold eye is necessary to see power for what it is, not simply what you want it to be. Untying politics from its very own idolizing and idealizing tendencies, this book is about what happens when politics, as it often does, goes wrong, and dutifully shows what traits need to be deployed to analyze and take political depravity seriously. That alone speaks to its relevance for today.



Cochrane, Charles Norris and David Beer (editor). Augustine and the Problem of Power: The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017.

Halbertal, Moshe and Stephen Holmes. The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

[1] (Cochrane 2017, 14)

[2] (Halbertal 2017, 2)

[3] (2)

[4] (163)

[5] (5)

[6] (23)

[7] (23)

[8] (32)

[9] (82)

[10] (84)

[11] (169)