It’s hard to beat the story of Saul and David for biblical sex and violence, and the first shots in Of Kings and Prophets — premiering tonight at 10pm on ABC — waste no time getting to the “violence” part of that equation. (The sex comes later.)
Before the first episode has even gotten so far as to tell us the show’s title, it gives us a blood-soaked montage that introduces the story’s two parallel storylines: in one, Saul and his sons are in battle, savagely killing their enemies, while in the other, David wakes from a nightmare to discover that his sheep have been killed by a lion.
One of these storylines has a lot of substance and thematic potential. The other, I’m afraid, seems a bit silly to me, and unintentionally reveals the perils of trying to expand minor details in the Old Testament into full-fledged drama.
Let’s get the silly storyline out of the way first.
I should admit up front that I have never been a shepherd, and I have never had to track or kill a lion. But I couldn’t help chuckling a bit when, early in the episode, the people of Bethlehem get together to discuss their lion problem and one of them shouts, with great perplexity, “How are we going to kill a lion!?” Hunting parties were not exactly unknown to the ancients, but no one here even proposes forming one; instead, it is left to David to go after the lion on his own. And this is all to kill just one lion: it is not part of a pride, it is not traveling with any other lions or lionesses.
The biblical David said he killed lions and bears as a matter of course — it was all just part of the job of being a shepherd — but in the first episode of this show, Queen Ahinoam tells David “word of this will spread,” and she says he will become “famous” for killing just one of these beasts. Somehow this seems unlikely to me.
Much better, so far, is the series’ depiction of Saul and his family.
Saul had been king for only a decade or two by the time this story starts, and there were no kings before him at all; what’s more, his own tribe, the tribe of Benjamin, had been almost exterminated just a generation or two earlier in a civil war described in Judges 19-21. (There was a reason Saul said he came from “the smallest tribe of Israel” when Samuel made him king.) So I question whether Saul’s monarchy would have seemed as established as it does in this series, with its palace and whatnot.
That being said, I do like how the show focuses on Saul’s efforts to unite the tribes of Israel, whether by fighting against a common enemy — the Philistines — or by arranging marriages between his daughters and the leading men of other tribes. The Israelites were never as united as we like to think they were; all three of the kings associated with the “united monarchy” had to deal with civil wars and rebellions of one sort or another. So it makes sense for this series to focus on the politics that went on within the Israelite nation, as well as their wars against the other nations.
The series also focuses on the tug-of-war between Saul and Samuel, and in a way that is sympathetic to Saul’s side. Your typical Sunday School lesson takes it as a given that when Samuel told Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, his word was the word of God and needed to be obeyed — but within this episode, Saul cannot tell whether Samuel is speaking for God or only for himself, and, with the threat of the Philistines looming above them, Saul sees no point to attacking the Amalekites, who are portrayed here as a relatively minor nomadic tribe that can easily be wiped out in a day (in a scene that’s strikingly reminiscent of the “No prisoners!” sequence in Lawrence of Arabia).
It would be tempting to say that this series is pitting modern skepticism against traditional religion, but it’s actually more complicated than that. The Old Testament is full of disagreements on how the Israelites should treat foreigners and their offspring, and in its own way, Of Kings and Prophets is tapping into those debates within the Bible — and the dialogue shows that the writers have done their research. Ahinoam quotes Deuteronomy 25 to the effect that the Amalekites are not supposed to be punished until after Israel is at rest from its enemies — and with the Philistines still oppressing the Israelites, the nation is clearly not at rest yet. On a deeper note, Saul protests that killing women and children is what Israel’s enemies do, and he says the Israelites are meant to be “a light to the nations.” That phrase actually comes from the book of Isaiah, which was written hundreds of years after Saul’s time, but there are passages in Isaiah that do stand in opposition to the books of Moses on these issues (I get into some of that here) — so as anachronistic as the Isaiah reference might be, it does show that the series is engaging with the Old Testament as a whole.
On a dramatic level, I love that the series is paying attention to the family dynamics within Saul’s home, even if I don’t always like the way it pays attention to them. Plenty of films about David have focused on his friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan and his ill-fated marriage to Saul’s daughter Michal, but this may be the first to give equal time to Saul’s daughter Merav and youngest son Ishbaal. (The biblical Saul had at least two other sons, but you can only do so much in a TV series, I guess.) This might also be the first show to pay significant attention to Saul’s concubine Rizpah. The show’s Twitter feed has made a point lately of noting that each member of the cast comes from a different ethnic background (Haaz Sleiman is Lebanese, Jeanine Mason is Cuban, Simone Kessell is Maori, etc.), and at times you might wonder how such different-looking people could all come from the same genetic family, but in the case of Michal (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), at least, it is explained that her mother was a Cushite, i.e. African, concubine. (And we know that some of the ancient Israelites — including Moses! — were married to Cushites, and that some Cushites worked for the Israelite kings, so kudos to the series for bringing that to the foreground, too.)
Where there are wives and concubines, sex cannot be far behind, and I don’t mind the fact that the series gets into that, per se. But there is something about the portrayal of the sex that feels a bit modern and titillating, like the way Rizpah sinks out of the frame to give Saul one last blowjob before battle, or the way Merav rolls around in bed with her fiancé shortly after meeting him for the first time. (Well, for the first time since she was a child, at any rate.) It was very important to the ancients that a woman be a virgin on her wedding day, and, well, yes, Merav is engaged to the man she’s with in this scene, but we know from the Bible that Saul will eventually offer her to other men — including David — so if later episodes follow the Bible in this regard, then the fact that she isn’t a virgin any more ought to be a big deal. I guess we’ll see if it is. For now, I simply note that neither Merav nor her fiancé even notes that they’re crossing a line here, beyond a bit of dialogue to the effect that her father would be upset.
If there’s anything missing from the show so far, it’s a sense of David’s spirituality. There’s plenty of God-talk between Saul and Samuel, but if David and Joab talk about anything other than lions and women, I missed it. In the original trailer for this series, which was based on a pilot episode that got scrapped in favour of the episode airing tonight (and tonight’s episode does look better, overall), David told Ahinoam he could hunt the lion because he was “certain of God’s grace and care,” but there is nothing like that in the current episode. Will future episodes give us a taste of the psalmist who is described in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart”? We shall see.
In any case, while the first episode isn’t perfect, I do like a lot of what it does. And now that the lion is dead and out of the way, here’s hoping that the David storyline begins to make more sense, and to reflect more of what the Bible does say about him.