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Robert E. Howard had a fascination with the odd byways and lesser known abandoned courtyards of history. Every fan of his knows that. His work had a lot to do with raising the same strong interest in me. His, and that of other, more prestigious historical fiction writers like Treece, Welch, Sutcliff, Cecelia Holland (whose work I discovered with The Firedrake, her first novel, published 1966), Mary Renault, Sabatini, Dumas and Shellabarger.
But concerning REH – one of his favorite settings was the Middle Ages and the Crusades, which he did not view with the eyes of idealistic romance. No Walter Scott, he. To my knowledge, in his stories he never used the settings of the Bible or any Old Testament characters, despite the blood, gore and battle contained therein. Some of his poetry, though, treats them in a fashion that may explain why he didn’t. Howard never shared the conventional and respectful (he’d probably have said, craven) regard for characters like Moses that was common in literature of the 1930s.
He wrote a short letter to Tevis Clyde Smith in August 1932, with two short poems taking up most of it, in outspoken support of Samson and Saul, both mighty warriors with less than subtle minds. In “Samson’s Broodings” he has the strong man expressing disgust for his own people and deciding he will live with the Philistines.
I will to the men that broke them
– They are better men than these –
I am weary of taxes and bended backs,
And men that go on their knees
In another poem – “Dust Dance,” I think — he expresses considerable sympathy for Jezebel.
Oh Jezebel, oh Jezebel,
They hurled you from the wall,
And all the priests and prudes of Israel
Shouted to see you fall
But I could laugh with Jezebel
And kiss her on the lips,
And strip the scarf from off her breasts,
The girdle from her hips
For I forswear Elijah,
Forget that Adam fell,
To press the waist of Lilith,
And laugh with Jezebel
Oh brother Cain, oh brother Cain,
I take you by the hand,
For Abel was the first prude
To cumber Eden’s land.
It makes sense. Jezebel by all accounts was the sort of woman who’d have aroused lust in Conan. She doesn’t deserve the uncompromisingly bad press the Bible gives her, and nor does her husband King Ahab. Oh, she was ruthless, no doubt, but so was her arch-foe Elijah the prophet, and her eventual death wasn’t the vengeance of the Almighty for her wickedness. It was a simple grab for power by Jehu, who killed Jezebel’s sons, had Jezebel killed, and wiped out the rest of the Omride dynasty in a bloodbath.
The main reason she was hated was quite simply for being foreign and worshipping different gods. There’s also the circumstance that Ahab and Jezebel ruled in the northern kingdom, Israel, while the biased account of their misdeeds in the Old Testament was written in the southern kingdom, Judah. It was intended to support the claims to greatness of David’s dynasty – even though David, who gets the good press, was Samuel’s secret nominee for the next king, then an outlaw, then a turncoat who fought for the Philistines. Later, as king himself, he made sure Uriah the Hittite would be killed in the front lines so that he could take that honest soldier’s wife. As for David’s son Solomon, he married more foreign idol-worshippers than Ahab did, and even gave images of their gods’ places of honor in his temple.
The poem “Dreaming in Israel” deals with the conflict between Saul, the nation’s first king, and Samuel, the judge and prophet who first anointed him and then brought him down. No prizes for guessing which of the two had REH’s sympathies.
If I had dwelt in Israel when Saul was king of Israel,
If I had dwelt in Israel,
A captain of a host,
I would have taken Samuel, the hound of altars, Samuel,
I would have hanged fat Samuel
Above a fire to roast.
For Samuel was a priestling
With words for women’s ears,
But Saul he was a warrior
That stalked among the spears
Saul became king at a time of emergency. As the Israelites first settled in Canaan, their main authorities were the Judges, who also acted as military leaders when those were needed. The legendary Samson was one of the judges, Gideon was another, and there was at least one female judge – Deborah.
Finally, the time came when that wasn’t enough to meet their military needs. The Philistines were growing stronger. Their massed (and better organized) armies had routed Israel’s tribal levies in battle and even carried off the Ark of the Covenant as plunder. Under the prophet Samuel’s leadership, the Israelites did get the Ark back, but it was clear they needed a permanent head of the nation in war, and that meant having a king, like the peoples around them. They asked Samuel to choose and anoint one. They were probably fed up with the judges anyhow. Samuel’s own sons, Joel and Abiah, were judges too, and so crooked the best use for them would have been extracting corks from bottles. They took bribes to give false verdicts and generally behaved like justices in Al Capone’s Chicago.
Samuel had reservations about the measure. He probably didn’t want his own authority, and that of the priests, undermined and rivaled. The power that comes from speaking with the voice of God must be addictive. He acceded to the people’s demands, but first he gave them a rant concerning “the manner of the king that shall reign over them.”
In essence he roared out, “You want a king? You fools! Do you know how kings act? He’ll take your sons to drive his chariots and serve him as soldiers! He’ll make you work his fields and bring in his crops without wages! He’ll tax you blind to pay for his weapons and horses and palaces! He’ll take your daughters to be his cooks! Any fields and vineyards and orchards of yours that he wants, even the best of them, he’ll just take, and a tenth of your livestock too! Oh, believe me – you’ll be sorry!”
Still, the people insisted, thinking that even if cranky old Sam was right, it was better than being conquered by the Philistines. Samuel picked a man he thought he could control, Saul son of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin. Although tall and powerful (head and shoulders above most others), and a brave warrior, Saul was young, nor is it on record that anybody ever described him as the smartest fellow breathing.
I say Saul was young, but that’s my estimate, as best I can figure. The Bible doesn’t give precise dates. I expect Saul was born around about 1051 BCE. That’s the year before Shamshi-Adad’s son Ashurnasirpal I became king of Assyria. Smendes, the first Pharaoh of the twenty-first (Tanite) dynasty was ruling Lower Egypt. Had been for about two decades. I suppose Saul became king in his early or mid twenties.
He didn’t have a power base or strong following of his own. The tribe of Benjamin was the smallest, and even among them, the family of Kish was insignificant. Samuel no doubt saw that as an advantage. He hoped Saul would follow the prophet’s instructions and be a willing puppet.
Big Saul’s first significant test in battle wasn’t against the Philistines, as it happened, but against the Ammonites from the east. They were still nomadic at the time, and Nahash, the Ammonite lord, must have been a vicious character even for those savage days. He menaced the region of Jabesh-Gilead, formally announced that he meant to enslave its people, and even if they submitted, would put out every man’s right eye as a sign of their servile status – and as a message to all Israel that they shouldn’t dispute right-of-way with him. Outnumbered, the people of Jabesh-Gilead asked for seven days’ respite and sent a message to the new young king, pleading for help. Saul’s anger, we’re told in I Samuel 11:6, “was kindled greatly.”
He called out Israel’s fighting men. He dramatized his summons by taking a yoke of oxen, cutting them into pieces, and sending a bit to each of the tribes, with the warning that if anybody didn’t answer his call to go to war, “so shall it be done unto his oxen.” They came. Saul and his lads cut the enemy into dog meat. They “slew the Ammonites until the heat of the day … so that two of them were not left together.” Then they celebrated. If Conan had been there he’d have slapped Saul on the back, I believe, and called him a worthy drinking buddy.
Sneaky Samuel had misgivings about this. Probably dreaded that Saul might become too much admired and too powerful, if he continued as he’d begun. He mounted his soapbox and gave the people a sermon to the effect that obedience to God was what mattered, and Samuel, who’d always been an honest, upright judge, was the voice of God, so no backchat. He grumbled – again – about their having demanded a king to lead them, contrary to the LORD’s will. He reminded them that it was wheat harvest, and threatened to call upon the LORD, “and he shall send thunder and rain, that ye may perceive and see that your wickedness is great … in asking you a king.”
The thunder and rain duly arrived, “and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel.” Which was the general idea, of course. If REH had been writing the story he’d have implied that Samuel was a secret sorcerer and brought the thunder and rain himself, or consulted a nature spirit, or just had a painful bunion that throbbed when thunderstorms were imminent. In any case he assured the Israelites that “if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king.”
Pain in the rear end. As one of the characters says in Edmond Hamilton’s Doomstar, “why do prophets always cry death and destruction? Why don’t they ever shout ‘Hooray!’ or something cheerful?”
Saul kept on doing the right thing by Israel in fighting and beating its enemies, and Samuel kept on bitching. When the Philistines came out with thirty thousand chariots to fight Israel (it’s a certain bet there weren’t even a tenth that many, by the way; it’s characteristic of all ancient sources to exaggerate numbers wildly, and the Bible is no exception, whatever the fundamentalists tell us) “the people were distressed.” Saul came out to resist the Philistines with the odds great against him, and he waited at Gilgal for Samuel to show his face, bless the endeavor, and offer a sacrifice. He waited seven days, “the set time that Samuel had appointed,” but Samuel didn’t appear. On purpose?
Well, the appointed time – that Samuel had set and then failed to observe – was up, and the fighting men were starting to drift away. Big Saul did what any commander worth his rations would do; he acted to save morale and gave the burnt offering himself. After which Samuel finally arrived, and, predictably, screamed like a schoolgirl, “What hast thou done?” (I Samuel 13:11.)
He also told Saul that if he’d waited until Samuel deigned to come along, his kingdom would have been established forever. “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart …” Personally, I think Saul showed great restraint in not shoving a spear through the tiresome bugger’s brisket. A major battle with the Philistines was about to begin. Talk like that didn’t help the men’s fighting spirit.
And Samuel dwelt in shadows
Of secret shrine and hall,
But Saul he stood up strongly
Before the gaze of all.”
Now, the account in I Samuel Chapter 14 is prejudicial to Saul in the extreme. First, it gives all the credit there is to Saul’s son Jonathan, but since Saul was young when he became king, and this fight with the Philistines came about when he’d been king for just two years, it’s unlikely that Jonathan was even ten years old. My own estimate is that he was six. (The books of Samuel took their final form in the reign of King Josiah, about 370 years after Saul’s day, most likely edited and amended by Jeremiah the prophet. Plenty of time for distortions and contractions of life spans to occur in the stories.)
The account still makes it clear that the Israelites were badly outnumbered, that most of them were using modified farm tools for weapons, and that they were hungry. They still won. Probably under Saul’s sole command, regardless of what the Bible account says. It also describes Saul as having irrationally forbidden his forces to eat on the day of the battle, and threatening to kill his son Jonathan for breaking the ban. In fact Jonathan, as noted above, was unlikely to have reached fighting age and almost surely wasn’t even there.
The Bible often represents Saul as arbitrary and unstable, no doubt to make his successor David look better by comparison. I hope I’ll be able to show that this is unfair. Even I Samuel 14 admits that Saul “fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, and against the children of Ammon, and against the kings of Zobah, and against the Philistines; and whitherso-ever he turned himself, he vexed them.”
Now, Conan himself would agree that is one hell of a war record. As REH put it:
For Saul he lifted Israel
By blood and sweat and toil,
But Samuel took the credit,
And Samuel took the spoil.
And Samuel lolled on couches
Where girls shook down their hair,
But Saul knew thirst and madness
Where arrows filled the air.
Not that Big Saul exactly missed out on the pretty girls. Like Conan, he noticed them and was a man of action. He married Ahinoam, daughter of Ahimaaz, who gave him six children, and he also had a concubine by the name of Rizpah, who was doubtless the kind of breathtaking looker king’s concubines generally are. We may suppose there were other bedmates too.
Samuel was a constant thorn in his kingly side. Since “There was war against the Philistines all the days of Saul,” not to mention Israel’s other enemies, it seems a bit much that Samuel should then come to Saul and urge him to attack the Amalekites also. These were the Israelites’ arch-enemies in the Bible. They had harassed them when they first came out of Egypt, stealing what livestock they could, cutting the throats of stragglers, and kidnapping women. I’m sure they were still nasty pests in Saul’s day, marauding and killing whenever they saw a chance. But who in that age didn’t? The Israelites themselves are on record in the Bible’s pages as conquering, enslaving, taking their enemies’ women, and massacring those who resisted. Besides, when Samuel instructs Saul to wipe out the Amalekites completely, he doesn’t complain of anything the contemporary children of Amalek were doing. He dredges up history two hundred years old. (Longer, if we accept the Bible’s chronology, which avers the time of the Judges lasted three hundred and forty years plus). The Amalekites are to be annihilated because of what their ancestors had done. “Kill everything that moves!” Samuel thundered. “Men, women, infants, even the livestock, you hear me? Spare nothing!”
Saul, battle-weary and scarred from his constant efforts, still led out his veteran forces. First he gave the Amalekites’ Kenite allies fair warning to get out of town, because their tribe had been kind to the Israelites when they first emerged from Egypt under Moses’ leadership. Then he attacked. He followed Samuel’s instructions – almost. He didn’t kill the Amalekite king, Agag, but took him prisoner, and kept the best livestock as plunder. Most people would say that was fair enough by the standards of the time. Not Samuel. He had a fit.
“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry! Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king!”
The LORD or Samuel? “A subtle man, with speech that crawled and stung”? And Samuel promptly cut the helpless prisoner Agag to pieces before the altar. After that he began plotting to replace the insufficiently malleable Saul with a new king, and settled on David, youngest of the eight sons of Jesse the Bethlehemite. He rejected the older boys, the ones with proven records as warriors. Again, clearly, he was looking for someone he could control like a puppet, and so chose the untried lad.
The Bible gives three different versions of the way young David became important at Saul’s court. The most likely seems to be that Samuel introduced him, after picking him as the man to replace Saul. We’re also told he was recommended for his skill on the harp, to soothe Saul’s strange moods with his music, Saul having become subject to erratic depressions and outbursts because “… an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.”
Third, of course, is the famous story of David’s killing the Philistine giant Goliath with a sling, after he had taunted the host of Israel for days with his mockery and challenges. He’s supposed to have stood “six cubits and a span”, or nine feet eight inches. If the Philistines really had a man that big, I suspect he’d have been mostly for show, a court freak dressed up in tinsel armor. While impressive and scary looking, he’d have found it difficult even to move freely, and certainly wouldn’t have been as efficient a fighter as a man of normal size. A sling-stone could have brought him down with ease. Those ancient slings were deadly weapons. Very.
Besides, in earlier versions of the story, it’s said that an Israelite champion called El-hanan the son of Jair of Bethlehem killed Goliath. The King James Bible, to get around the discrepancy, added a phrase, saying that El-hanan killed “the brother of Goliath the Gittite.” (Which agrees with I Chronicles 20:5, but that also was written well after the time of Saul.)
The Bible also declares that David cut off Goliath’s head and took the grim trophy to Jerusalem. Only – Jerusalem wasn’t an Israelite city at the time. It was a stronghold of the Jebusites, Israel’s enemies. David, when he became king, took it by a stratagem, and it didn’t become the holy and royal city of the Jews until afterwards. Another mistake or oversight by a scribe writing much later? Of course, David might have done it to scare the Jebusites, who were on the list of people-to-be-dealt-with. “Take a look, fellows! The decapitated bonce of Goliath, the terrible Philistine giant. Killed by a green Israelite youth. This is what happens to those who defy the God of Israel!”
If David did that, though, on his own initiative, Saul probably frowned a bit. He’d have thought something like, “This kid’s all right, but he’s getting above himself.” David would have been seventeen or eighteen; he and Saul’s son Jonathan were about the same age, meaning that Saul wasn’t the young king who’d trounced the Ammonites any longer. More like forty. Still a strong man and great fighter, no doubt: still in his prime. But seeing the day when he wouldn’t be that any longer. Like the gunfighter getting slower in many a western, he’d watch the fast young kid newly arrived in town, and worry about the possible showdown.
Look in the First Book of Samuel, and you’ll find Saul’s suspicions of David depicted as irrational, unstable jealousy. They weren’t. The hotshot, ambitious young war leader’s star was rising. The women were singing, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Saul heard, and brooded darkly on the implications. “What can he have more but the kingdom?”
It wasn’t a paranoid question, but a very perceptive one. Even before David killed Goliath (if he really did), the prophet Samuel had picked him as the king to replace Saul. That was treachery, and Samuel had known it. He’d said at the time, “If Saul hear of it, he will kill me.” (I Samuel 16:2).
Saul must have heard of it at last. It couldn’t have been otherwise. Secrets always get out. Samuel had talked to David’s father Jesse and looked over his other sons, who heard him say again and again, “The LORD hath not chosen this,” and then pick the eighth and youngest, David. The eldest brother Eliab resented that especially, and spoke to David with bitterness when he came down to challenge Goliath (I Samuel 17:28). It’s a fair guess that Eliab or one of the others, envious, informed Saul, and that was the real reason he tried to nail David to the wall with a javelin, not because “the evil spirit from the LORD came upon Saul,” (I Samuel 18:10-12).
After David escaped that attempt on his life, Saul tried to make peace with him, and even married him to his daughter Michal – as insurance, no doubt, and to disarm David’s wariness of him after the javelin incident, but it was too late by then. Trust no longer existed.
Saul sent assassins to kill David in his own house, but Michal and her brother Jonathan between them warned David. The Bible recounts that he bleated, “What have I done … and what is my sin before they father, that he seeketh my life?” Asinine question, of course. He knew damned well. That he “fled, and escaped, and came to Samuel at Ramah,” after which “he and Samuel went and dwelled in Naioth,” proves it. Probably there were some angry words between them at Ramah and Naioth. David would have been entitled to say, like Hardy to Laurel, “Here’s another fine mess you’ve got us into.”
If I had dwelt in Israel, when Samuel ruptured Israel,
If I had dwelt in Israel
When Samuel harried Saul,
My gift had been to Samuel, a poisoned cup to Samuel,
A hidden knife to Samuel,
A serpent in his hall.
David went into hiding and then became an outlaw. He gathered a band of malcontents and fugitive debtors around him, about four hundred, moving from the caves at Adullam to the wilderness of Engedi to the Hachilah hills. Saul often pursued him with the intention of killing him, but like the Sheriff of Nottingham with Robin Hood, he was always outwitted.
David realized his luck must eventually run out. Saul was his inveterate enemy now. David’s band had increased to six hundred men, and his chief henchman was a tough character named Joab. He decided to lead them out of Israelite territory altogether and offer his services as a mercenary to Achish of Gath, a Philistine king. Serving Achish for sixteen months, he fought “the Geshirites, and the Gezrites, and the Amalekites … and left neither man nor woman alive … and Achish believed David, saying, He hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him, therefore he shall be my servant forever.” (I Samuel 27:8-12.)
The other Philistine lords weren’t so sure. When they gathered for war with Israel, David made no objection to fighting against his own people. “Surely thou shalt know what thy servant can do,” he said to Achish. But Achish’s allies refused to trust David; they pointed out that a man who turns his coat once will do it again, and that if David wanted to return to Israel, a fine way to regain favor there would be to betray the Philistines in the coming battle. To keep his forces together, Achish sent David away.
Meanwhile, Samuel had finally died, “and all Israel lamented him.” Undeservedly, in REH’s view, and mine too. While Samuel was alive, Saul, at the prophet’s instigation, had hounded all witches, wizards and other practitioners of the supernatural, out of the country. However, he was ageing now, probably having reached fifty, and saw the biggest Philistine army he’d ever faced gathering against him. He wanted supernatural encouragement. In desperation he found a medium known as the witch of Endor, visited her in disguise, and had her summon the spirit of Samuel for advice. Samuel, of all men, the back-stabber who sold Saul out … go figure.
Samuel’s ghost carried on as he had in life, carping, condemning, and depressing Saul yet further. “… the LORD is departed from thee, and is become thine enemy … because thou obeyedst not … the LORD will also deliver Israel into the hand of the Philistines …”
The Bible records that Saul lost the battle, and committed suicide in despair on Mount Gilboa, after seeing his three sons fall and his forces decimated. The Philistines cut off his head and displayed his body. Still, the men of Jabesh-Gilead at least hadn’t forgotten him, or the courage by which he’d saved them from Nahash the Ammonite, with his plans to enslave them and gouge out each man’s right eye. They marched all night to recover Saul’s body and his sons’ bodies from the wall of Beth-shan and give them decent burial.
And that’s really all. But the last word should go to REH.
And Samuel died on velvet
With priests to ease his fears,
But Saul he died in battle,
Ringed round by dripping spears.
If I had dwelt in Israel when Gath came up to Israel,
When Gaza came to Israel,
With Ashdod’s charioteers,
My last breath had been Samuel’s, to curse the name of Samuel,
That it was Saul, not Samuel,
Who died among the spears.