Within Christian circles, a lively debate has arisen over the last few years: How should we approach the public square? Do evangelicals have a political philosophy?
Two basic positions emerged in 2016. Putting it simplistically, some evangelicals argued we should preserve American culture so the church can flourish; others argued we should preserve the church’s moral witness so the culture would see the church’s otherworldly nature. Both are sensible positions, though the conversation became rather heated during the runup to November 2016. We thought Hillary Clinton was going to divide the nation; it turned out Donald Trump divided evangelicalism.
But that was 2016, and this is 2017. Where do we go from here? Perhaps a fresh engagement with Scripture and its balanced view of government is in order. If we’re driven ad fontes by our unsettled climate, that’s not a bad thing. Toward that end, a recent book titled The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel is a compelling place to start. Written by two Jewish professors from New York University, Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes, The Beginning of Politics takes 1–2 Samuel as its subject. A topical study of the political dimensions of these fascinating biblical books, it analyzes the lives of Saul and David with acuity and freshness.
Sympathy for Saul
Halbertal and Holmes take the biblical text seriously. They show that Israel’s politics—in terms of a formal monarchy and human-driven public square—began in the most ambivalent of circumstances. The Lord conceded to the nation’s wishes and gave them a king (1 Sam. 9). He did so while expressing his displeasure, and certainly Saul lived down to those lowly expectations. Yet Halbertal and Holmes evince sympathy for Saul, portraying him as a guileless young man who didn’t ask for the kingship to be thrust into his hands (19).
They read Samuel as painting Saul into a corner by making him wait for the prophet, a delay that prompts Saul to offer an unrighteous sacrifice that’s immediately followed by Samuel’s appearance (25–26). In terms that will resonate with our antihero-obsessed entertainment culture, Halbertal and Holmes probe beneath the surface of the text, uncovering gray areas and possible duplicitous actions that may unsettle evangelical readers.
Darker Side of David
Nowhere is this truer than in the case of David. The Beginning of Politics construes him as more virtuous than Saul, to be sure, but also more crafty. According to Halbertal and Holmes, David generally does the right thing on the surface but executes his moves to camouflage deeper and truer motivations. “As Saul is exposed,” flailing to preserve his fading power, “so David is opaque” (38). We discover such opaqueness, for example, in his dealings with Mephibosheth (57–58). Some scholars view David as acting in genuine kindness to a man he could have crushed with a flick of his hand; I lean this way. Others, like Halbertal and Holmes, note the possibility of David bringing Mephibosheth to his table to effectively imprison him.
Reading David in this darker light is a considerable revision of the shining warrior-hero portrait found on your local flannelgraph. In the hands of gifted stylists like Halbertal and Holmes, David’s sinful entanglement with Bathsheba—and poor Uriah—seems less a convulsive, lustful anomaly and more an instance when the slippery monarch got caught (79–99). We can admit a certain subversive consistency to this man-of-the-shadows portrait of David.
Though one feels the pull of the authors’ rather Machiavellian reading of 1–2 Samuel, Halbertal and Holmes don’t ultimately persuade. For example, they see David as failing to come to Israel’s aid during the wartime period when Saul is hunting his life (50, 130). David is a cunning man, yes, but he’s not on the hook for delivering Israel when Saul was seeking to kill him.
Further, while David does broadcast Saul’s vulnerability in cutting off a piece of his garment in the cave, he doesn’t kill Saul in that moment (45–47). This shows us there’s simply more operating in David’s life than the calculus of power.
Halbertal and Holmes don’t leave much room for virtue in biblical figures, but Scripture does. We needn’t deny human complexity, in other words, to affirm personal righteousness. David is called the man after God’s own heart—the Bible’s summary judgment of him (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22).
Replacing Skepticism with Grace
The strength of The Beginning of Politics is its fresh take on power politics and its careful approach. It invites us away from the political shouting match on the street and into the seminar room, as good books do.
But discussion and nuance aren’t ends in their own right. The book’s major weakness is its failure to make good on the truth that courses through the Bible—that God redeems sinners in Christ and leads them through the wilds of a fallen world to the true Israel.
The people God employs are never perfect. But even as the various rulers of God’s people blunder and sin, God still uses them. There are no spotless leaders to follow (except one). Because God saves and leads, skepticism is not, for the believer, the ruling principle of the cosmos. Divine grace is.
This discussion matters for modern evangelical politics. We have a responsibility to seek the best and most virtuous leaders we can find, but we aren’t going to find a perfect political candidate. We don’t fear becoming a political minority; the faith once and for all delivered to the saints will endure until the end of the age. This doesn’t mean, though, that Christian faith only thrives when it’s a minority position. Nominalism requires vigilance, but it’s nonetheless a beautiful thing when a populace holds fast to what is good and rejects what is evil.
Current Tensions, Future Resolution
I recently co-taught a PhD seminar on biblical theology and culture in which we covered H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture. I was struck by how uncomfortable I was adopting only one of Niebuhr’s five models. My own political philosophy is a blend of heavy doses of “Christ against culture” and “Christ transforming culture,” with some “Christ and culture in paradox” thrown in for good measure. Perhaps others resonate with this polyvalent perspective. It may be that a biblical theology of the public square leads us out of our easy polarities and into some tensions, however uncomfortable.
If this is true, it fits the ambivalent beginning of politics we find in 1–2 Samuel. Though Halbertal and Holmes overplay the darkness of the books, they rightly capture numerous subtleties of the text, and beyond this, the complexities of citizenship in a fallen world. The Christian will come away from The Beginning of Politics grateful, above all, that we know where politics is headed. History doesn’t terminate in fraught alliances and explosive betrayals. It culminates in the absolute rulership of Christ the King, as the slain Lamb dwells with his blood-bought people in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:21–27).
What a resolution to our worldly travails, and our present conflicts, this is. It reminds us to be skeptical about ultimate skepticism. The kingship of Christ, and no other, is the hope of the believer, and the end of politics.
Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes. The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. 232 pp. $27.95.