Sunday, May 31, 2015

I Samuel 8.4-20: Uneasy Lies the Head

Shakespeare, Saul and Samuel. It's an interesting Trinity. But perhaps they had something in common. It was Shakespeare who succinctly turned the phrase that Samuel tried to tell the people and that Saul learned for himself. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The dramatist was writing about England's Henry IV, but it may well be true for any crowned head. Certainly Samuel was reluctant to make a king for the people. And Saul, who had a brilliant beginning, would end badly. But that's down the road. For Proper5B/Ordinary 10B/Pentecost +2, it's enough that the elders and people of Israel demand a king and Samuel anoints one for them (I Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15), 16-20 (11:14-15).

Despite Samuel's warning, they are determined that they want a king so they can be like other nations. Both Saul and the people might have been well-served by the adage "be careful what you wish for..."

If Israel's king was to be like other kings, he would need a crown, no matter how uneasily it might sit upon his head. What might that have looked like? The three kings in the images below all have crowns on their heads. On the left Babylonian king Marduk-nadin-ahhe, who ruled from c. 1100-1082 BCE. In the center is Tiglath Pileser III, who ruled Assyria between 745 and 727 BCE. On the right is Ashurnasirpal who ruled Assyria from 883-859 BCE.
(Left) Kudurru (Boundary stone).  (Center) Gypsum wall panel. Tiglath-Pileser III. London: British Museum. (Right) Stela of Ashurnasirpal. London: British Museum.
Three crowns. Do they look like you imagine Saul's crown looked? Many of us have a different picture of what a crown should be. Medieval artists did as well. They created a king that looked like their own kings. The Nuremburg Bible shows Samuel anointing Saul in a setting that is more European than Middle Eastern. The crown being placed on his head is much more like the Essen Crown, an Ottonian lily-style crown that predates the Nuremburg Bible by several centuries. The creator of the German Bible was more like his ancestors than he thought. He, too, wanted Israel to have a king like other kings - the kings of his own day.
(Left) I Samuel 10 from Nuremburg Bible, 1483. Samuel anoints Saul. (Right) Essen Crown (Ottonische Konigskrone). Essen Cathedral Treasury.
The crown will sit uneasily on Saul's head. And his downfall, of course, is that he will indeed be just like the neighboring kings. Be careful what you wish for... 

What if the story of Saul and David was turned into a network tv miniseries? Check out the Art&Faith Matters FB page by clicking the link.

For thoughts on Mark 3:20-35, click here.

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