The King’s Daughter
by Tala Bar
Table of Contents|
Chapter 3 appeared
in issue 170.
Chapter Four: Shemu’el
part 1 of 2
Mikhal’s life is a story of pagan worship and sacrifice, of love, wars, kingship and death. She is the daughter of the Biblical king Saul; her mother is Ahino’am, a priestess of the goddess Ashtoret. Born to a king, Mikhal is married to the future king David. She is separated from him and joined to another man, to whom she bears a child. She is then torn from her family and carried away by a criminal brother. At last she is brought back to her former husband, king David, in Jerusalem.
Mikhal thus lives out her life in the vortex of social, political and religious upheavals in the days of the first kings of Israel.
The light is dimming. I look through the window and see autumn’s grey clouds with gleaming white margins hurrying through the sky. Shall I ever see again the first raindrops, smell the wetting ground? With the dimming light my eyes darken when I remember Shemu’el.
Who was Shemu’el? A mysterious figure, not always understood even by his own followers. He was the leader of the Yhwh worshipers among the central tribes of Israel, mainly Efrayim and their close relatives of Menasheh. According to legend he was conceived at Yhwh’s temple at Shiloh, where only men priests served; barren women, like Shemu’el’s mother Hanna, used to visit them in secret to be blessed by their seed.
Shemu’el supported Sha’ul as judge, and fiercely opposed his crowning as king. “Yhwh is King,” he declared, “there is no need for an earthly one.” But did Yhwh celebrate his wedding with Ashtoret to win kingship? Some said he indeed did just that. Still, that was not what Shemu’el meant. He claimed Yhwh as sole king, with no female consort, and thus made himself eternally hated by Ashtoret’s believers.
* * *
The Yosef tribes to which Shemu’el belonged had fraternal ties with the tribe of Binyamin. When he sat as judge in Efrayim, which bordered on the northern side of Binyamin, and as his name spread over the land as a prophet and seer, many of the people of Binyamin went to consult Shemu’el, especially at his seasonal visits in the small town of Rama, not far from Giv’at Sha’ul.
Quite a few of our people had no compunction in consulting both Maakha, Ashtoret’s old priestess, and Shemu’el, Yhwh’s priest. The worship of both divinities together was a common practice in Israel at the time, both Ashtoret’s priestesses and Yhwh’s prophets received their public without asking their faith; but Sha’ul’s kingship was a different proposition, because the actual coronation ritual acted in a subconscious way to strengthen the rule of the Goddess over people’s souls.
For me, the thought of Shemu’el always projected an atmosphere of harshness and dejection. He was a hard man who adhered very jealously to Yhwh’s worship, who summed up the cult of Ashtoret in one word: ‘lechery’, and considered the Sacred Kingship as the summit of that cult. Yhwh’s ritual is regarded as absolutely chaste, his servants must keep themselves pure; any hint of the ‘sexual orgies’ which were supposed to be the sole practice of Ashtoret’s believers was banned as an abomination.
Ashtoret’s worshipers felt this approach heavy-handed and cruel; they thought such a stand opposed the essence of life itself, and of love, which is the basis of the Goddess’s ritual.
* * *
When Sha’ul was confronted by the annual demand of the Goddess’s believers for human sacrifice, and being unable to justify that action, he turned to Yhwh’s prophet for an answer to his problem. Sha’ul was never a rational thinker, and if he was asked, he would not be able to explain his motives. Because he was basically an insecure man, the faith in Ashtoret was never enough for him; he also needed the support of Yhwh and his priests.
In the year when the King’s elder son Avinadav was offered to the Goddess he did not believe in, the doubt had started gnawing in Sha’ul’s heart. His wife Re’uma, who had always been his earthly support and chief of his practical advisors, had revealed the first signs of alienation from him, adding to the rift in his own heart. So, at the end of that summer, when the seer had arrived at the Rama for his annual visit, Sha’ul, finding no other recourse, went to consult Shemu’el about his problem. He took Avner with him, who was his cousin and chief of staff, because Avner was one of Shemu’el’s most ardent followers inside the Kish family.
* * *
The Rama is situated about half a day’s walk north of Giv’at Sha’ul; when still a judge, Sha’ul used to go there occasionally to ask the advice of Shemu’el, who was a few years his senior. The two judges liked to discuss matters of justice together, but they did not usually talk about faith or ritual. Shemu’el did not do it because he did not think Sha’ul was a deep enough thinker to understand religion; Sha’ul avoided such subjects because his faith was heartfelt, not a rational subject suitable for discussion or argument. Still, sometimes Sha’ul would take part in Yhwh’s ritual itself; he was prone to acts of emotional effusion, whatever the content of the actual rite he took part in was.
I have never taken part in that particular rite myself, but when I lived at Palti’s house in Galim, I learned something about it; and, as a woman who had never liked the practice of religion of any kind, I found this one ridiculous and senseless.
Let me explain myself. My feelings for Ashtoret are purely personal; when I hug her little image, I can see in it the figures of Maakha or Ahino’am, or sometimes my daughter Tamar or even Re’uma, Yhwh’s faithful servant. I can talk to all these women, feeling close to them although not always loving; sometimes I can even hate the Goddess for the disasters she had meted out to me and my relations. This, however, is not ritual, there is nothing symbolic about my attitude.
Yhwh’s cult, however, is purely symbolic; there is nothing personal about a ritual object, which is just a box! They say inside that box there are the words of the Living God — whatever that means! How can one worship words? How can one identify with them, love or hate them? How can one pray to them?
They say Yhwh has no image. What, then, is his character? Is he good or evil, hard or soft, strong or weak? If he has no image, he must be abstract in nature, something that is beyond human interpretation; and if so how can any human being connect with him? I know that basically, Yhwh is a Desert god, expressing the power of the desert wind; that is how, then, his dry character evolved, both pure and cruel, and so is his ritual, which lacks any human basis.
Some think Yhwh’s ritual an enthralling phenomenon. The God is worshipped by carrying prayer flags; by shaking branches of the date palm, the tree of the desert; by wrapping the body with a white shawl, symbol of the desert purity. Yhwh’s worshipers, while shaking their bodies like the shaking of young palm leaves, use sacred words in their prayer, full of images of the cruelly scorching desert sun. No image appears before the people, though: they have no concrete object to their prayers. They say that the writings hidden in the box consist of covenant edicts between the people and their god and of laws of forbidden behavior; the faith in Yhwh is concerned with many precepts and injunctions, which are not always relevant to everyday life.
Still, that same abstract approach was the one which stirred the opposition to sacrifice of any kind. For Sha’ul, that was reason enough to go to Yhwh’s prophet for advice.
Sha’ul was unable to live with absurdities and contradictions; he loved Ashtoret, but he abhorred the sacrifices her servants demanded. He went to the Rama because both his grandmother and his wife had turned against him, each for her own reasons; he thought his salvation might be found with his old friend and former colleague, Shemu’el.
Sha’ul, Avner and the men accompanying them, set out of Giv’at Sha’ul in the morning on a mild autumn day, and reached the Rama toward noon. The King was received by people in the town’s street with cheers, as always, impressing them with his tall, erect stature, his dark eyes and curls, and the purple cloak on his shoulders, which indicated his position. Those who knew him cleared the way for his retinue with a show of respect and a bending of the head. Some even cried, “Long live the King!”
The Rama was a fortress of Yhwh; worshipers of Ashtoret there were few and inconspicuous, but Sha’ul was king for all, and not many would dare deny him. He was beloved of the people as a war hero, as judge and as king, with no connection with the Ritual which had put him on the throne.
Shemu’el, as stiff in his faith as he was, had enough political wisdom to understand the situation. When he heard the reception of Sha’ul, he came down from the edifice where he had been receiving the people who had come to consult him and get the blessing of Yhwh, and advanced toward the King.
Shemu’el, I must say, was very impressive in his appearance. I saw him only once, but his figure is etched in my memory: He was a very tall man, even taller than Sha’ul himself, although slightly stooped. He was wrapped from head to toe with a simple white cloth which covered his forehead. Between that covering and the long white beard hiding half his face and falling to his chest, his eyes peered under his thick, grey brows, set deep in their sockets. They were light brown, very bright and piercing. His lips traced thin and tight; his nose was long and aquiline, jutting out of his narrow face and expressing the aggressiveness of a bird of prey. His whole personality expressed authority and reverence, with no softening anywhere.
* * *
Knowing Shemu’el as his senior in years and wisdom, when they met, Sha’ul bent his head; the prophet, however, did not show any awe before the royal personage in front of him, retaining his usual dignified posture.
“Seer,” Avner said when they had exchanced the first greetings, “the King wishes to consult with you in private.”
Shemu’el did not show any surprise, turned and led his guests to one of the visiting rooms at the side of the edifice. Back at the Giv’a, the chief of staff did not stop bragging — naturally, out of Sha’ul’s earshot — how Shemu’el had paid more attention to him, a professed Yhwh follower, than to his royal cousin. I had never liked that man, and since then I have found even more reasons for my resentment.
At Sha’ul’s request, Avner, used to speak in the name of his King, posed his problem before the prophet. “The King would like to avoid these sacrifices,” he summed it up, “but he is tied up in the hands of those who had crowned him, mainly worshipers of Ashtoret. What should he do?”
“You don’t believe in the need for sacrifice?” Shemu’el asked Sha’ul, his eyes piercing the King’s heart.
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar