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.)
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