Even with all its prescinding from source and form criticism, Sex, Wives, and Warriors is one of the most penetrating books on the Old Testament available, a compulsive page-turner, and strong reminder that in the 21st century dedicated scholars have the tools to really do right, and enable us to read stories as they were first heard. Esler’s approach is intercultural as much as historical, and it’s impossible not to be emotionally charged by the eight stories he takes us through. For some this will be an exhilarating experience, for others repulsive, but you’ll be a different person either way by the end. The real beauty to the book is that it’s a friend to both maximalists and minimalists of historiography, since it doesn’t care what actually happened or who actually existed, only in how an ancient Israelite audience would have heard these narratives by the time they were first put into the form we now have in the Old Testament.
The cover sets the tone right away with Allori’s famous portrait of Judith. Ever since my high-school reading of Dante’s Inferno I’ve had a thing for people who carry around human heads (especially when, like Bertran de Born in the Ninth Bolgia, they carry their own), and there’s something quite stirring about a Jewish woman brandishing the head of an Assyrian general she deviously manipulated before decapitating with his own sword. This is almost a metaphor for Esler’s strategy throughout the entire book, as he manoeuvres us into corners and severs our assumptions about what constitutes righteous biblical behavior. Judith, for her part, told no less than thirteen lies (Jud 10:12, 10:13, 11:7, 11:11, 11:12-15, 11:16, 11:17, 11:18, 11:19 (x3), 13:3), and was all the more honorable for it. This highlights the Mediterranean double standard which commends the tactical use of lying and deception against enemies like Holofernes. As Esler puts it:
“It is perfectly acceptable to rail against the lies and deceit of other people, even while you do exactly the same thing yourself. The point is to be the final winner, to promote the honor of oneself and one’s group by obtaining revenge.” (p 290)
Which is exactly what Judith does. Like David with his sling, Judith with her lies gets the enemy in a compromising position to finish him off and subsequently parade his head around in public. Esler notes the abundant parallels between David/Goliath and Judith/Holofernes — and the astounding blindness of scholars who ignore these in favor of more superficial comparisons with Jael, Elijah, and Moses. David’s insults are to Judith’s flatteries, and their vorpal swords ended up saving Israel against impossible odds. Even if the Goliath and Holofernes narratives are largely fictional (as I suspect they are), they became quickly believed with mighty theological payoff:
“Both Judith and David represent Israel as a whole in being small, inferior and frequently despised compared with surrounding nations, and often facing apparently insuperable odds, but nevertheless with God on their side, a God who comes to the aid of the weak and socially marginal and rescues them from dangerous predicaments.” (p 296)
David was a shepherd (a despised occupation in agrarian socieites, since they were roaming thieves who couldn’t be at home to protect their women) and Judith was a woman. Neither made for honorable heroes, yet that’s what the God of the Old Testament does with marginal people time and time again.
But if Esler’s social readings make admittedly powerful statements about God exalting the lowly and crushing their arrogant oppressors, they are not naively romantic. They are embedded with real-life tensions and even contradictions. In the case of David, oppressed peasants collected around him in his revolt against Saul, but that doesn’t mean he had a good relationship with peasants per se. Eric Hosbawm’s social-bandit theory is challenged rigorously by Esler, so that David’s banditry emerges less a Robin Hood protest movement and more a Sicilian mafia-like protection racket. This is seen in a text like I Sam 25:5-8, where David is not suggesting that his men protected Nabal’s shepherds from other thieves or raiders, but darkly stating that his men themselves held back from attacking the shepherds though they were completely in his power. “So reward us, or else,” being the clear threat.
The ruthless nature of David’s banditry is evident in other places, and Esler compares I Sam 27:9 (“David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the asses, the camels, and the garments, and came back to Achish”) with an account from 1930s China when bandits had looted and burned the town of Kingsuchen, killing men, women, and children, and capturing others. They were reported to have engaged in atrocities that were off the scales. Esler compares:
“What David did was essentially identical to this, except that the Chinese bandits at least left some of the townsfolk alive so they could carry the loot. David was also attacking old enemies of Judah and the other Israelites but there was no current threat from these peoples [and he was even allied at this point with the pagan Achish to boot!]. The fact that David may have been settling old scores would not have mattered much to those he slaughtered, and his band clearly kept all the booty for themselves… The narrator appears to see no evil in David’s actions, probably because this was a culture where moral duties were owed to members of one’s ingroup, and the outgroups were fair game for insult and attack.” (p 250)
The irony is compounded when a few chapters later, the Amalekites are referred to as a “maurading band” (four times in I Sam 30), though this term is equally applicable to David’s own band, indeed even more so since he had killed every man and woman he captured while the Amalekites kiled no captives at all (I Sam 30:1-2).
There are, in other words, plain realities under the socially empowering theology of the Old Testament, that often sit at odds with it. David was pursuing a goal that would enable him to become king of Israel and benefit from the exact same oppressive system Saul enjoyed. “His trajectory is towards joining the elite, not challenging it on behalf of the non-elite.” (pp 255-56) It was a revolution for the kingship, not gang-preyings on the rich. Yes, he is portrayed as the exemplar of God raising the humble and lowly, but Yahweh’s election evidently has knifing irony: David ended up crushing the humble and the lowly as often as he vanquished evil giants.
The guy I most empathize with in the Samuel narratives is actually Saul, who at least has the excuse of madness to fall back on. Against critics who think he was manic-depressive, Esler suggests that Saul suffered from anxiety disorders featuring panic attacks. He draws on crosscultural studies which find such disorders linked to feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and, interestingly enough, belief in spirit possession. Even before he fell out of favor with God, Saul had been reveling in possession trances (I Sam 10:9-13). But when he disobeyed Samuel twice (I Sam 10:8, 13:13-14; I Sam 15:3,9-11) God abandoned him and sent an evil spirit into him instead (I Sam 16:14), causing relentless terror, and (as we are to understand it) the cause of his madness. Esler notes that when the young David makes his first appearance and provides soothing therapy for Saul with his lyre, this bears remarkable similarities to relaxation treatments prescribed by modern behavioral clinicians.
An anxiety disorder admittedly makes good sense of I Sam 18-30 which is dominated by a repeated cycle of Saul eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to homicidal mania:
“Saul’s first attack on David, at I Sam 18:10-11, which signals the beginning of the king’s paranoid hostility toward him, correlates quite closely with [a documented Taiwanese case] where delusions of persecution and outbreaks of hostility were associated with an anxiety condition… Saul’s is triggered by the extreme stress of the day before when publicly dishonored by the women’s unfavorable comparison of him with David. The damage sustained to his honor induces the psychosocial stress pushing an already chronic anxiety condition into a dangerously acute phase. Thereafter, although there are times when Saul is able to attend to the voice of reason of those around him or to relent of his hostility in the face of extraordinary displays of devotion to David, in general his anxiety condition is characterized by a paranoid and indeed homicidal attitude toward his erstwhile favorite.” (pp 176-77)
Saul’s monstrous actions — like his slaughter of the priests of Nob, and every living thing in the town, in revenge for harboring David (I Sam 22:18-19) — appalling by even honor-shame standards, become understandable if not excusable on this view. Esler is to be commended for correcting the nonsense touted in academia that modern psychiatric explanations are out of bounds since they are “anachronistic” to the biblical writers’ theological worldview. A truly intercultural approach does justice to both emic and etic perspectives (see pp 166-167); that we empathize with the ancients’ spiritual explanations doesn’t mean we necessarily endorse them.
If Saul, David, and Judith are the “warriors” of this book, then Bathsheba and Tamar serve up the “sex” — or more accurately, their violators do. Esler’s readings of the narratives in II Sam 10-13 are so suspenseful that one almost stands in awe over how much dread and devastation can come out of the bedroom. (Maybe soap operas have a weird biblical basis.) In the case of Bathsheba, we again find God’s “humbly anointed” in the unflattering spotlight. David’s violation of another man’s wife occurs because he is slothfully loitering in Jerusalem instead of avenging his honor against the Ammonites. The Ammonites had shamed him outrageously by humiliating his ambassadors — spurning their courtesies, shaving half their beards, and exposing their buttocks. David’s astounding, dishonorable failure to take the field against Ammon (by sending Joab in his place) is seen by the narrator of II Sam 10-12 to be the direct cause of his liaison with Bathsheba. “Put bluntly,” says Esler, “if he had done the right thing and led his own men to war, he would have never got into the trouble he did.” (p 314)
David’s crime is explained as the deliberate scorning of the generosity of his divine patron (God) by taking Bathsheba. After all, he already has an abundance of wives; taking Uriah’s single wife amounts to the same thing as a rich man feeding a guest by stealing a poor man’s single lamb, as famously critiqued by the prophet Nathan (II Sam 12:1-7). Esler rightly notes that when commentators critique David’s adultery with Bathsheba based on this or that code of the Torah, they are only correct in a technical sense; they miss the stronger point that
“Not only had David breached his obligations to his patron but he had murdered a man and stolen his wife. David’s wrong is indeed far worse than that of the rich man in the parable who did not, at least, have the poor man murdered to conceal the theft of his lamb. Thus the text focuses on the devastation David has wrought both in his personal relationship with God and in its effect on Uriah rather than on the infringement of any specific provision of Israelite law.” (pp 317-18)
And as a result of his gross immorality, God’s wrath proceeds to steamroll over David’s entire family. II Sam 10-12 becomes almost a mild preface to the horrific sequel in chapter 13, which deals death to David’s son Amnon. This involves, of course, the rape of Tamar, which is Esler’s final chapter. It’s a fitting end to the book, because it arguably captures the alien culture of the bible best of all the eight stories, dealing as it does with women who are blamed and shamed for being violated in the worst way.
In the famous account, David’s daughter is raped by her half-brother Amnon, but not, as some critics claim, as a hostile takeover bid against Absalom as contender for the crown. The argument (put forth by Victor Matthews and Don Benjamin) is that when a man representing one household rapes a woman from another, the rapist’s household lays claim on the resources of the woman’s household. While this is a plausible suggestion, it receives no textual support in the case at hand. First of all, as Esler demonstrates, Tamar is not part of Absalom’s household; she is part of David’s, residing at the royal palace. But second, a political motive never remotely surfaces in the story. Amnon is driven by sadistic urges purely to gratify himself and ruin Tamar’s honor and innocence. He is ill and frustrated at not being able to do anything “to” Tamar (II Sam 13:2); he is tormented because of her virginity. That’s all.
For a biblical narrative, the rape is graphic, like a vicious Last House on the Left crossed with an emotionally charged General Hospital. Tamar actively resists, struggles, and protests (II Sam 13:12-14). And when Amnon is through with her, he discards her and contemptuously tells her to get lost (II Sam 13:15). This, as Esler knows, is worse than the rape itself: “Brother, this evil in sending me away is greater than what you just did to me” (II Sam 13:16). She is begging Amnon to marry her, since that’s now her only hope of salvation:
“The only way a man could do justice to a woman whom he had raped was to marry her himself, because no one else (or no one respectable) would. Tamar’s appeal to Amnon was really her last chance to prevent the destruction of her life.” (p 347)
Reminding us then that in honor-shame cultures the closest bonds are between brothers and sisters (not husbands and wives), Esler goes on to note that Tamar does the only the thing possible, moving in with her (full) brother Absalom who exacts murderous revenge on Amnon. Of course, in many honor-shame cultures Absalom would be honor-bound to kill her as much as Amnon, but in ancient Israel, a raped woman didn’t necessarily need to die (witness also Dinah in Gen 34). But in effect she dies — a social death, says Esler, since virtually no one will want to marry such a defiled woman. Absalom may have avenged the family honor, but Tamar herself is left devastated. In the context of the narrative, she is collateral damage for the punishment God lands on David’s house for the Bathsheba affair, posing critical questions to the audience about kings and princes devoted to satisfying their mean sexual urges.
I’ve reviewed six of the eight stories covered by Esler, from the “warriors” and “sex” sections — the battlefield and the bedroom, as it were. The two stories from the “wives” section (at the beginning of the book) I’ll only mention as a tease: they involve the stigmas attached to women who are unable to bear children, whether by circumstance (Tamar in Gen 38) or barrenness (Hannah in I Sam 1-2). Esler cranks these narratives up again with the right cultural cues, and I found his expose of the vicious relationships between co-wives in polygynous cultures particularly helpful in Hannah’s story.
Sex, Wives, and Warriors is, then, a tour-de-force of the Samuel narratives (and Judith) and a rare breed in biblical scholarship. Only Richard Rohrbaugh’s reading of The Prodigal Son delivers the same kind of jarring social analysis that puts you on alien soil not knowing quite who to like and despise. I’m a bit surprised by the omission of the David and Jonathan controversy, considering that Esler leaves hardly a stone unturned. Is it because he considers the idea that these men were homoerotically involved without foundation and thus not worth even mentioning? Or that he just doesn’t know what to make of it? He practically sets himself up for the discussion in tying I Sam 17:1-18:5 to the literary landscape of “Rags to Riches” stories, noting how the conclusion (18:1-5) deviates, “taking the form not of matrimony, but the love of Jonathan” (p 212). But what kind of love? To this day, I’ve not seen a Context-Group scholar address the texts which speak of David’s love for Jonathan being “greater than the love of a woman” (II Sam 1:26), and Jonathan’s alleged sexual “delight” in David (I Sam 19:1) which supposedly recalls Shechem’s erotic delight in Dinah (Gen 34:19). For a book that deals precisely with honorable vs. shameful sex, this was a sorely missed opportunity on Esler’s part, whatever side of the debate he would fall on.
In some ways this is Esler’s best book, certainly his most riveting. Like him, I spend more time in the New Testament, but the Old offers a sharper lens onto the honor-shame world, by the sheer abundance of stories with rural settings. Most of the New Testament documents were written for urban communities (so Esler notes on p 49), in a shame-based milieu, to be sure, but with more civilized polish. Jesus’ parables are notable exceptions (Esler compares his book to the work done on the parables by William Herzog in addition to Rohrbaugh; pp 24-25), and like the messiah’s folk tales, the Samuel texts draw us into places where redemption seems out of reach for all the promising theology.