The Bible As Literature?
Lately I’ve been writing an article on crucifixion for a project I’m working on. This rather gory subject has led me to examine Old Testament passages which refer to hanging someone “on a tree.” These passages may refer to a number of things: hanging the corpse of someone who is already dead as a very public warning to others, actually impaling a living victim on a pointed stake and letting him die slowly, or crucifying someone by suspending them by their hands or arms. While it’s not always clear which form of “hanging” is in view, the Bible is very clear that any form of hanging on a tree is a sign of divine judgment:
And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)
In examining all these passages about hanging, I noticed a number of instances of people being hanged in the books of Samuel.
After Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, they cut off his corpse’s head and hang his body from the walls of a nearby citadel. In order to rescue Saul’s body from this accursed fate, some of his most loyal subjects then embark on a covert mission to recover his body and give him a proper burial (1 Samuel 31:8–13).
With Saul and his eldest sons now dead, David and Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth begin fighting a civil war for the throne of Israel. This war comes to an end when two rogues, acting on their own, murder Ish-Bosheth in his bed and take his severed head to David. They think David will reward them for this, but David punishes them for shedding innocent blood by killing them, cutting off their hands and feet, and publicly hanging their mutilated corpses (2 Samuel 4:12).
When David’s son Absalom rebels against David and seizes the throne, David eventually regroups and defeats Absalom’s men on the field of battle. As Absalom flees through the forest on his mule, he gets his “head” entangled in an oak tree and is left dangling in midair as his mule runs out from beneath him. When David’s men eventually find Absalom in this predicament, they murder him (2 Samuel 18:10–17).
This last passage is especially rich with the symbolism of poetic justice. While Absalom’s hair is not specifically mentioned in this passage (only his “head”), his previously mentioned pride in his long hair (2 Samuel 14:25–26) leads the reader to assume that it was his hair that got entangled in the branches of the tree. The mule he was riding is the symbolic mount of kings, yet it apparently rejects his kingship when it abandons him. Finally, Absalom’s getting hung in a tree shows that he is under God’s curse for rebelling against his father and God’s anointed king.
In fact, all of these “hangings,” as a symbol of divine judgment, reinforce the central message of the books of Samuel, which is that David is the rightful king of Israel because God Himself placed David on the throne.
If we set aside for a moment that the books of Samuel are part of the Bible, we can appreciate the fact that they are a brilliant work of political propaganda. David’s enemies would have had plenty of reason to question the legitimacy of his reign. They would have argued that the descendants of Saul are the rightful heirs to the throne and that David wrongfully seized the throne through civil war and assassination. They would also have celebrated Absalom’s rebellion as a sign that David was finally getting his just deserts.
Against these views the writer of Samuel makes it abundantly clear that Saul and his family were rejected by God in favor of David. Saul’s downward spiral and repeated failures end in his suicidal death and the public hanging of his corpse—abundant evidence that he is under God’s curse. Yet far from celebrating his death, David kills the foreigner who falsely claims he had assisted in Saul’s suicide (2 Samuel 1:1-16). Likewise, Saul’s heir Ish-Bosheth is shown repeatedly to be unfit for rule until he is eventually murdered in his bed. Again, David does not reward the murderers of his political rival but kills them and hangs their corpses publicly. Then there’s Absalom, who reveals his accursed state by getting himself hung in a tree. Over and over again, David’s enemies conveniently die in an accursed state.
Some people dismiss these symbolic evidences of divine judgment as being too convenient to be historically accurate. The assumption seems to be that if these subtle details all serve to advance the book’s purpose of justifying David’s kingship, then they are more likely to be the clever embellishments of the author than a true reporting of actual events. This is why so many “Bible as literature” courses seem to question the historical accuracy of the Bible. While they claim not to be concerned with historical accuracy at all and that they are merely analyzing the literary aspects of Biblical narratives, the subtle implication is that if the Bible’s history is not completely disinterested and unbiased, it cannot be completely trusted.
Biblical narratives such as the books of Samuel or the four Gospels are anything but disinterested catalogs of historical events. On the contrary, they offer theological interpretations of those events and present the historical details within that theological framework. Recognizing that framework and appreciating the literary artistry with which it is presented does not require us to conclude that the historical details are nothing more than clever fictions. We can appreciate the Bible as literature while also recognizing it as the Word of God.
After all, why would we expect God’s Word to be anything less than a literary masterpiece?