Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


And was King David his prime minister?

I recently commented — as I’m not the first to notice — that an important advantage of having a monarch sitting formally on the throne, but prohibited from doing anything, is that it prevents the people wielding real power, like the prime minister, from putting on regal airs. You wouldn’t think such a silly trick would work, but it seems to.

It occurred to me that the origin of this trick could be seen in the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible. God is repeatedly referred to as the King of Kings, and he is not at all pleased when Israel insists on having a king of their own. A king? he says. Are you out of your fucking minds? A king will be making war all the time. He’ll tax your grain and livestock. He’ll take your sons for his army and your daughters to serve in his palace. You’ll be slaves. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But even then, it’s a very limited sort of kingship, because the real monarch is the King of Kings.

It’s a perfect solution, for keeping kings in their place. Even Queen Elizabeth meddles in affairs of state. What better way to keep the regalia from messing with human politics than to bestow them on a deity who is (depending on your perspective) either too busy to get involved with human trifles, or simply imaginary?

I got to think about this again in reflecting on what I find one of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the prophet Natan and King David. King David, the story goes, seduced Bathsheba, and she became, as the expression goes, with child. The problem was, her husband Uriah was a soldier out on a long-term deployment, so a pregnancy was liable to raise some eyebrows. No problem! He’s the king! He summoned Uriah back from the field, asked him for a report on the status of the front line, and then suggested he take advantage of the opportunity to see his wife. But instead, Uriah slept outside the king’s door.

David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”

The king got him drunk, but he maintained his scruples. So the king decided to have him “accidentally” killed in battle. That worked, and David could take up openly with Bathsheba.

Problem solved! One could hardly imagine anyone criticising Rameses for accidentally on purpose bringing about the death of one of his subjects; nor Nebuchadnezzar; nor Louis XIV, for that matter. The story is set up so that the death is a soldier’s death in battle. The only crime was in David’s intention.

But then comes the prophet Natan and announces God’s anathema (to be punished by the death of their firstborn child — when I read the story as a child, I of course thought, why is the child being punished for this?). Actually, he gets David to condemn himself, by presenting his deed as an anonymous case of a wealthy man who stole the little that his neighbour had.

I’ve always been amazed that people 2500 years ago were able to formulate the principle that everyone, even a king, even the most majestic of holy priest kings, must respect the basic rights and dignity of other human beings. And a king who violates this principle is no better than a common thief.

But what never occurred to me before is to think that part of the trick was to declare the absent god to be the real king, and the king on earth to be just another servant. It took another couple of millennia for the West to instrumentalise this lesson.

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