The Book of Samuel: An Audio Performance
Monologues for Nine Voices
Back to the Text 2020
Columbia Theological Seminary
Columbia Theological Seminary presents The Book of Samuel: An Audio Performance, by the students of the 2020 “Back to the Text” class, taught by Professor Anna Carter Florence.
The books we know as 1st and 2nd Samuel are meant to be read as a whole: one “Book of Samuel,” which tells the story of Israel’s transition from the time of judges, like Eli and Samuel, to the united monarchy, with King Saul and King David. The story unfolds through the lives of its three main characters—Samuel, Saul and David—but it can also be told through other characters who live at the edges and the margins of the book, observing the action from there.
That’s what you’ll hear, in this audio performance: The Book of Samuel told through the voices of different characters—some familiar, and some not so familiar. Each has a certain perspective and opinion about the main characters, and David in particular. And each has a piece of the story that only they can tell, as we imagine they might tell it.
The great writer Toni Morrison wrote words that inspired our class, as we wrote these monologues. Yes, we wanted to let the characters in the Book of Samuel tell their piece of the story. But we also wanted the story to gather up the pieces of us. Or as Morrison put it, in words we repeated many times to one another: “…gather the pieces [we are] and give them back to [us] in all the right order” (Toni Morrison, Beloved).
And now, The Book of Samuel.
1 Samuel 1:1-7:17
Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel, her firstborn and God’s answer to her prayer for children. Hannah promised to give Samuel to God to be raised in the house of the Lord at Shiloh by the priest Eli. “Hannah’s Song” (1 Sam 2:1-10), which she sings in joyful response to the news that she will bear a child, provides the grounding vision of justice for the Books of Samuel. It will also be the inspiration for the song Mary, the mother of Jesus, will sing many years later, when she learns that the child she is carrying will be called the Son of God.
Many years have now passed since Samuel’s birth, and Hannah’s song of praise to God has become an important part of her family’s story. It will continue to be. Samuel is now the judge of all the tribes of Israel, and a renowned prophet of the Lord, and Hannah, now an old woman, is looking back over a life that she knows is filled with blessing.
The voice you will hear is Youngshin Song.
It’s a day for singing. Every day is a day for singing.
My heart rejoices! My horn is raised high! There is no one holy like our God!
Ah. I still love to sing that, all these years later! My grandchildren call it “The Song of Hannah,” because I’m the one who taught it to them. Now they sing it to me. Oh, those sweet voices! My babies and grandbabies. My three sons and three daughters—and my firstborn. My Samuel.
My Samuel is the prophet in Israel. I lent him to God when he was still a child, and he grew up and God was with him. His father and I were not. But Samuel is the child that was promised to me, and I promised to give him back. I promised him to God, who heard my cry. My heart rejoices! My horn is raised high! There is no one who delivers like our God! The barren woman—she now has sons! She has seven sons of her own!
That’s who I was: the barren woman. It’s what people called me. They said I wasn’t a good wife. If I couldn’t produce a child for my husband, maybe he should take another wife instead. Yes—they actually said such things! I just wept. I prayed to God to give me my child.
Oh, how I wanted a son! An actual son. Who would look like me, share the same blood with me. I lay awake at night, imagining what he would look like: the plump little arms…the tiny fingers and toes…the weight of him, in my arms.
I wanted a son, and I wept for years. My husband tried to comfort me. And I loved him, but he was not more to me than ten sons, although he wanted to be. No: I wanted my son; no one else. Nothing could take his place. Other women, with their sons and daughters, their proud smiles, they had everything. I had nothing.
I prayed. For years. But nothing. No answer.
And then one day, when we went up to the temple, I went in and poured out my soul to God. I poured out my prayers, right there where I sat!—but I would have poured them out anywhere, by that point. I would have prayed into cups of wine and drunk every drop! The priest saw me and thought I had been drinking. But it wasn’t cups of wine. It was just prayer and tears. My song of pain. It was the only song I had, then.
But it was the last day I sang it. The priest blessed me, and we went home—and I conceived! I bore a son: my Samuel. He was as perfect as I’d imagined him. For three years, I had him with me at home, close in my arms. I held him and kissed him, day and night.
And then when he was weaned, we brought him back to the temple, to Eli the priest. I had promised. Oh my Samuel, he was still so small! But I’d promised him to God, before he was born. We sat in the temple, in the same place I’d sat before, and I told him how much I loved him, and that I would always be with him. I told Samuel that he would grow into a great man of God, because he was the child of promise—God’s promise, and mine.
Before we left that day, I gave my Samuel my song: Hannah’s song. He knew it by heart, already. I’d been singing it to him since he was born. But I told him that now it was his to keep, so he could sing it himself. The people need this song!—I told him. You must sing a song of justice and joy. A redemption song! The bow of the mighty is shattered, but the ones who stumble will find their strength!
So my little Samuel grew up, and now, he is the prophet in Israel. He sings the song where it needs to be heard: to the hopeless, to the poor, to the barren. And God lets none of his words fall to the ground; not one! Isn’t it lovely how long this song has lasted, over time?
It’s a day for singing. Every day is a day for singing.
1 Samuel 8:1-18:9
Saul was the first king of the tribes of Israel, anointed by Samuel the prophet. His reign was marked by continuous battles against Israel’s neighbors, and he struggled to do what the Lord asked of him. After David, a young shepherd, killed Goliath of the Philistines, Saul made David a military commander.
Saul is speaking here after another successful campaign against the Philistines. David’s repeated successes in battle have made him hugely popular with the people, and have begun to make Saul jealous and uncertain of David’s loyalty.
The voice you will hear is La Ronda Barnes.
I can’t sleep. I keep hearing the chants over and over again, “Saul slew his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
This was supposed to be a great day. It started out like that. There we were, parading before the people. We had another great victory over the Philistines and today was a day for all of Israel to celebrate. People lined the streets shouting, crying, throwing flowers. Many ran up to me, their eyes filled with delight, with desire. But so many more ran up to David. Right then I knew that the prophet Samuel was right. God would take the kingship from my house, the House of Saul. I also knew right then who would replace us – the House of David. And now, I can’t get that chant out of my head: “Saul slew his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”
David, the shepherd boy. He looked so young today, so out of place among my war-weathered warriors. But when the people began to cheer for him, I thought, maybe I’m the one who looks out of place. Old King Saul, surrounded by strapping young men at the peak of their strength! It made me feel old, as if overnight I’d withered and was the last to notice. How did that happen, that I went from a young man who everyone said stood head and shoulders above the rest, to an old king on his way out?
It wasn’t so long ago that I was a young boy, hearing stories from my mother about the great warriors and judges of Israel, about the God who guided them, who watched over us and loved us, but who would also open a jar of whoop-ass if we worshiped other gods. I loved those stories, even though they scared me. My mother always made it really clear that if you didn’t listen to God, She would search you out and turn you over her knee. God, I mean; not my mother. Growing up, I thought God was the big-picture version of my mother: a strict, uncompromising black woman with no patience for human nonsense. I wasn’t about to ignore my mother. I didn’t want upset God, either, or any of Her plans.
Now that I think about it, I was younger than David is now when I learned that God had a plan in mind for me: I would be Israel’s leader. I was so young then that my only job at home was to tend my father’s donkeys. In fact, my journey to becoming the first king of Israel began when the donkeys went wandering as they often did. There’s probably a hidden meaning, in that. Most of my time as king has felt like one big meandering donkey, on a trail so random, it doesn’t even make sense to the donkey.
On this particular occasion, my father, Kish, sent me and my friend Abel to look for them. So Abel (her given name is Abelina but she goes by Abel), Abel and I went looking. This time the donkeys had wandered so far that I was about to give up when Abel suggested going to see a prophet. Maybe they could give us a clue as to where wandering donkeys could be found.
Little did I know what kind of clue this prophet would give! First of all, this wasn’t just any prophet. It was the already famous Samuel. Second, as soon as we ran into him, he started rambling about me being the person God had told him about and about me and my “ancestral household” being what Israel was yearning for. To be honest, I thought he may have stood out in the sun too long: ancestral household?!
But Samuel was renowned, people in the town clung to his every word. I clung to his word that the donkeys had been found! So Abel and I accepted Samuel’s invitation to have dinner and spend the night. As we were heading back home in the morning, Samuel pulled me aside to tell me what God had told him about me. Then he pulled out this flask, and I thought, Well, that explains his behavior! He’s obviously been drinking! But it wasn’t what I thought. He asked me to bow down and then, as I felt this thick, oily substance being poured on my head, I heard Samuel say, “God hereby anoints you ruler over God’s people.” I couldn’t believe my ears. This couldn’t be right! God was anointing me?! A king?!
I learned later that the people had begged for a king so we could be like the other nations—that even though God and Samuel had warned them about how miserable life under a king could be, they still wanted one. So God eventually gave in. Now that I’m thinking about it, God was probably pretty mad about the whole thing. Maybe that’s why She was so strict on me. She knew this whole monarchy thing could be a royal disaster.
Anyway, I was anointed that very day.
And a few days after Abel and I made it home, Samuel came to town and summoned all the tribes to meet him. I had an idea it might be about the anointing, so I tried to stay in the background. In fact, I hid behind the baggage. But I should have known I couldn’t hide from God. Right then and there, Samuel told them I was the one God had chosen as king.
The next few years were pretty rocky. Israel was really a collection of tribes that wanted to become a nation and we were pretty clueless. So was I, for that matter. Add to that the constant battles with our neighbors, ninety percent of whom hated us. I was terrified God was going to turn us over a knee, any minute. But we won battle after battle, with me leading, out front, and it seemed like God was with us. I thought I was doing exactly what She wanted. And then one day, Samuel came to me and said it was over. God was going to give me the boot. I’d let my troops sacrifice some of the sheep and goats we captured from our enemies. I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it was what the people wanted. It seemed like such a small thing. Even Samuel grieved about it. But God was not happy. And when Mama’s not happy, nobody’s going to be happy.
I know God still loves me. I know I’m still Her child. But I also already know my children won’t lead Israel into the future. The chant I heard from the crowds today confirmed that for me.
Should I say any of this to David? Should I tell him that when he’s king one day—and I know he will be—he better take my advice: if he ever has to make a choice between listening to the people he leads, or listening to God, he better listen to God? Because She has no patience for that nonsense. She’ll turn David over her knee and give him the boot. Never mess with the Black Woman who holds the big jar of whoop-ass.
Should I tell David?
Maybe I’ll let him figure it out for himself.
3. JONATHAN AND MICHAL
1 Samuel 18:10-20:42, 1 Samuel 25:44
The next two monologues are spoken by a brother and sister: Jonathan and Michal.
Jonathan was the oldest son of King Saul, a commander in Israel’s army, and David’s closest friend. The text says Jonathan loved David as he loved his own soul. Michal was King Saul’s second daughter, the sister of Jonathan, and the first wife of David. Saul was frequently plagued by evil spirits, and as he grew more suspicious and paranoid of David’s power and popularity, both Jonathan and Michal were forced to choose between loyalty to their father and loyalty to David. They chose David, which infuriated their father. Jonathan managed to maintain a kind of double life at the palace, helping David secretly on several occasions, but Michal had to face her father’s wrath. After David fled into the wilderness, with Michal’s help, Saul annulled her marriage to David and married her off, instead, to a man named Palti.
In his monologue, Jonathan is speaking the night before he and his sister finally help David escape the palace for good, just after their father’s violence has gone too far. Michal’s monologue takes place many years after Jonathan’s, when she has been Palti’s wife for quite some time. After years of living separately from her father and brother and life at the palace, she has just learned of the deaths of both Saul and Jonathan on the same day at the hands of the Philistines.
The voices you will hear for Jonathan and Michal are Becca Leland and Nell Herring.
It’s a miserable thing, to see your father descending into madness. That’s the only word I have for it: madness. My father, King Saul, sinks further every day into this false story he’s created for himself—that David is secretly plotting against him, trying to take his throne. It’s absurd, and completely untrue. David would never do such a thing. He’s too honorable, too noble. Too righteous before God.
I’ve told Father a thousand times: “Why would a man who owes you his place in this court and this family want to betray you?! David has proven how worthy he is from the day we met him! At seventeen years old, he was willing to die for you, in the name of the Lord of Hosts, because no one else was brave enough! He went to face a Philistine giant with nothing but a slingshot! And every day since then, he has done nothing but serve you, Father, by fighting in your army and defeating enemies in your name! He’s killed his ten thousands for you, father! He’s married your own daughter! And every time you were sick, it was David who came with his lyre, to play and sing for you, for hours. David has shown nothing but love for you. And you show him nothing but hate.”
But Father is not rational now. My sister and I know what’s behind it. We’ve stayed up talking about it, many nights—why Father is so jealous of David, so paranoid about him. Michal and I know why: he’s terrified. Father is terrified that God loves David more than Saul, and that Saul has brought this on himself. To be honest, Michal and I think he’s right about that. But not about David. David’s not the reason the king has lost God’s favor, and he isn’t trying to steal Father’s crown. He’s just trying to be faithful. To be what he is: a man after God’s own heart. Michal and I know it. David is her husband, and from the day I met him, he’s been my best friend. David…is the best man I’ve ever known.
It’s an awful thing, to have to choose between your father and the person you love most in this world. But that’s what it’s come to. We’ve tried to ignore Father’s fits and tantrums for years. We’ve made excuses for them. Don’t worry, it’s just one of his headaches—one of his moods.
But now his angry rants have turned to violence. He flat out promised to slaughter David, whatever it takes. To hunt him down and kill him. Michal and I helped David escape, when we heard. Michal made a David shape in the bed, to confuse Saul’s men, and David climbed out the window. I’ve been meeting him in secret, in the fields where he’s hiding, to bring him updates. Those moments together, I feel like I can finally breathe. That maybe this is just a bad dream we’ll wake up from, and David can come home.
But tonight, Father threw his spear at me. He actually tried to kill his own son. He cursed me and screamed at me, and told me I’d never be king after him, not while “the son of Jesse” lives. He told me I had to choose: David or him.
I made my choice a long time ago. David is the person I love more than anything in the world. If I have to lie to my own father to keep him safe, I will.
He loves me…he loves me not…he loves me…loves me not….
Why are those words ringing in my head? Words I haven’t said in years?
It must be the shock. When they bring you the news that your brother is dead, your father is dead, you go into shock. You lose your bearings. Your mind does strange things—like remembering a man who used to be your husband, years ago.
He loves me…he loves me not….
My brother Jonathan, and my father King Saul, are dead. They died in the same battle, on the same day. It feels impossible. Can the world still exist, without Jonathan in it? I can’t imagine it, and I don’t want to. My father—he and I haven’t spoken in years. I know the world can exist without my father; certainly my world can. It has since the day he sent me away, in a fit of rage, and the irony is, he thought he was punishing me. He thought giving me to another man, to be his wife instead of David’s, was the worst thing he could do to me. But it wasn’t, in the end. Because I haven’t had to say those words in years: “he loves me…he loves me not….”
Jonathan and I were so young, when my father brought David to the palace. We were all mesmerized by him. My father, the king, couldn’t get over the fact that this boy had killed Goliath of Gath, the giant warrior who had made a laughingstock of our army—without any armor and without even blinking. David was like that. He hated to be insulted. And he exploded when anyone insulted God, especially a Philistine. My father was awed by David. Jonathan and I were, too. He was our age, and look what he’d already accomplished! But we also liked him, immediately. We—fell in love with him, I guess. Everyone did. He had…radiance. We shone, when we were with him. So of course, I was happy when my father decided that David should have one of the king’s daughters for his wife, and chose to give me. I thought my life would be brilliant, with David—that we would be this glowing pair. But it didn’t happen.
He loves me, he loves me not.
I used to say those words to myself when I was David’s wife. I was never sure, or sure enough—not in the way I wanted to be. David always kept back a piece of himself. He was quick to smile and shine in my direction, swift to take me in his arms and to bed, but not to love me, like it would break him to let me go.
The person he shone for…was my brother.
I don’t think Jonathan ever had to wonder about David. I think he knew that David had set him as a seal upon his heart—that the two of them were bound together, without question and without an end. Jonathan loved David more than anything in the world. And David loved Jonathan more than he could love anyone else. They were the ones who glowed; not me.
And the irony is, I never knew love like theirs until my father tore me away from them and threw me at Palti, to be his wife. What my father did in a fury, became for me, a blessing. My new husband cherished me. He loves me with all his heart, and I know it. I am sure of my life with him. And with David, and my brother, I never could be.
The last time I saw David was the night he had to run away, because my father was going to kill him. Jonathan told me that when he went looking for David in the morning, he found him hiding in the fields, and they fell down and wept. He said they made a covenant that God would be between them and their descendants forever.
That was my family, then: it’s all I knew a family was. And there was love; we did love each other, as we could—each of us as much as we could. Or as much as our demons would let us. But I was never sure. I never had a covenant, to make me sure. Jonathan did, with David. Tonight, it doesn’t pain me to remember that. I’m glad Jonathan knew that kind of love, before he died. I’m glad he was sure.
My brother Jonathan, and my father, King Saul, are dead. They died in the same battle, on the same day. And for the first time in years, I want to be with David, to mourn us all.
1 Samuel 25:2-2 Samuel 5:3
Abigail met David while he was hiding from Saul in the wilderness, with the small army of men—mostly outlaws—who had joined him. David and his band had been eluding Saul for months, and had demanded a protection payment from Abigail’s wealthy husband, Nabal. When Nabal refused, it was up to Abigail to save her household from David’s wrath—and she was a strong woman with intelligence and wit to match David’s.
After Nabal’s death, Abigail and David were married and she followed him into the wilderness. She is speaking here years later on the day of David’s coronation on Mount Hebron, where he will be named King of all Israel and Judah.
The voice you will hear is Yajenlemla.
This is it! This is the day we’ve been waiting for: the king’s coronation day. King David, of the tribe of Judah. The man after God’s own heart. The man of my heart.
Today, my husband will be the king, and that is how he will be known. How will I be known?! Will I be Queen Abigail? Or just Abigail?
What’s in a name, anyway? What’s in my name?
“Abigail” means “my father’s joy.” And when I was little, I was. My father loved me, took delight in me, and I was his joy. But I want to be more than that, now. I want to be David’s joy: my husband, the king.
The day David and I met—the day our eyes and minds met—I knew without a shadow of a doubt: this was a man who knew the heart of God. I’d never seen such a person. I thought, could this man know my heart?! But I knew better than to let myself dream of things that could never be. In those days, I was a woman with a husband and a household to run: servants, responsibilities—my life was set. I’ve always been sensible about those things. A person has to know what must be done, and what can be done—and the right thing to do. When I met David, I was doing what had to be done, something that only I could do: save my household and everyone in it, including the man who’d put us all into such danger: my late husband, Nabal! A man who only knew how to be rude and selfish, ill-mannered, and ungrateful.
What’s in a name….? Nabal’s name means “fool,” and that’s exactly what he was. My late husband was the biggest fool you ever saw. He lived and died a fool!
But of all the foolish mistakes he ever made, the one he made with David topped the charts! David’s messengers came asking to share whatever provisions we could offer them, and Nabal shouted insults at them. He denied a man of God our help. And David and his men were deserving of that help. They had been protecting our shepherds and sheep from harm, while sojourning among us, and David was asking what was only fair to ask for their service. But Nabal the fool messed with the wrong man. And the wrong wife, for that matter!
I wasn’t going to let that man’s foolishness destroy my household, my future, and especially not a man anointed by God. I had to act quickly. I knew I had to meet David, myself—not just to ask forgiveness for my fool of a husband, or offer the provisions. No, I had to keep David from bloodshed and avenging us with his own hands. I had to remind him of why God chose him to be ruler of Israel. I had to meet him where it mattered most. Oh, that day when our eyes and minds met! Maybe, just maybe, our hearts met that day too.
I went home that day, after our first encounter, content to have simply met David. He had listened to me and heeded my words. He even blessed me for them! Nabal the fool had never done that. But David sent me home in peace, and I went—still an honorable wife, still faithful to Nabal, even though he did not act like he deserved my faithfulness. Do you know, when I returned to the house, there he was—drunk and unaware; holding a feast for himself as if he were the king! I waited for the next morning to tell him, when he was sober. I wanted to see his face when I told him everything I had done. And sure enough, he was so shocked that his heart failed, and his face became like a stone. And ten days later, he was dead.
I knew God had dealt with him. But what would become of me? Should I be happy that I am finally rid of this fool, I thought, or should I be sad? Where will my name lead me?
When David asked me to be his wife, my heart leapt. I took it as an honor to serve this man of God. But the honor wasn’t just mine, I learned. He took another wife too, in that very same time: Ahinoam of Jezreel. So I would never be known as “the wife of David.” I was one of his wives. I was Abigail, the wife of Nabal, and now one of the wives of David. “Is it really an honor?” I wondered to myself. “Or am I at someone else’s mercy? What did this man of God see in me?”
I have followed David faithfully, through the dangers and hardships we’ve faced. Even when the Amalekites raided our camp and took the women and families captive, I knew David and his men would rescue us, and they did. Now that he is king, I can only imagine the dangers that will come our way, but I believe in him and my life is tied to his.
And now that he is king, I wonder what will happen to me and my name. Not my title: a title isn’t a name, and I don’t care if I am known as Queen Abigail or not. How will I be known to David?
A king can have anything and anyone whom he desires. But will I be the woman after this man’s heart and mind? Will I be this man’s joy?
What’s in a name? And after today, where will my name take me?
5. NATHAN THE PROPHET
1 Samuel 8:10-22, 1 Samuel 17:1-26:25, 2 Samuel 5:1-11:21
Nathan was the prophet through whom God most often spoke directly to David. Nathan was the one who revealed God’s covenant to David’s royal line, and he was the one who confronted David about his adultery with Bathsheba. Or as many interpret it, David’s rape of Bathsheba, since he was a man with power who took a woman without it, by force.
Nathan is speaking on the day he learns of the death of the soldier Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband—and that King David is the one who had ordered it. David had told his commander, Joab, to send Uriah to the front lines of battle where the fighting was fiercest, and then to draw back, so that Uriah would be killed. Nathan is now deliberating about what to do, before he confronts the king.
The voice you will hear is David Manyara.
Ah, the prophet Samuel warned us. And we didn’t listen! He said, “You don’t want a king to rule over you! These will be the ways of a king: he will take the best of your fields, and the best of your flocks. He will take your sons for his army, and your daughters for his servants.
He will even take your wives! A king will take your best soldiers’ wives, for his bed.
The prophet warned us, and even I, Nathan, a prophet myself—I did not listen! I did not want to believe it! Not of David, the Lord’s anointed. The man after God’s own heart.
I thought surely, Samuel the prophet spoke truth concerning kings in general, and Saul in particular. Saul was not fit to rule: he had no moral compass, no ethical vision. He had no heart for the people, to bring justice for them. And his obsession with David, his thirst for revenge!—the man was plagued by an evil spirit! They chased him the way he chased his father’s donkeys!
But David—David was the opposite of Saul in every way. If anyone could be the exception to Samuel’s warning, about how power corrupts, it was David. I believed that.
David was different. He was no “crown prince!” He was a shepherd, groomed in grazing fields. He was used to living rough, and alone, in the wild. He knew the ways of flocks, to protect them. He knew the ways of predators, to attack them. He battled lions as a lad, giants as a youth, armies of Philistines as a soldier and commander. This man had such promise! He loved the Lord. He respected the prophets. He had the love and respect of the people. And in battle, he had victory after victory.
I remember the day David brought the ark of God into the city, with shouting, and trumpets—oh, how he danced before the Lord with all his might! Dancing and praising, and rejoicing with the people. We thought we had finally earned the Lord’s favor. God would bless us, and our king, and the house of David, forever.
And David listened to me then! He consulted me, about right and wrong, and all the important matters before him. David wanted to build a temple, for the ark of God; and I told him, No! Thus says the Lord: I have not lived in a house since the day I brought you out of Egypt! I have been traveling about in a tent, and youwant to build me a house?! No, I’ll make youa house, instead!—says the Lord. The house of David!
The Lord said He would be a father to David, and David a son to him. His steadfast love would always be with his son. David fell on his knees, when he heard it. “Oh Lord,” he said, “how great thou art! And who am I, that you have given greatness to me?”
And now . . . our great king has committed a great sin. He is an adulterer, and a murderer. Our great King David. No better than the others.
Yes, I am angry. I know what comes next. This will not stay a private matter: who doesn’t know what the king has done? David’s personal issues are public matters, of global concern. How many times have we spoken of this?! The Lord is faithful—but turn back from following Him and He will regret He made you king! What the king takes, the Lord will take away from him. Oh, we will all pay for this, now.
And I am the Lord’s mouthpiece, I am Nathan the Prophet, and so it falls to me to tell him. The people expect it. The Lord expects it. Who else can approach the king in the name of God, and bring this hard word? None of his other counselors will dare. Some will think David was completely within his rights. Joab, for instance, David’s right-hand commander: nothing happens in this kingdom without Joab’s knowledge! That soldier, Uriah—the man who was killed—he was in his unit. Joab is almost certainly involved in this. And he will cover up what the king tells him to cover up. Joab is just as much an outlaw as the days when he and David ran wild in the forest, stealing like bandits. He just wears the general’s uniform, now.
I must go to the king and speak to him. I need a clear head for this. I need to think it through. No prophetic frenzies, no long speeches. I will keep it short. David should be addressed at his level, and his DNA has always been a shepherd boy, with a shepherd’s heart. And a shepherd’s heart is vulnerable. It breaks and is ready to die, for the sake of the flock. The way to get David’s attention has always been through the heart.
I will tell him a story; yes. A parable about a wealthy shepherd, who takes the only lamb of his poor neighbor, and slaughters it, for his own dinner. Just because he can. Just because he believes he has the power to do anything. David will hate this man.
But will he know that he is the man? He…is…the man?
I will have to get this story exactly right. And then I will have to tell it very carefully, and very well.
2 Samuel 11:1-12:24; 1 Kings 1-2
Bathsheba was a Jerusalemite woman and the wife of Uriah, an officer in David’s army. David saw her bathing on a roof while the army was at war, and plotted to take her, and then later, to make her his wife.
This monologue is set a year or two after Bathsheba has lost her first child with David—the one she conceived when he forced her to his bedchamber. Nathan the Prophet said the death of that child was David’s punishment for his sin. Here, Bathsheba is cradling her second son, Solomon, and preparing for the future.
The voice you will hear is Onica Stewart.
Everyone wants to be king, but you my sweet boy—you are going to be the king after your father. He promised me this, that our child would be King Solomon, when he grew up—that you would be king ahead of all his other sons. You, sweet boy! You’re a plump little man now, but I can see what you’ll grow up to be: a great king, wise and good. Greater than your father. Oh, yes. You will be greater than your father.
But I can’t trust your father to keep his promises. That, I’ve learned. So I will have to craft a plan to make sure I get what David owes me.
I am your mother; no one else gets to decide what my son will do. I mean, what other plan is there? What else is there for you to do? Live your whole life in the wings of this palace? Run after pretty girls and fall in love? There will be no time for that—for weak things like falling in love. And you, my son: you will not be a weak man.
I know I’ll have to work really hard to keep all those trivial distractions away from you: the games and trinkets, the chicken heads—all the stupid things that tempt the boys in this palace. The men, too. No: I am going to teach you, that life doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Because of who we are we don’t get to choose. You are already chosen my son.
If you only know all that I have had to give up just so I could be queen. Someday, maybe I’ll tell you. When you’re old enough to hear, and to learn from it. But for now, while you are little, while we’re waiting, we just need a plan to ensure you become king. I know what I’ll do. Nathan the prophet can help me with this.
Besides, he owes me. Nathan owes us. Nathan the prophet knows all about David and what he did to me. How the king snatched me from my own rooftop, my own house; sent his soldiers to fetch me to him, to do things that no man should do to another man’s wife. And I was powerless to stop him. The King of Israel took me under force, without my consent, for an afternoon’s diversion; raped me and then sent me away. I could say nothing; he was the king. And when I realized I was pregnant, David’s main concern was to cover it up, not restore the honor of my family. He had my husband killed at the front. Uriah was the love of my life. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. David snatched him from me just as he snatched me from my life.
These will be hard words to hear, my son—how I came to be your father’s wife. Because I did, and that’s how it happened. No sooner was my husband Uriah buried than the next thing I know, here comes King David, your father, moving me into the palace, trying to hide the fact that I was pregnant, with his child.
That child was my first child. He was your older brother, Solomon. It pains me that you never got a chance to meet him. I didn’t get a chance either. When your brother was born I just knew something wasn’t right.
When the midwife gave him to me, I held his cold, lifeless body close to mine, trying to warm him up. Hoping he would hear my heart beating and that his heart would beat, too. But he was just there. He didn’t move. He didn’t cry. I still don’t know what the color of his eyes were. Another piece of me died, that day. On the outside and on the inside.
We grieved for him. Your father too, in his way. Even he saw that what he had done to me had killed more than one man. “How the mighty have fallen,” he would sing in the evenings, with his lyre: “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished.” It seemed to comfort him. But there was nothing that could comfort me.
Then you came, my son, and I breathed for the first time in years. You made my heart beat again. And so, I am keeping you close. I will make sure you get the life that your brother and I would never see.
So, here I am. The wife of a man who is not the love of my life. As you grow up you will learn, that this is not the life I had planned for myself. I didn’t plan to lose my first love and be forced to marry the man who ordered his death, to cover up his indiscretion. Not once did I think I would have to go to bed and wake up next to a man I despise only to ensure I didn’t lose the only good thing that came out of all of my pain. You, my son; you!
So, you’re going to be king. You don’t have to choose because I know what’s best for you. I just need to get Nathan in on the plan, so we can decide how best to groom you for the role you will have. There’s your education to consider: maybe I will have Nathan do that. Your military training. Your etiquette lessons, and instruction in the law. As for Hannah’s Song, I will teach you that myself. Your knowledge, my son, will be greater than any king. And we will plan every inch of it, including how to get your half-brothers sidelined, so that your path to the throne is clear.
Oh, sweet boy. Everyone wants to be king; yes, they do! But you, you will be king. I am going to be Queen Mother, come hell or high water!
7. ABSALOM AND TAMAR
2 Samuel 13:1-18:18
The next two monologues are spoken by another brother and sister: Absalom and Tamar.
Absalom was the third son of David, born to Maacah, the daughter of King Talmai of Geshur, across the Jordan River from Israel. Tamar was his sister, and so also the daughter of David and Maacah. Tamar was raped and then rejected by Amnon, Absalom and Tamar’s half-brother, and David’s firstborn son, next in line to the throne. Tamar lived the rest of her days in Absalom’s house. It was for her that Absalom named his daughter, and as revenge for her suffering that he killed Amnon in front of the rest of their brothers. Absalom then went on to incite a rebellion against his father, King David, leading the northern Israelite tribes against the throne in Judah.
In his monologue, Absalom is speaking on the day he learns of his sister Tamar’s rape, at the hand of their half-brother, Amnon. Tamar will speak many years later, on the day she learns of Absalom’s death and the failure of the rebellion.
The voices you will hear for Absalom and Tamar are Becca Leland and Nell Herring.
She’s finally asleep. My sister, Tamar. I stayed with her until she cried herself out. Held her hand and hummed the song our mother used to sing to us. There is no one holy like the Lord. There is no bastion like our God. The bow of the mighty is shattered….
I had to hum it because I couldn’t say the words; I couldn’t get through them. My beautiful sister, my strong and mighty Tamar: shattered. I hardly recognized her when she appeared at my door, sobbing. I didn’t even have to ask. I knew. Amnon.
What he did to her: it’s unforgiveable. Unspeakable. I knew Amnon had sunk to the lowest rungs of debauchery—that he was practically immoral—but I didn’t think he’d do this. To his own sister.
Half-sister, I should say. We have different mothers, same father: David. Amnon’s the oldest, first in line to the throne. And if he’s ever king? I tremble for us. He’ll drain the royal treasury dry, and tax the people until they starve. We’ll be overrun by enemy armies within a year. And my father doesn’t see it.
My father is blind, when it comes to his family. The king sees what he wants to see and ignores the rest. If his children are handsome, if we sparkle at palace functions, if we smile in his presence and bow to his hand, we’re fine, as far as he’s concerned. That’s all he expects of us, all he knows to expect! My father has no idea about family. His never paid him any attention; he practically raised himself, alone in those fields. Seven brothers, and they all treated him like he was a pox on the family, nothing but bad luck. He’s always had something to prove, some giant to slay.
I’m just repeating what my mother told us. She had nothing to prove; she was a princess by birth and by disposition. Maacah: that was her name. She taught Tamar and me that we came from a long line of brilliant leaders, that it was in our blood. We learned at her knee, how to observe our surroundings, how to see the opening. How to wait for our move. How to be patient, because you must take the long view.
My mother is the one who taught me to be a king. Not my father. And my father has lost whatever right he had to this throne. He hasn’t protected us. He hasn’t tended to the beasts at our door. And after tonight…it’s time to start planning. “Be quiet for now,” I told Tamar. “We’ll watch and plan and wait for the opening. It’ll come. Amnon is too stupid, and our father is too clueless, to do what needs to be done.But we were born for this. We’ll make our move, I promise you.”
My mother taught us that when you make a promise, you keep it. Even if it costs you your life.
Absalom loved us. He’s always shown it too. He was more of a father to me than David ever was. He took me into his home, after what happened. I couldn’t stay in the palace. It wasn’t safe; Amnon was still there. And the king wasn’t going to protect me.
Absalom said, never mind. It’s better this way. And it was. We had time to talk, to make plans. We promised each other: Amnon would die, and Absalom would be king, and not in twenty years, or ten: now. Because that was justice: rapists are put to death, and fathers who do not deserve to be king are overthrown. It was how the world was supposed to work, when the Holy One reigns: the wicked are punished! We sang the song as children: The Lord deals death and grants life; plunges down and also exalts! The bow of the mighty is shattered! And the poor and wretched ones…shall be lifted from their dung heap, to a throne of honor.
It was our father who actually taught us that song. There were nights when we were children when he’d take out his lyre and play and sing; we loved the sound of his voice. But our mother—our mother taught us to look at the words, to pay attention to their meaning. She taught us there is power in being a keen observer of things: seeing the details. Watching and waiting.
So we did. We made a plan that would unfold in stages, and first was justice for me. Absalom lured all our brothers to a party in his vineyard; plied them with wine. When the right moment came, his servants slit Amnon’s throat. He was dead before he knew what hit him.
Absalom had to wait for the king to forgive him, but we knew he would, eventually: our father is weak, where his sons are concerned. And then, all that remained was to quietly build up a base for Absalom. Plant a few false stories, to switch the people’s loyalty from David to him. Capture their hearts and appeal to their worst fears. Make himself the man of the people. It was easier than we thought, but then Absalom was always charming. He shone in front of a crowd. And he was more handsome than any man you’ve ever seen. His hair, those bright curls.
He had a following before you knew it, and then an army, and then a rebellion. The king was shocked. He couldn’t believe his own son would defy his father like this—that he dared. But now Israel was with Absalom, and rising up to fight Judah. We looked to see which way the battles would go, whether our side could take Jerusalem, and we did. But it didn’t last.
My father’s old army commanders were shrewder than we thought. They doubled back, and caught the rebels by surprise. And then they killed Absalom in the forest. His donkey wandered back home to us, without him.
We knew the risks—that this could happen. And now it has. And he is dead.
But this is not the end for my brother Absalom. His daughter is my namesake: a beautiful little girl named Tamar. Absalom said she was the apple of his eye. Now she’ll be mine. I’ll tell her the stories she needs to keep. I’ll teach her how to look at the words. I’ll show her there’s power in being a keen observer of things. And she’ll teach all this to her children. She’ll tell them the stories.
1 Samuel 26:1-25, 2 Samuel 2:12-3:39, 2 Samuel 8:15-1 Kings 2:9
Joab and his two brothers were nephews of King David, and first joined him when David was hiding from Saul in the wilderness. When David became king, he placed Joab over the entire army of Israel, and kept him there, even when Joab made the serious political error of killing Abner, a successful commander from Saul’s army, who had defected to David. Joab did David’s behind-the-scenes work: he frequently killed and had people killed for the king. He also managed to retain his power in the court even after he was officially replaced as commander of David’s army.
Joab is speaking many years after these events, when David is an old man on his death bed, and Solomon has just been crowned the new king. Joab, who did not support Solomon, is anticipating that he is about to be executed for supporting David’s other son, Adonijah, instead.
The voice you will hear is Joshua Woodsmith.
If you want something in life, you have to take it.
In the end, that’s all that matters. The strongest survive, and the ones on top do whatever’s necessary, no matter the cost.
David knew that when he was younger. That’s why I joined him in the first place: I could see this was a man worth following, and this was a unit where I could find my place, rise through the ranks. And I did. I liked the discipline of it; the absolute clarity. Do what your superiors tell you. Honor the regiment. Follow the order, no matter what it is. That’s how you win, in battle. And when you win, you take it all.
David knew that when we were young. When we were outlaws, living by our wits in the forest, stealing from our own people when we had to—David knew you had to win, at all costs. No matter what it took. He demanded our loyalty. But he earned it, too. He had courage like I’d never seen.
The man had no fear! He’d charge into the fray, roaring, and we’d charge right after him. He made you feel there were no limits to what we could conquer! No enemy was too fierce. Not even the king’s royal army, when they were hunting us night and day, Saul ranting on about how much he hated David.
We knew we’d win, in the end. Wear them down, with our tactics. We had the discipline and the patience. And we had God on our side—or David always said we did. He always cared about that. I didn’t. God is a complication, in war. And our Jehovah . . . is fickle, anointing one man, and then another. Picking weak men, like Saul. But David sang songs of God the warrior, shattering the bow of the mighty. It inspired the men. It even seemed to inspire the holy Jehovah, to get in gear and man up. Because with David as our commander, we won heaven and earth. We took the throne. We made David king.
I was at his side, the whole time. His right-hand man. David knew I’d do any job that needed doing, no matter what it was; no questions asked. He knew I was necessary to him. A king can’t do his own dirty work. Some of it, he can’t even know about. He needs an outlaw general, once he enters the palace, to keep him in power. I was fine with it: I’d hitched my chariot to David. I had to be willing to do what he couldn’t. And if you want the truth, I don’t regret a moment of it. Not Abner’s death, not Uriah’s death, definitely not Sheba or Amasa, those rebels with their sorry attempts to take over the throne. And I definitely don’t regret what we did to all the Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites—any of those “ites”—or the Philistines, for that matter—when we conquered their cities. I’d slaughter them all over again, for the David I knew back then.
But David got soft. He began to regret his decisions—to repent! That ridiculous prophet, Nathan. He convinced David he was sinning, and David was only doing what all kings do. The king can take a woman if he wants her; my God, what else is power for?! But David believed it. He cried, “rent his garments” . . . pathetic. And when that business with his children started up—Absalom and Amnon and Tamar—David was weak. He didn’t see it coming, and he wouldn’t see it through. Boys will be boys. They were just doing what their father taught them. And one of those boys had to prove that he was stronger, that he had what it takes.
I knew it would be Absalom. He was the only one of David’s sons who had the discipline or patience to win. It takes guts to kill a sibling. But it had to be done, if the kid was going to win, and I don’t fault Absalom for taking justice as he saw it. I even understand why he made a play for the throne. The ironic thing is he used our playbook to do it: rode around collecting followers, cultivating his influence, stirring up the malcontents. We did the same thing to Saul. The difference is we knew how to win. We were wilderness outlaws. He was a palace prince. But I admired the boy’s pluck, right up to the moment I killed him. I had to—not just because he’d been the one to lead the rebellion. The kid actually rode his horse into a tree branch and got stuck. He couldn’t move, and he looked so weak and helpless, I couldn’t stand it. So I put him out of his misery.
David didn’t take it well. He cried more that day than he had with Nathan the prophet: “Oh Absalom, my son!” Worse, he did it in front of the men, and made us look like fools for risking our lives, to put down the rebellion his son had started. I was the one who made him repent, that day. Told him to go to the city gate and speak to the soldiers, or we’d never fight for him again.
I think that was when I realized it was ending. David couldn’t last. And his son Solomon, Bathsheba’s kid? He was a city boy. He didn’t know the first thing about power. The kid lived in his head. He could never be king; I wouldn’t allow it. The older son, Adonijah: he was making a play for the throne, and he seemed willing to do what was necessary. Those of us who’d followed David into the wilderness, who’d known him before: we all agreed: Adonijah was stronger. I told the boy I’d do what it took to get him the crown. It’s what I’d always done for his father.
And I don’t regret it. David’s on his deathbed, now, and I have to say: I didn’t expect it, that the Jerusalemites would win this one. Nathan, Bathsheba, Zadok: all their whispered conversations behind closed doors, about getting Solomon on the throne. And now, they’ve pulled it off. I just saw it with my own eyes: Solomon riding the donkey through the city streets, the people cheering, like they used to, for David. Solomon’s the king. And Adonijah’s already groveling at his feet. I know what that means.
They’ll be here for me, in a few minutes: Solomon’s soldiers. I know what David will have told him. “Kill Joab. He is not to be trusted.” It’s what I would have told Solomon myself.
I’m ready. A soldier is always ready.
I still believe I made the smart play. For the first time, it was the wrong one. That’s how it goes. We all took what we wanted. If I couldn’t stop them, that’s on me.
2 Samuel 3:6-11, 21:1-14, 1 Kings 2:10-12
Rizpah was a concubine of Saul, and the mother of their two sons, Armoni and Mephibosheth. After Saul’s death, Rizpah’s sons and the five sons of Merab, Saul’s daughter, were the last in the line of Saul—and it cost them their lives. All seven of Rizpah’s and Merab’s sons were handed over to the Gibeonites as payment for blood guilt: war crimes Saul was said to have committed years ago. David was the one who agreed to let them be executed, sparing only Jonathan’s son, because of the covenant between them.
Rizpah is speaking here on the day after King David’s death. She is standing at the tomb of Kish, Saul’s father, where her sons’ remains, as well as the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and the five sons of Merab, are buried.
The voice you will hear is Greta Dunn.
The king died last night. King David. The nation is in mourning. Men weeping in the streets. Women wailing. I can hear them trying to sing that old song: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his ten thousands.”
It’s no victory song, now. They can’t make it one by singing it. You can’t bring back the past, your days of glory. Long gone. And my days of glory—they ended the day I lost my boys, my two sons. They were my glory. My joy and my life. I’ll shed a tear for David, for old times’ sake, the David I knew years ago. But I won’t mourn him. I mourn my sons, and I will, for the rest of my life. My sons were murdered.
Oh, I had such plans for them, when they were growing up! Saul was their father. King Saul. He was my husband. And yes, I was a concubine; I was never going to be the top wife or Saul’s queen. But my boys were his sons, and they had royalty in their blood. They came from “the house and lineage of Saul,” and it made me proud.
They knew how to behave like the king’s sons should behave. I saw to that. And they were good, too. Justice-minded. They followed in the ways of the Lord, just like I raised them. They knew Hannah’s Song by heart. I taught it to them, when they were biddy things, and oh, how they made me laugh! “The bow of the mighty is shattered, Mama!” they would shout. “The stumblers are girded with strength! For not by might does a man prevail, Mama!”
They didn’t know. A king will take the best of your fields and flocks. He’ll take your daughters, and even your wives. And he’ll take your sons, if it serves his purposes.
David is the one who gave up my boys. For blood guilt, he said: something Saul did years ago, that had to be atoned, or the Lord wouldn’t lift the famine from the land. David said the only way to end it was to pay the blood guilt: give the Gibeonites what they wanted, the last of Saul’s house: my sons. And Merab’s sons—she was Saul’s daughter; she had five boys. Merab and I pleaded with David, but his face was like stone.
I had never seen that side of David. People always said it was there; David was a soldier. He’d been to war, destroyed cities, done his share of killing. But I never saw that part of him. I saw David the little shepherd boy, who killed Goliath with a rock when the whole army was scared to do it. Oh, the courage that boy had! You never saw anything like it. His smile could light up a room. So could his music. David would play his lyre and it would soothe Saul like nothing could, take him out of his moods and his headaches. David’s music made you dance, and then it made you cry. He was irresistible.
What I remember is that boy had an anointing, a purpose. He was born to be a king. Saul wasn’t, not in that way. But David, he had greatness. And he grew into a great king. Even with his flaws, and he had plenty. Oh, yes! David loved a little too far afield. Hmmph. That man went way past where he should have been. But he loved God with all his heart, and we loved him.
I will never understand…how that David—how he could let it happen. Let them take my sons, murder them, and tell me it was God’s will! It was not God’s will. It was men, doing what men do. Making deals, and wars, and more deals and more wars. It was men taking what they want, and pretending God wants it, too.
I will never forget that day. Never.
They took the seven boys and brought them to the place where they were going to kill them. I followed the crowd. I remember standing there alone, waiting. I needed my sons to know their mother was with them. But that was all I could do for them: promise not to leave. And I didn’t. I stayed through all of it.
I remember crying my eyes out, screaming at the top of my lungs, “How can you do this? How can you execute my sons and leave them there, on this mountainside hanging? This is a dishonor and disrespect to my sons. How dare you! How dare you do this? How dare you all disrespect my children! How dare you?…how dare you?”
I remember standing out there all night to protect the bodies from the wild animals and the birds. I was swinging at those birds with my stick. Screaming at them, “Get away, birds! Shoo! Shoo!” I stayed all night, and all the next day and the next night. And then I just stayed, all through the barley harvest, and the rains and the hot sun. I kept watch, guarding over the bodies. Someone had to. Merab, she wasn’t there. I don’t judge her; it’s a terrible thing to look at your sons’ bodies and see what people did to them—to know they suffered. Merab couldn’t do it. But I was born for this: to take the heat and fire. I am Rizpah. My name means “Hot Stone.” I don’t burn. I hold the burn. I’m a rock.
So I stayed. I stood right there, from April to October, guarding those bodies. I hardly rested, just spread out my sackcloth and watched over my boys. People thought I was crazy. They told King David, and one day he saddled his donkeys and came to see for himself. He saw it wasn’t right, letting those bodies rot in the open. It was like what they did to Saul and Jonathan. The only difference was now, David was the one who let it happen.
The David I saw that day, the one looking at me with my stick—that was the David I knew. The David who took a rock and threw it at a giant, because no one else would; who didn’t need a king’s armor, because he had stones and a sling shot! That David, he finally showed up, and he ordered the bodies to be taken to the tomb of Saul’s father. He ordered the bones of Saul and Jonathan to be brought there, too.
David thought he was done, then: paid the blood guilt, buried the bodies all nice and proper. He wasn’t done. I am Rizpah. I’m the hot stone he has to carry, now. And I stay, and I remember, and I guard this tomb.
A king will take your sons. It makes no difference if you live in a palace or a village. Or if you’re the king’s son yourself.
I’ll shed a tear for the David I knew. May that David rest in peace.
The bow of the mighty is shattered. But the stumblers are girded with strength.
God is our shield, our rock, and our salvation.
You have been listening to “Columbia Theological Seminary presents The Book of Samuel: An Audio Performance,” by students in the 2020 Back to the Text class, taught by Professor Anna Carter Florence. The students’ names, in order of appearance, are Youngshin Song, La Ronda Barnes, Becca Leland, Nell Herring, Yajenlemla, David Manyara, Onica Stewart, Joshua Woodsmith, and Greta Dunn.
This audio performance was produced by Becca Leland. Website design by Joshua Woodsmith and Becca Leland.
To hear additional commentary on The Book of Samuel: An Audio Performance, and learn more about the students, the class, and the creation of these monologues, please visit www.backtothetextCTS.org.
We would love to hear from you, and any of your comments and questions. And thank you for listening.