A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

An Old Testament Scholar Watches NBC’s Kings

Old Testament scholars get excited when anyone pays attention to "our" documents.  So I was anxious to watch NBC’s Kings, a contemporary story of David.  I hoped that viewers would be so enthralled that they would run right out and (re)read the accounts in 1 and 2 Samuel and heated conversations would break out around the coffee pot.  Maybe the series would be so successful that everyone would jump on the biblical-story-as-TV-series bandwagon, setting Esther in a racially-divided nation in which the heroine initially "passes" as an insider but ultimately stands up for "her" people in times of danger. I imagined Jacob’s story as Dallas, siblings fighting over family money and Rebekah looking like Miss Ellie (or maybe Glenn Close).

For those who know the biblical story of Saul and David, it is fun to watch how the details of 1 Samuel show up in the TV series.  For me, watching the first two episodes was like completing a matching game.  Here’s some of what I came up with.  

Biblical account = Kings
David = farm boy David Shepherd
War between Israel and Philistines =  war between this nation (Gilboa) and Gath (in Bible, Philistine city of Gath and Saul and sons die on Mt. Gilboa)
Saul, tribe of Benjamin/  = king Silas Benjamin
Anointing of Saul = Silas’ experience of butterflies resting on his head
Saul’s capital at Shiloh = Silas builds capital Shiloh on the ashes of war
Jonathan = Jack Benjamin, the king’s son
Jesse = David’s mother (sic)
Samuel = Rev. Samuels, preacher and royal advisor
Abner , Saul’s general = Abner, chief military advisor
Goliath = Goliath, the enemy’s tanks
Michal = Michelle, the king’s socially active daughter
Samuel late for blessing army = Samuels late for benediction at royal address
author of 1 Samuel = court reporter to whom Saul dictates his spin on events       
Samuel anoints David = Samuels wipes smudge off David’s forehead
God’s favor of David =  butterflies later rest on David’s head in shape of crown
Eliab, David’s brother = Eli, David’s brother
David plays the harp = David plays the piano (classic music)
David refuses Saul’s armor = David sheds battle gear before stealing into enemy’s camp
David loved by people = David is media darling
Saul threatens David’s life = Silas waffles on whether to have David killed
Saul has several sons= Silas has son with his mistress

Some pieces of the series have no biblical counterpart, such as Silas’ wife Rose and her brother William the money-broker. Others contemporarize the story.  For example, Jack is explicitly gay. His mother helps him womanize for the camera, but Silas is clear that Jack cannot be king if he is seen with male lovers. Silas apparently accepts his son’s sexual orientation as God-given, saying, "you cannot be what God made you, not if you’re going to be king," but being gay doesn’t fit with the royal office.

In Kings, David is a reluctant hero who hates war.  He fights only to rescue hostages, and when he stands in front of an enemy tank (Tiananmen Square?) it is to appeal to the enemy’s humanity.  He only reward he seeks is peace.  Yet, in 1 Sam. 17 David inquires about reward before stepping up; taunts Goliath; cuts off the giant’s head; and keeps his armor. In Kings, David and his brothers love each other and Eli senses David’s destiny, while in 1 Sam. 17:28 Eliab is cynical about his brother’s motives. Steve McKenzie’s King David: A Biography (Oxford, 2000) argues that these details point to a dark side of David that the text tries to spin.

Drawing these connections is fun.  But, after watching the first two episodes, I’m not so optimistic that the series will meet critical acclaim. The first episode was better than the second, but both were slow and serious. (The antics of palace guards failed to lighten things up.)  My husband, watching the show for its own sake, battled sleep.

I’ll keep watching, but I hope the pace picks up.  The biblical-story-as-TV-series bandwagon is going to need more momentum than this.

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