THE THRILL OF THE CHASE
In the case of David and Saul in the cave, we see a stronger power at work than all the weaponry used to defeat evil in modern storytelling
Many of us have recurring nightmares in life. One of mine is taking a maths exam without adequate revision and staring blankly at the page; come to think of it, this is less a nightmare than a flashback. A common dream is of being chased by an unstoppable person who wants to kill you; somehow you can’t move fast enough to get away and any weapons used in self-defence seem to make no difference. It was this primal fear that the makes of the Terminator franchise tapped into.
Terminator’s producers claimed they wished to show how violence is sickening and degrading, yet in common with most filmmaking they ran into a moral quagmire: how to show that violence is wrong when the solution you come up with is superior violence? The issue of whether screen violence encourages people to behave in more aggressive ways in real life is hotly debated. On one side lies the argument that storytelling has always been replete with violent images, from the Bible through Shakespeare to Hollywood and so there is no unique case for today’s filmmakers to answer.
This is supported by the claim that unstable people who prone to violence would remain so even if our storytelling was more peaceable. On the other side is the claim that visual images influence behaviour; why otherwise would we pour millions into advertising? There is research to indicate that the behaviour of children is markedly altered by exposure to screen violence.
One thing is sure, our culture is most influenced by storytelling which emerges from the United States and one of the nation’s prevailing assumptions is that violence or the threat of violence is the safest way to ensure peace. The accepted place of the National Rifle Association in guiding policy over liberty and crime is proof of this and a series of despicable gun massacres has failed to unseat their place at the table because their argument that making more weapons available to keep the peace is widely shared.
1 Samuel 24 picks up the story of David on the run from Saul. As Israel’s first king, there had been high hopes for Saul, but after a promising start, his character defects began to emerge and shape the nation’s life before God. The prophet Samuel had declared to Saul with dramatic visual effect that the kingdom would be torn from his possession and given to another; ever since then, Saul had been on the look out for the heir apparent whom Samuel had anointed in secret for fear of reprisal by Saul. With intuitive sense, Saul’s suspicion had fallen on David, an adopted member of his household. David was young, handsome, intelligent, charismatic, a brave soldier and a romantic poet. Scripture says the Lord was with David. Not half. David had everything, including ambition, which played its own quiet role in his desire to take on Goliath. In politics, the merest scent of fresh talent is keenly detected by those who wield power and their response is usually either to co-opt it or to kill it. Having failed with the former, Saul was now set on the latter.
Saul received intelligence about David’s whereabouts and took with him three thousand men to finish the job. In the manner of a more recent and notorious manhunt, he spent fruitless time searching caves and valleys for one man and his outlawed network. At one point, tired of walking and with a full bladder nagging away at him, Saul disappeared discretely into a cave to relieve himself away from the view of his troops: the very cave where David was lurking. And so we arrive at a pivotal moment in the history of Israel, with David and Saul at adjacent urinals. We can imagine the humour and innuendo with which this story was invested as it was gossiped across the nation!
The evidence that David’s men encouraged him to kill Saul from behind while he was spending a shekel says something about David’s unspoken standing with the chasing army. David’s followers clearly felt that Saul’s soldiers were reluctant hunters, driven by the paranoia of one disintegrating man. After all, in defeating Goliath, David had saved the lives of many soldiers who would otherwise have gone into battle demoralised. He was probably something of a celebrity with them.
David’s response to the cajoling of his men is fascinating. They were in no doubt that it must be God’s doing that Saul had used his cave as a toilet and that David should seize the moment and kill the king; God had delivered Saul into his hands. Furtively, David creeps up to Saul and we can almost hear his mind racing as it oscillates between choices: to kill or not to kill. In what appears to be a classic human compromise he cuts off part of the coat that Saul had hung on the toilet door and then returns to his men deep in the cave to rebuke them for tempting him to commit regicide.
This fleeting and bewildering moment saw David acting in character: spiritual and ambitious at the same time. Very spiritual to say that that you should not kill the one whom God has anointed. But also cunning, emerging from someone who had been similarly anointed and had reason to ward off justifications for future assassins.
Even if David had an eye to these pragmatic concerns, there is no doubting his integrity and faith. In spurning the chance to kill Saul, he condemned himself to many more months on the run, with its attendant hardships and anxieties and he risked the rebellion of men who believed he had spurned God’s will in not killing Saul. Trusting in an invisible God to deliver you against three thousand men is faith indeed. It was mature of David not to take the bizarre co-incidence of Saul’s visit to the cave to relieve himself as divine guidance to kill him. I doubt Gideon would have done the same. I’m not sure we would, if our lives were at stake.
The ending to this affair is strangely anti-climactic. Eventually Saul died in battle at the hands of the Philistines. His son Jonathan also died, which caused David particular grief, given their enduring friendship. And so the moment of his accession to the throne was chillingly overshadowed by a deep and abiding sadness.
Nevertheless, in the story of David and Saul in the cave, we see a stronger power than all the weaponry used to defeat evil in modern storytelling: the power of turning the other cheek. It’s not spectacular; it can look silly; it might expose us to the ridicule of more strident advisers around us; it may condemn us to more suffering; it may end in anti-climax, but it is better than mopping up the blood like they do at the end of Hamlet or making a body-count at the end of Die Hard. Most importantly of all, it brings vindication from God, who will have the last word.
David lived up to the words of Jesus before he uttered them: love your enemy; bless those who persecute you. He never treated Saul as less than human, as we are tempted to do with those we hate or who hate us. He respected him and showed Saul a better way which even he, in his fear and self-absorption, could see was right.
We can be grateful we do not face life or death decisions like David had to make, but we are often challenged by spur of the moment choices like his. If we are not grounded in the love of God, we are likely to succumb to the temptation to strike someone, verbally, if not physically. We are shaped by our culture and this defines personal strength by our aptitude to fight back rather than hold back; to overcome rather than reconcile. The next time we are tempted to do this, it may be worth remembering David’s dilemma and how he resolved it. Scripts like this would never get past a studio executive because they would never pack a cinema, but the people who practice it are quietly witnessing to, and filling, a coming kingdom of peace and reconciliation.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?