I’m still reading The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues. A. Graume Auld wrote the chapter on the “Former Prophets” (the historical books). He mentions a man named Thomas Morgan, who lived in the eighteenth century. According to Auld, Morgan “was critical of the Bible’s theological judgments.” For example, “He suggested that Samuel’s attitude to Saul was motivated by jealousy [and] that Ahab and Jezebel were authentic humanists and heroes of tolerance in face of fanatical prophets” (58). Morgan seems to presume that I Samuel’s negative presentation of Saul is from the hand of Samuel himself.
I’ve seen a similar sort of argument by modern scholars, though I can’t exactly pinpoint where. In one of the Jewish Publication Society commentaries on the Torah, a scholar states that I Samuel 15 was a little too rough on Saul. Samuel told Saul in the name of the LORD to slaughter everyone and everything among the Amalekites (the cherem), and Saul preserves the king and some animals. He sacrifices the animals to the LORD, however. According to the scholar I read, Saul may have genuinely believed that he was following Samuel’s instructions, for he wasn’t keeping the animals for himself. He was sacrificing them to God. He was doing cherem, only in a different manner. The scholar’s point was that the author of I Samuel 15 was trying to make Saul look bad with any tradition he could find, even if Saul wasn’t a horrible person.
Baruch Halpern’s David Secret Demons is the same way. Halpern reads between the lines of I-II Samuel and sees a David who was a bloodthirsty thug. I-II Samuel was written to defend David against that charge, Halpern maintains. So Halpern is not a minimalist, for he believes in the existence of a historical David. But he doesn’t embrace the spin that the author of I-II Samuel places on him.
That’s a problem I have with how conservative Christians approach the maximalist/minimalist debate: they act like they’re proving Christianity when they show that David and Solomon could and did exist. But they’re doing no such thing. Even if David and Solomon existed, that doesn’t prove the Bible’s theological spin on them.
At the same time, whenever I read the Bible, I don’t go out of my way to look behind the text. I tend to go with the theological judgments of the biblical text itself. Saul may or may not have been as bad as the Bible portrays, but I can still learn a lot about good, evil, morality, and human flaws by sticking with the world that the story presents to me.