Friday, March 11, 2016

The Lion and Its Two Whelps

One of the people I follow on Twitter is writer Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I became aware of Aslan when he got attacked on Fox News for writing about Jesus even though Aslan is a Muslim. So naturally I read the book, and can recommend it for those who like biographies and history. A lot of what was in the book I am familiar with from reading earlier works by other authors, but Aslan gave a more thorough history of the Zealot movement than I had seen before and is very good at conveying details that let you see what is happening.

So when Aslan began tweeting about an upcoming project of BoomGen studios, a television series called Of Kings and Prophets, based on the book of Samuel, I decided to watch the first episode.

I had forgotten that I tend not to like historical dramas. It’s not a bad show, and I’ll probably watch at least another episode, but I couldn’t really get into the story. And because I couldn’t get into the story, little details that I might otherwise have overlooked began to nag at me, and one of those details involved a lion.

Following the old dictum of “show, don’t tell”, the writers concocted a portion of the story about David waking up one night to find that a large number of the flock of sheep he had been tending had been attacked by a large predator. As a result of the attack, his family was unable to pay their taxes. When David went to the tax collector to explain the situation, the tax collector ordered him to be flogged. David was able to escape flogging by volunteering to go and kill the animal, a lion. David was able to track it, kill it, and bring its pelt back to court.

Now, practically none of this is in the first book of Samuel. What we have is the account, in chapter 17, of David going to the Israelite camp to bring food to his older brothers just as Goliath has issued his challenge to fight a single champion. As David finds out, “And it will be, that the man who will kill him, the King will enrich him with great riches, and he will give him his daughter, and he will make his father's house free in Israel.”  (Schmuel 1, Chapter 17, verse 25 from the online Tanach at

Rashi’s* commentary, a very nice feature of the online Tanach, explains “and he will make his father’s house free: from the things mentioned in the laws of the kingdom,” one of which things is the obligation to pay taxes.

David does not take just one person’s word for it. He asks several other soldiers and gets the same answer. So as we all know, he goes to Saul and offers to fight Goliath. Saul is dubious that a shepherd lad can fight a man who has been a warrior since childhood, at which point David claims, “Your bondsman was a shepherd of sheep for his father, and there came a lion and also a bear, and carried off a lamb from the flock. And I went out after him and smote him, and saved it from his mouth. And he arose upon me, and I took hold of his jaw, and I smote him and slew him. Both the lion and the bear has your bondsman slain, and the uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he taunted the armies of the living God” (verses 34-36)

So here we have the elements of the story that OKAP tells: David concerned about freeing his family from taxes; David slaying a lion to rescue a lamb. Unfortunately, as several reviewers have pointed out, in the OKAP version, David comes off as the worst shepherd ever: he’s asleep when a large portion of his flock was slaughtered: enough so that his family is unable to pay its taxes. In the Bible version, of course, David is watchfully protecting his flock to the point of killing an animal as large as a lion or bear if need be to rescue a single lamb from its jaws.

But here is where we get to the detail that bothers me. The animal that is harassing David’s flock is a male lion, not a lioness. This doesn’t make a huge difference to the story in the Bible version. While the job of hunting to feed the tribe usually falls to the lionesses, not the males, male lions can hunt. Both male and female cubs are taken on hunting trips with their mothers and taught to hunt. Males, however, when they do hunt usually hunt larger game, like gazelles, not smaller domestic animals, like lambs. In the Bible version, David has rescued a single lamb from the lion’s jaws. It is not impossible that a young male, leaving his birth pride to find a new one, gets hungry along the way and grabs a lamb from a flock. But a full grown male harassing a whole flock of sheep? I dunno. That sounds to me more like the kind of hunting a lioness or two or three would be doing.

So being me, and following Reza Aslan on Twitter anyway, I tweeted him to ask why, given that lionesses are the hunters, it wasn’t a lioness killing David’s sheep. I did not get an answer.

Okay, I can understand that, in one way. It is hard to convey in 140 characters that a question is not a rhetorical one whose object is saying, “Nyaah, nyaah, you screwed up, and on a detail that anyone who ever saw The Lion King would know.”

The thing is, it wasn’t a rhetorical question, because actually, I could see some legitimate reasons for making the sheep killer a male lion, and I really did want to know if one of them applied. 

Certainly one possibility is ignorance - not knowing that the lioness does the killing, but that’s not exactly abstruse knowlege, so that to me was the least likely explanation. 

Another possible reason is translation - maybe the Hebrew word used excludes lionesses and only applies to males. It turns out that Hebrew does have separate word for lioness, but once again we have Rashi’s commentary to turn to: “Both the lion and the bear: These three words (גם את גם) are of inclusive nature, meaning a lion and its two whelps, and a bear and its two cubs.” I think the example he gives means the words are inclusive of males, females, and children of the animals named, so even though the word David uses is translated lion, it could include the lioness, just as the English word “lion” does. 

Okay, so what about tradition? David is of the tribe of Judah, a tribe whose symbol is the lion. Maybe there is a future plot point in which the lion skin that David brings back to court becomes the symbol of his tribe. Or not - the association between Judah and a lion goes back to the book of Genesis: specifically, the blessings Jacob gave to his sons at his death. “A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah. From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him?” Rashi considers this to be a prophecy of the coming of David, “He prophesied about David, who was at first like a cub: 'When Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel out and brought them in' (II Sam. 5:2), and at the end a lion, when they made him king over them.” Well, maybe something will be done with that in future episodes.

So the one explanation left in my mind is visual impact. Lions have manes. A male lion’s pelt makes more of an impact than a female’s pelt when you stride into a court holding it draped over your shoulder.  

By the time I had arrived at this point in my thinking, I had googled enough about lions to be reminded that the lion in Narnia is named Aslan, a connection I had honestly not made before. So I tweeted Dr. Aslan again, but still didn’t get an answer to my question. Okay, perhaps I should have thought a bit about how tired anyone with the name Aslan could get of Narnia references, Muslim or no. Perhaps no response is not the worst possible outcome. At least he hasn’t blocked me, which means I was able to see the link he tweeted to an interview in the Huffington Post with OKAP’s executive producer Mahyad Tousi, and while I didn’t expect an explanation of why a lion to emerge from it, I read it anyway, and encountered this exchange:

Q: On the one hand, Hollywood excludes minorities and women and, on the other hand, it has a history of perpetuating stereotypes. Women are often shown as two-dimensional sex objects. Do the show's female characters defy this stereotype in any way?
A: Yes, absolutely. Our job as dramatists is to breathe life into all the characters. It's no secret that the Bible generally doesn't provide much in terms of character psychology or motivation for its women, with a few exceptions of course. So from the start in our conversations with Adam Cooper and Bill Collage (the show's creators) and subsequently with our showrunner Chris Brancato, we were in agreement that the women of Of Kings and Prophets must play a far more central role than they are provided with in the Bible. Personally, I operate from the perspective that even in the most patriarchal societies women have been key players, even when the history books don't reflect that. I believe this is also true of scripture.
A quick search for Chris Brancato reveals that despite the promising first name, he’s a man, too. So from the start, three men agreed that, “The women of Of Kings and Prophets must play a far more central role than they are provided with in the Bible” and decided how to do that.

I was wrong. The interview did, in fact, answer my question about the lion.

*Rashi is an acronym for Shlomo Yitzchaki, 22 February 1040 – 13 July 1105), Latin name  Salomon Isaacides, a medieval French rabbi and author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and commentary on the Tanakh.