Kings – The Bible’s Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones, based upon George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, ranks among the most popular shows on cable. With its sophisticated world building, variety of characters, and complicated political intrigue, the show and books have proven themselves quite adept at enticing a culture which often derides fantasy as childish. Perhaps it is simply an aftereffect of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the wave of Geekdom ascendant.
Either way, one cannot speak of Game of Thrones without talking of its major faults, especially for those of a more Christian upbringing. The New York Times may have termed Martin the new Tolkien, but for all the similarity in trappings, and stretched similarities they are, the substance of the two works couldn’t be different.
Where a dark cloud only threatened all that was good and noble in the Lord of the Rings, the dark cloud appears to be the very essence of Westeros, the world of Game of Throne. None of a noble character can stand tall amid the multitude of morally corrupt or at best overly pragmatic players of the game of thrones. One soon wonders if a turn for the best will ever be allowed to appear. Even the highly touted political intrigue is really only varied and subtle changes on the one idea that power does what power wills. And of course, the sex is gratuitous. One is left thinking the only difference between a harlot and a lady is that one doesn’t pretend to be noble.
However, there is no doubt that the show and the books have tapped into the imaginations and desires of the culture. This may be more of a condemnation of the culture, but I’ll allow others to discuss that.
I was once smitten with the books and continue to dwell on them from afar, especially in light of their and the show’s popularity. My main point of reflection, though, comes from comparisons of the material to the scriptural narratives of Kings (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles). The substance of the two is quite different, and the biblical vs. novel style is pronounced, but superficially the content is quite similar – political intrigue, families struggling for power, wars and battles over succession and independence, men with questionable morals and scenes of brutality and gratuity.
While the substance of the two works are as different as night and day – Kings never forgets that the events are relative always to the following of God; Game of Thrones never forgets that all that is true, good, and beautiful is only fleeting and only power abides – I would like to outline the important superficial similarities. I think these are important, even though superficial, because they could allow one to find a way to bring the biblical tales to life for jaded modern man.
A Host of Characters
Among the aspects of Game of Thrones that makes it most delightful is the host of characters. There is the noble Lord of the North, Eddard “Ned” Stark with his brooding bastard John Snow and his feisty daughter Arya and her naïve sister Sansa. The drunkard King, Robert Bartheon, sits upon the Iron throne with his delightfully savvy master of coin Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. The witty and bawdy Tyrion “the Imp” Lannister rides about the kingdom seeking some meaning and a good woman to lie with. His sibling Jaime mocks all as the greatest swordsmen in the land while sleeping with his sister Cersei who seeks to expand her power as queen and hide the incestuous heritage of her children. And this is only a small sampling of the first book.
Multiplicity of characters is a key facet of the Kings narratives. Generations of characters appear with their own retinue, allies, enemies, and consorts. Scriptural parallels aplenty can be found among the Books of Kings for the characters from A Game of Thrones.
If one wishes to see a king like Robert, one need only look to Saul. Both Robert and Saul rose to their thrones in honor and ended their reigns in shame. The raising of Saul to the throne was a great shift in the life of Israel, moving them from a loosely bound tribal nation to an empire; Robert’s reign is overshadowed by his rebellion and overthrow of the crazed Targaryens and he must still contend with those who would question his rule. With the anointing of David, Saul becomes obsessed with removing this threat to his power; Robert too is consumed with destroying the last of the Targaryens claimants.
In the great King David, we see the archetype of Ned Stark. Each is a warrior, but with a great devotion to the noblest ideals. David is the man after God’s own heart; Ned is the pious Lord of the North who keeps to his patrimonial old gods. Both would rather make apparently foolish decisions in the service of their ideals.
The parallels are almost endless. Intrigue and a glib tongue surround both Littlefinger and Hushai the Archite (2 Samuel 15:32-37, 17:1-14). Westeros’ many overly zealous men of war find their model in Jo’ab (2 Samuel 3:22-30, 11:14-25, 18:9-15, etc.), David’s barely controlled beast of a general. Religious characters of both horrific and noble ideals pepper Westeros. In Kings, one sees both the great religious ideals present in Elijah and Elisha with more demonic influences in the priests of Baal and even more obscure intentions in others (1 Kings 13:1-31).
But one need not limit the Books of Kings to parallels with Game of Thrones. Think of Solomon’s rise to greatness and his fall, Mannaseh’s conversion from depraved idolatry (2 Chronicles 33:1-17), Josiah’s noble following of the law even knowing of Judah’s inevitable fall (2 kings 22:1-23:27). Jonathan, son of Saul, appears as the model of loyalty, both to his enraged father and his close friend David. Bathsheba is introduced as a stumbling block to David but rises as a power beside her husband and son. The characters are endless.
Where many see the bible as an extended morality play, these men and women are far from being simple caricatures of virtues and vices. Even the greatest among them were burdened with foibles which brought them to their knees. The Books of Kings depicts the human struggle with sin with all of its warts though never loses sight of the light man is to attain. Game of Thrones depicts these warts but fails to shine out the light.
The Books of Kings are probably overlooked as a description of political intrigue. However, one shouldn’t allow its simple style to hide the complicated political struggle that it rests upon.
From the beginning we see the movement from tribal nation to kingdom with Saul. This isn’t simply a shift in power structure, but the further forging of an identity. As a tribal nation, Israel was mixed with other kingdoms. Saul’s first duty was to clean up this situation, but he soon takes to enjoying the spoil of the pagans, garnering rejection by God (1 Samuel 15).
In the fallout another is anointed – David. David is first welcome into Saul’s house, but the king later seeks to murder this prophesied usurper. Between the two is Jonathan, a man loyal to his father but loyal also to David, his friend and the Lord’s anointed. David is ultimately run out to hide in the mountains of Judah and then off into the south to become an exiled mercenary.
When Saul and Jonathan die in battle, David returns to claim the throne, but not easily. The northern tribes of Israel immediately rebel under Saul’s remaining son. David ends up victorious, but the northern tribes will later rebel often, the cry of “Israel to your tents” ringing out from various agitators.
And this is only the beginning of David’s reign. Much more is to follow. I hope you get the idea. This is not some simple moral tale, but a great epic of men in constant struggle to keep peace and order. True, over all is the cloud of God, seeking to lead men to seek him wholeheartedly and declaring punishment for those who fail him (including David), but this does not change the political intrigue.
Compare this to A Game of Thrones. The Iron Throne, the seat of the king’s power, changes hands from king to regents multiple times over the series. The whole kingdom is always either in a state of simmering malcontent or open rebellion. Characters find themselves unable to reconcile family, friends, and ideals. Outside forces are always looking for possible ways to gain the upper hand in the kingdom’s chaos. Does any of this sound familiar?
While modern readers are used to a much more nuanced, subtle, and detailed style of intrigue which the scriptures’ simplicity can appear to eschew, this is really only a matter of style. The political substance of the Books of Kings is much the same as of Game of Thrones. They are each chockfull of power grabs, plans going awry, new alliances forming, family treachery, and foolishness inspired by the nigh near absolute power.
Excitement and Titillation
An often used critique of scriptures is that it is full of violence, sex, and immorality. I never saw this as a critique, but rather as more reason of why it’s a damningly realistic (and damn good) story.
Far too many Christians think the scriptures to be perfect morality plays, with clear moral exemplars, no blood and violence, and not so much as a hint of lascivious behavior.
These same people have apparently only read neutered summaries of “Children’s Bibles” and never dealt with the real thing. The Books of Kings are probably the most pertinent example of the Bible’s refusal to clean up just how bad men and women are.
From the get go, we are introduced to the high priest’s sons taking bribes and defiling the female servants and it just keeps going. Saul, the king chosen by God, uses God like a divine power up, is greedy in his pillaging, and flies into insanity fueled murderous rages to kill David. David becomes a mercenary in his exile, coming close to marching against Israel with the Philistines (1 Samuel 29:1-11), and commits adultery and has the husband of his lover killed. His son Absalom, after being reconciled for dispensing vigilante justice upon the stepbrother that raped his sister, ultimately rebels against and brazenly sleeps with his father’s concubines to claim the throne. Jo’ab, general of David’s army, personally kills every threat to his supremacy as top general and doing David’s dirty work (both in accord with and in defiance of his commands).
And we haven’t even got to Solomon or Jezebel or the other royal messes that follow.
Every cry of edginess for shows like Game of Thrones goes for the Books of Kings. For the Hound and the Mountain, brutal commanders, there is Jo’ab and Abner. For Jaime and Cersei, incestuous siblings, there is Amon and Tamar. For Daenerys, the budding foreign queen, there is Bathsheba and the Queen of Sheba. For the sudden violence of the Red Wedding, there is the Banquet of Absalom. For Rob Stark’s guerilla rebellion in the North, there are David’s mercenary wanderings in Judah and the south. And for all the gratuitous sex in Game of Thrones, few scenes manage to top the audacity of the open-air event of Absalom’s takeover atop Jerusalem’s palace (2 Samuel 16:22).
Excitement and titillation is not absent from the scriptural tales. What is different is that, while Game of Thrones is agnostic in its morality, the Books of Kings keep a consistent ethic, depicting horrors but making sure one sees them as horrors for real reasons. Excitement and titillation are not allowed to remain as such, but are freighted with moral critique, elevating our base response by proper intellectual reflection. The absence of such in A Game of Thrones leaves it little more than exploitation.
A Nobler Tale – Can we give this the film treatment?
It is the primacy of good over evil, even when evil is ascendant, which makes the scriptural tales so much stronger than that of Game of Thrones. Nobility and goodness is something to be mocked for the characters in Westeros. Only naïve girls like Sansa still believe in it and any man who seeks to embody it ends up dead or horrifically maimed. What people are left with is either power, if you can obtain it. The question of what is good and right is relegated to agnosticism.
In Kings, though, morality and meaning is set out strongly while it is the people who fail to live up to it. Some characters are utterly corrupt. A few are truly righteous. Most, even David, the man after God’s own heart, are men who constantly waver, some ending reconciled while others end in shame. One is always secure, though, in the all controlling presence of God who brings about the true and the good even among the horrors of the morally corrupt.
There have been a number of tries of putting scriptural tales on the screen. Often the translation is done through the lens of either a simplistic Christian morality which neuters the worst aspects or through some reimagining, foisting modern themes on the ancient stories. A few attempts have been made at instilling “excitement and titillation” into what is ultimately still a neutered story (see the recent The Bible). Never, as I know it, have we had a good translation to film of these stories that seeks both honesty to the material and creative freedom in the wide gaps needing interpretation. It should be remembered that the narrative scriptures are not written as modern novels or screen plays but as a record of the life of Israel. This record has large swaths of material unwritten and hidden to history that would need the hand of a talented scribe to flesh out.
It’s true that I am leery of Hollywood or cable television doing this right, but there is definitely some great work of art to be done here. A Game of Thrones has revealed that the superficial draw it shares with the books of Kings is hugely viable. We should find a way to tap into that. We cannot baptize A Game of Thrones, but perhaps we can baptize its style with biblical substance.