First Pesach, then Yom Ha’atzmaut, now the coronation. Look at it whichever way you like, life’s just one long Jewish knees-up.
As we’ve got the biggest television, we’re having friends round for the coronation. None of them, as it happens, Jewish. Not deliberate.
It just fell out like that. Those of our Jewish friends who aren’t too frum to watch television on Shabbos are throwing coronation parties of their own or hanging on to see if there’s a belated invitation to the Abbey in the post.
One assures me he’s 19th in line for Harry’s seat in the event of a sudden no-show and his wife is third in line for Andrew’s, so long as she doesn’t mind sitting behind a pillar.
I am looking forward to explaining the essentially Jewish nature of the coronation to our Gentile guests from the relative comfort of our living room, beginning, by way of scriptural hors d’oeuvre, with the Book of Samuel, in fact both Books of Samuel, since each tells a slightly different story. Samuel, anyway, is where it all starts.
Though Jews made up only a small minority in the grammar school I attended, they were everywhere in the literature we read, whether as child-killers in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale or as poisoner, sensualist, traitor and stand-up comedian in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, or as putative terrorist in Milton’s Samson Agonistes.
More than that, the Jew figured frequently in our anthologies of 17th-century poetry, now as a measure of obloquy, as in Donne’s “Spit in my face, you Jews”, now of obduracy, as in Marvell’s poem of sexual microaggression, “To His Coy Mistress”, where the lady’s determined resistance to the poet’s overtures is compared to the Jews’ unwillingness to convert to Christianity.
But more telling about the way Jews went on haunting the English imagination, even long after their expulsion from the country, was the Jewish precedent of blessing, anointing and crowning, which we uncovered when we studied the concept of the Divine Right of Kings in Shakespeare.
The preparation of the coronation oil in Jerusalem (Lambeth Palace)
“What does King Claudius mean,” our teacher asked us, “when he declares that ‘There’s such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would’?” And it was in pursuit of an answer to that question that I found myself in the Book of Samuel.
To be brief, Samuel describes the election of Saul as the first Hebrew King, and then, when Saul messes up, the election of David. So far, so simple.
But things start to get technical the deeper in one gets.
Insofar as I was able to deduce from my own basic reading of Samuel and from learned critical commentaries on it (remember, this was before the internet when scholarship meant wandering around Manchester’s domed Central Library with nothing but a notebook, a pencil and an interesting expression), there are competing narratives in Samuel, some arguing for a monarch’s divine right to rule, some contesting it. But there’s a lot of anointing either way.
Setting a King over the Jews wasn’t God’s idea. In His eyes, He was King enough. But the people were grumbling again.
Nothing if not obliging — ignore what the misotheists tell you about how unaccommodating gods are — this God submitted to the popular will and ordered Samuel to organise the coronation of Saul. Did He secretly set Saul up to fail?
I don’t believe so, though He could hardly have been blamed had it crossed His mind. In fact, He imbued Saul with powers, both temporal and spiritual, that put him apart from the people from whom he’d been chosen.
Acting as God’s intermediary, as the Archbishop of Canterbury will on May 6, Samuel poured oil over Saul’s head and then kissed him, proclaiming “The Spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with [the prophets] and be turned into another man.”
Whatever further thoughts God has about the heavenly right of kings to rule, it’s this transformative moment — when He mightily passes on His spirit to Saul and turns him into “another man”, not a god, but a man unlike all other men and, indeed, unlike himself as he was before Samuel anointed him — that explains the religious significance of coronations and why the English always sound like Jews when they invest a sovereign.
I haven’t yet seen the order of service for Charles’s investiture but if it’s like his mother’s, it will begin with a reading of Psalm 122, which was written by King David himself, and which prays for the peace of Jerusalem.
Think of that! We’re in the middle of London and we’re praying for the peace of Jerusalem. Soon, the Archbishop will call on God to bless and sanctify His chosen servant Charles, as He had once consecrated kings and prophets to teach and govern “thy people Israel”.
And it isn’t long now before the magnificent musical introduction of Zadok the Priest. “And as Solomon was anointed King / by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet / So be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated King.”
How much more proof of the Coronation’s root and branch ceremonial Jewishness do we need? As Solomon was anointed King . . . so be thou anointed King.
I have felt a kind of kinship with Charles ever since I saw newsreels of him looking lonely as a boy. Something of that sadness still attaches to him in my eye, happier as he appears to be now, sitting in the Royal Box with Camilla watching The Marriage of Figaro rather than Little Mix.
So I hope he enjoys his big day as I, all things considered, enjoyed mine — if you will allow that a bar mitzvah is a coronation on a more intimate scale. I emerged from mine, anyway, no longer a boy; Charles will emerge, as did King Saul, no longer the man he was. It’s a grand and solemn thought. All Hail the King. Baruch haba.