Saturday, April 26, 2008

1 Samuel 13-16: Where Saul Goes Wrong

Saul does not seem to be working out as king of the Israelites. Remember Samuel's long list of terrible problems that will befall Israel if they take a king? Well, none of these things actually happen. In fact, Kind Saul is a pretty effective ruler as far as we can tell. We don't know much about his domestic policies, but his military adventures all seem to turn out quite well.

Where Saul fails is in attention to the fine print of Mosaic law. He is not impious, and he certainly doesn't get into trouble with the whole Baal/Asgeroth sort of thing, but he forgets or neglects the details, and this really makes God mad.

In Chapter 13, for instance, Saul is trying to defend a strategic area against a powerful Philistine army with only a handful of frightened and inadequately armed men. He figures it might be a good time to make a sacrifice to God. At the the end of the ceremony, though, old Samuel shows up and chews him out, prophesying that Saul's kingship will now fall because of his foolish action. I had to read this passage three times, trying to understand what Saul had done wrong. I think I've figured it out; have you? (answer below)

In Chapter 14, Saul's son Jonathon heroically attacks the Phillistine force and puts them to rout almost single-handedly. It is an amazing victory. After a full day of iron-age combat -- a hell of a workout, by any standard -- Jonathon comes across a honeycomb, and takes a taste. Unbeknownst to him, his father had earlier placed a curse on any man who ate during the daytime before the battle was won. Why? Hard to say. But he did.

In camp that night, God won't talk to Saul, and by casting lots they determine that it is Jonathon's fault. When the honey story comes out, Saul wants to kill Jonathon, but he is disuaded from killing his son, the hero of the hour, when the troops get testy about the idea. So again, he is resisting God's commands.

Next, in Chapter 15, Saul is sent against the Amelekites with the kind of jolly instructions we have become used to:

3Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to
them. Do not spare them: put to death men and women, children and infants,
cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

Saul takes care of the men, women, children, infants, donkeys, and camels thoroughly enough, but he lets the soldiers hang on to the best specimans of the cattle and sheep so that they can make a great sacrifice. Samuel shows up to tell him that he has blown it again; there were not supposed to be any deviations from his instructions. Keeping the cows and sheep was sinful, says Samuel:

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23For rebellion is like the sin of divination
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.

(Keeping in mind that Samuel claims to be essentially the sole conduit for communications from God at this point, incidentally, there are at least two possible interpretations of his increasing irritation with Saul. Be we shall not dwell on this.)

God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to find a better king. He's told to select among the sons of Jesse, but after looking at all seven of Jesse's boys God still hasn't given him a signal. Then he learns that there is an eighth, youngest son out back with the sheep, and of course this underdog child turns out to be The One. Samuel annoints him in a private ceremony. His name is David. You know. David:

David is an excellent harp player. Without knowing that the lad has been annointed by Samuel, Saul's handlers recruit him to play for Saul and help him chill out whenever he is visited by an "evil spirit from God" -- that strange concept again -- which seems to be a kind of depressive episode that started happening after the Amelekite debacle. Saul likes David, and makes him one of his armor-bearers. So, unbeknownst to Saul, he has the guy who has been set up to replace him as one of his closest attendents. Oh, the irony!

Next Week: David... Philistines... I sense an archetypal story coming!

Answer: I think the problem is that Saul has conducted a sacrifice outside of the Tabernacle. All sacrifices are supposed to happen there, overseen by the priests, and by conducting a "field sacrifice" Saul has offended God.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

1 Samuel 8-12: The Israelites Get Government

So here we are, 1 Samuel 8, and our title character has already grown old. He faces the same problem that his mentor Eli did: his sons are no damn good. He has put them in leadership positions, but they are corrupt and show poor judgement. The people, seeing this and noting also the increasing strength of the hostile Ammonites, ask Samuel to appoint a king.

This really pisses Samuel off. The text doesn’t explain why he’s made, so at first you assume it’s because his sons are being bypassed. But that’s not it. Eventually, you figure out that Samuel is upset because Israelites aren’t supposed to have a king; only God is supposed to be the king. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around this, because the “Judges” have often acted a lot like kings anyway, so what’s the difference? But obviously, there was a clear and important distinction to the writer and original audience of 1 Samuel.

Samuel brings the issue to God, who tells him to warn the people what kings are like. He cuts loose with a fiery speech that anticipates the Declaration of Independence, not to mention talk-radio anti-government scree:

11 He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day."

But the people are not persuaded by this analysis, so Samuel says fine, OK, God will help me pick a king for you.

Saul is Anointed King by Samuel.  Michiel van der Borch, 1332, Illumination on vellum.The person turns out to be Saul, an extremely tall young man from a small clan in Benjamin, which for reasons discussed earlier is the smallest and most marginal of the twelve tribes. He runs into Samuel while out looking for some runaway donkeys; Samuel recognizes him immediately as the king-to-be, invites him to dinner, and anoints him king in private. Later, there is a public ceremony in front of the entire assembly, but Saul can’t be found at first because he is hiding in the luggage. They eventually find him and fish him out to be coronated, and this bizarre behavior is not explained or mentioned again.

Saul, Rex

At this point, the Ammonites make their move. They besiege the city of Jabesh Gilead, and when the city elders try to negotiate a treaty, they agree on the condition that they can gouge one eye out of everyone in the town, “and so bring disgrace to all Israel.” (11:2)

When Saul hears about this, he gets very angry. He cuts a pair of oxen into little chunks, and sends the chunks out with a message that all Israelite men are to muster for battle, and that any slackers will have their oxen carved into similarly-sized pieces. This generates an excellent turnout, and Saul breaks the siege of Jabesh Gilead, routing and scattering the Ammonite army in an all-day battle.

There is a reaffirmation of Saul’s kingship at this point, with much sacrificing and celebrating, but then Samuel stands up to lay down some serious Old Testament preaching. He reminds the Israelites of all the times that God has saved their nation, and then rebukes them for having asked for a king. It’s a rebuke with teeth:
16 "Now then, stand still and see this great thing the LORD is about to do
before your eyes! 17 Is it not wheat harvest now? I will call upon the LORD to
send thunder and rain. And you will realize what an evil thing you did in the
eyes of the LORD when you asked for a king."

It is interesting to craft analogues for this conception of behavior and punishment, where you give somewhat what they want and then punish them for having wanted it. I imagine a parent telling her child that he was supposed to eat his veggies, but since he wanted candy she gave him candy instead -- but now she’s going to break his favorite toy to teach him a lesson.

Samuel finishes his speech with an exhortation for the Israelites to be more dedicated to God, and to stop being so evil. You wonder if maybe some of the people in the audience were distracted at this point by wondering how they would survive, the food supply for the coming year having just been destroyed.

Next Week: Saul takes on the Philistines

Sunday, April 13, 2008

1 Samuel 1-7: The Life of Samuel, Although Perhaps Not in its Entirety

We pass now from Ruth into 1 Samuel, moving beyond the eight books that I had previously memorized the order of. Knowing nothing about the new territory, really, I nevertheless had an expectation that it would be either a) a formal biography of someone named Samuel or b) a dynastic history that began, ended, or peaked with someone named Samuel.

Samuel: The Early Years

Well, the Bible is full of surprises, and as the book begins it sounds very much like a folk tale. We are introduced to a man, Elkanah, and the wife that he loves very much, Hannah. Oh, and also the wife he doesn't like as well, Peninnah. Peninnah has all of the children in this plural marriage, and picks on poor barren Hannah. Hannah prays so fervently for a child that the old priest Eli thinks she's drunk, and she promises God that if she has a child it will be devoted to the priesthood. Within the year, baby Samuel is born, and soon he is taken to Eli to become a Nazzarite. Hannah sings a long hymn (2:1-10) and then exits the story, except for annual visits when she brings Samuel little robes she has sewn him (2:19). Isn't that a sweet detail?

But meanwhile, there's trouble down at the Tabernacle. Eli's sons are corrupt, distaining the proper sacrifice procedures and sleeping with the temple maidens. Eli is not able to bring them under control, and a mystic brings him a message that he and his sons will therefore be punished by God.

One night Samuel is lying in bed and hears Eli call him, but when he goes to the priest he's told to go back to bed, nobody said anything. This happens three times, at which point Eli realizes that it's God talking to the boy. After a quick lesson in receiving divine visions, Samuel goes back to bed; this time, when God calls, he stays put and listens. The message is just a reaffirmation that yes, Eli and his family are doomed, but it is only the first of many revelations and so Samuel is an increasingly important religious figure as he grows up. "The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up," says the text in an especially nice passage, "and he let none of his words fall to the ground" (3:19).

Enter the Philistines

At this point, the Philistines attack Israel, and they are winning. The elders decide to send the Ark of the Covenant out with the troops, in hope of a dramatic divine intervention a la Joshua at Jericho. This turns out to be a bad idea. The Philistines are freaked out at first by the presence of the Ark, but after a rousing pep talk (4:7-9) they rally themselves, win the battle, kill Eli's two sons, and bring the Ark home in triumph. Informed of the losses, Eli passes out and breaks his neck in the fall.

The Philistines, much like the fictional Nazis of a much later adventure movie, find the Ark of the Covenant too hot to handle. They put it in the main temple of their main god, Dagon, but they keep waking up to find that Dagon -- who is basically a big rock idol -- has prostrated himself before the Ark during the night. Totally embarassing, if you are a priest or worshiper of Dagon. As if this wasn't bad enough, the city also begins suffering a plague of rats and, um, groin tumors. They try shipping the Ark around to other cities, but wherever it goes, rats and groin tumors follow. You can't blame the Philistine on the street for starting to have a bit of a "Not In My Backyard" attitude toward the Ark.

This is all very unsettling, so the Philistines put together a blue-ribbon panel of priests and oracles to advise on the situation. Following the recommendation of the committee, they put the Ark on a wagon drawn by two specially-selected cows, along with an offering of golden rats and tumors (great gift idea: golden tumor!). The cows make a beeline for Israel, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. (6:12) The Philistines just let it go.

At the Israelite town that the cows take the Ark to, the townsfolk make the mistake of opening it up to look inside. This is fairly normal behavior when you get back a stolen container, but it is of course a big no-no with the Ark, and 70 people are struck down for it. Or maybe 50,700; manuscripts differ on this point. It's a small town, so 70 seems a little more realistic to me. Anyhoo, to avoid a recurrence, the Ark is taken to a secure location and put under guard.

Samuel Triumphant

While the Ark is packed away, the Israelites have something of a religious revival under Samuel. Once again, the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only. (7:4) Who knows! Maybe it will stick this time! Anyway, Samuel calls a great meeting at a place called Mizpah, and the Israelites gather to fast and repent. As Samuel is conducting the sacrifice, though, the wiley Philistines attack! But God sends them into a panic, and at the battle becomes the first of many in which the Israelites under Samuel are able to oust the Philistines from their territory.

Phew! What a lot of narrative! We are only through Chapter 7, and already we're being told that Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. But there must be more to it than that; we've still got 24 more chapters in 1 Samuel, and then of course there's 2 Samuel. I guess we'll see what happens.

I Was Predestined to Write the Following

As a sidebar, I want to mention the idea of predestination. I know that a lot of theological ink has been spent on the profoundly arid question of whether humans have free will. It is an abundantly pointless question, since human beings experience life as if they did and can't do much about it if they don't, but there are sections of the Bible that do kind of provoke a reader to think about such stuff.

When Eli tries to talk his sons out of being such jerks, for instance, we're told that they did not listen to their father's rebuke, for it was the Lord's will to put them to death. (2:25) So, THEY certainly don't have free will; they are just puppets of God's plan. But only a paragraph later, God makes a change in his plan: I promised that your house and your father's house would minister before me forever. But now the Lord declares: 'Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be distained. The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your father's house...." (2:30-31) Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that humans DO have free will, but it pretty much shoots down the idea that they can't have free will because God has everything figured out in advance. Sometimes, even God apparently needs to come up with a Plan B.

I'm just glad John Calvin isn't still around to see me dismantle his theology with such elegant and sophisticated reasoning.

Next Week: For some reason I thought that "Saul" and "Paul" were the same guy, but here Saul is in the Old Testament so I must have been wrong.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth is a sweet little love story. It is also, much to my surprise, only four chapters long, so we can cover it in a single go. This gets me to my stated goal for the end of the summer five months ahead of schedule, but what the heck. It's fun to be making progress!
Ruth is the daughter-in-law of an Israelite woman who is living among the Moabites. After both of their husbands die, they return to the mother-in-law's home town.
Illumination, English, 12th Century.
With a little prompting and encouragement from the two women, a relative by marriage named Boaz happens to fall in love, more or less, with Ruth. He is then able to engineer the purchase of the mother-in-law's inherited land, and that sort of gives him the legal right to marry Ruth. It's a loose interpretation of the laws of Moses, but what the heck. They all live happily ever after, and Ruth and her new husband ultimately become the great-grandparents of David, a Very Important Figure that I imagine we will be hearing a lot more about soon enough.
Chagall, Boaz Wakes up and Sees Ruth at his Feet.  Lithograph, 1960.
It's a nice little tale, and it has some elements of interest to it. It is another story with a strong literary sense, and it is the first Biblical tale I recall that features the experience of everyday women.

At the same time, it's a little puzzling as to what real relevance it has in a Bible. Nothing really makes it a religious story, or one likely to inspire devotion or faith, or set an example of right practice. It's puzzling to me. I guess you could say the same thing about the Book of Judges, too, but Ruth is so short that you really notice its lack of any overtly divine message.

Any thoughts out there in Bloggerville? Why is Ruth in the Bible? If this was Bible Book Survivor, would you vote it off the island?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Judges 17-21: Danites, Benjaminites, and Disunity

I noticed a couple of entries back that there seems to be some breakdown in the unity of the Israelites happening here in the Book of Judges. This trend continues in today's reading, the two stories that finish up the Book. By the end of Judges, in fact, we've had what amounts to a civil war among the tribes. At the same time, there seems to be a general breakdown of the civil leadership. Instead of the "judges" great and small who have been the subject of the narrative to date, we'll now see several repetitions of the phrase that ends the book:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. (21:25)

The Danites Feel That Nesting Urge

In Judges 17 & 18, we get the story of how the Danites -- the tribe of Dan -- establish their homeland. They have apparently still been living a nomadic, or at least an itinerant, lifestyle, well after the rest of the tribes have settled down into their respective territories.

It's a pretty simple story. When a small scouting party finds a bucolic agricultural valley, well-watered and with good soils, populated by mild-mannered, hard-working people of a peaceful disposition, it seems obvious what God wants them to do. They sack the valley, put all resisters to the sword, and there you have it, that's how the Danites get their homeland.

The most interesting thing about the story is how it's told. The Danites are pretty much bit players in their own legend, with the main character being a guy named Micah who is not a Danite and not even involved with the invasion. He puts the scouting party up for a night during their expedition, and then has his household idols stolen by the Danite army on their way to battle, and that's the extent of his involvement. Most of Judges 17, in fact, is a detailed acount of how and why Micah made the idols that will eventually get stolen by the Danites. The alternative-narrative gambit is surprisingly literary, an extreme "worms-eye view" of Biblical history, and it's unlike anything else we've seen to date.

The Benjaminite Problem

The final story of Judges is also structured in a surprisingly literary fashion. This time, it's the kind of story -- I'm sure there's a technical name for it -- that starts with small, local, personal events in the life of a humble main character, and then builds to a big, dramatic scenario that involves major world events. You know, like "The Hobbit."

Our point-of-view character is a Levite from the sticks who has a concubine from Bethlehem. She fools around on him and then runs home to Dad, so the Levite -- we never learn his name -- trudges off to fetch her back.

After being treated to lavish hospitality by the woman's father, the Levite heads for home. They stop for the night in Gibeah, a city in the domain of the tribe of Benjamin. None of the Benjaminites offer them a place for the night; finally an old man from out of town offers to put them at his place. It is not a restful evening.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city
surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who
owned the house, "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex
with him."
Like Lot's host in Sodom, back in Genesis, the old man knows how to treat a guest. At least, a male guest.

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, "No, my friends, don't be
so vile. Since this man is my guest, don't do this disgraceful thing. Look, here
is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and
you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don't do
such a disgraceful thing."
The townsmen brutally rape the concubine until dawn, then leave her to crawl back to the house. Then,

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house..., there
lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house.... He said to her, "Get
up; let's go." But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and
set out for home.
The Levite is angrier than he sounds. He cuts the concubine's corpse into 12 pieces, and sends a piece to each tribe along with a message about what happened in Gibeah. He means to stir people up, and he succeeds. The concubine scandal becomes a cause celebre, and hundreds of thousands of angry Israelites gather at the Tabernacle to, well, formulate a response. The Benjaminites are sent a message asking them to surrender Gibeah and its citizens for punishment, but they refuse and mount an army for the city's defense. Suddenly, then, it is civil war, with the Benjaminites pitted against the other 11 tribes.

The battle lasts three days. On the evening before each stage of the battle, the Israelites as a whole (minus Benjamin, of course) ask a question of God, who answers them directly (it's kind of hard to visualize how this works). On the first day, the Israelites approach very closely to the walls of Gibeah, and suffer terrible losses when the city's defenders come out to skirmish against them, presumably with support from the fortifications. The same thing happens on Day Two. But on the third day, the attackers take a page from Joshua and have their attacking force fall back in apparent disarray. The Benjaminites allow themselves to be lured to far from the battlements of Gibeah, and fresh Israelite divisions emerge from concealed positions and attack their flanks and the unprotected city. It turns into a slaughter pretty quickly, and the Israelites don't let up; the mopping-up operations go on for quite some time. At the end, there are very few Benjaminite men left alive, and hardly any women at all.

As peace is restored, remorse sets in. Israel realizes that it has brought a twelfth part of itself near to extinction, and there is much weeping and regret. Also, a practical problem: if no wives are produced, there really won't be ~any~ more Benjaminites, and it turns out that back when tempers were running high, everyone had sworn that their daughters would never marry a Benjaminite. So, what's to be done?

Well, those of you who serve on committees know better than to miss meetings, for that is how you get assigned the crap jobs. Similarly, the Israelites now cast about until they come up with a town from which not a single person has been coming to the Tabernacle. Obviously, these folks from Jabesh Gilead must be no damn good, so a squadron is sent up to kill all of the males and the sexually experienced females. The virgin girls are brought back to be Benjaminite wives.

This is only a partial solution, but fortunately there is more than one problem-solver in the crowd. The rest of the Benjaminite men are encouraged, during a major religious festival, to lie in wait for the procession of virgins to go by. Then, they can just leap from the vineyard and grab one that is to their liking. Other Israelites stand by to deal with the upset fathers and brothers:

...we will say to them, 'Do us a kindness by helping them, because we did not
get wives for them during the war, and you are innocent, since you did not give
your daughters to them.'
(21: 22)
In other words, nobody has broken their oath, so it's all good. You can just imagine the opportunities for a therapist in Benjamin country in the coming years, though.

And so Judges comes to a close. Gone is the tight, unified leadership from the days of Moses and Joshua. Now we're in a fracturing, every-clan-for-itself, Wild West kind of scenario. All told, it doesn't make a very strong case for Libertarianism.