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.


Jen Rouse said...

You're both right and wrong about Saul/Paul being the same person. There's an Old Testament Saul, the first king of Israel. There's also a New Testament Saul; he's an ultra-Jewish fanatic who persecutes the new Christian sect that develops after Jesus' death. That is, until Jesus appears to him and strikes him blind by the side of the road, tells him to stop persecuting Christians and become one of them, and also tells him his name is now Paul. This all plays out in the book of Acts if you want to look it up.

Michael5000 said...

@jen: A-ha! That clears it up, thanks.

I'll get to Acts around spring 2010, at the current pace....