Friday, November 28, 2008

And Jonathan smote the garrison of the Philistines (1Sam 14)

Chapter 14 introduces us more formally to the character of Saul's son Jonathan, the man who would have succeeded Saul had there been a proper Saulide dynasty, and frankly someone who seems to have been far more suited to be king. This guy's smart, kind, and a good warrior, which is everything an ancient king really needed to be. Maybe I'm forgetting something, but I don't seem to recall the Bible having anything bad to say about Jonathan.

So the men of Israel are trying to figure out how to best wage a battle against the Philistines, and while Saul is busy making plans, Jonathan has leapt into action, saying "there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few." This is fascinating, reminding us perhaps of Gideon's tiny army that overcame much larger forces; Jonathan is actually entertaining the idea that, what with God supposedly being on their side, they might as well go up against the Philistines as an army of two people (namely Jonathan and his armor-bearer) as thousands. This is pretty amazing faith.

Jonathan essentially asks God for a sign, saying that if the Philistines of the garrison call him up to them, it means God intends victory. They do, and Jonathan and his armor-bearer team up to take out twenty Philistines. As usual, the SAB calls this violent, unjust and intolerant, and I reply that well, this is war, and the Philistines are invaders, what do you expect?

Now apparently, there immediately follows an earthquake, which so scares and confuses the Philistines that they commence fighting each other. Saul watches all of this from a distance in wonder, and the Israelite army, which had largely scattered out of fear, regroups. Now Saul is apparently not making the best of the situation. He's brought the ark with him to war (perhaps this was twenty years later?) although at least he doesn't bring it to the front lines. Even with the ark and a priest present, he seems hesitant to take action.

Also, there is an interesting story that finishes out the chapter, reflecting further Saul's lack of sound decision making and understanding of spiritual things. Saul charges all of his men not to eat until they have achieved victory, most likely in some misguided attempt to make his men "spiritually cleansed". The SAB calls it absurd, and I agree. Apparently so does Jonathan, who, not knowing his father has pronounced this "curse", eats some honey; when he is informed of the situation, he points out how much better he feels after having eaten, and essentially points out that the army would probably fight better on a full stomach than an empty one.

In fact, this leads to a big problem, as the men finally break down to eat, and they are so hungry that they don't bother to take the time to drain the blood out of the animals, a serious breach of dietary law.

Saul decides it's time to go and finish off the Philistine army, but decides to inquire of God, I assume through the priest. God gives him no answer. Saul assumes that God doesn't want to talk to him because somebody in the army ate when they were still under Saul's pronounced curse, and it turns out to be Jonathan, so Saul and Jonathan both agree that Jonathan must die for simply eating honey. The people however point out that Jonathan was the hero of the day, and it makes no sense to punish Jonathan for being successful, so Jonathan does not die at this time.

The Philistines escape, and Saul ends up fighting them, and others, throughout his entire reign.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruninghooks into spears (1Sam 13)

The circumstances in chapter 13 indicate to me that perhaps I was too hasty in my evaluation of chapter 7. Let's see.

Saul has managed by this time, about two years on, to amass a regular army (sort of, we'll see some oddities later in the chapter) and has put a division under the control of his son Jonathan, who attacks the Philistine garrison in Geba. The Philistines gather their forces to retaliate, and Saul amasses the Israelite fighters at Gilgal, waiting for Samuel to come and bless them before they go out to battle.

The situation looks bleak, and it seems that some of the men are deserting. Samuel is late in showing up, and Saul starts to get worried. So Saul decides to go ahead and start things without Samuel: he burns a sacrifice to God. As was suggested a few chapters back, it may have been wrong for Saul as a non-Levite to offer a sacrifice. Whether or not that was the problem here, it seems clear that he was not supposed to perform this action, and he gets in big trouble for it.

Samuel arrives, and he knows that Saul has done something wrong. Saul admits that he was afraid to go to battle without having given a sacrifice, and since Samuel was late in coming... Samuel won't have it, though, and tells Saul that God is going to give the kingdom to someone else.

Yes, that person was David, who was not exactly the paragon of virtue, but I'll reserve the bulk of comments on David's character to the chapters in which David actually appears. For now, let it suffice to say that Saul is losing the kingdom because he's not following the religious rules, which to God are extremely important. David expresses in quite a bit of his poetry that he would rather be a priest than a king, but never acts in a way that indicates he doesn't know his place in the end.

In the end of this story, we're told that while there are a lot of men ready to go to battle against the Philistines, there are at this point in history (generally) no swords or spears in Israel; as a bunch of farmers, they're going to war with sharpened farming tools.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Perfect love casteth out fear (1Sam 12)

Chapter 12 is pretty much a one-issue chapter. Samuel gives an address to the people of Israel, and while he is not dying just yet, this has the flavor of a farewell address.

He gives a brief summary of Israel's history from the Exodus to the present, in the middle of which, as a sign of his supernatural authority, he calls down a thunderstorm. The people are afraid.

"Should we fear God?" the SAB asks, and it's not the first time. Nor is this the first time I have replied to the concept. While I think the answer I gave back in Joshua stands up pretty well, I think there might be more that could be said about it.

Fear of God is a strange and important thing. I don't know that I've outlined it here, but I have a great deal of fear of my father. The kind of fear I have of him at this time in my life is different than the fear I had of him as a child that I explained in my last writing on this subject, but I think it still applies in a way. (Then again, maybe this is more of a personal aside than real commentary on the Bible; excuse me while I indulge in some catharsis.)

My father and I had a falling out when I was just twelve years old, and as a result, I haven't spoken to him in well over 20 years. The fault for what happened was entirely on his side (although not necessarily entirely him, I know he was being influenced by others in an unhealthy manner at that time in his life), but I don't think I hold a grudge against him for it; I never got the impression that he quite understood that I was just a child. (Once, when I was six years old, he asked me if I'd given much thought to college.)

The point of all this is that after all these years, despite the fact that he is no longer really a part of my life, I have fear of him. Since my father is Jewish, he's always had a disliking for Christianity; it's common among Jews, and honestly often with good reason. Apparently late in his life he has become an orthodox Jew, so I'm guessing his views on the matter have not liberalized. Generally, I don't care that anyone knows I'm a Christian, but when we get down to specifics, I'm not keen on letting my father know, and it's one of the barriers (among many) for me in getting back in touch with him. Even with him being largely not a part of my life for roughly two-thirds of it, and even though my Christianity is one of the more important things to me personally, I still have a fear of disappointing my father, a fear of rejection. Now it may be that it's unhealthy for me not to confront this fear, but I'm pretty well convinced that it's healthy for me to have this fear. It shows me that despite all the hurt and "water under the bridge", my father still means something to me. He should, because he was there in my early childhood and I loved him dearly. On some level, I still do.

What does all this have to do with fear of God, though? If the God of Israel exists, if He's really there, then God should matter. He should matter deeply. Why shouldn't we fear Him? I fear God on a much deeper and more fundamental level than I fear my earthly father, because he was there for me in my early childhood, in my late childhood, and all through my adulthood as well. He was there for my parents and grandparents. He was there for my people (though I am not technically a Jew, I still identify with them) throughout history. He has always been there, He created us and saved us through His Son, and I love him very dearly. I do think it's natural and appropriate to fear God, not that we feel God is going to hurt us, but that we are going to hurt God because He cares for us so much. Just as we can hurt our parents by hurting ourselves, so we can hurt God in the same way. To me, that's incredibly scary.

In 1John 4:18, John writes "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." I don't know if John is saying something about a specific type of fear (Greek is more precise than English and Hebrew in some aspects, it would be worth checking) that is cast out by love, or if he is talking about a point in time where the love we have is "made perfect" in that our relationship moves beyond fear because we have learned to love well enough that we no longer tend to fall so badly. Either is a possibility and both seem like very good places to be.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The time when kings go forth to battle (1Sam 11)

Chapter 11 is the sort of chapter in the Bible that really makes this sort of thing fun. Whether or not everyone who reads this ends up agreeing with me, I do feel that I have very appropriate responses to every issue brought up by the SAB in this chapter.

The Ammonites, led by Nahash, come up to Jabeshgilead and prepare to do battle against the inhabitants there. The men there send him a message that they don't want to fight, but would rather make peace. Nahash says, "I'll let you live if you show your loyalty to me by gouging out all your right eyes!" Not surprisingly, they hesitate to agree to this, and send for help.

The word reaches Saul that his fellow Israelites are in trouble, and "the Spirit of God came upon Saul". I make no excuse for this, because I think this is one of the times that Saul is acting in the proper manner for a king of Israel, seizing the opportunity to rally together all the people of Israel and unite them in a common cause. His actions indicate to all the people the seriousness of the cause and their king, and the entire nation rallies at Bezek.

Saul sends messengers to Jabeshgilead, telling them that help is on the way by the following afternoon. True to his promise, the next day the army arrives and fights until the Ammonite army is completely destroyed. (That is, not everyone killed, but "so that two of them were not left together.")

Now I realize that this is in the midst of a bloody battle, but I have to give props to Saul for one more thing here that I personally think the SAB should put a "Good things" label on. After the victory, everyone is so excited about the new unity and military/political power of Israel, that they suggest that the people in the last chapter who rejected Saul be rounded up and killed. Saul immediately squashes this idea, which you can guess from the way things have gone in Israel up until this point, would probably have been a successful endeavor, with virtually nobody to be the voice of reason if Saul had not protested. Instead, they go to Gilgal to make sacrifices to God and recommit themselves to the kingdom of Israel.

Maybe you disagree, but I call it a happy ending.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king (1Sam 10)

In chapter 10, Samuel finally comes out and tells Saul plainly that he is to be the king of Israel, and he anoints him with oil. (I've always thought this a strange practice, and probably ought to read up on it more. I can't imagine having a jar of oil dumped on your head is a pleasant thing, but I suppose I'm missing something.) He tells him a series of signs that will come to pass to verify to him that all he has spoken is true. After seeing the signs, Saul is to go to Gilgal, where something important is to occur.

So Saul comes along the road and meets some prophets, and immediately, the Spirit of God comes over him and he begins to prophesy as well. People see him there and ask in amazement, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" This is an interesting story for many reasons, one of which is that it occasions the skeptic to ask, as the SAB does, how can this story and the similar one in 1Samuel 19 both be true? Actually, the SAB flat out denies that they can both be true, but I fail to see why. Certainly, if we accept that such a thing could happen once, it could happen again many years later. The problem is not the repetition of action, but the ascribing of the "proverb" to both events, right? But why should that be a problem? Sure, it's strange, but why should it not be a possibility that the first event made some people say such a thing, and the second event made it all the more popular?*

The thing that makes it very interesting is the realization that this event is a miraculous moment in which Saul loses control of himself that was engineered to verify God's will that Saul be made king. The second event is, on the other hand, a miraculous moment in which Saul loses control of himself that was engineered to verify God's will that Saul be deposed as king. God has a sense of humor, I have no doubt about that.

Saul returns home and tells his uncle that he met Samuel, but not that Samuel said anything about the political situation to be. It's interesting that Saul, upon returning home, has a lengthy conversation with his uncle rather than his father. Perhaps there is something in the structure of Saul's family we are not being told that might explain the trouble of the previous chapter?

Samuel calls all the people together and gives them one last lecture on how bad they are for wanting a king, and then makes a choice. The selection process seems very odd, and not a lot of detail is given, but eventually, Saul is chosen to be king, although nobody can find him, because he's hiding for some unnamed reason. They bring him out, and everyone is impressed, because he's a tall handsome guy.

The SAB notes the writing in verse 25 as a "lost book of the Bible", which I think is an overstatement of the idea being put forth here. "Book" is pretty much a catch-all term for anything written down, and I've always assumed that what has happened here is Samuel has written up a short scroll with the details of the rules in the Mosaic Law that the king should be especially aware of, like Deuteronomy 17, which has a handful of laws concerning kingship. Whatever it was, it seems likely that this is more of a "lost pamphlet of the Bible".

In the last verse of this chapter, we are told that there were a few people in the crowd ("children of Belial", generally a term for particularly sinful people) who didn't think highly of the idea of Saul. The SAB finds this absurd, but I don't know why. Once again, I seem to be missing the point. I probably would have felt the same way, but perhaps it's something about the wording? I'm missing what the issue is here.

*Robert Alter says in his footnotes on chapter 19, "The doublet, far from being a stammer of transmission or inept or automatically inclusive redaction, is vividly purposeful, providing a strong frame for Saul's painful story. ... To the ancient audience, however, the recurrence would not have seemed a contradiction, and the conflicting valences given to the explanation of the proverbial saying add to the richness of the portrait of Saul, formally framing it at beginning and end."

Friday, November 21, 2008

What is this that is come unto the son of Kish? (1Sam 9)

Chapter 9 opens with yet another identity conflict, this one having to do with the family tree of Saul. Here we see the claim that Kish was the son of Abiel, but in 1Chronicles, we are twice told that Kish is the son of Ner. So which is it? Well, despite the fact that being told twice in 1Chronicles might lead you to go with the majority statement, reading elsewhere seems to suggest this minority reading is the correct one. Various other passages tell us that Ner is in fact Kish's uncle, suggesting that the passage in 1Chronicles is some sort of scribal error, and one that only appears twice because, as the SAB points out, for some reason the extended passage that it appears within is inexplicably written twice. We've seen this sort of discrepancy before, and we'll probably see it again, I expect. [Edit to add: See the comments for a suggestion that may resolve this problem; Kish may be the offspring of a Levirate marriage.]

So we are introduced to Saul who is apparently tall and handsome, which for some reason, the SAB finds absurd. I don't know what should be absurd about this. It's actually an important aspect of the story, I believe, because when the people get introduced to Saul, they will immediately say of a tall, good-looking guy, "Wow, that guy looks like a king!" The overarching lesson of the story of Saul is that people tend to prefer to look good than to be good, and that goes for their choice in politicians as well.

Right after introducing Saul as a physically impressive person, we are given a story about Saul in which we see perhaps a suggestion of his shortcomings. He's been sent out to find some donkeys, and he has no luck finding them, so he decides to give up. His servant tells him that they are near the home of Samuel, and Saul seems to know nothing about Samuel, not even recognizing him for who he is when he runs into him in the street. Samuel recognizes Saul is the new king-to-be, and invites him to his house to eat. Later, before sending him away, he has a few personal moments with Saul that we are told little about here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shalt say, I will set a king over me (1Sam 8)

Right off the top in chapter 8, the SAB catches yet another minute detail, and I applaud the thoroughness and attention to detail. Here, we are told that Samuel had (at least) two sons, and the eldest's name was Joel. However, in 1Chronicles, we are told that Samuel's firstborn was named "Vashni". Let me explain: I can't explain this one. From the little bit of research I did into the matter, I found that "Vashni" is probably an error, but nonetheless, it's nothing like "Joel", which makes it a pretty good error. That is to say, the one place I found anything approaching useful commentary on the matter pointed out that some scholars have suggested "Vashni" may be a scribal error, and the verse should have said "Hashni". There wasn't really any info on why this improved or explained anything, and the meaning of the names doesn't suggest anything to me. So unless someone else has some info for me, I'll chalk that one up as a point for the SAB.

It's fascinating, however, that there is this little short passage concerning Samuel's sons' corruption. It definitely reminds one of the story of Eli's sons a few chapters back. A claim that I believe has been made by Steve Wells that I'm not at all inclined to disagree with is that most of the fathers in the Bible have some serious lacking in success when it comes to bringing up children. Even Samuel--who had direct access to the word of God, and saw with his own eyes in his younger years the effect on Eli's family of having highly sinful children--is unable to set up a family that will continue in holy living after he's gone.

So the people come to Samuel, and they point out to him that he's put his sons in a position of authority, but they're not living up to their responsibilities, and they think that the solution to Israel's problems is to have a king. Samuel doesn't like this, and feels like he's been rejected, which seems to be part of his pride issue. God points out that, as Samuel is God's representation on earth to the people of Israel, they are really rejecting God Himself. (I think most people that read 1Samuel don't see so much of what goes on here as an issue of Samuel's pride, but the fact that God has to remind Samuel of this fact illuminates that Samuel likes being in a position of authority. The fact that he appointed his sons to positions of authority despite the fact that it's clear they don't belong there is also likely symptomatic.)

God tells Samuel that he should warn the people of all the bad things that come with having a king. So Samuel waxes eloquent about how a country with a king essentially becomes a nation of slaves to said king, and ends up having to put in a great deal of their labor and personal wealth towards supporting the government. (Some would probably say that this is true of any centralized government, just more obvious with a king.)

One thing in particular he says about kings seems to puzzle the SAB, however. In verse 18, Samuel says that if they have a king, and they end up suffering under the yoke of the king, God won't help them. So the SAB asks, "Does God help in times of need?" I'll answer that in the general and the specific. Generally, God is helpful to people in need who call upon him, but to be frank, I think the Bible tells us that this is not an area where God has the sort of consistency that we'd like to see. God's not the sort to come running when one of his people snaps their fingers like some sort of genie. God takes care of people who trust in Him, but sometimes He does it in unusual ways, or more likely, with unusual timing. Note once again, that in the verses quoted, there is a verse in each column from the same piece of writing, namely Psalm 22. The writer of the psalm is really saying that they don't understand why God seems to be unwilling to help, but in the end, God comes to the psalmist's aid. God likes to test people's faith.

In the specific instance here, where we are talking about the establishment of an Israelite monarchy, the lesson that Samuel is trying to preach (which may very well be his own words rather than God's) is that if they ask for a king, then God is largely going to leave the welfare of the nation in the hands of that king, since that's the help for which they asked. "Oh, are you in trouble? Why don't you ask the king to fix things, since that's what will fix things for you?"

They insist that they want a king nonetheless, and Samuel talks to God about it. God tells Samuel to give them what they want, and Samuel, with no clear indication that he was ordered to do so, sends the people away so that he can wait until another day to choose a king.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Out of the house of Abinadab (1Sam 7)

Okay, I don't really have a good answer for the first point of contention in chapter 7. The second one, yes, but here, I'm admittedly stumped, so of course I'm going to write far more than I need to in order to express my being at a loss for explanation.

So when the ark comes back to Israel, instead of taking it back to Shiloh (which would have actually made sense) they take it to Kirjathjearim, and put it in the house of a man named Abinadab. Here in 1Samuel 7, we are told it stays there for twenty years. However, the SAB rightly points out that when we compare dates, it's pretty clear that from this time until the time that David comes to carry it off to Jerusalem in 2Samuel 6, over forty years have passed, so what's up with that? I can think of a few possible explanations, but not many of them are highly convincing, even to myself.

One possibility is that by "twenty years", the author really means at least twenty years. It's possible, but not really too likely, since, if you're trying to express "that the time was long", forty years sounds better, and it's not like the author/editor of the book of Samuel wasn't aware of the true time span involved, since he wrote the latter passage as well. Note however that since we can say that the author did know the full story, something else probably was meant.

Another possibility is that this story is not in strict chronological order. While a possibility (since there are some stories in the book of Samuel that are clearly out of sequence), it's not likely. We are presented with the pretty clear picture that Saul was king for forty years, and if this happened during Saul's reign, it seems strange that Saul should not be involved in the story in some way.

Or are we sure Saul was King for forty years? Maybe it's just an error not here, but in Acts 13. It could be suggested, but that's not a really satisfactory resolution, both because we are still left with an error anyway (of some sort), and because I'm thinking Acts isn't the only book that says Saul was king forty years, although I'm not 100% certain.

The most likely explanation, although admittedly still not a very good one, is that the time span of twenty years is the span between the return of the ark and the events outlined in verse three and following. Thus twenty years would not be the total time that the ark was there, but the time between bringing the ark there and bringing the hearts of the people back to God, as apparently the people were very disheartened after their defeat and loss of the ark. Once they do turn back, Samuel calls them together and offers a sacrifice. (Edit to add: I note that the Ark was at least temporarily moved during the fighting in chapter 14. Perhaps that was 20 years later?)

This is the second matter noted by the SAB in this chapter, but a much easier one to comment upon. Who may offer sacrifices to God? Is it only Levites? Well, first of all, I have already argued that Samuel is a Levite, so that's not necessarily a problem. However, I'm not sure I'm convinced that only Levites may offer sacrifices anyway. There are certainly examples of others offering sacrifices, although admittedly most if not all of these are before the Mosaic Law.

Perhaps more important is the location, which is also noted upon here. There does seem to be a sentiment that at least proper, official sacrifices should be at the Tabernacle, and Samuel is not there in this story. However, consider that this is a special occasion with odd circumstances, the sort of which Israelites have had to wrestle with throughout history. The tabernacle is in Shiloh, but the ark, which is the centerpiece of the Tabernacle, is in Kirjathjearim. Given the situation, it may not have been very clear what was the right place for a sacrifice. Seeing as things turned out for the best, I assume that Samuel, who tended to hear directly from God on such matters, was told that this was sufficient for the situation.

Immediately following this, there is a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, and the Israelites finally start winning, assumedly because God is on their side. I notice the SAB does not mark this passage with the usual markings that battle scenes get, but no matter; I'd just have to give my stock answer anyway.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And they had emerods in their secret parts (1Sam 6)

In examining the story unfolding here in 1Samuel 6, Robert Alter points out that there is indication of a possible mistranslation. The Philistines make an offering to the God of Israel in the form of "Five golden emerods, and five golden mice". This is the first time we hear about mice, and it's suggestive to some scholars that there is an aspect of the affliction of the Philistines about which we're not being explicitly told. Think about it: hemorrhoids are bad, but they aren't generally fatal. It may be that rather than being hemorrhoids, it was the dark boils associated with the Bubonic Plague that we're really talking about (which often appear in the groin area), a plague also associated with rodent infestations. It seems like a resonable speculation, although admittedly, golden images of their "buboes" still seems silly.

This offering of "Five golden emerods, and five golden mice" is at no point in the passage indicated to be demanded by God, only that the Philistine priests thought it was the best course of action, along with the rest of what is done in this chapter. (The issues of the number of gods and who it is that hardens hearts are ones I have previously addressed.) They put the ark onto a cart and return it to the Israelites, taking the manner in which the ark returned as a sign, which, lacking any evidence for or against God agreeing with this method of divination, you can take as you will. The actions of the cows is unusual, so it may be taken as miraculous, but it's not such an exciting miracle if so.

The final tale of this chapter is that of the men of Bethshemesh, many of whom died because they looked into the ark. Apparently, this was not a right thing to do. (It may have been reserved for Levites only to look, or it might possibly have been for no man to see the contents of the ark, I don't know; no doubt Stephen Spielberg has some thoughts on the matter.) In all of the nation of Israel's dealings with the ark, once again, the issue is their failure to take the Holy things of God seriously. Clearly, God takes the ark very seriously.

Is God merciful? You just know I'm going to give the answer "Yes" but how does one deal with the details the SAB brings up, which are certainly confusing? One thing worth noting first of all is that the first verse given in both columns is from the very same chapter. When you get an apparent contradiction that follows so quickly on itself, you're probably misreading or misunderstanding. God is merciful, yes, but His mercy is not without limit. To some extent, this is simply logical; there are cases where two parties are in conflict, and to give mercy to one would logically deny mercy to the other. Also, there's a very strange quality to mercy that I feel I understand conceptually, but may not be able to put into words well. Mercy is of a certain nature that it lives in contrast to justice. It's been said that justice is getting what you deserve; grace is getting something good you don't deserve; mercy is not getting the punishment you do deserve. If justice is never served, then in some sense, it cheapens mercy, and stretches the limits of some sort of cosmic balance sheet, it seems. God is merciful, but we can't escape punishment forever if we keep on pushing it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A great sacrifice unto Dagon their god (1Sam 5)

In chapter five, we see a series of rather humorous miracles.

First, the ark is taken to the temple of Dagon and left there. The following morning, Dagon's statue had fallen over, appearing to bow before the ark. Not liking this, the Philistines figure it's just an accident, and set Dagon upright again. The next morning, not only is Dagon on the ground, but his head and hands have been severed. The Philistines are apparently freaked out, and stayed out of the temple from then on.

But this is not enough. Apparently soon afterwards, many people died, and among most who did not die...yep, they were all struck with hemorrhoids. (I don't know why this triggers the "language" icon in the SAB; it is what it is!) So they take the ark and take it away from Ashdod to Gath, where the same thing happens. And again to Ekron. Death and hemorrhoids everywhere. What's a Philistine to do? Well, the situation is admittedly pretty absurd, and their response to it takes it to a new level of absurdity.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hophni and Phinehas; in one day they shall die both of them. (1Sam 4)

So despite the fact that the SAB has no notes on chapter 4, there's a lot here that I really think is noteworthy, including the fact that there are no notes despite the presence of certain items.

Israel goes to battle against the Philistines, and early in the fighting, they sustain casualties in the neighborhood of 4,000. The SAB doesn't mark this attack against Israel as violent, unjust and intolerant, despite the fact that I'm certain it would had the roles been reversed. What's up with this? I only ask for consistency here.

Now, as things are going pretty badly, some people get a bright idea: Since it served them so well in the days of Joshua, why not run back to Shiloh and fetch the ark of the covenant, and take it into battle? So they send for it, and Eli's sons bring it to the front lines. At first, it seems this might do them well, as the Philistines get worried. In the end, things go worse for them as the Israelites discover that the ark isn't some sort of battle-winning magic charm. This time 30,000 of them are struck down (still no comment from the SAB, although I think Steve Wells might reasonably add these folks to his list of people killed by God, as I think they lost this battle to be taught a lesson), including Eli's two sons, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

A man runs from the battle back to Shiloh to inform Eli of what has happened. Eli, being old, blind, and overweight, falls over backward at the shock of the news, and breaks his neck. When his daughter-in-law hears the news, she goes into labor and gives birth to a child, who is named Ichabod ("no glory") to commemorate this terrible day in Israel's history. (It sounds as though she may have died in giving birth, too, but it's not fully clear.) Pretty much all of the misfortune that befalls Israel in general and Eli's family in particular is the result of dealing with God in a far too casual manner.

Of course, the Philistines aren't going to have a good time of this, either.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice (1Sam 3)

Chapter 3 opens with a verse that has an interesting phrase: "there was no open vision." It seems that unlike in various previous days, God was not speaking to the people of Israel directly through any prophet. In the previous chapter, one might wonder how the prophecy was delivered to Eli, and I suspect that in fact, that prophecy was not quite delivered. Despite the fact that in verse 13, God says "...I have told him...", it may be that Eli simply was not really listening, and the actual delivery was the through Samuel in a fuller telling in the story given here.

There's a fascinating juxtaposition here of the nature of Eli's ministry to Samuel's ministry. Eli, we are told, loses his sight. At about the same time, Samuel begins to have a new sort of "vision" that Eli never had, although in this case, it appears to be the hearing of a voice rather than something seen. God talks to Samuel, and at first, Samuel doesn't know what's going on, thinking that Eli has called him from the next room. Interestingly, despite the fact that Samuel has spent most of his life serving at the Tabernacle, he "did not yet know the LORD, neither was the word of the LORD yet revealed unto him." Is it possible that Samuel had never been taught Torah, or about God? The way things were messed up in that time, it seems a distinct possibility, but it's also possible that people reading this would have already known of Samuel, and what a great prophet he was. They would need to have it pointed out by the author that he wasn't simply born a prophet, but had to grow into it. That may be the meaning of this verse.

Once Samuel figures out--with the help of Eli, who apparently does not hear the voice of God--what's going on, God explains that judgment is coming to Eli's family. I've addressed in part before how it is that some people are punished for the sins of others, but why should Eli be punished for the sins of his sons? It seems that Eli is really in the position of high priest, and as such, he should be holding himself and his sons to the highest example. As for judging "his house forever", I'm not sure what this should mean. Other than the suffering of these three, the only mention of this judgment beyond the next few chapters is in 1Kings 2, where a descendant of Eli's loses his position as priest, but that was also in no small part due to his role in certain matters of his own choosing.

The next morning, Eli encourages Samuel to tell him everything he heard from God. When he hears it, he seems satisfied, which might be a bit of a surprise, but in some ways makes sense. After all, what is Eli to do against the will of God? Eli knows that all the accusations God has leveled against him and his family are true, and that they are serious. Perhaps it would have done some good to pray about it, but at the point things had come to, it's not likely it would have been much help.

Meanwhile, Samuel starts to become a famous prophet, and everyone knows that Samuel is speaking to the Lord in a special way that they haven't seen in a long time. This sets the stage for Samuel to be an authority on God's will, but also a person with a possible pride issue.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves (1Sam 2)

1Samuel 2 opens with a little prayer by Hannah. Like many such passages, it contains a lot of flowery language that the SAB is going to take issue with. Note that this is poetic language; in taking the last point first, ("The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them.") the SAB labels this verse as violent, unjust and intolerant, but notably does not call it absurd. If we were to take it literally rather than poetically, it would be quite absurd. How many "adversaries of the Lord" in the Bible were literally "broken to pieces"? Generally, that doesn't happen to people. Also, to say that "he [will] thunder upon them" would, if taken literally seem to imply that thunder and lightning issue forth from the very body of the Lord, which is a silly image indeed (to my mind anyway; I'm sure to many skeptics, it's no more silly than a dozen other Biblical images). That being said, I'll grant the claims actually leveled against the passage.

But as to the previous two notes? "The Lord killeth" says verse six. Violent? Well, certainly sometimes. I think the sentiment of this verse (and really, the whole prayer/poem) is that ultimately, everyone's life is in God's hand. As for the claim that earth is set upon "pillars", well, I'd say that there's poetic license going on here, and in the similar verse of Job. Technically, the earth isn't set upon "nothing" either, but due to the forces of gravity, one could say that it's set upon an orbital path about the sun, or perhaps one could say that it's sort of set upon itself. In my mind, the point of talking about "pillars" is to establish a word picture of God building the earth as someone would build the biggest house in the world. Building a house is a big deal, but to the minds of these people, the earth was the biggest object in the universe, and God built that. "Wow", you're supposed to think; and really, the statement that it's built on nothing is also supposed to be a "wow" moment, because really, who else could take a huge object like the earth and just stick it in the sky and have it stay there? These statements are not scientific ones, but expressions of wonder in the place of full scientific understanding.

Hannah's story out of the way, the story turns once again to Eli and his family, particularly his sons. It's a terrible fact that no religion is perfect in its practice, and ancient Judaism here gives an example of its bad side. Eli's sons had a whole list of terrible things that they were doing, and I won't go into it, other than to say that pretty much everything said about them is bad. They were using their positions as priests to take advantage of people; God gave more than a few things over to the priests for their own use, but Eli's sons apparently wanted more, stealing food from the sacrifices and seducing women with their power. Eli is held accountable for his sons' actions, since he knew about it and did nothing (well, he gave them a warning, but that's about it; perhaps he should have done more). God sends a message that the day is coming that Eli's family is going to suffer, and in particular, his two sons will die on the same day as a sign. Sure, all of this is violent, etc., but think about the position that this family held in this case. As a priestly family, they were supposed to be God's representatives on earth. When priests start to do things that make God look bad, how is God supposed to deal with them, especially if they refuse to stop after a warning? Are we really to be more upset by a man having two wives that he tries his best to deal with fairly than a couple of priests who are stealing from people in the name of God and turning the Tabernacle into a whorehouse?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Samuel was established to be a prophet of the LORD (1Sam 1)

The first issue of the book of Samuel is with Samuel himself. What tribe was he from? Samuel was a Levite, something I never realized before reading this comment in the SAB. I'd always wondered how Samuel ended up where he did in life without being a Levite, but since he is one, no problem. Oh, how do I know? The verse here in 1Samuel never names the tribe of Ephraim, only the mountain of Ephraim. Levites lived all over the place, and Samuel's parents happened to live in Ephraim.

Now Samuel's father had two wives. The fact that the Bible mentions this without condemning it does not, in my mind, imply endorsement. In general, I stand on my previous statements on the matter, but recent political developments present me with an excellent example of the flaw in logic. I have recently written much on Proposition 8, the proposed amendment to the California Constitution banning same-sex marriage. In all my writing, I never endorsed either side of the issue. In failing to take a side, the logic here implies both (A) that I endorse same-sex marriage, and (B) that I endorse the banning of same-sex marriage. Clearly, I cannot endorse both and the fact is, I endorse neither. The Bible likewise by silence does not endorse any position on this matter.

As for the note on verse 5, I tend to think of a phrase like "the LORD had shut up her womb" as simply a colloquial way of saying "she had no children", which after all is what it boils down to. However, it may in fact be the case that God has made Hannah barren for the purpose of setting up the story we are about to see unfold. Samuel was one of the most important prophets in Israel's history, and without his mother's problems in procreating, his life might have been very different.

The story of Samuel's birth has some parallels to the stories of Samson and John the Baptist, and I call your attention to the former for my comments on long hair, which I think are implied to be applying in Samuel's case. The claim that Samuel's hair would never be cut implies that Hannah is dedicating him to the service of God.

The interchange between Hannah and Eli is an interesting one, because as a priest, Eli is supposed to be a representative of God*, and yet he keeps making largely baseless assumptions about Hannah without consulting God. First he assumes that she must be drunk because he sees her praying (huh?), and then in what I assume to be embarrassment, he more or less assures Hannah that God's going to grant her wish, without finding out what it was. This is why I tend to take it with a grain of salt when a person in the Bible says that such-and-such thing is the "will of God". Anyone, including Christians, can fall into the trap of setting too much store in such a statement. In this case, however, things turn out alright.

I honestly don't know what the SAB is on about with its last marginal note on this chapter. A married couple having sex is far from scandalous, so I guess the "sex" markup is just matter-of fact? The really interesting thing here in my mind (but I suppose it's not marked because it's not a contradiction or some such thing) is that after Samuel is born, Hannah tells Elkanah that she has dedicated Samuel with a vow. As mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, it's part of the Mosaic Law that a married woman's vow made without her husband's knowledge is not binding unless her husband allows it. Elkanah is really being quite kind to Hannah by ancient Israelite standards, allowing her vow to stand and essentially giving up his child. He would have been well within his rights in that culture to tell her she couldn't fulfill her vow, keep the kid and give him a haircut.

* There is an interesting and humorous facet to this story that's easy to miss. I know, because I missed it even this time reading it, despite already knowing about it. In the footnotes of Robert Alter's translation of Samuel, he points out that this is a typical "annunciation scene", also pointing out parallels between this story and those of the birth of Samson, Isaac, and John the Baptist. The weird bit is that when Hannah is sitting there praying for a son, it would be a typical time for an angel to appear and say, "Fear not, Hannah, for God hath heard thy prayer, etc..." Instead, a fat, half-blind, ineffective priest walks up to her and accuses her of being drunk. Eli has missed the fact that he's witnessing a moment of historical significance for the nation of Israel, and in doing so, he essentially flubs his lines.

Monday, November 10, 2008

And he said, Bring me up Samuel. (1&2Samuel, introduction)

The books of 1st and 2nd Samuel, in the original Hebrew Bible, were a single book. Actually, context seems to imply that that 1Samuel right through 2Kings was more or less a solid piece of historical narrative. What we're looking at here is the history of the Jewish monarchy, with 1Samuel being events leading up to the coronation of David, and 2Samuel being the story of David as King. I've often wondered why it's not called the book of David, since he figures prominently throughout both books of Samuel, while Samuel is not even named in 2Samuel.

As usual, the SAB has some things to say in the overview of the book that I agree with heartily, although of course it will come out that I disagree with the interpretation when I address specifics. Hemorrhoids and foreskins? It's a wacky book alright, and even the person who believes in God but doesn't know the Bible really well is going to find more than a few surprises in here, many not pleasant.

Why is it that it seems God appoints kings not to keep the peace so much as wage war? As noted, Saul eventually is deposed as king essentially for his refusal to commit genocide. And against the Amalekites, which is an issue I've already had to address, but will probably need to delve into in more detail. On the other hand, God is quite pleased with David, who, as the SAB puts it rather well, "is always happy to kill for God." Really, a lot of this meshes in with the issues of the purpose of the conquest of Canaan, which was left unfinished in Joshua's day, but pretty much completed by David. It also has to do with larger issues of the nature of God and the Judeo-Christian worldview which I have opined on in general in a previous post. What God's looking for in a king is not what we look for in a king, as the Bible itself says. And I don't think we should be looking for the same thing in a king that God looks for, because we're not Israel, and not a monarchy, but that's my two cents.

This is a strange book in various ways for the fact that it introduces politics into the Bible as never before, and also in that it's one of the first books to really be clearly and openly a book edited from multiple sources. It makes for a different feel, that's for sure, but at least we're largely back to a straightforward linear story, at least for a while.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The house of him that hath his shoe loosed (Ruth 4)

So Boaz goes to the gate of the city and waits. The purpose is twofold: he's expecting the nearer kinsman to come through the gate eventually, and in that location, the elders of the city will be present to act as witnesses to whatever comes to pass. (Important men of the city in those days tended to sit by the city gate and talk about civic matters.) The man comes along and Boaz flags him down.

Boaz informs the man that Naomi has returned, and a goel is needed to buy back her sold land. Boaz tells this man that he is willing to do it, but this man has first right to it. The man agrees to buy the field. Boaz points out that along with the field, the goel has to marry Ruth, a Moabite woman, and give her children. The kinsman doesn't like the sound of this, and refuses, giving his shoe to Boaz in apparent accordance with Deuteronomy 25:10.

This is exactly what Boaz wanted, and he declares to all assembled that he is buying the land back, paying off the debt of Elimelech, Naomi and Ruth, and marrying Ruth in order that he might reestablish the inheritance of Elimelech. The people pronounce blessings on Boaz, both a straightforward one ("The LORD make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel.") and a very strange one ("And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah"). This second blessing is odd, because it's a reference to what is probably one of the more shameful chapters in Israel's early history, but most likely, the reason for the blessing was twofold: First, Boaz and perhaps several others there were descendants of Pharez, and so it might be fitting to remember not just the founding of the tribes of Israel, but the founding of their own tribe within the nation. Secondly, there is an interesting similarity between the two stories, both involving a non-Israelite woman whose first husband died and had to be given a son by the second-closest living relative.

The story closes with a genealogy from Pharez to David through Obed, the son of Ruth, reminding us that despite the fact that Jewish men to the present pray daily thanks to God that they are Jews and not gentiles, men and not women, and free and not slaves, it was the work of a gentile woman under the enslavement of a debt that led to the establishment of the Israel's greatest dynasty.

Allegorically, who is this nearer kinsman? Well, if we're taking a Christian approach to this, who had the first chance to redeem the nation of Israel, but was not able to do so? This first kinsman may represent the Mosaic Law, which does not have the ability to redeem, but has to be given the first opportunity to at least make an attempt. In the end, though, there was a need for a redeemer who was willing to give up everything to redeem. (Admittedly, this part of the allegory is a bit murky.)

Is there significance to the shoe thing? I think so. It's actually quite surprising how many times in the Bible there is talk of the removing of shoes at significant transitional points in history. Most people remember that Moses was asked to remove his shoes when he approached the burning bush (Exodus 3:5), but the point I like the best is a point from the New Testament that actually appears in all four Gospels:
Matthew 3:11 "he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear:"
Mark 1:7 "There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose."
Luke 3:16 "one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose"
John 1:27 "He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose."
Why would John the Baptist be so concerned with Jesus' shoes? As we have seen, removing another person's shoes is symbolic of that person having failed to perform an important duty to you. I believe John is saying there is no portion of the Law that Jesus will fail to fulfill, and His redemption will be complete.

What is it in the allegory that is really being redeemed, though? Well, in the days of ancient Israel, when the land was sold, the title was written on a trust deed scroll which was sealed until someone should come to redeem it. Since it was sealed, information had to be written on the outside of the scroll so that people could remember what was inside it, and who had the right to open it. Because of the nature of scrolls, this was one of the few times that a scroll would be written on both sides. Suggestive?
And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? (Revelation 5:1,2)
It has been suggested by some scholars of Apocalyptic literature that this "book" (a scroll), which by its format is clearly some sort of trust deed, may in fact be the trust deed to the earth, which in some esoteric manner was sold by Adam to Satan. Whatever the nature of the transaction that led to the earth being sold and needing to be redeemed, it does seem clear that Satan owns the land for the time being, as he offered to give it to Christ during His temptation in the wilderness. If the world were not Satan's to give, why would it be a temptation to offer it? But to get it the wrong way? That simply wouldn't do. Christ paid the full price for the earth with His blood on the cross, and in so doing redeemed us all from the debt that our ancestors left to us. Not out of a sense of power or acquisition, for He had all that He needed already, but out of a deep love that the love between a man and his new bride, however powerful that may be, can only be a mere shadow thereof.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger (Ruth 3)

So here's Naomi's plan: Ruth is to go down to the threshing floor that night and meet up with Boaz. She will appeal to his better nature (and his probable sexual desire for a beautiful young woman) in order to ask him to perform his sacred duty as a "kinsman".

The nature of the duty of a "kinsman" is outlined in various spots in the Mosaic Law. There are different words for a relative, but the Hebrew word goel means something deeper. One aspect that is not applied in this story, but is highly important, is that of an avenger of a slain relative. When someone was killed, it fell to the goel to track down the killer and bring him to justice. In this case, the dead relative died of natural causes, so this service is not needed, but the goel served two other purposes, both of which are needed under the Law.

Leviticus 25 talks about how real estate works among the Israelites, and in particular, verses 23-28 outline the fact that when land is sold, it must always be made available to the original family that sold it to buy it back. This was one of the duties of a goel: to buy back land for his family if he was able. But what good would it do Ruth and Naomi to have land in a culture where women didn't generally do business? This is where the third and most foreign-sounding custom of the goel comes into play: the so-called "Levirate marriage". In Deuteronomy 25:5-10, it is explained how a family is to deal with a widow who has no children. In Israelite culture, it was considered very important to have a son to carry on the family line, and if a man died with no son, his wife was to marry the deceased husband's nearest relative and bear a son that would be the heir. There are some especially odd elements to this law that we will revisit in the next chapter.

So, back to our story; Ruth and Naomi are thinking that Boaz can be not just a generous giver of charity, but potentially he could be the solution to all their problems, buying back Elimelech's land and giving Ruth a son. Boaz wakes up in the middle of the night and is startled to find Ruth at his feet. Ruth implies (although once again, I'd like to point out nothing explicitly happens) that Boaz should do his duty and "spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman." This is a bit of a double-entendre, implying both "give me protection" and "let's get it on, Boaz."

Boaz is flattered, but initially says no, because it turns out he's not Elimelech's nearest living male relative, and he has to give the other guy first chance to carry out the duty of goel. He lets her sleep there until morning, and sends her away with more food, assuring her that he'll resolve the matter.

Where does all of this business of a goel's duties come into our allegory? It's actually central. The nation of Israel awaits their Messiah, knowing that he will come and redeem them, returning them to their land and restoring their inheritance. It's interesting that the rules about the redemption of the land in Leviticus 25 should be side-by-side with rules about the sabbatical year. The Israelites were told that they should only plant in their fields for six years, and let them lie untended and unharvested in the seventh. God actually told them that if they failed to do this, He would take those years back from them (Leviticus 26:33-35). God gave Israel the land of Canaan, but they lost it and went into exile; twice, actually.

Both the nation of Israel and some members of the gentile nations recognize their need for a redeemer, but can we be sure that this redeemer is Christ? What if there is another way? Does Christ have to yield to "a kinsman nearer"? Can a goel redeem even a foreign woman?

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? (Ruth 2)

As chapter 2 opens, we are introduced to arguably the hero of this story, a man by the name of Boaz ("strength"). Boaz is apparently a wealthy in-law of Naomi, which will be very important to the story.

In the land of Israel, it was a custom that people who could not fend for themselves, namely orphans and widows, were allowed to walk in the fields during harvest time and "glean". Essentially, if the harvesters were gathering in the grain and they let some fall on the ground, they were not allowed to go back and pick it up, but they had to leave it for the poor (Leviticus 19:9,10). Ruth goes out to glean and as luck (fate? providence?) would have it, she ends up in Boaz's field.

That very day, Boaz drops by to check on the harvest, and sees this young foreign woman in his field. He asks who she is, and is delighted to find out that it's Naomi's daughter-in-law, as he's heard the story and apparently thinks highly of this young woman. Boaz goes to talk to Ruth and tells her to stay in his field during the harvest, because he's personally vouched for her safety there (apparently, gleaning was not always a safe activity). He also offers her a chance to eat and drink with the workers. Lastly, out of her earshot, he tells the workers that if they catch Ruth picking in a place where she wouldn't normally be allowed, they should let her, and if they see her gleaning near them, they should be sloppy and let more grain fall for her.

At the end of the day, she goes home to Naomi with a huge pile of grain, much more than should be expected. Naomi questions Ruth, and finds out that Boaz is behind this. Naomi praises God for their good fortune, and no doubt begins to hatch a plot that we'll see carried out in the coming verses.

So, on to the allegorical aspects of the story: Who is Boaz? Well, literally, he is actually in the royal line of Israel, being the descendant of Judah ("The sceptre shall not depart from Judah"-Genesis 49:10) and the ancestor of David. Boaz represents, in the allegory, God; particularly the person of Christ, who was a powerful man of Israel in the royal line who gave grace to the gentile nations.

Gleaning is an interesting concept, because while the land is given by the decree of God to Israel, the gentile nations have an opportunity to get a little bit of the blessing that comes through Israel from their land and general position in the world. Often throughout history the Israelites have been rather reluctant to share the blessings of God with outsiders, despite the fact that God ordained them to be a blessing to all nations. Isaac Asimov, who wrote extensively on the Bible, felt that the book of Ruth was supposed to be completely an allegory; a tale of tolerance for outsiders, as a woman of Moab (with which Israel had a bad history) is loved by a great man of Israel, and then becomes the ancestor of the Kings of Judah. I disagree with his view, but I think the sentiment is nonetheless there. Just as Boaz was kind to a foreign-born woman whom he knew to have a heart that yearned for righteousness, so Jesus ordered his disciples to give the Word of God to all nations.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

As a wandering bird cast out of the nest, so the daughters of Moab shall be (Ruth 1)

The opening of the book of Ruth jumps right in, introducing us to many of the important characters and giving us an historical backdrop for the story. A man named Elimelech ("My God is King"), from Bethlehem ("House of bread", a city that later became very famous) in the tribe of Judah decides that in the face of difficult times, he needs to leave Israel and move to nearby Moab, a land peopled by the ancestors of Lot. You may or may not remember the story of how these people came to be from Genesis 19; the name Moab means "seed of the father", and according to the story, the man Moab who was the patriarch of this nation was the child of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter. (This happened in the same chapter of Genesis with the story of the destruction of Sodom, so while we are leaving behind the horror of the final chapters of the book of Judges, there is still perhaps a hint here at the parallel story to Judges 19.)

Elimelech dies, and his two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Then the sons die, and Naomi, alone in the world with her daughters-in-law, decides to go back to Israel, as she has heard things are looking up there. The two women try and come with her, but she urges them to go their separate ways. Orpah ("deer") kisses her mother goodbye and leaves, but Ruth ("friendship") refuses to leave her, giving one of the most beautiful speeches in the Bible to her. Naomi takes Ruth back to Bethlehem with her, where she is recognized. She insists that people no longer call her Naomi ("pleasant"), but rather Mara ("bitter"), "for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me."

So if this is an allegory (and let me say again that while I believe it to be an allegory, it's also a telling of a story that actually occurred in Israel's history) what is it meant to symbolize? Naomi/Mara represents the nation of Israel. Throughout their tumultuous history, the nation of Israel has been forced many times - even in famine specifically - to leave their land and go away for a time. Rarely is that time a pleasant one, and they often return with bitterness, wondering why, if they are indeed God's "chosen people", they seem to have been "chosen" for suffering. From Pharaoh's attempt to eradicate them around the 15th century B.C. to Germany's attempt in the 20th century A.D., they just don't seem to be able to get a break, and Naomi's time in Moab follows this. Pretty much her entire family is dead, all her earthly possessions lost and no children to support her in her old age, we can understand Naomi's bitterness, and the lingering bitterness of many Jews about their own history.

But what small comfort is there for Naomi? Her gentile daughters-in-law, who clearly love her very much, although one with more dedication than the other. These young women represent gentile nations that seem to have some respect and love for Israel. It's an interesting thing to me that from the days of Abraham, God seems to make it pretty clear that one of the main purposes of the nation of Israel is to become a blessing to the nations around them and bring them into a relationship with God, but Israel has tended to isolate themselves from the world, perhaps asking, like Naomi, "why will ye go with me?" Many nations, like a wild deer, wander back their own way, but a few people will insist on friendship with God's chosen people, hoping to find a way to be a blessing to them so that they may take part in the blessings of their God.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Moreover Ruth the Moabitess...ye are witnesses this day. (Ruth intro)

The book of Ruth is actually one of my favorite books for a number of both straightforward and odd reasons. The straightforward ones are mostly pretty self-evident. In the aftermath of the sex and violence of the book of Judges, (and yet, chronologically in the middle of it!) we finally see a story that's largely built in a framework of love, kindness, devotion and faith. This is a love story, which is unfortunately very rare in the Bible, unless of course you're willing to see the Bible as a whole being a love story between God and mankind.

Actually, it's that very sort of perspective that is the basis for the odd reasons that I love this book. This is by no means my own original point of view, but rather a conglomeration of thoughts that I have heard and read in various places: This book is, in a bizarrely symbolic way, something like the entire Bible in miniature, an allegory of the whole of God's relationship with His people, both the chosen nation of Israel and the gentile nations that eventually come into a relationship with Him. It's largely for this reason that I am going to approach my discussion of this book in a manner that is different from the manner in which I have discussed previous books.

The other reason that I am going to diverge from my usual apologetic style is the fact that the book of Ruth is not largely a book that has many reasons to take issue with its content. Yes, there are issues, but those issues are few and far between, and easy enough to respond to. The fact that Ruth is from Moab is an issue because Deuteronomy 23:3 says that "[a] Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever:" This is noteworthy, as of course the very reason the story of Ruth is in the Bible is that she is the great-grandmother of King David, a person we might assume to have entered "the congregation". While apparently some might want to call this a contradiction, at worst we can only say that the law as outlined in this verse was not followed in the case of this family. It may actually be that this is an injunction against a male Moabite only, in which case Ruth is clear, since she was married to an Israelite. (Interestingly, David escapes the injunction of the law in the previous verse of that chapter, as he is ten generations removed from Pharez, the bastard child of Judah. It has been suggested to me that technically this is a non-issue as well, since the term translated "bastard" means something slightly different to Israelites, but I'm not clear on the full technicalities of that.) Pretty much all other issues of the book have to do with cultural differences between ancient Israel and modern western culture. Something that astute readers pick up is the very risqué nature of the premarital relationship between Ruth and Boaz; while it's not 100% clear that they had sex nor that they refrained from sex, they are in many moments shown in a rather compromising position, what with Ruth sneaking into Boaz's bed at night and asking him to cover her with his own clothing. Even if there was no actual physical contact between them, in that era and culture, this was pretty scandalous--and yet served a specific calculated purpose on the part of the players involved. The fact that some of the phrasing may be a euphemism for sex isn't conclusive in my mind; Ruth and Naomi may simply have been using such phrasing to hint at their interest in Boaz as a husband for Ruth. In the end, Boaz "buys" Ruth to be his wife, not because she is some sort of commodity to be bought or sold in herself, but because the fortunes of Naomi's family are caught up in a debt that was incurred before Ruth became her daughter-in-law, and all of what we see unfold in this story is framed in ancient Israelite customs of real estate, debt and inheritance that I will discuss in greater detail later, as it turns out to have larger implications than just this story.

In order to fully understand those customs and what they imply, a deep look into the themes of this book will need a look into related passages throughout the Bible ranging from Genesis 2 through Revelation 5. Let's see what I can do with this...