Tuesday, December 23, 2008

So Saul died for his transgression (1Sam 31)

Here in the final chapter of this book, the SAB has only one question: "How did Saul die?" The page pointing out the apparent inconsistency gives four possible answers. Now while one can easily dismiss the account of the Amalekite as a lie (after all, he had no witnesses, and apparently assumed that telling David that he had killed Saul would curry favor) I don't think it's necessary, and besides, preachers who cover that story rather like to point out the irony of Saul being killed by an Amalekite, since he was ordered by God to wipe them out and failed.

The thing is, all four of these explanations can be correct in a sense. As I've said before, in some sense, everyone gets killed by God, so no need to explain that. Saul was killed by the Philistines because he died while in battle with them, being struck a mortal blow by Philistine arrows. Knowing that he was as good as dead he endeavored to kill himself rather than be subjected to torture. It may be that he failed to kill himself, and the Amalekite ended up landing the final death blow upon Saul.

The battle is a resounding defeat, and Saul dies along with his three sons, and many of the troops. The next day, Saul's body is captured by the Philisties, who hang his head on the wall of the city of Bethshan.

Monday, December 22, 2008

And two hundred abode by the stuff (1Sam 30)

Amalekites, don't they ever quit? Apparently not in chapter 30. Now I'll say that I'm fine with standing on what I had said before, but here there may be yet another possibility as to what's going on. It might be that the story in chapter 27 is a telescoping of several events into a single story, and the time that David wiped out the Amalekites in that chapter was actually an out-of-order version of this story, if you follow. This time, despite the claim of the marginal note on verse 17, the genocide is not complete, nor was it unprovoked.

The SAB says "David just keeps getting more wives." While true in a more general sense, there are no new wives in this chapter, David still being at two or three, depending on whether you count Michal. There is also a note once again concerning Abiathar's dubious lineage.

After the battle, David decides that those people who stayed behind to guard the supplies deserve the spoils of war just as much as those who rode out for the battle.

This battle was indeed violent, but I have nothing to add to comments I've given before in this book and in other places.

Friday, December 19, 2008

And said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan (1Sam 29)

Back to David in chapter 29, we find him in the uncomfortable situation of marching to war with the Philistines against his own country. Some of the leaders of the Philistines aren't happy and insist that David go away.

The SAB notes that the word in the Hebrew used of David is "Satan", but I'm not sure what's noteworthy about this. I think most people who know anything of Hebrew (well, I guess that's not too many) know that "Satan" is a Hebrew word meaning "adversary". Also, they make mention of the song about David being a great warrior. It is decided that David should leave, and so he does.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit (1Sam 28)

There's an interesting point to bring up about the story in chapter 28 and the nature of figurative speech. In verse 3, it says, "And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land." The story than goes on to talk about a woman with a "familiar spirit" in the land. The SAB does not mark this as a contradiction, I assume because it is understood that nobody would take the first phrase to be literal, but rather to mean, "And Saul attempted to put away...", although he was clearly not 100% successful. This may bear somewhat on the first point the SAB does bring up in this chapter, although not as much as other places.

Did Saul inquire of the Lord? Well, yes and no. I think on the face of it this is a contradiction, but I would argue (and it's going to sound like a cop-out, but it's all I've got here) that when 1Chronicles 10:14 says Saul "enquired not of the LORD", what it means is that Saul failed to rely on God as his sole means of divination.

The woman calls up Samuel from beyond the grave, prompting the SAB to rightly ask, "Was Jesus the first to rise from the dead?" This is a stickler of a question, and one of those ones that has a tricky theological answer. When Christians speak of Jesus "rising from the dead", they're talking about something special. Thanks to modern medical science, people rise from the dead every day in hospitals all over the world. It's not comepltely unreasonable to assume that for some of the folks rising from the dead in the Bible, we're talking about a person merely being revived. When we talk about Jesus rising from the dead, we're talking about a resurrection, a subtle but important difference. When people are revived from death, they eventually go on to die again, and this is eventually final. In the case of Samuel, he is not coming back to life, but only appearing as a spirit. In the case of Jesus and his followers, the idea is that one is rising from the dead to a new form of eternal life. Yes, the language here doesn't quite get that effect accross (and I don't know if the Greek is any clearer) but the distinction is important nonetheless.

The woman says "I saw gods ascending out of the earth." I think this is largely a non-issue insofar as the issue of polytheism is concerned. This woman is simply saying that she saw something, and we have no reason to assume she speaks with any authority. It is an interesting statement, however, and you have to wonder if it's a mistranslation. The word sometimes translated "gods" can also be translated "God" (with a capital G) or "judges". Whatever she saw, it was surely something quite impressive.

Samuel tells Saul that the following day he will go to battle and lose, and in the process he and his sons will die. Perhaps needless to say, Saul is not happy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Philistine of Gath (1Sam 27)

In chapter 27, David flees to Gath, figuring that if he goes among the Philistines, Saul will not follow. Indeed, it is noted here that Saul gives up.

While in this area, he and his men make some raids, completely wiping out the Geshurites, Gezrites and Amalekites, because these apparently were among the people that God wanted wiped out back in the days of Joshua.

Why is David fighting Amalekites if Saul wiped them out already? Well, remember for one thing that Saul didn't wipe them out. As the SAB itself says, Saul's genocide of the Amalekites was "incomplete". For another thing, it's possible that this is another case of mistaken names, with more than one nation being known as "Amalekites".

Having destroyed all these people, David decides to lie to the king of Gath, and say that he was raiding his own people. The king buys it, and concludes that David will now be forced to be an ally of the Philistines forever.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

And David came to Saul, and stood before him: and he loved him greatly (1Sam 26)

Chapter 26 has no notes from the SAB, but perhaps it's a good time to pause for a moment and consider a few points that could have been brought up in earlier chapters, but I didn't yet bother with. With this chapter carrying a bit of a repititious story, it's a good time to comment.

Once again, Saul comes after David to kill him, and once again, Saul is caught in a position where he is entirely at David's mercy. Of course, once again, David spares him.

I've been arguing a lot in both my analyses and in the comments thereafter the point of self-defense. I think when a person is after you to take your life or harm your family, you have a moral right to fight back. Yes, Jesus preached that we should "turn the other cheek", but that's an idealistic command, not always a practical one. Call it a cop-out for a Christian if you will, but that's how I feel. Personally, I don't know that I could kill someone with any provocation, but I wouldn't at all look down on someone else who killed another as a defensive act.

That being said, there's a lot of violence going around in the book of 1Samuel, and many people in the story don't seem to have qualms about killing, even when not in self-defense. David arguably has basis to call the killing of Saul self-defense; surely that's what Abishai is thinking when he suggests that Saul should be killed. Not only is it a good excuse for David, but there's an added bonus that Saul's blood wouldn't be on David's hands, since Abishai is offering to do the deed himself. David tells Abishai not to touch him; why?

There are a number of possible reasons that David may be so hesitant to lay a finger on Saul. The reason David gives is that Saul is the anointed king of Israel, and as such, no Israelite (not even David himself) has the right to hurt him. Perhaps David really feels this is the case, and his given reasons are completely honest.

Other possibilities exist, however, and it may be one or more of them. Note the fact that in moments of peace between them, Saul addresses David as "son", and David in return calls him "father" (24:11). I do think that despite Saul's animosity towards this future king, David has a soft spot in his heart for Saul, both out of his love for Saul directly, and indirectly out of his love for Jonathan, and thus the vow he made to both of them that he would not enact violence on their descendants.

The most practical answer, and also the most cynical, but one not to be dismissed, is that David felt that he was setting an example in the way he interacted with Saul. After all, if some kid who thinks he ought to be the king of Israel can just sneak into the king's tent one night and bump him off, what's to stop the same from happening to David in the future? Perhaps also, almost going back full circle to the first reason, he is fearing that if he strikes down Saul, he virtually sets it up as a rule that kings of Israel will be deposed by assassination. Call it karma, justice, the will of God, or what have you, but if David does this to Saul, he's virtually bound to meet the same fate a few years down the road.

Whatever the real reason, Saul is allowed to live once again, and the two men part ways in peace, never to meet again.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Abigail the Carmelitess, Nabal's wife (1Sam 25)

Here in chapter 25, Samuel dies, but for some reason, we're only given a short note on the matter.

So then we come to the matter of Nabal and Abigail. Nabal is sort of an odd character, mostly because of his name, which means essentially "fool" in Hebrew. It's unlikely that anyone would actually name their son "fool", but the possibility exists (especially since Nabal is a Calebite, which makes him sort of foreign) that the name means something else in another language.

David comes to be in the area near Nabal's land when it happens to be sheep-shearing time, generally a rather festive occasion. David sends a message to Nabal, asking if he could spare any provisions for his men in the midst of the celebrations. The nature of this request could be seen in two different ways, and there's a bit of evidence for either. The more generous view would be that David and his men, when they had been here before, had acted as protectors for Nabal's flock from foreign invaders or whatever sorts of things might come and attack a flock of sheep. As Nabal's men say, "They were a wall unto us both by night and day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep."

The possibility also exists that this is a sort of mob-like protection racket. David's constant reminder that he has kept his men from bothering Nabal's men and from taking any sheep seems possibly suggestive of this, and can't be completely dismissed. The truth may be a mix of the two.

Well, Nabal responds to David's men with "Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? there be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master." Nabal is not only denying that David has done him any good turn, but he is insulting David by suggesting that he is nothing, or less than nothing: a runaway rebellious slave to Saul. David is insulted enough that he orders his men to gear up for battle, and vows that he will kill "any that pisseth against the wall." This is indeed just about everything that SAB claims it to be, but I think there is a misinterpretation nonetheless. It's harsh, coarse language, and a promise of violence and intolerance, but it's not an indication that David has anything against a certain manner of relieving oneself, rather it's a crude way of saying, "I'm not going to leave a single man alive." After all, it's not women or young children who "pisseth against the wall" is it?

In the meantime, one of Nabal's men has gone to his wife Abigail, and told her what Nabal said, and how he fears violence will come to them because of Nabal's words. Abigail gathers up a generous amount of food, and takes it to David personally, keeping it a secret from her husband for the time being. She comes to David and bows down before him, making an eloquent plea for David to reconsider, suggesting that David should leave justice in the hand of God, using language reminiscent of David's famous fight with Goliath. Note that Abigail also ends her speech with "...but when the LORD shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember thine handmaid." I was reading that some have suggested that somehow Abigail may have been implying that she might do away with Nabal, and then everything that was Nabal's (including, especially, Abigail) would belong to David.

Indeed, the very next morning, when Nabal is probably well hung over, Abigail tells Nabal about all the food she gave away, and how David and his men nearly came to kill everyone. Nabal appears to have a stroke, and dies ten days later. Yes, the text does say "the LORD smote Nabal," but I think it's possible (but not necessarily so) that this is figurative speech beyond the fact that in some sense, God is responsible for the death of everyone.

David marries Abigail, and also some woman named Ahinoam about whom we are told just about nothing.

Saul, meanwhile, has given David's first wife Michal to a man named Phalti. Most this shuffling around of Michal is cruel to her and unlawful for Saul, but has political undertones. Michal, being the daughter of the current king, may confer some royal status on David, and Saul wishes to take that away.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Then Saul said to David, Blessed be thou (1Sam 24)

Chapter 24 has no notes from the SAB, but it's an interesting little story. In the midst of Saul and his men hunting for David, Saul happens to corner David in a cave, but doesn't realize he's done it.

Saul comes into the cave where all of David's army is, "to cover his feet". (He's covering his feet with his clothes, i.e., he's dropping his pants to take a dump.) David's men see this as a golden opportunity for David to strike Saul down, since he's totally at David's mercy, but David refuses to hurt Saul, instead cutting off a piece of his clothing.

After Saul leaves the cave, David steps out after him and shows him the piece of his clothes, sending the clear message that he could have taken Saul's life, but chose not to out of respect for Saul as the current king of Israel. This also ties back into the recurring theme of symbolism in clothing once again. Note that Saul had previously offered his clothing to David in chapter 17, but David had refused. This gesture may be implying, "I may have the right to someday take your office, but I won't take your life to get it."

Saul is apparently touched by the gesture, calling David "son" and admitting that he truly knows David is destined to be king. He asks David to be kind to his descendants after he is gone, and David swears to do so.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The ruler of the half part of Keilah (1Sam 23)

Chapter 23 is pretty standard fare for the most part. David has decided to do something about the invading Philistines, despite the fact that he's more or less in hiding from Saul. This of course leads to claims of violence, etc. from the SAB; insert stock answer here re self-defense.

It is a little odd that David "enquired of the LORD" twice, my thought on that is that the first time was more privately, and when his men expressed doubt, he did it more publicly to give them assurance. (Apparently the ephods that the priests carried could be used in some manner for a sort of divination, thus the mention of one being carried by Abiathar son of Ahimelech.)

In the midst of the fighting, David starts to worry nonetheless that the people of Keilah that he had come to save will still show greater allegiance to Saul, and turn him over to the King once the fighting is over. He asks God, and is assured that it is the case. So begins a deadly game of cat-and-mouse between Saul and David, in which Saul spends a great deal of energy hunting down David to kill him, but David only wants to be left alone, as we see in the next chapter.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul (1Sam 22)

So David and his family flee to Moab, and after David sees to it that his family is taken care of, he returns to the land of his tribe, Judah, now with a small army to protect him.

Saul meanwhile is very unhappy with, well, pretty much everyone and everything. The fact that David is against him, and Jonathan, his own son, is a friend of David has caused him to become paranoid. He gives a speech to his Benjamite soldiers, pointing out that surely David will not give the sort of deference to the tribe of Benjamin that he himself has. He questions their loyalty.

Doeg the Edomite (a foreigner, in case you didn't catch it) speaks up to show his own loyalty, pointing out that he saw David visit the priests in Nob. Saul sends for Ahimelech and demands to know "Why have ye conspired against me, thou and the son of Jesse...?" Ahimelech insists (honestly, by the look of things) that he had no idea David was not on a mission from Saul, but Saul refuses to believe this excuse, and tells his men to kill all of the priests. The men refuse, but Doeg apparently eagerly complies, killing not only the priests, but every person and animal in the city of Nob. The SAB notes this as violent, to which I wholeheartedly agree, and with the "Family Values" icon, the reason for which completely escapes me.

And now to Abiathar the priest. Here, as I mentioned in my previous commentary, is some confusion as to lineage. Is Abiathar the father or the son of Ahimelech. You know, one thing I tried to do was see if this complex sentence (verse 20) could be unraveled to translate differently, such as the idea that "named Abiathar" could be a reference not to the son that escaped, but that it was saying Abithar was another name for Ahitub, who seems to be clearly the father of Ahimelech (at least in this verse). It doesn't seem to be so, especially since the following verse seems to make clear that Abiathar was the escapee, the clear subject of the sentence.

Clearly there is an error somewhere, but as I said, I can't seem to let it go with that, and I've been doing some reading, trying to unravel it as much as I can. First of all, I'm fairly certain the answer is once again with the minority reading, that is, Ahimelech is the father, despite the fact that more verses name him as the son. Why do I think this? Well, firstly because those verses saying Abiathar is the father are ones that were written later, much longer after the events' actual occurrence, so that makes it seem to me that they are slightly more likely to be erroneous. Secondly, and more importantly, there are several verses such as this one that mention Ahimelech as the son of Ahitub, who is (according to 1Sam.14:3) the grandson of Eli, which seems to fit in pretty good culturally and with the timeline. On the other hand, I don't think there is an instance of a single verse that lists anyone else as being the father of Abiathar other than Ahimelech in these two chapters.

Admittedly, there is still some confusion beyond that. I tried to map out the family tree of Eli, but it gets murky after a few generations, partially due to the fact that there are multiple people with the same name (there seem to be two different priests by the name of Zadok, both of whom were contemporaries of David), and the genealogy doesn't seem to be in anywise complete. This may be the key to the answer, but I'll admit this theory, while possible, doesn't seem to be strongly supported: It may be that since Ahimelech was killed in the massacre at Nob, Abiathar may have named his next child after his dead father as a memorial. In such a case, the latter mentions of "Ahimelech the son of Abiathar" would actually be to the grandson of the Ahimelech in these two chapters. I think if this were the case, there would be some mention of the fact that this special repeat naming had taken place (after all, it seems to me it makes for an interesting story) but there is no mention of it, so it remains questionable speculation.

Whoever Abiathar is (and I'll say that despite Jesus referring to him as the high priest, I think there's still possibility that he was not high priest until after the massacre, if that sounds weird, feel free to ask in the comments), David invites him to come with him and his company, as they now share a common enemy in Saul.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

In the days of Abiathar the high priest (1Sam 21)

As we move into the final part of Saul's story here in chapter 21, the part of Saul's life where he spent much of his time chasing David around, we're going to come across a handful of related problems, all of which are at least in part tied to the first verse of this chapter. I'm getting ahead of myself in including some of this before the SAB does, but it seems clear that there's something confusing about this fellow Ahimelech the priest. Some of it's easy to address, but a lot of it is going to be harder, and take some looking into.
"Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone, and no man with thee?"
One issue here is whether this was Ahimelech at all, as when Jesus recounts this story in Mark 2, he calls the priest "Abiathar". While this issue doesn't come up until the next chapter, it seems clear to me that it must be related: Abiathar was another priest, and depending on which verse you read, he was either Ahimelech's son or father. What's going on? I'm not sure.

One thing that I think can safely be said is that it's certainly not uncommon for a father and son to both serve as priests at the same time. (There is often more than one priest, but only one high priest*, which in this case was Abiathar.) That being the case, David probably came to both, but talked specifically to Ahimelech. Jesus says it was "the days of Abiathar the high priest", but doesn't say that David talked to Abiathar. But who is the father? I think that's a question that can be answered, but I'm having a hard time figuring it out. I decided not to obsess over it, since whatever the answer is, the contradiction is still there, probably representing a scribal error. I'll come up with a verdict on the matter, but I think I'll let it drop for now, since it's a tough nut to crack.

The easy issue to address is that of whether or not David was alone. Yes, the priest comments that David is alone, while Jesus says he was travelling with others. I think this is almost silly though, and once again requires only looking at immediate context. Down in verse four, shortly after David asks for bread, the priest refers to "the young men" whom he assumes will be eating the bread. David is not travelling alone, but at the moment that he comes to the priest, he doesn't bring anyone with him into the house. In the immediate context of Jesus' comments on the matter, note that Jesus says "he entered the house", not "they entered the house". So was he alone? Yes, at the moment, but not on the overall journey.

So David gets the bread, but only after he assures the priest that neither he nor any of the men with him have recently had sex. The SAB seems to be saying that this is a bit sexist, and I'm inclined to agree, but I'm not sure what the reason for the priest saying this is. This is an unusual circumstance, David taking holy bread, and I certainly don't know what rules ought to be followed. It may be that the priest made the rules up.

The remaining issues in this chapter are mostly ones I have addressed previously. The killing of Goliath was in chapter 17, and the strange chant about body counts in chapter 18. The only thing not yet addressed is the story of David pretending to be insane, which I'm not sure what there is to say about it. Absurd? Well, he's pretending to be crazy, so crazy and absurd seem to me to be things that tend to go hand-in-hand. David's intention was to protect himself and make himself seem a non-threat to the Philistines, and apparently he succeeded, so what can I say?

* I know of a single exception to this general rule; I'm sure we'll get to it when we come across the particular verse in the New Testament.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The nakedness of thy mother (1Sam 20)

Chapter 20 is sort of weird because it largely involves David trying to convince Jonathan that Saul hates his guts. The fact that Jonathan is unaware of this is more than a little strange, seeing the events of the chapters leading up to this. Jonathan doesn't think he could possibly be unaware of anything going on with his father, and tells David that he'll prove it.

So David and Jonathan come up with a plan in which David will go away, and Jonathan will see how Saul reacts to David's absence. Jonathan and David both promise that whatever the outcome of this test, they will always be kind to each other, and to each others' families.

Saul ends up shouting at Jonathan: "Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness?" I think this is a very suggestive verse, but not in the way that the SAB is suggesting. Take the Bible as a whole and ask yourself: What does the phrase "thy mother's nakedness" really mean? If you look to some other verses, you'll find that the Bible forbade, for instance, a man to have sexual relations with his father's wife:
Lev 18:8 The nakedness of thy father's wife shalt thou not uncover: it is thy father's nakedness.
Now, I may be reading too much into it, but it seems that if "thy father's nakedness" is your father's wife, one could easily make the claim that "thy mother's nakedness" is your mother's husband. Saul seems to me to be saying that Jonathan has, in his allegiance to David, forgotten that his true allegiance should be to Saul, who after all is his father. I'm having a hard time putting this into words properly (and delicately), but I think Saul is being very poetically vulgar here and insulting Jonathan on many levels suggesting:

1) "I'm your father, and your allegiance should be to me."
2) "I'm the king, and if you hope to be king someday, you'd better not be supporting David."
3) "If you're going to be unable to get these facts straight, you might as well just have David #$%@ your mother, you little ingrate!"

In any case, this is a harsh rebuke indeed, and Jonathan finally realizes how incredibly hostile Saul's feelings towards David truly are. So he goes to David and tells him that he ought to leave, and they say farewell with a kiss, which once again, is totally acceptable between two straight men in many cultures.

Friday, December 05, 2008

It hath been already of old time, which was before us. (1Sam 19)

There's not much new in chapter 19. We're really seeing the SAB pick up on issues that we've seen before in this book.

Was Jonathan "totally gay" for David? Lacking better evidence for the claim, I say no.

Is David violent and intolerant for killing the Philistines? Well, they were an invading army; what was he supposed to do?

What's the deal with Saul and his "evil spirit"? I don't know, but I've given some thoughts.

Why do people say "Is Saul also among the prophets?" Perhaps various reasons.

Have a nice weekend, everyone.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women (1Sam 18)

In 1Samuel 18, we are finally introduced to the close relationship between David and Jonathan. The SAB takes the approach that so many do, assuming the implication that Jonathan and David were lovers. Now, whereas it's certainly possible, of course the conservative assumption among both Christians and Jews is that this is not the case. The fact is, there really needs to be a stronger case made if a reader of the Bible is to accept this claim. I think a lot of what is used by people to make this case is more of an implication from our own modern American biases, which frankly tend to be a bit homophobic.

People can love one another deeply and have it be a non-sexual love, even two heterosexual men. Taking off one's clothing in the presence of another is likewise not an instant implication of something sexual going on. (It's not clear whether Jonathan is stripping entirely nude here anyway, but rather he may be giving over his armor.*) I truly believe in this case, the fact that Jonathan took off his armaments and gave them to David implies that Jonathan is trying to symbolically affirm the fact that David is his superior (being now the true king of Israel), and someone that he trusts with his life. In many cultures of the world, it is common for men hold hands, embrace one another, and even kiss without it being considered at all sexual, and I think we'd be overstepping any clear understanding of ancient culture to assume more than what is explicitly stated here.

Now, there soon comes to be some sort of thing going on where the women of Israel are heard to say "Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands." The SAB claims that this is the result of some sort of contest, but there are two things to say about this. First of all, no such "contest" is mentioned (although given the political situation, it might not be wrong to say that there was a prestige contest between these two men). Secondly, while they may indeed have slaughtered quite a few of their enemies, the saying is almost certainly hyperbolic in nature, still being early enough in David's military career that it's unlikely he has killed more than a few hundred at most, I would think. Essentially, David's reputation after killing Goliath has caused people to claim that David is ten times the warrior that Saul ever was.

The claim that Saul was taken by an "evil spirit from God" that made him prophesy is a strange one, and not actually a completely unique idea in the Bible. I'd stand on my previous comments concerning Saul's torment by spirits and prophesying.

Oddly to me, the SAB makes no note of violence for Saul trying repeatedly to kill David. I guess in the midst of all the warfare and slaughter, we're supposed to hardly notice a single murder? I don't know. (Discussion on this matter is in the comments below.)

Anyway, Saul wants to get rid of David, so he comes up with a plan that he figures will cause David to be killed my the Philistines. Saul says David can marry his daughter, but instead of a dowry, he will accept a hundred Philistine foreskins. David goes above and beyond, and brings two hundred. What can I say about this crazy story? The SAB labels this passage with the icons for Absurdity, Violence, Sex, Women, Family Values, and Injustice. Let's take them in that order: Absurd? Agreed heartily. Violent? Yes, but once again, this was in the middle of a war between Israel and the Philistines. Sex? Not particularly sexual other than the fact that it involved genitals, so if that's enough for you, so be it. Women? I assume we're once again talking about the idea of a person buying a wife, and yes, it's strange to our modern value system, but common in those days, so I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say. Ditto on Family Values. Injustice? Well, unjust to whom? To the Philistines? I'd assume these were soldiers, who had to accept the possibility they were to die in war. To David? He didn't seem to mind. To Michal? That goes back to the previous issues. I'm simply not sure what the deal is here; this seems as just as anything else in time of war.

The fact that David is successful is apparently taken as a sign to Saul that God is with David, and as He clearly is not with Saul any longer, he suffers from a great deal of envy, becoming David's enemy from that time forward.

* Overall, the Bible has a number of interesting allusions to the symbolism of clothing. Note how in 1Sam.15:27-28, Samuel uses the tearing of his garment as an illustration of the tearing of the kingdom from Saul. In chapter 17, David is offered Saul's battle garb and rejects it, but here, he accepts Jonathan's. In the next chapter, Saul ends the story stripped naked. This is part of a longer literary thread in the Bible that goes from the creation of garments for Adam and Eve, to the life of Joseph which is punctuated with repeated awarding and losing of clothing, to the creation of special priestly garments for the Levites, to the passing of Elijah's cloak to Elisha, to Christ's robe being taken from him before He is placed on the cross, and so forth, to name a few. There are many more.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A Bethlehemite slew Goliath the Gittite (1Sam 17)

So here in chapter 17, we come to the infamous story of the giant Goliath. The Philistines and the Israelites are camped on opposite sides of the valley of Elah, and out comes Goliath, a man about ten feet tall. Now I've mentioned it before, but this is the most appropriate place to bring it up, so I'll repeat myself: while ten feet seems unlikely, it's not completely outside of the realm of possibility. There are men living in the present day whose height is in the neighborhood of nine feet, so personally, I find this comparable.

Something interesting about giantism that I heard about on a television special on the matter is that there is a form of giantism that is caused by a specific sort of brain tumor. This tumor causes three symptoms that are suggestive of this story. First, and most obvious, is that people with this tumor grow to great height with the only apparent limit being what their health can otherwise support (thus Goliath's height). Secondly, it causes problems with the vision centers of the brain, severely limiting peripheral vision (thus David may have come to an advantage over Goliath by moving in closer). Thirdly, it makes the brain more susceptible to serious trauma from a sharp blow, making someone likely to die if they were, oh, say hit by a rock in the forehead (thus Goliath's manner of death). Not all miracles are supernatural: consider the fact that I know all of the above, but David certainly did not.

Goliath challenges the Israelites to one-on-one combat. This may have been with the intention of simplifying the battle, but more likely, it was with the intention of breaking the spirit of the Israelites, who would no doubt be unlikely to stand up to so (apparently) formidable a foe. After all, according to the story, Goliath came out for forty days with nobody answering the challenge.

So David comes along at the bidding of his father to catch the latest news of his brothers who are serving at war. He overhears some people talking about how they are certain that Saul will richly reward the man who defeats Goliath. David decides that surely, he is that man.

David goes to Saul and says he will fight Goliath, and at first, Saul is having a hard time accepting that David has much of a chance. David tells Saul that in the course of his duties watching over his father's flocks, he has at various times had to fight a lion and a bear and in both cases, won. David says that fighting Goliath should be no more difficult.

Saul finally consents, and gives David his armor, which David decides he'd be better off without. So contrary to what people expect from a warrior, David goes into battle with no armor and no sword, and Goliath laughs at him. But as David says, "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied." David slings a single stone, and Goliath goes down. Did the stone kill him, or the sword? Who knows? Is it really important? If Goliath had not been hit by the stone, he wouldn't have died, but we weren't completely sure he was dead until David chopped off his head. All of this is violent, yes, but it's war.

Who killed Goliath? An interesting question for those not familiar with the Bible, who would be surprised that the Bible claims in 2Sam 21:19 that it was a man named Elhanan. As the SAB points out, the KJV translators inserted an unsupported phrase to fix the contradiction, except... Is it totally unsupported? 1Chron 20:5 reads "...Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite..." There's definitely some problems with this verse in 2Samuel, as the gist of the verse contradicts with our story, but the KJV translators were not totally without merit for inserting this fix. (I don't think most modern translations fiddle with this verse, nor should they.)

As I said previously, I think this story comes chronologically before most of the latter events in chapter 16, and this is actually the first time that Saul and David met. Note however that there is some oddity nonetheless in the phrasing of the latter part of this chapter, since Saul acts like he doesn't know who David is, even though he definitely had just met him minutes beforehand. I think it's quite likely that a fair amount of this confusion is not so much about not knowing David as it is about finding it hard to believe that someone as small and as young as David could have prevailed, and Saul is saying, "Wait, did I miss something? Who was that again? Where did you come from, kid?"

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I have found David the son of Jesse (1Sam 16)

So in chapter 16, God says it's time to move on, and look for the new king. Samuel is nervous, because he thinks Saul will attack him if he tries to choose a new king, which was probably an accurate assessment.

God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem, and there give a sacrifice, inviting Jesse and his family because one of Jesse's sons is destined to be the new king. Everything appears to be going according to plan until God tells Samuel that none of the sons of Jesse present are the right one. Samuel asks Jesse if he has another son, that son being David, of course.

How many sons does Jesse have? Honestly I don't know. There's definitely some confusion between here and 1Chronicles, and the nature of the resolution is not obvious. There are a few possibilities. One, that completely erases the contradiction, but at the cost of also garbling the intelligibility a bit, is that technically, Jesse did have seven sons pass before Samuel in total. This makes verse ten very badly worded, but it's not entirely implausible. Another possibility is that Jesse had eight sons at the time of this event, but one of them died before having a child, possibly in the fighting against the Philistines. Thus the later claim that Jesse had only seven sons means he had only seven surviving sons. Actually, now that I put it in words that way, another unlikely but possible scenario comes to mind: "sons" could be a sort of mistranslation of "children", and Jesse may have come to the sacrifice with six sons and a daughter. Honestly, the most likely answer is that the latter verse was a mistake by someone who read this story and didn't do the math, but I have to consider possibilities. (Edited to add: The very next chapter says plainly that Jesse had eight sons. The SAB might want to add that verse to the contradiction page for added clarity.)

I'm not sure why the SAB marks the anointing of David as violent and unjust. Maybe there are aspects of David's kingship that the SAB sees as those things, but the anointing itself is hardly violent.

It is definitely a very strange thing to hear that God would have sent "an evil spirit" to Saul to trouble him, but there are ways to look at this event that may or may not seem acceptable depending on your theological viewpoint. Taking it from a purely straightforward point of view, that is, to say that God literally sent some sort of evil spirit to Saul, might be acceptable to some who don't see a conflict with God enacting evil through a proxy, which is something like what some Jews believe. I tend myself to think this is figurative language, and it's not so much something like a demonic presence, but simply a "spirit" in the same sense that one would talk of "Christmas spirit" if one is not Charles Dickens. In that case, whether it was literally God actively tormenting Saul or rather that Saul felt tormented in knowing he was to lose the kingdom and the favor of God is up to you to decide; in some sense, I suppose it boils down to much of the same effect.

Now the end of the chapter has Saul meeting David for apparently the first time. David is hired on to come to Saul's court and play music for him to make him feel better, and David eventually comes to be Saul's armorbearer. This seems to be a contradiction with the story in the following chapter, which also appears to be a story of Saul meeting David for the first time. In my opinion, it is the latter story that represents the first meeting of Saul and David, and it is through that latter (in the book) meeting that David becomes well-known enough for Saul's courtiers to recommend him in this instance. This story would then not be in chronological order, but placed here for thematic purposes to follow the story of Saul's "troubled" feelings in losing the throne.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Agagite, the Jews' enemy (1Sam 15)

Now whereas I usually feel there is an easy response to challenges of violence and intolerance (most of what has been seen in this book so far has been violence in self-defense), chapter 15 presents us with the first example of God-ordered genocide with no immediately obvious purpose. Sure, back in Joshua it was a matter of establishing the nation in the land of Canaan, both for the benefit of Israel and the punishing of evil pagan nations. Here, however, God orders Saul to take his now-sizable and experienced army and attack a foreign country for what seems to be a petty reason. Not that what Amalek did to the Israelites wasn't serious, but as the SAB points out, we're talking about an event centuries previous. In some respects, it seems something akin to me taking it upon myself as a grown man in my mid-thirties to working out and getting strong so I can go pummel a bully who took my lunch money in first grade.

Furthermore, there is no ambiguity here; God really is looking for genocide, not merely punishment, ordering the complete destruction of men, women, children, babies and even livestock. Why does God want this? There's a very subtle clue that we won't find in this chapter, but it brings up possibly another issue that the SAB does not address. After all this setup, I intend to answer this at the end of the entry.

Saul goes off to battle, but he doesn't end up completely destroying everything, saving some of the best livestock, and king Agag as a prisoner. God's not happy, and He says, "It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king," leading the SAB to ask the important question, "Does God repent?" I think I addressed this before (yep, here it is), but just in case I didn't, the answer is, "Well, it depends on what you mean by 'repent'." It's understood that the nature of God is such that He, being all-knowing, never comes to be surprised by the outcome of His decisions. Since He knew all that Saul would do as king from the beginning of time, it wouldn't be theologically proper to interpret this verse as God saying, "What was I thinking when I let this joker be king?!" When God "repents", what it means is that He has let the course of history go on long enough, and He is going to now step into the picture and move things in a new direction. The people wanted a king, and God gave them Saul. Now Saul is no longer of any use to God in his position as king, and God will now take steps to remove and replace him. (Note also that in the very same chapter, we are told that God does not repent (v. 29), so clearly the writer means something unusual here, or you have to assume almost immediate self-contradiction, which seems unlikely.)

Samuel comes to Saul and asks him why he didn't obey the command of God. Saul blames the people, saying that they wanted to take some of the best sheep and bring them back as a sacrifice. This is of course, a very lame excuse for a couple reasons, only one of which is stated in the text at this point. The unstated reason is that Saul is the king, which makes him supposedly the man in charge. If things go wrong, he has to take responsibility, not say, "Well, these people didn't want to do it." Secondly, as Samuel points out, isn't it better to just do what you're told than to disobey and excuse your actions by saying, "I was going to do this other thing that I thought would be cool!"

Samuel informs Saul that since he rejected God's command, God's rejects Saul's kingship. Finally, Saul admits he screwed up, and admits both aspects of his mistake, asking Samuel to pray for his restoration, which Samuel refuses to do. However, in some manner that's hard to fully decipher in the King James English, he does something to allow Saul to save face to some degree.

Now, Samuel turns to the matter of the remaining Amalekite, King Agag. He calls for him to be brought, and Agag is nervous, pleading that surely he himself need not die. Samuel kills him, making the genocide of the Amalekites almost complete.

What's missing, and what was the point of all this bloodshed? Some have made the point that Saul's failure led to a dark day in Israel's history, centuries later. In the book of Esther, a man by the name of Haman rises to power in the Persian Empire, and uses his authority to attempt to exterminate the Jews. Who is Haman? He is identified as an "Agagite", that is, he is a descendant of King Agag, the last surviving Amalekite. The issue that this brings up for some skeptics is, if Agag was the last survivor, how is it that he seems to have had children? Two possibilities exist. Either Saul, in sparing Agag, also spared his children, or the possibility also exists that Agag had children in the time span between the destruction of Amalek and his death at the hand of Samuel. This second possibility points out how sometimes a careful reading of Scripture can make you aware of the passing of time that is not obvious on a quick surface read. In verse 12, Samuel hears, "Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a place". Other translations make this clearer; what has happened is Saul has stopped on his return home to have a monument built in his own honor. This must have taken some time, perhaps even months, and the war itself wasn't instantaneous. In this time, it seems likely that Agag's children somehow escaped, and grew over time into a small nation that had, perhaps understandably, some unresolved issues with Israel. God understands the relationships between nations, and does what He must to preserve Israel against violent opposition.

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.