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.