1 Samuel 15: The Sundering

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The relationship between Samuel and Saul is an interesting one, because it looks an awful lot like a power struggle between the secular and cultic leadership structures.

So we see, for example, Samuel directing political decisions by being God’s mouthpiece: he tells Saul to go after the Amalekites, to punish them for “opposing them [the Israelites] on the way, when they came up out of Egypt” (1 Sam. 15:2). In a sense, he is trying to direct the military aspect of governorship by proxy.

There is, however, a condition; the Israelites must kill all the Amalekites, even women and infants, even their livestock. Samuel is invoking the rules of holy war outlined in Deut. 20.

Interestingly, the incident Samuel is referencing (also outlined in Deut. 25:17-19) is narrated in Exodus 17:8-16. There, Joshua battled the Amalekites while Moses lead the cheers from the sidelines. Though the Israelites won, God promised to destroy them all later. Now he’s going to give it a go.

Saul musters 200,000 soldiers. That number either includes or is in addition to 10,000 soldiers from the tribe of Judah. This is the second time the soldiers of Judah are counted separately (the other time was in 1 Sam. 11:8), and I don’t know why that is. It could be that the source came from Judah, so they recorded their own numbers in the stories as a matter of interest.

When they reach the city of Amalek (probably not an actual city since it seems that the Amalekites were at least partially nomadic – I imagine that this is more likely a fortified base/trading centre), Saul reaches out to the Kenites who are living among the Amalekites, telling them to get out lest they be killed as well. According to the Deuteronomist histories, the Kenites are associated with Moses’ father-in-law (whatever his nom du jour happens to be – Judges 1:16; 4:11). Clearly, they were a group viewed favourably by the Israelites. The Kenites obey.

Saul defeats the Amalekites and (mostly) follows Samuel’s instructions. However, as we saw in the narrative of the battle of Ai, mostly doesn’t cut it. Saul keeps alive the Amalekite king Agag and a selection of the very best livestock, claiming that he wished to sacrifice these at a proper altar. He doesn’t seem to understand that this is disobeying Samuel’s commands, however, presumably figuring that he is going to kill them all anyway, wouldn’t it be better to do it in a ritualistic way rather than just slaughtering everything right away in the field?

When Samuel finds out, he is furious, and God “repents” of his choice of king. Samuel tries to confront Saul about it, but Saul has already left (after building himself a monument at Carmel) for Gilgal. Samuel heads after him.

The Confrontation

When Samuel catches up to Saul, Saul is just beaming like a puppy super proud of himself for defending his owner from the danger of a pair of slippers. He boasts, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:13). Samuel gets snarky, answering: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” (1 Sam. 15:14)

Since Saul did, by all indication, intend to follow out the command and to do so in a pro-God way, his error is not really heresy or disobeying God’s orders. Rather, the issue is that he did not perfectly follow Samuel’s orders – he tried to retain agency and to make his own decisions in the worship of YHWH. So what we are seeing is a prophet who is trying to direct secular matters, and a king who is trying to direct cultic matters.

Of course, since the authors knew that Saul did not establish a dynasty, it would have been easy for them to read in (or even write in) a defense of religious meddling in secular governance.

1 Samuel 15Or, as Samuel puts it, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22).

Saul’s defense is that, “I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). If true, it makes him a weak king. If a lie, then he is failing to take ownership of his own actions. This is not a flattering portrait of the king. He begs for a second chance.

Samuel turns to leave and Saul grabs after him, accidentally tearing Samuel’s robe (apparently, some translations are less clear – seeming to indicate that it is Samuel who tears his robe, presumably for dramatic effect). To this, Samuel says: “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you” (1 Sam. 15:28).

The obvious interpretation is that this is a second version of Saul’s fall from grace. It’s possible, however, that this is an escalation. It could be that the punishment in 1 Sam. 13:13-14 is the loss of a dynasty only, whereas here God is withdrawing support from Saul’s own rule. It’s the difference between “we won’t be renewing your contract” and “please pack up your stuff.”

Samuel then calls for King Agag to be brought to him and, with a witty one-liner (or two-liner, I suppose, depending on your formatting), hacks the enemy king to pieces. This is yet another example of the secular vs religious authority battle, as it gives Samuel the final deciding military victory. It is the prophet who, in the end, is the one who literally defeats the baddies.

In the end, Samuel and Saul part ways, the former going back to Ramah while the latter goes to Gibeah. The narrative tells us that they will not see each other again until one of them (the language is ambiguous as to which) dies.

Even so, Samuel is said to grieve over Saul. I think that this is meant to show that it isn’t personal, or perhaps to highlight that the butting of heads is between God and Saul, not Samuel and Saul. It is the religious authority throwing their hands up and saying “Oh I‘m not the one who wants power, this is just about what God wants!” Or, more charitably, it points to a complex relationship in which Samuel is bound by the law regardless of his personal feelings, as in the story of Jephthah where he must kill his beloved daughter.

1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).

It doesn’t mean anything…

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1 Samuel 13: The Great Falling Out

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The chapter opens with something of a mystery. According to John Hobbins’s translation, the opening line reads: “Saul was a year old when he became king, and he was king over Israel for two years.”

Clearly, Kish didn’t send his one-year-old out to fetch donkeys, and I think we can assume that a one-year-old can’t have a son out leading armies (we will be meeting his son Jonathan shortly). Even if we accept the possibility of a narrative jumbling – in which case the events in which Samuel is clearly an adult may have taken place after his coronation – it would be too unusual for an infant to be a dynasty founder without it getting a mention.

Far more likely, we have a corruption of the record. It could be that the earliest text had correct figures that were later dropped, or perhaps the original author didn’t know and used these numbers as a place-holder.

Hobbins goes on to mention other variations of the passage that contain more realistic figures:

There are ancient witnesses that supply a plausible age for Saul at the beginning of his reign – the Lucianic recension of the Old Greek has 30 years; the Syriac has 21 – but there are no grounds for thinking that either goes back to an earlier stage of the text in which Saul’s age when he became king was not lacking.

If anything, the presence of different figures suggests, to me, that later scholars were concerned about the absence of realistic figures and included their best guesses – arriving at different conclusions or possibly drawing from different traditions.

If we assume a late composition date, it’s not unreasonable for the author not to have access to the actual figures. Which raises the question of why he would bring up the topic at all. It could be that the point is to indicate that these events aren’t occurring right after the events of 1 Sam. 12. Rather, time has passed, perhaps quite a few years.

Saul at war

Saul selects 3,000 soldiers, sending the remainder home. He keeps 2,000 of them with him at Michmash while his son, Jonathan, leads the remainder in a raid against the Philistine garrison at Geba.

Saul reproved by Samuel for not obeying the commandments of the Lord, by John Singleton Copley, 1798

Saul reproved by Samuel for not obeying the commandments of the Lord, by John Singleton Copley, 1798

For all that the Philistines are the baddies in these stories, Saul is clearly on the offensive. When Jonathan wins, Saul blows a trumpet to signal that the tides have turned, and to call the people to Gilgal (raising the question of why he’d dismissed them in the first place).

When they hear of it, the Philistines muster 30,000 charioteers, 6,000 cavalry, and innumerable footsoldiers. They gather at Michmash, where Saul had so recently been.

The number of Philistines has the Israelites quaking in their boots, and many hide “in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns” (1 Sam. 13:6). In apparent reference to 1 Sam. 10:8, Saul waits seven days for Samuel, but Samuel doesn’t show. Saul, seeing his people starting to desert and having no idea where Samuel is or if he’s even coming, takes matters into his own hands. He orders that a sacrifice be performed without Samuel.

When Samuel arrives, he is furious. He declares that, by crossing the church/state barrier, Saul has broken God’s commandments. “But now,” he says, “your kingdom shall not continue” (1 Sam. 13: 14).

There’s the impression that Samuel may not have taken too well to the loss of his secular authority. We see a hint of this in 1 Sam. 8:7, where God tries to reassure Samuel that it is he who is rejected, not Samuel. Now that we see Samuel so furious, I wonder if it’s not because Saul has attempted to erode his last little corner of power.

Or, if we read in some allegory, it could well be that this story presents a conflict between secular and religious authorities at a time when secular authorities were just forming in the region. It seems that Samuel, as a stand-in for religious authority, is attempted to create and preserve a role for his “team” within the context of the new monarchy.

We now learn that the Philistines have, in their attempt to control Israel, forbidden smithing (not an unknown strategy – when she defeated the Oirats, the Mongolian queen Mandukhai forbade the use of knives even for eating). This indicates a power well beyond that suggested so far. Or, perhaps, it is hyperbole intended to ramp up the suspense of the story.

As a practical detail, we learn that the Israelites have had to turn to Philistine smiths to tend their tools, paying a pim (1/2 shekel) for work on ploughshares and mattocks, and 1/3 shekel for sharpening axes and setting goads.

Only Saul and Jonathan are armed with proper weapons. Which all makes it rather impressive that Jonathan was able to defeat the garrison at Gibeah.

 

History Channel’s The Bible: Episode 3, “Homeland”

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Forty years after the events of the last episode (in narrative time, it hasn’t actually been that long since I wrote that post!), we open with Joshua praying in a deep, melodious voice that I am sure gets that actor oodles of gigs as a movie trailer narrator. The prayer serves to establish Joshua’s character – both his identity and goal.

His prayers over, we then zoom up Joshua’s nostril has he tells his spies to sneak into Jericho, and then into the spies’ nostrils as they agree.

We really get right up there.

We really get right up there.

I pointed out in my review of episodes 1 & 2 that the series tends to make up details to make the baddies seem like actual baddies, rather than just guys who happen to have settled in the wrong area (or, in Lot’s wife’s case, had complex feelings about leaving her home forever). So, of course, the figures of authority – apparently something like police officers – in Jericho are complete jerks. Right off the bat, one of them calls Rahab a “whore” and acts like a complete creepster.

The spies are fairly incompetent, and have perhaps forgotten to wear britches because everyone in town recognizes them immediately. They spend their time in Jericho running from alley to alley, recognized by more people at each turn, pursued by an ever-growing mob. Finally, they settle on the winning strategy of holding a knife to Rahab’s son’s throat and threatening to kill him unless Rahab protects them. Which, for some reason, doesn’t make them baddies. Rahab, like everyone else in town, immediately recognizes the Israelites, to which they reply, “you’ve heard of us?” As if they haven’t just spent the better part of the evening running from an entire town full of people who’ve heard of them and recognize them. At least the show managed to stay true to the text in making these the worst spies in the history of espionage.

Rahab agrees to delay the guards while the spies escape, either because she’s wowed by their super powerful deity or because they’ve just been holding a knife to her son’s throat. With a big third wall-breaking smirk, one of the spies gives her a red cord and tells her to tie it to her doorpost so that “you’ll be passed over.” Get it? Like the Israelites in Egypt? Get it??

When they get back to camp, they tell Joshua that the battle’s already half won because the citizens of Jericho believe that God is on the Israelite side. Joshua snaps at then, “God is on our side!” Yeah, dude, they know. That wasn’t the point. In fact, this happens several times during the episode. Some character will use “they think” language, and a Holy character will pause for a moment to shout, full froth, that God really really is with them, and then everyone resumes the scene as if nothing happened. I can just imagine some guy in the screenwriter circle with serious anger issues demanding that the line be added, in full caps, at regular intervals throughout the script. Perhaps he even brought a Bible along so that he could thump it to accentuate every second word.

The hapless spies failed to find a way into the city, but the angel of the Lord comes to Joshua and gives him the “Walls of Jericho” choreography. It’s the black one this time. We’ll see the white one later. The Asian band of our rainbow was apparently benched for this episode.

Bible_03_02_The Angel of the Lord

When the walls of Jericho fall, Joshua yells something that sounded something like “he truly is the saviour of the world” – or, perhaps, “this truly is the centre of the world.” Either way, it makes little sense in this context. Unless, of course, our True Believer scriptwriter wanted to remind everyone that Jesus is what it’s all about, even in the Old Testament.

Must more fitting with the tone of the Deuteronomic history is Joshua’s other shout: “If we obey the Lord, anything is possible!”

Samson

A hundred years pass and the Philistines are being jerks. The show introduces the concept of judges (plural), but completely skips most of them over to get to Samson – a strong black man with dreadlocks. In Judges 16:19, a reference is made to Samson’s “seven locks.” Some – particularly those in the Rastafari faith system – believe that this indicates that Samson may have worn dreadlocks. I found it interesting to see that theme taken up here.

Choosing to make Samson black is interesting, too, especially given the direction in which they decided to take the story. Rather than being the personal revenge story we get in the text, here it’s depicted as a sort of defence of interracial marriage – further, it’s one where our sympathetic character is the person of colour. Samson and his mother are black, whereas the Philistines are all portrayed as white.

Samson with Delilah

Samson with Delilah

To make it work, they’ve written out the lion and the riddle and the first wife’s betrayal. Instead, the Philistines murder Samson’s wife (by setting her on fire, no less) because “our people should never mix.”

Except that it isn’t quite that simple. The Philistines (you can tell they are baddies because they all wear Jack Sparrow eyeliner) are shown to be against Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman from the start, but so is Samson’s mother. At her own son’s wedding, she is shown pursing her lips judgementally, prompting Samson to ask her what she wants from him. “What would you have me do? Reject the woman I fell in love with just because she’s a Philistine?”

Bible_03_Wedding

Because it’s a lot harder to CGI burning foxes than just to have a couple of stunt doubles wail on each other, Samson’s revenge involves the latter as he shouts, “for my wife!”

JAWBOWNED!

JAWBOWNED!

As in the text, Samson escapes and hides in a cave for a bit.

Also like the text, the Philistines start harassing nearby Israelites (in this case, Samson’s mother is included in the group). The History Channel couldn’t help but to add a little Hollywood flair, however, as the Philistines pull the old “for every arbitrary unit of time you make us wait for Samson, we will kill one of you! Starting NOW!” canard. The Israelites find Samson and convince him to submit.

The Philistines have Samson in chains, there’s a baddie/goodie exchange, Samson breaks free, then comes the jawbone.

It’s on his escape from his fight that Samson meets Delilah, violently grabbing a water jug out of her hands and then, inexplicably, thanking her as though he’d asked for it like a normal human being. This apparently sets Delilah swooning.

The Philistines approach Delilah and try to convince her to betray Samson. At first, they argue that he’s been going around butchering Philistines – entirely the impression of the text, but a lie in the context of the History Channel’s spin on the story. Delilah is unconvinced, “He’s changed, he’s a different man since he’s met me.” I mean, sure, he was covered in Philistine blood when she met him, but he hasn’t even tried to commit genocide since!

What finally convinces her is the offer of money. That meshes with the text, but it feels worse here, somehow. Delilah is portrayed as having genuine affection for Samson, defending him and even crying when he is captured. Yet her greed overrides her affection to the point that she methodically sheers his hair while he sleeps, with no indication of internal conflict.

As in the text, Samson is blinded. Where the adaptation deviates, however, is that it has him brought to Dagon’s temple immediately. When Samson regains his strength, it is through prayer only. There has been no time for his hair to grow, so the History Channel has chosen to just skip over the possible pagan elements that, I suppose might have been theologically troubling to their resident Bible thumper – the one who peppers his speech with shouts of “God is with us!” - even when simply discussing the weather or how to conquer nearby cities.

Finally, we get the Hollywood trick of having Samson’s mother pulling rubble away to reveal her son, and Samson’s chapter ends with her crying over his corpse.

Samson’s mother features quite prominently in the adaptation. In the text, she’s unnamed – clearly important, and it’s notable that God speaks to her rather than her husband, but still rather effaced. Here, however, the reverse is the case. Samson’s mother is written into a number of scenes, while her husband is entirely absent. Anyone who didn’t already know the story might well get the impression that her pregnancy was, like Mary’s, one that needed no human help getting started.

Of course, she receives the news of her pregnancy from the creepiest angel ever. Seriously, the guy is as bad as a Jerichoite. God’s HR department needs to have a sensitivity course with its angels to talk about personal space, I think.

Bible_03_03_Creeper Angel

Samuel

Micah’s idol, the concubine’s rape, and the ark’s adventures are all skipped over, and we move straight into Samuel’s old age. The voice over tells us that poor Samuel tried his best to unite the Israelites to fight against the Philistines, but he has failed.

Unlike his text self, he assumes that his sons will succeed him, and defends him from the Israelite accusations that they are corrupt and have been accepting bribes. He is clearly meant to be a goodie, but his resistance to the monarchy is not explained. Given the lack of eyeliner on the Israelites asking for a king, they seem to be sympathetic characters too. Rather than coming across like a legitimate question that is up in the air, it ends up just looking like Samuel is a horrible guy and a bad leader who the show really really wants to convince us is on the good side. The whole scene feels awkward and rushed.

Samuel explicitly personalizes the rejection of his sons and the judge system, crying out that the people “have rejected me” and adding “and you, God” as though it were an afterthought.

When God shows Samuel the king he’s chosen, Samuel says, “that could never be me. But I will still be your prophet!” I don’t know what impression I was supposed to draw from Samuel’s scene, but it struck me like a corrupt old man scrambling to keep hold of power. Like I said, it was awkwardly done.

In a nice touch of framing, we return into a nostril as the episode comes to a close.

Bible_03_08_Saul 2

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1 Samuel 12: The Evil Request

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According to my study Bible, chapter 12 brings us back into the Late Source, and it is clearly suspicious of the monarchy. Even so, there’s no indication in the chapter that Israel has the option of going back to the loose tribal arrangement it had under the judges. Rather, when Samuel addresses the people, he makes it fairly clear that the fate of Israel is now intertwined with the king.

We’ve seen in the Deuteronomical books that speeches are used to signal important transitions. We saw it, for example in Joshua 1 and Joshua 23, framing the conquest. Now, it marks the beginning of the monarchy.

1 Samuel 12So presumably right after Saul’s affirmation at Gilgal (though it’s not specified and reads an awful lot like an editorial insert), Samuel gives a speech, often referred to as Samuel’s Final Address. Despite coming only 1/4 of the way through the books named after him, it certainly reads like a ceding of the reins.

Samuel begins by asking for anyone who has cause to complain about his tenure as Israel’s judge. Has he stolen any oxen? Accepted any bribes? The people affirm that no complaint can rightfully be made.

He then announces that he will list “all the saving deeds of the Lord” (1 Sam. 12:7). These begin when God sends Moses and Aaron to deliver the people from Egypt. The list includes all those times God sold the Israelites into the hands of their enemies (1 Sam. 12:9) which, presumably, is meant to preface the judges who delivered them and not to be taken as saving deeds themselves. The delivering judges named are Jerubbaal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel.

It’s interesting that Barak is named, not Deborah, even though his role in the narrative of Judges 4-5 is that of a subordinate. Other than that and the minor judges of Judges 3, Judges 10, and Judges 12, the list follows the narrative of the Book of Judges fairly well. Except, of course, that Samuel mentions himself rather than Samson – a very odd detail coming from Samuel’s own mouth. According to my New Bible Commentary, it seems that some manuscripts to have Samson’s name in Samuel’s place here (p.293).

The Warning

Having prefaced his speech by a listing of God’s mighty deeds – as Deuteronomist prophets are wont to do – Samuel moves on to his warning. It’s the same general stuff we’ve been getting since the Book of Deuteronomy; obey God’s law and things will be okay, but disaster will strike if/when the people stray.

This time, however, the king is included. Israel will prosper so long as both the people and the king obey the law.

To prove that he means business, Samuel calls a thunder storm. This appears to mirror the storm from Exodus 19:16. In this case, the miracle is made impressive because the storm occurs during the wheat harvest, which my study Bible says would be the equivalent of “snow in summer” (p.346).

This thunder storm will somehow show the people that they were wicked for demanding a king (1 Sam. 12:17), and they should pray for themselves because their request was so evil (1 Sam. 12:19). I just wish Sam would tell us how he really feels.

It seems that whatever reassurances God tried to give Samuel in 1 Sam. 8:7, he’s still rather sore about his office being replaced.

Ärk

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1 Samuel 11: Heavy is the head that wears three crowns

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For this chapter, we return to Jabesh-gilead (or Jabesh for short), the town that, in Judges 21:10-14, was slaughtered because a) they failed to muster when called, and b) the Benjaminites needed wives. At some point between then and here, the town has presumably been repopulated, as it is now under siege. The big baddie of this story is Nahash the Ammonite.

When the people of Jabesh try to negotiate the terms of surrender, Nahash responds with rather steep terms: The siege will end if all the people of Jabesh gauge out their right eyes. Unsurprisingly, the Jabeshites start looking at their options. They ask Nahash if they could have seven days respite from the siege during which they would send out messengers. If no one comes to their rescue, they will agree to Nahash’s terms. The fact that Nahash agrees to the respite suggests that he is really confident that no one will come. Jabesh is in the Transjordan, on the east side of the Jordan River. Throughout our readings, the Transjordan has been considered a semi-other border land. We saw, for example, the suspicion with which the region was regarded in Joshua 22.

It seems that this story is a continuation of the Deuteronomist pro-monarchy narrative, illustrating how badly things had gotten: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In this case, the argument is that without a king, enemies can do as they please, too.

But no one counted on Saul!

When the messengers arrive in Gibeah, where Saul is living, he is out in the fields. Again, he is associated with the pastoral – first in chasing lost donkeys in 1 Sam. 9, and now following a team of oxen. It reminds me of the way Gideon was connecting to farming life in Judges 6. I’m not sure why it’s done, except perhaps to highlight humble origins.

1 Samuel 11So Saul is returning from the fields with his oxen when he hears wailing. It’s explained to him that the residents of Gibeah are wailing because of the news the messengers from Jabesh have just brought. Then, “the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul” (1 Sam. 11:6), connecting him even further to the judges.

Saul slaughters his team of oxen and cuts them up into pieces. He sends the pieces out to every region of Israel (interestingly, the reference is to geographical territories – tribes are not mentioned), along with a threat: anyone who fails to answer his call will end up like the ox.

The connection to Judges 19, where a slave-woman is cut up into pieces and her body serves as a mustering call, is obvious (though the equating of an ox and a human woman is troubling).

300’000 Israelites muster at Bezek, which either includes or is in addition to 30,000 men of Judah. It’s odd that Judah is specified while no other tribe is, particularly given that the ox pieces were sent to regions rather than tribes. It seems that, at least for this source, tribal affiliations have largely lost their significance.

They send word to Jabesh to let them know that they are coming, and will have delivered the town on the next day. The Jabeshites say (presumably to Nahash): “Tomorrow we will give ourselves up to you, and you may do to us whatever seems good to you” (1 Sam. 11:10). The detail could indicate some trickery, convincing Nahash that he’s already won so that he lets his guard down. It could also be a joke. According to my New Bible Commentary, the more literal translation reads “we will come out unto you.” This may be important, because “the verb is often used for going out to do battle, the real intention of the men of Jabesh” (p.293). In other words, it’s a bit like Hannibal Lecter saying “it is wonderful having friends for dinner.”

Obviously, the Israelites win.

The people are so impressed with Saul’s first victory that they demand the nay-sayers from 1 Sam. 10:27 be put to death. Saul refuses to do this, saying that they won’t soil such a glorious day with (Israelite) bloodshed.

Now that Saul has been imbued with the spirit of God – or perhaps now that we’ve entered a different source – Saul is suddenly seen very positively. There’s the victory, for one thing (remember, this is the guy who couldn’t even find a couple donkeys). Now he’s showing mercy and/or concern for ritual purity.

With everyone now on Team Saul, Samuel calls the people back to Gilgal to renew Saul’s coronation. This is the third time Saul is declared king, and the second time it is done publicly. The obvious explanation is that we have different stories that all made it into the same narrative. I don’t think that’s necessarily a given, though, as there may be a rationale for having Saul first be elected by God, then designated by a prophet, and finally distinguished by the lay population. Further, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. It’s quite possible that an editor took three separate coronation stories and wove them into a single narrative using his default cosmological hierarchy.

1 Samuel 10: The making of a king

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1 Sam. 9 was supposedly from the Early Source, the one that still had good things to say about the monarchy. Yet, as I pointed out in that post, the chapter is easily read as a comedy with Saul as the punchline. Here, the first half (1 Sam. 10:1-16) is said to be a continuation of that source, before we switch for the latter portion of the narrative, which is from the Late Source. The first half of the chapter has a very different texture to it from 1 Sam. 9, though, and I have trouble seeing them as a single source (except for one little detail that I think you’ll spot when we get to it).

The chapter picks up on the morning after Saul and Samuel meet. Saul’s servant has been sent off, and Samuel wanted to teach Saul about God. Before doing this, however, he starts oiling up Saul’s head and kissing him. Only then does he finally tell Saul that God wants to make him king of Israel. Despite the late reveal, Saul doesn’t seem to protest the oiling much. Perhaps he thought Samuel was helping him to get rid of nits?

Interestingly, when the people asked for a king, they said that they specifically wanted someone who would lead them into battle (1 Sam. 8:20). Here, Samuel charges Saul with saving “them from the hand of their enemies round about” (1 Sam. 10:1). It seems that everyone is on the same page.

Next, Samuel gives Saul three signs that he will soon see:

  1. As he passes by Rachel’s tomb (near Bethlehem), he will meet two men who will tell him that the donkeys have been found and that his father is worried about him.
  2. At the oak of Tabor, he will meet three men who are heading toward the sanctuary at Bethel. One of them will be carrying three kids (an extremely impressive feat to anyone who has ever seen goats close up – he’ll likely be bald by the end of his journey), one will be carrying three loaves of bread, and the third will be carrying a skin of wine. They will give Saul two of their loaves of bread.
  3. When he arrives at Gibeath-elohim (where, we are told, there is a Philistine garrison), he will meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place (some kind of altar or sanctuary) playing music and prophesying. At this time, “the spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you, and you shall prophesy with them and be turned into another man” (1 Sam. 10:6).

When all these signs occur, Saul may “do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Sam. 10:7).

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

The purpose of the signs isn’t exactly clear. It could be an acknowledgement that Saul may be struggling to believe that he could leave his house to look for some donkeys and come home the king of Israel. Perhaps these signs are meant to prove to him that God really has chosen him.

It could also be that the signs are meant to be seen symbolically. Just off the top of my head, it could be that #1 is meant to tie up the loose ends of his previous life, #2 is meant to show that he will have the support of the people (or something about taxes), and #3 will align him with God and bind together the office of holy man and king.

In closing, Samuel tells Saul that he will come before him at Gilgal at some unspecified future date, and they will make offerings. Then, Saul will have to wait seven days for further instructions.

The first two signs happen backstage, and we pick up the story again with Saul hanging out with the ecstatics at Gibeath-elohim. The people are amazed to see him prophesying (which, from the context, likely means something like speaking in tongues and was probably quite a spectacle). They can hardly believe that Saul, the guy who can’t even find his donkeys in the morning, is out there with holy men. This generates a new proverb: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 10:12), which must have been some sort of analogue to the modern “Does the pope shit in the woods?”

At some point in all of this, Saul meets his uncle and gives him the run-down re: the donkey situation. It’s cool, he says, because Samuel told him that they had been found. Notably, he specifically does not mention all the monarchy business, though we are not told why. It is also unclear why he is debriefing his uncle rather than his father. In fact, it’s an odd passage altogether.

The Lottery

One possible reason for Saul not telling his uncle about the monarchy business is that Samuel is about to conduct a lottery to select Israel’s king, and it might look rather bad if word got out that the thing was rigged.

So Samuel gathers the people together at Mizpah, because of course the people are gathered at Mizpah. Quoting God, he says that the people have rejected him [God] and demanded a king. This, as you can tell, signifies that we’ve officially switched to the Late Source, which isn’t too thrilled with this monarchy business.

To choose the king (or, more likely, to divine the person God has in mind), Samuel sets up a lottery. The tribe of Benjamin wins the tribe round, the Matrites win the family round, and Saul wins the individual round.

All is going well so far except, wait, where’s Saul?

The people can’t find him anywhere, so they finally ask God for help in finding the new king. He has “hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam. 10:22), says God. Classic Saul.

At this point, I imagine that the Israelites are probably having second thoughts about the whole monarchy business. Still, he is very tall, and his height impresses most of the people. That’s enough for them and they proclaim him king.

Samuel tells everyone the rights and duties of kingship, writes these in a now-unknown book, then sends everyone home.

The chapter ends by telling us that Saul has lots of supporters, but there are some who haven’t been totally swayed by his height and still doubt his abilities to save them. These people are described as “worthless fellows” and contrasted with the “men of valor” who support Saul (1 Sam. 10:26-27).

We saw something like this – though not quite so pronounced – in Judges, particularly with Gideon in Judges 6. It could be that Saul is described in such an unflattering light to highlight the idea that he was not chosen for his personal qualities. In other words, he did nothing to deserve his appointment to the kingship. Rather, his successes are all God’s.

Certainly, the mention of “the spirit of the Lord [coming] mightily upon [him]” (1 Sam. 10:6) connects him to the judges, many of whom had a similar experience using much the same words (in English, anyway). So I think it’s reasonable to use Judges to better understand what’s going on with Saul.

Tunes of the afterlife

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Joke - Heaven and Hell

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