1 Samuel 5: The battle of the gods, with hemorroides

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After seeing the effect of the ark’s capture on Eli and his daughter-in-law, we now return to its fate. The Philistine bring the ark to Ashdod – one of the five principal cities of Philistia – and set the ark in Dagon’s temple. From their perspective, this was a slight toward the Israelite God, since putting him in Dagon’s temple establishes Dagon’s power over him, and highlights YHWH’s captive status.

But oh! YHWH gets the better of the situation!

In what was, I am certain, intended to be a seen as comedy, the Philistines wake the next morning to find that their statue of Dagon has fallen on its face before the ark. I think the symbolism is rather obvious.

1 Samuel 5But the Philistines in this story are a little thick, as we saw in their speech in 1 Sam. 4:7-8, so they set Dagon upright and go on as normal. Of course, the next morning, Dagon is down again, only this time his head and hands have been severed and placed on the temple threshold. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day” (1 Sam. 5:5).

So why the decapitation? The most obvious meaning is that Dagon has been killed, or at least well and good defeated. In other parts of the world, and perhaps this one, “decapitation derived from ritual and belief. Since the HEAD was the home of the spirit, it needed to be preserved or destroyed, according to whether it belonged to a friend or to an enemy” (The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 281). At the very least, the face (a rather prominent part of the head) is associated with identity. By removing it from the idol, they left little more than a lifeless pillar.

The symbolism of amputating the hands is a bit easier. Later in the very same chapter, the text tells us that “the hand of God was very heavy there” (1 Sam. 5:11). Or, as my Penguin Dictionary of Symbols puts it: “The hand is an emblem of royalty, an instrument of command and a sign of dominion” (p.466). Hands are active agents of the body, it’s power to interact with the world. Removing Dagon’s hands is to make him impotent.

The threshold is a liminal space, symbolically resonant in any situation. It’s even more important in a temple, where the threshold marks the division between sacred and profane space. So it’s no surprise that my study Bible says that “leaping over the threshold was a common practice in primitive religions (Zeph. 1.9), the doorsill being regarded with superstitious awe(compare the modern custom of carrying a bride over the threshold). The origins of the custom are very ancient, hence the explanation given here can hardly be correct” (p.337). Even so, it’s meaningful, I think, that Dagon’s hands and head were placed there.

Attack of the hemorrhoids

Things aren’t so hot outside the temple either. It seems that the ark was a Trojan horse of sorts, and the people of Ashdod (and its environs) are afflicted with tumours – which the King James Version calls “emerods” (an archaic spelling of hemorrhoids), and my study Bible says are likely the swellings of the bubonic plague. For those not content with these explanations, Brant Clements points to an article (sadly behind a paywall) arguing that the affliction could be erectile dysfunction!

Whatever the affliction is, it seems to be the same curse God promised in Deuteronomy 28:27 to those who fail to follow the law.

The Philistines – no longer playing around and correctly identifying Israel as monotheistic – try to get rid of the ark by sending it to Gath, another of the five cities of Philistia. Where the ark goes, the contagion follows, and the ark is quickly sent on to Ekron.

Just as a point of interest, Ekron was given to Judah in Joshua 15:11, but to Dan in Joshua 19:43. It is then captured by Judah in Judges 1:18. Despite this history, it is very clearly in Philistine hands at this point in the narrative.

So the Philistines, feeling that “the hand of God was very heavy” on them (1 Sam. 5:11), decide to send the ark back to the Israelites.

 

1 Samuel 4: The Raiders of the Lost Ark

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We break away from the narrative for what my New Bible Commentary refers to as “the adventures of the ark” (p. 288).

We are told that the Philistines have encamped at Aphek, which my New Bible Commentary says was right on the edge of the coastal plain. This “shows that the Philistines were making inroads into the hill country, having fully mastered the plain” (p.288). The Commentary, clearly, takes the position that the Philistines are the aggressors, taking lands and mustering too close to the Israelite border, prompting the Israelites to attempt a retaliation.

In the text, though, it’s not quite a clear. Grammatically (at least in the translation), Israel is implied to be the first to move, suggesting that perhaps they are the aggressors. That being said, my study Bible writes that “the first sentence of this section of the Greek version tells us that the Philistines took the lead in the war by mustering their forces against the Israelites” (p.335).

Given the history of the Greek version for 1 Samuel (which we learned about earlier), plus their presence at Aphek, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Commentary is correct – the Philistines are the baddies in this conflict.

When the Philistine and Israelite armies meet, it doesn’t go so well for the latter. The Philistines win, killing approximately four thousand Israelite soldiers.

Bringing in the nukes

When conventional warfare fails, it’s time to bring out the big guns. Or so think the elders of Israel, anyway. So they send to Shiloh for the ark, for if the ark is on the battlefield, how could they lose?

When the ark arrives at the Israelite camp, accompanied by Hophni and Phinehas, the people “gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded” (1 Sam. 4:5). The shout is so loud that the Philistines can hear it from their own camp, and they fret:

Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. (1 Samuel 4:7-8)

Their speech is amusing for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s all the details they get wrong: gods? smiting the Egyptians with plagues in the wilderness? It looks an awful lot like outsiders who’ve heard the gist of the insider’s history, but never really cared enough to learn about it. I imagine that this passage was written to get a chuckle from the audience at the Philistine’s expense.

The ark in the land of Philistines, from the Dura Europos synagogue

The ark in the land of Philistines, from the Dura Europos synagogue

The other interesting detail is the Philistine use of the term “Hebrews.” Throughout our reading, the default term used in the text to refer to the people has been “Israelite.” When the word “Hebrew” is used, it is nearly always by outsiders (my study Bible points to Gen. 39:14 and Gen. 43:32). Only later on is it appropriated by the in-group to refer to themselves (here my study Bible points to Jon. 1:9 and Phil. 3:5).

That aside, it’s clear that the Philistines are absolutely terrified of the nuke that’s just entered the battlefield. So they decide to fight extra hard to avoid being enslaved by the Israelites, “as they have been to you” (1 Sam. 4:9).

So (plot twist!!!), they win!

No, really! They bear the Israelites, this time killing about thirty thousand of them – including Hophni and Phinehas. Even worse, they take the ark captive.

This is, obviously, a fulfilment of the prophecy from the unnamed “man of God” in 1 Sam. 2 and from Samuel in 1 Sam. 3. My New Bible Commentary suggests an alternative cause: the Israelites lost because they treated the ark like a fetish, expecting it to perform on their command rather than by the will of God.

The theft of a god (or “godnapping”) was a reasonably common tactic in the ancient world – particularly the Near East. The superbly kind Dr. Jim mentioned the godnapping (and eventual return) of Marduk by the Assyrians as an illustrative example.

Four funerals and a birth

A Benjaminite runs from the battle to bring the news to Shiloh. Eli, who is still loitering outside doors (as he was in his encounter with Hannah in 1 Sam. 1) hears the commotion and asks what’s going on. Here, the text stops the story briefly to tell us that Eli was 98 years old and blind.

When Eli is told that his sons are dead and the ark captured, he’s not particularly bothered by the former, but the latter sends him sprawling back such that he breaks his neck. Here, the Deuteronomist with a judge fetish forgets that Eli was only a priest and tells us that “he judged Israel forty years” (1 Sam. 4:18).

Then Eli’s daughter-in-law, who was pregnant, finds out that her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law are all dead, and the trauma makes her go into labour. “About the time of her death”, the women attending her tell her that she’s had a son, “but she did not answer or give heed” (1 Sam. 4:20).

Despite being too near death to say anything to the midwives when the sex of her child is announced, she somehow musters the energy to name him Ichabod and to make a little speech about how she chose the name – which means something like “no glory” – because “the glory has departed from Israel” (1 Sam. 4:22).

The explanation could be interpreted to mean that God is literally paired with the ark – where it goes, so goes his physical presence. If so, this would make the ark a sort of negative space idol – while idols are generally seen as a physical/earthly representation of a god for them to inhabit, the ark is a throne on which God may sit in way that is understood as, if not actually physical, at least analogous.

We have many historical examples of idols being stolen as a sort of hostage, or extra middle finger gesture. We also saw this in Genesis 31, where Jacob steals Laban’s gods (and, just to be a real douche about it, his menstruating wife sits on them).

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that the theft from Micah in Judges 18 counts as an example of this since it appears that the Danites had every intention of actually worshipping the idol they stole (whereas having a menstruating woman sit on the idol rather suggests that it was not stolen for any cultic purpose).

My study Bible also provides a detail on the ark as a throne: “In Phoenicia the king was sometimes represented as sitting on a throne supported by cherubim” (p.336).

 

Noah’s Ride

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Joke - Noah's Ride

1 Samuel 3: Baby’s first prophecy

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In those days, we are told, God was giving the Israelites the silent treatment. I mean, except for Hannah’s clearly prophetic song and the unnamed man of God’s curse – both just in the last chapter. But other than that, God wasn’t chatting to his people. Since the story that follows involves God trying to talk to someone who, humorously, has no idea what’s going on, this could just be an editorial note to explain why. Or it could be way of indicating just how bad things have been getting pre-monarchy. Or perhaps it’s a further indictment of Eli’s priestly managerial style.

Anna presenting her son Samuel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c.1665

Anna presenting her son Samuel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c.1665

Before getting into the story proper, we’re given a final bit of detail – Eli’s vision is very poor. I thought this was going to turn into a Jacob/Esau situation, but it seems to have just been a red herring (or perhaps intended to explain why God came to Samuel rather than directly to Eli? Or perhaps simply a shorthand way of saying that Eli’s age was getting to him?).

So Eli is lying in his bed, Samuel is spending the night next to the ark, and with that the scene is set.

At some point during the night, Samuel wakes to hear a voice calling his name. Thinking that it’s Eli, he rushes over saying “Hear I am!” (1 Sam. 3:4). Eli denies having called him and sends him back to the ark room to sleep. Again, Samuel hears a voice calling him and, again, he rushes to Eli who, again, sends him back to bed. We are told that he didn’t understand what was happening because he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7). In other words, this prophecy business takes practice.

The third time this happens, Eli figures out what’s going on and tells Samuel that God is trying to talk to him, and would he please just stay in the ark room and listen for a change?

It’s worth asking why Samuel was sleeping by the ark in the first place. My New Bible Commentary very clearly assumes that it was “for the purpose of receiving any word from God” (p.288). This was, in other words, a sort of vision quest. Perhaps one that Samuel had no expectations from, explaining his surprise when it actually works.

The Prophecy

God has called to Samuel three times and is now attempting a fourth. He is so persistent because he has a message of the utmost importance to convey. You see, he really really needs to tell Samuel that: “I am about to do a thing in Israel” (1 Sam. 3:11).

No, wait, stop walking away! It’s a big thing! An important thing! A thingy thing! In fact, this is such a big thingy thing that it will make both of your ears tingle just to hear about it!

The thing, by the way, the same thing that he told the unnamed “man of God” in the last chapter – that Eli is going to be punished at some future date because his sons are meanies. I think it’s rather clear that we have two separate stories of the same prophecy, in both explaining why Eli was a high priest in Shiloh but his descendants aren’t. In the latter story, the prophecy is tangled into Samuel’s origin story.

When morning comes, Samuel is afraid to pass on God’s message to Eli. But Eli, who seems to be dealt with quite favourably, threatens Samuel if he doesn’t tell – “May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you” (1 Sam. 3:17) – but is accepting of his fate when Samuel gives him the memo.

After this incident, Samuel growing up continually in the presence of God, and God letting “none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). I took this to mean either that God is steering him right generally, or that God acts out his plan on Eli so that Samuel’s words come true.

When Samuel is grown, he takes on the mantle of a prophet and is known throughout Israel. My New Bible Commentary explains that this passage transforms a regional (Shiloh) priest into a prophet with a national scope – both in the story and, presumably, to future readers. The story closes with a reminder that this all happened at Shiloh, remember how God chose Shiloh to visit? I sensed a little patriotism sneaking in here, like the people of Shiloh really wanted everyone to remember that it was their homeboy who made it big.

Document Hypothesis

Abbie at Better Than Esdras has a discussion of source documents, and of where this story might have originated. You can read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

It turns out that the exclamation הִנֵּנִי is exclusive to JE texts. Someone calls out a name, and that person replies “הִנֵּנִי”. Check it: God to Abraham (Gen 22:1, E); Isaac to Esau (27:1, J), an angel of God to Jacob (31:11, E), Israel to Joseph (37:13, E), God to Jacob (46:2, E), God to Moses (Ex. 3:4, E). And finally here in Samuel.

Singing Women

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So far, I’ve seen little hints scattered through the text of women who seem to have once been far more important than the credit they are given in the book that has survived down to me. I summarized what I’ve noticed in my post on Judges 13, in the discussion of Samson’s unnamed mother:

There have been several times that I’ve sensed hints of older stories, stories that seem to have been about priestesses or perhaps even goddesses. God telling Sarah about Isaac, Sarah bedding with the kings of two nations (Pharaoh and Abimelech), Rebekah bedding with a third kingMiriam’s song of praiseZipporah’s circumcision of her sonDeborah’s song, etc. Here, we have another that I would put in the same category – though she is given no name, it is clear that it is through her that God wishes to communicate with Manoah’s family. I suspect that the latter portion of the chapter, where he switches to speaking directly to Manoah, may have been a later edit, because coming the second time to Manoah’s wife while she is alone just seems far too deliberate to me.

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

The Duet, by Sir Frank Dicksee

Most interesting of all – at least to me – is that we have had three “songs” so far in the text, and that all three have been sung by women. I’ve already mentioned Miriam’s song in Exodus 15 and Deborah’s in Judges 5, and now we can add Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. And though our sample size is still quite small, I’ve been drumming up a few ideas about these songs that I’d like to throw out into the void of the internet.

Deborah’s song, though ostensibly sung by her, is clearly more about her. In Miriam and Hannah’s case, however, the two women seem to be given the voice of the nation – it falls to them to praise God and to express the people’s hope for the future. In Miriam’s case, she expresses the people’s (ideal) trust that God was leading them toward a land in which they could be planted (Exodus 15:16-18), a concern for obvious reasons at the time. Hannah also uses her look to the future to address present concerns; all through Judges, we were reminded that “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). So Hannah’s pressing concern is that rule be established, and that those who succeeded in a time of such higgeldy-piggeldy morals would soon find themselves at a disadvantage, and that there should be a king (1 Sam. 2:10).

So as we saw with Sarah and Rebekah, it seems that women are seen to be performing the roles of high priestess, in the later cases legitimizing monarchies, and in these cases interceding with God.

Which leaves us with three possibilities, that I can see. (1) My pattern-finding brain is finding patterns where they don’t exist, (2) these songs serve a literary purpose that was, at least at one time, seen to be feminine, or (3) these stories are remnants from cultic tradition in which women played a more central role.

1 Samuel 2: Political tunes and a bit of misbehaviour

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The opening of 1 Sam. 2 continues the story from the previous chapter. Hannah has given birth to her long-sought child, nursed him, weaned him, and given him over to the priests at Shiloh as promised. In this chapter, she sings a song of thanks/praise/hope/future prediction/other stuff that really isn’t connected to her situation very well. Mostly, it goes on about how “the bows of the mighty are broken, / but the feeble gird on strength” (1 Sam. 2:4) and other social reversals. Really, it’s the mighty vs meek stuff that a former “cultural Christian” like me associates with Jesus.

There are only really two parts (that I could identify) that make any kind of sense in relation to Hannah. One is the line about “the barren has borne seven, / but she who has many children is forlorn” (1 Sam. 2:5). The “borne seven” bit need not be literal. As Claude Mariottini writes, seven is just a significant number, so “seven sons” is really just a stand-in for “perfect number of children.” You will remember the same phrase used in Ruth 4:15, in praise of Ruth. So it’s not necessary for Hannah to have a literal seven sons for this passage to have been through applicable to her (she does come close, though, as she later has 3 more sons and 2 daughters). If we want to read into the text a bit, the second half of that stanza could be taken as a reference to Peninnah, if we want to imagine her embittered by Hannah’s fortune reversal for some reason.

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

The talk of a future monarch toward the end (1 Sam. 2:10) may also explain why the song was situated here, if we accept the interpretation that she is blessing Samuel, or perhaps foretelling his involvement in the future social change.

The stuff about how “not by might shall a man prevail” (1 Sam. 2:9) feels Deuteronomistic-y. In Deuteronomy itself, we had the curses and the blessings, which argued that Israel’s future fate rested not on its own political or military prowess, but rather on its adherence to God’s law. Through Joshua and Judges, we saw small armies defeat much larger armies by having God on their side. In Joshua 7, for example, the Israelite fails not because of any tactical failure, but because one man among them disobeyed a religious rule. Once that man (and his entire family) was punished, the Israelite army was able to defeat their enemy (albeit while also going into battle with a much larger number of soldiers, but we’re talking about the cause and effect that is explicitly stated, not the one that’s comically implied).

There’s also a bit in there about God killing people, bringing people to life, and raising the dead. While the obvious interpretation for me was that the point of this stanza was to illustrate how all-powerful God is (he can even bring people back from Sheol!), my study Bible disagrees:

Brings to life probably refers to birth rather than to resurrection from the dead; likewise the next line probably refers to deep trouble or desperate injuries and recover from them. Sheol, the place of the dead under the earth, like Hades among the Greeks (Is. 14:9-21); but the term is sometimes used of conditions near death (Pss. 86:13; 88:3-7).

Which seems poetically plausible, if not necessarily the Occam’s Razor explanation.

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has some interesting notes on the structure of the song (if you’re into that kind of thing, go read the whole post):

Enjambed 2:2 structures have generally gone unnoticed in the study of ancient Hebrew verse. I treat them as lines on a par with widely acknowledged non-enjambed 2:2 lines like Psalm 3:8a, 9. The result: 1 Sam 2:1-10 turns out to be an 18 line poem, a widely attested poem line length in ancient Hebrew literature. 1 Sam 2:9b and 10c turn out to be 2:2 lines which arrest the tempo of the material intake of the poem by virtue of their conciseness. They are crucial lines: “for not by strength / will man prevail,” and “YHWH judges / the ends of the earth.”

After Hannah’s song, we get a sample of the next story (which involves Eli and his sons), then a brief revisit with Hannah, then finally launch full on into Eli’s family troubles. But since following that structure messes with my heading use, I’ll just tell you right now that Hannah makes Samuel a new robe every year – bringing it to him when her family does their annual Shiloh visit – and has five more kids.

Family Drama

There appears to be evidence of some stitching together from different sources here. I mentioned above that the story of Eli’s family is separated by an update on Hannah’s doings. Prior to the interlude, Eli’s sons (unnamed) are bad priests because of something to do with how they take their portion from the sacrifice.

First, it seems that the issue is that they are dipping their forks into the cauldrons where the sacrificial meat is boiling, and keep for themselves whatever sticks. But then it seems that this is actually standard, accepted practice (or was at the time in Shiloh, anyway). Then, the issue seems to be that they are taking their portion from the raw sacrificial meat, before it has been burned. Which is either an issue because the raw meat hasn’t technically been through motions of being consecrated, or it’s an issue because they are then also taking their portion later on while the meat is boiling.

In other words, I came away unclear as to whether the issue is that they taking their portion at the wrong time, or that they are double-dipping.

A third possibility was brought up by Brant Clements, who accuses the sons of “filching the best parts of the sacrifices.”

Whatever their crime is here, it’s clearly compounded by the fact that Eli’s sons are threatening worshippers who refuse to give in to their demands.

After Hannah’s interjection, we get a very different passage. Eli’s sons are suddenly named (it’s Hophni and Phinehas, whom we met in 1 Sam. 1:3), and now their crime is that they “lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1 Sam. 2:22).

Before we get to the obvious, I should point out that the reference to the “tent of meeting” here is also quite interesting. So far, the impression that’s been given is that there is a permanent structure – a temple – at Shiloh, and that we are no longer using the exodus tent that Joshua set up there in Josh. 18:1. My study Bible refers to the inclusion as “an error” (p.333).

But back to the temple women, Brant Clements sums up the questions to be asked about the reference to them:

Who are these women? Just what services do they perform? Is this temple prostitution (a common practice among Israel’s pagan neighbors)? Are the women rightfully there and wrongly used? Or is their presence another indication of just how bad things have gotten in Israel?

It looks to me like Eli was known as a reasonably decent priest, but it was a known historical fact that his line did not continue the priesthood. It seems that various stories sprang up independently of each other to explain this, including the two here in which his sons were just awful.

In the latter part of the chapter, an unnamed “man of God” (1 Sam. 2:27) comes to Eli and tells him that the priesthood that had been granted to his familial line is hereby revoked, and that his sons will both die on the same day. While the man is not named here, my study Bible claims that his name is Abiathar, citing 1 Sam. 22:18-23 and 1 Kg. 2:26-27. We’ll see when we get there!

You never know when you’ll need one

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Joke - Genesis 22 - Abraham

1 Samuel 1: Another miraculous birth

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After the respite of Ruth, we are welcomed back into the Deuteronomist History with another genealogy. This time, it’s to situate Elkanah, an Ephraimite living in Ramathaim-zophim (apparently shortened to Ramah).

His genealogy runs: Elkanah > Jeroham > Elihu > Tohu > Zuph. This last name is, apparently, seen in the “zophim” portion of the place name.

Sister Wives

Elkanah has two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Unfortunately, Hannah appears to have been barren, which seems to have caused Peninnah to “provoke her sorely, to irritate her” (1 Sam. 1:6). We’re assuming that this means Peninnah is lording her fertility over her sister wife, but that’s not exactly clear, at least not in English. It would be just as easy to read Hannah as feeling irritated and provoked simply because Peninnah has had children while she has not.

We’ve seen this dynam

Elkanah and his wives, Maciejowski Bible

Elkanah and his wives, Maciejowski Bible

ic before, such as Gen. 16:4, when Hagar becomes pregnant and is said to have started flaunting herself before Sarah.

Every year, the family goes to Shiloh to make a sacrifice. At this point, it seems that Shiloh is the de facto capital of Israel and centre of worship (Josh. 18:1), since Jerusalem doesn’t seem to be available yet.

When Elkanah makes his sacrifice, he gives portions to Penninah and to all her children, but gives only one to Hannah, “because the Lord had closed her womb” (1 Sam. 1:5). This seems entirely reasonable – why should Hannah receive more than one portion when she is just one person?

My New Bible Commentary offers another possible reading:

The portions were of meat, part of a sacrificial meal. Hannah received only one, since she had no mouths but her own to feed, if RSV is correct; but a ‘worthy’ or ‘double’ portion is not impossible – the Hebrew text, though obscure, at least suggests it, and such an act by Elkanah would partly explain Peninnah’s conduct. (p.287)

If that’s the case, then perhaps the situation is less Sarah/Hagar and more Rachel/Leah – in that case, Jacob favoured Rachel and poor Leah kept pumping out babies, each time hoping that this one would finally make her husband love her (Gen. 29:21, 29:31, 29:33, 29:34, 30:20).

Unfortunately, the whole mess is not helped by Elkanah, who appears to be utterly clueless. When Hannah, in grief that she cannot have children, stops eating, Elkanah says to her: “Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8).

No, dude. Just no. A husband is not the same as a child. Not only is the quality and tone of the relationship completely different, it’s doubly different in a society that views fertility as a divine blessing and barrenness as a curse.

A Misunderstanding

Hannah’s immediate reaction to her husband’s inept attempts at comforting is not recorded, but after dinner, Hannah leaves her family to Pray to God by the temple. She weeps and prays silently, moving her mouth but not speaking out loud. She also vows that if God gives her a son, she will promise him into temple service.

As she prays, she is seen by Eli, a priest along with his new sons, Hophni and Phinehas (apparently a different Phinehas from the one in Numbers 25). Seeing her weeping and moving her mouth without making a sound, he assumes that she must be a drunk, so he comes forward to chastise her.

This detail seems important, but I’m not sure why. Is it to set up the fact that Eli is a poor judge of character?

At least he relents when Hannah explains her situation, and he sends her away with a hope that “the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him” (1 Sam. 1: 17).

Hannah’s Son

Sure enough, when the family gets back to Ramah and “Elkanah knew Hannah his wife” (1 Sam. 1:19), God watches over them and Hannah gives birth to a son at the appropriate time after that. She names him Samuel, for “I have asked him of the Lord” (1 Sam. 1:20).

The next time the family is set to go back to Shiloh, Hannah hangs back, saying that she doesn’t want to return until Samuel is weaned. Elkanah tells her that it’s her call, and he and the rest of the family head to Shiloh without her.

When Samuel is weaned, she brings him up to Shiloh along with a three-year-old bull (according to my study Bible, the Hebrew text has it as three bulls instead), some flour, and some wine. After the sacrifice is made, Hannah presents her son to Eli to fulfil her vow.

Abbie over at Better Than Esdras explains that the birth story may have been appropriated for Samuel by a later editor. The evidence, she argues, is in Hannah’s justification for her choice of name.

She cites 1 Sam. 1:20 and 1 Sam. 1:28. In both cases, the words Hannah uses suggest a pun not on the name of Samuel, but on the name of Saul:

Isn’t this outrageous? Somebody took a birth legend for Saul, and simply changed the details to make it about Samuel. Interestingly, Saul was from a different tribe (Benjamin) and was never a priest. Samuel’s relationship with Eli continues in the next chapter, and eventually he meets Saul, so I’m not really sure how this all fits together. (It’s entirely possible other details were changed, such as the location and the identity of the priest, to match established stories about Samuel and Eli.)

1 Samuel: Introduction

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As we begin 1 Samuel, I made a few calculations and realized that I’m just under a third of the way through the Old Testament!

In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth is placed later on – in the Writings – and does not break up the narrative from Judges to 1 Samuel. If we ignore Ruth, then Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings form a continuous narrative, bringing us through from the end of Mosaic rule, to the stopgap judges, to the monarchy, and, finally, ending with the exile.

The books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings are variously broken up. If I understand correctly, they are a single book in the Masoretic Text (the authoritative Hebrew Bible), but were divided into four parts – 1-4 Reigns – in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation. From about the 16th century, most Hebrew Bibles have adopted the practice of separating the text into four books.

Composition and sources

According to my study Bible, 1 Samuel is a patchwork made from two different sources, called the Early Source and the Late Source. The Late Source covers the life of Samuel, and it’s main theses are that Samuel was appointed by God, the monarchy was a mistake, and David merited God’s favour despite being king. My study Bible dates the Late Source in the latter days of the monarchy.

King David Playing the Harp, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

King David Playing the Harp, by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

My study Bible dates the Early Source at around the reign of Solomon. It’s theses are that the monarchy is a “divinely ordained blessing and the salvation of the nation” (p.330), and Samuel is not a central figure. Saul is noble but ultimately tragic, and David is a flawed and human hero. The Early Source owns most of 2 Samuel.

It appears that there is an allusion to the divided monarchy in 1 Sam 27:6, and the narrative of Kings includes the fall of the united monarchy. All of this suggests that the complete work comprised of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings could not have been completed prior to the exile period – though that doesn’t necessarily mean that it didn’t use much earlier source material.

My study Bible argues that there was a final edit in the post-exilic period by the Deuteronomist school. In particular, it identifies the Deuteronomists as having re-written 1 Samuel 12 and added 1 Samuel 8. My study Bible also identifies 1 Samuel 2:1-10, 27-36; 2 Samuel 7, 22, and 23:1-7 as having been added by other editors.

It seems that 1-2 Samuel was poorly preserved in the Masoretic Text, so translators rely a great deal on the Septuagint (LXX). Collins explains that the LXX version of Samuel is a fair bit longer than the Hebrew:

Some scholars had thought that the translators had added passages, but the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve fragments of a Hebrew version that corresponds to the Greek. It is now clear that the Greek preserves an old form of the text and that some passages had fallen out of the Hebrew through scribal mistakes. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.116)

Content

The principle actors of 1 Samuel are Samuel (the final judge and first prophet), Saul (Israel’s first king), and David (Saul’s successor). The book opens with the birth of Samuel, then moves onto his relationship with Saul, and then David is introduced in chapter 16 (about mid way).

My brand new (to me), garage sale-purchased New Bible Commentary has a helpful outline of the contents of 1-2 Samuel (p.286, though I’m leaving out subdivisions and changing the formatting a little):

1 SAMUEL
1:1 – 7:14 Samuel’s early years
7:15 - 15:35 Samuel and Saul
16:1 - 31:13 Saul and David

2 SAMUEL
1:1 - 8:18 The early years of David’s reign
9:1 - 20:26 King David and his court
21:1 - 24:25 David’s reign: problems and prospects

My Commentary also identifies a number of episode pairings (in which the same thing occurs twice, such as the two separate occasions on which David spares Saul’s life (1 Sam. 24; 26). When we’ve seen this sort of duplication in the past, I’ve always chalked it up to sloppy editors. My Commentary, however, offers a different perspective; perhaps “the repetition of similar incidents serves to give emphasis to certain points the writer wishes to make” (p.285). We’ll have to pay attention as we read to see if this holds up and, if so, what the point may be.

On the story of David’s rise (1 Sam. 16:14-2 Sam. 5), Collins explains that some hypothesize that it was written as an apology for David, “intended to refute charges that might be brought against him. It shows that David was not an outlaw, a deserter, or a Philistine mercenary, that he was not implicated in Saul’s death or in the deaths of some of Saul’s family and followers” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.120).

With all that out of the way, let’s delve in!

Ruth: Conclusion

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Slotted between Judges and 1 Samuel (thought the Jewish scriptures place it in the Kethuvim, or Writings), Ruth is a complete change of pace. The story is longer (for all that happens in it, it would have barely made a verse or two in any other book we’ve read so far), calmer, and it takes time to show the interactions between people. More refreshingly, it takes the time to show the interactions between women – between Naomi and her daughters-in-law, of course, but also between Naomi and the unnamed women of Bethlehem.

While Boaz is a major character and takes a central role in mediating the redeeming of Elimelech’s land, the focus of the narrative is clearly on Naomi and Ruth. The Ruth/Boaz plotline reads more like a business transaction, while the Ruth/Naomi relationship expresses love, loyalty, and friendship. Previously, we’ve only heard of the relationships between women when it’s negative, when the fights between women become so big that they impact the lives of men (such as the relationship between Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 21), but here, it’s the focus of the story.

It was also refreshing to read a “small story,” one that isn’t about clashes between ethnic groups or households, but just a pastoral story of politically insignificant (except insofar as their genealogies are concerned) people finding ways to survive.

Background

There are numerous connections between the story in Ruth and the Patriarchs of Genesis. Perhaps the most obvious is way Ruth’s story mirrors Tamar’s – both women wish to honour their late husbands through a Levirate marriage, but both are denied, though for different reasons. In both cases, the women hide themselves (Ruth does so literally, while Tamar hides her identity by disguising herself as a prostitute) in order to approach the man that they intend to use to fulfil the obligations of Levirate law. In so doing, both are rewarded with the son they sought. The connection between them is made explicit by having Boaz be descended from Tamar’s son.

Ruth and Naomi, at the Saint James Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

Ruth and Naomi, at the Saint James Anglican Church, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

As Adele Berlin points out, the “Book of Ruth, too, is about exile and return, land and people. Like Abraham, and like the family of Jacob (see the story of Joseph), the family of Elimelech was forced by famine to leave its home in the land of Israel and to preserve itself in a foreign land. When the famine abates, Naomi returns to Bethlehem.”

The dating of the story seems rather unclear. From what I’ve read, it seems that it mostly hinges on the political agenda the scholar is reading into the text. For example, the genealogy linking Ruth to David suggests to some that the text was written to explain why it’s okay for David to have a Moabite grandmother despite passages like Deut. 23:3.

Others see it as a postexilic text. As Collins explains:

On this reading, the story was composed as a polemic against the stringent rejection of marriage to foreign women by Ezra. The placement of the book in the Writings lends some support to the postexilic date, since many of the Writings date from this period. Against this view, however, Ruth does not read like a polemic, and the point of the story is not to affirm mixed marriages. Mixed marriage, in fact, is not acknowledged as a problem at all. It seems entirely natural that the sons of a man from Judah who grow up in Moab should marry Moabite women. When the women accept the God of Israel, as Ruth does, there is no problem whatsoever. The viewpoint of Ruth is entirely different from that of Ezra, but it does not necessarily follow that Ruth was composed as a polemic against Ezra. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.270-271)

I think it’s also important to remember that there are two separate filters – the original writing and the choice to include the book in the canon of scripture. It would be a mistake to assume that the motivations of both are necessarily the same.

I also think that the Book of Ruth contains enough details that would argue for its inclusion without there needing to be any political motive. In the beginning, the text situates itself in the time of Judges (Ruth 1:1). Then, the genealogy of Ruth 4:22 weaves the story into David’s history. These two details provide ample explanation for why a compiler, who may be interested in completeness, would have thought to include it.

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