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.

Numbers 23-24: Balak’s rather unsuccessful attempts at cursing

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In these chapters, we continue with the comedic repetition structure that seems to mark Balaam’s narrative.

When we last saw Balaam, God had allowed him to respond to Balak, king of the Moabites. At the very end of Numbers 22, Balak takes Balaam to a place that my RSV calls Bamoth-Baal, but that the KJV has as “the high places of Baal” (Num. 22:41). I’m not finding any confirmation that this is significant, but I find it interesting that Balaam seems so intent on hearing from YHWH, yet Balak is leading him to a place that is named after (and presumably has once been consecrated to) Baal. It’s like, disappointed with Balaam’s previous response, Balak is hoping that a different God will get him a different answer.

Once there, Balaam tells Balak to build seven altars and to provide seven bulls and seven rams. Once each altar had been broken in with a bull and ram each, Balaam wanders off to meet with God.

The First Oracle

God put the words right into Balaam’s mouth for him to take back to Balak. The prophecy begins with a retelling of what’s happened so far – of Balak asking Balaam to curse Israel, and Balaam refusing because he would not – or could not -curse anyone independently of God’s power (and, therefore, of God’s will).

The prophecy describes the Israelites as “a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations!” (v.9). I get the whole “chosen people” thing, but this looks an awful lot like nationalism – something I’ve always been very uncomfortable with.

Balaam then prays that he should “die the death of the righteous” so that his “end be like this” (v.10). It seems that he is defining the Israelites as specially blessed, and envisioning that he, too, could be similarly blessed if he dies righteously.

Balak is understandably upset to get this response. There he was, thinking he’d finally won Balaam over and would be getting that fancy new curse he wanted, and yet here’s Balaam blessing the Israelites instead! Talk about a bait and switch!

The Second Oracle

Thinking that a different vantage point might yield different results, Balak takes Balaam to a new spot – the field of Zophim, at the top of Pisgah. There, he once again builds seven altars and sacrifices a bull and a ram at each. Once again, Balaam tells Balak to wait by the altars while he goes off in search of God.

This time, the prophecy addresses Balak directly, calling him to rise and listen. He tells Balak that God is not human, and therefore does not lie or repent. Of course, we’ve seen him change his mind and repent several times. In fact, despite this present claim, we’ve seen a whole lot of God flying into a violent rage and his prophet du jour having to talk him down. Once again, we see a disconnect between the claimed character of God and his demonstrated character. Were this any other book, I’d call unreliable narrator!

The prophecy then goes on to say that God has blessed the Israelites – being that he is so in-capricious, he’s not about to change his mind about that (you know, until they ask him for quail again).

The Israelites are, therefore, protected. God is so strong – as strong as a wild ox, if you like the RSV, or as strong as a unicorn, if you prefer the whimsy of the KJV – that no curse could work against them.

The strength of a unicorn

The strength of a unicorn

A note on the unicorns: Apparently, this is a Septuagint issue. The Greek translation of the Hebrew word re’em was monokeros – one-horned. According to Wikipedia, this interpretation made sense to the KJV translators since unicorns are legendary for the impossibility of their taming.

According to the JewishEncyclopedia, this translation was later revised to “wild ox” given the etymological and contextual similarity to the Assyrian rimu: “which is often used as a metaphor of strength, and is depicted as a powerful, fierce, wild, or mountain bull with large horns.”

The prophecy continues by saying that God has made Israel so powerful that:

As a lioness it rises up
and as a lion it lifts itself;
it does not lie down till it devours the prey,
and drinks the blood of the slain. (Num. 23:24)

The imagery is certainly gruesome, but it’s also quite poetic.

Balak, of course, isn’t happy with this prophecy either. If the first oracle can be interpreted as blessing the Israelites, this one certainly can! But, of course, the schmuck of our little slapstick has to have a third try. Once again, he tells Balaam to come to yet another spot – to the top of Peor – in the hopes that this new place “will please God that you may curse them for me from there” (Num. 23:27).

The Third Oracle

The song and dance of the seven altars and the seven sacrifices of bulls and rams has to be performed in the new spot. But this time, Balaam doesn’t bother to head off in search of omens, God makes a house-call.

As Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, points out, this change has literary significance:

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

This time, God addresses Balaam rather than using him as a mouthpiece. He calls to him, as he called to Balak in the second oracle. There’s a listing of name, ties, and status. In the midst of this, God hints at the prophetic process, describing Balaam’s experience of visions as a “falling down, but having his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:4). This seems to suggest a sort of ecstatic trance.

During this, Balaam is described as one “who sees the vision of the Almighty” (Num. 24:4). According to J.R. Porter in The New Illustrated Companion to the Bible, this may be significant:

Fragmentary Aramaic texts of the ninth century BCE from Deir Alla refer to a Balaam who, as in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the son of Beor. He is said to have a vision of a disaster that befalls his city, at which he weeps. This revelation is received from an assembly of divine beings described as Shaddin, which recalls the title Shaddai, “Almighty,” an archaic name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. The name Shaddai occurs more than once in the biblical story of Balaam, for example in Numbers 24.4. (p.61)

Then we get some lovely compliments about how nice the Israelite tents are, and there’s a bunch of flowery comparisons. In the middle of all of that, we are told that the Israelite king “shall be higher than Agag” (Num. 24:7). Agag is the name of the Amalekite king featured in 1 Samuel 15:33. This leads to three possibilities that I can see/find:

  1. There are two different kings by the same name.
  2. The text, written long after the events it purports to describe, contains an anachronism.
  3. “Agag” is not the name of a king but, rather, a standing title among Amalekite rulers.

Then we get a bunch of fluff about God being super strong (like a unicorn!), and how he can crush people’s bones and nom on nations, yadda yadda.

To close the prophecy, God says that all who bless Israel will also be blessed, and all who curse it shall likewise be cursed.

This, of course, needles at Balak’s nerves, so much so that “he struck his hands together” (Num.24:10). According to my Study Bible, clapping was “a gesture of anger and reproach” (p.196). Keep that in mind the next time you enjoy (or don’t enjoy) a live performance.

Balak tells Balaam that he had promised to “honor” Balaam for his services, “but the Lord has held you back from honor” (Num. 24:11). That’s quite an interesting perspective. He then tells Balaam to leave.

The Fourth Oracle

Rather than leave, Balaam launches straight into his fourth oracle, introducing it by saying to Balak: “Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days” (Num. 24:14).

Notice that the pattern is broken again here. For his fourth oracle, Balaam no longer requires altars and sacrifices. This one, as they say, is on the house.

It begins, again, with a listing of Balaam’s ties and titles, using language that’s nearly identical to the opening of the third oracle. Then it gets a little kooky.

The language is a little purple, but the essence of it is that, at some time in the future, “a star shall come forth out of Jacob [Israel]” (Num. 24:17) – it’s given a royal slant when the line is repeated but with sceptre in place of star. This star will crush, kill, destroy the following groups/places:

  • Moabites
  • The sons of Sheth
  • Edomites
  • Seir – which, given the text, seems to be an enemy of Edom, yet my Study Bible claims that these are just two names for the same group (p.197)
  • Amalekites
  • Kenites

There’s a weird verse asking how long Asshur would take Kain captive, and another saying that ships will come from Kittim to afflict Asshur and Eber. My Study Bible is entirely useless here, making excuses about how “the meaning of these verses is obscure, owing to the uncertainty of the names” (p.197).

Having finished with the curse, Balak packs up his toys and heads home.

According to Collins in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, this final oracle has been imbued with some messianic significance:

In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, this oracle was taken as a messianic prediction. The leader of the last Jewish revolt against Rome, in 132-135 C.E., Simon Bar Kosiba, was hailed by Rabbi Akiba as the messiah foretold in this oracle. Because of this, he is known in Jewish tradition as Bar Kokhba (literally, “son of the star”). (p.82)

Assuming, for the sake of funsies, that this is a retroactive prophecy – set in the past, yet “foretelling” current/recent events – it sounds a whole lot like political propaganda. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that a king wanted to solidify his claim to the throne, so he commissioned the writing of some prophetic historical fiction to “predict” himself, thereby legitimizing his rule. The author chose Balaam, a seer that people were clearly talking about – given the Deir Alla inscription – in the same way that people today will often write predictions and ascribe them to Nostradamus.