1 Chronicles 10: Saul in Brief

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Virtually no time at all is spent on Saul’s time holding the reins of Israel. Despite giving his genealogy two separate spots (1 Chron. 8:29-40; 1 Chron. 9:35-44) to Saul’s lineage and devoting the better part of 1 Chron. 10 to his death, his life gets a mere two verses in 1 Chron. 13-14. Interestingly, the only thing we learn about his life comes after the story of his death (and gets even less treatment than the story of his bones).

It’s clear that the Chronicler felt that Saul needed some kind of mention, but wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Even more intriguing is that the Chronicler assumes knowledge of Saul’s story. If 1-2 Samuel had been lost and we only had the chapters we’ve read so far in 1 Chronicles, it would be difficult to piece together that Saul was Israel’s first monarch, and impossible to guess that he was anointed as a God-chosen king.

This makes it rather clear that the Chronicler viewed David as the true founder of the Israelite monarchy, and perhaps wished to downplay the role Saul played in the cultural shift from loose tribal associations led by local judges.

Saul’s Death

And so our narrative jumps straight from the genealogies to the story of Saul’s death, our only bridge a listing of Saul’s lineage. The story in this chapter is copied almost word-for-word from 1 Sam. 31:1-13.

The Suicide of Saul, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561

The Suicide of Saul, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561

We begin with Philistia and Israel at war, and Israel is losing. Many are killed on Mount Gilboa, including Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, and many are routed. Saul is injured by archers and, afraid of falling into Philistine hands, he asks his armour-bearer to kill him. The armour-bearer, afraid, refuses. Out of options, Saul draws his own sword and kills himself, after which his armour-bearer does the same.

With the battle lost and their king dead, the Israelites flee from their cities, leaving them open to Philistine occupation.

The next day, the Philistines are stripping the dead on the battlefield when they come upon Saul’s body. The Philistines take Saul’s armour and head, and they send messengers throughout Philistia to proclaim news of their victory to both people and gods.

From this point onward, the narrative in 1 Chron. 10 diverges from 1 Sam. 31: They bring Saul’s armour to the temple of their gods (1 Sam. 31:10 has it the temple of Ashtaroth) and fasten his head in the temple of Dagon (while in 1 Sam. 31:10, they fasten his body to the wall of Bethshan). Neither of these is necessarily a contradiction. “Ashtaroth” is the plural form of the goddess Ashtoreth, which could easily be rendered as the “gods” of 1 Chron. 10:10. And while his head might have gone into the temple of Dagon, his body might also have gone to the wall of Bethshan. But the divergence is still interesting; how did it come about, and why?

In both accounts, the people of Jabesh-gilead hear about what’s been done to Saul’s body, so they come to reclaim it and the bodies of Saul’s sons (marching all night in 1 Sam. 31:12, though the detail is omitted here).They bring the bodies back to Jabesh and bury the bones under the oak of Jabesh, while in 1 Sam. 31:12-13, they burn the bodies first and then bury the bones under a tamarisk tree. In both accounts, they then fasted for seven days.

While 1 Samuel provides some context for Jabesh’s loyalty, it is entirely absent here. Why did the people of Jabesh go through the trouble of reclaiming the bodies of the royal family, and why not some other group? From 1 Sam. 11, we can guess that it’s because Saul had freed Jabesh from Nahash the Ammonite.

Saul’s Family

Many commentors bring up the question of whether Saul’s family died with him or not. 1 Chron. 10:6 (“Thus Saul died; he and his three sons and all his house died together”) certainly seems to suggest that they were all killed at the same time. Yet the verse omits the clause “on the same day together” found in 1 Sam. 31:6. This better allows for the interpretation that the Chronicler is summarizing the fall of Saul’s family over a period of time (which can therefore include Ishbosheth, who managed to hang on for a little while longer – 2 Samuel 2:8-11).

The lineages in 1 Chron. 8:29-40 and 1 Chron. 9:35-44 make it rather clear that the Chronicler knew the house of Saul survived. I think this forces us to conclude that the phrase “all his house died together” (1 Chron. 10:6) is poetic rather than literal. Saul’s house – his dynasty, his family’s social position – died as a result of the events of the battle at Mount Gilboa, even if some members survived, even if one member continued to call himself king.

This rhetoric isn’t new. Over and over again in our readings, we have seen the claim that a particular group of people was entirely destroyed (such as the claim about the Amalekites in 1 Sam. 15:7-8) only to have the group reappear later (as when David utterly destroys them again in 1 Sam. 27:8-9). In the Old Testament, it seems, to kill the entirely of a group of people should be interpreted to mean that they were entirely brought low, entirely defeated, even if some members survive.

Saul’s Reign

Of Saul’s life, we learn only that he was killed for his unfaithfulness: His refusal to keep the command of the Lord (presumably referring to passages like Leviticus 19:31) when he consulted with a medium instead of seeking guidance from God.

Of course, when the story is narrated in 1 Sam. 28:6-7, Saul did consult God but God failed to answer him. It was only then, in desperation, that he turned to alternative means. So why the discrepancy?

One possibility is that Saul consulted with a medium, and that is a sin. The reasons don’t matter, there are no mitigating factors. He broke the commandment, and thus he was judged. A second possibility is that the means through which he consulted with God were unsatisfactory (or, alternatively, that he demanded word from God rather than passively waiting for God’s word – and, worse, actively sought alternatives when God was not forthcoming).

James Pate adds the possibility that Saul’s motive lacked a desired purity. “[O]ne can pray to God in pursuit of one’s own agenda, which is different from actually seeking God.” Given what we know of the Urim (which Saul used, according to 1 Sam. 28:6), it’s possible that he did receive an answer, just not the answer he wanted.

It is for this reason that God killed him and turned his kingdom over to David.

Here, a few commentors point out a contradiction: Did God kill Saul, or did Saul kill himself? It seems rather obvious, however, that the phrase used in 1 Chron. 10:14 is meant to mean that God orchestrated Saul’s fall, the situation which made his death inevitable. It is therefore just as true to say that God killed him as it is to say that he killed himself.

Here, James Pate points out that, in Genesis 49:10, Jacob predicted that Judah would possess a sceptre. This raises an issue of free will, since it implies that God knew even then that Benjamin’s turn with the crown would be short lived, that Saul would sin and his dynasty would be lost. Pate discusses the issue at more length in his post, but since this falls under theology, I won’t be touching it.

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.

 

Another Old God

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I noted a few weeks ago that Jephthah’s story reminded me of a pantheonic myth anthropomorphised as Israel moved toward monotheism. I got the same feeling from Samson, so imagine my surprise when I read the following in my study Bible notes:

The story that Samson was a Nazirite (ch. 13) seems to be a late attempt to make Samson respectable; none of his exploits show him as a religious enthusiast. The motif of the unshorn hair is probably derived from mythology rather than high religion. The name Samson is connected with the Hebrew word for “sun”; some scholars believe the stories originally go back to pre-Hebrew sources in which the hair represented the sun’s rays, i.e. its strength. (p.316)

So I thought I’d look at the Samson story again with that perspective in mind. What if Samson was originally some sort of sun god, or even perhaps a Herculean demi-god?

Godly Deeds

When Samson is first displeased with the Philistines, he burns down their crops. If he is some sort of sun god, it seems plausible that this would be a reference to a draught fire.

I don’t know why foxes would feature in that story, though. Foxes seem to be related to trickery in many cultures, but any narrative that gives that as the reason for their presence feels like far too much of a stretch. I did find that they were considered sacred to the Sumerian fertility goddess Ninhursag, which seems a little more likely.

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

Der geblendete Simson, by Lovis Corinth, 1912

I also found a reference to foxes in the Song of Solomon (Song 2:15). I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean or to refer to, except that the Song’s foxes, like Samson’s, come as destroyers of agriculture.

The other interesting detail is the presence of Dagon in Judges 16:23. It’s important to note for this thesis that Dagon was, as my study Bible puts it, “an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). It’s possible, then, that the original story featured some battle or disagreement between Samson and Dagon, since Dagon would have been worshipped in the area for long enough.

According to Claude Mariottini, “some scholars have identified Dagon as a “grain” god while others have identified him as a “fish” god.” So it’s a little ambiguous and, in an agricultural society where most mythologies will have something to do with grain, it might be a bit of a stretch, but what if Samson’s vulpine adventure was originally an attack on the grain god Dagon?

If we’re going to take this angle, a possible moral of the story would be that the sun and the grain must work together, and that society crumbles (much like Dagon’s temple with its 3,000 people) when they get into a tiff.

Hot Faith Injection

At some point, Samson (whether originally a god or just a regular folk hero) was brought into the monotheistic fold. As with most of Judges, Samson gets only a few edits to put him on Team YHWH, but otherwise seems largely left to his own devices.

To start with, there’s the Nazirite thing. There’s really very little in Samson’s story that suggests that he was a Nazirite, as they are described in Numbers 6. He isn’t shown drinking alcohol, but that’s the case for a great many of the characters we’ve seen so far. He’s also dedicated as a Nazirite from (pre-)birth, which contradicts the purpose of the vow outlined in Numbers.

Collins offers one possibility:

[I]t may be that the significance of the nazirite vow evolved over time. Originally, it may have pertained to the status of special warriors, related to their exceptional strength. Later it became a way of expressing a particular type of piety. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.113)

I think it more likely that the Nazirite references were written in, inspired by the hair motif, as a way of easily bringing Samson into the holy fold, so that he would make sense (to an extent) in the context of the editor’s worldview.

It’s notable that Delilah doesn’t seem know what a Nazirite is, or at least that Samson is one. Samson is able to fool her three times because she doesn’t know the rules of Samson’s super powers. This suggests, to me at least, that Samson’s story either pre-dates the Nazirite concept, or that it was originally completely unrelated to the Nazirites.

We see another hint of the editing when Samson is able to pull down Dagon’s temple. The editor tells us that the return of Samson’s strength is the answer to a prayer (Judges 16:28) while still preserving the original reason – his hair has grown back (Judges 16:22).

I think it’s also meaningful that Samson’s parents, way back in Judges 13, seem to alternate between knowing the identity of the god who predicts Samson’s birth and not knowing it – almost as if, perhaps, the story hadn’t originally included YHWH.

I should note, as with my discussion of Jephthah, that this is all pure conjecture. I have no idea how likely any of this might be.

Judges 16: A heart in an egg in a well in a church on an island in a lake…

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Unfortunately for Samson, he failed to get laid in Judges 15. He’s a very goal-oriented sort of man, though, and he doesn’t let one failure get him down. So he makes his way to Gaza – one of the five major cities of the Philistine confederation (according to my study Bible, p.315) – to go “in to” a prostitute (Judges 16:1).

But poor Samson can’t seem to be able to pursue relations of an intimate nature without some sort of disaster. So, of course, the Philistines find out where he’s laying. Presumably afraid of bursting in to some scene of unspeakable horror, they opt to set up an ambush by the city gate, assuming that they would be waiting until morning.

It’s unclear what happens to the ambushers, but at around midnight, Samson wakes, comes out of the brothel, rips out the city gate, plops it up on his shoulders, and drags it up a hill near Hebron.

The fatal flaw

Then, as we all found out in Sunday School, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The Philistine lords approach her and offer her a sum of 1,100 pieces of silver from each of them if she can find out what Samson’s weakness is.

It’s never explicitly stated that Delilah is a Philistine, by the way – as Samson’s other dalliances have been. We know only that he met her in the valley of Sorek – which, according to my study Bible, “led into the north end of the Philistine plain” (p.315). She is also, obviously, in cahoots with the Philistine elders.

Delilah, who is subtle and sly with the feminine wiles of a Biblical Mata Hari, asks: “Please tell me wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you” (Judges 16:6).

Well, at least she said ‘please.’

Samson somehow figures out that it may be a trick, so he lies to her. He tells her that if he is bound with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, he will become weak. The Philistine lords give Delilah seven bowstrings and lie in ambush while she binds Samson (presumably while he sleeps). To test the bindings, she yells out a warning and Samson easily snaps the bowstrings.

Delilah reproaches Samson: “Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; please tell me how you might be bound” (Judges 16:10). This time, Samson says that if he is bound with new ropes that have never been used, he will lose his strength. Of course, this was a lie too and he easily snaps his bindings.

The third time she asks, Samson tells her that she must weave “the seven locks of my head” (Judges 16:13) with a loom to drain his strength. (Rastafari, who try to follow the Nazirite rules of Numbers 6, interpret this reference to “seven locks” as meaning dreadlocks.) Predictably, when Delilah yells her warning, Samson pulls easily away from the loom.

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Samson and Delilah, by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1609

Finally, she pulls out the big guns: “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” (Judges 16:15), just as Samson’s unnamed bride said in Judges 14:16. For all his strength, Samson is a sucker for emotional manipulation, so he finally tells Delilah the secret of his hair.

If you were a child in the ’80s, you might have thought – as I did – of the Heartless Giant story from The Storyteller. In it, a young boy must defeat a giant who cannot be killed because he has hidden his heart. And so every day, the boy asks the giant where his heart is kept until, finally, the giant reveals the location (though in that story, the giant’s motive makes a bit more sense – the boy is clever and tricks the giant into thinking that he’s on his side). The big difference between the two stories is that, here, the giant is the Good Guy.

With his secret finally in her hands, Delilah has Samson fall asleep on her knee, and he does it because he’s Samson and he’s always found thinking hard when it comes to women. In Sunday School, Delilah then cuts Samson’s hair. Here, though, she has some guy come in and do it for some reason. It’s an odd detail – why can’t she do it herself? Would it be too much like Samson is defeated by a woman to have her be the one cutting his hair?

Regardless, when she wakes him, he doesn’t realize that “the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20) and tries to break himself free, only then to realize just how fickle his God’s affections are. The Philistines rush in and gauge out his eyes, putting him in bronze fetters and then make him grind at the mill in prison. But unbeknownst to them, hair grows back…

The fall

The Philistine lords have gathered to offer a sacrifice to Dagon in thanks for allowing them to capture their arch-nemesis. Dagon, according to my study Bible, “was an ancient Semitic deity whose cult had been adopted by the Philistines after their settlement in the land” (p.316). In their thanks, they describe Samson as “the ravager of our country, who has slain many of us” (Judges 16:24). I wonder if Samson ever had one of Mitchell & Webb’s “Are we the baddies?” moments.

As part of their celebrations, they decide to have Samson “make sport for us” (Judges 16:25). It’s unclear to me what this means. Abbie at Better than Esdras reads it as making him fight in deathmatches. In my own reading, I interpreted it as putting him on display, perhaps with intention of pelting him with rotten vegetables.

In a stunning feat of architecture, the Philistines have managed to construct a building large enough for 3,000 people to be sitting on the roof, yet it is entirely supported by two pillars close enough together that one man can touch both at the same time. Further, a man standing between these two pillars is visible to the 3,000 on the roof. It’s practically an eight wonder of the world for sheer goofiness.

Samson, now blind, is led by a boy holding his hand to his spot between the two pillars. His hair now grown, he prays to God to grant him the strength to avenge one of his two eyes (perhaps he never much liked the other one). It’s very clear that this great final exploit, as all his others have been, is completely personal. He was not raised by God to deliver Israel from the Philistines, no matter what the editor might claim.

Samson has his guide-boy places his hands on the pillars and, his strength now renewed, pushes them apart – knowing that he will die too – to kill the Philistines. “So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life” (Judges 16:30).

His brothers and other members of his family (once his mother’s womb opened, it was apparently left open) collected his body and buried him in the tomb of his father, between Zorah and Eshtaol.

Samson’s story closes by telling us that “he had judged Israel twenty years” (Judges 16:31), a repetition of Judges 15:20. He did not, as Brant points out on Both Saint and Cynic, get “his people out from under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines.” Throughout, his motivations and exploits have been personal.