1 Samuel 7: Getting back in good graces

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We begin chapter 7 with another attack from the crappy chapter break monster! Taking up from the last chapter, the men of Kiriath-jearim (the Levites of 1 Sam. 6:15 have apparently disappeared) bring the ark to Abinadab. While the ark was in his hands, Abinadab consecrated his son, Eleazar (presumably not the same Eleazar who was high priest after Aaron) so that he could have charge of it.

It doesn’t seem that anyone considers either Abinadab or Eleazar to have been a high priest, yet it seems strange that they should have charge of the ark and not be so. Just as it’s strange that the ark should have sat in Philistine hands for seven months without anyone mounting a rescue, and no one seems to know what to do with it now that it’s back. It seems to me that perhaps the ark was a local cultic object, perhaps from the Shiloh region, and that the rest of the Israelites didn’t really care that much about it. At least at that time.

The ark remains in Kiriath-jearim for twenty years while the people do a lot of “lamenting” (1 Sam. 7:2), which, in context, likely means something like praying for help against the Philistines.

Sam’s Career

There are fifty-five chapters in the combined books of Samuel, and chapter 7 already brings us into the titular hero’s dotage.

The ark drops from the story, and there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Samuel misses it, or tries to get it back, or sees himself as Eli’s successor in its care, or even knows that it’s back from Philistia. Rather, we just see Samuel yelling at the people for having adopted Baals and Ashtaroth. If only they’d put them away, he says, God would save them from the Philistines. The people, without mention of complaint or hesitance, do so. According to my study Bible, this mention of foreign gods is likely a Deuteronomist addition. Certainly, the narrative flows perfectly well with 1 Sam. 7:3-4 removed.

He then gathers all (all!) the people at Mizpah. We’ve seen this location a few times before, mostly in Judges. It’s where Laban and Jacob swear an oath in Genesis 31:48-50. In Judges, it seems to have been quite strongly associated with mustering armies: It’s where the Israelites mustered against the Ammonites in Judges 10:17, and where the other tribes mustered against the Benjaminites in Judges 20. It is also associated with Jephthah in Judges 11. Now, it’s where Samuel prays over the people and has them perform a sort of cleansing ritual in which they confess to their sins.

360_ark_covenant_0215Once the people are purified, Samuel turns his attentions to Philistia. Or, rather, the Philistines find out that the Israelites are gathering and assume the (probably accurate) worst. The Israelites are afraid of the approaching Philistines, so they ask Samuel to continually pray for them while they fight. It’s a bit like Moses’s arm waving during the battle against the Amalekites in Exodus 17, except that Samuel makes a “whole burnt offering” (1 Sam. 7:9) – likely meaning that the whole animal is burned up, with no portion saved for human consumption – instead.

It works. When the Philistines advance, God “thundered with a mighty voice” (1 Sam. 7:11), confusing and routing them. Whether intentional or not, this story provides a contrast to the last battle against the Philistines. In both cases, it looks – at least to me – like the sacred is being used fetishistically, in the sense that some object is brought or ritual performed in the belief that it will cause God to grant victory. The only meaningful difference, it seems, is that Samuel is a Good Guy, whereas the last battle had no such leader-hero. Or perhaps there’s some theological nuance that I’m missing.

Having achieved his first victory against the Philistines, Samuel sets up a monument – a stone that he names Ebenezer (or “stone of help”). If that names sounds familiar, it’s because it’s where the Israelites mustered against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 4 – the battle that preceded the one in which the ark was lost. Either we have two separate stories of battles against the Philistines in connection to Ebenezer (at least one of which confused the source of the name), or Samuel is being delightfully snarky.

In 1 Sam. 7:13-14, we are told that the Philistines are permanently subdued, and that all the cities they had taken are returned to the Israelites (including Ekron and Gath – two of the Philistine pentapolis). Not only that, but Samuel also somehow managed to bring peace between Israel and the Amorites.

Of course, there’s a problem with that; if Samuel did indeed achieve all of this, then Saul’s career (coming up shortly) makes no sense. So my New Bible Commentary proposes a different reading, arguing that these verses are a summary of Samuel’s entire career, “not just the part of it that preceded Saul’s becoming king” (p.290). In other words, this chapter may be crediting Samuel with what will later be credited to the monarchy. It may be evidence of that ‘judge vs. monarch’ ideological conflict I mentioned earlier.

Closing up, we’re told that Samuel judged in a circuit, moving between Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, and his home in Ramah (building an altar in this last location, a detail that evidently made it passed the editors). I checked out these locations on my study Bible map and they seem to be in a fairly small geographical region. Much smaller than would be expected from a prophet known to all of Israel (1 Sam. 3:20).

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).