Amos 5-6: Lamentations

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Amos 5-6 give us a lamentation very similar to what we read in the book of Lamentations. The difference is largely one of tense – Lamentations bemoans the horror that has happened, while Amos is looking forward to a coming horror.

As in Lamentations, Israel is feminized. And, again, we see the theme of friendlessness, the “virgin Israel” (Amos 5:2) is forsaken in her own lands, and no one will help her.

The Day of the Lord

Amos warns that the “day of the Lord” (Amos 5:18) is coming. He bemoans those who look forward to the day of God, because it is a day of darkness, not one of light. To look forward to such a day would be like to flee from a lion only to encounter a bear (Amos 5:19).

Given a lot of the context, the “day of the Lord” seems to refer to a day of judgement. And, given the commentaries, that’s definitely how many others seem to read it. But Collins gives an interesting alternative possibility:

In later times it came to mean the day of judgement. In this context, however, it clearly refers to a cultic celebration, perhaps the Festival of Tabernacles or Sukkoth, which was known as “the feast of YHWH” in later times. Tabernacles was celebrated at the end of the grape harvest. It was a joyful festival, marked by drinking wine. It was a day of light, in the sense of being a joyful occasion. For Amos, however, the day of the Lord was darkness and not light, gloom with no brightness. He is sweeping in his rejection of the sacrificial cult, in all its aspects. Instead, he asks that “justice roll down like waters.” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.157)

In other words, this could be Amos condemning the excess of a festival, rather than naming the anticipated day of judgement. Either interpretation could easily fit the context.

But if the “day of the Lord” does refer to a day of judgement, Amos has very clear ideas of what it will look like and why it’s deserved. The people of Samaria hate those who “reprove in the gate” and those who speak the truth (Amos 5:10), which sounds rather personal coming from a prophet. They also trample the poor and take from them exactions of wheat. While Amos certainly cares about social justice issues, his personal pique seems just a tad more important.

Amos warns the people that though they’ve built lovely stone houses, they won’t get to live in them. Though they’ve planted nice vineyards, they won’t get to dink the wine. Because God knows how great their sins are, and he knows that the people of Samaria afflict the righteous, turn aside the needy at the gate, and take bribes (the city gate being where justice is served – or, as the case may be not).

Because of all these things, God will destroy the strong. The cities will be decimated, and there will be wailing in all quarters when God “will pass through the midst of you” (Amos 5:17).

The only chance will be to seek God, and to seek good instead of evil. Bring justice back to the gates (Amos 5:15) and maybe God will be gracious.

I Despise Your Feasts

God calls to the people of Samaria to “seek me and live” (Amos 5:4), but not to bother at Bethel, Gilgal, or Beersheba.

God hates their feasts and their solemn assemblies. The people make their offerings, but God won’t accept them. He even asks that they take away the noise of their songs (a strong contrast to what we read in Chronicles!).

Amos, by John Sargent

Amos, by John Sargent

Instead of all this pomp and ceremony, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). It’s a hard argument to disagree with.

For Collins, the problem isn’t necessarily with the ceremonies themselves, but rather that they “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the service of God, but actually an impediment to it” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158).

God, via Amos, asks if the people brought him sacrifices and offerings during their forty years of wandering in the desert (Amos 5:25). In the context,this seems to be used to call back to a state of purity, when justice (rather than ritual) reigned. Therefore, the only answer Amos could have expected from his audience is a “no.” This is a problem in light of the Pentateuch, where the origins of ritual traditions are tied to the exodus.

In Amos 5:25, God promises to take the Samarian people into exile to Damascus because they worshiped idols, including the Assyrian gods Sakkuth and Kaiwan. According to Collins, this could be a problem for the dating of Amos. Because while Samaria was, in fact, eventually destroyed by Assyrians:

[T]he Assyrian threat was not in evidence during the reign of Jeroboam and developed only in the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, whose reign began about the time of Jeroboam’s death. Amos never mentions Assyria in his oracles, but a few passages refer to the punishment of exile, which was typical Assyrian policy (5:5,27). These oracles are more easily explained if they are dated somewhat later, when Assyria was a threat to Israel. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.155)

I Abhor Your Pride

Amos 6 is quite a bit shorter than the preceding chapter, and mostly focuses on the pride of Samaria.

It begins with a lament for those who feel at ease or secure, whether in Zion or Samaria (Amos 6:1). That tossing in of Jerusalem seems so casual, and yet there it is.

Amos asks, is Samaria better than Calneh or Hamath (according to my study Bible, these were important commercial centres in Assyria), or Gath (an important Philistine city)? Or is their territory greater than yours?

Amos predicts woe coming to the wealthy: Those who lie on ivory beds, those who eat lamb and calf, those who drink drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves, those who sing idle songs, those who, like David, invent for themselves instruments of music (Amos 6:5). After reading the fawning over David in Chronicles, this dismissal of him as something of a layabout really struck me. In any case, these creatures of wealth and comfort would be the first to go into exile, and their revelry will pass away. This did, of course, prove to come true.

God hates the pride of Jacob, he hates his strongholds, and so he has commanded that the great houses be smitten into fragments and the small houses into bits (Amos 6:11).

Though Samaria may congratulate itself for its military prowess, God will raise a nation against it (Amos 6:13-14).

Returning to rhetorical questions, Amos asks if horses run on rocks, or if oxen are used to plow the sea? Though the answers are apparently obvious no, the people have Samaria have managed to turn justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood (Amos 6:12). In other words, the injustice seen in Samaria is a perversion of the natural order.

A Celestial Deity

Before I leave Amos 5-6, I wanted to mention Amos 5:8:

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
and turns deep darkness into the morning,
and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out upon the surface of the earth,
the Lord is his name.

This makes God seem like an amalgam of typical Near Eastern male nature deities. God is the god of the stars, of the sun and moon, and of rain. It feels deliberate, like Amos is asserting that his god is the true god of these things, and that the worship of these things (either directly or through other gods) is idolatry. Maybe.

Amos 3-4: Disciplinary Strategies

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In Amos 1-2, it was easy to see a structure. I had noted at the time that Amos seemed to be drawing the Samarians in with some bravado about how terrible foreign nations are, then drawing ever closer until he dropped the bomb: indicting Samaria itself.

I see a few similar rhetorical tactics in Amos 3-4, but they are shorter. I’m getting the impression that the book of Amos is a collection of arguments/prophecies, rather than something that would have been meant as a complete treatise.

Most of Amos 3-4 is told as if it were the direct words of Gods (“spoken against you” – Amos 3:1), though with periodic speech tags in case anyone forgets.

Amos 3 begins by identifying Israel as a chosen people (or “family,” as they are called here). As Collins points out, “this should be good news.” Instead, however, it is because God has only known (in the biblical sense) Israel that the nation will be punished. “Election only means greater responsibility” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.156).

A Rhetorical Questioning

Amos 3:3-8 contains a series of rhetorical questions, culminating with the argument that God is the agent of Samaria’s suffering. The questions themselves are ones of obviousness, along the lines of “Is the pope Catholic?”

They start off rather unrelated to the point being made: Do two people walk together unless they have, at some point, met each other? Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey? (While I typically think of lions as being savannah dwellers, the Asiatic lion can, apparently, live in forests, and would have been the lion Amos was most familiar with.)

The questions inch closer to the point: Can a trumpet be blown in a city without making the people afraid?

And, finally: Can evil befall a city without it being God’s doing?

After the questions, we are told that God does not act without revealing it to the prophets (Amos 3:7). This, then, leads into:

The lion has roared;
who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

This is clearly a call back to Amos 1:2, but also reinforces the argument. God causes evil => God lets the prophets know when he does so => I have heard God tell me so, and am therefore compelled to tell you.

See the Oppression!

The reader is bidden to witness the tumult and oppression in Samaria. Clearly, Amos is one of them SJWs, because this injustice is prompting punishment from God.

The imagery is striking: Just as a shepherd might pull a few body parts out of a lion’s mouth, so will some small minority of Israelites be rescued from Samaria’s fate (Amos 3:12). The implication is clear – you may survive what’s coming, but you won’t be whole.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

The letter V depicting the Prophet Amos, miniature from the Bible of Souvigny, 12th cent.

Special mention is made of the altars at Bethel, whose horns will be cut off. These would be Jeroboam’s altars, built in 1 Kgs 12:25-33.

God will also destroy all the fancy houses, including the houses of ivory. An ivory house is mentioned in 1 Kgs 22:39, which my study Bible identifies as a Samarian palace “decorated with carved ivory inlay and containing furniture so decorated.” (It seems that some of these ivory inlays have survived.)

The listing of the palaces that will be destroyed concludes with “and the great houses shall come to an end” (Amos 3:15), which seems to be another example of a pun on the word “house” (which can mean both a physical structure and a dynasty). One of the more elaborate examples of these came in 1 Chron. 17:1-15, where David and God keep offering to build houses for each other, variously meaning palaces, dynasties, and temples.

Amos then turns his attention to the women of Samaria, whom he calls “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1). Bashan, it seems, was a “fertile area in Transjordan” (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 156), meaning that they are basically being called “fat cows.”

The women’s crimes are pretty terrible. You see, they have oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and asked their husbands for something to drink. Yikes. Fat cows and hen-peckers? For this, their days are numbered and they will be cast forth into Harmon.

Next come the cultic practices, as God, via Amos, invites the Samarians to keep sinning at Bethel and Gilgal (both associated with prophets in 2 Kgs 2:1-2). They are invited to keep bringing their sacrifices and tithes, and to “publish them” as they so love to do (Amos 4:5).

The mention of the shrines made me wonder if it was a Deuteronomistic criticism of worship outside of the Jerusalem Temple. However, what follows makes it seem more like the criticism is of the pomp and circumstance, and the publicity of it all. It rang similar to Matthew 6:5, calling out the public display of pious peacocking as hypocrisy.

Collins points to another possibility, that ritual “gave the people a false sense of security, since they felt they were fulfilling their obligations to their God when in fact they were not. For this reason, sacrifices, even if offered at great expense, were not only irrelevant to the serve of God, but actually an impediment to it. The service of God is about justice. It is not about offerings at all” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 158).

Expecting A Different Result

There have been portions of tonight’s reading that I’ve appreciated (the mentions of social justice, the condemnation of religious hypocrisy), and parts that have made me gag (the overt patriarchy of Amos’s condemnation of wives who presume). But the second half of Amos 4 is just plain silly.

In it, God lists all the punishments he’s given Samaria, ending each with, “yet you did not return to me.”

See, I’m a parent. I don’t go with the whole punishment thing as a general rule because the concept is rather silly. Most of what we read as “misbehaviour” actually turns out to be age-appropriate responses to asking too much from itty-bitty people. When I adjust my expectations and plan ahead for the unavoidable, nearly all “disciplinary” issues disappear. What remains can almost always be dealt with through teaching.

Punishments usually end up being counter productive, because punishing a child for age-appropriate behaviours doesn’t actually fix the problems. All it does is either break the child so they become unable to cope and meet their own needs, or it fosters an adversarial relationship that will then require parents to maintain constant vigilance in order to maintain the family hierarchy. Neither of which sounds like a positive outcome to me.

So here we have a God who sees the same behaviours repeated over and over again, and responds every time with punishments. And even though these punishments are clearly not working, he doggedly sticks to this one strategy while wringing his hands because it never ever works.

It reads like bad comedy.

The punishments themselves are:

  • Giving the people clean teeth and lack of bread;
  • Withholding rain when it was still 3 months before the harvest;
  • Arbitrarily withering some fields and not others;
  • Smiting with blight and mildew, laying waste to gardens and vineyards, devouring fig and olive trees with locusts;
  • Sending a pestilence (in the manner of Egypt);
  • Slaying Samaria’s young men with the sword and carrying away its horses;
  • Making the stench of Samaria’s camps go up their nostrils (I do believe this is scatological);
  • And overthrowing bits of Samaria, “as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Amos 4:11 – you may notice the POV break here).

I just happened to be reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, and I came on the following relevant passage, given the mention of the harvest:

Before the time of the harvest, rich and poor alike waited. The Mediterranean is notorious for the variability of its harvests, due to unstable climatic conditions. The carefully tended fields were menaced by flattening cloudbursts, by random scything by hailstorms, and by the perpetual menace of prolonged drought (along its eastern and southern shores) and of “dry” winters (winters without snow and thus without moisture) in the plateaus of its hinterlands, notably in Anatolia. “Harvest shocks” caused by unforeseen shortfalls in the crops were the norm. In all areas except Egypt, yields could vary by over 50 percent from year to year.

Not surprisingly, therefore, wealth was widely thought of as lying in the hands of the gods. A good harvest was the smile of God or of the gods spreading across an obedient landscape. In 311, one of the last pagan emperors (the eastern emperor Maximin Daia) informed the citizens of Tyre that his persecution of the Christians had pleased the gods. The weather itself had changed for the better:

“Let them look at the standing crops already flourishing with waving heads in the broad fields, and at the meadows, glittering with plants and flowers, in response to abundant rains and to the restored mildness and softness of the atmosphere.” (p.12)

After all of that, though, the sermon just sort of… fizzles. Because all these punishments haven’t worked, God will send more. “Prepare to meet your God” (Amos 4:12).

Then it derails entirely, telling us that he who makes mountains and creates wind is the God of hosts. It seems that I’m not the only one who feels that the passage seems odd in this spot, and the authenticity of Amos 4:13 is questioned, mostly because “the passages are abrupt in their context” (New Bible Commentary, p.728).

2 Kings 4: The Assorted Miracles of Elisha, Part I

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The following few chapters continue to relate the various miraculous works of Elisha over the course of his career. In this chapter, we get five (two involving a Shunammite woman).

The Debtor’s Widow

One of the sons of the prophets has died, leaving behind a widow, two children, and a pile of debts. Now, because they’ve defaulted, the collector is coming to take the two kids as his slaves. In desperation, the widow comes to Elisha for help. When he asks her if she has any assets, she names only a single jar of oil. It may not sound like much, but it’s enough for Elisha!

Elisha tells the widow to collect as many vessels as she can, even to borrow from her neighbours. Then, she must pour the oil into the vessels. She does, and the oil just keeps coming, filling every vessel she’s collected. My New Bible Commentary notes that the extent of the miracle is bound only by how many vessels the widow bothers to procure – in other words, how much faith does she have in Elisha’s abilities.

When she’s done pouring, Elisha tells her to sell the oil and to use the proceeds to pay off her family’s debts.

This story mirrors Elijah’s miracle in 1 Kings 17:14-16, where a woman’s jar of flour and jar of oil replenish themselves continually throughout a famine.

The Kind Shunammite

Elisha’s next stop is to Shunam, where he is fed by a wealthy woman. This becomes a habit, as she feeds him every time he passes through. After a while of this, she has a guest room prepared in her home for Elisha to stay in whenever he’s in town. Interestingly, it is the woman who takes the initiative in all of this, going so far as to argue in favour of building the room for Elisha to her husband.

One day, Elisha decides to repay all her kindness, so he asks his servant, Gehazi, to ask the woman if she would like him to speak well of her to a king of the commander of an army. When she refuses, Gehazi prompts his master that she has no sons and her husband is old. So Elisha tells the woman that she will bear a son within a year. Like Sarah in Genesis 18:12, she doesn’t believe, and she asks Elisha not to lie to her. But, miracle of miracles, she does bear a son!

The story of the unexpected pregnancy is a familiar one: We’ve seen it happen to Sarah (Gen. 17:16-19), Rebekah (Gen. 25:21-26), Rachel (Gen. 30:22-24), Manoah’s wife (Judges 13:2-5), and Hannah (1 Sam. 1:19-20). In those cases, the unexpected pregnancy was a way of marking the resulting child as special – a predictor of future greatness. Here, however, the pattern is shifted and the unusual pregnancy marks out Elisha, not the son.

The Dead Boy

All is not well for the Shunammite woman, however. A few years pass and, one day, her son goes out with his father and the reapers. Suddenly, his head begins to hurt and he’s sent home. After lying on his mother’s lap until noon, he dies.

Elisha Raising the Shunammite's Son, by Benjamin West, 1765

Elisha Raising the Shunammite’s Son, by Benjamin West, 1765

The Shunammite woman places the boy on the bed in her guest room, then shuts the door. This, says my New Bible Commentary, was “to retain the nep̄eš or life-essence” (p.351). It seems that souls can’t pass through doors. She then saddles a donkey and rushes out to find Elisha, who is currently at Mount Carmel.

Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, asks her if she and her family are well. Strangely, she responds that “it is well [with us]” (2 Kgs 4:26). I wonder if there’s a translation issue here and that she’s merely exchanging a greeting with Gehazi before bringing her problem to Elisha – perhaps indicating that she doesn’t have time to speak through a servant. If this is the case, I do wish that my study Bible would mention it in the notes, since it comes off seeming very strange.

Once she reaches Elisha, she throws herself at his feet and argues that she had never asked for a son, and she had asked Elisha not to deceive her (in other words, it is cruel for him to give her a son and then take him away, especially when she never asked to be made vulnerable to that pain).

Elisha sends Gehazi ahead with his staff, instructing him to touch the boy’s face with the staff. Gehazi does so, but it does nothing. When Elisha arrives, shuts himself in the room with the boy and lies over the corpse (his mouth over the boy’s mouth, his eyes over the boy’s eyes, his hands over the boy’s hands). When the corpse warms, Elisha rises, paces about for a bit, then stretches himself over the corpse again. This time, the boy sneezes seven times and opens his eyes (or, according to the LXX, Elisha stretches himself over the boy seven times and there is no sneezing).

The story is a close parallel of Elijah’s miracle in 1 Kings 17:17-24. A big difference here is the inclusion of Gehazi as a sort of barrier between Elisha and the Shunammite woman. At every step, they speak to each other through the servant, and it is Gehazi who is sent on Elisha’s behalf to attempt the miracle. We’ll meet Gehazi again in the next chapter, and there he’ll use his position in quite naughty ways.

The Spoiled Pottage

For the next miracle, Elisha is hanging out with a bunch of the sons of the prophets in Gilgal during a famine. When he tells his servant to prepare a pottage for the sons, one of them (which I assume refers to one of the sons rather than one of the servants) goes out to gather some herbs. While he’s walking around, he stumbles on a vine bearing unfamiliar gourds. Clearly driven to desperation by the famine, he decides to cut up the gourds and add them to the pottage.

When they begin to eat, however, the sons of the prophets realize that the pottage is poison and refuse to eat more. To purify the meal, Elisha throws in some meal and the pottage becomes safe to eat.

Unlike the story in 1 Kings 2:19-22, there’s no real indication that the pottage is actually poison. The spring water was causing illness and miscarriages, but no one is harmed by the pottage. Did some of the sons recognize the gourds and know that they were poison? Were they just freaked out by the unfamiliar addition? Or did some of them become ill and the text just fails to mention it?

Food Aplenty

The chapter closes with another food-related miracle. This time, a man comes to Elisha at Baalshalisha with a first fruits offering. It isn’t explained why the offering is made to Elisha rather than/in addition to a priest. My New Bible Commentary suggests that this could be done in protest of the state-sponsored cultic powers (as we saw illustrated in 1 Kings 22). This would suggest, however, that Elisha was outside of that structure, even though he seems to be hanging on to the royal household and armies (as we saw in 2 Kings 3).

It could simply be that the YHWH cult was still quite a bit looser (at least in Samaria) at the time, giving people some choice in where offerings might be made, and to whom. Or perhaps Elisha was a sort of master prophet for the area (as suggested by his retinue of sons of the prophets), in the same way that Samuel seems to have been. Even if the state religion was changing and formalizing, it’s quite possible that there were either hold-overs or dissenting sub-cults with followers of their own.

In any case, Elisha asks the man to feed all hundred of the sons of the prophets staying with Elisha. The man balks, saying that there are far too many people for the amount of food he’s brought, but Elisha insists. The miracle is that the food not only does manage to feed everyone, but with leftovers besides!

I noticed a repetition of the numbers 50 and 100 in references to the prophets (and their sons). When Elijah died, his death march was joined by fifty sons of the prophets (2 Kings 2:7). Earlier, when Obadiah hid the prophets from Jezebel, he saved a hundred of them, hiding them in two groups of fifty each (1 Kings 18:4). I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, or if the number had some sort of significance among the followers of Elijah/Elisha.

2 Kings 2: The Bald Moses

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The first story in this chapter is about Elijah being taken up by God in a whirlwind. While reading, I kept wondering if this is meant to be an Elijah story (about his ascension) or an Elisha story (about his accession). After some reflection, I think it may be the latter, though it could certainly be argued either way.

Elijah and Elisha begin the chapter by walking about. Each time they stop (first at Bethel, then Jericho, then the river Jordan), Elijah tells Elisha to stay behind, and each time Elisha refuses. Each time, the “sons of the prophets” tell Elisha that God is about to take his master, and Elisha responds that he already knows, and that they should “hold your peace.” By the time they get to the Jordan river, they’ve accumulated fifty sons of the prophets following along, though hanging back.

The term “sons of the prophets” likely refers to either apprentice or lesser prophets, perhaps in some kind of cultic guild. It seems unlikely that it would refer to actual biological offspring. This is reinforced later on in the same chapter (2 Kings 2:12) where Elisha calls Elijah “my father.”

2 Kings 2When Elisha asked the sons of the prophets to keep quiet, it seems an indication of the solemnity of their progress. Combined with the repetition of the journey, it gives the story a sense of ritual. I wonder if there was a time when a local cult periodically did a particular journey (pure conjecture, but perhaps it might have ended with a human sacrifice), and the tradition was later preserved in this story. Or the repetition could just be there to draw attention to Elijah’s ascension, thereby highlighting its importance.

When they reach the river, Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water with it, parting it so that Elijah and Elisha can walk across. This is, of course, quite reminiscent of Moses’s parting of the water in Exodus 14:21. I wonder if the Elijah story is meant to be a reference to the Moses story, or if both were a reference to something else?

Separated now from the fifty sons of the prophets who had come along, Elijah asks Elisha to ask for a parting gift before he is taken. Elisha asks to inherit a “double share of your spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). This seems almost certainly to be a reference to the inheritance portion meant to be given to a firstborn son (Deut. 21:17), thus setting Elisha apart as Elijah’s proper spiritual heir. Elijah’s response, that Elisha will only get his inheritance if he sees Elijah taken, appears to be an acknowledgement that this inheritance is only God’s to grant.

As it is, there are no issues since Elisha does, indeed, see Elijah taken. First, a fire chariot pulled by fire horses comes between Elisha and Elijah, separating them. Then Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind (the only other person who appears to have been taken without dying first is Enoch, in Genesis 5:24).

If you’re noticing a pattern and wondering, yes, Elijah does appear to have been a firebender. Certainly, he seems to have been closely associated with the element in his miracles, as we saw in 1 Kings 18:38 and 3 Kings 1:9-16.

With Elijah gone, Elisha rends his clothes in grief, then takes up Elijah’s mantle (for the second time, since Elijah had given it to him in 1 Kings 19:19). He then performs a reverse miracle and strikes the river water with the mantle, as Elijah had done, and parts the water for himself.

The sons of the prophets seem to be of two minds. On the one hand, they immediately recognize Elisha as Elijah’s heir and bow before him. But then they are convinced that God just flicked Elijah off somewhere. Perhaps they’ve seen be play Black & White and think that God is as clumsy a deity as I am? In any case, they ask for permission to go find his body. Though he initially refuses, Elisha does eventually give them permission and they spend three days looking. The lack of a body is, apparently, confirmation that a miracle has taken place.

Further Miracles

Now that he’s the head honcho, it’s time for Elisha to get started on some miracles of his own.

His first is in Jericho, where the water appears to be causing deaths and miscarriages. Elisha solves the problem by throwing some salt into a local spring, thereby purifying it.

The people of the city say that the “land is unfruitful” (2 Kings 2:19), which I thought could mean a drought, but Elisha’s miracle is very specifically purifying the water. It could be, therefore, that it is the people/animals who are unfruitful, due to the miscarriages.

So far so good. I think we can all agree that purifying a water source so that it is no longer causing death and miscarriage is, generally speaking, a net positive. Unfortunately, Elisha then immediately follows that miracle with another in Bethel. There, a few small boys make fun of him for being bald. Rather hilariously, my New Bible Commentary spends a fair bit of time trying to argue that Elisha wasn’t actually bald, and that the boys were just making it up to be insulting. I’m sure there’s a theological purpose there, but I can’t stop laughing long enough to look it up. Whatever it is, it seems to be very important to the NBC editors that Elisha is most definitely not bald!

While Elisha’s earlier miracle was to save a community from what was probably a natural disaster, this time he’s just being a total douche. No one likes to be bullied, but there is such a thing as an appropriate response, and cursing small boys so that forty-two of them are mauled by two bears is definitely not it.

Elisha's Bears

Interestingly in the context of the number’s later significance, my study Bible indicates that 42 was thought to be a number of ill omen.

After the bear episode, Elisha makes his way to Mount Carmel, then returns to Samaria.

2 Samuel 19: The Return

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The victory of Absalom’s defeat is marred by David’s anguish over the loss of his son, so the soldiers return home in the same shame as they would have in defeat. Joab, probably correctly, reprimands David for focusing so much on the personal. While he is focused on his own personal pain, the soldiers who fought (and several, presumably, died) to save David and his household are covered in shame for their efforts. Worse yet, argues Joab, the whole situation only arose because “you love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Further, continues Joab, David’s extreme mourning over his son/enemy (sonemy?) sends the message to his followers that they are worthless to him, since he might well have preferred that they all had been killed and Absalom won the day.

In closing, Joab tells David to speak kindly to his followers, or they will desert him. In response to Joab’s plea, David “took his seat in the gate” (2 Sam. 19:8). The gate, as we’ve already learned, is where governance happens. So while we don’t get to see David’s praise and thanks to his people, we do see him at least putting the personal aside enough to return to his duties as a leader.

Recovering the nation

Of course, there’s still a kingdom to regain. Absalom had deposed David, so if David wishes to return, he must rebuild the federation of tribes.

The text tells us that the Israelites (which, in context, excludes Judah and David’s retinue) had fled back to their homes after the battle. They summarize the situation by saying that David, as king, had subdued their external enemies, but then fled before Absalom. With Absalom now dead, there’s a question of what should happen next. The passage is rather unclear, but the gist seems to be that a not-insubstantial portion of the Israelite population questioned whether a unified king is still needed, now that the external threats are gone. Why not return to the pre-monarchy tribal system? Why should they bring David back?

2 Samuel 19But it seems that Israel wasn’t David’s only problem. He relays a message to the elders of Judah – via the priests Zadok and Abiathar – asking why they haven’t called him back as their leader since the lay Judahites apparently want him. He also a note to Amasa – who was the commander of Absalom’s army (2 Sam. 17:25) – promising to make him his commander instead of Joab. Clearly, he is trying to woo back those who had sided with Absalom.

The predominant explanation for why Joab should be replaced is that David was still sore over the murder of Abner in 2 Samuel 3:27. That assumes, of course, that David wasn’t behind it, or that he didn’t appreciate – privately – the benefits of Abner’s death. Certainly, he seemed to have been in no particular hurry to punish or demote Joab, and was quite happy to use his services more explicitly when he wanted to get rid of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11. If anything, the text shows us a completely loyal Joab whose only fault is to be willing to do rather horrid things on behalf of David (whether at David’s explicit command, or simply because it’s something that needs to be done before David can achieve some goal). As we saw both in 2 Samuel 11 and earlier in this chapter, Joab is more than just brute force, too. He disobeys David’s exact command in the killing of Uriah so that it can be done more subtly, in a way that will minimize – or even eliminate – the repercussions for David. In this chapter, he called David out, giving him a much needed reminder that he needed to act the king if he ever wanted to regain the crown.

It’s possible, then, that David decided to replace Joab simply because he knew, or believed, that Joab was too loyal to be sore about it. He might have believed Joab to be so firmly in Camp David that he wouldn’t mind being replaced by Amasa if it meant regaining support for David. Which leads us back to Joab’s own words: “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Sam. 19:6).

Whatever the future repercussions, David’s plan works and the Judahites are swayed. But that still leaves the rest of Israel.

The meeting at Gilgal

Judah heads across the river to Gilgal to meet with David and accompany him back to Jerusalem.

Shimei – who had thrown rocks at the fleeing David in 2 Sam. 16:5-14 – showed up with one thousand Benjaminites, begging forgiveness. It’s hard to think that he suddenly changed his mind that David was the cause of the fall of the house of Saul. Presumably, he simply realized that David was about to be king again and was a little concerned that the rock-throwing incident might be held against him.

Abishai, like Joab, has long been David’s follower, and is the very caricature of bloodthirst. Where Joab always seems quite happy to murder David’s enemies, Abishai argues in favour of it. He tried to convince David to murder Saul in 1 Sam. 26:5-12, and he pushed for the immediate killing of the rock-hurling Shimei in 2 Sam. 16:8-9. Now, once again, he advises David to kill Shimei.

David refuses a second time, however, saying that Shimei’s curses meant nothing since David is returning to Jerusalem and the crown.

Ziba – the servant David had assigned to Mephibosheth who had been granted all of Mephibosheth’s lands after claiming in 2 Sam. 16 that Mephibosheth was refusing to follow David out of Jerusalem – arrives with his fifteen sons and twenty servants. It seems that they help David and his retinue ford the Jordan.

Unfortunately, Mephibosheth comes too, displaying all the signs of mourning and having done so since David fled from Jerusalem. He claims that he had asked Ziba to prepare a donkey for him to ride, needing one due to his disabilities, but that Ziba had simply left instead.

(As a side note, the text introduces Mephibosheth here as the “son of Saul” (2 Sam. 19:24). In context, this presumably means that he is from the house of Saul, rather than being in error.)

Given two contradictory accounts, David takes the easy way out and simply tells the two men to go halfsies on the land. Mephibosheth refuses his half, however, since having David back safely is good enough for him.

The final petitioner is Barzillai, who had fed the fleeing David. David asks him to come along to Jerusalem, but Barzillai refuses. He argues that, at 80, he is too old for the pleasures of court and would rather stay close to home so that he can die near his family tombs. He does, however, give someone named Chimham for David to bring along – presumably his son or some other close relative.

Israel suddenly becomes very angry that Judah “stole” David from them, claiming that they should have ten shares of him. The ten shares reference seems to be about the tribes – each having a share of the king. Of course, if Israel has ten, who has the other two? Judah has, of course, one, but that leaves the twelfth.

Looking at a map of the divided monarchy, it seems that Simeon may have been culturally linked with Judah, or at least separate from Israel. Another possibility is Benjamin, since between Shimei and Ziba, David’s procession would have included a large number of them, perhaps leading the Israelites to refer to them together.

In the end, “the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 19:43), suggesting that they won the argument but that the matter was certainly not settled.

1 Samuel 15: The Sundering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Confrontation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Samuel 13: The Great Falling Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saul at war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

But no one counted on Saul!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, the Israelites win.

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

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

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

1 Samuel 10: The making of a king

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

Samuel anoints Saul, from the Nuremberg Bible of 1483

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

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

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

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

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

The Lottery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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