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).

 

1 Samuel 2: Political tunes and a bit of misbehaviour

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

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

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

Samuel learning from Eli, by John Singleton Copley, 1780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Samuel 1: Another miraculous birth

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

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

Sister Wives

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

Elkanah and his wives, Maciejowski Bible

Elkanah and his wives, Maciejowski Bible

We’ve seen this dynamic before, such as Gen. 16:4, when Hagar becomes pregnant and is said to have started flaunting herself before Sarah.

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

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

My New Bible Commentary offers another possible reading:

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

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

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

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

A Misunderstanding

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

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

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

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

Hannah’s Son

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

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

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

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

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

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