2 Chronicles 22: The very brief reign of Ahaziah

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In the last chapter, we learned that all but one of Jehoram’s sons were either kidnapped or killed by the Philistines and Arabs, leaving him with only his youngest – Jehoahaz.

In this chapter, we take up the story of Jehoahaz, now called Ahaziah, after his father’s death. This new name is an odd nut, as the Chronicler doesn’t refer to him as Jehoahaz at all after 2 Chron. 21. My suspicion is that the Chronicler was working with two different sources, each of which used a different name for the king. The fact that the passage in which his name is Jehoahaz (when we learn that his brothers were all eliminated from the running by the Philistines and Arabs) has no corollary in Kings is evidence that the discrepancy comes from using multiple sources.

It doesn’t appear to be a contradiction, though. My New Bible Commentary indicates that the two names are actually the same, given differently: Jehoahaz is Yah + ahaz, while Ahaziah is ahaz + Yah. “Both mean ‘Yahweh has grasped'” (p.389).

I mentioned above that Kings doesn’t mention the elimination of Ahaziah’s older brothers, nor does it in any way indicate his position in birth order (2 Kgs 8:24). Another difference that caught my eye is that, in 2 Chron. 22:1, it is “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” who make Ahaziah king after his father’s death.

The idea that he was made king by “the inhabitants of Jerusalem” seems like it must be significant, since it deviates from the normal formula in which sons simply reign in the stead of their fathers (as Ahaziah is said to do in 2 Kgs 8:24).

It seems that the phrase must refer to the fact that Ahaziah was Jehoram’s youngest son, so his coronation would violate primogeniture. When primogeniture has been violated in the past, we are told that the king ordered it so, so the phrase might be an indication that Jehoram did not make arrangements, leaving it up to the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do so.

But if his brothers had been killed, Ahaziah would have become the eldest (living) son of Jehoram, so the inhabitants of Jerusalem wouldn’t have needed to make any decision. This gives us the possibility that that at least some of his brothers weren’t killed, perhaps they were still living, but held captive in foreign lands. Perhaps this is why a public decision was needed to bypass the normal line of succession.

A second possibility is that the Chronicler simply made a mistake. In Kings, there is another Jehoahaz, the son of King Josiah of Judah. In 2 Kgs 23:30, we learn that Jehoahaz, though not the oldest surviving son of Josiah, was selected to rule by “the people of the land.” The similarity is uncanny, and I can’t help but wonder if the Chronicler simply confused the two Jehoahazes.

I mean, we certainly know that the Chronicler wasn’t above the odd error. For example, we learn in 2 Chron. 22:2 that Ahaziah was 42 years old when he began his reign. In 2 Chron. 21:20, Jehoram was 32 when he began his reign and he reigned for 8 years, making him 40 when he died. This would make Ahaziah two years older than his father. I can file a good deal of implausibility away as miracles, but that just seems silly. Ahaziah’s age in 2 Kgs 8:26, 22, is more plausible. It’s still a bit weird if Ahaziah is to be Jehoram’s youngest son, but not impossible.

Ahaziah’s mother was Athaliah, Ahab’s daughter and the granddaughter of Omri. We learn that she gave Ahaziah bad advice, which led him into the same kind of evil as Ahab (likely meaning that she wasn’t a strict Yahwehist, or at least not in the same way that the Chronicler would like).

Jehu’s Coup

Only a year into his reign, Ahaziah joined King Jehoram of Israel in fighting King Hazael of Syria. During the fight, Jehoram (or Joram – the Chronicler uses both versions) is injured and returns to Jezreel to recuperate, and Ahaziah joins him there with a bouquet and a Get Well Soon card.

Joash is saved, by Michel Martin Drolling

Joash is saved, by Michel Martin Drolling

This gives God the perfect opportunity to get him. See, God has set up a man named Jehu son of Nimshi to destroy Ahab’s dynasty, so putting Ahaziah and Jehoram in the same location allows God to get rid of both at a single swoop.

Ahaziah and Jehoram are forced to go out meet Jehu, presumably in battle. During this, while Jehu is “executing judgement upon the house of Ahab” (2 Chron. 22:8), Jehu kills Ahaziah’s nephews (who had been attending him).

Jehu next goes after Ahaziah, finding him hiding in Samaria. Ahaziah is caught and brought before Jehu, who has him put to death. This account is different from the one found in 2 Kgs 9:27-28, where Ahaziah was simply caught while in the process of fleeing.

Ahaziah’s body is recovered and buried as Jehoshaphat’s grandson, likely meaning that he was given the kingly honours that his father was not. Ahaziah’s death, coming only a year into his reign, left no one in David’s dynasty capable of ruling.

Athaliah’s Coup

Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, took the opportunity to claim the crown for herself. To secure her position, she tried to have every surviving member of her husband’s family murdered. Unfortunately for her, she missed on – her grandson, Ahaziah’s infant son, Joash.

Ahaziah’s sister, Jehoshabeath, fetched Joash and hid him away with his nurse in a bed-chamber. She was then somehow able to sneak him over to the Temple, where he lived with her and her husband, Jehoiada the priest (who is curiously absent from the priestly line in 1 Chron. 6) for six years while Athaliah held wore the crown.

2 Chronicles 14-16: The Rise and Fall of King Asa

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Asa gets only a fairly small section in Kings (1 Kgs 15:9-24) in which he does some religious purification, deposes the queen mother, but falls short of clearing out the high places. Despite this one little flaw, he was a true faithful throughout his whole life and brought many treasures to the Temple, then took a fair number right back out again to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into turning against his alliance with Israel. In his old age, however, he was plagued by a disease of the feet.

2 Chronicles 14-16 follows much the same plotline, but much bloated, and includes some interesting differences.

Enter Ethiopia

When Asa took the throne, we learn that he saw peace for ten years, during which he was well regarded by God, largely because of his religious intolerance. He destroyed the foreign altars and high places, broke down the pillars and Asherim, and commanded Judah to seek God and keep the commandments. He also, as it happens, built up Judah’s fortifications, raised an army of 300,000 spearmen from Judah and 280.000 archers from Benjamin, and the land prospered under his rule.

Unique to the Chronicler, we find another battle story bordering on moral tale, like the battle against Israel in 2 Chron. 13. This time, Judah fights Zerah, an Ethiopian. According to my study Bible, no such king is known outside of this passage. However, it seems that there is some evidence (including the mention of camels we will come to shortly) that suggest that Zerah may have been an Arabian king, rather than an Ethiopian one.

Zerah attacks Judah with an army of a million men and 300 chariots, making it as far as Mareshah. He is met there, at the valley of Zephathah, by Asa’s army. Asa cried out to God for help, goading him, making the conflict out to be one of the powers of man against the powers of God (2 Chron. 14:11). Yet this doesn’t seem to bother God, who hands Asa victory.

The Judahites pursue the Ethiopians as far as Gerar, in Philistine story, until there are no Ethiopians left. With the conflict over, the Judahites take to looting – plundering the cities around Gerar before destroying them, and even destroying the tents of the nomadic herders in the area, carrying away sheep, camels, and much booty. The Chronicler tells us that they did this “for the fear of the Lord was upon them” (2 Chron. 14:14), though it seems rather opportunistic. Some commentators try to excuse Asa’s actions by claiming that the Philistines had been working with the Ethiopians, though there doesn’t seem to be anything in the text to suggest this.

Further Cleansing

Asa’s religious persecutions weren’t quite done (or, perhaps, are re-narrated).

Asa encountered a prophet by the name of Azariah, son of Obed, who told him that he would be blessed so long as he doesn’t forsake God. He claims that Israel has been without the true God, without a teaching priest, and without law for a long time, but that God was found when he was sought. There had been no peace, city fought against city, nation against, nation, etc. Asa’s hands must be strong, says Azariah, for his work will be rewarded (2 Chron. 15:7).

The major trouble with this passage is that no one seems to know what it’s supposed to refer to. The obvious answer is that it refers to the reigns of Rehoboam and Abijah, with the conflict Azariah mentions being the civil war between Judah and Israel. However, the Chronicler’s account is rather kind toward Abijah, so it seems unlikely that he would add a prophecy that seems to contradict his own account.

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

Asa destroying the idols, by François de Nomé

The dominant view seems to be that it’s a reference to the more chaotic time of Judges. But that was around 100 years prior to this prophecy (assuming that the Chronicler discounts Saul, as I’m sure he’d be wont to do), so it’s hard to see the relevance here. Azariah’s speech makes it seem as though Asa is to be a turning point, so it’s hard to see why he would be talking about pre-monarchic times.

In any case, the speech seems to have the desired effect, and Asa persecutes “undesirable” religious expression with renewed vigor. He destroys all the idols in Judah and Benjamin, plus those in the communities of Ephraim that he’d managed to conquer. He was also motivated to repair the altar that was in front of the vestibule of the Temple.

Finally, he deposed the queen mother, Maacah (called his mother here, in 2 Chron. 15:16, but his grandmother, or bears the same name, according to 2 Chron. 11:20 and 1 Kgs 15:2), cutting down and burning her Asherah at the brook of Kidron. This was, by the way, Josiah’s preferred idol disposal location, too, in 2 Kgs 23:4-14. Maacah’s deposition matches 1 Kgs 15:13.

During or after all of this, Asa gathered all his people together in the 3rd month of the 15th year of his reign. They made sacrifices of the spoils they had brought (by context, this would presumably be from the conflict with Zerah, which would have occurred 5 years prior, according to 2 Chron. 14:1). They confirmed the covenant, and decided that anyone who doesn’t seek God should be put to death, no matter who they may be.

Contrary to 2 Chron. 14:2-5, Asa was not able to rid Israel (presumably using the name to refer to Judah, the true Israel, as elsewhere) of all its high places. This is in keeping with 1 Kgs 15:14, where this was seen as great Asa’s only flaw. One possible explanation rests with the word “foreign” in 2 Chron. 14:3. The idea being that Asa was able to rid Judah of the shrines to foreign gods, but not the many local shrines of YHWH. In other words, we may have evidence of the faith’s evolution, and of the Chronicler’s anachronistic judgement.

Despite this one little failing, we are told that Asa was utterly blameless throughout his reign, though this will, as we shall soon see, prove false. He brought many votive gifts to the Temple, and for the 35 years under Asa, there was no more war (excluding the Ethiopians, I’m sure).

The Troublesome Baasha

Despite the claims of 2 Chron. 15:17, things soon change for Asa.

In Asa’s 36th year, King Baasha of Israel launched an attack on Judah. This presents us with a problem, since 1 Kgs 15:33 has Baasha’s reign ending in Asa’s 27th year, and 1 Kgs 16:8 has it ending in Asa’s 26th. This isn’t a contradiction, since it’s easy enough to be off by one when counting years, but it puts Asa’s 36th year right out of the running. James Bradford Pate proposes a few possible fudgings, but I think the most likely explanation is that there’s simply been an error somewhere. 1 Kgs 15 avoids the issue by omitting a date reference.

Baasha built Ramah to box Judah in, laying siege to the whole nation. Asa took silver and gold from the Temple and palace treasuries (despite being noted for putting money in to the Temple treasuries) to bribe King Benhadad of Syria into breaking his alliance with Baasha.

Benhadad is convinced, and he sends his armies against Israel instead of supporting Israel against Judah, conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelmaim, and all the store-cities of Naphtali. Baasha retreats, abandoning Ramah and leaving it open to scavenging from Asa, who took its stones and timber in his own building projects, this time in Geba and Mizpah.

The Chronicler adds a story about Hanani the seer, who approached Asa to condemn him for turning to Syria instead of God. Had God not helped Asa in the battle against the Ethioians (and, apparently, Lybians)? Because of Asa’s poor choice of allies, Judah will henceforth suffer wars.

Asa, blaming the messenger, threw Hanani in prison. According to the text, this was not the only cruelty he inflicted on his people. Such a rapid turnabout seems unlikely. It seems, rather, that the Chronicler didn’t care much about Asa’s cruelties so long as he trusted in God to manage his military affairs.

Conclusion

For the rest of Asa’s story, we are directed to the non-extant Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel.

In the 39th year of his reign, Asa suffered from a disease in his feet. This corresponds to 1 Kgs 15:23, though in the Chronicler’s version, Asa sinned in this, too, by seeking out physicians rather than turning to God. I’m sure this passage gets its use in arguments in favour of faith healing which, I think, I needn’t say is rather troubling, even if consulting a physician at the time might well have been the worse idea (what with the state of ancient medicine).

Finally, Asa died in his 41st year, and was buried in a tomb he had hewn out for himself in the city of David. He was laid out on a bier that had been spiced and performed, and they lit a great fire in his honour. I found the amount of detail on the funerary arrangements rather interesting, given that they are so infrequent.

I see no explanation for the Chronicler’s contradiction of the 1 Kgs 15 account of Asa’s life (as well as 2 Chron. 15:17). I don’t understand why the Chronicler chose to save Abijah/Abijam’s reputation in 2 Chron. 13, and to tarnish Asa’s reputation here.

2 Kings 8: The Expedient

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We return to the narrative of the Shunammite woman, here identified instead by her relationship to The Boy Who Lived. Elisha is again showing her some special favour by warning her of a coming famine that would last seven years. Following his advice, she packs up her family and moves to Philistia to wait out the disaster.

At the end of the seven years, the family returns and the woman appeals to the king of Israel (still unnamed) for the restoration of her house and lands. As luck would have it (or perhaps it was orchestrated by Elisha), she happens to arrive just as Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, is telling the king of Israel all about her son’s miraculous resurrection. She is able to confirm the story and, awed, the king not only restores all her stuff, he even backdates it to the time she left Israel.

Gehazi’s leprosy (acquired in 2 Kgs 5:27) isn’t mentioned here. Commentaries mostly seem to explain this by assuming that the stories are presented out of order, and that the healing of Naaman has not yet occurred. It could also be a simple omission on the narrator’s part, or it could be that the two stories come from separate traditions (one of which does not include a leprous Gehazi).

However, I noticed that the description of Gehazi’s skin as being “white as snow” sounded familiar and, sure enough, it is the same description used of Miriam’s leprosy in Numbers 12:10. In Miriam’s case, her condition only seems to have lasted for seven days (or less). It’s possible, then, that the disease referred to was a short-lived one (perhaps infection, so that Gehazi caught it from Naaman), and that Gehazi’s skin condition had cleared up prior to this chapter. This would, however, appear to conflict with Elisha’s curse that the condition would affect Gehazi’s descendants as well, unless he simply means that they would all contract a bout of it at some point.

That said, given the possibility of different traditions or the stories simply being out of order, it’s unnecessary to look quite so far for an explanation.

Another thing I noticed about this story is that the property is described as belonging to the Shunammite woman, and the king of Israel restores it to her. In fact, her husband is not mentioned at all in this chapter. It’s possible that she is a widow by this time (her husband is described as old in 2 Kgs 4:14), though she’s never referred to as such.

Benhadad’s Illness

In 2 Kgs 1:2-4, Ahaziah, the king of Israel, was ill. Wanting to know if he would recover, he sent messengers out to Ekron to ask the god Baalzebub after his fate. Here, we get something of a reversal. It is Benhadad, the king of Syria, who is ill, and he sends out a messenger to ask YHWH if he will recover.

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Ashurnasirpal II, British Museum, London

Taking advantage of the fact that Elisha is in Damascus, Benhadad sends out Hazael with gifts. Elisha predicts that Benhadad will recover from his illness, but he is still fated to die. There is a difficult passage in here where it seems that Elisha stares at Hazael until Hazael is ashamed, or perhaps Elisha and Hazael stare at each other until Elisha is ashamed, or Hazael stares at Elisha until Elisha is ashamed, or… you get the point. It’s a nice bout of the pronoun game that unnecessarily complicates the passage. At the end, Elisha begins to weep.

Hazael asks why Elisha is weeping, and the latter responds that Hazael will do some really awful things to Israel. Hazael seems confused, and asks how someone of his status could possibly manage to do that. Elisha then reveals that Hazael will become king of Syria. When Hazael returns to his king, he relates only that Benhadad will recover from his illness. The next day, however, he suffocates Benhadad in his bed and declares himself king.

There’s some question here about what’s going on: Was Hazael going to kill Benhadad all along (which would make sense of the earlier passage, if Elisha sees the future and stares at Hazael, who feels some shame at what he’d been planning), or did Elisha plant the idea in Hazael’s mind (and therefore was himself ashamed at what he was about to do)? Some commentaries argue that God wanted to punish Israel and had decided to use Hazael for that purpose (which would fit with 1 Kgs 19:14-18), yet needed Elisha to nudge Hazael to make it happen.

We also see some more of the odd conflation of Elijah and Elisha. In 1 Kgs 19:15, God commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael king of Syria – which he never did (at least not that was narrated). Yet it seems that Elisha is, if not anointing, at least announcing Hazael’s social ascent.

Interestingly, it seems that King Shalmaneser III of Assyria wrote about Hazael’s usupring of the Syrian crown, describing him as the “son of a nobody” (meaning someone outside of the dynastic line). No mention is made of the method, though.

Dynastic Details

We return to the dynastic records with Jehoram, who took the crown of Judah in the fifth year of Israel’s Joram (Joram being a variation of Jehoram, clearly employed to make this confusing chronology slightly less so). The record here seems to agree with 2 Kgs 3:1, though not with 2 Kgs 1:17 (unless, as I’ve mentioned previously, we write in a co-reign). He was 32 years and ruled for 8 years (a figure that apparently varies quite a bit between versions, like as beleaguered scribes tried to make all the dates match).

Our author has a dim view of Jehoram, largely, it seems, because of his marriage to Ahab’s daughter. Still, he stayed his hand against Judah for David’s sake.

While Jehoram’s greatest fault seems to be his marriage, it was also during his reign that Judah lost control over Edom and Libnah. It seems that King Joram of Israel tried to take advantage of the situation by going after Edom for himself (or perhaps he was trying to help Judah put down the rebellion). Unfortunately for him, he was overwhelmed by the Edomite forces. He managed to fight his way free, but by then his army had already routed.

After Jehoram came Ahaziah, ascending in the twelfth year of Joram of Israel. He was twenty-two years old, and reigned for only one year. His mother was Athaliah, listed here as the granddaughter of Omri, presumably the daughter of Ahab who married Jehoram. Our narrator wasn’t a fan of Ahaziah either, and for the same reason that he disliked his father – his close relationship with the kings of Israel (in this case by parentage rather than marriage).

The only note we get here about Ahaziah’s single year as king is that he fought against King Hazael of Syria alongside King Joram of Israel. During the conflict, Joram was injured at Ramoth-gilead, and Ahaziah went to visit him while he was recovering in Jezreel.

1 Kings 15-16: A House Divided

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The following chapters take us into the first few decades after the deaths of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Important dates are given as references to the Xth year of the other half’s king’s reign – an interesting relational dating system that could only work in a divided monarchy. By necessity, this means that we skip around in the chronology a little. The story begins in Judah for Abijam and Asa, then moves up into Israel for Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab.

Abijam

Abijam came to power in the 18th year of Jeroboam’s reign, and ruled a total of three years. His mother was Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom, who seems to be identified by some with Absalom, making Maacah David’s granddaughter.

Of Abijam’s reign, we’re told only that he failed to live up to David’s greatness – though at least here, for once, the narrator admits that David’s greatness was slightly complicated by that whole Uriah business (1 Kgs 15:5). We also learn that hostilities continued between Israel and Judah during his reign, with the rather out-of-place verse: “Now there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam all the days of his life” (1 Kgs 15:6). It may be possible to explain away by seeing Rehoboam as a reference to his family rather than to the individual, but this seems a stretch. Given that the wording is very similar to 1 Kgs 14:30 and that the verse is not found here in the Septuagint, it seems likely that it’s inclusion here was in error.

No information is given about the circumstances of Abijam’s death, but he only ruled for three years.

Asa

Asa gets the best assessment of anyone in these two chapters. He is crowned king in the 20th year of Jeroboam and ruled for a rather impressive forty-one years. Weirdly, though he is described as Abijam’s son, his mother is also Maacah, the daughter of Abishalom. Either this is an extraordinary coincidence, terribly incestuous, or there’s an error somewhere – it could be that Maacah’s name is duplicated, or that Asa and Abijam were brothers.

The narrator’s principal definition of an awesome king is that Asa cracked down a bit on non-approved cultic practices. Namely, he put away the male cultic prostitutes (no word on the female ones), and removed his mother from her position as Queen Mother because she had commissioned an Asherah – which Asa had cut down and burned. He also brought votive gifts to the Temple, both his own and some from his father. His only failing was that he didn’t take down the high places.

During Asa’s reign, the king of Israel – Baasha, whom we’ll learn about shortly – built Ramah, barring the border between the two nations and apparently serving a defensive function. Given its proximity to Jerusalem (about 8km, or 4 miles), this may have been an aggressive structure as well, or at least perceived as such. In response, Asa took all the silver and gold from both Temple and palace treasuries, and brought it to King Benhadad of Syria. It seems that Benhadad had been supporting Baasha, but he was successfully bribed to switch sides – conquering Ijon, Dan, Abelbethmaacah, all of Chinneroth, and all of Naphtali.

Defeated, Baasha stopped building Ramah. It’s also implied that, as a consequence of this defeat, he dwelt in Tirzah – suggesting that perhaps he was building Ramah with the intention of moving Israel’s capitol there and had to retreat back to Tirzah, which we know from 1 Kgs 14:17 was the current capitol. Once Baasha had retreated, Asa ordered all of Judah (“none was exempt” – 1 Kgs 15:22) to carry away the stones and timber of Ramah, using them instead to build Geba in Benjamin and Mizpah. It seems that few lessons were learned regarding the dangers of conscription.

In his old age, Asa suffered from diseased feet, which my New Bible Commentary speculates may have been dropsy (p.340). After his death, he was succeeded by his son, Jehoshaphat.

Israel

Nadab

Back in Israel, Jeroboam was succeeded by his son, Nadab, in the second year of Asa’s reign. The narrator found him unworthy, and so, apparently, did others. He only managed to rule for two years before Baasha, the son of Ahijah of Issachar, revolted and killed Nadab at Gibbethon. It’s not spelled out, but since we are told that Gibbethon belonged to Philistia, it seems probable that Baasha took advantage of the battle to turn on his king.

Baasha

Baasha was crowned in the third year of Asa’s reign, and his first act as king was to slaughter all the remaining members of Jeroboam’s house – not an uncommon practice when trying to found a new dynasty. He ruled a total of twenty-four years, with Tirzah as his capitol. Of course, our narrator was no fan.

During Baasha’s reign, there was a new prophet: Jehu, son of Hanani. He was no fan of Baasha either. He prophesies that God is displeased that Baasha is no better than his predecessors and, as punishment, will see his house utterly destroyed.

Elah

In the 26th year of Asa, Elah inherited the crown of Israel from his father. Unfortunately, his reign was troubled from the start. While he was getting plastered, Zimri – the commander of half of Elah’s chariots – murdered him. It seems significant that Zimri commanded only half of the chariots – I’m not sure if this would have been common practice, or if this is meant to signify that there were already divisions happening.

Either way, Elah was deposed in the 27th year of Asa.

Zimri

While clearly a go-getter, Zimri failed to get all his ducks in a row before taking the crown through murder. After only seven days, during which he just barely had time to murder every male kin and friend of Baasha’s dynasty, he fell.

Elah’s troops had been encamped at Gibbethon, perhaps continuing the conflict that saw Nadab’s death. When they heard of Elah’s murder, they made their commander, Omri, king. Omri brought the army back to Tirzah and besieged the city. Clearly seeing that he wasn’t going to hold on to the power he’d only just taken, Zimri set the citadel of the king’s house on fire, with himself inside.

Just as a point of interest, the term used for the men associated with Baasha’s dynasty in 1 Kgs 16:11 in the King James Bible is “one that pisseth against a wall.” This is, apparently, how men are to be defined by people who clearly never met a woman who does a lot of hiking or camping.

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Amri, by Guillaume Rouille, 1553

Omri

Despite having the support of the soldiers under his command, Omri’s transition was not particularly smooth. Half of Israel followed Tibni, son of Ginath. While Omri defeated Tibni, the fact that Zimri’s rise and fall occured in the 27th year of Asa yet Omri’s reign is not said to have begun until the 31st year of Asa, it seems that the conflict between the two men lasted four years.

We’re told that Omri reigned a total of twelve years, six of which were in Tirzah. Yet to make the numbers of work, four of those years would have been the years of civil war, giving him only two solid years in Tirzah. After that, he bought land from a man named Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on it the city of Samaria. Not only was this the new capitol of Israel, Israel itself soon came to be known as Samaria.

Despite the text’s assessment of Omri as evil, he seems to have been quite important. From Micah 6:16, it seems that he was known for instituting some kind of legal reform, though no details are preserved. Omri is also the first Hebrew king for which we have direct non-biblical evidence:

The Moabite Stone, which was discovered in 1868, tells of the conflict between Mesha, king of Moab, and Omri, who humbled Moab for many years but was eventually defeated (ANET, 321). The inscription is remarkable for the similarty it shows between the religion of Moab and that of Israel. Mesha acts at the behest of his god, Chemosh, just as the Israelites act at the behest of YHWH. Most remarkable is that Mesha boasts of having slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Nebo, “for I had devoted them to destruction for (the god) Ashtar-Chemosh.” Omri’s son, Ahab, is mentioned in the Monolith Inscription of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser as having contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers to an Aramean coalition that halted an Assyrian advance (ANET, 279). Assyrian records continued to refer to Israel as “the house of Omri” long after Omri’s descendants had ceased to rule. Omri and Ahab were kings to be reckoned with. There is much more evidence outside the Bible for their power and influence than was the case with Solomon. (Collins, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137,138)

Ahab

In the 38th year of Asa, Omri was succeeded by his son, Ahab. Though described by the text as just the absolute worst, Ahab seems to have been able to maintain a bit of stability in the unstable nation of Israel, ruling for an impressive twenty-two years. He was married to a woman named Jezebel, whose name should be familiar to any cultural Christian. She was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia and, through her, Ahab came to serve Baal. Not only does he make an Asherah, he also builds a temple for Baal in Samaria. As in the case of his father, we have an independent attestation of Ahab’s existence.

Somewhat out of place in this narrative, we get a note about a man named Hiel of Bethel who rebuilt Jericho. We’re told that the foundation of the city came at the cost of his first-born son, Abiram, and that the gates were built at the cost of his youngest son, Segub. This is all, says the narrative, a fulfilment of Joshua’s prophecy, given in Joshua 6:29. The most charitable reading has the two boys either having their deaths attributed to the construction (as we saw Bathsheba’s first son’s death attributed to David’s sin in 2 Samuel 12), or perhaps both sons assisted in the construction and died accidentally. There’s no reason to assume that Joshua’s prophecy predicted a future event, as opposed to Joshua’s prophecy, written after the events, describing events that it full well knew would come later when Jericho was rebuilt.

A third possibility, and perhaps the likeliest, was that these were ritual killings, human sacrifices intended to bless the construction. These sorts of sacrifices (both human and animal) have been found in much of the world, and knowledge of them survived in folk mythology even longer (as we see in this German legend). The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying quotes a book by Nigel Davies:

In the sanctuary in Gezer were found two burnt skeletons of six-year-old children and the skulls of two adolescents that had been sawn in two. At Meggido a girl of fifteen had been killed and buried in the foundations of a large structure. Excavations show that the practice of interring children under new buildings was widespread and some were evidently buried alive. (Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice in History and Today. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1981, p. 61)

1 Samuel 28: The Witch of Endor

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When last we left our heroes, David was working as a sort of raider-in-chief for the Philistine king Achish while Saul remains (for the time being) the king of the Israelites. This poses an obvious problem for David, as the Philistines and Israelites have long been enemies. So far, David has managed to avoid conflict by only raiding non-Israelites and lying about it. The ruse couldn’t last forever, however, and King Achish summons David to join his army as he marches out to meet the Israelites. David accepts the summons.

As a reward for his loyalty, Achish makes David his bodyguard for life.

So with David about to fight against his own people (if he felt any hesitation, the narrative doesn’t tell us about it). Leaving a rather major cliffhanger, the narrative veers off into a digression.

Meeting the witch

In accordance with Exodus 22:18, Saul has rather thoroughly been going after witches (or mediums, wizards, necromancers, seers – whatever term the translator decides to use).

Unfortunately, when God stops speaking to Saul by any sanctioned means – through dreams, the Urim, or through prophets – he gets a little desperate and heads off to Endor to meet with one of the few remaining witches.

The Witch of Endor, by Nikolay Ge, 1857

The Witch of Endor, by Nikolay Ge, 1857

Saul hides his identity when he goes to her, and his reasoning is obvious when she baulks at his request. She is afraid that Saul will find out and she will be danger. Saul presses her and she finally agrees.

When he requests that she raise Samuel, however, she figures out who he is. Even so, she raises Samuel (apparently the real Samuel, as he retains his ability to prophesy).

Saul explains his problem to the Samuel-shade: The Philistines are moving against Israel but God is silent. My New Bible Commentary explains the possible issue a little more thoroughly: “His problem was that the Philistine armies were resorting to a new strategy; hitherto they had fought in the hills, where their more sophisticated weapons gave them little advantage, and where the Israelites were on familiar terrain. But now they marched into the plain of Jezreel, keeping to level ground, and threatened to cut off Saul from the northern group of tribes” (p.301).

Predictably, Samuel is as acrimonious as ever. It’s unclear why Saul expected death to improve his relationship with the prophet! So, of course, Samuel goes on about how God is giving Saul the silent treatment because he’s mad at him – apparently specifically for his failure to deploy his full wrath contingent against the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15.

Samuel then tells Saul what he already knows – that David has been chosen as his successor. Then he finishes up by predicting that Saul and his sons will die the next day (when David is slated to fight against him!).

Saul, exhausted from fasting (perhaps part of the summoning ritual?), collapses. The witch forces him to eat (insisting after Saul’s initial refusal), then Saul and his companions leave.

The complicated witch

Despite how frequently the text has forbidden people from consulting mediums (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10-12) and even the prohibition from allowing mediums to live (Ex. 22:18), the actual depiction of the witch of Endor is very sympathetic.

She is cast almost as one of Saul’s victims. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the text here, but when we read about Saul’s campaign to exterminate the mediums and the witch’s fear of him, it certainly seemed that Saul is the one playing bogeyman.

Even in the end, when Saul collapses, the witch shows great compassion in feeding him before sending him off.

Cultic confusion

I also noted the mention of the Urim in 1 Sam. 28:6 (one of the methods by which God is refusing to talk to Saul). Does this mean that Saul has his own Urim/Thummim? Up until this point, I had been under the impression that they were unique objects that were kept and used by the current high priest (which would be Abiathar).

So this detail suggests that perhaps the objects were, if not common, at least not unique. Perhaps it also suggests that David and Saul each had their own high priest at this time.

Or perhaps the Urim is only mentioned as being silent to Saul because he currently has no access to it (it being with David). This is always a possibility.

1 Samuel 25: Uppity women

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Before getting into the main story, we find out that Samuel is dead. The delivery is every bit as brutal in the text, too, though I apologize to anyone who had gotten attached.

Of his death, we are told only that it happened, that the people grieved, and that he was buried in his house at Ramah. My study Bible notes simply, “the brevity of the obituary is surprising” (p. 365). No kidding.

My New Bible Commentary wonders if the note might not have been added to make a theological point, noting that it occurs right after Saul acknowledges that David will succeed him as king of Israel. From this perspective, Samuel’s death serves to punctuate that story, declaring Samuel’s mission to find a proper king for Israel officially over.

David in the wilderness

For the rest of the chapter, we return to David’s adventures in the wilderness. He is now holed up in the wilderness of Paran or, perhaps, the wilderness of Maon (the Septuagint reading). My study Bible notes that the latter is more plausible, as Paran would put David too far south.

How David manages to keep his 600 followers fed is something of a mystery. My study Bible emphasises that the area would have been quite arid, though 600 is a lot of mouths to feed even for lush ground. It helps to explain why he has been moving so much. It’s also worth keeping in mind as we try to understand the story of his interaction with Nabal.

David and Abigail, by Joseph Schonmann

David and Abigail, by Joseph Schonmann

So David is hanging out in the wilderness with his 600 followers, and he’s doing something. He and some other people in the story claim that he’s a sort of Robin Hood figure, just hanging out and protecting shepherds from wannabe bandits. Take the fancy speeches out, however, and a rather different picture is painted.

David sends ten messengers out to a wealthy shepherd by the name of Nabal. It’s in the middle of sheep shearing, apparently a festival time, and David wants his followers fed. Nabal, whose name means something like “fool”, refuses. He asks who is this David who makes such a claim of him – “There are many servants nowadays who are breaking away from their masters” (1 Sam. 25:10). Why should he feed David’s followers when he has his own to feed?

When the messengers report back to David, he is furious. One interpretation has him angry because the laws of hospitality have been violated – a tremendous insult. Another suggests that perhaps David is a bandit leader and this is how he’s keeping his followers fed. Either way, he orders 400 of his followers to arm up, leaving the remaining 200 to guard their stuff, and marches out. His intention is to kill every male under Nabal’s authority (presumably meaning both livestock and people). Hilariously, the King James Version has the euphemism “any that pisseth against the wall” (1 Sam. 25:22) in place of “male.” Apparently, this is a defining characteristic of masculinity!

Meanwhile, Nabal’s wife, Abigail, hears about the messengers. Unlike her foolish husband, she is “of good understanding and beautiful” (1 Sam. 25:3). Without telling her husband, she quickly pulls together a feast and rushes out to meet David.

When she reaches him, she throws herself at his feet and brown noses for 8 verses straight. She assumes the guilt in the incident because her husband is a total nincompoop and she failed to hear of David’s messengers sooner – an interesting argument, to be sure. During her speech, she references God appointing David “prince over Israel” (1 Sam. 25:30) in the future, suggesting (perhaps an unintentional anachronism) that David’s bid for the crown was broadly known.

David thanks her for staying his hand and preventing him from taking on the bloodguilt of murdering all the wall pissers.

When Abigail returns home, she finds Nabal partying and drunk, and she decides not to tell him about what she’s done (and the danger he was so recently in). The next morning, once he’s sobered up a little, Abigail tells him and his “heart died within him, and he became as a stone” (1 Sam. 25:37) – suggesting some kind of stroke – and he conveniently dies ten days later. David gives thanks to God for getting the foolish Nabal out of the way and sends in a petition for Abigail’s hand in marriage. She accepts.

Overshadowed by such a great “first meeting” story, David also marries a woman from Jezreel named Ahinoam. We are told that he technically has only two wives at this point because Saul has married Michal off to Palti, son of Laish (much as he did Michal’s sister in 1 Sam. 18:19).

1 Samuel 20: David finally figures out that Saul doesn’t like him

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Chapter 20 feels awkward following the last few chapters, despite the note in the first verse telling us that the events take place after David’s escape to Naioth. The chapter makes far more sense if we assume that it came from a separate tradition, one in which David only suspects that Saul has turned against him.

My New Bible Commentary, which frequently argues against the multi-source hypothesis, tries to explain away the oddity by casting this chapter as an attempt to convince Jonathan of the threat:

Certainly after the events of ch. 19 David can have been in no real doubt as to Saul’s intentions; but this chapter does not in fact suggest that he had – rather to the contrary (v. 3). It was Jonathan who could not believe it of his father (v. 2). (p.298)

Which sort of works. We could read it as Jonathan believing that 1 Sam. 19:6 ended the matter, naively believing that his father has passed through his wanting to kill David phase. But then we have to believe that what follows – with Saul tossing a spear at David and David escaping and all the assassins – happened without Jonathan’s knowledge. The same Jonathan who confidently declares in 1 Sam. 20:2 that his father tells him absolutely everything.

The result, then, of accepting the New Bible Commentary‘s view is seeing Jonathan as an absolute naif.

Which seems to fit the portrayal of him in this chapter, honestly. When David asks Jonathan what he’s done for Saul to want to kill him, Jonathan tells him not to worry because he won’t die. And I’m just like, that wasn’t the question, you fool. (Allowing, of course, for translation and rhetoric.)

Jonathan’s reasoning is that Saul tells him everything, so he will know if Saul is plotting to kill David. David, however, isn’t so sure. Saul knows that the two of them are buddies, he argues. The implication being that he might control the outflow of information in Jonathan’s presence as a result. “Truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death” (1 Sam. 20:3).

The Plan

David and Jonathan come up with a plan to prove, once and for all, whether Saul is trying to kill David. David will go into hiding for three days. If, during that time, Saul asks after him, Jonathan is to say that he’d asked permission to go to Bethlehem for a sacrifice – a family affair. Interestingly, this is the same cover Samuel gave in 1 Sam. 16:2-3 to avoid arousing suspicion when going to anoint David.

If Saul accepts the explanation, David will know that it’s safe to return to court. If, however, Saul is angry, they will know that he is determined to do bad things to David. Because, apparently, two spear-throwing incidents weren’t evidence enough.

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

Their conversation continues and Jonathan again answers the wrong question. They plan a communication system to allow Jonathan to get news to David without arousing suspicion, then they renew their vows to each other. In the midst of it, Jonathan says: “should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan, and more also” (1 Sam. 20:13). I haven’t read ahead, but this sounds like some major foreshadowing.

On the first night of David’s hiding, Saul notices his absence at dinner. He figures that David must have accidentally become ritually unclean and shrugs it off. On the second night, however, he becomes suspicious (as we read in Exodus-Deuteronomy, most instances of uncleanliness are purged by evening, so the explanation doesn’t hold up over a second day).

He asks Jonathan where David is, and Jonathan gives the planned excuse about the sacrifice in Bethlehem. Saul becomes slightly irritated, calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse, rebellious woman” (1 Sam. 20:30), going on to say: “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”

If we take the view that David and Jonathan don’t just like each other but like like each other, it seems that this could be a reference to that. Another possibility is that Saul is recognizing David as competition for the crown – Jonathan’s competition. So long as Jonathan is on Team David, “neither you not your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam. 20:31). The “shame” he speaks of, then, would be of turning against the interests of his family by not pursuing the creation of a dynasty.

To punctuate his argument, Saul then throws a spear at his son.

This is a guy who is apparently known for throwing spears at people, as he did so in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, then again in 1 Sam. 19:10. You’d think there’d be a point (no pun intended) where people would just refuse to be in a room with Saul if he has a spear nearby.

In accordance with their plan, Jonathan heads out to the field and fires an arrow, directing his servant to fetch it in the way that would tell David that it is most definitely not safe for him.

Despite all the secret signals, they end up meeting up and having a long chat anyway, during which they re-confirm their bond, kiss, and cry a lot.

Not that both times Jonathan has saved David so far, it has involved David hiding in a field (1 Sam. 19:1-3).

 

1 Samuel 19: Far-falling apples

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Saul makes no secret of his desire to kill David. He tells all his servant, and even his son, Jonathan. Jonathan, you’ll remember, is the guy who’s knit his soul to David’s, so this turns out to be a pretty bad idea on Saul’s part.

Again, we are told of Jonathan’s special relationship with David. In this case, he “delighted much in David” (1 Sam. 19:1). Abbie at Better Than Esdras scanned through the text for other uses of “delighted,” and did find it used in a sexual (albeit generally non-consensual) manner. However, it is also used in Num. 14:8 to express God’s feelings toward the chosen people.

Abbie’s final conclusion is:

In the context, I read Jonathan “choosing” David as an analogy to YHWH “choosing” the Israelites – Jonathan pledges his devotion to David, because he’s goddamn King David. They form a covenant, just as YHWH and the Israelites had a covenant.

Regardless, it’s clear that Jonathan cares for David, so of course he spills the beans and instructs David to hide while Jonathan tries to change Saul’s mind. He is successful, and Saul promises that “as the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death” (1 Sam. 19:6). David is returned to court and everyone lived happily ever after. Or did they?

David must still die

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

Saul throwing his spear, by Constantin Hansen

War breaks out again, and David heads out to kill the Philistines. Meanwhile, the evil spirit comes back to Saul, so he sits in his house with a spear in his hand. This time, Saul isn’t simply flying into a rage. Quite the opposite, in fact, as he is able to wait with intent until David’s return. So perhaps his evil spirit is violent paranoid delusion? David plays the lyre, Saul throws the spear at him, and as in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, David evades him. At least it was only the one spear this time, and at least this time David has the good sense to flee.

He doesn’t flee very far, however, as he apparently just goes home. Saul, really intent on killing David this time, sends “messengers” (who really seem more like assassins) to wait outside David’s house, hoping to kill him in the morning.

David’s wife, Michal, knows that they are there, however, and sends David out the window. She then makes a dummy in his bed, using a teraphim, a term that is elsewhere used to refer to household gods, and what appears to be a pillow made with goat hair to stand in the place of David’s head. I see murmurings that Michal’s possession of a teraphim marks her as an idolater, but I think that there are a few issues with this: Firstly, the text describes the location as David’s house. If she has a teraphim, so does David. Secondly, why couldn’t the same term be used to refer to a decorative statue? Michal is a princess, so it stands to reason that her home might include some decorative statues. Either way, the trick is so classic that it has it’s own entry on TV Tropes.

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

When Saul sends in the assassin to take David, Michal refuses him, claiming that, like Ferris Bueller, David is ill. Saul persists, however, and his assassin demands to see David’s bed. He does not, unfortunately, attempt to stab the dummy, but rather recognizes it immediately as a fake. Michal’s excuse is that David said to her, “Let me go; why should I kill you?” (1 Sam. 19:17), which I take to mean that she is claiming that he threatened her, even though the plan was clearly her idea. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take from this that Michal is merely covering her own butt now that David is safely away, or if we’re supposed to slot Michal into the liar category.

It’s notable that this chapter shows two of Saul’s children defecting, choosing to be loyal to David instead. If we assume that at least some of the sources going into 1 Samuel are propagandistic, having Saul’s own children reject him in favour of the competition is a pretty obvious move.

What happens in Ramah

Having escaped, David heads to Samual at Ramah. He tells him all that has happened, and the two go to live at Naioth (which, from the context, is apparently a district of Ramah).

Saul finds out where David is and sends his messenger assassins. When they arrive, they are met by a company of prophesying prophets with Samuel leading them. The assassins are overtaken by the spirit of God and begin prophesying. This likely refers to an ecstatic form of worship, something like speaking in tongues. From the description in 1 Samuel 10:10-13, these guys seem like a rather wild bunch, what with all the music and such.

Saul sends a second group of assassins, but they join the prophets as well. As does the third group. Finally, Saul decides to take matters into his own hands, and he comes down to Ramah. When he arrives, the spirit of God comes upon him too, and he also begins prophesying. In fact, the party gets so wild that “he too stripped off his clothes” (1 Sam. 19:24) and he lies naked all day and night. Because of this, it was said of him: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 19:24). This story was clearly an alternative explanation for what appears to have been a common saying, as it so directly mirrors the one in 1 Sam. 10:12.

For those keeping track of sources differences, this story conflicts with 1 Sam. 15:35, in which we are told that Samuel and Saul separate and never see each other again. Harmonizers may take comfort in the fact that 1 Sam. 19 never explicitly states that Saul and Samuel see each other, it is merely implied.

1 Samuel 16: The boy with the beautiful eyes

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One of my most vivid memories of Sunday School as a child was colouring in a picture of of little boy David standing on a hilltop with his flock of sheep. Now, finally, we meet shepherd boy David!

At the end of the last chapter, God had removed his protection from Saul’s reign. Now, God tells Samuel to dry his tears and fill up his oil horn, ’cause Saul’s replacement is in Bethlehem.

Samuel, however, isn’t so sure that he wants to make the journey. Understandably, he fears the repercussions if Saul finds out that he is gallivanting around anointing overthrowers. So God provides him with a cover story – he is to bring a heifer along, so he can tell anyone who asks that he is going to make a sacrifice (though it isn’t clear why he would be choosing that location in particular).

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue, Syria

Samuel anointing David, Dura-Europos Synagogue, Syria

For reasons that aren’t stated, the elders of Bethlehem are terrified of Samuel. They meet him “trembling” (1 Sam. 16:4), asking if he comes in peace. There’s no given reason for the elders to be afraid. I might have thought that, given the new animosity between Samuel and Saul, they might be afraid that Samuel’s presence might cause problems. But their question, “Do you come peaceably?” (1 Sam. 16:4) suggests that it is Samuel himself that they fear.

According to God, the chosen one is one of Jesse the Bethlehemite’s sons. Samuel goes to Jesse and has him parade his sons before him.

When the first comes out, Samuel is wowed. He is certain that Eliab must be the new king. But God tells him not to judge a book by its cover, or “the height of his stature” (1 Sam. 16:7).

Seven sons in total are presented, but God rejects them all. Perhaps confused, Samuel asks if there might not be some more sons hidden away somewhere. Jesse confesses that that the youngest remains, but he is out tending sheep. I suppose this is meant to highlight David’s humbleness, that even when the running was down to just eight people, he was still not considered to have enough of a chance to be brought in. Once again, we see the point made that God is choosing the leaders, that they are not – like Abimelech – seeking out power for themselves.

David is fetched. He is a “ruddy” boy with “beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12). God gives a nod and Samuel anoints him. His job done, Samuel heads back to Ramah.

As with Saul in 1 Sam. 9, David’s name isn’t revealed until the last possibly moment. Even though the intended audience almost certainly knew who the story was about, the technique adds a slight suspense (or, at least, the humour of knowing that suspense is intended).

Saul’s illness

The scene changes and we come to Saul. The spirit of God has left him and, in their place, God sent him an evil spirit that torments him. The description is of episodes or fits, so it could be something like epilepsy.

His servants recommend finding a musician who can play through Saul’s fits, perhaps to calm him. Another servant says that he has heard of a particularly fine musician, a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. I think you can guess who he has in mind.

Despite the Sunday School colouring picture of the young boy barely able to hold up his shepherd’s crook, this David is described as “skilful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence” (1 Sam. 16:18). It could be that this description was earned after the spirit of the God came into David, though, since there’s no indication of the passage of time.

Saul is impressed by his new musician, and quickly makes him armour-bearer.

Christopher Rollston provides some other examples of stories from the Near East in which kings – particularly kings who took power by suspicious means – who were chosen for their kingship by their respective gods. Whether or not David overthrew Saul, the fact remains that Saul failed to establish a dynasty and David took over. Tongues wag in a situation like that.

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.

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