1 Kings 14: Punish the good

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The chapter begins with a story about Jeroboam’s domestic life, of course used as yet another rant about the evils of idolatry. According to my New Bible Commentary, this passage is absent from the Septuagint, “but fragments are found in the extra passage in LXX 12:24a-n” (p.338). There’s a further explanation given by the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, hosted by BibleHub.

When Jeroboam’s son, Abijah, falls ill, Jeroboam sends his unnamed wife in disguise to consult with the prophet Ahijah – the same prophet who announced Jeroboam’s subsequent rise to power in 1 Kings 11:29-39. He may have selected Ahijah in the hopes that, given their history together, Ahijah would have made a favourable pronouncement (though where this sits with God’s well versus human magic is unclear).

But that wouldn’t explain why he sent his wife in disguise. Claude Mariottini offers one possible explanation:

A possible reason Jeroboam sent his wife was because he was afraid of what the prophet would say about his religious apostasy. Thus, he sent his wife disguised as a poor woman with a humble gift in order to gain a more favorable judgment from the prophet.

Of course, as is so common in our text, rationales are not forthcoming. And even when they are, they tend to confuse rather than clarify.

The unnamed wife brings along an offering – payment for the interview. Before she arrives, however, God tips Ahijah off and, despite the fact that he is old and blind, he recognises her based on the sound of her footsteps alone.

Jeroboam sets up two golden calves, from the Bible Historiale, 1372

Jeroboam sets up two golden calves, from the Bible Historiale, 1372

He tells her how disappointed God is that Jeroboam didn’t prove himself to be as wonderful as David. God accuses Jeroboam, via his wife, of making other gods, molten images, and Asherim – the first we’ve heard of it – and, in retribution, God will bring evil down on Israel. Jeroboam will lose his dynasty, his people who die in cities will be eaten by dogs and his people who die in the country will be eaten by birds.

Ahijah sends the woman home, telling her that her son will die as soon as she returns and that he will be the only one to receive a proper burial – because “in him there is found something pleasing to the Lord” (1 Kgs 14:13). After that, Israel will be uprooted and scattered.

It’s difficult to see why, after being told that her return would spell her son’s death, Jeroboam’s wife went home. I’m sure that, as far as the narrative templates go, she would have been compelled to return, or perhaps her return was meant only to be an indication of the time frame rather than the parameter requirement. Still, it’s troubling to think that she would have done anything other than stay away.

As it is, though, the wife returns and Abijah dies.

In closing, we’re told to consult the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel if we want more information on Jeroboam’s reign (a frustrating impossibility, of course). In total, he reigned for twenty-two years, and was succeeded by his son, Nadab.

Across the border

The ending of the chapter belongs to Rehoboam. We are told that he was forty-one when he became king, and that he reigned for a total of 17 years. Just on point of interest, the LXX tells us in its addition to 1 Kings 12 that Rehoboam was crowned at 16 and that he only reigned for 12 years. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges points out that his actions do seem more like the foolishness of a younger man, perhaps because they haven’t met quite so many foolish middle aged and older people as I’ve had the insincere pleasure of encountering. That said, it would make sense given the emphasis on the “young men” he chooses to listen to in 1 Kings 12:8.

We find out here that Rehoboam’s mother’s name was Naamah – an Ammonite – and that the situation in Judah was absolutely atrocious. Not only was there worship in high places, there were also pillars and Asherim all over the place. In fact, there were even “male cult prostitutes in the land” (1 Kgs 14:24).

In the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign, Jerusalem was attacked by the Egyptians, led by Shishak, almost certainly the Kushite Pharaoh Sheshonk I. The Egyptians looted the Temple and the palace, taking, among other things, Solomon’s golden shields – presumably the same he commissioned in 1 Kings 10:16-17.

Rehoboam replaced the shields, but only with bronze – perhaps indicating that the Egyptians’ looting hurt worse than explicitly indicated. Rehoboam also chose to keep the shields in his guardhouse rather than in his palace. Whenever he went to the Temple, he had his guardsmen wear the shields, then return them back to the guardhouse. The inclusion of the detail is not explained, but may possibly be to indicate that Judah was hit so hard that the decorative shields had to be put to double use.

Despite Rehoboam’s retreat in 1 Kings 12:21-24, we’re told that Rehoboam and Jeroboam were at constant war. Given the situation, it seems likely to have been a cold war, perhaps with occasional sparks of violence, rather than a full blown prolonged campaign.

The rest of the details of Rehoboam’s reign are to be found in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah. When he died, he was succeeded by his son, Abijam. Sadly, it seems that the hard times left the two kingdoms not only with a dearth of gold, but also of first names.

1 Kings 2: Cleaning the slate

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In this chapter, we see a very different David. With death approaching, he decides to impart some kingly advice to Solomon, starting with a reminder to obey the “law of Moses” (1 Kgs 2:3), a clear Deuteronomist concern.

And that’s all well and good, but the rest of his “advice” is far more personal – or at least is spun as such. He blames Joab’s murders of Abner (in 2 Sam. 3:27) and Amasa (in 2 Sam. 20:8-10) for “putting innocent blood upon the girdle about my loins” (1 Kgs 2:5). As if Uriah’s murder didn’t do that quite sufficiently on its own. The crime in these murders, according to David, was that Joab was “avenging in time of peace blood which had been shed in war” (1 Kgs 2:5), suggesting that he would have been quite happy to see both Abner and Amasa dead so long as it had happened on a battlefield (contradicting Solomon’s later words that the crime was that Joab had killed men who were better than him – 1 Kgs 2:32).

According to Victor Matthews, David’s concern over the cleanliness of his girdle is important because:

The girdle, which was used to tie the kethoneth and simlah, also functioned as a weapons belt and a sign of rank. In 2 Sam 20:8, Joab wears a “soldier’s garment” tied with a girdle (hagor) through which he has sheathed his sword. David uses the same term in describing Joab’s crimes to Solomon in 1 Kgs 2:5. In this case, however, the hagor, and thus the authority, has been symbolically soiled with the blood of Joab’s murder victims. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.111)

David asks Solomon to execute Joab. Same for Shimei, who had cursed David in 2 Sam. 16. David’s request, here, changes the tone of Shimei’s curses, and his subsequent forgivingness (2 Sam. 19). While David was fleeing Jerusalem, he argued against rebuking Shimei, considering that he may be speaking God’s own condemnations. When he returns to Jerusalem, he prevents Abishai from killing Shimei, arguing that the man’s curses had clearly meant nothing since David was now returning. At the time, he had promised not to kill Shimei (2 Sam. 19:23). Not only do we now see that David has been harbouring his resentment all this time, but also he is willing to use Solomon as a loophole to get the revenge he had promised not to seek.

My study Bible proposes that, when Joab and Shimei had angered David, his political position was was too precarious to dare act against two men with a fair bit of status and power (when Shimei appears before David in 2 Sam. 19, he is accompanied by a thousand soldiers – the implication clearly being that anything short of official pardon would have resulted in bloodshed).

That’s all assuming, of course, that this scene played out as recorded. Having played a great deal of Crusader Kings II, I know how unstable a nation is with a new king. There’s considerable upheaval inherent in a change of leadership, and factions will frequently use the opportunity to press their interests in the hopes that the new king’s lack of experience might make him weak enough to be cowed (such has been the downfall of many of my dynasties). It wouldn’t have been unlikely for a new king – especially one as young as Solomon seems to have been, placed on the throne by the manoeuvrings of his mother while his brothers acted on their own behalf – to pre-emptively squash any possible dissent.

Joab, having supported Adonijah over Solomon, would have been an obvious candidate for the axeman’s block. Shimei, who clearly had a lot of support in Benjamin (over which the united monarchy clearly had an unstable hold) and had demonstrated how quickly he could turn against a Judahite king, would be another.

It’s plausible, then, that Solomon might have used “my pa’s last wish” as a covering rhetoric for what he had decided to do for himself.

But David’s last words to Solomon aren’t all terrible. He also asks that Solomon deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai, since they had been good to David.

The requests made, David died and was buried, and we’re told that he ruled over Israel for a total of 40 years, 7 of them in Hebron and 37 in Jerusalem. This sounds like a mathematical error, but remember that he was only king over Judah for 4 of his Hebron years. If we don’t count all the years he spent on the run from his sons or under Solomon’s regency, 40 would be the correct number.

Adonijah’s fate

With much trepidation and fear for his safety, Adonijah approaches Bathsheba, asking her to ask Solomon for Abishag (David’s breast-powered radiator) for a wife. He guilts her into accepting his request, saying: “You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord” (1 Kgs 2:15). His words make it clear that there was an expectation of primogeniture.

He is certain that Solomon will listen if Bathsheba is the one making the request.

Joab dying at the altar

Joab dying at the altar

As she promised, she brings his request to Solomon. Solomon, however, is disinclined to accept. As we’ve seen, taking the old king’s wives was a way of declaring one’s self the legitimate successor. Absalom did it in 2 Sam. 16:22, and it seems likely that David himself did this with Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Given that Adonijah is the elder, and that he has considerable support in the court, allowing him to marry one of David’s concubines would be greatly increasing the legitimacy of his claim to the crown.

It seems that this is where the detail about David not having sex with Abishag (1 Kgs 1:4) comes into play. Her status as a concubine may have been subject to interpretation. It’s possible, then, that Adonijah was counting on Solomon not considering Abishag to have been one of David’s official female retinue, so that he might unthinkingly accept the proposal. Abishag in the bag, Adonijah would then be free to argue her case and, in so doing, argue his own. It seems to me that this is meant to be a story about Solomon sussing out Adonijah’s scheme – particularly since it seems unthinkable that Bathsheba would have relayed the request in such a straightforward manner if she had known what Adonijah was up to.

Speaking of Bathsheba, it’s interesting to me how diminished her role is. In the last chapter, the scheme to get Solomon on the throne is made out to be all Nathan’s doing, even thought Bathsheba is the principle actor. Here, she seems to fall for Adonijah’s trick. Yet despite all this, it seems that she had a reputation as an advisor to Solomon (given Adonijah’s assumption that the request would be accepted if it came from her). On top of that, when she enters Solomon’s presence, he bows to her and she takes a seat at his right hand. It could be that she was a woman who adroitly navigated the intrigue of the court, and that her role in the events of Solomon’s succession were minimized due to sexism (not exactly an uncommon thing through history). Or it could just all be an attempt to show that Solomon is young (and therefore assumed to still be under the influence of his mother) and that he is respectful of his parents.

Complicating the issue further is how the text is presented in translations. According to Joel M. Hoffman over at God Didn’t Say That, there’s some discussion over whether Solomon should sit on a chair or a throne. In the Hebrew, the word is the same for both Solomon and Bathsheba’s seats. However, several translators have chosen to give Solomon a throne, but Bathsheba merely receives a seat. As Hoffman puts it: “The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.”

It’s possible that Solomon had hoped that his brother, once beaten, would accept Solomon’s reign. Once it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, Solomon quickly has Adonijah. In his defence, keeping an aggressive competitor with stronger claims to the crown around would have almost certainly been a terrible idea. After all, in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

Another possibility is that Solomon may have hesitated to kill his brother, displaying the same reticence as David in similar situations. So Bathsheba, knowing that the son she put on the throne wouldn’t keep it long with Adonijah poking about, made up the request to prod Solomon into action. Given that no one is said to have witnessed Adonijah’s request save for Bathsheba, it’s as good an explanation as any, and it has oodles of narrative potential.

The supporters

Next, David turns his eye toward the men who supported Adonijah’s bid for power: Joab and Abiathar. Because Abiathar was a priest and had carried the ark of the covenant, he was too sacred to simply execute. Instead, Solomon gets rid of him by exiling him from court. This, we are told, completes the prophecy that had been made about the house of Eli (by “a man of God” in 1 Sam. 2:31-24, and by Samuel in 1 Sam. 3:13-14).

Having heard what happened to Adonijah and Abiathar, Joab figured that he was next. He tries the same trick as Abiathar in 1 Kgs 1, running to the tent of God and grabbing hold of the altar thorns, and Solomon sends Benaiah after him. When Benaiah tries to get Joab to come out of the tent and face his fate, Joab refuses, saying: “No, I will die here” (1 Kgs 2:30). Benaiah returns to Solomon, who tells him to grant Joab’s “request.” In so doing, Solomon says that Benaiah will “take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood which Joab shed without cause.”

So Benaiah goes back to the tent of God and slays Joab at the alter – which, it would seem to me, would be a major ritual no-no and likely to bring a great deal more guilt down on Solomon than Joab’s actions ever did (especially since at no time prior to this chapter are Joab’s murders said to curse David’s house, whereas David’s own actions toward Uriah and Bathsheba are said by Nathan to mark the start of their troubles).

With that Solomon gets rid of everyone in court who opposed his succession. To fill the vacuum he’s created, he appoints Benaiah as commander of the army, and has Zadok take Abiathar’s place as high priest.

Shimmy-Shimei

The last person on Solomon’s First Days’ Hit List is Shimei, who had cursed David during his escape from Jerusalem in 2 Sam. 16. In one tradition, at least, cursing a ruler warranted the death penalty (Exodus 22:28), though it’s unclear whether it would have applied in this case since, by David’s own admission, Absalom was the king at that time. This could be why Solomon decides not to execute Shimei.

Or it could be a nod to David’s promise not to harm Shimei, plus the fact that Shimei had never moved against Solomon himself – making a capital retaliation rather difficult to defend. Whatever the reason, he opts instead to make Shimei build a house in Jerusalem (where he can be close enough to keep an eye on) and places him under house arrest.

After three years, however, Shimei leaves his house to reclaim two escaped slaves. Perhaps he thought it was no big deal, since he returns as soon as he’s done. Solomon, however, is quite happy to use the excuse to have Benaiah execute him.

In his rebuke to Shimei, Solomon says: “King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the Lord for ever” (1 Kgs 2:45), which seems to be a direct reference to Shimei’s curse in 2 Sam. 16:7-8.

1 Samuel 14: Rambo has a bite of honey

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When chapter 14 opens, Saul is hanging out by “the pomegranate tree” near Gibeah (evidently a once-known landmark) with his 600 men. It occurs to me that perhaps the 600, down from the 3,000 he began 1 Sam. 13 with, may be all that are left after the desertions in the last chapter. If so, it makes his decision to proceed with the sacrifice without the tardy Samuel seem quite a bit more reasonable. With his army is Ahijah, the great-grandson of Eli (via Phinehas) and evidently the new high priest as he is said to be carrying the ephod.

I had gotten the impression that the high priest status had transferred to Samuel at Eli’s death because Eli’s sons were corrupt, but it apparently merely hopped that generation. There’s also no hint here of how the priesthood survived the destruction of Shiloh, or if the office has relocated to Kiriath-jearim to be with the ark, if the ark has been moved (it was only supposed to be there for 20 years – 1 Sam. 7:2), etc.

Jonathan and his unnamed armour-bearer decide to sneak out of the camp and assault a nearby Philistine garrison, Rambo-style. They tell no one that they are leaving.

1 Sam 14When they reach the outskirts of the Philistine camp, they decide to reveal themselves. If they Philistines tell them to wait there, they agree that they will do so. If they Philistines beckon them over, they will approach. The latter will be taken as a sign that God has delivered the garrison to them, for some reason.

The Philistines chide them, saying “look, Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they have hid themselves” (1 Sam. 14:11), referencing 1 Sam. 13:6. It seems that they believe Jonathan and his armour-bearers to be defectors. So the Philistines call them over, promising to “show you a thing” (1 Sam. 14:12). What the “thing” is, or whether it’s part of their teasing, is never revealed, because Jonathan and his armour-bearer go full River Tam as soon as they get near, killing 20 Philistines.

This causes a panic among the Philistines, no doubt fanned by a timely earthquake.

Saul’s watchmen see the Philistines running about, so he orders a headcount and discovers that Jonathan and the armour-bearer are missing. Having apparently figured out what’s going on, Saul decides to press his advantage. He tells Ahijah to bring the ark. Maybe. Apparently, the LXX has Saul call for the ephod here, which makes more sense in context.

Before Ahijah can do anything, they hear the tumult growing in the Philistine camp, and Saul tells Ahijah to “withdraw your hand” (1 Sam. 14:19). This suggests that Saul wanted to go after the panicking Philistines, but he wanted to check in with God for permission first (presumably by using the Umim and Thummim kept in the ephod for divination). When it became obvious that the Philistines were easy pickings, he decided to just go for it.

The battle depiction is rather confusing, but what I take from it is that the Philistines are just completely irrational in their fear and are fighting each other as much as they are fighting the Israelites. The battle is so one-sided that the Israelites who had hidden all come out, and even the Israelites who had joined the Philistines switch back to Saul’s side.

The lack of weapons among the Israelites is, apparently, no longer a concern.

The Bite

For reasons not given, Saul makes an oath: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24). Here are a few possible reasons for the vow:

  • The narrative chronology is muddled, and he actually made this vow before going into battle in the hopes that it would ensure his victory (fasting as a prayer amplifier is far from unknown). The fact that the Israelites are already faint from hunger before the Philistines are defeated suggests that this may be the case.
  • I’ve seen it argued that the vow is meant to expunge his earlier faux pas with the sacrifice. This would be ironic since – as we shall soon find out – this too is a rash decision that meddles in cultic matters and will end up backfiring.
  • Or the point is just to show that Saul keeps doing stuff that fall under religious jurisdiction without consulting the proper authorities, reinforcing the rationale for denying him his dynastic posterity.

Unfortunately, Jonathan doesn’t get the memo. If we accept the explanation that Saul made his vow before going after the Philistines, it could be that Jonathan is still returning from his Ramboing and, therefore, didn’t hear it.

This is important, because the army finds a honey field (a forest with honey, according to my translation, but I’ve seen arguments that the term for “forest” could also mean hives. It’s possibly, then, that they stumbled upon an apiary). Jonathan pokes at a honeycomb with his staff and has a taste. Much like me when I eat chocolate, Jonathan’s “eyes became bright” (1 Sam. 14:27).

A companion tells him about Saul’s vow, but Jonathan seems not to interpret this as a danger to himself. Rather, he argues that the vow was a bad idea because now the soldiers are so hungry that they are too weak to slaughter the Philistines. In his argument, Jonathan says that it would have been “better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found” (1 Sam. 14:30).

The argument seems strange given the prohibition on taking spoils during a holy war (a prohibition illustrated in Joshua 7, though one that has already been applied inconsistently elsewhere). Still, the story seems to mirror the story of Jephthah’s vow, and Jonathan seems to highlight that it is not a good idea to make rash oaths.

The soldiers are so starved (after only a day, albeit one of battle) that they “flew upon the spoil” (1 Sam. 14:32). Unfortunately, in their hurry, they eat the Philistine livestock with the blood – prohibited in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 19:26, and Deut. 12:16. Additionally, it seems that they are slaughtering the animals as they find them, rather than having priests do it on altars.

Saul tries to remedy the issue by having a rock brought, making a an altar for the people to bring the livestock to for slaughtering.  With that, the issue seems resolved.

Saul then suggests a night attack on the Philistines, but the priest says that should be hanging out with God instead. Saul calls on God, asking him if they should proceed against the Philistines, but God does not answer him. They assume that this is a result of some unknown sin.

Using the Umim and Thumim, they first ask whether the sin is in either Saul or Jonathan, or in the people. The Umim is drawn, indicating that it is either in Saul or Jonathan. The stones are drawn again, revealing that the sin was in Jonathan. This prompts Jonathan to confess to the honey-eating.

It seems that the story about the soldiers eating livestock without draining the blood was an insert, or else the chapter loses narrative continuity. Presumably, it was intended to explain the origins of an altar associated with Saul.

Both Jonathan and Saul agree that Jonathan should be put to death, but the people protest. According to my New Bible Commentary, this shows Saul to be “an insecure king outvoted by his troops” (p. 294). Surprisingly, God is apparently okay with the people ransoming Jonathan’s life, presumably by substituting an animal as in the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.

Saul’s deeds and family

The chapter closes with a brief summary of Saul’s deeds and a listing of his nearer relatives.

We are told that he fought enemies on all sides: The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Amalekites, and the kings of Zobah.

We are told about his children: his sons Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua, and his daughters Merab and Michal.

Saul’s wife is named Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. His army commander is his cousin, Abner, the son of Ner (Saul’s uncle).

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 3: Baby’s first prophecy

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In those days, we are told, God was giving the Israelites the silent treatment. I mean, except for Hannah’s clearly prophetic song and the unnamed man of God’s curse – both just in the last chapter. But other than that, God wasn’t chatting to his people. Since the story that follows involves God trying to talk to someone who, humorously, has no idea what’s going on, this could just be an editorial note to explain why. Or it could be way of indicating just how bad things have been getting pre-monarchy. Or perhaps it’s a further indictment of Eli’s priestly managerial style.

Anna presenting her son Samuel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c.1665

Anna presenting her son Samuel, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c.1665

Before getting into the story proper, we’re given a final bit of detail – Eli’s vision is very poor. I thought this was going to turn into a Jacob/Esau situation, but it seems to have just been a red herring (or perhaps intended to explain why God came to Samuel rather than directly to Eli? Or perhaps simply a shorthand way of saying that Eli’s age was getting to him?).

So Eli is lying in his bed, Samuel is spending the night next to the ark, and with that the scene is set.

At some point during the night, Samuel wakes to hear a voice calling his name. Thinking that it’s Eli, he rushes over saying “Hear I am!” (1 Sam. 3:4). Eli denies having called him and sends him back to the ark room to sleep. Again, Samuel hears a voice calling him and, again, he rushes to Eli who, again, sends him back to bed. We are told that he didn’t understand what was happening because he “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7). In other words, this prophecy business takes practice.

The third time this happens, Eli figures out what’s going on and tells Samuel that God is trying to talk to him, and would he please just stay in the ark room and listen for a change?

It’s worth asking why Samuel was sleeping by the ark in the first place. My New Bible Commentary very clearly assumes that it was “for the purpose of receiving any word from God” (p.288). This was, in other words, a sort of vision quest. Perhaps one that Samuel had no expectations from, explaining his surprise when it actually works.

The Prophecy

God has called to Samuel three times and is now attempting a fourth. He is so persistent because he has a message of the utmost importance to convey. You see, he really really needs to tell Samuel that: “I am about to do a thing in Israel” (1 Sam. 3:11).

No, wait, stop walking away! It’s a big thing! An important thing! A thingy thing! In fact, this is such a big thingy thing that it will make both of your ears tingle just to hear about it!

The thing, by the way, the same thing that he told the unnamed “man of God” in the last chapter – that Eli is going to be punished at some future date because his sons are meanies. I think it’s rather clear that we have two separate stories of the same prophecy, in both explaining why Eli was a high priest in Shiloh but his descendants aren’t. In the latter story, the prophecy is tangled into Samuel’s origin story.

When morning comes, Samuel is afraid to pass on God’s message to Eli. But Eli, who seems to be dealt with quite favourably, threatens Samuel if he doesn’t tell – “May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you” (1 Sam. 3:17) – but is accepting of his fate when Samuel gives him the memo.

After this incident, Samuel growing up continually in the presence of God, and God letting “none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). I took this to mean either that God is steering him right generally, or that God acts out his plan on Eli so that Samuel’s words come true.

When Samuel is grown, he takes on the mantle of a prophet and is known throughout Israel. My New Bible Commentary explains that this passage transforms a regional (Shiloh) priest into a prophet with a national scope – both in the story and, presumably, to future readers. The story closes with a reminder that this all happened at Shiloh, remember how God chose Shiloh to visit? I sensed a little patriotism sneaking in here, like the people of Shiloh really wanted everyone to remember that it was their homeboy who made it big.

Document Hypothesis

Abbie at Better Than Esdras has a discussion of source documents, and of where this story might have originated. You can read the whole thing, but here’s a taste:

It turns out that the exclamation הִנֵּנִי is exclusive to JE texts. Someone calls out a name, and that person replies “הִנֵּנִי”. Check it: God to Abraham (Gen 22:1, E); Isaac to Esau (27:1, J), an angel of God to Jacob (31:11, E), Israel to Joseph (37:13, E), God to Jacob (46:2, E), God to Moses (Ex. 3:4, E). And finally here in Samuel.

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.)

Judges 20-21: The punishment and redemption of Benjamin

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Brant Clements, of Both Saint and Cynic, reminds me that, way back in Genesis, we learned something about how Benjamin would come to be viewed. On his deathbed, Jacob “blessed” each of his sons, though his blessings seemed more to foretell the perceived character of their descendent tribes. Of Benjamin, he said:

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf
In the morning devouring the prey
And at evening dividing the plunder. (Genesis 49:27)

All the Israelites responded to the body parts they received in the mail. From Dan (far north) to Beersheba (far south), even Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan, they all gathered at Mizpah. We don’t seem to know quite where that is, but somewhere close to Jerusalem, which would put it in or near Benjaminite territory.

They ask the Levite to explain what happened, and the Levite answers:

I came to Gibeah that belongs to Benjamin, I and my concubine, to spend the night. And the men of Gibeah rose against me, and beset the house round about me by night; they meant to kill me, and they ravished my concubine, and she is dead. (Judges 20:4-5)

All true, but isn’t it interesting that he leaves out the part where where he threw her out to the mob and closed the door behind her?

When they hear of what happened, the Israelites vow not to return to their homes until they Benjamin is defeated. They will go up against Gibeah while ten men out of ever hundred (selected by lottery) keep the army provisioned.

The Battle

While the Israelites are gathered presumably in siege, they also sent men throughout the tribe of Benjamin to ask, “What wickedness is this that has taken place among you?” (Judges 20:12), and to ask them to give up the criminal Gibeah. Unfortunately, the Benjaminites decide to stand with Gibeah, and they march out to face the other Israelites.

Altogether, Israel came with 400,000 soldiers, while Benjamin managed 26,000 in addition to the 700 soldiers of Gibeah. Among the Benjaminites were 700 southpaws who were extremely good with a sling (I do not know what left-handedness has to do with sling-throwing, but this is apparently important).

Echoing Judges 1:1-2, the people ask God which tribe should go up against Benjamin first, and God replies, “Judah shall go up first” (Judges 20:18). This is apparently quickly forgotten, because the next day it is just generic “Isrealites” who go out to battle.

They also lose the day. The Benjaminites slaughter 22,000 Israelites.

The Israelites figure that went so well that they would repeat it on the second day, and they “again formed the battle line in the same place where they had formed it on the first day” (Judges 20:22). Courage they might have, but their feelings about going against fellow Israelites seem mixed. They begin to weep and they ask of God “Shall we again draw near to battle against our brethren the Benjaminites?” (Judges 20:23). God stands firm, they must go.

Perhaps it was God’s will, or perhaps it was because they did not modify their terrible battle strategy, but 18,000 Israelite soldiers are killed on the second day.

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Benjamites take women of Shiloh as wives, from the Morgan Bible, 1240-1250

Once again, they weep. Both times they weep and call on God, they do it at Bethel. Bethel, by the way, seems to have featured rather important in the stories of the patriarchs. It is where Abram/Abraham builds an altar in Gen. 12:8, and it is where Jacob had a prophetic dream (and then built an altar of sorts) in Gen. 28:18:19. According to my study Bible, it was “later one of the two principal sanctuaries of the northern kingdom” (p.321). And now, we’re told that it is where the ark of the covenant is being kept, still ministered by an apparently extremely old Phinehas (Judges 20:28).

Just in case you were wondering why the Israelites were leaving their post to go over to Bethel every time they started getting teary-eyed.

The people seem rather broken up, and they ask God once again if they really have to go up against Benjamin. God says yes, but reassures them that, on the third day, they will win.

The third day is a bit more complicated and seems to weave together two different versions of events. But the essential gist is that they pretend to go out the same as before, but secretly plant a few people in ambush around Gibeah. When the Benjaminites go after them, the Israelites pretend to flee, drawing them away from the city. With the soldiers too far to help, 10,000 Israelite soldiers took Gibeah behind them, killing everyone.

When the fleeing Israelites see the signal from the ambushers – smoke rising from the burning Gibeah – they turn around and face the Benjaminites. 18,000 Benjaminites were killed right away, with another 7,000 killed while trying to flee.

Only 600 Benjaminite soldiers were left, hiding for four months at the rock of Rimmon while the Israelites went around slaughtering every single Benjaminite they could find.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Joshua used the same strategy in Josh. 8 after his initial attack on Ai failed.

The Tribal Preservation Society

At this point, all the Benjaminites are dead save for the 600 men hiding in Rimmon. Unfortunately for the tribe’s survival, the Israelites have vowed never to allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjaminite (Judges 21:1).

You can see how this might be an issue.

So the Israelites go to Bethel and start weeping again, this time building an altar and making offerings (in Judges 21:4, God is apparently cool with this). They are very concerned that, without any lady-folk, the tribe of Benjamin will die out.

Their first strategy is to find any Israelites who might not have made the vow. Helpfully, they also made a vow to kill anyone who did not respond to the mustering call at Mizpah (Judges 21:5).

They settle on Jabeshgilead, who had failed to answer the call. So they sent 12,000 men to slaughter all its inhabitants, including the women and child, sparing only 400 young virgins.

They then send word to the surviving Benjaminites letting them know that it’s all over and that they are out of danger and, hey, look, we got ladies for you!

And Creationists say that the “survival of the fittest” concept of evolution is cold…

But that’s only 400 girls and there are 600 surviving Benjaminites. Unwilling to give polyandry a try, this apparently poses a problem.

So they come up with a totally awesome solution that is definitely not rape-y at all! They tell the Benjaminites that they can go up to Shiloh during a yearly feast to God, set up an ambush in the vineyards, and kidnap any women who come out to dance the festival dances. This is a “solution” because it skirts around the vow not to “give” the Benjaminites any wives (see, because they weren’t given, they were taken! Har har, very clever).

And if this story sounds familiar, you’re probably a mythology buff. When the first Romans wanted wives for themselves, they abducted women from neighbouring groups during a festival.

God is apparently cool with just feeding women into the hands of Benjaminite rapists, because there’s no punishment for anyone – from the Levite to the Israelite nation – who does it. Even so, the book closes with a reminder that, “in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Judges 17-18: Of opportunistic priests and silver idols

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So there’s this guy, Micah, living in the hill country of Ephraim. This Micah is not such a cool guy. He also has a very strange, meandering story.

You see, he stole 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother. Not knowing who had stolen it, his mother cursed the thief. Micah, presumably getting a little hot under the collar, confesses and returns the money. To withdraw her curse, his mother dedicates 200 of the pieces of silver to God, melting it down into an idol.

The amount of silver stolen is familiar – it is the same amount that each Philistine elder promised to pay Delilah in exchange for the secret of Samson’s strength (Judges 16:5). I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, or if the stories are supposed to be related somehow, or if 1,100 was just a way of saying “a large amount.”

Micah’s mother disappears from the story at this point, and it is Micah’s turn to make idols. He builds a shrine, and he makes “an ephod and teraphim” (Judges 17:5) to go in it. But what’s a shrine without a priest? To fill the void, Micah installs one of his own sons as the priest to his household shrine.

Unfortunately, Micah’s son apparently disappears because there’s another young man, called a Levite despite being from the tribe of Judah, who leaves his home town of Bethlehem to find himself some employment. When he comes upon Micah’s house, Micah offers him a job as his personal household priest, in exchange for ten pieces of silver a year, room and board, and clothes.

When the Levite accepts, Micah is overjoyed, thinking to himself: “Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because I have a Levite as priest” (Judges 17:13).

The key portions of this story are (1) There was a man named Micah, (2) He was from the hill country of Ephraim, (3) He had a shrine, (4) He was directly involved in the shrine’s construction, and (5) He had a priest. It seems that various storytellers embellished these key points in different ways, and our poor editor just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

It seems important, too, that Micah is not seen as a particularly good guy, but more on that later.

Dan’s “migration”

The text doesn’t give a reason for it except that “there was no king in Israel” (Judges 18:1) – and therefore no real order to society – but Dan is on the march to find a place to call home.

Judges 17 - Micah's IdolAccording to Collins, they had to find a new home after they “lost their original territory to the Philistines” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114). Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain how this is known, so I have no idea if it’s just extrapolation or if there’s some sort of material archeological evidence to suggest this explanation.

My study Bible does agree, though, citing Joshua 19:40-46 and Judges 1:34 to put Dan’s original territory in the southwest, close to Philistine territory. This also helps to explain Samson’s focus on the Philistines, as Samson was a Danite (Judges 13:2).

So the Danites are looking for land, and, like Moses, they send out five scouts to find them a nice spot to settle. These spies set out from Zorah and Eshtaol, where the Danite people are located, which was listed among their inheritance in Joshua 19:40-46, and between which Samson was buried in Judges 16:31.

In their travels, the Danite spies lodge with Micah. While there, they recognize the Levite’s voice (Judges 18:3), asking him what he’s doing there. There’s no reason given for why/where/how they might have encountered the Levite before. It’s a very strange detail.

When the Levite explains that he’s been hired as Micah’s household priest, they ask him to consult with God on their behalf and tell them whether or not they will succeed. It’s implied that the Levite does so (presumably using the ephod and teraphim, which seem to be related to divination in some way), and he gives the Danites God’s blessing, saying that “the journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord” (Judges 18:6).

Eventually, the spies make it to Laish, where they find the land fertile and the people weak (they are allied with Sidon, but too far away for the Sidonians to protect them). So they return to the Danites and tell them to go after Laish.

Which they do, with an army of 600 soldiers.

When the army passes Micah’s house, the spies mention the lovely shrine there. So the army stops to steal it. They are caught by Micah’s Levite, who asks them what they are doing. The Danites, in response, invite him to come and be their priest instead. After all, they argue, wouldn’t it be better to be the priest of an entire tribe rather than just one man? The Levite is so enthusiastic about the deal that he grabs Micah’s sacred objects and follows the Danites.

Micah gives chase, but realizes that he is outmatched and gives up.

When Dan takes Laish, they rebuild the city and name it Dan, in honour of their founding patriarch. It’s interesting to note that there was already a place named Dan in Genesis 14:14.

In closing, we’re told of a priest named Jonathan, son of Gerson, son of Moses (or Manasseh, my Bible doesn’t seem sure), who served the Danites as priest and was followed in the office by his sons “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30) – presumably the Assyrian conquest. They set up Micah’s idols, suggesting that this Jonathan is the same as the unnamed Levite we’ve been hearing about. Except that our Levite was from the tribe of Judah, not Moses (nor Manasseh). Unless that’s just the name of his grandfather, recycled from the patriarch, and not a tribal designation at all.

The moral of the story

There are a few possible morals that I can see. There’s the repetition that this all happened while there was no monarchy in Israel (Judges 17:6, Judges 18:1), which makes these chapters (and the ones to follow) seem to be a set up to explain just why having a king is such a fantastic idea.

Another possibility is that the story was included to explain the origins of a shrine in Dan. According to Collins, “during the monarchy, Dan was the site of one of the temples set up by King Jeroboam I of the northern kingdom of Israel, in opposition to Jerusalem” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.114).

Certainly, it’s true that no one in the story is presented in a particularly flattering light. From Micah the thief, to the mercenary/thieving Levite, to the aggressive and thieving Danites, all of the characters are, to put it kindly, morally questionable.

It could also be an accurate snapshot of the popular/folk religion, as opposed to the high religion of Jerusalem. As Victor Matthews puts it:

Why did a Levite, a man charged with teaching and maintaining the law, consent to serve a group of sacred images? Why did Micah set them up in the first place, and why did the Danites jump at the chance to steal them for themselves? The answer almost certainly is that popular religion, the religion of the local villages, was not the pure monotheism required by the law at Sinai. Recent excavations at Tell Qiri, a settlement dating to the period of the judges, revealed a similar household shrine with incense burners and a large number of animal bones. A substantial percentage of the bones proved to be the right foreleg of goats. This is reminiscent of the law in Exod 29:22, which calls for the sacrifice of the “right thigh” of the ram. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.76)

You’ve also probably noticed that characters are getting called “Levite” without actually being from the tribe of Levi. It seems that the term originally just meant a priest, and either the office was taken over by one particular line or perhaps they simply unionized, forming a new tribe.

 

Joshua 22: Premature copying

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Satisfied with the conquest and ready to retire, Joshua calls up Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. He thanks them for sticking around as they had promised to Moses back in Numbers 32 and, with that, sends them home.

It doesn’t take long before there’s trouble, however. Once they get home, the three Transjordan tribes build themselves a nice big altar.

Given the focus of the Deuteronomistic Histories on the centralization of worship, this is obviously a rather big mistake. Or, at least, it seems so. When the rest of the Israelites hear about it, they quickly muster at Shiloh, ready to get back to the holy war-making that had only too recently ended.

JoshuaPhinehas goes on ahead, accompanied by ten chiefs (one from each of the remaining tribes). You may remember Phinehas, by the way, from Numbers 25 where he murdered two lovers for being of different ethnicities. By doing so, he stopped a plague that God had sent to the people and was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood for himself and his descendants. Lovely stuff.

So here he is again, rushing to defend the faith. Only this time, it seems that he’s angered too quickly. The Transjordan tribes defend their altar, saying that it isn’t real, it’s just a replica. They had no intention of ever using it to make sacrifices (knowing that this is only to be done at the tabernacle). Rather, they made it as a “witness.” They were concerned, they explain, that “in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘what have you to do with the Lord, the God of Israel? For the Lord has made the Jordan as a boundary between us and you'” (Deut. 22:24-25).

It’s hard to imagine how building a second altar, explicitly breaking God’s law (even if they never planned to actually use it), would serve this purpose. It’s more likely, I think, that the story is used as justification for the continued existence of an altar that the author grew up near and has fond childhood memories of.

It’s also strange, given the context of a time when God is explicitly speaking to the people, that they would fear that the other tribe might (falsely) read God’s purpose in geographical design. It makes me think of all the instances of people doing precisely this today, like a hateful old man claiming that Haiti’s earthquake was divine punishment, or the idea that pain in childbirth must be a consequence of sin.

The Transjordan tribes’ concern is even stranger because Deuteronomy has, so far, been pretty easy-going as far as who can participate in worship. As long as your testicles are uncrushed, foreigners generally seem to be accepted within the congregation. We see this, for example, in Deut. 23:7-8.

Either way, the inclusion of Phinehas here has me scratching my head a little. In Numbers 25, his jumping in to defend the purity of the faith was seen as an unambiguous good. Here, however, that very same attitude gets him into trouble (sort of – he’s never punished or anything, but it’s clear that he was wrong and it’s implied that he goes home rebuked). I wonder if the author(s) of this passage used him on purpose as a jab at the hard-lining ethics of Numbers. It’s not an open criticism, obviously, since Phinehas isn’t punished or explicitly scolded, but it does feel implied.

Regardless, the explanation is accepted and the Israelites go home satisfied.

There are a few remaining details that I thought I’d mention:

When asking the Transjordan tribes why they have built their altar, Phinehas&co ask them to consider what happened when Achan disobeyed God in Joshua 7. In that chapter, he is referred to as Achan son of Carmi in Josh. 7:1, and then Achan son of Zerah in Josh. 7:24. Here, he is listed once again as Achan son of Zerah (Josh. 22:20).

When Phinehas&co meet with the Transjordan tribes, they do actually talk first rather than just rushing in with their spears. (Good thing, too.) Rather than just kill the tribes for their perceived heresy, they first offer a compromise: “If your land is unclean, pass over into the Lord’s land where the Lord’s tabernale stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us” (Josh. 22:19). It’s an interesting concept – that the land itself might be corruptive (and not, say, the locals, since Phinehas has amply demonstrated what he does to people who allow themselves to be corrupted by locals).

In the King James Version, Josh. 22:22 refers to God as “God of gods.” In my RSV, the line goes: “The Mighty One, God, the Lord!” Does anyone know enough Hebrew to comment on what the original text says?

Lastly, I think that David Plotz made a very interesting point about how portable this passage makes the worship of God:

This is a very important moment for Judaism, and perhaps for all religions. It marks the end of Judaism as a faith bounded by place. From now on, it can go anywhere. […] The moment when a religion creates its first copy is, in some sense, when it starts being a religion. Until now, God has literally been with all the Israelites. He travels with them in the tabernacle, and they are together inside the holy ground of the camp. Now that the tribes are scattering across Israel, they face the problem of how to keep God with them everywhere. On the west side of the Jordan, they will abide near the tabernacle and hold on to  their direct connection to God. But the trans-Jordan tribes needed to create a substitute for that tabernacle (just as all Jews had to create a substitute after the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago). So, the altar by the riverside marks the birth of Judaism as a worldwide religion: From now on, the Israelites can travel and stay away from the tabernacle, because they can create a copy. They can take God wherever they go. And so can we.

If we assume an authorship date around the time of King Josiah, we do have some scattering of the Israelites and the Babylonian Exile itself less than half a century later. It seems that this passage shows a softening of the “centralized worship” stance, perhaps an understanding of what distant Israelites felt they needed to do in order to stay connected to their shared god.

It’s nice. I like it.

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