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 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).

Numbers 27: Succession Planning

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Way back in the halcyon days of last Friday, we found out that Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh had only daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. 

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Daughters of Zelophehad by Bonnie Lee Roth

Given the clearly agnatic inheritance assumptions we’ve seen modelled thus far, it seems that this would be the end of the Hepherites. But Zelophehad’s daughters, upset that their father’s name should end, ask Moses to grant them their father’s inheritance.

Moses decides to bring their case before God, who writes up some quick inheritance laws to help out in just such a situation:

  • If a man has no sons, his daughters should receive the inheritance.
  • If he has no children at all, the inheritance goes to his brothers.
  • If he has no brothers either, it should go to his father’s brothers.
  • If his father also had no brothers, it should go to “his kinsman that is next to him of his family” (v.11).

I find it interesting that this didn’t carry forward in many Christian countries, as fans of Downton Abbey well know (read this great article for an explanation of how that came about).

Noa(h)

David Plotz named his daughter Noa after this chapter. Of the name he writes:

In English, the girl’s name Noa sounds identical to the name of Noah the ark builder. But in Hebrew, they’re totally distinct names, spelled and pronounced very differently. Noa the girl is pronounced “No-a,” just as we say it. But Noah the boy is “No-ach” in Hebrew, making it a much harsher sounding name.

Yet the spelling distinction doesn’t exist in my text, nor in any other that I’ve found through a quick BibleHub comparison. In both the cases of Zelophehad’s daughter and the guy who got so drunk that he passed out naked, my Bible has “Noah” with an H.

It’s not a particularly important point, but I do find it interesting.

Sin

When explaining that their father died without sons, the women say that he: “died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin” (v.3).

So what was that sin?

The emphasis on “his own sin” seems to suggest that he didn’t fall under the collective punishment that came with the 40 year wilderness sentence. According to the JewishEncyclopedia, rabbinical literature seems to favour the theory that Zelophehad was the Sabbath-breaker from Numbers 15. Blogger Dovbear has a great explanation of the argument in favour of this association.

Another tradition has it that Zelophehad was one of the gun-jumpers who decided to dismiss God’s 40 year sentence and headed into Canaan without permission in Numbers 14.

Sneak Peek

Once he’s done dealing with the uppity women, God sends Moses up to the mountain of Abarim, from which he can see the promised land. After this, Moses will die because of his rock abuse in Numbers 20.

David Plotz asks:

Is this very cruel or very kind? Is it excruciating for Moses to have to see what he wants more than anything in the world but cannot have? Or is this gaze consolation for a dying man? I can’t decide.

Moses begs God to appoint a successor, “that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep which have no shepherd” (v.17). Interestingly, Moses has a son, so the leadership – at least at this point – is clearly not hereditary. (Unless Moses’ kids are excluded because of their mixed heritage?)

It’s not quite a meritocracy, either. Joshua, son of Nun, is chosen because he is “a man in whom is the spirit” (v.18). In other words, he gets to be the leader because he has the same prophetic status as Moses.

But despite clearly being a very theocratic system, it’s not a system ruled by clerics/priests, exactly. Though he is to “stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgement of the Urim before the Lord” (v.21).

This could mean, as some interpretations have it, that Joshua has the option of consulting Eleazar whenever he doesn’t know what to do. But it could also mean that he must consult Eleazar before making big decisions, functionally putting the high priest above the secular monarch.

Exodus 28: From interiors to fashion

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I said that we’re done with the interior design, but we are unfortunately not done with the yawning. In this chapter, God lays out the priestly dress code with an exactitude that borders on the obsessed.

Part of the outfit includes alternating bells and pomegranates around the skirts of the robe that are very important because otherwise the priest might accidentally sneak up on God and then God might flip out and kill him before realizing who he was (Exod. 28:24-5).

Exodus 28

It’s also important that all the priests wear special linen breeches whenever they enter the tent or come near the altar, “lest they bring guilt upon themselves and die” (Exod. 28:42-3). I’m not really sure what the implication here is, but it seems that the priests have, up until this point, been in the happen of “going commando,” and that this causes them to “bring guilt upon themselves.” I guess that the cherub motifs are a bit racier than the account had led me to believe.

You can see what the total outfit would have looked like in this posts’s image, helpfully supplied by Tree Of Life.

In Exodus 28, we also get a mention of Urim and Thummim, names that sounded very familiar. Sure enough, these are the stones that Joseph Smith supposedly used to translate the Book of Mormon. Here, however, they are stones used on the high priest’s breastplate and, apparently, are used to turn Aaron into a sort of representative before God of the entire Jewish people, so that he “shall bear the judgement of the people of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually” (Exod. 28:30). According to Wikipedia, these stones were also associated with divination.

One thing I’ve been curious about in all of this is where the Hebrews are getting all the materials for this stuff. They’ve run out of food and have been eating nothing but manna since Exodus 16, yet they’re still carrying around enough gold and bronze and goat hair and linen of many colours to put all this stuff together? Am I the only one wondering if they should have packed a bit more strategically?

Good news! I’ve peeked ahead and it looks like we just have one more of these chapters before we get to plunge back into the ordinances! (Uuuuuuugh…)