Saturday, May 28, 2005

1 Samuel 12

Samuel begins this chapter with a terrific example of restorative justice. He doesn't claim to have injured no one, but instead asks who he has injured and offers to make whole any injured party. While the list of potential wrongs he offers is brief, it covers most of the sins that the powerful visit on the powerless. Samuel gets the people and Saul to swear that Samuel is innocent of having wronged them. By their own admission, they had no cause to displace him as the leader of Israel in favor of Saul.

Then Samuel convicts Israel of the sin of idolatry in choosing a king.

Astonishingly, Western civilization survived three millenia without absorbing this teaching: if a people trusts in God, then there is no need for a strongman. They can work things out on their own. It's only when they abandon God that they need a strongman.

And then Samuel calls on God to ruin the crops of the Israelites to show them what the source of real power is. Seeing the miracle, they repent, but too late. They are stuck with their king.

But Samuel proves that he is a decent man. Cast off, convinced Israel has descended into idolatry, he still says it would be a sin if he were to fail to pray for Israel.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

1 Samuel 11

Back in Judges (21:10), Jabesh-Gilead had been put to the sword for failing to answer the call to avenge the murder/rape of a Levite's concubine, and the virgin girls given to the Benjamites to help them rebuild their tribe, which had been all but wiped out in the vengeance. What triggered the assembly of Israel for war had been the cutting of the body of the concubine into pieces and their distribution throughout Israel.

This time, Jabesh-Gilead is in danger of being put to the sword by Ammon. The Ammonites, under Nahash, offer to lift the siege only if the townspeople allow the Ammonites to gouge out their right eyes as a means of disgracing Israel. Apparently puffed up with arrogance, he allows a messenger to leave and later to return with good news that help is on the way. Saul, newly crowned but still plowing his fields with his own oxen, rallies the Israelites by cutting up two oxen and sending the pieces around, threatening the oxen of any who don't appear with a like fate. Three hundred thousand Israelite troops show up at Bezek (12 miles northeast of Schechem), eventually marching 60 miles to Jabesh-Gilead and smash the besieging Ammonites. Given that Saul promises relief to the Jabesh-Gileadites to arrive about 24 hours after arriving at Bezek, the army must have had a hard march to Jabesh-Gilead.

At this point, Saul does one of the few statesmanlike acts of his career. Some suggest that those who did not support Saul earlier should be killed. But Saul demurs, saying "Israel has been saved today." At any rate, Saul is re-coronated at Gilgal, the town on the east bank of the Jordan where the Israelites entered Canaan originally. So Saul is the new Joshua.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

1 Samuel 10

Miraculous signs! After Saul is anointed with oil, Samuel tells him, two men will tell him not to worry about the lost donkeys. Then three men will offer him two loaves of bread. Then musical prophets will come down from a high place in Philistine territory. And then Saul will be anointed with the Spirit.

Even in ancient times, this must have seemed a bit absurd. But underneath the oddity of it all seems to be possible numerological significance. The geography also probably has meaning.

The numerology is simplest. Anointing at Ramah is from God; God, as the Shema says, is One. At Rachel's tomb, now in Bethlehem, he meets two men. Then at the tree of Tabor he meets three men (who are going to Bethel) with three goats, three loaves of bread, and a skin of wine, and they give him two loaves. So 1 becomes 2 becomes 3. The three is actually 3 x 3 + 1 and from that Saul gets 2.

Next is the symbolism of location. Samuel is associated with Ramah, the high point, so Saul is making a descent from his anointing. The tomb of Rachel

is an ancestral shrine for the tribe of Benjamin, since Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin there. Tabor is a mountain. Finally, Gibeah (meaning "a hill") is Saul's home. Here Saul prophesies. While moderns think of prophesy as predicting the future, these prophets seem almost bacchanalian, drunk on the Spirit of God and playing lyres, tambourines, flutes, and harps. They are clearly not from Gibeah, because a man asks who their father is. Finally, Saul goes to the high place, completing the cycle.

The latter part of the chapter again returns to a mild farce. Saul has been anointed king of Israel by the most famous man of the day, Samuel, but when his uncle asks "What did Samuel say?" Saul says that Samuel told him the donkeys had been found. To demonstrate that the choice of Saul is God's, Samuel assembles all Israel and divines (presumably with the urim and thummim) who the new king is. The new king is found hiding among the baggage. His sole physical qualification is that he is tall. That feature did not work out well for Goliath.

The reign of the first king begins inauspiciously, with some people convinced Saul can do nothing for Israel. But Saul has the good sense and perhaps the humility to stay quiet.

Note added 7/3: As always seems to be the case, I find the keenest insights from a Jewish commentator. Moshe Reiss notes that Samuel actually does not anoint Saul "king" (melech), but "ruler" (nagid). He also points out that because Samuel is the senior prophet, by directing Saul to prophesy with the prophets he meets, Saul becomes Samuel's subordinate.