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.


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