Sunday, June 12, 2005

1 Samuel 14

This chapter is three vignettes followed by an epilogue on Saul's family. The central theme seems to be what it means to be faithful to God.

The first vignette describes how Saul's son Jonathan, in an act requiring absolute faith, strikes a powerful blow against a small contingent of Philistines. Then, the army (whether Israelite or Philistine is not entirely clear) suffers panic as an earthquake strikes. The Philistines attack one another. Israel's courage rallies. Finally, the roused Israelite army devastates that of the Philistines over a broad front. However, when Saul discovers that Jonathan has broken a fast ordered by Saul, he orders Jonathan killed. The men save Jonathan. So, the arc of the story is that Jonathan's faith leads to initial victory, a miracle of some sort occurs, and Israel is saved.

Sorting out the details is more complicated. It is certain that the Lord is no longer on speaking terms with Saul. It is also certain that Saul has not exactly been pursuing the Lord, since after the battle we learn that he builds the first altar he has ever built. Also, the priest has to remind Saul to inquire of the Lord over the issue of plundering the enemy. So, perhaps Saul had a reason to be hiding among the baggage when the time came to anoint him king.

Another point that seems clear is that Saul's order to the men to fast is personal and self-serving, a matter of his own pride, and not a holy inspiration from God. This order has led the army into sin. After the battle, they are so hungry, they began eating raw meat. In Leviticus 17:10-14 says that anyone who eats meat with blood in it must be cast out from the tribe.

There also seems to be a lesson on pride in the story of Jonathan's initial assault. The Philistines are so contemptuous of the Israelites that they tell Jonathan that if he wants to fight, he has to climb up to them. Boasting, they promise to teach him a lesson. Jonathan understands that their hubris is a sign that the Lord will help him destroy the Philistines. He places himself at their complete mercy by climbing a slope so steep he needs his hands and feet.

The geography has the battle proceeding from Micmash ("something hidden"), where Jonathan's first strike occurred, to Beth Aven ("house of nothing" or "valley of the idols"), where Saul's army routed the Philistines to Aijalon ( Joshua fought here as the sun stood still) where the Israelites ate raw meat. Aijalon is 12 miles from Jerusalem.

But a number of matters are murkier.

* Where is Samuel at this moment of crisis?
* There is some ambiguity in the NIV as to whether Jonathan initially confronts the Philistines from below or whether he is also at a high point of the pass.
* The panic seems to have preceded the earthquake. Which army-- or both-- suffered the panic?
* Why did Saul command the ark to be broughtm and why did he tell the priest Ahijah to withdraw his hand?
* What is the significance of the fact that Saul was under the pomegranate tree at Migron?
* Why are we told that Jonathan's armor bearer "followed and killed behind him"?
* How could Saul have continued to serve as king after the army rose up against Saul to protect his son?

1 Samuel 13

In this chapter, we learn of Saul's lack of patience and foresight. The Philistines had successfully disarmed the Israelites by denying them blacksmithing services. Nevertheless, Saul gathers three thousand men, and a thousand of them under Jonathan attack the Philistine outpost at Geba. Having started the conflagration, Saul announces the news throughout Israel. Six thousand Philistine charioteers, two to a chariot, and many infantry gather. The Israelite army is forced to hide, and some even fled from Canaan to east of the Jordan.

But none of these are critical problems. What is a critical problem is Saul's impatience. Faced with a disintegrating army dropping toward 600 men, and with Samuel overdue, Saul takes over the priestly offices and offers a sacrifice to the Lord. This ends the Lord's favor over his kingship before it has really begun.

And yet, it is difficult to see why he is so greatly at fault. Samuel agreed to be at Gilgal at the appropriate time to make the sacrifices, and he didn't show up. Should Saul have marched out without consulting God? Should he have allowed the army to disintegrate, leaving him scarred as a failed leader? Nor are we given any insight into why Samuel felt he had to wait until the situation was so dire before showing up.

As usual, the geography is important. The Philistines assemble east of Beth Aven ("the valley of the idols" or "the house of nothing") at Micmash ("something hidden"). Gilgal is the Israelite base after crossing the Jordan, where Joshua had the Israelites circumcised. Could there be an implication that Israelites had allowed the circumcision ritual to lapse, such that men needed to circumcised? If so, a week might well be a proper healing time.

There are some astonishing differences between the KJV and NIV on this chapter. The KJV renders the first line as "Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel..." (specifying a time for the uprising against the Philistines) while the NIV says, "Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel 43 years." (specifying no time for the uprising, but defining the length of Saul's reign). Line 21 is translated "Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads." (meaining the Israelites had some small tools), while the NIV says, "The price was two thirds of a shekel for sharpening plowshares and mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening forks and axes and for repointing goads." (meaning the Israelites had no tools at all).

Another point is how badly wrong Matthew Henry's commentary goes on this chapter ( Determined to blame everything on Saul, he fails to recognize that the Philistines exercise absolute power over the Israelites, forbidding them even to have blacksmiths. The chapter does not say why Saul dismissed all but 3000 men, but Henry goes down wild tracks of supposing that those who were dismissed were affronted. Perhaps Saul simply couldn't feed so many. Henry also regards Jonathan's attack on the Philistine outpost at Geba as treachery. But there's no indication of any compact between the Philistines and the Israelites except the bond of fear between every oppressor and oppressed. And most astonishingly, Henry fails to recognize that this plan must have been set in motion with the agreement of Samuel, since it has been pre-arranged for him to make the ritual sacrifices at Gilgal.