Sunday, September 11, 2005

1 Samuel 17, the lectio

So, here's how to do lectio. Let go of everything except the text before you begin. Forget about what you think the text ought to say and read it, word for word. Look at the original Hebrew or Greek for clues. Geography is especially suggestive. Here are the key elements of the story:

1. Overview
It's the Philistines vs. the Israelites

2. Geography
The confrontation is in Judea
The Philistine camp is at Ephes Dammim (boundary of bleeding), but they assembled at Socoh (fence)
Ephes Dammim is betwee Socoh and Azekah (where Joshua defeated the Amorite kings

The confrontation is in the valley of Elah

(photograph is from Ancient Sandals)

Both armies were encamped on hills
Goliath is from Gath (wine press
David's father Jesse is an Ephrathite (i.e., a Bethlehemite)
Jesse lives in Bethlehem, in Judea
The pursuit of the Philistines after victory was up the Shaaraim ("two gates") road to Gath and Ekron (full rooted; the last town where the Philistines kept the ark they had captured from Eli's son's

3. Numerology
Goliath is 13 spans (6 cubits and a span) tall. His armor weighed 100 minae (5000 shekels) and the iron point of his spear weighed 600 shekels.
Goliath challenges the Israelites to single combat
Goliath's challenges went on for 40 days, morning and evening
David brought 5 stones to attack Goliath but needed only 1
Jesse is elderly, and has eight sons
David is the youngest son
David is carrying 10 cheeses and 10 loaves of bread plus 10 omers (1 ephah) of roasted grain.
Jesse's three eldest sons are Eliab ( (Hebrew: "to whom God is father") , Abinadab (Hebrew: "father of nobleness") , and Shammah (Hebrew: "desert") ) were soldiers under Saul (Hebrew: "asked for".)
Eliab is the one who scolds David.

So, the Philistines move from a polluted place of blood to a fence and are defeated at the very same place Joshua defeated Amorites. The Philistines are driven back to the wine press and to their very root, the last place the Ark was hidden before they were defeated by the plague it unleashed.

I discount detailed numerological studies of the kind used in Gematria or other attempts to discover a hidden truth. Truth does not hide. But what ancient Jewish listeners would understand on hearing particular numbers is not hidden. Forty is a number of liberation, for example. And so, in this chapter, the Israelites were tested for 40 days and nights.

Similarly, I suspect that five was a number suggesting military strength (hence our five-sided Pentagon), but David needs only one of his five stones to kill Goliath. One is the number of God. I don't know if the ancient Jews were triskadecaphobics, but it's interesting that Goliath was 13 spans high.

And some numbers seem to be, well, just numbers. Eight sons, for example.

This is a story of trial and liberation through depending on the one true God. It is part of a confrontation that dates back in time to the original conquest of Canaan and still shapes the political perceptions of some Israelis today.

Now, I think that the way it shapes that perception is wrong, but that's not at issue. When you enter the Bible fully, you enter a timeless, eternal place. The landscape is the soul and every syllable is formed of spirit. In the room located at 1 Samuel 17, God is always at war with evil, and a boy of pure heart gains an extraordinary victory against impossible odds because of his simple faith. This same battle is repeated, again and again, first Joshua, then David, and today... us.

We are all that child, facing overwhelming, impossible odds. And, on a good day, overcoming.