Tuesday, October 11, 2005

1 Samuel 19

The editing of this chapter is clumsy, appearing to recapitulate portions of the preceding chapter and of Chapter 10, and openly contradicting Chapter 15, but it also contains a wonderful scene that gives us insight into the Spirit of God.

The Philistines failing to accomplish the task for him, Saul again plots to kill David, but Jonathan talks him out of it. Saul takes an oath not to kill David. Again David is sent out and again strikes the Philistines. Again Saul tries to pin David to the wall with his spear as David is playing the harp, but David escapes with the help of Michal.

Notably, Michal has an idol which she uses to fool the guards into thinking David is still abed. Clearly, Saul's house had ceased to follow Jehovah... but wasn't it David's obligation to keep his own house clean of idolatry?

At any rate, David went to Samuel in Ramah, Samuel went with David from Ramah to Naioth. Saul sends three separate contingents to capture David, but the Spirit of God seizes them and they prophesy. Saul then leaves his home in Gibeah and goes to the great cistern at Secu, where he inquires about the precise location of Samuel and David. But the Spirit of God seized him, he stripped off his robes, and prophesied before Samuel. The similarity to Pentecost, with the powerful upwelling of God's Spirit is unmistakable.

So, Saul's attempt to murder David from 1 Samuel 18 is reprised, as is Saul's prophesying as in 1 Samuel 10. Since it says that "Saul...prophesied in Samuel's presence," there's a contradiction of 1 Samuel 15:35 "Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again...." One can try to weasel around it by saying that Saul went to see Samuel and not Samuel to see Saul, but it's much more likely that there is an editorial error either in 1 Samuel 15 or in 1 Samuel 19. An editorial error in this chapter is also consistent with the claim of this chapter that Saul's prophecy in this Chapter is the reason that people asked, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" which contradicts the claim in 1 Samuel 10 that the saying arose at the beginning of his reign when he prophesied at Gibeah.

But these editorial quibbles are of far less importance than what this chapter reveals about the Spirit of God. Rather than the active seeking of the Spirit of God described previously, this chapter presents the Spirit as overflowing, tempestuously overwhelming even rebellious Saul's will. This is particularly notable because the Lord had earlier rejected Saul and refused to speak to him, and also because Saul had brought idols into his house. Yet the Spirit of God did not entirely leave him.

There are many features of this chapter. True to the impression that the editing was uninspired, the names of the participants give us little sense of what the action means. According to BlueLetterBible.org and/or AncientSandals.com and/or "Who's Who in the Bible(Comay and Brownrigg), Naioth means "habitations," Ramah means "to be high" and is near Gibeah, Secu or Sechu means "watchtower," David means "commander" or "hero" or "beloved," Michal means "who is like God?" Gibeah means "hill," and "Saul" means "loaned." Naioth and Sechu appear only in this and the subsequent chapter. Here is the description of Secu provided by W. Ewing in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

It evidently lay between the residence of Saul at Gibeah and Ramah. It is impossible to come to any sure conclusion regarding it. Conder suggested its identification with Khirbet Suweikeh, which lies to the South of Bireh. This is possible, but perhaps we should read with the Septuagint's Codex Vaticanus, "He came to the cistern of the threshing-floor that is on the bare hill" (en to Sephei). The threshing-floors in the East are naturally on high exposed ground where this is possible, and often form part of the area whence water in the rainy season is conducted to cisterns. This might have been a place actually within the city of Ramah.

However, once one begins to study the geography more closely, it may start to make sense. David flees from a city made notorious in Judges 19-21 for the gangrape and murder of a concubine and the dissemination of pieces of her dismembered body to the tribes of Israel. We know that we are meant to recall this incident because (a) Saul repeats the dismemberment using an ox instead of a concubine in 1 Sam. 11 and (b) because David, like the concubine, is from Bethlehem.

David is also leaving the king who God never wanted and had disowned as well as his wife and the earthliness the marital relationship represents to go to Ramah and the priesthood as represented by Samuel. David could have killed the king, but he did not, because even Saul had once been touched by God. In the divine landscape, David has made the choice to leave the seat of power and material content to choose faithfulness to God.

Next, Saul leaves Gibeah, but does not head straight to Naioth. Instead, he went to the great cistern at Secu and was seized by the Spirit of God. Although the precise locations of Secu, Naioth, and Ramah are not clear (at least to me), this seems like a conscious decision on the part of Saul to seek God.

And, as God is wont to do when invited in, the wind of the Spirit (Ruach) blows away reason and leaves us as naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden. Our pretensions to be king or prophet disappear into the simple song of praise that Ruach plays upon us.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

1 Samuel 18

Having won a great victory, David also wins the loyalty of Saul's son, Jonathan. Jonathan symbolically makes David Saul's son, by clothing David in his robe, tunic, sword, bow, and belt, leaving himself nothing. Saul took David into his house, and promoted him to high military rank. But David's successes did not please Saul, as they would have if Saul had accepted David as his son. He saw David's body count, ten times higher than his own, as a source of shame, and David as a threat to his kingdom. He became angry and jealous.

One of the most peculiar scenes in the Bible follows: God send an evil spirit down the next day, while Saul was prophesying and David was playing the harp. Saul tries to kill David not once but twice. This failing, Saul tries two more tactics to control or eliminate David. In a tactic which David will repeat in his great sin against Uriah, Saul sends David into battle saying to himself that the Philistines will kill David. Saul also attempts to betroth David to his eldest daughter Merab.

But David declines to accept marriage into the royal household. It is unclear what his motives are. He says he does not merit this honor, but as later action shows, when he knows he can pay the bride price, he accepts. So, the humility seems to be a show. He may also have had some reason to decline marriage with the elder daughter, though in an era when people did not live long and therefore tended to reproduce as soon as they were able, it would have been unusual.

At any rate, Saul sees Michal as a "snare" to David and-- again an odd phrase-- so that the hand of the Philistines would be against him. In this latter plan, Saul is wildly off-mark. When David has to go into hiding off Israelite territory, he heads straight to the Philistines (1 Sam. 27), who take him in and allow him to raid from their territory. But Michal does indeed become a major headache for David.

The brideprice is Philistine foreskins. Saul demands 100-- a small number for a man who has killed tens of thousands, at least in popular legend-- and David delivers 200. One final point. The text says that David went out "before the allotted time elapsed," suggesting that payment of the bride price was on a schedule.

One note. Prophecy, as used in the book of Samuel does not refer to foretelling the future. It seems that this was a general means of religious seeking, whose nature we do not entirely understand. Clearly it involved music. A fascinating article describes the Nevel and the Kinnor, their relationships to the alphabet and the Torah, and how they were played. In prophecy, the harpist abandoned himself to the music and might so attract the hand of God. The harp also might be played by hanging it in the trees for the wind to play.

1 Samuel 18 is a difficult passage, since God sends an evil (or injurious) spirit against Saul. Many commentators have attempted to evade the difficult theological issue this raises: is God good? Or is God capable of malice?

Clarke and Henry say that Saul was only pretending to prophesy
Wesley thinks that God permitted the evil spirit to posess Saul because Saul was, in effect, blaspheming by his methods of prophecy

Indeed, Christians can't avoid the issue, since the Lord's Prayer raises it directly: "Lead us not into temptation." Why does God need to be petitioned not to deceive His followers?

The only way through this morass is to understand the limitations of human understanding of evil and good. In Hebrew, the words mean more like "injury" and "benefit," respectively. Christians have created a Manichean mental construct, in which good and evil contend (the same appears in later Jewish literature as well. A more realistic view is that injury and benefit work together. The surgeon injures the limb to heal the body, for example.

In the context of 1 Samuel 18, the evil spirit is the surgeon's saw, which separates the rebellious and idolatrous Saul from the body of Israel. The only real injury is to Saul's relationship to David, not to mention to his own son, Jonathan. Had Saul been allowed to become attached to David, he might well have corrupted him, too. By attacking David in this unprovoked way, he ensured that no one would contest the passing of the kingdom to David.

It is terrible to think of Saul, who kept saying he wanted to be on the right side of God ending up completely destroyed, cut off from God. Why was he unable to repent? And yet we see so many people pretending to piety as they make war on women and children and grind the poor into the dust that it is not so difficult to believe that some people have placed themselves beyond the reach of God.

A minor issue has to do with the relationship between Jonathan and David. There is no hint that this was anything out of the ordinary. Women were property, necessary for reproduction and childcare, and regarded as otherwise irrelevant. The rare exceptions, Deborah and Esther, were noted and praised, but the typical woman was a nonentity. By contrast, David was a military hero, the sort of soldier Jonathan aspired to be, and soon to be Jonathan's brother-in-law. It's not surprising that Jonathan loved David. So did most of Israel.