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.


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