Friday, July 28, 2006

1 Samuel 28

The chapter opens with Prince Achish conscripting David to fight against Israel. David agrees, and Achish makes him a "bodyguard for life." In other words, he promotes him into his innermost circle of trust. In the next chapter, we will learn that Achish also believes in God, calling David as pleasing as one of God's angels. The implication is clear: Saul has behaved so badly that despite his genetic membership in the "Chosen People," God has found at least one believer among the Philistines to do His work.

Fortunately for David, the Philistine commanders will reject his service. Had they not, it would have been awkward to him to ascend to the throne of Israel.

In the meantime, Saul begins to tremble at the gathering Philistine armies. Samuel is dead. God won't talk to Saul--not through dreams nor through the Urim nor through prophecy. Having driven the mediums and spirits from Judah, Saul seeks out a medium (or a "witch" as she is called by those who provide the chapter captions) in the town of Endor. He bids her to call up the spirit of Samuel. Overcoming her dread, she does so, but Samuel merely tells Saul that he has lost the kingdom into David's hands, that Saul and his sons will die and the army of Israel will be destroyed. He ascribes this fate to Saul's failure to rub out the Amalekites as ordered by God. Indeed, as the subsequent chapter informs us, the Amalekites are at about this time laying waste to David's adopted town of Ziklag and seizing his wives and those of his followers (no word on David's children).

Saul has not eaten all day, so he is enervated and in fear of his fate. The medium, backed by Saul's men, persuades the king to eat a good meal of matzoh and veal. In the end, trapped by the Philistines, he will see three of his sons fall in battle, be badly wounded himself, and be driven to suicide to escape capture.

This chapter raises a question that troubles and divides Christians, namely the role of the occult. It also gives us what I think is the first and perhaps only glimpse of the afterworld in the Old Testament. There are five methods of foretelling the future mentioned: dreams (Hebrew: chalowm ), prophecy (Hebrew: nabiy'; mostly a favorable term, referring to people like Aaron and Samuel, but also potentially false prophets), the Urim (literally "lights", these were divining stones carried by the priests), mediums (Hebrew: 'owb; a necromancer or someone who traffics with spirits of the dead) and spiritists (Hebrew: yiddoniy, "wise knower").

Now, it is Saul the godless one who has driven the mediums and spirits from the land. Samuel, the chief priest, apparently tolerated them, because the chapter makes a point of mentioning that he had died beforehand. This is perplexing, because
Leviticus 20:27 says that "Thou shalt not suffer a witch ("medium") to live and Deuteronomy 18:10-11 casts imprecations against those who "practice divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, casts spells" or "is a medium or spiritist who consults the dead." (Deut 18:10-11).

So, how should Christians understand the prohibitions against the occult? Applying the letter of the law apparently did not save Saul, because he was a hypocrite at heart, nor did bending the law damn Samuel, because he was faithful to God (strangely, Samuel told Saul they would be together; more on this later.) In the New Testament, we are told in Acts that the disciples cast lots to select Judas's replacement. And all through the books of the Bible, we are warned of false prophets. But how to tell a true prophet? Wait to see what happens-- not a very helpful injunction when one is faced with a need to make a decision.

What follows is my own interpretation. To paraphrase Paul, all things are permitted, but we should choose to do only those things that are of God: things that arise from spontaneous, organic, living processes. Dreams, for example, or spontaneous visions meet those criteria. Certain kinds of divination, such as the Tarot, could be acceptable, depending on how one approaches them. Astrology is too mechanical and deterministic to qualify, though perhaps a rare person could do it in a manner that is inspired. Communing with a deceased relative through prayer is probably OK. Necromancy is not. Whenever the focus of understanding the future is on God, many avenues are possible. When the focus is on a being other than God or when the seeker imagines that s/he is in control of the process, it infringes on the Commandment to hold God as supreme.

And best of all? Feeling confident that the future, whatever it brings, will be the best possible life one could hope for.

That is faith. With faith, there is no need to consider dreams or prophets or devices of divination or anything else.

Finally, there is the interesting point of the view of the afterlife. It should astonish most Christians, with their simple-minded views of Heaven and Hell, that Samuel told Saul they would end up in the same place in the afterlife. I have a view that reconciles most scripture but, like everyone else's ideas, it's speculation.

Here it is: until time actually ends, no one knows the true outcome of their actions. The person who fed the starving artist might have thought s/he was doing a good deed, but if the artist was Hitler, maybe it wasn't. So the world exists in an unresolved quantum probability state. There is a very low, but non-zero probability that the earth could catch fire and burn to a cinder. There is a very high, but not unitary probability that we human beings will accomplish much the same end by our reckless environmental policies. So, since it's unclear what we have done until time ends, heaven and hell are also unpopulated until time ends. Until the very end of time, Jesus will seek to transform the blind and deaf.

Now, the Catholic catechism sees this differently. The historical roots are deep, into the Apostle's Creed itself.

But this towering doctrinal edifice rests on a slender reed:
* 1 Peter 4: 6, John 5:25 (Christ preached to the dead)
* Rom 10:5-8 (Christ does not need to be raised; He is alive)
* Eph. 4:10 (Christ descended; but the scripture is translated by the NIV that Christ descended to earth from heaven, not that he descended "to the depths of the earth.").
* Heb 2:14-15 (Christ destroys the devil and frees those who were held in slavery by fear of death)
* Acts 3:15 (God raised Jesus from death
* Rev 1:18 (Jesus is alive)
* Phil 2:10 (All shall worship Jesus)

Now, if Hell is in the depths of the earth, then one can say Christ descended to Hell. Since there is no reason to think that the Earth's core contains anything except lava, it's very difficult to say that. Many Christians do not accept the "earth's depths" = "Hell" interpretation. Some do.

The point is, there isn't a passage that says in just so many words that Jesus went to Hell and liberated the captives. The Bible is largely silent about the afterlife. In 1 Samuel 28, we are told that just and unjust mingle together. A reasonable interpretation is that until Christ, with His infinite compassion, judges them, they remain uncondemned.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

1 Samuel 27

Despite having been repeatedly saved by the Lord, and (as pointed out by Jamieson) contrary to the directive of Gad to remain in Judah, David fears for his life. And so begins one of the more improbable chapters of the Old Testament. David goes not just to Philistine territory, but to the very town where Goliath came from-- and where, one may imagine, relatives with long memories might reside. Furthermore, he fled here in an earlier episode (Chapter 21), and escaped being killed by pretending to be insane. The local Philistine ruler, Prince Achish, is apparently not too bright, because he remembers none of this.

There David apparently pledges allegiance to Achish, son of Maoch, and receives a village in return for his betrayal of Israel. He goes out on vicious rampages against the Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites, killing everyone and taking their livestock and clothes. When questioned by Achish, he says he has been raiding against the Israelites and their allies to the south (negev), an outrageous lie. Achish doesn't notice the vanishing Geshurites, Girzites, and Amalekites, nor the fact that the clothing captured by David isn't Israelite.

The etymology of placenames has some clues. Gath means "wine press." Achish means "I will blacken" or "I will terrify" or "only a man". Maoch means "oppression." So, David enters the wine press and serves the son of oppression, the terrifier. All of these convey the sense of pressure.

By contrast, Ziklag might mean "unwinding" or "outflowing," suggesting relief from pressure. Jehrameel means "may God have pity," and Jerahmeel (note different spelling) was a greatgrandson of Judah. So, the people David is pretending to attack include those requesting pity. The word "negev" may have an overtone of "parched," perhaps emphasizing the distressed nature of Israel.

David did not attack Judah or its allies, the Kenites, who were probably those Midianites affiliated with Jethro who followed Moses. The Amalekites were descendants of Esau, related to the Edomites. The Girzites and Geshurites are more obscure groups. but were presumably allied with the Amalekites.

In short, this chapter describes what happens when, through fear, one drifts away from God: one leaves the holy land and mingles with enemies, enduring oppression and forced to make one's livelihood through lies and rapine. Yet even far from God, there is refuge. Even the deadliest of enemies gives one shelter.