Friday, December 27, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 7

In this chapter Israel defeats the Philistines in battle. Israel has recovered the ark, by no action of their own. To them, it must have been pretty strange seeing an undriven cart riding into Beth Shemesh containing their nation’s most holy relic and a symbol of the LORD’s presence. For whatever reason, they did not take it back to the tabernacle at Shiloh, but left it for 20 years in a man’s house in Kiriath Jearim. And after all of the defeats and embarassment that they had suffered, Israel did once more what they had done so many times before, and they repented. This really is another “Judges cycle” like from the book of Judges. After suffering a staggering defeat and living in bondage to the Philistines for 20 years, they “mourned and sought after the LORD”. Samuel calls the people to gather at Mizpah, in a sort of religious convocation. Incidentally, their gathering could also be interpreted as a military act because they are essentially mustering an army at the same time. What’s funny is that Mizpah is actually the same place where the Israelites gathered in Judges 10 when they wanted to fight against the Ammonites, after “they got rid of the foreign gods among them”. It’s hilarious how similar all these events are to the episodes from the book of Judges. The Philistines, as I said, interpreted the Israelites’ gathering as an act of rebellion. The Israelites were gathering together so that they could fight against the Philistines, who were oppressing them at the time, and the Philistines were not willing to let them go. The Philistines also gather to fight, but the LORD intercedes on behalf of Israel, bringing “loud thunder” to disrupt the Philistines and give Israel victory. The Philistines are defeated for the rest of Samuel’s lifetime, and Samuel judges Israel from his hometown of Ramah. This is not where he was raised, since he grew up near the tabernacle in Shiloh. But what we read in chapter 1 of this book is that Samuel’s parents were from Ramah of Ephraim, so it appears that Samuel moved back to the town of his birth and his family. So far, everything is the same as prior Judges cycles. Now we will see if Israel dives back into sin, like earlier generations, or if they will maintain their devotion to the LORD. What we will read in later chapters is that while the Philistines are defeated, they are not crushed, and they return to attack Israel towards the end of Samuel's lifetime.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 6

In this chapter, the ark of the LORD is returned to Israel.

The basic premise of this chapter is the Philistines asking their “priests and diviners” what they should do to return the ark to Israel, because everywhere they keep it in their own lands brings nothing but death. The ritual involves bringing a “guilt offering” for the LORD, and sending it back on a new cart with two cows that have never pulled a yoke, and then they should just let it go and see what happens. When they do this, the cows behave exactly as the priests and diviners expected, delivering the ark back to the town of Beth Shemesh. God “strikes down” some people for looking into the ark, but other than that everyone lives happily ever after.

Is it just me, or does this whole story seem a little strange? In particular, how is it possible that the priests and diviners of the Philistines, who worship false gods, would know what things they could do to bring the ark back to Israel? Can anyone guess what a “cow that has calved” would behave if her calf is taken away and penned up? And these are two cows that have never pulled a cart before, so they have no training or experience doing this kind of work. The natural expectation is that the cows would not pull the cart, they would turn around and go in search of their calves. They would not pull in the same direction, and even if they weren’t searching for their calves, they would probably walk to a field somewhere and start eating grass. It simply doesn’t make sense that they would pull the cart to Israel, “keeping on the road and lowing all the way”.

That’s the point, of course. The diviners set this up as a test, because it would take some sort of supernatural intervention for the cows to behave completely contrary to their nature, delivering the ark up to Israel. (With some irony, the cows also delivered themselves up as a burnt offering.) What I find more peculiar about this story is that the diviners knew how to test the LORD’s will in this matter. I’m not sure how exactly to express this. By one interpretation, we could say that it was the wisdom of the diviners that they knew the correct test. By another interpretation, we could say it’s like Gideon’s fleece, that the diviners simply could have done anything and the LORD would have responded to get them to bring back the ark to Israel.

I think there are two things about this that are interesting. The first is to draw a parallel between this story and the story of Balaam. By all regards, Balaam was also a pagan prophet/diviner and not a follower of the LORD. However, the story of Balaam (Num 22-24) also contains references to Balaam speaking to the LORD at some times and having the “spirit of God” come upon him before he prophesied at other times (Num 24:2). I would not otherwise have envisioned such a close interaction between a pagan prophet (who was later killed by Israelites because he helped to lead Israel into sexual immorality) and the LORD. This story isn’t quite the same, but it also contains the notion of the LORD interacting in some ways with idolatrous priests.

The second is to observe how the LORD relates to people outside of the covenant. Almost all of the OT is about how the LORD relates to Israel, or how Israel relates to other nations. In the cases where the LORD does speak to other nations, it is almost always through an Israelite prophet who is himself under the covenant. In this case (and in the case of Balaam), we can read about how the LORD interacts directly with the people from other nations.

To be clear, I think the OT was written by Israelites and for Israelites. In so many ways, it is a story about Israel, and that is what it is meant to be. The text is biased towards Israel for this reason, and generally omits anything that does not relate in some way to Israel, so the rarity of passages that describe the LORD speaking directly to other nations is in large part a result of this bias.

However, every nation has a story; every person has a story. Not every story is told in the OT, but that doesn’t mean those stories don’t exist. And every story, in one way or another, contains the LORD, who is the creator of the universe and everything within it. It should not surprise us, then, to find the LORD interacting with people outside of the covenant. Even more, it is those interactions that bring us into the covenant in the first place. When the LORD first spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12, Abraham was not under the covenant. And when the LORD speaks to every man or woman in our present age, and guides our hearts to him, we are not at that time under the covenant. The covenant itself is an act of God brought to strangers who did not previously know him.

Therefore, I do not find the contents of this chapter surprising, but I do find it unusual, because there are not many passages like this where pagan priests mediate between the LORD and other people. I believe that God has spoken to unbelievers in many times and many ways, but it's not frequently described in the OT due to a sort of selection bias implied by the Israelite authorship of these books.

We also discover from this chapter that rats were part of the plague. This wasn’t mentioned in the previous chapters, but golden rats form part of the guilt offering, so by implication it must have been part of the curse as well.

Lastly, when the ark gets to Israel, verse 19 says that 70 people died “because they had looked into the ark of the LORD”. There are two notes I want to make about this verse. First, the covenant does not explicitly condemn looking into the ark. However, only Levites would be permitted to carry it, and even then I’m not sure if they were permitted to touch it. Opening and looking into it is, in this case, a kind of sacrilege. What’s interesting is that Samuel (who is not a Levite or priest) slept in the room with the ark. I think this shows more than anything else the importance of intent, and not just action. Samuel could touch the ark and live because he did so respectfully; the 70 who died were killed because they looked into the ark out of curiosity and not respect. Or at least, that’s what I would guess. In the end, the people decide that the LORD is too holy to remain in their presence, so they send messengers to Kiriath Jearim to move the ark there.

The second point is about the number 70. Is it 70, or is it 50070? This is a really minor point, but it’s got a surprisingly long story behind it. The reason why this is even an issue is that some manuscripts contain the Hebrew number 70, and some contain the number 50070. The Septuagint also contains the number 50070, and the majority of extant Hebrew manuscripts (a.k.a. the Masoretic Text) contain the number 50070. But God killing exactly 50070 people is both impractical and unrealistic. It’s impractical because most estimates would not even put the entire town’s population at 50000, and it’s unrealistic because it doesn’t make sense why God would kill such a precise number of people.

From what I’ve read, the textual difference in Hebrew between 50070 and 70 is very small, so it could have been a typographical error that happened somewhere early in transmission, and the error was reproduced for generations until it got into the Masoretic Text. Its presence in the Septuagint means that such an error (if that is the source) had to have occurred before the 1st century BCE.

This is the simplest and most likely explanation. However, to many people it raises important issues about the meaning and fidelity of the biblical text. Especially to people who believe in scriptural infallability, it can be hard to accept the idea of an error in transmission.

After all of the time that I have spent studying biblical archaeology and translation methods, I don’t think there is any inconsistency here. This is something I discussed more in my introduction to bible translations at the beginning of this commentary, but to summarize, the world has many thousands of extant bible fragments. Some of these are short, and some of them contain the entire text of the old and new testaments. Some of them are old, and some of them are very new. Even the bibles of our day will at some point become an “extant bible fragment”, just like the Septuagint and Vulgate of earlier periods are the source manuscripts of our day. As one would expect, there are thousands of differences between all of these manuscripts, and nearly all of them are minor (many don’t affect the meaning at all, like if I forgot to put a period or comma somewhere). Scholars produce unified manuscripts by taking all of these fragments and reconciling the differences. It’s a complicated process, but the essence is that they are trying to identify what the original source text would have contained (the original source is called the “autograph”).

So it is meaningless to say that every manuscript that exists is “infallible”. There are too many differences to do that. Some people will say that the original autographs are infallible, but that errors can sometimes emerge in derived copies. That leaves me wondering what it even means to say that the originals are infallible if we no longer have them. Infallibility was not one of the criteria used to select the canonical books of the bible, and even further, different churches have different bibles (the Catholic bible includes a few books that Protestant bibles do not, and Eastern Orthodox bibles have a few extra books on top of that): are all of these infallible? Only some? If so, which ones?

My personal opinion is that these kinds of questions have no satisfying resolution. Further, I do not think these are the right questions to ask. The only way the bible could have ever gotten down to us is if God shaped and controlled its transmission, not just the original authorship. But what does any of this mean to me? I think the right question to ask is, “does God use the bible to teach us about himself, about ourselves, and about how to live in the world?” I don’t find pedantic arguments about the technical definition of “infallible” to be constructive.

I am very pragmatic: if God uses the bible to teach me about life, the universe and everything, then I should read it. To me, that is the true measure of authenticity. If God speaks through some text, then that text becomes the word of God in that moment and in that way. In other moments and other ways, it might not be the word of God, just as much as people use the bible to justify e.g. violence or slavery. I believe the LORD can speak through many things. One day he might speak through the bible, another day he might speak through a dream, another day he might speak through a newspaper article or science fiction or anything else. In a more ephemeral sense, everything can be the word of God to someone and not be the word of God to another. Romans 1:20 says that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” The way that I would rephrase this is that all of creation exists to testify to the “invisible qualities” of God, and in that sense everything is the word of God.

But to the people who do not understand, it might not be the word of God, insomuch as God does not speak to those people through these things. There is something powerful about the word of God. There have been times where I felt the word of God acting upon my life like an external force; something concrete, real and very, very powerful. These times form the minority of my experience. Most of the time I pass through life hearing very little from God on a day to day basis. But everything that I hear, I value. I believe that this is a good way to live.

From all this, it should be obvious why I am not personally concerned about 70 or 50070 dead Israelites from a bygone era that may or may not be allegorical depending on whom you ask. What I care about is the reality of God’s voice speaking into my life from anything or everything in creation. If the LORD chooses to honor the bible by speaking through it, who am I to gainsay him? But if he speaks through the natural world or anything else, who am I to contradict? The only thing that I know for sure is what Moses said in Deuteronomy 8:3, that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” I can’t afford to choose what words I want and what I don’t. I need every word. For several years when I was first learning about Christianity, I had a pervasive fear about “what if I miss a word”. What if God is speaking something to me, but I am not mature or wise enough to discern it, or I’m distracted or anything else happens. I think this is similar to the issue of mistranslation: what if God created some original infallible bible, but it has been corrupted over time (as some people believe) and no longer corresponds with the original message. God might be speaking, some would say, but we are no longer capable of hearing it.

What I eventually realized is that God understands me. He knows what I am capable of hearing and what I’m not. He knows how to speak to me in a way that I understand, and if there’s something he wants me to know, he won’t just throw it out there and leave me to figure it out on my own. If God speaks, he has the power to both bring a message to us and also enable us to understand it. I have never felt that this relieved me from the importance of trying to understand, but it relieved me from the fear of failing. It works the same way with the bible. He isn’t going to just “throw out there” an autographical text sometime between 1100 and 300 BCE and leave it up to the world to ponder over it and mine it for lessons about life. The whole reason why I talked so much about the “word of God” as distinct from the bible is because God is capable of actively empowering the bible to speak messages to us. God speaks the message, but he also gives us the ability to understand it if we are sincere and willing to hear it.

I am still growing in wisdom and discernment, and I hope to continue growing in these for a long time. But I do not depend on my wisdom to perceive the word of God; I depend on the Spirit of God enabling me to understand. As 1 Corinthians 2 beautifully explains it, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him - but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” God reveals all things by his Spirit, and how much more does he reveal the things of God, those words that he speaks to our hearts to guide us to him.

In summary, I feel like in some ways it is God’s responsibility to speak to me in a way that I can understand, and it is my responsibility what I decide to do with it.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 5

In this chapter, the Philistines are afflicted in whatever city they bring the ark of the covenant.

This is an interesting chapter. In the previous chapter, the Israelites brought out the “ark of God” in the hopes that it would ensure their victory over the Philistines. The Israelites did not follow the LORD or obey the covenant in this time, and we have a lengthy account of their disobedience in the book of Judges. In most respects, their defeat at the hands of the Philistines here is just a continuation of the stories from Judges. In this way, the LORD demonstrates that it is not the objects associated with the covenant (such as the ark or the tabernacle or the altars) that brings Israel prosperity or success, it is whether their hearts follow the LORD. They were living in rebellion, and bringing the ark of the covenant with them just means that when they are defeated, they would lose the ark as well.

That is how the Philistines find themselves in verse 1, carrying the ark of God to Ashdod, one of the 5 major cities in the land of Canaan. In fact, the Philistines are taking this as a spoil of war, and they carry it to the temple of Dagon as a symbol of their dominion over Israel. Furthermore, they take it as a symbol of the supremacy of Dagon over Yahweh, the God of Israel. In previous chapters of this commentary, I have noted that culturally, each nation is associated with one or several patron gods, and that victory of defeat in battle is interpreted as the strength or weakness of their respective gods. The Philistines are triumphing over Israel, but they are also triumphing over the LORD.

The puts the LORD in an interesting position. I think it is most similar to when the LORD threatened to destroy Israel in the wilderness, but Moses interceded that their enemies would interpret that as the LORD being weak, unable to bring his people into the promised land (Num 14:16 for instance). In this case I think it’s similar, because Israel is bringing disaster upon themselves by their rebellion, but the LORD doesn’t want to be caught in a position where Israel’s defeat is interpreted as his own weakness. The logical result is that the LORD has to demonstrate his supremacy over Dagon and the Philistines, and the only thing they would understand is a demonstration of power.

That is the context of this chapter, and in light of this context I think it’s pretty straightforward. The LORD literally overthrows the statue of Dagon, breaking off pieces, and by extension he also brings a “heavy hand” upon the people of the city. Verse 5 gives us an interesting etiology, that “to this day” people skip over the threshold of the temple of Dagon because pieces of Dagon broke and fell there. My readers should also note the association between the statue of Dagon and Dagon himself. The way that modern readers might think of this is, “there is a statue that represents Dagon”, much like Michelangelo's David is a representation of David. I don’t believe that is what the ancient writer is trying to convey. Verse 3, for instance, uses the expression “there was Dagon, fallen on his face”. In this verse, the statue of Dagon is considered to be Dagon himself; the representation and the “reality” of Dagon are the same. I think this is a meaningful distinction and it is pervasive throughout the OT.

For instance, when Micah constructed an idol in Judges 17, it’s very possible he believed that he was, in some fashion, creating a god. Maybe I’m off base here, but there are many places in the OT where the physical structure of an idol is conflated with the identity of the god it purports to be. It’s like the famous painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. In that case, the painting is not a pipe, it is only a representation. But in this case, it’s plausible that the Philistines thought that the statue of Dagon really was Dagon.

It’s also possible this is why the Ten Commandments contains such a strong injunction against making idols. Partly this is because idols are a gateway to worshiping other gods, but partly this is because the LORD is not, and could never be, represented by any physical form or image, and to do so would necessarily result in misunderstanding and underestimating him. Gods like Dagon are “safe” because they are finite and controllable. Any god made by human hands can similarly be destroyed by human hands, and that gives humans the ultimate power over any gods with such forms. It’s an interesting paradox, to worship a god of one’s own creation. Devotion is an act of submission, such that the Philistines might have called Dagon lord. They worshiped him and offered sacrifices out of the belief that he could protect and bless them, and that would only be possible if Dagon were stronger and more powerful than them. At the same time, Dagon has all of the limitations that I discussed above; he is finite, controllable and even destroyable. That is the inherent paradox, to worship a God for his strength while at the same time exerting control over him.

(Minor note: I am using male pronouns “he” and “him” for convenience only. Ancient gods were associated with both male and female genders. The LORD himself is neither male nor female, but it would be far too cumbersome to write “he/she/it” everywhere I go through hundreds of chapters. This is an unfortunate limitation of the English language.)

Tangent over. The Philistines move the ark a couple times, to see if the suffering would be relieved in some other city. Perhaps the god of Gath is stronger than Dagon of Ashdod. This reminds me of Balak taking Balaam around to various places to see if perhaps he could curse Israel from one vantage point but not another (Num 23-24). It doesn’t work, and by the time the ark gets to Ekron the people freak out and refuse to allow it in.

The last thing I will mention is the peculiarity of a plague of tumors. I think this is the only place in the OT where tumors are recorded. The word also appears in Deut 28:27 as one of the promised curses if Israel should ever depart from the covenant, but this is the only place where it is recorded happening. My first thought when reading this is “the LORD is giving them cancer”. It’s possible the tumors are non-cancerous, as Deut 28 associates the tumors with boils and scabs, and given the limitations of Israelite medical science, these tumors are probably visible near the skin surface, because it’s unlikely they would have known about other kinds of tumors.  I'm not sure what else to say other than that I always found this passage a bit strange.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 4

In this chapter, the Philistines defeat Israel, capture the ark of the covenant and slay the two sons of Eli.

This chapter is the beginning of what appears to be another "Judges cycle", where Israel will be again oppressed by their enemies until some heroic figure emerges to rescue them from a self-inflicted national tragedy.  I say self-inflicted because the people are sinning against the LORD like how Eli's sons are sinning against the offering.  Every one of the Judges cycles began with the people sinning against the LORD, usually through idolatry and worshiping other gods.  Since this story is happening at the end of the Judges period, we can imagine it is a similar situation here.

Israel is defeated in battle before the Philistines, and they come up with an interesting solution: to take the ark of the covenant into the midst of their camp, to lead them in battle.  Recall how in the desert, the ark of the covenant led the people as they moved from one campsite to another (Num 10:33).  In this case, the elders of Israel suggest that bringing the ark will bring about the same kinds of victories they saw against Og and Sihon.

What's interesting is that this is more or less the plot of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is premised on the talismanic power of the ark of the covenant to guarantee any army invincibility in battle.  In fact, there is even a line in the movie when Indiana Jones says that no army with the ark has ever been defeated.  Apparently Mr. Jones has not read the book of 1 Samuel, because as we can see in this chapter the army of Israel is routed after they bring out the ark.  The point is obvious: the ark of the covenant has no power in itself.  It only has power if the LORD gives it power, which is very much in proportion to the righteousness of the people who hold it.  That's why it's preposterous to think that the Nazi army (in Indiana Jones's case) could simply take the ark of the covenant and somehow attain its power.  It's power is from the LORD, and the LORD cannot be manipulated.  In this case it's the same: the LORD will not give power for Israel to defeat their enemies if Israel is worshiping other gods and living contrary to the Law.

One part of this story that I find particularly interesting is how in verse 5 we see the psychological effect of the ark, boosting the morale of Israel and bringing fear into the hearts of the Philistines.  If the power of the ark were only psychological, then Israel would have been victorious here as before.  However, because God was not with Israel in this battle, the Philistines "take courage" (v. 9) and defeat Israel once again.

What's more, because Israel brought the ark of the covenant into the camp as a weapon of sorts, the ark was captured in their defeat, and the two sinful sons of Eli were killed in the battle.  Israel had sought to use the LORD like a tool, bringing victory against their enemies without humbling their hearts before him.  As a result, they have neither victory nor the ark that they had thought to use.  Eli also dies when he hears about the ark being taken by the Philistines, although he did not stop it from being taken out of the tabernacle.

Lastly, we see that the line of Eli is not completely cut off: Phinehas has a son who is borne soon after his death.  The boy is named "Ichabod", which means "no glory", and that must have been an awkward name growing up.  He is named after the departure of the glory from Israel, and I can only imagine how that must have affected the people around him.  It would be like naming a Japanese boy, "Nuclear" or something.  Even just saying his name would be a reminder to the people around him of the hardships their nation has suffered, similar to how Naomi called herself Mara in the book of Ruth.  Or perhaps an even closer example is how Rachel, at the moment of her death in Gen 35, named her son Ben-Oni, which means son of my suffering, and it was her husband Jacob who renamed the boy Benjamin.

In this case, it's a name that speaks about more than personal suffering and even more than national suffering.  It's a name that speaks of national failure.  The departure of glory is not something that happened to them, it was something that they did, that they brought about by their idolatry.  Eli and Phinehas's wife die from the grief that came upon them, and that shows the kind of despair the nation is in right now.  But we know that Samuel is righteous and "the word of Samuel came to all Israel" (v. 1), so perhaps things will get better, in a time and a way that Israel does not anticipate.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter, the LORD speaks to young Samuel and Samuel begins ministering prophetically.

The first thing I would like to point out is a very subtle thing that many readers might not otherwise notice, which is in verse 3.  Do you see it?  "And the lamp of God had not yet gone out."  What is the lamp of God?  It is the lampstand that is contained within the tabernacle, opposite of the table of bread of the presence (also known as the table of showbread).  From this verse, we can infer that it was an ordinary occurrence for the lamp of God to eventually burn out, because the word "yet" implies that it was something that happened often; perhaps every night.

The author only mentions it to give us an idea of what time it is, but there is a subtle implication: the priests are not doing their jobs.  The priests were commanded to keep the lamp of God burning continually for all their generations (you can read about this command in various places: Ex 27:20, Lev 24:2)  In my opinion,  this is the author making a sort of passive-aggressive criticism of Eli and his sons for failing in their duties.  Incidentally, this is another case where the author is not explicitly condemning Eli's actions, but we should be able to read what is going on.  Not only are Eli's sons disregarding the Law by eating fat and committing sexual immorality, they are also disregarding their duty to maintain the tabernacle in such things as the golden lampstand.  This is just one more thing to show us the kind of society that existed at the time and how the people and priests related to the LORD.  There were definitely righteous men and women, such as Hannah, who obeyed the commandments of the Law, but then there were other people who did "what was right in their own eyes" such as Eli's sons.

The second part of verse 3 is also interesting.  It shows that Samuel was sleeping in the tabernacle "where the ark of God was".  It's worth mentioning that this verse actually uses the word "temple" instead of "tabernacle", which in this case is an anachronism because the temple hasn't been constructed yet.  This is why I haven't talked about the temple at all, because it was not described in the Pentateuch.  Just so my readers understand, the temple is essentially the exact same thing as the tabernacle in both purpose and design; however, the temple was built as a permanent construction, while the tabernacle is designed to be taken down and set up so that it could travel with the Israelites through their wandering in the desert.  The first reference to the "temple" was in 1 Samuel 1:9, and this is the second such reference.  In my opinion, this subtle change in language indicates that Samuel (and subsequent books) were probably written by a different author or in a different time than the earlier books of the OT.

But that wasn't the thing I wanted to point out.  What I wanted to point out is that Samuel is sleeping near the ark of God, which would have been in the most holy place that should have only been visited by the high priest once a year.  This verse is implying that either the ark was not kept in the most holy place, or that Samuel was permitted to sleep in a place that should not have been visited by Levites, much less by an Ephraimite such as himself.

What makes this even more striking is that the LORD doesn't rebuke Samuel for what he's doing; in fact, the LORD takes this as an opportunity to speak to Samuel and favors him.  By all appearances, Samuel is also violating the Law, just as Eli's sons violate the Law.  However, Samuel is favored for his actions, while the LORD (in the previous chapter) condemns Eli's sons to death.  What is the difference between Eli's sons and Samuel?  I believe the answer is honor.  Samuel desired to honor the LORD, and slept in the presence of the ark because he desired to be closer to the LORD.  Eli's sons sought to enrich themselves and take advantage of their power for personal gain.  I think this is an important example of how the LORD is not seeking strict obedience to the Law, but obedience to the spirit and intent of what the Law means.  It is primarily expressed in the Shema of Deut 6: To "love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."

 We don't know Samuel's story, but in whatever way, he has earned the LORD's favor.  The LORD calls him three times, but for some reason he thought it was Eli calling.  Perhaps he heard the LORD's voice out loud and mistook it for Eli?  Eli is also slow to figure out that it is the LORD calling him, and Eli seems to share Samuel's confusion.  V. 10 is another interesting verse, because it says the LORD "came and stood... as at other times".  This suggests that the LORD not only spoke to Samuel, but was in some way present in the tabernacle where Samuel was sleeping.

The particular message that the LORD shared with Samuel is almost the same as what we read in the previous chapter.  It's pretty strange to imagine Samuel as a young child prophesying destruction to the high priest Eli, an elder, one of the chief leaders of Israel.

In the end, "the LORD appeared again at Shiloh" because of the prophecies of Samuel.  This draws a sharp contrast against v. 1 when "word from the LORD was rare in those days".  Eli and his sons did not honor the LORD, so the LORD did not honor them by sharing "words" with them.  With Samuel, all of Israel knew that he was a prophet because the LORD spoke to him and fulfilled the words that he spoke.  It appears that Samuel's faithfulness is helping to restore the word of the LORD to the entire nation, although the unfaithful priests have yet to be dealt with.

In the larger context of Israel's history, we can see how the delinquent priesthood plays along with Israel's anarchy.  The people do "what is right in their own eyes", and the priests seem to behave likewise.  There have been a handful of righteous men and women, sometimes the judges and sometimes ordinary folk like Hannah or Jael, but the culture at large has been rebellious and sinful.  Samuel's rise as a prophet is similar to the judges who came before him (such as Deborah, who was known as a prophetess), but as we will see from the length of his account, Samuel will play a far more transformative role.  The earlier judges "saved Israel from their enemies", but Samuel will help bring a more profound transformation to the nation from the inside out.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 2

In this chapter, Samuel ministers before the LORD while the sons of Eli do evil.

This chapter begins with the song of Hannah, whose primary theme seems to be the reversal of fortunes between those who are strong and those who are weak.  The proud are humbled before the LORD, while the barren woman (Hannah herself) "gives birth to seven [sons]".  Seven, as before, is the number of completion or fullness, so this metaphorically indicates the completion of the barren woman's restoration to favor.  While much of the song is devoted to showing that the LORD controls the fortune of all persons and can make the rich become poor, or the poor become rich, she concludes by stating the pattern underlying this behavior: the LORD "keeps the feet of his godly ones, but the wicked ones are silenced in darkness."  In his strength and power, the LORD judges men by their righteousness.

Verse 10 contains an interesting admission: "he will give strength to his king."  Which king does this refer to, since there is no king over Israel at this time?  I say this ironically.  This verse is probably a slight anachronism, referring to the king who would shortly emerge over Israel.  Indeed, Samuel himself will anoint this king, so Hannah actually plays a role bringing about the kingdom that she anticipates in her song.

Verse 12 tells us that the sons of Eli were literally "the sons of Belial; they did not know the LORD".  Belial is one of the idolatrous gods of Canaan.  It tells us that the priest's servant would take a piece of meat from each offering while the fat was still on it.  If the person offering the sacrifice complained, they would threaten violence until their demands were met.

Taking meat from the offerings is not a sin.  In fact, this is how the priests would make a living.  Certain kinds of offerings had to be completely burnt, but most offerings only required a small portion to be burned, always including the fat from the animal.  The rest of the meat would sometimes be eaten by the petitioner (in the case of a fellowship offering), but in most cases would be given to the priest.  In all cases, eating the fat was a grave sin and is prohibited several times (see e.g. Lev 3:17: "you shall not eat any fat or any blood", or Lev 7:22-27, which says the same thing in more detail).  Verse 17 tells us that their sin was very great, and Leviticus explains in more detail how their behavior was sinful.  As priests, they should be intimately aware of the Law's regulations governing animal sacrifice, so they don't really have any excuses.  If my readers want to learn more about how the Law of Moses governed animal sacrifices, I encourage them to read Leviticus chapters 1-7, which I have previously covered in my commentary (beginning here).

Samuel, on the other hand, is ministering before the LORD in a linen ephod (the priestly garment).  As I said when discussing the previous chapter, Samuel is an Ephraimite, but ministering before the LORD as if he were a Levite.  On the other hand, the sons of Eli are called "sons of Belial", even though biologically they are sons of Levi and have the right to minister in the Tabernacle.

Hannah, for her part, is blessed by the LORD and gives birth to 5 more children.  This is the last we ever hear about Hannah, but we can rest assured that the LORD "visited" her and she has what we can only presume is a blessed life of one sort or another.

On the other hand, it appears the sinfulness of the sons of Eli continue, as they also have sex with the "women who served at the doorway of the Tent of Meeting".  I would guess these are Levite women, but there wasn't any place in the Law of Moses that their service is stipulated.  Polygamy is not against the Law (indeed, Elkanah himself came to the Tabernacle with two wives), but we can easily hypothesize that the behavior of Eli's sons constituted adultery or prostitution or some form of sexual immorality.  Maybe they used their positions of power to coerce the women into sex?  The text doesn't really say, but it's evidently bad.

Eli rebukes his sons. but evidently he does not do enough to stop them.  He "honors [his] sons above me".  An anonymous "man of God" comes to deliver a rebuke to Eli, promising that his family will perish even while the LORD is doing good for Israel at large.  The LORD will raise up a faithful priest (Samuel), "and he will walk before my anointed one always".  The "anointed" is a reference to the future king, whom Samuel himself with anoint with oil as a symbol of the LORD's favor.

If there's one big point to this chapter, it's to draw a contrast between the sinfulness of Eli's sons. the next generation of priests being raised up, and the faithfulness of Samuel.  Samuel is "adopted", in the sense that he comes from another tribe, while the sons of Eli are descendants of Aaron but nevertheless do a lot of wrong stuff.  This reminds me of Jacob and Esau.  Esau was by right the elder son, but Jacob became the son of the promise, the father of the nation that inherited the promised land.  Similarly, Ephraim was younger than Manasseh, but Ephraim was blessed by Jacob to be greater than his brother (Gen 48:13-20).  In this case it is Samuel, the outsider, who is righteous, while the natural-born Levites are sinning in the LORD's presence.

I called it a "paradox" that Samuel gets to serve with the Levites.  This chapter shows us that Samuel is more righteous than the men born into the priestly service, and in a way that is a second paradox.  Like in Hannah's song, the men who were born into power and influence in the priestly service are going to be thrown down, while Samuel who is born as an Ephraimite will "walk before my anointed one always".  This is a second, and more subtle, fulfillment of Hannah's song.  It doesn't matter what family you are born into, if you honor the LORD, the LORD will honor you (v. 30).  The LORD cares more about faithfulness and righteousness than having the right ancestors.  It was kind of the same way with Ruth, who was born a Moabite, but adopted into Israel because of her faithfulness to Naomi and righteousness before the LORD.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 1

In this chapter, Samuel is born.

The story in this chapter should sound vaguely familiar.  Hannah, like many other figures in the OT, is barren.  Before this, we read about the barrenness of Sarah (Gen 17-18), Rebekah (Gen 25), Rachel (Gen 29-30) and Manoah's wife, the mother of Samson (Judges 13).  In two of these cases (Sarah and Manoah's wife), the birth of their son was foretold by an angel.  In the case of Rebekah and Rachel, this did not happen.

In fact, this is even more similar to the case of Rachel because in that episode, Jacob loved Rachel, and the LORD "opened [Leah's] womb" because he "saw that Leah was unloved".  Rachel remained barren for some years, until the "LORD remembered" her in Gen 30:22.  Here in 1st Samuel (what I will typically refer to as 1 Samuel), there seems to be a similar conflict between Hannah and Peninnah.  Elkanah loves Hannah more and favors her, but Peninnah has children while Hannah is barren.

Hannah, just like Rachel, is destined to give birth to a son.  Just like Rachel, it is a real battle for her, however.  Rachel gave birth to Joseph, who turned into a heroic figure for his brothers and father, saving them from a famine.  Hannah will also give birth to a heroic figure, the eponymous Samuel, but only after bitter tears and prayer.

To me, this chapter is a reminder of why polygamy doesn't work.  We saw Rachel and Leah in conflict for years, with Leah feeling unloved and Rachel feeling like a failure for her barrenness.  In this chapter, we see Peninnah provoking and harassing Hannah for years, and Elkanah is about as useless as Jacob (compare Gen 30:2 with 1 Samuel 1:8).

Eli is similarly clueless, unable to distinguish prayer from drunkenness.  As an aside, this makes me wonder if it was a common thing for drunkards to wander into the tabernacle (presumably the courtyard, as the holy place is inaccessible to non-priests).  I mean, is this something that Eli is used to, such that he expected it of Hannah as well?  Remember the context; we are still living in the Judges period, when "every man did what was right in his own eyes".

The birth of Samuel is not predicted by an angel (nor was the birth of Joseph), but Eli blessed Hannah and "the LORD remembered her", just like he remembered Rachel.  Like Samson, Samuel is devoted to the LORD as a Nazirite when Hannah swears that "a razor shall never come on his head".  What is perhaps even more interesting is that Hannah brings Samuel to live before the LORD for the rest of his life, even though he is an Ephraimite.  Remember that service to the LORD is considered the "inheritance" of the Levites.  So I'm very curious what kind of form Samuel's service will take.  Will he be informally inducted as a Levite, or is he just brought in as a servant to Eli and the priests?  If I had to guess, I would suspect that Samuel is not permitted to serve inside the Tabernacle.  It seems contrary to the Law that he would be allowed to do so, and yet later chapters in this book suggest he does just that.

Partly, I think we can ascribe this to the craziness of the Judges era, but it's also clear that the LORD favors and supports Samuel in his ministry (this will become evident in later chapters), even though Samuel is not a Levite and doesn't have a position under the Law of Moses to minister before the LORD.  This is one of the paradoxes of the OT, where God seems to be supporting something that runs contrary to the letter of the Law.  To me, this points to a higher law, like what is expressed in the ten commandments.  If you love the LORD, have no other gods before him, and live in his service, it seems that other parts of the Law are more ... flexible?  I'm not sure exactly how to express this concept, but I think Samuel's service is definitely a paradox of some kind, and it shows that the Law of Moses is not immutable, even in the eyes of the LORD.  I don't know what I'm trying to say, other than that it is very interesting.  I wonder how it should be properly interpreted.

On a minor note, Elkanah and his family are traveling to the Tabernacle is Shiloh to observe the three annual feasts that were laid out in the Law.  Even through this chaotic period in Israel's history, we can see that at least some of the people are observing the commandments.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel Introduction

With Ruth and the judges behind us, we are now on the cusp of entering the kingdom period in Israel's history.  Indeed, in this very book a king is going to be anointed over Israel, to unite the warring tribes, lead the people into battle, and guide them into righteousness and the Law.

Or at least that's the theory.  In practice, we will see many kings spend an awful lot of time leading people into battle and very little time with righteousness and the Law.

1 Samuel, sometimes called 1st Samuel, is the first half of what was originally a single composition, the book of Samuel.  At some point in history (possibly the Septuagint) the book was divided roughly into two halves, named as such.  My readers will notice that the final chapter of 1 Samuel is not really much of a conclusion, and thematically the book blends with the second half very closely.

The authorship and dating of Samuel shares many of the same difficulties as finding the authorship and dating of Judges and Ruth.  The book does not name its own author, and while the events described by the book can be dated, the book does not date its own composition either.  As with most books of the bible, there is a "traditional" author that is listed in the Talmud, and there is one or more "modern" guesses at the authorship.  The traditional author is Samuel himself, while the "modern" guesses usually suggest that the book was composed by multiple authors over some period of time in the 6th or 7th century BCE.  The traditional theory is that the book is a singular work written in one man's lifetime, while the modern theory is that the book is a patchwork of older oral traditions written down and edited and revised until it stabilized into a final form.

It's not my purpose to analyze these theories in depth.  In general, I think if we needed to know who the author was, we would have been told.  That's not to say that figuring out the author would be meaningless, but given that this is a 2600 year old book, it's nearly impossible at this point to come up with a definitive authorship for Samuel, so I think there are more meaningful avenues of investigation, such as the theology, history and culture of the book, rather than trying to figure out who might have written it down.

I'm going to move on.

The content of Samuel is almost entirely stories about people's lives: Saul and Samuel and David.  I think it's one of the easiest books to read in the OT, because it is strictly narrative, and a lot of the stories are actually quite interesting.  I also think it is very well written.  So this is a really good book for first-time readers, and it should be fun to write commentary for as well.

Thematically, 1 Samuel covers the history of Israel's earliest king, from how he was anointed as king over Israel to his death.  This man is king Saul.  King Saul is a literary foil in this story, brought out for the almost sole purpose of showing us what a bad king would look like.  Saul is also a demonstration of the futility and destruction that results when people make decisions without appealing to the LORD for wisdom and guidance.  In that sense, it's similar to the story in Joshua 9 when the Gibeonites deceived the Israelites into signing a peace treaty.

The interplay between Saul and David is probably the most important part of this story.  In particular, we will observe how David, even after being anointed as Saul's replacement, continues to live in deference to Saul, whom he calls "the LORD's anointed", because Saul was anointed before David.  Even when Saul is trying to kill David, David hides and runs away.  When David has it in his power to kill Saul, he declines.  This happens more than once.  I don't want to discuss those stories in depth right now, but I want my readers to focus on how these experiences shape David throughout his life, and think about how they might affect his future kingship.

What I love about 1 Samuel is this: for nearly every other biblical figure, I always wonder about their backstory and how they got to be the men or women that they are.  I wondered about Ruth's story, why she remained faithful to Naomi, and I wondered about Abraham, how he became a righteous man, and about Moses, and many others.  With David, we actually get to see a lot of his backstory before he becomes king, and that story is here.  We see David taken from being a rugged shepherd boy and grow into the rather daunting figure that he becomes.  More significantly, we can see how he is emotionally shaped as he struggles through adversity, and how he grows in humility and dependence on the LORD.

I can't think of anything else I want to add, so let's just dive right in.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 4

In this chapter, Boaz acquires the property of Elimelech and marries Ruth.

As Boaz promised in the last chapter, he goes to meet with this "close relative" who has priority over his claim to Elimelech's inheritance.  From this encounter, we see many details of how Israelite society functioned.

In particular, what we see here is more or less a legal proceeding.  Everything takes place at the city gate, which is where such things happened.  "Those who sit at the gates" is an expression that refers to the elders of a city, those who are honored in the city.  They are like the ten elders who Boaz gathers to witness his dealing with the "close relative".  Their testimony is what Boaz would rely on if there was any future dispute, so witnessing a legal transaction implies a level of reliability.

Some examples of this: Gen 19:1, Lot was sitting in the city gate of Sodom when the two angels arrived.  Even though Lot was a foreigner, he was also wealthy and apparently honored in the city.  Gen 23, when Abraham buys the field from Ephron the Hittite, he does so at the gathering of people near the city gate, amongst many witnesses.  There are also various future references (2 Samuel 19:8, Esther 2:19-21) that imply this legal tradition continued long into Israel's future.  We can also see in Gen 23 that the Hittites had the same custom, and in Esther 2 we can see that the Persians also had this custom.  So it appears to be a cultural tradition that spanned many centuries and nations.

So that's what's going on when Boaz gathers the "close relative" and the ten elders at the city gate.  The transaction itself is another cultural tradition, which is closely related to levirate marriage.  It appears that this close relative is expected to "buy" Elimelech's property from Naomi, but also acquires Ruth as a wife.  The expectation is that, like in a levirate marriage, the close relative would raise up sons for Naomi that would legally be counted as children of Elimelech.  Or perhaps more properly, they would be counted sons of Mahlon, because that was Ruth's husband.  It's not clear why he wouldn't marry Naomi; perhaps she was past the age of child-bearing and therefore ineligible for such a marriage.

Either way, we discover that the close relative is eager to acquire property, but much less eager to acquire a levirate wife, maybe for the same reason that Onan did not want to raise up sons through Tamar in Gen 38.  It's not exactly clear why there is a risk, but probably what the "close relative" is concerned about is that he would have children through Ruth, and if his sons through his own wife die then his inheritance would go to the sons of Ruth.  They would carry on Elimelech's name, so the "close relative" would not have an inheritance in his own name.  It seems that this is one of the legal complications of having biological children who are "regarded" as being the children of another man.  Perhaps it created some sort of ambiguity, where (as biological children) they are permitted to have their father's inheritance, but in the name of the other man.

Either way, the "close relative" relinquishes his claim to the property and Ruth, and Boaz takes it instead.  Although it would be surprising for a man of his wealth and stature, perhaps Boaz was still single at this time and that's why he didn't have any reluctance about marrying Ruth.

Verse 7 tells us another one of their customs, about a man taking off his sandal "to confirm any matter".  I can't imagine any possible etiology for this custom.  Apparently it's just what they do.  However, I can't help but think that this is meant to reference Deut 25:9, because it's also part of the Law that any man who refuses to perform a levirate marriage for his brother is to have his sandal removed by his brother's wife.  In this chapter, it says that the man himself is to remove his sandal as a sign of finality.  So the two customs are not identical, but they are so similar I think they must be related.  This is probably because of some sort of implied significance to wearing sandals.

We also know that in many places men are instructed to remove their sandals as a sign of reverence.  Moses was commanded to remove his sandals in Ex 3, and Joshua was similarly commanded in Joshua 5.  If I had to guess, I'd say that sandals are a sign of authority.  So a man removes them voluntarily to confirm an agreement, but if a sandal is taken from him that is a mark of disgrace.

So that's the first irony in this story, that the "close relative" removes his sandal.  The second irony is that the blessing given to Boaz references "Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah" (v. 12), because that story (which occurs in Gen 38) only happened because Onan sinned regarding his brother's wife, and then Judah sinned by refusing to give Shelah to Tamar as another husband.  This book is about levirate marriage done right, and the very benediction for Boaz refers to his ancestor who had gotten it wrong.  So that's ironic.  Even within this chapter, we have one man refusing his duty to his brother, and another man accepting it.

In the end they get married, and Ruth gives birth to a son.  The son is placed on Naomi's lap as a sign that the son is "accounted" to Naomi and her former husband Elimelech.  This is the same thing that Rachel refers to in Gen 30:3, when she says of her maidservant, "go in to her [i.e. have sex] that she may bear [children] on my knees".  Rachel is referring to Jacob having sex with her servant, but having the children counted as Rachel's.  This completes the story arc for Naomi, who lost everything in Moab and called herself Mara, but now has a son to her name and has Ruth, who is "better to you than seven sons".  Both Ruth and Naomi, we can figure, lived happily ever after, as Ruth gains a new husband and Naomi has her hope and future re-ignited by her son, Obed.

This story would have been part of the book of Judges if it weren't for the genealogy at the very end.  Obed, as we can see, is the grandfather of the future king David.  In fact, this is the first reference in the OT to David, so that's why I haven't talked about him much before, but king David is a pivotal figure in Israel's history, and also in the theology of the OT.  I'll say more about him later.  For now, I will just say that this genealogy is what completes the bridge between the "judges period" and the "kingdom period" in OT history.  What's great about this genealogy is that it ties together figures from three historical periods in Israel who are all directly related to each other.  In this way, it shows us both literally and metaphorically how Israel passed from the time of Judah and Perez (the patriarchs), to the time of Boaz and Obed (the judges), and from there to the time of David (the kingdom).  Nahshon was the leader of Israel during the exodus, so I can probably include that as a fourth period, between the patriarchs and the judges.

Some commentators claim that the genealogy is a late addition and not part of what was originally Ruth's story.  I can see why they would think that, but at the same time I think the entire book of Ruth is serving as a bridge between the judges and the kingdom, and the genealogy summarizes and reinforces that purpose.  So I don't think the genealogy distracts from the message of Ruth, and indeed it would be hard to understand the story of Ruth without looking towards the future, what resulted from Ruth's marriage to Boaz.

It's amazing to think that a Moabite would be an ancestor of king David.  It's even more amazing to me that this would be the subject of a book in the OT, when so much of the bible describes the open hostility between Moab and Israel.  Some commentators suggest that is the entire purpose of Ruth, to show that inter-racial marriages with Moabites were not always a bad thing, and that Ruth must therefore be dated to a time period when that was known to be a controversial issue.

I'm not sure if I believe we can date Ruth's authorship based on this one issue, but I agree that it is central to the narrative in this book.  Israelite men were strongly discouraged from intermarrying with other nations, and yet both Boaz and Ruth are portrayed as righteous in this book, and their marriage results in the later birth of king David.  I think this book was meant to be challenging to its ancient Hebrew readers.  Even to me I feel like it challenges my understanding of the OT and the Mosaic Law.  It's as if God were throwing in a contradiction just to keep us from getting too comfortable with ourselves and our understanding.  It's like God is saying, "you always thought things were supposed to be this way, but now I will do things that way and it will be even better."

I also think God is doing this to show us that there is a higher truth.  The Law is true and is a truth, but there is a higher truth that supercedes it, and possibly also a higher law.  I think we are meant to be unsettled by this book, and that it gives us a glimpse into a different reality that we may not have foreseen.  The Israelites must have known that the Law of Moses forbade intermarriage with other nations, but it seems there is some other law where the LORD approved of it, a law governed not by Ruth or Boaz's ethnicity, but by their righteousness before the LORD.

But just as the window opened, now it closes as we move on to the book of 1 Samuel.  But I want this story to be on people's minds as they read through Samuel, because we should always remember that God does not operate with human prejudices, and that the righteousness of any man or woman is more powerful in God's sight than their ancestors or "being born in the wrong family".  Ruth was born into the "wrong family" but was righteous in God's sight because her heart was pure.  Indeed, God looks at the heart, while mankind only looks at the skin, and as a result mankind misjudges the issues of good and evil.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 3

In this chapter, Ruth visits Boaz at the threshing floor and proposes to him.

This is another very unusual chapter.  There are a couple minor cultural notes I will make, but the most significant thing in my opinion is how Ruth takes the initiative to go visit Boaz and in v. 9, she essentially proposes to him, saying "you are a close relative, cover me with your blanket".  I would guess that's a euphemism for marriage and/or sex.

In many places in the bible, women are passively given in marriage.  For example, Abraham sent his servant to go get Rebekah as a wife for Isaac.  Later, Jacob bartered with Laban for Rachel and Leah.  Rachel did not take any initiative to be married to Jacob, and as far as the story tells us, nobody even asked Rachel for her opinion about marrying Jacob.  And that's just kinda how things went.  For what it's worth, Laban did ask Rebekah if she wanted to go with Abraham's servant in Gen 24:58, but as a general principle, marriages were usually arranged.

That doesn't mean women were married against their will, but they weren't really the decision-maker.  That role, as in the cases of Rebekah and Rachel, typically fell to their fathers or the senior men of the household.  This was just another expression of the patriarchy that existed in Hebrew culture.

In this context, Ruth's actions are very striking because they defy social convention.  Yet this was at Naomi's urging, and Boaz himself describes Ruth's actions as a "kindness" because she "did not go after young men".  So I think Ruth's boldness is unusual, but it's perhaps even more surprising how favorably she is depicted by the author of this book.  In Boaz's words, Ruth is a "woman of excellence".  I believe that we can infer the author's opinion by these comments, which he chooses to include in the text.

I think that's the most interesting part of this chapter.  There are a few other cultural inferences we can make.  First of all, note that harvest time is typically a time of celebration in agricultural societies.  It is the time of year when all of the hard work plowing and sowing and maintaining crops finally pays off, a time of great abundance when people stop having to live off last year's harvest and can eat from the new crop.  That's why verse 3 talks about Boaz "eating and drinking" at the threshing floor, because it is more or less a party.

Even more allusively, apparently women are not permitted at these threshing floor parties.  Naomi tells Ruth to go secretly, and Boaz himself warns her to "let it not be known that a woman came to the threshing floor".  This is not something that is in the Law, and it's not mentioned anywhere else in the bible, so there isn't any additional context that I can bring to this.  In the context of this story, it serves to highlight the boldness of Ruth's actions.  Not only was Ruth trying to initiate a relationship with Boaz, but she did so while secretly going to a men-only celebration event.

Boaz must have liked her, because he agrees to marry her if he can, and also sends her away with six "measures" of barley (probably ephahs?).  But first Boaz has to settle this closer relative who in the levirate system, has higher priority to marrying Ruth than Boaz does (v. 12-13).  So Boaz needs this kinsman redeemer to relinquish his claim on Ruth before Boaz can marry her.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth 2

In this chapter, Ruth goes out to glean in the fields during harvest.

This is another interesting chapter.  The reason why I like this chapter is that it shows how Israelite customs formed in response to commandments from the Law.  Leviticus 19:9 (and 23:22) says that the Israelites must not reap the corners of their fields, nor are they permitted to pass over the field twice.  Deut 24:19-21 gives this command in an even more extended way, saying that whether reaping wheat or olives or grapes, the harvesters should only pass over it once and leave the rest for the widows and orphans.

The practical result is what we see in this chapter.  People like Ruth, who did not possess fields of their own to sow and harvest, would go to other people's fields and follow after their harvesters, gleaning from what is left over.  And I don't think it was just Ruth doing this, it became a tradition in Israel that those in poverty could go out and gather after the reapers, essentially collecting the second harvest from what was left behind.

Even so, this was a dangerous thing for a woman and a foreigner to do alone.  Naomi permitted Ruth to do this in verse 2, but they didn't have any other source of food.  Without gleaning in the fields, they would have nothing.  Also, I think it's pretty clear that not every field owner would permit this.  It's part of the Law, but there are many Israelites in this time who did not obey the Law.

Boaz goes beyond the Law, though.  He provides Ruth water drawn from his wells (v. 9), gives her food prepared for his servants (v. 14), and even goes so far as to tell his harvesters to deliberately leave behind grain for Ruth to harvest (v. 16).

When Ruth returns to her mother-in-law, Naomi seems amazed at how much Ruth was able to gather, because Boaz favored her and asked his servants to help her.

So there are a couple things going on here.  The first is what I already mentioned, that Ruth is taking on the risk of physical harm by going out from Bethlehem into the surrounding fields to glean (see e.g. verse 22).  The second is this fortuitous meeting of Ruth and Boaz. The third is Boaz's kindness to Ruth, with Boaz helping Ruth because of "all that you have done for your mother-in-law after the death of your husband".  It seems that Boaz is a decent guy, but also helps Ruth because of their family relationship through Naomi.  This is in spite of Ruth being a Moabite and a foreigner.

Things in the story are starting to look up.

Bible Commentary - Ruth 1

In this chapter, the eponymous Ruth follows her mother-in-law back to Israel.

There's a lot of things I want to say about this chapter, since I think it's a very interesting chapter.  First of all, note the famine.  Famines are a recurring theme in Israel's history, beginning with the several famines in Genesis (Gen 12, 26, 41) that afflicted Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's generations.  During their lives, Abraham and Jacob both traveled to other lands to escape the famine, and Elimelech and Naomi do the same thing here.

Even though Moab and Israel have mutual enmity, Elimelech seems to settle down; both of his sons get married to Moabite women, and they make a life for themselves.  Perhaps not a good life, but a life.  Of course, we are told in verses 3-5 that Naomi's husband and both of her sons died, so perhaps it was not a very good life at all.  We don't know how they died, but there is an implicit hardship that they must have been facing such that they all died before bearing any children.

Next, note that after Naomi's husband and sons died, she no longer had anyone supporting her.  Sons are particularly important for an older woman because they provide both food and physical protection for you in your old age.  There is no social security in Israel; your children provide for you in old age.  There is also no police force; your sons and relatives protect you and avenge you if anyone tries to harm you.  For an earlier example, see Gen 38.  In fact, Naomi tells the two women to return to Moab because she would not be able to provide husbands for them, which I think is an implied reference to levirate marriage, that Naomi would raise up sons to give to them in marriage.

Verses 16-17 contain one of the most beautiful passages of devotion in the bible.  Naomi is urging Ruth to return to her family and to Moab, because Naomi simply has nothing to give her, nothing but pain.  But Ruth insists on staying with her to the end, no matter what happens.  As with so many other stories, I find myself wondering how Ruth got to this place.  What happened to Ruth such that she desired to follow Naomi, contrary to her own self interest?  What made Ruth want to serve the LORD, rather than the gods of her youth?

In this chapter, Ruth is behaving like Abraham.  Abraham left his family, his home and his gods in order to follow the LORD, travel to the promised land, and to become "the father of many nations."  Ruth does much the same, giving up her family, her land and her gods in order to follow the LORD and Naomi, traveling into a hostile country.  Also remember that this is during the judges period, when "there was no king in Israel" and everyone "did what was right in his own eyes".  Not only is Ruth a foreigner and a widow, but she's also in a hostile and lawless country.  She is following Naomi at considerable risk of both starvation and being raped or murdered.

I marveled at the faith of Abraham, how he was inspired to follow the LORD, and I marvel at Ruth as well.  Abraham did it as a man with many servants; Ruth does it as a single woman.  What hope could they have had?  Naomi changes her own name to Mara, bitterness, as an expression of the bitterness she feels her life has become.  Naomi clearly had no hope.  What hope could Ruth have had for anything good to come into her life, following Naomi into a barren and hostile land?  In what did Ruth have faith?  What promise of goodness inspired her to cling to her mother-in-law, seeking the LORD and refusing to go back to the gods of her people?

When Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in Judah, the people are surprised to see Naomi return without husband and in destitution.  This is the nadir of the story; things are about to turn around.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bible Commentary - Ruth Introduction

Ruth is the last book from the judges period, before there was a king in Israel.  Much like the stories in Judges chapters 17 through 21, the story of Ruth is a sort of vignette, telling us about the lives of individuals but also painting a picture of the chaos and danger that reigned during this period.

Thematically, the book of Ruth serves as a bridge between the stories in Judges and the stories that follow in Samuel.  The book of Ruth opens by telling us that the events occurred "in the days when the judges governed", and ends by telling us that the future King David was a descendant of Ruth.  I believe that Ruth (much like Judges) was written with the knowledge and context of the later histories of Israel's kingdom.  It only mentions the future king at the very end of the book, which could be a later edit.  However, there are thematic similarities between Ruth and Judges that imply they had a common author, or at least common knowledge.

The entire book of Judges is devoted to showing us why we needed a king; every story points to the anarchy and sinfulness that filled Israel before they had a king.  The book of Ruth really only has one purpose: to show us part of the history of how that king was brought into the world.  Like I said, it forms a bridge between the period of the judges and the period of the kingdom.  As such, Ruth would not make any sense without the former or the latter.  Without a kingdom to lead us to, Ruth has no purpose.  And without Judges as the context, Ruth doesn't explain why we need a king.

I believe this answers some of the questions about authorship and dating for Ruth as well.  It is likely that it was authored by the same person or group that wrote Judges, and around the same time.  Since the dating of Judges itself is disputed, it's hard to get more specific than that.  I think it is strongly likely that they were written during the kingdom period, but more than that is hard to say.  The authors of all these books leave themselves anonymous.  Tradition says that this book was authored by Samuel, but there isn't any textual support for that.  In my opinion, it's as good a theory as any, because the truth is that we just don't know, and probably never will.

I think these books, like Ruth and Judges, don't tell us who wrote them because we aren't supposed to focus on the author.  I think it's interesting to try to figure out who might have written them, but I don't think it detracts much from our understanding to leave this question unanswered.

Apart from understanding the anarchy of the judges period, we also have to understand the mutual hostility that has formed between Israel and Moab.  These two nations are related through Abraham and his cousin Lot, but from the very beginning when Israel passed near to Moab in the book of Numbers, Moab resisted Israel (beginning, but by no means ending, in Num 22).  More recently, Moab was one of Israel's many oppressors during the judges period (Judges 3:12-14), so they have also been in open conflict.

We should also remember Israel's prohibition against intermarriage.  That, plus the hostility against Moab, makes this entire book a somewhat awkward note.  I want that awkwardness and the latent hostility to be in their minds as they read about Ruth and her journey into Israel with Naomi.  I would say more, but Ruth is a short book so I want to save myself things to say when I write about the individual chapters.

We are on the cusp of something new.  The judges are coming to a close, the kingdom is at hand, and Ruth is the book that ushers it in.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 21

In this final chapter of Judges, the Israelites plunder wives for the surviving men of Benjamin.

We've been going through about 5 chapters now of things that happened "when there was no king in Israel", and this chapter is the grim conclusion to all these stories.

Having murdered all the women and children of Benjamin and sworn to not give them their daughters in marriage, Israel is now mourning because Benjamin will disappear as a tribe if they cannot marry and bear children.  At this point, Israel is trying to figure out how to keep Benjamin from dying out, so they begin by wiping out Jabesh-Gilead and taking 400 virgins from that clan to give to Benjamin.

Israel concludes the best way to solve this "problem" is to have the men of Benjamin go and kidnap women who are dancing in a feast to the LORD that year in Shiloh, in the hill country of Ephraim.  This solves the "problem" of getting wives for Benjamin because the women were not given by their fathers voluntarily, so nobody had to break their vow, and then the other tribes protected Benjamin from the (obviously angry) fathers.

Even though I think Israel did the right thing in the last chapter, in this chapter they obviously drift back into sinful behavior.  The author reminds of us of his disapproval in the last verse, saying that in this time "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

To some extent, the events of this chapter look wrong to us because of cultural differences.  It was common in the ancient world to take surviving women as plunder after defeating other nations.  For instance, Deuteronomy 21:10-13 discusses how Israel should behave when they see "among the captives a beautiful woman" that they want to take for a wife.  Obviously the woman doesn't get a choice in this arrangement.  Israel behaves similarly towards Jabesh-Gilead, slaughtering all the men and married women and taking the virgins as plunder to give to Benjamin.  On the other hand, Israel is once again destroying their own brothers, the men of Manasseh, in order to find women for Benjamin.

They go even further, encouraging Benjamin to kidnap women from Shiloh, and this has no justification, nor does it represent cultural differences. It is a violation of the law. Exodus 21:16 says, "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death".  Deuteronomy 24:7 repeats this command in a more detailed way: "If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you."  This is a metaphorical extension of the commandment against stealing, because kidnapping is like "stealing people".

This is exactly what happens to the young women of Shiloh, and the entire congregation of Israel explicitly assents to this behavior.  This is what the author is condemning when he says "there was no king in Israel."  Like I called it before, it is a grim conclusion to a period of anarchy, when Israel behaved as they saw fit and did not regard the Law or the covenant.  I can understand why they wanted to preserve Benjamin as a tribe, but the way they went about it seemed so wrong.  We know it and the author knows it, and that's what the author was trying to show us, how Israel behaves when they don't have a king to unite the tribes together and bind them under the Law of Moses.  The situation that they create by killing nearly all of Benjamin they try to "fix" by encouraging the survivors to go kidnap women from Ephraim.  The author concludes, this is why we need a king, to prevent things like this from happening again.

I also hope my readers see the strong tribal divisions that are revealed by this story.  Benjamin stands with their brothers of Gibeah, resulting in the other tribes nearly destroying Benjamin altogether.  This is another reason why they need a king, to help bring unity to the tribes so that they might stop fighting each other.  This is the second time this has happened in Judges, the first being when Jephthah and the Gileadites (men of Manasseh) fight against and slaughter men of Ephraim in Judges 12, but this time is far more severe, nearly destroying an entire tribe.

Back when we were reading through the Pentateuch, I tried to point out multiple times how different expressions and patterns were designed to emphasize the unity and equality of the twelve tribes.  Things like the pattern of precious stones on the high priests garments (Ex 28), amongst many other things.  The book of Judges is a demonstration of why that was necessary.  Even with the encouragement of the law, the tribes of Israel are still fractious and in periodic conflict.  With a king, it is possible that Israel might finally be unified and work together as a nation.  That's certainly what the author of Judges has in mind, I think.

Bible Commentary - Judges 20

In this chapter, all Israel unites together to destroy the men of Gibeah, but Benjamin rallies to defend their clansmen.

In general, I think the tribes of Israel are doing the right thing here.  The phrase we saw over and over in Deuteronomy is "you shall purge the evil from your midst", and that's exactly what they decide to do.  The entire town of Gibeah collaborated to commit this atrocity, so now the tribes of Israel align to destroy the men responsible.  I don't think the Levite man did anything good, and in fact I'm pretty disgusted with him, but as he says in verse 5, the men of Gibeah would have killed him if he tried to stop them.

This chapter continues with the theme of "there was no king in Israel".  The men of Benjamin rally to defend Gibeah, sticking to their tribal allegiances rather than justice and the Law.  Benjamin is severely outnumbered, but win the battle on the first two days.  The battle eventually goes in favor of the 11 tribes, in a way that reminds me of the battle against Ai in Joshua 8.  In Joshua 7 and 8, Israel is defeated by the men of Ai after Achan sins against the LORD.  The people kill Achan and then attack Ai, defeating it.  Israel sets men in ambush, draw the men of Ai out of the city by feigning defeat, and then surrounding them and attacking on two sides.

This is exactly what happens here against Benjamin, who on the third day are drawn out of the town of Gibeah by the men of Israel feigning defeat, and then having an ambush destroy the city with fire.  The men of Benjamin are terrified when they see that their retreat is cut off, and they attempt to flee but are nearly all slaughtered.  What started as retribution against Gibeah ended in almost total destruction to the entire tribe of Benjamin, with only 600 survivors.

Unlike the battle of Ai, this results in the destruction of a tribe of Israel rather than an idolatrous nation of Canaan, so it's a Pyrrhic victory in that sense, but it's a battle that I feel they must have waged in order to fulfill the Law's demands for justice.  Indeed, their war against Benjamin seems to have divine favor as they inquire of the LORD three times to ask whether they should attack Benjamin, and all three times the answer is yes.

Apart from the parallels to Ai, I think one of the interesting parts of this chapter is how Israel (i.e. all of the tribes except for Benjamin) is defeated by Benjamin twice even when they have the assent of the LORD.  This is unusual because I don't think we saw Israel defeated by any of the Canaanites except for when Achan sinned and they were defeated by Ai.  I've thought a lot about why the sons of Israel get defeated twice, and I can't really think of a theological explanation.  We know that the Benjamites are skilled warriors, and they are renowned for their left-handed slingers both here and in other parts of the bible.  Interestingly, Ehud from Judges 3 is also a left-handed Benjamite.  A later example is 1 Chronicles 12:2 where the tribe of Benjamin fields ambidextrous slingers.

So even though Benjamin was outnumbered by 400,000 to 26,000, they win on the field through sheer prowess.  In the end, the larger Israelite army has the LORD's support and they defeat Benjamin by laying an ambush and taking advantage of Benjamin's overconfidence.  To us, I suppose this is a lesson about persistence.  Even if the LORD is with us, and in favor of us doing something, it still might not work out at first.  We have to avoid getting discouraged and continue to seek the LORD's guidance.  After every time they are defeated, the men of Israel go back to the LORD weeping and asking if they are doing the right thing, attacking their brother Benjamin.  Every time the answer is yes, and every time they go back out to fight against Benjamin again.  They are doing a hard thing, attacking their fellow tribe, and that's why they continue to petition the LORD, because I'm sure they began doubting whether their path had the LORD's blessing.  Perhaps they felt they were doing wrong, attacking their own brother, even though they knew that Benjamin had sinned by protecting Gibeah.

Israel began doubting, but they did the right thing and turned to inquire of the LORD every day whether they should attack Benjamin, and with his affirmative, they did so.  So I believe that Israel did the right thing in this chapter, and Benjamin did the wrong thing by putting tribal affiliation and a desire to protect "their people" above justice and the Law of Moses.  In the end, Benjamin is nearly destroyed because of it.

Bible Commentary - Judges 19

In this chapter, a Levite's concubine is raped by Benjamites of Gibeah.

This is another story of how things went "when there was no king in Israel".  As with the stories about Micah, this is a key phrase to us indicating that this is a story about the anarchy that existed before a centralized authority came in to bring law and order to Israelite society.

This story begins with the concubine was in some way unfaithful to him.  I don't know if that implies adultery or what.  I've looked at a couple different translations, and they use phrases like "was unfaithful to him", "quarreled with him", "was untrue to him".  The NASB is the most explicit, saying that she "played the harlot", suggesting that she possibly engaged in prostitution.

Either way, the man goes to collect his concubine from her father's house, and he doesn't seem to be holding her behavior against her.  When he's there, there is an interesting anecdote about how the woman's father seems to be trying to delay him from leaving.  To paraphrase, he says in the morning, "it's too early, have some breakfast and stay a while," and in the evening, he says "it's too late, you should rest here and leave in the morning."  I don't exactly know why the woman's father was trying to delay him, maybe he wanted to keep his daughter around longer, or maybe it was a demonstration of hospitality.  Something like that.

Eventually they leave, and start to go back north from Judah towards the land of Ephraim.  They spend the night in Gibeah, which is in Benjamin.  To remind my readers, Benjamin's inheritance was placed inbetween Judah (in the south) and Ephraim (in the north).  When he gets there, he begins to camp in the town square before an old man comes by and agrees to lodge him in the old man's house.  (P.S. I apologize for the ambiguous pronouns, but we aren't actually told the names of any person in this entire story.)  The old man was himself an Ephraimite, so he was not a native to the town of Gibeah where they were staying.

Towards evening, a bunch of "worthless fellows" come and demand to rape the visiting man, when the old man offers both his daughter and the man's concubine to suffer their abuses.  More than anything else, this reminds me of Lot offering his two daughters to the men of Sodom when the two angels visit his house in Genesis 19.  It's even similar in how the old man is himself a visitor to the town and not a native Benjamite, just as Lot was a foreigner to the town of Sodom.

The big difference is that in this story, there is no angel to save the man's concubine, so when she is brought out the men rape her all night.  She stumbles to the doorstep and dies there.  The men, heroic as they are, soundly sleep until full daylight, and only know her fate when they go out in the morning and see her lying on the ground.  Probably the worst verse in this entire chapter is verse 28, when the man looks down on his concubine and says "get up, let's go."  After suffering a night of atrocities and literally dead on the ground, and this man who came to get her has no compassion whatsoever.  I am utterly disgusted by his behavior in this chapter, just like I was disgusted by Lot in Gen 19.  Unlike the story of Lot, in this case the abusers are themselves Israelites, men of Benjamin.  In Gen 19, the men of Sodom were destroyed by fire from heaven.  In this chapter, the Levite cuts up his concubine into pieces and sends those pieces into all the tribes of Israel, in order to rile up the anger of Israel against the men of Gibeah who did this.

The story continues in the next chapter, but I wonder if this chapter is meant to recall Lot and Sodom.  It shows us the depth that Israel is sinking into, as they progress from theft and idolatry (in the last story) to rape and murder (in this story).  Unless something changes, Israel is heading towards God's wrath and destruction like how Sodom was destroyed.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 18

In this chapter, men from Dan come by and steal Micah's idols and priest, and then go on to raze Laish.

This is another crazy chapter, lots of really questionable behavior from the Danites.  Basically what happens is the men of Dan send out spies looking for a place to conquer, because "an inheritance had not been allotted to them" (v. 1).  The inheritances were divided back in Joshua and Dan was assigned its land in Joshua 19.  Possibly that means the events in this chapter happened before the land was divided by Joshua, or possibly it means they were assigned their land but couldn't take it and were now looking for an alternative.  We don't really have any indication of the chronology of this chapter.  With Samson and the other judges, it seemed like they were structured linearly so that one judge followed another.  With the stories of Micah, that might not be the case because Micah isn't a judge.  In fact, there aren't any more judges in this book.  After the story of Micah is going to be another story of how the Israelites are harming each other and doing wrong.  So it's possible this story (and the story in the next chapter) take place some time during or even before the judges started to rule over Israel.

Either way, the Danites seem to be pretty far out of where they should be, because their inheritance was given to them in the land of Canaan, near modern-day Gaza.  This would be between Judah and Ephraim, to the west.  Instead, we see them going up north of Ephraim to conquer Laish, which is near Sidon in the far north.  In particular, the Danites are targeting a people who are "living in security", "quiet and secure", with only Sidon as their ally and no other allies.  I.e. a peaceful land that would be unlikely to offer much resistance.  Unlike Caleb, who asked to be given Hebron, which was populated by giants and large walls, the Danites are taking the path of least resistance, looking for a lightly armed and isolated city to butcher and take for their inheritance.  And that is exactly what they do.  Although they were conquering territory within the promised land, and to that extent were behaving properly, the Danites are hardly a model of faith like we saw in Caleb.

Verse 1 reminds us that there was no king in the land, and it is apparent that the Danites are not model citizens.  After passing near Micah's house, they decide the best course of action is to steal Micah's idols and his priest and by inference, the LORD's blessing.  In this, we can see that the Danites share Micah's attitude towards faith and God, which I talked about in the last chapter.  They think that by stealing his ornaments of religiosity that God would bless them, and they couldn't be more wrong.

The priest seems to take a similar attitude.  For him, joining Micah's family was an excellent job opportunity, but now came an even better offer, and so "the priest's heart was glad" (v. 20).  In all of this, Micah, Dan and the priest all seem to treat religion as primarily a business interest.  Micah and Dan sought God's blessing over their affairs, and the priest sought compensation in exchange for "providing" that blessing.

Basically the short version is that everybody in this story is doing something (or many things) wrong.  That's why I called this chapter crazy, because so much of the stuff going on here is just wrong.  Interestingly, the author of Judges does not explicitly condemn their behavior.  His condemnation is implied through the phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel", but that is the extent that the author writes any personal commentary on what he is otherwise simply describing.  But I don't think there can be any doubt that the Danites are being incredibly sinful, both stealing and worshiping an idol, both contrary to the ten commandments, and the author of Judges would have certainly been deeply familiar with the commandments.  A while ago I wrote about how the OT does not always explicitly condemn things that are wrong, and that sometimes people mistakenly believe that implies assent.  As we can see in this chapter, it does not.

After his priest is stolen, Micah goes to recover his belongings and is promptly threatened by the Danites.  Lacking military force, Micah goes back home to mope.  And with that, we won't see Micah in the rest of this book.

I think this story (and the story in the previous chapter) is really interesting because it gives us a view into "what life was like when there was no king".  Most of Judges is writing about the exploits of these great heroes, like Gideon or Deborah, or less heroic figures like Samson.  This chapter is about a man who isn't a judge at all, he's just an ordinary Ephraimite trying to make a living in their newly conquered home.  It provides an interesting perspective because it shows us how some of the Israelites were living at that time.  Of course, these stories were selected by the author to prove a point, so it might not be representative of what all Israel was like.  But I think the author is trying to say, "before there was a king, people would do all kinds of crazy stuff, steal from each other by force, lie, make idols, steal idols, and they thought God would bless them for it."  And as I said, they couldn't be more wrong in this attitude.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 17

In this chapter, a Levite joins the household of Micah to minister to his idol.

This is a pretty crazy chapter, and the first chapter that contains the expression, "there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes."  This is an important verse to Judges, which both foreshadows the future kingdom and also tries to explain why the kingdom is necessary.  This phrase, and even this entire book, point out the sinful tendencies of the Israelites in a bunch of ways.

Already we have seen Samson sin in several ways, like eating unclean food and sexual immorality.  Now in this chapter we have Micah stealing money from his parents, but then returning it out of fear of a curse.  His mother celebrates the occasion by asking Micah to construct an idol, to which he complies.  Lastly, Micah consecrates one of his sons as a priest, which again contradicts the Law, because the Law demands that every priest must be a son of Aaron.

When a wandering Levite passed by, Micah realizes that a Levite would be an upgrade over his son, so he hires the Levite to serve as his priest instead.  The Levite is perfectly happy to offer sacrifices at Micah's idol, so he agrees.  This indicts the Levite, because every sacrifice is supposed to be made before the bronze altar in front of the tent of meeting.

Nearly everything in this chapter is a sin, from beginning to end.  This is what it means by "right in his own eyes"; that people are behaving as they see fit, rather than following the covenant or the principles of the LORD.  It implies a sort of wild godlessness, akin to the notion of moral relativism.

The reason why this relates to the kingdom is that the king is a unifying figure in Israelite society.  When Israel gains a king, he will lead the people and direct them to all behave in the same way and with the same standards.  In theory, the king is supposed to espouse the law and direct the people to obey the covenant, bringing unity to the nation and directing the people so that they do what is good, not "what is good in their own eyes".

In practice, we will see that a few of the kings are good and many of the kings are bad.  The good kings direct the people to follow the law, and the bad kings direct them into idolatry.  Either way, much of Israelite history is dictated by the moral standards of whoever was king at the time.  So it's definitely true that the kings ended the lawless period of their history, but it's not true that the kings ended their sinful period.

I once heard someone teach out of this passage, and more than anything else what he criticized was the notion that Micah could buy himself a priest and that as a result, "the LORD will prosper me".  Micah seems to have the notion, popular with many, that by purchasing or constructing various trappings of religiosity, that God would bless him.  He built his own idol, made his own ephod, and then hired his own priest to minister to him, and he thinks that's enough to draw the LORD's blessing.  This is a very individualistic notion of faith and it runs contrary to the strongly communal covenantal structure.  It's also a very materialistic notion, and it assumes that God cares more about the appearance of devotion than the heart reality of it.

As it relates to individualism, the covenant was centralized by design, with three national feasts every year where all the males were required to appear before the LORD.  Sacrifices had to be made before the LORD, and the LORD was only found in one place, the tent of meeting (a.k.a. the Tabernacle).  Trying to maintain his own idol and priestcraft runs contrary to the principles of the covenant.

But this is not just Micah having a personal faith.  In fact, in some ways Micah's faith is very impersonal because he expects that money is going to buy him blessings, when what the LORD wants from him is devotion.  That is the materialism side.  Micah is cutting his own way forward, doing what is right in his own eyes.  But there is a big difference between ignoring human standards in your pursuit of God and ignoring God's own standards in your pursuit of him.  In my opinion, human standards are flexible.  The social or cultural expectations for how people are supposed to pray or worship have changed many times and in many ways over the years, and that's generally okay.  In my opinion, a certain amount of drifting away from those standards is okay.

This is what it means to have a personal faith, to pursue God in a way that is your own, praying in your own way or worshiping in your own way, but always within the broader concepts of how God desires to be worshiped.  To disregard God's standards, how he tries to structure human interactions with himself, is not any kind of faith at all.  If you know how God wishes for you to approach him, and you disregard that way, how can it even be considered approaching God?  God does not bargain over blessings, he does not sell them in exchange for worship, because that cannot be real worship if it is done for a price.  And it just doesn't make sense to construct an idol and pretend that God is okay with that when the Law clearly says that he is not.

It's like trying to buy a friend.  Money cannot ever buy a real friendship.  In the same way, offerings cannot buy God's blessing.  God's blessing comes upon the hearts that seek him.