Monday, January 20, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 11

In this chapter, Saul defeats the Ammonites.

I don’t think we even knew they were in conflict, but apparently the Ammonites are attacking Israel.  Not that we should be surprised at this point; it seems like Israel has been in conflict with all of their neighbors for generations.  1 Samuel 9:16 told us that Saul would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines.  Even though the Philistines were defeated in 1 Samuel 7, it appears they have become a threat again, and are oppressing Israel.

It’s hard for me to understand the chronology of the next three chapters.  In chapter 10, Samuel tells Saul to meet him in Gilgal within 7 days, and without spoiling anything, there is a passage in chapter 13 that implies the 7 days had not yet expired.  This would seem to indicate that all of the events of this chapter happened in less than 7 days, including Saul’s messengers traveling around the nation, the Israelite army mustering, and the battle with the Ammonites.  I don’t know how that is possible.  Admittedly, the nation of Israel is relatively compact by modern standards, so maybe they really could field an army in 2-3 days.  Still, it’s difficult for me to imagine how anyone could rally an army of 330,000 people in less than 7 days.  In modern times, we could compare this to e.g. the first world war.  In the first world war, it took the principal actors (France, Germany, Russia) between a few weeks and a few months to mobilize their national armies.  Again though, these were armies of millions of people over significantly larger countries, but also with far more sophisticated infrastructure (i.e. railroads) and advanced preparation.  It is not directly comparable, but I think it also gives us an idea of how long I would have expected mobilization to take.

I believe the flow of the story indicates to the contrary, as we will read in the next two chapters.  But even at the end of this chapter, we see Samuel and Saul travel to Gilgal, which is perhaps the meeting that Samuel had instructed Saul to go to.  This was a point of confusion for me, so hopefully this will help my readers to understand what happened.  To the best of my knowledge, everything in this chapter happened within the 7 days that Samuel laid out, and the next chapter likewise.

Next, I would like to point out something in v. 8.  The author writes that Saul mustered an army of men from Israel and Judah.  Why would he separate Judah from Israel, if the entire nation put together is Israel?  The answer is that this is an anachronism of sorts.  Some time in the future, we will see Israel be separated into two kingdoms.  There will be a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom.  The southern kingdom will be known as Judah, because Judah is the main tribe in the south (there is also Simeon in the midst of Judah, but Simeon is largely forgotten).  The northern kingdom will be known as Israel.  This split has not yet happened, but the author is writing this book in a time after the nation was split, and this sentence anticipates their division.  It’s really confusing, but for much of the OT going forward, “Israel” does not refer to all of the tribes of Israel, but only the northern tribes.  Judah will refer to the southern kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capitol.  I will try to clear up these references when I see them.

In the end, Saul takes his army and smashes the Ammonites, delivering the men of Jabesh Gilead (in the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan, part of Manasseh), and Saul is confirmed as king by the jubilant masses.  Saul even goes so far as to graciously forgive his earlier detractors.

All things considered, this seems like a good start to Saul’s kingship.  He led the people into battle and fought on their behalf, and they are obviously grateful to have such a strong man to help defend them.  This is what they had wanted, someone to lead them, defend them and fight for them.  Saul, in turn, has the “spirit of God [coming] upon him in power” (v. 6), leading him to defend Israel and wipe out their enemies.  It is a good start.  We will see how things progress.

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 10

In this chapter, Saul is anointed and made king over Israel.

There are so many fascinating little details in this chapter I hardly know where to start.  I guess we can start at the very beginning, with Samuel anointing Saul with oil.  This appears to be a cultural tradition that existed at the time, that pouring oil onto someone is a sign of favor.  Nowhere is this explained, so we’ll just have to take it for granted.

Samuel tells Saul about a series of events that will happen through the day, concluding with the “spirit of the LORD” coming upon Saul, causing him to prophesy.  The word prophesy here is the same word as when the 70 elders of Israel prophesied in Num 11:25-27, which was something I discussed extensively at the time, and I believe that this is the same kind of prophesying as there.  But what I find more interesting is verse 6, where Saul “will be changed into a different person” as a result.  Is this what prepares him for the kingship?  This leaves me equally wondering what kind of man Saul must have been before, and what kind of man he will become after.

Part of this question is answered by the next paragraph, verses 9-12.  Apparently Saul is not the sort of person who would normally be amongst the prophets.  I love the dialogue between “all those who had formerly known him” and “a man who lived there”.  What the people who knew Saul ask is, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”  This is a remark of surprise; they never would have expected him to associate with the prophets.  Keep in mind, the prophets would have been some of the most dedicated followers of the LORD, so this suggests pretty strongly that Saul is not the most religious fellow in the nation.  He might be among the least.

But I love the response in verse 12, when the man asks “and who is their father?”  Perhaps people who knew him would not expect the son of Kish to be amongst the prophets, but you could just as well ask why anybody else is amongst the prophets.  Nobody is really qualified to be amongst the LORD’s prophets; everyone is there because they choose to be there, or like Saul, they were chosen.

After all this, Saul being anointed and joining with the prophets, still nobody knows that he is going to become king.  Samuel deliberately sent away the servant before anointing Saul, and in v. 16 Saul deliberately omits telling his uncle about the kingship.  Saul has been anointed as king, but the reality of it hasn’t yet set in.  This is addressed next when Samuel calls the people together to choose a king by lot.  This is more or less the equivalent of rolling dice and choosing the king by random selection.  Samuel probably wouldn’t have been able to influence the randomness, so this is a second confirmation of Saul as king.  Perhaps more importantly, it is a very public selection, so now the entire nation knows that Saul has been chosen to be king, and from v. 26-27 we know that some people accepted it and some people didn’t.

This leads me to my next amusing detail, which is Saul “hiding among the baggage”.  I can’t even imagine what series of thoughts would make him believe this is a good idea.  Inauspicious metaphors abound here: Saul is lost in his own personal baggage, much like he is hiding in the assembly’s baggage.  But seriously, why is he there?  It just doesn’t make sense, unless he’s trying to avoid something; is he trying to avoid his selection as king, by staying away from the assembly?

Out of this chapter, I think my favorite two parts are the dialogue exchanged in v. 11-12 and the mental image of Saul hiding in the baggage.  It’s also interesting to imagine this procession of prophets, playing many different instruments and Saul getting swept along with them.

In the end, Samuel writes down the “regulations of the kingship”, and I wonder how similar that is to Deut 17 when Moses had previously describes the laws governing the selection and behavior of kings over Israel.  We don’t have any record of the regulations that Samuel gave Saul, but I would guess it’s similar to what is recorded in Deuteronomy.

Samuel also told Saul to go to Gilgal, and I believe this hasn’t happened yet.  We will see what happens in the next couple chapters with this.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 9

In this chapter, a young man named Saul meets Samuel, and the LORD tells Samuel that Saul will be king.

This chapter introduces us to Saul, and also foreshadows that he will be king.  He is introduced to us wandering through the Ephraimite countryside, looking for his father’s lost donkeys.  “Lost” and “wandering” is a pretty good way to describe Israel as a nation, too.  They spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness of Sin, and now that they have settled in the promised land, their wandering has become more metaphorical, but how else are we to describe the Judges period?  Each man doing what is right in his own eyes, they are like sheep without a shepherd, straying wherever their myopic vision leads them.  Although Saul is chasing lost donkeys, soon he will be chasing lost Israelites.  We will see if he does well or if he does poorly.

I love the minor note in verse 9 telling us that “the prophet of today used to be called a seer”.  It’s just one of those funny little things that show us how even to the ancient author, the stories he is reciting to us are even older, possibly handed down from earlier generations.  It’s also possible that this is a later addition, added to the story as the language became more and more archaic to those reading and transcribing it.

In any case, things just so happened to be arranged that Saul meets with Samuel, and when Saul asks where the seer’s house is (in verse 18), he gets a somewhat unexpected response.  I am the seer, eat with me, and by the way, your donkeys are fine.  I don’t think there’s many people who can answer your questions before you ask them, so I’m sure this must have been an interesting experience for Saul.  I know a few prophetic people and I can say that things like this never get old.  There is something uniquely penetrating about being told “all that is in your heart” by a stranger who should not know such things, yet he does.

Saul’s response is very much like Gideon’s from Judges 6:15: I come from a weak and small family, how is it possible that I could be the “desire of Israel”?  Just like Gideon, the LORD has a tendency to prefer selecting the weak as his methods of salvation.  What’s different about Saul is that he personally is an “impressive young man”, “a head taller than any of the others” (v. 2).  Saul is physically strong, but that does not qualify him to be king.  He is from a weak family, but that does not disqualify him.  The only thing that could qualify him is his heart.  And the LORD has chosen Saul, so perhaps he will lead well?  However, I remember Samuel’s warning from the prior chapter, and I fear that Saul may not prove a capable leader.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 8

In this chapter the people of Israel ask Samuel to select for them a king.

This chapter is quite literally where the Judges cycle ends and where the kingdom period begins. Everything that we have read up to this point in 1 Samuel has been providing us the context about Samuel’s life and the state of the nation, such that the nation would desire to have a king and such that Samuel would be available to provide one. The people give us three reasons why they want a king. The first is the corruption of Samuel’s sons. The second is that they want to be like all the other nations around them. The third is that they want a king to lead them and to “fight our battles.”

The corruption of Samuel’s sons is something I really wonder about. How does someone whose life is marked by such righteousness have sons who “accepted bribes and perverted justice”? What happened in their lives and in their hearts, such that they did not walk in Samuel’s ways? I think this is really challenging, especially for parents, because it’s hard to imagine people who walk closer to the LORD than Samuel. But I don’t know; we aren’t given any details or explanation of his sons lives, so it’s difficult to say anything about them. This isn’t the only time in Israel’s history that a righteous leader had corrupt or idolatrous children. It’s something that has frequently bothered me. Intellectually, I believe that everyone has a choice to follow the LORD or not, but from a practical standpoint I know how powerful of an influence parents have on the formation of their children. How is it possible that so many righteous leaders could have children who strayed so far from their path? I don’t have answers, I only have questions.

The second point, that Israel wishes to be like the nations around them, has been a pervasive issue through much of the OT. In Deut 20:18, Moses threatened Israel that they should not allow the nations in the promised land to survive, because they would teach Israel to worship other gods and in doing so, to sin. Other parts of the OT warn Israel against intermarrying with the other nations of the promised land, because of this same issue. In general, the LORD (through Moses) expresses a concern that Israel would seek to adopt the culture and religion of the nations around them and through that to be immersed in the idolatry and “detestable practices” of those nations. Verse 5 of this chapter says very specifically that they want a king “such as all the other nations have.” Verse 20 says “Then we will be like all the other nations”. Having a king is just one aspect that Israel is seeking to adopt. We have seen elsewhere that Israel has been worshiping “foreign gods” and “ashtoreths”, wooden poles that are dedicated to Ashurah, a fertility goddess. In all of these ways, Israel is threatened by a sort of cultural extinction if they intermarry and adopt the customs of the nations around them.

The last point is that they want a king to lead them in battle and fight on their behalf. In essence, they want a king to protect and guide them, to help them to feel safe, like having a parent to watch over them. Their request displeases Samuel because the Israelites are implicitly rejecting the LORD when they ask for a king. The LORD is supposed to be their king, leading them in battle, guiding and protecting them. By asking for a physical king, they are “rejecting me as their king” (v. 7).

It’s a little hard to understand this criticism of Israel's behavior, because in Deuteronomy Moses implies that Israel will eventually have a king. Deut 17 even lays out the process for how to select a king, and laws that should govern the hypothetical king’s behavior. It’s strange to think of Moses explaining laws governing the kingship if here, the LORD and Samuel are rebuking Israel for requesting a king as such. It seems contradictory.

Clearly Moses was anticipating they would ask for a king. Perhaps the passage in Deut 17 is not meant to condone this, but just to anticipate their request and govern the eventual kingship. I'm not sure.

Another plausible suggestion I’ve heard is that the LORD wanted to give them a king eventually, but not at this time. Or perhaps the LORD would tell them when to get a king, and that time is not now.

Certainly Samuel thinks it’s a bad idea, but this is the event that takes us out of the Judges cycle. I personally would hypothesize that Israel as a nation is getting battle-weary from their many defeats and oppression at the hands of other nations, and that’s why they are asking for a king. They expect that somehow, having a king will keep them from the cyclical tragedies that have been striking their nation every 20-40 years. If they understood that the root cause of all their problems is disobedience to the LORD, they would know that having a king is going to change nothing. However, they prefer to follow a man that they can see to a God that they cannot. Even though the leadership of God will always be superior, they desire something visible and tangible to make them feel safe, rather than the invisible God to help them to actually be safe.

In the end, the LORD commands Samuel to give them a king, but after all of Samuel’s warnings it is hard to see how this can end well.