Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 16

In this chapter, Samuel anoints a young boy, David, to be the next king.

The LORD begins by urging Samuel to move on.  He has mourned for Saul, and that was good for a time, but he cannot let his grief over Saul paralyze him from anointing the next king, and the LORD is asking Samuel to move on.  The LORD was also grieved by what happened with Saul, but Samuel was shutting down, to the detriment of his nation, so the LORD urges him to begin the process of electing Saul's successor.

Samuel goes to Bethlehem “under cover” that he is going to offer a sacrifice.  I think it's fascinating to see how the elders respond to Samuel because this shows us how the ordinary people of Israel viewed their national prophet, at this time the senior representative of the LORD.  To us, Samuel is perhaps cantankerous but generally friendly, and we've read many stories about him so far in the book that bears his name.  To the people of Bethlehem, however, he was a source of considerable fear, such that the first thing they ask him is if he comes in peace.  What are the leaders of Bethlehem thinking?  They are probably thinking about the stories of Achan or the 70 men who died looking into the ark of the covenant.  This is nation where the law is to "purge the evil from among you", so they are probably afraid that God has found evil among them that needs to be purged.  Fortunately for them, Samuel has come for another purpose.

Samuel comes in peace and looks over the sons of Jesse to see who will be king.  He is initially impressed by Eliab’s appearance and height (v. 7), much like the people of Israel were impressed by Saul’s appearance and height (1 Sam 9:2, 10:23-24).  We have already seen what kind of king that Saul is becoming, the emotional insecurities that drive his behavior and cause him to act without faithfulness to the LORD, and I expect that Eliab would have been very similar.

The first king over Israel was demanded by the people, so the LORD gave them the sort of king that they wanted; someone physically impressive, but who ultimately proved unreliable.  The second king will be the sort of king the LORD wants, not chosen or considered for his appearance, but for what kind of person he is on the inside.  “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  (v. 7)  This is another one of my favorite verses in the bible because it's so broadly applicable to modern life and also because it gives us such a profound insight into both human behavior (looking at things superficially) and God's behavior (truly deep understanding of the intentions and desires of all people).

There have been countless times when I find myself praying, "God, you know my heart"; you know the desires that I have, desires to do good things that I sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.  This is possibly one of the most encouraging verses in the bible, because for all of my life people have misunderstood me (and will continue to do so).  What this verse means is that God is not like that; God understands the desires and emotions that underlie our actions, both the good and the bad.  Of course, if this were the only thing we knew about God then we would still be in deep trouble, because God would also see the evil and greed and murder within our hearts.  What makes God good is that he sees and understands us, but he is also filled with mercy, helps us in our weaknesses, and encourages us in the things that we do well.  God understands, and it is an understanding that is infused with love.  One of the strongest memories I have of the LORD is looking into his eyes and seeing satisfaction.  It was the kind of satisfaction that you might see in a craftsman who has finished something marvelous.  Or possibly what you might see in a father who is watching his child do something amazing.  His eyes looked right through me, from the outer skin to the very core of my being, and he was pleased with what he saw.  It's impossible to overstate what kind of effect that approval has on the human psyche, since we have such a tremendous need for validation.

None of the seven sons that Jesse brought were chosen by the LORD, and Jesse only mentions his youngest son when Samuel specifically asks about it.  Imagine how the scene must have been: the great prophet Samuel arrives at this small town; the elders come forth, trembling at what purpose Samuel might have; Samuel consecrates Jesse and his sons to come to a sacrifice; Jesse comes to the sacrifice and brings all of his sons ... except for David, who is left outside tending the sheep.  In what is possibly the most important event of Jesse’s life, and commanded to bring his sons, he brings 7 out of 8 of them.  How little respect must David have that his father didn’t bother to bring him to meet the prophet?

Nevertheless, “he is the one” (v. 12).  David is anointed in the presence of his brothers and father, but nobody else knows.  Like when Saul was anointed, there is a gap between the time when he is anointed and when he actually becomes king.  However, the “spirit of the LORD” departs from Saul and comes upon David around this time.  I think this is very similar to the story of Adam.  Adam is cursed in Genesis 3 that he would return to dust and death would come upon him.  However, Genesis 5 tells us that Adam continued to live for another 800 years after giving birth to Seth, and by any sensible chronology this happens after the curse.  Again, there is a delay between when the LORD proclaims Adam's death and when his body dies.  We see these kinds of delays all the time between the LORD's declaration and when the full consequences of that declaration come about.  When it relates to sin, a later passage in the bible calls this God's "forbearance", because by delaying the consequences of sin God is creating an opportunity for people to repent.  When it relates to good things (like the redemption we have in Christ), the delay gives us an opportunity to share the riches of Christ's mercy to others.  It can be difficult sometimes (just as it is difficult for David to wait until he becomes king), but it is inevitably profitable for us as we grow through the challenges and joys of life.

For David, there are two immediate consequences.  The first is that he is called upon to become part of Saul's court, his shieldbearer and musician.  I think about this the same way that I view Samuel's arrival just after Saul offered a sacrifice in 1 Samuel 13.  It's so ironic that we know it isn't happening by chance.  The LORD is clearly orchestrating events to bring David into the royal court.  In an event that certainly must have evoked some humility from David, he found himself the servant of a man whom God promised David that he would replace.  All evidence seems to suggest that David served Saul well.

Secondly, we can see in v. 19 that David is still “with the sheep”, which I think is also very telling. Although I've heard some commentators say otherwise, it is likely that shepherding was a low-ranked social occupation in David's time, and it shows quite clearly in this chapter.  We can also see the resentment of David's brothers, who are witness to him being anointed king over Israel, and promptly send him back to the fields.  There is little doubt that his handsome, tall brothers are deeply resentful that their despised, youngest brother is going to be their king.  What I find so striking is not just that David is shepherding his father's flock, but that even Saul is aware of David's occupation.  Verse 19 quotes Saul as asking Jesse for "David who is with the flock".  I can only imagine, again, the jealousy of David's brothers when they find out that the king personally summoned David to serve in the royal court.  However, in spite of the several ways that David is being honored, it is going to be a very long road before he is crowned king, and he is going to face many sad adventures and disappointed hopes before he achieves what the LORD has promised him.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 15

In this chapter, Saul is commanded to completely destroy the Amalekites but fails to do so.

In chapter 13 we were told that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, because the LORD “sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people.” (1 Samuel 13:14).  This chapter says more or less the same thing, but as the result of a separate incident where Saul has again disobeyed a command from Samuel.

In this case, Samuel commands Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites as retribution for when they attacked Israel (see Ex 17 in general and Ex 17:14 in particular), and Saul does not obey.  In v. 9 we see that the army keeps “everything that was good” and destroy “everything that was despised and weak”.  I will write a bit more on this later, but for now what we can note is that the things they destroy are what is “given over to the LORD”.  The things they keep are kept for themselves.  This is an attitude of pride: they keep all of the best for themselves and give all the worst to the LORD.  The LORD asked for everything: all of the best and the worst from the Amalekites to be destroyed and given over to him.

One can possibly draw a parallel between this and the story of Cain and Abel; Genesis 4:4 points out that Abel brought the fat from the firstborn of his flock, i.e. the best.  Cain brought "the fruits of the soil", and did not attract the LORD's favor.  Now interpretations of Cain's story vary, but a very common criticism of him is that he is not giving the best of his produce as an offering to the LORD.  Israel behaves similarly in this chapter, giving only the things of least value to the LORD.

Verses 10-11 are one of my favorite passages because it shows how the LORD grieves at Saul’s sin, and in response “Samuel was troubled” and stays up all night long in prayer.  This is the true mark of a prophet, that he feels what the LORD feels, and in his distress he prays all night long.  Abraham (who was called a prophet in Gen 20:7) interceded on behalf of the righteous when he prayed in Gen 18 that God should not wipe away the righteous with the wicked.  However, Moses interceded on behalf of the wicked when he prayed that God should not destroy Israel after they sinned with the golden calf in Ex 32.  In this case, Samuel is closer to Moses than Abraham, because he is praying out of sorrow at the sinfulness of Saul.  But I think what I like the most about this passage is that it shows not just the actions of Samuel, but the emotions underlying it in both the LORD and Samuel’s behavior.

In verse 12 we see Saul’s pride emerging as an ever stronger force, as he builds a “monument in his own honor” to mark his victory over the Amalekites.  In the previous chapter, Saul took an oath that no man should eat until "I have avenged myself on my enemies".  In doing so, Saul places all of the emphasis on himself: his own struggles and his own enemies.  In this chapter, Saul places emphasis on his own victory and honor.  Saul’s pattern of behavior is deeply troubling, because the king of Israel is meant to be a servant of the LORD, when Saul appears to just be serving himself.

The interplay between Saul and Samuel is also very interesting.  Beginning in v. 13, Saul claims that he “carried out the LORD’s instructions”.  When Samuel challenges him, Saul adapts his story but still keeps a moral/religious spin on it: yes, we kept some of the best animals, but only for “sacrifice to the LORD your God”.  Keep in mind, even if this is true, the meat from the animals would be given to the men as a feast, so there is definitely an aspect of self-interest here.

Samuel challenges Saul again, and Saul repeats his denial, insisting that taking the animals back for sacrifice is acceptable and that it would honor the LORD.  We can also see that Saul’s admissions are getting wider and wider, because he now mentions that he also took Agag back alive, which could not possibly be justified as a sacrifice or burnt offering.  Samuel replies with (another) one of my favorite verses, v. 22: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the voice of the LORD?  To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

Before continuing with the story, I would like to take a closer look at this verse (and v. 23 which I did not quote).  In the context of this passage, Samuel’s retort is straightforward and literally applies to what Saul did.  Saul did not obey Samuel’s command by killing everything from the Amalekites.  He and his men took back the best of the animals, and Saul thought that if the animals were offered for sacrifices that would be sufficient to make up for it.  Hence, he thought sacrifices would be more important than listening to the command of the LORD.

However, I think Samuel's statement has broader applicability.  Any time somebody tries to make a moral equivalence between committing a sin and then making an "offering" or "sacrifice" to make up for it, they are making the same fallacy as Saul.  One could imagine a person saying to him or herself, "I really want to commit adultery, but I will make up for it by spending this Saturday working at a soup kitchen."  It's pretty ridiculous when I put it like that, but I think people sometimes unconsciously do this.  They think that religious or selfless deeds can "balance out" sins committed in other contexts.

While I can't speculate to the motivations of others, I can't help but wonder if that's what goes on in the mind of all these famous ministers who get caught swindling money or having sexual affairs while married.  Maybe, without even realizing it, they think that great ministries, years of service to others and lots of great work justifies disobedience "to the voice of the LORD".  If so, then they make the same error as Saul.

Saul is doing something wrong and he knows that he is doing something wrong.  He is trying to justify a wrong by layering it with a religious sheen.  The LORD will never be interested in people who disobey and think that a vaneer of religiosity will deceive him.  Of course, I think it’s more likely than not that Saul was simply trying to deceive himself, to assuage his own conscience that sacrifices make up for his disobedience.

Here is my experience with obedience to the LORD and doing what is right or wrong.  There have been numerous times where I felt like I did not do the right thing in whatever situation.  Usually it is because I knew the right thing to do but it was just too hard for me to do it, because the temptation to do wrong was too great and I simply couldn’t overcome it.  Doing something wrong will always cause harm, either to yourself or to others around you.  But the LORD will never reject someone for doing wrong.  The proper way to respond is to say, “Yes, I did something wrong and I am sorry about it.  I regret what I did and I will try to make up for it to what extent I can, and to do better in the future.”

Contrast this with Saul’s response, where he does wrong but then argues with Samuel, attempting to justify what he did even though it’s contrary to what the LORD told him to do.  He isn’t sorry, he doesn’t show regret, and he doesn’t express any interest in “doing better next time”.  It is only after being rebuked three times that Saul admits he did wrong, because he was “afraid of the people”.  There’s a bunch of things wrong with this, but I’ll just point out that Saul is supposed to be a leader of the people, and yet from this one verse we can see that he is actually just a follower of the people.  He is not controlling them; they are controlling him.  This is similar to the previous chapter where Saul would have killed Jonathan, but the army pressured him against doing so and Saul relented to popular pressure.  Of course, killing Jonathan probably would have been the wrong thing to do.  In that case, the people were right.  In this case, the people were wrong.  And in both cases, Saul followed the will of the people rather than the voice of the LORD.

Saul’s previous sin was in offering a sacrifice rather than wait for Samuel to come.  In that case, we saw a very similar pattern of behavior to what he's doing here.  Saul was trying to rally his men who were scattering, and he thought that offering a sacrifice would make up for his violation of the Law (since by the Law of Moses he is not permitted to offer a sacrifice).  This was also in violation of Samuel’s command, who had ordered him to wait for Samuel to come offer sacrifices in 1 Sam 10:8.

In all of these things, Saul demonstrates religiosity in a sense, but it is a shallow religiosity.  More often than not, he appears to be acting to show his faith to other people, and concerned about the opinions of other people, rather than being concerned about God’s opinion.  He does not act to obey the LORD, he acts to please people, driven by his fear of people.  He continues to demonstrate this behavior later in this chapter when he asks Samuel to go back with him “so that I may worship the LORD” (v. 25).  This sounds religious and noble, but when Samuel refuses and Saul insists again, Saul shows what he is really interested in: “Please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God.” (v. 30)  This is really the story of Saul’s life so far, and because Saul is more concerned about the opinions of men than of God, God will take the kingdom away from him.

In conclusion, Samuel tells Saul that not only is his replacement a better man, it is “one of your neighbors” (v. 28).  It’s very possible that Saul is going to be thinking about this prophecy in the future and it will make him more and more suspicious that the people around him are conspiring to overthrow his kingdom.

Samuel also puts Agag to death; who knows what Saul would have otherwise done.  He possibly would have kept Agag alive as a captive or “trophy” of sorts, as was commonly done by kings of the day.  We will see king-trophies later in the bible.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Samuel 14

In this chapter, Jonathan leads the people to win a great victory over the Philistines.

This is a fairly long chapter with a couple of stories, but the essence of it is contained in v. 6: “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.”  This is the same principle that we found when the LORD guided Gideon to defeat the Midianites in Judges 7:2 and 7:4.  In those verses the LORD specifically asked Gideon to reduce the size of his army to prevent the Israelites from boasting in their own strength.  In this case Jonathan goes out with just one man, so a reduction in force is not required of him.  Jonathan finds success comparable to Gideon: while Jonathan only kills 20 men, his actions spark a panic in the Philistine army, causing them to not just run in fear, but to actually strike each other down in the confusion.  The fear is the most important part, however, as it permits the Israelite army to run down and massacre the fleeing Philistines without resistance, even though Israel is outnumbered and generally lacks weaponry.

Apart from the similarities to Gideon’s victory, I also think it’s interesting to observe the contrast between Jonathan and Saul.  Saul, who has alienated Samuel, and whose army is melting away in fear, is left passively sitting under a pomegranate tree while Jonathan goes out to attack the Philistine outpost.  Recall that in the prior chapter it was Jonathan who attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba.  Even after Jonathan goes to challenge the Philistines he says that the sign of the LORD’s favor would be if he and his armorbearer were to climb up and attack the Philistines, rather than passively wait for the Philistines to come down and attack them.  Jonathan is marked not just by his faith, but also by his aggressiveness against the Philistines and in the face of superior numbers and tactical disadvantage (climbing up on your hands and feet is not ideal when attacking a large garrison that sees you coming).

We can see how hapless Saul appears when Jonathan is out winning the battle and Saul doesn’t even know that he is gone.  Further, after Jonathan is gone and Saul figures out something is up, his first reaction is to consult with the priest Ahijah.  In all fairness, I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing to do; I simply point it out to highlight a pattern of differences between Saul and Jonathan.  Jonathan goes out to attack the Philistines and insists that the LORD might save through them, while Saul remains deliberating in the midst of a great victory.

Of course, it would have been better if Saul had consulted the priest before offering a sacrifice on his own initiative.  I’m not sure if consulting a priest now demonstrates a change of heart on his behalf, or simply indecisiveness.  Regardless, Saul only pauses for a little while before assembling to attack, and that concludes the first half of this chapter.

The second half of the story centers around Saul’s oath and how it affects Israel’s ability to chase down and kill the fleeing Philistines.  There are several aspects of this story I find interesting, which I will address in turn.

First, Saul is under no compulsion to issue this oath.  Like the Nazirite vow of Num 6, what Saul does is issue a “voluntary oath”, and even going a step further, he binds other people under his oath.  More than anything else, I wonder why.  Why did Saul do this?  I really don’t know.  Was it out of humility, an admission of their weakness and dependence on the LORD?  Or was it out of pride, because Saul considered his vengeance on “his enemies” more important than anything else?  Is Saul being singleminded and focused on revenge over everything else?  Why is Saul talking about “[avenging] myself on my enemies” when he is supposed to be the king over the LORD’s people and defeating the LORD’s enemies?  He seems very focused on himself, his own problems, his own enemies.  Even if we can suppose that Saul makes this oath for the right reason, its practical effects are obvious: it hinders his forces in their pursuit of the Philistines and permits at least some of their army to escape.  Jonathan himself points this out in v. 29-30.

Second, honey oozing out of the ground is a striking “coincidence”.  It should be obvious that honey doesn’t normally ooze out of the ground (v. 25-26), just like honey doesn’t normally flow out of a lion’s corpse (Judges 14:8).  The honey that flowed out of the lion was ceremonially unclean, and thus was a trap to Samson.  The honey that flowed out of the ground, however, would have been a blessing to the exhausted men, who could have eaten and chased down their long-time oppressors.  The blessing was turned into a temptation by the oath of Saul, as the men had to restrain themselves from eating it.  But the thing I want to point out is that the honey is not natural.

Third, Jonathan eats the honey without being aware of his father’s oath, yet it appears to count as a “violation” of the oath.  I think this is interesting because in most cases, the violation of an oath requires some degree of intentionality.  Violating the Law implies intentionality because all of Israel is expected to be familiar with the Law.  In the case of Nazirite vows (from Num 6), if someone “dies suddenly” in the presence of a Nazirite, the vow isn’t broken, but the Nazirite has to shave off his hair and start over again.  In other cases (such as eating unclean food) we could imagine people becoming ceremonially unclean without knowing it.  This happens in e.g. Judges 14:9 when Samson feeds honey taken from a lion’s carcass to his parents.  This is a difficult situation because they wouldn’t even know they had to make atonement.  In this case, Jonathan violates his father’s oath without knowing it.  Who is at fault here?  Jonathan or his father?  I don't have a particular opinion, but I think it's interesting.

Fourth, the men “pounce on the plunder”, as they are driven by great hunger, and in their haste eat animals with the blood still in them.  This is a violation of the Law, so Saul “builds an altar” by rolling over a stone, and has people slaughter their captured animals on the stone (allowing the blood to flow down out of the dying animal).  “It was the first time” Saul had built an altar (v. 35), which should give us a second insight into his (lack of) faith in the LORD.  The first insight was back in 1 Samuel 10 when people asked “is Saul also among the prophets?”  Even apart from Samuel’s criticism in 1 Samuel 13, we can tell from these stories that Saul is not particularly devoted to the LORD.  It's quite a contrast to Abraham, who seemed to build an altar everywhere he went.

Fifth, after the oath is broken, the LORD stops speaking to Saul.  What this shows is that no matter what Saul intended or whether his oath was the right thing to do, the LORD was going to hold him accountable for what he said.  Even when the violator was someone else, someone unaware of the oath, the LORD “did not answer him that day” as a result of the “sin” (v. 37-38).  Perhaps this is why the book of Numbers spoke at such length about what kinds of vows and in what situations they are considered binding (Num 30).  In this case, the violation of Saul’s oath is almost like the same sort of thing as Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), where in both cases the sin of an individual results in some sort of corporate punishment for the whole army.  But it's also interesting because the implication is that before this, the LORD would speak to Saul, in spite of Saul's previous mistakes and sins.

Sixth, Saul insists that Jonathan should die after he is found to be the oathbreaker, but “the men” pressure Saul into letting him live.  Again, this kind of raises the question of whether Jonathan is at fault, when he was unaware at the time he broke the oath.  Saul made the oath in haste or wrath, Jonathan broke it, so who is ultimately responsible?  Saul insists that Jonathan should die for what he has done, but the army supports Jonathan so Saul capitulates to popular pressure.  Saul’s behavior is not inspiring my confidence.  In the beginning he was striking the enemies of the LORD after “the Spirit of God came upon him in power” (1 Sam 11:6).  Then he offered a sacrifice to try to rally the army to fight against the Philistines.  Now he threatens to kill his own son after Jonathan brings a great deliverance to Israel against the Philistines.

This is a troubling development.  As the book of Samuel progresses, we will see Saul progressively deteriorate into a worse and worse leader, but even now we can see him beginning to make eratic and poor decisions.