Saturday, June 29, 2013

2 Samuel 16:1-18:33


Biblical narrative is driven by action and dialogue. Emotion and motivation are mostly unreported and have to be inferred.

In 2 Samuel 16, we find David at a low point. As his rebel son Absalom advances on Jerusalem, David has evacuated the capital city leaving behind 10 concubines to look after his palace. In spite of the circumstances, David continues to show loyalty to his friends and submission to YHWH.

Learning that Mephibosheth, the disabled grandson of king Saul, has remained in Jerusalem in hopes of regaining the throne, David grants all of Mephibosheth's possessions to Mephibosheth's servant Ziba.

As he travels on, David meets a kinsman of Saul's, a man named Shimei who calls down curses on David and pelts him with stones. Abishai, one of David's loyal commanders, offers to end the annoyance by killing Shimei. David grants that Shimei may have legitimate grievances.

At the Jordan river, David and his entourage finally rest.

Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, David's spy Hushai ingratiates himself to Absalom. David's former adviser Ahithophel encourages Absalom to make a spectacle of having sex with David's concubines. In chapter 3, concerning the incident between Abner and Ishboseth, I noted that sleeping with another man's wife was a way of asserting superiority over that man. This is exactly what Absalom does. Concerning  David's dalliance with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan had said,
Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. (2 Samuel 12:11)

Here Nathan's words are fulfilled.

In chapter 17 Ahithophel gives Absalom advice on how to defeat David. David's spy, Hushai, gives contrary advice and Absalom chooses to follow it. Hushai then secretly sends word to David on how to escape. There's a bit of adventure as the messengers are pursued and have to hide in a well.

In chapter 18 the armies of David and Absalom engage in battle. David, for his own safety, remains in the city of Mahanaim. Absalom's forces are defeated. Absalom himself is killed, a victim of his luxurious hair. When he hears the news, David is inconsolable:

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

Biblical narrative is driven by action and dialogue. Sometimes the emotion is easy to infer.

2 Samuel 19-21

Friday, June 28, 2013

2 Samuel 13:1-15:37


After the incident with Bathsheba things go rapidly downhill for David.

First his son, Amnon rapes half-sister Tamar. It is an ugly story. Strangely it is told mostly from the rapist's point-of-view. Amnon starts out loving Tamar, though this is no definition of love that I recognize. He tricks her to his bedside, rapes her, and then begins to hate her.

When Amnon starts to force himself on Tamar, she bargains with him. "Ask the king," she says, "and he will give you permission to marry me." It seems unlikely that this is true. She is simply trying to protect herself. To no avail.

After the rape comes the loathing. Amnon compounds Tamar's shame by throwing her out. She put ashes of mourning on her head and tears her rich robe.

Tamar has a tall, handsome full-brother with an impressive head of hair. His name is Absalom. Tamar goes to live in his house. Absalom bides his time.

When King David learns what Amnon has done, he is angry. That's as much as the Hebrew text says. The Septuagint makes clear what the Masoretic text implies: David does nothing. The Septuagint also adds a motive for David's inaction. He does not want to punish his firstborn. I will make a further presumption and say that Amnon was rightful heir to David's throne.

Two years later, Absalom makes his move. He kills Amnon and runs away.

Now three years pass and David is in Jerusalem pining for Absalom. In chapter 14, David's general Joab employs a ruse to convince David that Absalom should be brought back to Jerusalem. Although Absalom returns, David refuses to see him for another 2 years. Finally, the two are reunited. Tears are shed.

Absalom is not done yet. In chapter 15 he begins to actively solicit support from the Israelites. Relocating to Hebron, Absalom has himself declared king of that place and gathers an army. One of David's own advisers, Ahithophel the Giloniite, joins Absalom.

When Absalom and his army advance on Jerusalem, David flees with a retinue. Why David leaves Jerusalem is unclear. Was he afraid of a siege? Was he unwilling to fight his beloved son?

Though David escapes the city, he insists that the ark of the covenant remain there. He sends the priests back along with a friend, Hushai, who will act as his spy.

David has been forced to abandon his throne. As bad as this is, it will get worse. Sometimes it is hard to see the hand of God at work in these stories. Maybe the hand of God has nothing to do with the events of these chapters. Maybe these are simply stories of human depravity and the sorrow it causes.

Next: 2 Samuel 16-18

Thursday, June 27, 2013

2 Samuel 8:1-12:31


YHWH is just nuts about David. So is everyone else it seems with the sole exception being his first wife, Michal. The bloom had gone off love's rose for those two. King David is loyal to his predecessor and to his God. He is great in battle, generous in victory, and a stranger to defeat. If I were to make a movie about him, I would title it There's Something About David. A sitcom would be Everybody Loves David. It seems that he can do no wrong. Even his white lies to the priest Ahimelek were somehow endearing.

If you would like to maintain that view of David, don't read any further in 2 Samuel. Read the books of Chronicles instead. There, any flaws in David's character are whitewashed over or conveniently ignored. Here in 2 Samuel things are about to get ugly.

Chapter 8 gives an overview of some of David's victories in war. Some of the nasty details of ancient warfare are recounted, but these do not reflect badly on David. He's just a natural at winning. Israel's enemies go down like bowling pins. The chapter ends with a list of some of the officials of David's court.

In chapter 9 David seeks out a descendant of Saul's with the object of bestowing honor and kindness. He finds the disabled grandson Mephibosheth and makes him a part of his own household. Reading between the lines, this kindness also keeps a legitimate claimant to Saul's throne in check.

In chapter 10, David sends envoys to express his sympathy at the death of Nahash, king of the Ammonites. Hanun, son of Nahash, suspects the messengers of spying and humiliates them. Realizing their mistake, the Ammonites call upon their allies the Arameans and prepare for war. David's general Joab divides his troops to fight on two fronts. The Ammonites retreat to their city. The Arameans flee. David himself pursues the Arameans and wins. The Arameans will not be a problem any more.

It is in 2 Samuel 11 that the Lord's fair-haired boy goes astray. He should go off to war. That's what kings did in the spring. Instead he stayed home and dallied with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.  When Bathsheba becomes pregnant, David tries to cover up his infidelity by bringing Uriah home. Uriah, loyal to his troops, will not sleep with his wife. So David sends Uriah back to the front carrying sealed orders that will put him in a position for the enemy will kill him.

I wonder if David had begun to believe his own press? Maybe he, too, thought that he could do no wrong. "But the thing David had done displeased YHWH."

The prophet Nathan, in chapter 12, tells a clever story that makes the king face his own guiltiness. David repents. Still, sin has consequences. The child born to Bathsheba dies. This is one of those moments in Scripture that makes me shake my head. There is a gross injustice here. A newborn baby suffers for 7 days and dies because his father sinned.

I remind myself that Jesus rejected the idea that children suffer for their parents' sins (John 9). I also keep in mind that this story is not about the child, nor about the child's mother. The baby is not given a name, as far as we know. Bathsheba is mentioned but only as "the wife of Uriah." The focus in this story is on David, his sin, his repentance, and his acceptance of God's will.

But, still....

So, David has feet* of clay. In spite of his sins and shortcomings, he is remembered as Israel's greatest king and the direct ancestor of Jesus who is called the Christ.

*Do I need to remind you of what feet mean in the Old Testament.

Next: 2 Samuel 13-15

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

LORD God or Lord GOD?


The Hebrew language was originally written without vowels. This is not nearly the handicap that you might imagine. Chncs r y cn rd ths sntnc jst fn. I'm told, by sources I trust, that modern Israeli newspapers are still printed without vowels.

Beginning in the 8th century CE, Jewish scholars started to add masorah  to the Hebrew text of the Bible. Masorah are symbols written above and below the consonantal text which indicate, among other things, the vowels that should be supplied in oral reading. The Masoretic Text, as it is called, is the authoritative Hebrew Bible for Jewish people. This doesn't mean that there are no textual issues in the Masoretic Text. There are, in fact, numerous places where the Hebrew is unclear. Translators often have to emend their work by referring to other sources such as the ancient Greek translation called the Septuagint.

In these "Year of Blogging Biblically" posts I have used the four letters YHWH to represent the name of God. This is a transliteration of the so-called Tetragrammaton, that is, the Hebrew letters Yod, He, Va, He. These are the consonants of the name by which God revealed himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

There is an old tradition that avoids pronouncing the name of God. That is why I omit the vowels from YHWH. It is a sign of respect for God and a pretty certain way to avoid taking the name "in vain." It keeps God's name from being trivialized (as the name of Jesus, when used as a thoughtless exclamation, so often is). I think it says something about God's ineffable nature, as well.

There is a convention among Jews, when the Scriptures are read aloud, to substitute the word Adonai (meaning "Lord") for YHWH*. This convention was observed by the translators of the King James Bible who substituted the word Lord  (written in small capital letters) for YHWH.

Many modern English versions of the Bible still follow this convention from the KJV. For the most part it is effective, but there are a few instances where the Hebrew text refers to God as "Adonai YHWH." Rendering this as "Lord Lord" just seems awkward. In these cases  the Masoretic text used the marks for "Elohim" (Hebrew for "God") with the consonants YHWH indicating that the phrase should be read aloud as "Adonai Elohim."  Many English versions phrase "Adonai YHWH" as "Lord God" (with the small caps indicating that here "God" stands for the divine name).

Complicating this just a little is the fact that sometimes the Hebrew Bible refers to God as "Adonai Elohim," that is "Lord God."

Which brings me at last to the peculiarity in David's prayer from 2 Samuel 7:18 ff. In Hebrew David addresses God as both "Adonai YHWH" and "Adonai Elohim." In many English translations, the only way to know which is which is by paying attention to the word written in small caps. Is it "Lord God" or "Lord God?"

*To indicate that Adonai should be read for YHWH the Masoreh for Adonai were added to the Tetragrammaton. It's a convoluted process, but adding the vowels from Adonai to YHWH resulted in the word "Jehovah" which many groups still use for the divine Name.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

2 Samuel 4:1-7:28


In order to make sense of the events in the first part of 2 Samuel 4, some translations follow the Septuagint. The Hebrew of the Masoretic Text is simply not clear. What is clear is that Saul's son Ishbaal (aka Ishbosheth) is assassinated by a pair of brothers named Rechab and Baanah.  They take the dead king's head to David expecting, I suppose, a reward of some kind.

Incidentally we are introduced to a grandson of Saul through Jonathan, a disabled boy named Mephibosheth. Elsewhere he is called Merib-baal.

David is no more kindly disposed toward the killers of his rival king than he was to the Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul. Rechab and Baanah are executed, their bodies mutilated and displayed. David has Ishbaal's head buried in the tomb of Abner.

Chapter 5 opens with David's third anointing. First he was anointed by Samuel (1 Samuel 16). Then, after the death of Saul, he was anointed king of Judah (2 Samuel 2). Now he is anointed king of all Israel.

David attacks and conquers the city of Jerusalem. He makes it the capital of his united kingdom. It is called the "City of David."

There is some confused business about "the blind and lame" in this passage. Is David against people with disabilities? Is he making fun of the Jebusites? Is this somehow related to the mention of Mehibosheth above? Or to the restriction against people with disabilities entering the (as yet unbuilt) temple?

I think it is safest to say that no one really knows. The parallel account in 1 Chronicles 11 doesn't mention the blind and lame at all.

2 Samuel 5:9 is the first mention of the "Millo." This was apparently some sort of structure in Jerusalem, possibly a stepped stone structure. Let's face it, this passage of 2 Samuel is full of mysteries.

The upshot is that David becomes a significant king. Neighboring king Hiram of Tyre builds David a palace. David acquires more wives, and some concubines, and has more children.

When Philistines attack, David's troops, with YHWH's help, rout them. The fleeing pagans drop their idols which the Israelites take as souvenirs of war. Through it all, David is faithful and humble before the Lord.

In chapter 6 David brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, a savvy move that consolidates the seats of religious and political power in one place. The first attempt to move the ark is somewhat disastrous. A well-intentioned man named Uzzah touches the ark to keep it from falling and for his trouble is struck dead on the spot. YHWH has no need of your protection, thank you.

David, understandably unnerved, leaves the ark at the house of a man named Obed-edom. Obed-edom, who apparently does not touch the ark, prospers by its presence. So, David tries again to move it to Jerusalem. The procession is impressive. The attempt is successful. The only person unimpressed is Saul's daughter, Michal. She is not happy to see David dancing shamelessly wearing an ephod.

Michal, we are told, never has children. Either God or David, or both, were displeased with her. The end result is that the transfer of power from Saul's family to David's is complete.

In chapter 7 David proposes to build a "house" (i.e. a temple) for YHWH in Jerusalem. YHWH demurs and turns the tables promising to build a "house" (i.e. a dynasty) for David. David then offers a lengthy, and fascinating prayer. On the one hand he addresses YHWH as the only God: "There is no God beside you (v. 22)." On the other hand, his prayer seems to grant that the (lesser) gods of other nations have some reality: (v. 23). Is David or, more accurately, the author of 2 Samuel a monotheist or a henotheist?

There is also something interesting in David's use of YHWH's name, but that will be the subject of another blogpost.

Next: 2 Samuel 8-12

Saturday, June 22, 2013

2 Samuel 1:1-3:39


The two books of Samuel were originally a single work. Well, that's not exactly right. Most likely they were originally several works that were compiled into a single work. When the resulting Hebrew book of Samuel was translated into Greek it was divided into two parts. I don't know why. The division stuck and we now have First and Second Samuel. The point is, they are really one book.

The same is true of 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. In the New Testament things are a little different. First, Second and Third John (for example) are three separate letters by the same author. First and Second Corinthians are separate letters of Paul to the same congregation. It's a little more complicated than that. It always is, but that's accurate enough for now.

Anyway, 2 Samuel picks up right where 1 Samuel left off. Saul and his sons have died in battle against the Amalekites. David is back in the presumably ruined city of Ziklag. A young man, an Amalekite, comes to David from the battlefield to inform him of the death of Saul and Jonathan. He tells a story that differs significantly from the account we've just read. Rather than assume that the discrepancies once more indicate the use of different sources, we are probably supposed to think that the young man is lying. He claims to have killed Saul.

Why lie? He probably hopes to ingratiate himself to David by taking responsibility for the death of David's enemy. David sees things differently. In spite of Saul's murderous intentions toward David, David has repeatedly sworn allegiance to Saul, "YHWH's anointed." I assume that David believed the Amalekite man's lie. It doesn't matter either way. David has the man put to death.

The body count in today's chapters is high.

David has the reputatation of being a musician and a poet. He was hired to play the harp to soothe Saul's troubled spirit. In 2 Samuel 19-27, we find the first instance of his singing. He composes a lament for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, praising them as skilled warriors. David uses the image of discarded weapons on the field of battle to good effect. The song is bracketed by the phrase "How the mighty have fallen!"

David's song is also said to be recorded in the "Book of Jashar." We came across another reference to this lost book back in Joshua 10:13.

In chapter 2 David, relocates to Hebron wehre he is anointed king of Judah. (David is himself a Judahite). He also sends gifts to the men of Jabesh Gilead who had recovered and buried the body of Saul. David is beginning to build political alliances. He will need them.

Abner, the general of Saul's army, installs one of Saul's remaining sons, Ish-bosheth (a.k.a. Ishbaal*), as king over the rest of Israel's tribes. Abner, it seems, is the power behind the throne. As Bugs Bunny would say, "Of course you know this means war." Two armies mass at Gibeon.

Joab is the general of David's army and will prove to be a staunch defender of his king. His two brothers, Asahel and Abishai, are with him at Gibeon as he faces off against Abner. The battle begins with a strange scene of ritual combat. Twelve soldiers from each army go up against one another. Paired off to fight, all 24 die at the hand of their opponents. The symbolism of Israel's 12 tribes in suicidal civil war is clear.

After the ritual combat, general warfare begins. By a clever maneuver, Abner kills the pursuing Asahel. Joab and Abishai then pursue Abner, but Abner, evoking the image of an endless war of Israelite against Israelite, convinces them to back off. The battle of Gibeon ends with Abner's army having suffered the heavier losses. Everyone seems anxious to leave the area.

Chapter 3 begins with notice that the battle of Gibeon was only the beginning of a protracted war between David and Ish-bosheth. David's power grows while Ish-bosheth's diminishes.

A side note indicates that David, once a rebel leader with 2 wives, has become a king with six sons by as many wives. Note the name of Absalom, with two royal parents. He will become important later.

Ish-bosheth accuses his general, Abner, of cuckolding him. This is a serious accusation. Sleeping with a king's wife is a way of proclaiming one's power over that king. This will come up again in the story of Absalom. Abner is offended by the accusation and approaches David, offering to come over to his side. David is willing but has one demand, "Bring me back my first wife, Michal." With Ish-bosheth's help, Abner restores Michal to David. Michal's second husband is not to happy about this, but he is powerless against Abner.

No one bothered to ask Michal how she felt about it.

David receives Abner with a feast. When Abner leaves, Joab, still angry over the death of his brother, has Abner brought back to Hebron and kills him. David pronounces a curse on Joab's family and then sings a lament for Abner. This is the second time we've "heard" David sing.

David is magnanimous.

*Baal, meaning something like "Lord," was a general designation for a god. Since it was also the name of a Canaanite deity, it was probably dropped from the compound name Ishbaal, which was replaced with the name Ish-bosheth.

Next: 2 Samuel 4-7

Friday, June 21, 2013

1 Samuel 28:1-31:13


Remember the TV show Bewitched? All of the witches names ended with the letter "A." Samantha, Serena, Agatha.... It kind of robbed the whole "is-baby-Tabitha-a-witch-or-not?" plot of all its suspense for anyone who was paying attention.

The show, I have heard, was the target of criticism from certain Christian groups who objected to its positive treatment of witches. Exodus 22:18 says "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," after all. Agnes Moorehead, who played Samantha's meddling mother, was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and, I've heard, a committed Christian throughout her life. She pooh-poohed the criticism. Bewitched was all fiction, fantasy, and entertainment.

I mention this because Moorehead's character name was "Endora." Endor is a biblical place name, the home of a famous witch. Add the "A" suffix for a witch's name and there you have the origin of the character's moniker.

"Witch" was what the King James Version called the woman of Endor with whom Saul consulted. Modern translations seem to prefer "medium." Personally I think "necromancer" might be a more accurate descriptor. She conjured the dead. Technically, this was illegal. Beside the Exodus 22:28 thing, Saul had "cut off" all the witches, or mediums, or necromancers from the land.

Poor Saul was desperate. The Philistine army was massing and YHWH wasn't talking to him. So he convinced the woman of Endor to summon up for him the spirit of Samuel. Apparently the author of this book envisioned the afterlife as a shadowy existence. Within the narrative, summoning the dead is a real possibility, but frowned upon. YHWH doesn't want living people messing with the realm of the dead.

The dead don't seem to keen on being messed with either. At least Samuel doesn't. He grouses at Saul for disturbing him and then delivers the bad news: "You and your sons will be joining me tomorrow."

I feel sorry for Saul. YHWH didn't want Israel to have a king anyway. When they insisted, YHWH tapped Saul for the job. He was a screw-up from the first. YHWH rejected him, and now he's going to die.

In the meantime (chapter 29), YHWH's favorite, David is marching with the Philistines. Would he actually go to war against his own people? It seems unlikely but we'll never know for sure. Some of the Philistine commanders, suspecting David's loyalties, insist that he go back home to Ziklag.

 While David was away, Amalekites raided Ziklag, taking everyone there (including David's wives) captive, looting what they could, and setting the city afire. David's army of 600 go after the Amalekites. Two hundred of them succumb to exhaustion and are left behind. The 400 who remain rout the Amalekites and recover everything. David insists that those who fought share the spoils of war with those who were left back. He's noble like that. He also sends gifts to the elders of Judah.

We rejoin Saul in chapter 31. In battle with the Philistines, his three sons are killed. When he is critically wounded, he ends his life by falling on his own sword. His body is mutilated and displayed by the Philistines, but brave Israelites recover it.

Like I said, I feel sorry for Saul. He was in over his head from the first.

Next: 2 Samuel 1-3

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

1 Samuel 25:1-27:12


Samuel dies. It is announced simply in 1 Samuel 25:1. He is buried and mourned. David moves.

There is an ancient tradition that says Samuel wrote the books bearing his name. Somehow, it seems unlikely.

Some years ago, I read the diary of a 19th century government surveyor who was sent out to map Utah. When one of the locals refused him hospitality, he referred to the man as a "surly Nabal." I wondered then, and I still do, how many of his contemporary readers understood the reference. Surely it was more widely understood at the time than it would be today. I think that people were more biblically literate back then.

Nabal (the NIV helpfully explains that the name means "fool") received kindness from David and his troops. When David sends his men to request food and drink from Nabal, the man refuses. David is ready to destroy Nabal and his household, but Nabal's wife, Abigail, diplomatically assuages David's anger. The next day, when Nabal learns the news, he is apparently struck with paralysis. Ten days later he dies. Abigail marries David.

David also marries another woman named Ahinoam. His first wife, Michal, who loved him, was given by her father to be the wife of another man, Palti of Laish.

In chapter 26, Saul is once more pursuing David with the intent to kill him. David has the opportunity to kill Saul again but instead steals Saul's spear and water jar. Retreating to a safe distance, David calls out to Saul's general Abner. He deprecates himself as a "flea" this time. (It was a dog in chapter 24). David professes his allegiance to Saul, "YHWH's anointed." Saul blesses David. This story is like the episode in chapter 24 in so many of its details that it must almost certainly be a variant of the same tradition collected from a different source.

In chapter 27 David wants to live where Saul will not pursue him, so he moves to the Philistine city of Gath. Last time he was there he drooled and scrawled and feigned madness (21:10 ff.).  This time out he employs no such ruse. He is given the city of Ziklag to live in. From there he runs raids against Israel's enemies, though he lies to Achish, king of Moab, claiming to be raiding Israelite cities instead. Tricky!

David will do far worse. Adultery and murder are on the far horizon.

Once again we find God's hero to be a morally ambiguous sort. Let's just call David a sinner, shall we? I find it comforting that God chooses sinners and uses them, for all their flaws, in the service of God's will. It is from the line of David that Jesus will eventuallybe born.

Next: 1 Samuel 28-31

1 Samuel 21:1-24:22


David is on the lam. King Saul wants to kill him. First thing, he runs to a place called Nob where the Tabernacle must currently be set up. He lies to the priest, Ahimelec,h and is given the sacred bread which is presented before YHWH. Only the priests are supposed to eat this bread. David is not a priest. He also claims that the men with him (are there men with him?) are ritually clean. This may or may not be strictly true. No matter. Ahimelech provides him with food and a weapon, the sword of the giant Goliath. That sword was kept behind an ephod which, in this case seems not to be a garment. What was it?

In Mark 2:26, Jesus refers to this episode. He uses it as a proof text for a kind of situation ethics. If David could eat the sacred bread, his disciples can pick grain for food on the Sabbath.  Jesus seems pretty sure that David had companions with him, though he seems to get the name of the priest wrong. He says that this event took place "when Abiathar was high priest." If Abiathar is high priest at this time, 1 Samuel doesn't mention the fact. Ahimelech is the priest on duty.

Saul's chief shepherd, Doeg the Edomite, happens to be at Nob. He sees David and Ahimelech.

With his ill-gotten provisions, David runs off to Goliath's hometown, Gath. The people of Gath are afraid of him. To protect himself, David pretends to be a madman. According to their king, Achish, Gath has enough madmen. David is sent on his way.

The books of Samuel give us a complex, morally ambiguous portrait of David, Israel's greatest king. For some reason, though, YHWH just loves this guy. Everybody loves David. Everybody but Saul. If you prefer a sanitized version of David's story read the Chronicles.

In chapter 22, David goes to hide out in a cave. His family joins him there. Then come the debtors, the distressed, and the discontented. Pretty soon David has a rebel army of about 400 men. He drops his parents off in a Moabite town and then, at the advice of a prophet named Gad, moves on.

 In the meantime Saul, still wanting David dead, learns from Doeg the Edomite that David has been in Nob. He sends for Ahimelech and the priests of Nob. He has them killed, along with their families, and then destroys their city. Only one priest escapes, the aforementioned Abiathar, who runs off to join David's rebel band.

David feels responsible for Abiathar's loss. David often feels responsible. He promises to protect Abiathar.

 In chapter 23, Philistines attack a town called Keilah. With the Lord's blessing, David takes his army, now swollen to 600 troops, and routs the Philistines. Learning that David is in Keilah, Saul plans to besiege the city. David, with Abiathar's help, consults YHWH by means of the ephod, whatever that is, and leaves Keilah before Saul can arrive.

David retreats to the wilderness of Ziph. There is a doublet of the covenant of faithfulness that Jonathan and David made. The Ziphites betray David's whereabouts to Saul. Saul goes after David but is distracted from his goal by a timely Philistine invasion.

In chapter 24, Saul goes after David once more. In the wilderness of En-Gedi, David and his army are hiding in a cave. Saul, unaware of their presence, comes in to relieve himself. (If you haven't noticed there is a fair amount of scatology in both testaments of the Christian Bible). David could kill Saul, but doesn't. Instead he stealthily cuts a piece from Saul's robe. When Saul leaves the cave, David reveals himself and shows what he has done. David denigrates himself ("I'm just a dead dog") and swears allegiance to Saul. Saul weeps and blesses David. "I know that you will be king," he says. "Just be nice to my descendants."

And Saul goes home and all is well until the next time David spares his life. Doublets, doublets. Signs of compilation from multiple sources.

Next: 1 Samuel 25-27

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

1 Samuel 18:1-20:42


1 Samuel 18 tells us that Saul's son Jonathan loves David. Some people see homoerotic overtones in their relationship. I can see why. I'm not inclined to agree however. The Hebrew Bible's revulsion at gay sex and the high regard it has for David suggest to me that David and Jonathan have an intense, close friendship but not a sexual relationship.

Everybody loves David it seems. The women sing of his heroics, provoking Saul's anger. Twice (or is it three times?) in this section, Saul tries to run David through with a spear. Once would have been enough. The fact that the two accounts are so like one another suggest to me that they came from separate sources. Saul is a little spear happy anyway as he will also try to run Jonathan through.

On the subject of those who love David, Saul's daughter Michal falls for our ruddy young hero. David protests that he isn't fit to be the king's son-in-law, so Saul sets him a task. The bride price for Michal is 100 Philistine foreskins. Since living Philistines are unlikely to give up their foreskins willingly David will have to kill a few men. Saul hopes that David will die trying but David manages to double the number of foreskins Saul requested. Or does he?  The Hebrew of 1 Samuel 18:27 says "two hundred foreskins" but the Septuagint says "one hundred." At 2 Samuel 3:14 David says that he paid "one hundred foreskins" for Michal.

Either way it's a lot of foreskins. David is a great warrior. He marries Michal.

In chapter 19 Jonathan convinces his father not to kill David. At least temporarily. Michal helps David escape from Saul by a ruse involving an idol and some goat's hair. Why she had an idol is not explained. Then yet another explanation is given for the proverbial saying, "Is Saul also among the prophets?"

Chapter 20 tells how Jonathan and David conspire to learn Saul's intention toward David. There have been hints all along that Saul wanted to kill David: the fact that he sent David out to kill 100 Philistines, that he tried to run David through with a spear two or three times, and the fact that he talked to Jonathan and anyone else who would listen about killing David are good examples. Still, one cannot be too sure. So, Jonathan tests his father out. He determines that Saul means David no good. So, even though it means he will never  be king himself, Jonathan makes a covenant with David and sends him on his way.

I used to work at a home for troubled youth. Some of them could swear like sailors. Occasionally one of them would say, "Pardon my language, Rev." To which I would reply that they could use any language they wanted as long as it was in the Bible. Most of them had no idea how much latitude that gave them.

In 1 Samuel 20:30 Saul angrily calls Jonathan the "son of a perverse, rebellious woman." Ken Taylor's Living Bible (1971) paraphrased that as "son of a bitch." Not the most accurate rendering perhaps, but it seems to catch the spirit of the thing.

Next: 1 Samuel 21-24

Monday, June 17, 2013

1 Samuel 15:1-17:58


YHWH rejected Saul in 1 Samuel 13. Because he had been faithless and offered sacrifices before Samuel arrived, Saul would not establish a dynasty. God would choose someone else to rule over Israel.

In Chapter 15, YHWH rejects Saul again. This time it is because Saul is faithless because he was supposed to utterly destroy the Amalekites, but did not. He allowed his troops to plunder the Amalekites' livestock. He takes the Amalekite king as a prisoner.

Saul has excuses. The plundered livestock was to be used as sacrifices. (Maybe they were). Saul was afraid of his men. (He has said this before. It's not the mark of a great leader). YHWH has no use for excuses. Samuel tells Saul that YHWH has rejected him. Samuel himself kills the Amalekite king. Then Samuel breaks ties with Saul. He will never speak to Saul again. At least not in this lifetime.

In Chapter 16 Samuel goes to Bethlehem and finds YHWH's choice for Saul's replacement in the house of a man named Jesse. After examining seven of Jesse's sons, and taking a pass on all of them, Samuel asks if there are any more sons hiding anywhere. There is one, the youngest, a handsome young man named David. He's out keeping the sheep.

Throughout the Bible, God makes unexpected choices. God favors younger sons. Here YHWH chooses the shepherd boy to be king. Samuel anoints him.

In verses 14-23, David is sent to live in Saul's household. It seems that Saul is troubled by "an evil spirit from God." I'm troubled that an evil spirit is said to be "from God."  But this is the problem with monotheism. There is only one God and that God is therefore responsible for everything, good and evil. At any rate, David is a harp player and his music is soothing to Saul. David is described as a valiant warrior in this passage.

Which makes the events of chapter 17 odd. In chapter 17, neither Saul nor his attendants know David. David is a young man, a shepherd once again, and not a skilled warrior. He is unaccustomed to wearing armor, not that Saul's armor would fit him anyway. Saul was a tall man.

At best, the stories in chapters 16 and 17 are out of order. Close reading shows that they are not really compatible. This, as well as repeated elements such as YHWH rejecting Saul twice, is further indication that 1 Samuel was made by compiling at least two sources.

The story of David and Goliath is a Sunday School classic. David is the young shepherd armed only with a sling shot and his faith. He goes up against, and defeats a fierce 9-1/2 foot tall giant. It's a thrilling story with some lovely touches of humor and just a dash of gore.

Next: 1 Samuel 18-20

Sunday, June 16, 2013

1 Samuel 13:1-14:52


Reading the story of King Saul highlights the fact that 1 Samuel must have been cobbled together from a variety of sources. Events happen out of order. Things don't always make clear sense.

1 Samuel 13:1 is a difficult verse. Simply put, some information is missing from it. Different translations deal with it differently. Some say that Saul was 30 years old when he began to reign, though the Hebrew text doesn't say that. In fact, it doesn't say how old he was. The Hebrew text seems to say that Saul ruled for two years, though that can't be right. Some scholars suggest that Saul ruled about 20 years. The New Testament book of Acts (13:21) says that Saul ruled for 40 years. Again, translators are playing fill-in-the-blank.

Chapters 13 and 14 depict Saul as weak and faithless from the beginning of his kingship. Though he has been told to wait for Samuel, Saul grows impatient and fearful. He offers a sacrifice without the aid of a legitimate priest. This displeases YHWH. Saul's son Jonathan is a faithful man and a strong warrior, but, because of Saul's faithlessness  Jonathan will never sit on the throne. Saul will not establish a dynasty.

The Philistines are in charge over Israel. As a measure of control, the Philistines do not allow the Israelites to have blacksmiths. No smiths means no bladed weapons. Saul and Jonathan, somehow, have swords.

In chapter 14, Jonathan slips away from the cowering army in company with a priest and his armor bearer. He goes up against the Philistines and, with the help of YHWH, kills 20 of them. The Philistine camp is then thrown into confusion and the Philistines turn on themselves.

The story of Saul's "rash oath" in chapter 14 echoes the story of Jephthah's vow in Judges 11, though the results are happier. Saul has his troops vow to fast until sunset on a day of battle. Jonathan, unaware of the vow, eats a little honey. At sunset, the famished troops eat meat with the blood still in it, a big no-no in Genesis 9:4, etc. Saul stops them, but then has to deal with the problem that someone among his troops broke the fast. When it turns out to be Jonathan he, like Jephthah's daughter, is  prepared to face the consequence of death. The troops won't hear of it, however, and they ransom him, apparently with an animal sacrifice.

At the end of chapter 14 we are introduced to Saul's family. We are told that Saul is successful in war, but the Philistines remain a problem throughout his reign.

Next: 1 Samuel 15-17

Thursday, June 13, 2013

1 Samuel 9:1-12-25


Remember the trope? There is a conventional formula that comes into play when certain biblical characters get married. We saw it in Genesis 24 (Isaac and Rebekah) and Genesis 28 (Jacob and Rachel...and Leah). The trope goes like this:

The hero leaves home to find a wife.

He meets a woman at well.

Water is drawn.

A marriage contract is made.

It's not much of a plot, but neither is "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl." It is the variations in the trope that make it interesting and tell us something about the heroes.

In 1 Samuel 9, we get another variation on the trope. This time the hero is Saul (his name means "prayed for") who will become Israel's first king. He is tall and handsome. He goes out from his father's house in search of...


Already the standard plot is being subverted.

After some searching, Saul does come to a well where he meets not just one woman but a bevy of them.  This seems promising. Saul asks the women for directions to the house of a seer. No one draws water. No marriage contract is made. Saul doesn't even find the donkeys. What's wrong here?

Actually this sets the tone for Saul's entire kingship. Overall he will be a failure. He will not establish a dynasty. He will die by suicide. Preemption, disappointment, and subverted expectations are the hallmarks of Saul's story.

The seer he was looking for turns out to be Samuel who has already heard from YHWH that he is to anoint Saul to be king. Keep in mind that YHWH was not real keen on the idea of Israel having a king in the first place. YHWH wants to be Israel's king.

In chapter 10 Samuel anoints Saul and gives him certain signs to watch for. One of those signs is that he will meet a bunch of prophets and, overcome by YHWH's spirit, begin to prophesy himself. This is the first explanation for a proverb that must have been current among the Israelites, "Is Saul also among the prophets?" Frankly, I'd like to revive the proverb but have never found an occasion to which it applies.

Samuel tells Saul to go to Gilgal and wait there. Samuel will be along in a week.

On the day of Saul's ascension to the throne he is, unaccountably, hiding among the baggage. This is another foreshadowing of failures to come. After the coronation, Saul goes home to Gibeah. There are grumblers who complain that Saul is not fit to rule. Saul ignores them.

Chapter 11 tells how an army of Ammonites besieged a city called Jabesh. The Ammonite ruler offers terms of peace. "Just let me gouge out all of your right eyes." The people of Jabesh say, "Let us think about it."

When Saul learns of the situation, he cuts up an ox and sends its various parts throughout Israel. Was this a way that armies were mustered in ancient Israel? It is reminiscent of the Levite who butchered his concubine and sent her parts out to the tribes of Israel, also to gather a fighting force, in Judges 19. Saul pronounces a curse against those who will not come to join the battle. "May the same thing happen to their cattle."

After the Ammonites are defeated, Saul forgives those who grumbled against his kingship. In the long run he may be a failure but right now he is victorious and magnanimous. His kingship is renewed with a party.

Chapter 12 is taken up with Samuel's farewell speech. Like Moses and Joshua before him, Samuel reminds the Israelites of what God has done for them and encourages them to be faithful to YHWH. Idols are verboten. This king thing was not such a great idea, but it will be okay, Samuel says, as long everybody worships YHWH.

It is a little odd to have a farewell speech from a man who will continue to be a major player in events to come.

Next: 1 Samuel 13-14

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

1 Samuel 4:1-8:22


This portion of 1 Samuel begins with tragedy. Israel is at war with the Philistines and the war is going badly. Eli's sons, the priests Hophni and Phinehas, have a bright idea. They take the ark of the covenant, the seat of YHWH's presence, the closest thing to an idol that Israel is allowed to have, down to the battlefield. The Philistine's, frightened, redouble their efforts and Israel suffers a crushing defeat. Predictably (because it was predicted in 2:27 ff.) Phinehas and Hophni die. The ark of the covenant is captured. When Eli hears the bad news, he keels over backward, breaks his neck and dies. Phinehas's pregnant wife dies in childbirth. With her last breath she names her son "Ichabod" which means "the glory has departed" from Israel.

Tragedy quickly turns to comedy in chapters 5-6. The Philistines take the ark of the covenant into captivity. When they put it in the temple of their god Dagon in Ashdod, Dagon's idol falls over and is smashed. What's more, the people of the Ashdod are afflicted with...something.

The good old King James Bible said that they had "emerods"--a variant spelling of "hemorrhoids." Most modern translations say "tumors." A laugh-out-loud funny article in Biblical Archeology Review (May/June 2008) suggested that the Philistines were afflicted with erectile dysfunction. Really.

Whatever it was, it caused the Philistines to move the ark from town to town for seven months. Everywhere the ark went, the affliction followed. Apparently there were rats, too. The solution to the Philistines' woes is to return the ark to the Israelites along with a gift: five gold rats (one for each of the Philistine rulers, don't miss the point) and five gold emerods, or tumors, or phalluses, or something. The process for returning the ark is fairly complex. It involves cows and a cart and let's just say it works. Israel gets the ark back at a price.

When some of the residents of Beth Shemesh look inside the ark, YHWH strikes them dead. So, Beth Shemesh sends the ark on to Kiriath Jearim where it stays for 20 years.

At least the people of Beth Shemesh had to look inside. In 2 Samuel 6 a man named Uzzah will die just for touching the ark. And he was trying to keep it from falling!

In 1 Samuel 7, after repentance and prayer and sacrifice, under Samuel's direction, and with God's help, the Israelites defeat the Philistines.With peace established, Samuel serves as Israel's judge, working a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to his home in Ramah.

In 8 short chapters, Samuel has already grown old. His sons are not fit to serve as Israel's leaders. So the Israelites ask Samuel to anoint a king for them. Samuel is not in favor of the idea. YHWH tells Samuel to do as they ask but to warn them first. Be careful what you wish for. A king will be a taker. A king will take their sons and daughters and fields and wealth and "you yourselves will become his slaves."

YHWH wants to be Israel's king. Israel wants a human king such as other nations have. And they shall have one.

Golden hemmorhoids? Really?

Next: 1 Samuel 9-12

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

1 Samuel 1:1-3:21


After the pleasant interruption of the story of Ruth, the first book of Samuel returns us to the larger narrative. You will recall that everything had gone ker-flooey in Israel at the end of the book of Judges. Chaos reigned. Inter-tribal warfare was rampant. Dogs and cats were living together...

No, wait. Scratch that last bit. That was from Ghostbusters.

Samuel will be the last judge of Israel. He will serve as a priest and act as a prophet. He will anoint the nation's first two kings.

First off, we meet Samuel's parents, Elkanah and Hannah. In a familiar trope, Hannah is the beloved but barren wife. She desperately wants children. Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah, mocks Hannah mercilessly. (An extra-biblical tradition gives the name Anna, a variant of Hannah, to the mother of the virgin Mary).

The tabernacle, the tent that served as a traveling temple during the wilderness years, is now parked semi-permanently at Shiloh. Eli is an overweight, elderly man, a decent sort, but an ineffectual father. His two sons, Phinehas and Hophni, are the priests. They misuse their position egregiously.

When Elkanah's family makes one of their annual pilgrimages to Shiloh, Eli finds Hannah praying and pronounces a blessing over her. Shortly after she returns home, Hannah becomes pregnant. Her firstborn son, Samuel. is dedicated to YHWH in a most literal way. Once he is weaned the boy is given to Eli to raise in the tabernacle. Each year Hannah brings Samuel a little linen ephod, a garment that suggests the boy is serving in a priestly capacity at a tender age.

Intertextuality is the word of the day. The story of  Samuel's birth and childhood have echoes of the stories of the Patriarchs. When we get to the early chapters of Luke, we'll find that the narrative of Jesus' birth is patterned, at least in part, on these chapters of 1 Samuel.

The second chapter begins with a song that Hannah sings, expressing her joy at the birth of a son. It tells of God's sovereignty and of amazing reversals that YHWH causes: the lowly are lifted up, the proud are humbled. It is a model followed by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:46 ff. (the "Magnificat").

Verses 12 ff. detail the indiscretions of Hophni and Phinehas. Besides filching the best parts of the sacrifices,  they are having sex with the women who "serve at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting." Who are these women? Just what services do they perform? Is this temple prostitution (a common practice among Israel's pagan neighbors)? Are the women rightfully there and wrongly used? Or is their presence another indication of just how bad things have gotten in Israel?

In 2:27 ff.  an anonymous prophet comes by to pronounce doom upon Phinehas and Hophni. He must be a true prophet as his words will come to pass.

Chapter 3 is usually titled something like the "Call of Samuel." I prefer to think of it as Samuel's first encounter with YHWH. Samuel isn't really commissioned to do anything. He simply hears the word of the Lord, a word that he will repeat unwillingly to Eli. Samuel's response to YHWH's summons is the same as Abraham's, "Hineni.Here I am." Samuel, at first, says his "Hinenis" to the wrong person, Eli. YHWH's message is more bad news for Eli who accepts the Lord's will with faith. Or is it resignation? Whatever it is, it will echo in Mary's response to the news that she, though virgin, will become pregnant in Luke 1:38.

A final intertextual echo is found in 1 Samuel 3:19 which describes the boy growing up and will be echoed in Luke 2:40.

Next: 1 Samuel 4-8

Monday, June 10, 2013

Making Ruth Central


People of faith who grant authority to the Bible invariably privilege some portions of their Scripture above others. Everyone has a "canon within the canon." Even the Fundamentalist who says that the Scriptures all carry equal weight grants that Mark 7:19 (where Jesus "declared all foods clean") trumps Leviticus 11:10 (which declares shellfish an "abomination").

So, communities of faith make some parts of Scripture central to their theology. Those central parts provide an interpretive lens through which the rest of Scripture is read (or ignored). It might be the Abrahamic covenant, the story of the Exodus, the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the writings of Paul, or apocalyptic end times prophecy. Whatever is given place of prominence colors the way that we read the entire Bible and shapes the life of a faith community.

Interpreters approach the book of Ruth in a variety of ways. Most seem to find it a charming, romantic story. Some treat it as a folktale; others as a bald recitation of historical fact. Everyone can draw some message from it. But no one--as far as I am aware--absolutely no one makes Ruth the center of the Scripture.

That realization brings me to a thought experiment. What would a community of faith that made Ruth the heart of its canon look like? If Ruth were the interpretive lens through which they read the rest of the Bible, what would their theology and practice be?

For example, since the book of Ruth is named for a woman, and since women (Naomi and Ruth) are its protagonists, would women be given a more prominent place in this hypothetical community? It is nice to think so, but I'm afraid that the answer is "no." The book of Ruth reflects the patriarchal assumptions of the culture from which it came. Women in this book are reliant upon men. Boaz is the knight in shining armor who rescues Ruth and Naomi.

Then there is the question of the Law. Christians tend to treat the Law as either a cudgel to keep the faithful in line or a goad to prompt sore consciences to repentance. In the book of Ruth, the Law is a positive good, a tool, if you will, to the Gospel. It is through the laws commanding gleaning and levirate marriage that Ruth and Naomi are first kept alive and then lifted to a state of happiness. (I should point out that this is, to my understanding, a Jewish approach to the Law). A community based on the book of Ruth would likely see the Law as instruction to provide for those in need.

Related to the question of the Law, is a point about premarital sex. Most faith communities frown on sex before marriage. Some Christian groups in particular put a great stress on sexual "purity." But something happened between Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor that night. The author of Ruth is a bit coy, but whatever happened delighted Boaz. No one else seems to think it amiss. Granted this is a case of a woman in a patriarchal culture using her sexual wiles to assure her future but, within the narrative world of Ruth, there is no condemnation for what happened. Would a community that used Ruth as its interpretive lens be more permissive about premarital sex? Maybe so.

How would my hypothetical community define "salvation?" For many Christians salvation means having your ticket punched for a ride on the heaven train. The book of Ruth, like most of the Hebrew Bible (and some of the New Testament), shows no interest in the afterlife. Postmortem rewards and punishments are of no concern here. If Ruth et al. achieve immortality it is through their notable offspring. Salvation in this book is about having one's physical needs provided: food, shelter, security. An Old Testament professor of mine defined shalom as that state where "You have everything you need to live and be happy and I know it. And I have everything I need to live and be happy and you know it." The word shalom does not (to the best of my knowledge) occur in the book of Ruth, but that sense of mutual concern for each others' well-being seems to undergird the entire narrative.

If the Hebrew word shalom does not occur in Ruth, the word hesed certainly does. Hesed signifies something like "extravagant, faithful, merciful, kind, loving, loyalty." It is a rich concept and an important theme in this book. It is an attribute of God but also a human attribute modeled by Ruth in her treatment of Naomi, and Boaz in his treatment of Ruth. My imaginary community of faith would be a community of hesed.

Many faith groups stress God's sovereignty. The book of Ruth also recognizes that God is free to work weal or woe. Christians who emphasize sovereignty are usually monergistic, that is, they insist that God is the sole actor in the work of salvation. (My own Lutheran tradition tends this way). In the book of Ruth, human beings seem to have free will, and human agency is a factor in salvation. Ruth chose to accompany Naomi. Ruth took the initiative in her relationship with Boaz. As a result, Ruth assured her future and became the direct ancestor of both Israel's greatest king and, in the New Testament, the Messiah. I don't see monergism being a factor in a theology that put the book of Ruth at its center.

One last point, and it should almost go without saying, a faith community that used Ruth as its interpretive lens would be open toward outsiders.

My community based on the book of Ruth exists only in my imagination. Were it to be translated into a reality, it would be like any other faith community: imperfect. It would have features both good (a stess on hesed) and bad (dismpowerment of women). Perhaps real faith communities would benefit by adopting (or placing greater emphasis on) the good features of my hypothetical community.

 What do you think? What features would a community that placed Ruth's story at the heart of its theology  have? Are there good features that your faith community would benefit from?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Ruth 1:1-4:22


The book of Ruth is one of two biblical books named for women (the other being Esther) and, if I'm not mistaken, it is the only book of the Hebrew Bible named for a gentile. Ruth was a native of Moab.

According to the book of Genesis, the Moabites are cousins to the Israelites. They were the children (by an incestuous relationship) of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. Deuteronomy 23 specifies that "no Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord to the tenth generation." In Numbers 25 Israelite men having sex with Moabite women is frowned upon--it could lead to idolatry.

Which is to say, that from an Israelite point of view, being a Moabite was not a desirable thing.

In Christian Bibles the book of Ruth is sandwiched between Judges and 1 Samuel. It fits there because Ruth is set in the time of the judges, but it interrupts the narrative flow that connects Judges and 1 Samuel.  Hebrew Bibles place Ruth in the third division of the Jewish Scriptures, the Kethuvim (Writings).

The book of Ruth is clearly written after the events it narrates. How long after is a matter of scholarly debate. Verse 1:1 sets the narrative in the past. The genealogy in 4:13-22 traces the line of King David, Ruth's great-great-grandson. A custom involving handing a person a sandal to confirm a land transaction is explained in 4:7 as something done in former times.

I find it interesting that God plays a such small role in the book of Ruth.  The name of YHWH is invoked frequently. YHWH is said to have ended the famine (1:6) and to have dealt harshly with Naomi (1:20), but there isn't a lot of direct intervention in this book. YHWH's law (permitting gleaning, commanding levirate marriage) carries the day and brings about the story's happy conclusion.

The names of the characters in this book are symbolic. Mahlon means "sick" and Chilion means "failing." These two die just five verses into the first chapter. Their father's name, Elimelech, means "God is king" and is fitting for the book's premonarchical setting. Naomi means "pleasant" but when she falls on hard times she renames herself Mara, meaning "bitter." Orpah's name means "the back of the neck;" she turns away from Naomi. Ruth, on the other hand, means "friend" and she proves a true friend to her mother-in-law. Finally the name Boaz means something like "in him is strength."

This use of names leads me to think that the book of Ruth is a work of  historical fiction. That does not mean that all of the characters and events in the story are fictional. Even Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter includes historical people and events.

To me the book's message is more interesting than its genre. Whether the book of Ruth is a factual account of historical events or, as I think, largely a work of fiction, the story has been written and preserved for a reason. What is the author trying to tell us?

One take-away from the story is the value of hesed,  a Hebrew word meaning faithfulness, loyalty, mercy and "lovingkindness" (as the good old King James Version translated it). Hesed  is an attribute of God in the Hebrew Bible. In this book Ruth shows hesed to Naomi. Naomi shows hesed to her God and her people. Boaz  shows hesed  to Ruth and Naomi. It can be said that YHWH, offstage, shows hesed to all.

Another message to glean* from this book is the inclusion of Gentiles among God's people. Some of the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g. Ezra and Nehemiah) are exclusivistic; other writings (e.g. Jonah, Isaiah) tend toward inclusiveness. Ruth is among the latter. A Moabite woman is the direct ancestor of Israel's greatest king. I guess that thing about Moabites being excluded from the assembly "to the tenth generation" doesn't apply here.

The genealogy in Matthew 1 includes the names of four women as direct ancestors of Jesus. Ruth is among them.

By the way, I'm not sure what happened on the threshing floor when Ruth got dolled up and laid down by Boaz's feet, but I can't help but remember that "feet" is a Hebrew euphemism for "genitals." Hmmm...

*Pun intended.

Next: 1 Samuel 1-3

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Judges 19:1-21:25


"Benjamin is a ravenous wolf
 In the morning devouring the prey
And at evening dividing the plunder." (Genesis 49:27)
Those are the words with which Jacob, from his deathbed, "blessed" his youngest son. In the closing chapters of the book of Judges the tribe of Benjamin proves its rapacity and is nearly destroyed as a result.

There is a trajectory to this book. There are hints of trouble from the outset. The conquest of Canaan is incomplete. A pattern of apostasy, rejection, repentance, and restoration is set. The early judges like Ehud and Deborah are successful in leading Israel. Their stories are gruesome but end in victory. A steady downward momentum has begun, however. Gideon is a good guy, but winds up making an idol. With the story of Jepthah there is a sudden, precipitous drop. Jephthah is a formidable military leader, but he is also guilty of child sacrifice and lacks the diplomacy to prevent inter-tribal warfare. Things level out a little with Samson. He is a great hero in the mold of a Greek demi-god, but Israel languishes under Philisitine oppression throughout his career. After Samson the book of Judges goes completely off the rails. The story ends in chaos.

"In those days there was no king in Israel," has become a refrain (Judges 18:1, 19:1). The Hebrew Bible is ambivalent about the institution of monarchy. Here, the lack of a king is seen as a bad thing. The refrain is completed in 21:25 the last verse of the book: "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes."

Chapter 19 brings us the story of a Levite and his concubine which has dark echoes of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19. The Levite, ironically, feared ill-treatment if he stayed in a non-Israelite town. So he puts up for the night in Gibeah, in Benjamin's territory. The men of Gibeah surround the house and demand that the Levite be given to them to be raped. This is not about sexual desire. It is about power. It is about humiliating the stranger. The Levite pushes his concubine out the door to the crowd who gang rape her through the night.

She dies.

Compounding the horror of this story, the Levite takes her body home, dismembers it, and sends its pieces throughout the countryside for all of the tribes of Israel to see.

In chapter 20, at the instigation of the Levite, eleven of Israel's tribes go to war against one, Benjamin. Many of the Benjaminites are left-handed as Ehud was. The battles are fierce. The casualty counts are high. After three days of fighting, the Benjaminites are defeated with a tactic that Joshua used against the city of Ai (Joshua 8:1 ff). Only 600 Benjamites are left alive.

Chapter 21 concludes the book. The Israelites have sworn not to give their daughters in marriage to men of Benjamin. Unwilling to let the tribe die out, they figure out ways to provide marriage partners for the 600 men who remain. First, they go to war against the (Israelite) city of Jabesh Gilead, killing all of its men and women, but capturing 400 virgin girls for the Benjaminites. Then they allow the remaining 200 Benjaminite men to kidnap some of their own daughters. That way, at least, they didn't "give" their daughters to the Benjaminites.

This is what matters have come to in Israel.

Next: Ruth

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Judges 16:1-18:31


Nazirites vowed neither to consume grape products nor cut their hair. They did not vow to abstain from sex. Judges 16 concludes the story of Samson, a Nazirite from birth. The chapter begins with our hero dallying with a prostitute in Gaza. His enemies decide to attack him at dawn, but he fools them by leaving in the middle of the night. He takes their city gates with him and drops them on a hillside about 40 miles away. This leaves the city unprotected; it's citizens exposed.

Samson is the good guy in these stories but, as was the case with the Patriarchs, he is not a particularly good moral example. Some modern Christians strongly emphasize sexual purity. I'm sure that some of them also tell their children the story of Samson. It is, after all, a great, super-heroic story with lots of action and some humor. I'm guessing that most of them leave out the part about the prostitute.

Next we find Samson falling in love once more. This time the object of his affection is Delilah. It is probably safe to assume that she is a Philistine. It is certain that she is in cahoots with the Philistines who want to revenge themselves upon Samson. For a handsome sum of money, Delilah promises to learn the secret to Samson's strength. At first Samson toys with her, but, as he did with his Philistine wife, Samson finally succumbs to her cajoling. "It's my hair," he says. "Cut it off, and..."

And she cuts his hair off. the Philistines capture Samson easily, put out his eyes, and set him to work grinding grain in prison.

When his hair grows back, Samson regains his superhuman strength. When he is taken to the temple of the Philisitine god Dagon during a great feast, he topples the building killing everyone inside including himself. He is said to have killed more Philistines in his death than in his life. This is a suitable, tragic, heroic end for Samson.

Judges 15:20 said that Samson led Israel for 20 years "in the days of the Philisitines." That phrase is telling. For all his heroics, Samson never got his people out from under the oppressive thumb of the Philistines. The downward trend continues.

Chapter 17 tells the story of an Ephraimite named Micah who has a silver idol (of YHWH) made, put is in  a shrine, and makes one of his own sons a priest. A graven image, an unauthorized place of worship, a priest from outside the tribe of Levi, this is just all kinds of wrong. When Micah hires a real Levite to be his priest, it really doesn't improve matters. Micah, however, seems to think it will.

In chapter 18 a group of Danites (Samson's kin) are looking for land to settle. They send out spies who ask Micah's Levite if YHWH will favor their quest. The Levite assures them that all will be well. The text does not specify whether the Levite consulted YHWH. It seems unlikely that he did.

The Danites send a force of 600 men to take the city of Laish.They stop by Micah's place, commandeer his idol and take his Levite with them. They are successful in their war against Laish, take the city, settle themselves in the land. The Danites set up the purloined idol and establish their own alternative priesthood. This really is not good.

Next: Judges 19-21

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

For Nerd Cred

Would Samson be more at home in the Marvel universe or DC?

Judges 13:1-15:20


Samson gets more press in the book of Judges than any of Israel's other leaders. He is the only judge for whom we have an origin story. Like Isaac, Joseph, Samuel, and John the Baptist, Samson is born to a woman who was thought to be "barren." An angel fortells Samson's birth to his mother, the otherwise nameless wife of Manoah. Manoah comes off as a bit of a dope in this story. Like father, like son.

In the previous paragraph I used the phrase "origin story" intentionally. Samson is a lot like a comic book superhero, or perhaps a Greek demi-god. He is a nazirite from the womb. Remember the nazirites from back in Numbers 6? They were people who took special, temporary vows. They didn't consume grape products or get haircuts. In Samson's case, the vows were made for him and they weren't temporary.

Samson is possessed of superhuman strength. His hair is his Achilles' heel. An affection for Philistine women is his weakness.

Samson is fond of riddles, though I don't think he's especially good at them.

In chapter 14 Samson kills a lion, tearing it apart with his bare hands. Later he finds that bees have taken up residence in the lion's carcass and he eats the honey they have made. Samson marries a Philistine woman. At the wedding party, he poses a riddle to his 30 Philistine groomsmen. "Out of the eater, something to eat. Out of the strong, something sweet." The answer, the honey from a lion's carcass, should be unguessable. The groomsmen threaten the bride. The bride cajoles Samson. Samson reveals the answer to the riddle. He just can't resist Philistine women. The groomsmen win the bet and Samson has to pay them 30 suits of clothes.

Samson is not happy. He makes a rather rude accusation against the groomsmen and his bride. "If you hadn't plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle."

Paying off the bet is only a small inconvenience. Samson just goes to Ashkelon, kills 30 men and strips the corpses to get the 30 sets of clothes. Still angry, Samson goes home. His wife is married off to another man.

In chapter 15, when Samson tries to collect his bride, he learns that she has been given to another man. He takes revenge on the Philistines by capturing 300 foxes, tying pairs of them together by the tail, affixing a burning torch to each pair of foxes, and setting them loose in the Philistines' fields, thus destroying their crops.

When the Philistines come for Samson, the spirit of YHWH comes over him. He hulks out and kills a thousand of them with a donkey's jawbone. Back in chapter 3 we met Shamgar who killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. Some of these judges were just plain good with makeshift weaponry.

YHWH takes good care of Samson, even providing him with a spring of water to drink when he is thirsty. Shades of Moses!

Next: Judges 16-18

Monday, June 3, 2013

Judges 10:1-12:15


The judges Tola and Jair get brief mention in today's reading. Jair had 30 sons who rode 30 donkeys and ruled over 30 towns, an odd fact without much significance.

Verses 6-18 begin the story of Jephthah. If things have been going slowly downhill in the book of Judges, they take a precipitous decline with Jephthah.

To begin, YHWH is getting really tired of Israel's idolatrous infidelities. (Alliterate a lot?) Having given them up to the Philistines and Ammonites for 18 years, YHWH is reluctant to help until they destroy their idols.

Finally, YHWH sends Jephthah the Gileadite to rescue his fellow Israelites. Jephthah, as we learn in chapter 11, is the illegitimate son of a prostitute. Granted, this is not his fault but, in terms of the narrative at least, it reflects badly on his character.

After a fruitless parlay with the Ammonite leaders, Jephthah leads Israel in a successful campaign against the enemy. Well and good, except that Jephthah has made a rash vow. Upon his return home he will offer as a sacrifice to YHWH the first thing to come through the door of his home. In a horrifying turn of events, that turns out to be his daughter, his beloved only child. There is nothing to be done. The vow must be kept. The girl is granted a short reprieve to go into the hills with her girlfriends and bewail her virginity.

Some commentators offer convoluted arguments that Jephthah does not actually kill his daughter. After all, she mourns her virginity not her death. And though the text says that Jephthah did with his daughter as he had vowed, it never says he killed her. So, the argument goes that she was not literally sacrificed, but instead lived like a nun for the rest of her life.

I don't buy it.

It seems to me a strained attempt to salvage Jepthah's reputation, and more importantly, YHWH's.

What say you?

Jepthah's story continues in chapter 12. Back in chapter 8, Gideon used diplomacy to placate the Ephraimites when they were angry for not being called up to serve in battle. Now they are back leveling the same complaint against Jephthrah. Jephthrah lacks Gideon's diplomacy and fighting breaks out between Jephthrah's forces and the Ephraimites. It goes badly for the Ephraimites. Not only do they lose the battle, but Jephthrah does not allow them to retreat. Using the password "shibboleth" to identify the Ephraimites, the Gileadites kill 42,000 of them.

Things are not good among the Israelites.

Chapter 12 ends with mention of three more judges who get only brief write-ups: Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.

Next: Judges 13-15

Sunday, June 2, 2013

God is...

I have known my friend Julie for more than 30 years. A long time ago she told me about her encounter with a group of Christians. Christians “in the worst sense of the word.” They pretended to be interested in her as a person. They were really interested in converting her to their way of thinking. It didn’t work.

They asked her a truly intriguing question. “If you could describe God in just one word what would that word be?”

Julie is a thoughtful person. She pondered for a moment before she answered “Surprise. My one word for God would be ‘surprise.’”

“No,” they told her. “That’s wrong. The one word for God is ‘love’ because 1 John 4:16 says ‘God is love.’”

Uhmmmm, okay.

I firmly believe that all Christians should read the Bible. I mean the entire Bible, cover-to-cover, straight through, including the boring parts and not just select verses.

I also believe that some Christians need to get their heads out of the Bible once in a while.

The Bible may be the written word of God (and it is). It may be sufficient for the knowledge of salvation (and it is). It may be the “source and norm” of Christian doctrine (and it is). But it is not the sum and compendium of all knowledge. Not even all knowledge about God.

There I said it.

God’s word is also written in the leaves of nature’s book. God’s word is written in human hearts and human interactions. The Bible bears witness to God’s Word. But there’s more to it than that.

Some Christians, if they would get their heads out of the Bible from time to time, might just be surprised by God’s word.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Judges 8:1-9:57


Chapter 8 concludes the saga of Gideon, a.k.a. Jerub-baal. While he seemed puny and timid in previous chapters, here he seems a new, though not necessarily better, man. Maybe this part of the stories reflects different source material. Maybe a little victory has gone to Gideon's head. Maybe the apparent change in him reflects the downward cycle in the book of Judges. Certainly his son Abimelek will take things to unprecedented depths in chapter 9.

In Judges 8:1-3, Gideon diplomatically defuses a tense situation involving some angry Ephraimites. In verses 4-21 he pursues the retreating Midianite leaders whose camp YHWH routed in chapter 7. When Gideon requests material aid from the cities of Shechem and Peniel, the people rebuff him. Gideon vows revenge.After capturing the fleeing Midianites, he punishes the churlish cities. After learning that Midianites have killed his brothers, Gideon executes them. The Midianites say that the brothers are "like you (i.e. Gideon) each one with the bearing of a prince." Gideon doesn't seem quite so puny now.

To his credit, Gideon refuses to be a king over Israel (8:22). To his discredit, he takes 1700 shekels of gold from the spoils of war and makes an ephod from them. If I have done that math correctly (always a doubtful proposition with me) that ephod weighed about 35 pounds. Which raises the question: Just what is an ephod?

Previously we encountered the word in reference to a priestly garment (Exodus 25:7). That doesn't seem to be what Gideon made. No, Gideon made some kind of object of worship (an idol). I suspect that, like the priestly garment, it may have been used for divination, but that's just speculation on my part. Whatever it was, Gideon's ephod was problematic because people worshiped it.

Still, Gideon is remembered well. Israel had 40 years of peace during his lifetime (8:28). He had 70 sons by his many wives plus a ne'er-do-well named Abimelek (also spelled Abimelech) by a concubine in Shechem. Gideon died at a "good old age" (8:32) and Israel immediately lapses into idol worship once more.

In chapter 9 Abimelek attempts to make himself king. First he garners support from his kinfolk in Shechem. Then, with the mercenary help of some "reckless scoundrels" he murders his 70 brothers. Well, 69 of them. Jothan, the youngest, escapes.

On the day of Abimelek's coronation, Jothan shows himself and tells a sharp fable about trees seeking a king.  The point of the story: Abimelek will be a lousy king and will bring ruin upon himself and the people of Shechem.

Usually Saul is credited with being Israel's first king. Abimelek has a strong claim to the title.

After three years of Abimelek's reign, the Shechemites, inspired by YHWH and stirred up by a newcomer named Gaal, fight against Abimelek. They lose. Abimelek sets fire to the city's tower and kills about a thousand men and women trapped inside.

Abimelek then marches against the city of Thebez. When he tries to burn its tower, one of the women inside drops an "upper millstone" on his head. Abimelek has his armor-bearer run him through with a sword so that no one can say he was killed by a woman.

Nasty business. The slide into chaos is well begun.

Next: Judges 10-12