Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reading the Bible for Lent: 1 & 2 Samuel

{I'm attempting to read the whole Bible during Lent this year, and blogging my way through it. The Bible is an old friend, but we fight sometimes. Ever hear of quitting something cold turkey? Well, this is my way of starting something cold turkey, if that makes sense. I'm facing it head on, with my eyes open, and a new way of reading. My hope is to read the entire text through the lens of Jesus (I'm figuring out what this means as I go along) and attempt a balance of honesty and charity, both of which I've lacked in the past. See also: The PentateuchJoshuaJudges and Ruth, and More on Judges.}

Now we come to the time of Samuel, David, and Solomon. In many ways these are the glory days for Israel: unification, the building of the temple, great wealth and military strength. Here are some stories and themes from the books of Samuel that stood out to me.


Samuel was the last of the judges of Israel, as well as a prophet. His is a well-loved story. Before he came along, his mother Hannah was the "better loved" of two wives, but was childless. This caused her great sorrow. (There's a great line where her husband, Elkanah, tries to comfort her and asks, "am I not better to you than ten sons?" Uh....no, not in this culture, Elkanah. Sons are pretty much the most important thing.) One day, Hannah goes to pray at the temple and makes a promise to the LORD:
O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall come upon his head. (1 Samuel 1:11)
Hannah conceives, and names the child Samuel, meaning "heard by God." She keeps him until he is weaned (I believe this was about age five in those times) and then presents him to Eli, the high priest at the temple. So Samuel grows up in the temple, under Eli's care, and we also learn that Hannah and Elkanah have three more sons and two daughters.

As a character in this story, Samuel is a figure of hope, for Hannah and for Israel. Hannah longs for a child and Israel desperately needs a leader to unify them. Samuel is special; he hears from the LORD although "the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation." (3:1) His first direct word from God is that He is going to destroy Eli's household for its wickedness, but Samuel is honest about what he heard. We read:
So Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel had been established as a prophet of the LORD. (3:19-20) 
So, Samuel enters the scene as a central, unifying figure. He will be greatly influential in Israel's future.

Golden Tumors and Rats

This story's a little random, but too interesting (not to mention bizarre) not to share. Israel goes to battle with the Philistines, and the Ark (which held not only the Ten Commandments and other sacred items but carried the actual presence of God) is captured by the Philistines. This brings them nothing but trouble: they are stricken with tumors and their land is ravaged by rats. So, they decide to try to get rid of the Ark, but they want to make sure they send it away with a trespass offering in an effort to prevent any more punishment. (6:3) They make golden images of their tumors and rats for this offering, and place the Ark on a cart pulled by two milk cows, and send it in the direction of Beth Shemesh, so the Israelites can reclaim it.

The people of Beth Shemesh rejoice at the return of the Ark, and sacrifice the two cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. So all seems well, but then we're told in 6:19 that the LORD kills 50,070 of the men because they looked into the Ark, "and the people lamented because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter."

This is a good example of the type of story where it's useful to think of the human perception of God as an evolutionary process. It seems a little like a father spanking his children for playing with a hose and getting water inside the house on a hot summer day. Again we see that this LORD is not slow to anger in the slightest, not rich in mercy. Because of that, I choose to take it with a grain of salt.


In chapter eight, we learn that an aging Samuel has made his sons judges in Israel. They're not like Samuel, though: they're dishonest and take bribes. The people of Israel beg Samuel to have a king to rule over them "like all the nations." (8:5) Samuel doesn't think this is the right course of action for Israel, but as he prays, the LORD tells him to basically give the people what they want (the LORD really resembles an exasperated parent at times.) To make a long story short, Saul is crowned king. However, after a few years as king, makes a big mistake. He and his army attack the Amalekites, and are given orders from Samuel that the LORD wants them to "utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (15:3). Saul seems to have no problem killing the infants and nursing children, but he leaves the king alive, and keeps the best of the livestock. When Samuel confronts him ("what then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and this lowing of oxen which I hear?") Saul says the animals are for sacrificing to the LORD, and gets this verbal smack down from Samuel:
Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king. (15:22-23)
We've seen this before. Any deviation from the exact instructions given results in very bad news. Saul begs for forgiveness, but Samuel is resolute. He proceeds to "hack Agag to pieces before the LORD" (15:33). Saul's days are numbered.

David & Saul

David is anointed king by Samuel long before Saul gives up the throne. The Spirit of the LORD descends upon David from the day of his anointing, and the Spirit of the LORD departs from Saul, and he's troubled by a "distressing spirit from the LORD." (16:13-17:1) Saul asks for someone to play soothing music to help calm his troubled spirit, and David is brought into the court. "And so it was that whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him" (16:23). Thus Saul and David's tumultuous relationship begins.

David proves himself over and over to be a wise and capable leader, while Saul continues to rule the nation officially. Saul is suspicious of David, and tries to kill him repeatedly, and even gives his daughter Michal to David in marriage with the hopes that she can help bring him down (Side note: David brings Saul 200 Philistine foreskins as a bride price for Michal, after Saul demands just 100.) Saul also tries to get his son Jonathan to betray David, but Jonathan and David are dear friends. Jonathan helps him escape Saul's wrath on more than one occasion.

Samuel dies, and Saul is facing yet another battle with the Philistines. The LORD isn't responding to his inquiries about how the battle will go, so he disguises himself and visits a medium to call up Samuel from the dead. Samuel foretells Saul's death:
Now Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" And Saul answered, "I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do."
Then Samuel said, "So why do you ask me, seeing the LORD has departed from you and has become your enemy? And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD nor execute his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.
Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. (1 Samuel 28:15-19)
Samuel's prophecy comes true. Saul is badly wounded in battle, and falls onto his own sword. Three of his sons, including Jonathan, die as well.


David becomes king of Judah, but Saul's son Ishbosheth becomes king of Israel. I had to research the difference between Judah and Israel: here's a brief explanation. Later, Ishbosheth is murdered, and David rules over both kingdoms.

The dream of a temple begins with David, and is later fulfilled by his son Solomon. The LORD tells David, "Moreover I will appoint a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own and move no more; nor shall the sons of wickedness oppress them anymore..." (2 Samuel 7:10).

David, like so many characters in the Old Testament, is a complex person. He's a poet, a musician, a warrior, a womanizer, a loyal friend, a father, a deceiver, a worshiper, a person capable of sincere repentance. He impregnates another man's wife and then has him killed. Still, Samuel calls him a man after God's own heart. It could be that in spite of all of his shortcomings and mistakes, he knew how to access an inner place of contrition and brokenness, of wanting to do right. There are shades of grace here.

As 2 Samuel winds down, David's family is rife with conflict. His son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom, David's son, kills Amnon for it. Tamar is left desolate (2 Samuel 13). Absalom goes on to attempt to steal the kingdom from his father, and Israel is split for a time. Absalom dies: he's riding his donkey under a tree, his head gets caught in the branches, and he's left hanging there. David's men kill him when they discover him hanging in the tree. David's sorrow for his son is great; he had asked the men previously to "be gentle with him for my sake" (2 Samuel 18).

David goes on to fight more battles. At the end of the book, Israel has again been struck by a plague, and David again repents of his sin and pleads for mercy on the people, saying, "surely I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father's house" (24:17). So we see David once again as a shepherd, a sacrificial leader.

David pays for an offering to the LORD, and builds an altar, and sacrifices his offering. "So the LORD heeded the prayers for the land, and the plague was withdrawn from Israel." (24:25) And so the book comes to a close with one last heroic act of David. Later, in Kings, we read over and over about the kings who didn't do right like David or did do right like David. David eventually becomes a sort of larger-than-life moral yardstick; a legend.

Next will come the rule of Solomon: unprecedented wealth and excess, a long season of peace, and ultimately more tragedy.

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