Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Fall of Saul (I Samuel 27-31)

Though Saul has, for the moment, called off the hounds, David doesn’t exactly feel secure. He knows that it is only a matter of time before Saul’s jealousy gets the better of him. So he and his party cross over to Philistine territory and seek refuge from Achish, the king of Gath (Goliath’s hometown).

David slowly lures Achish into his trust, by pretending to raid Isrealite towns. In fact, he raids Amalekite towns, but never leaves anyone alive to tell the tale.

Meanwhile, a great war between Saul and the Philistines is underway. Terrified by the size of the enemy army, Saul tries to consult the Lord (though presumably not with the help of a priest, seeing as he killed them all at Nob). He is met with silence. Desperate, Saul turns to an illegal sorceress to conjure up the spirit of Samuel. The incident that follows is, well, rather spooky.
And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?...The Lord has done to you 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 and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.
Saul falls to the ground in absolute horror. His men and the medium try to get him to eat something. But Saul knows he’s done for. There is nothing to do but wait for the inevitable.

The next day Achish summons David to fight with him against Saul, but the other Philistine commanders see through the ruse. They realize that David intends to turn on them on the battlefield at a decisive moment. David and his men are sent away, and without him, Saul’s fate is sealed.

The battle is a crushing defeat for Israel. David’s friend Jonathan is killed, and Saul is wounded on the battlefield. Knowing the humiliation and torture that awaits him if captured, Saul commits suicide along with his shield bearer.

Despite the fact that Saul was never a very good king, or a very good man, for some reason I can’t help but feel sorry for him. He is tragic. His reign has been one of inadequacy, disappointment, and futility. Ever since the Lord’s rejection, he’s known the fall of his house is coming, and that all of his efforts could only delay the inevitable.

The Lord did reject him, and so perhaps I should feel guilty for my pity. But I don’t really think so. David himself composes a lament so anguished, so grand, and so beautiful, that one can’t help but overlook Saul’s faults:
Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!

You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you,
nor fields of offerings!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles;
they were stronger than lions.

How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Then we remember the one truly glorious achievement of Saul. He saved the city of Jabesh-gilead from the Ammonites, who had planned to torture and humiliate them. Now, as his body hangs beheaded and shamed by his enemies, those whom he had helped the most know their duty:
But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose and went all night and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh and fasted seven days.
Thus passes the first king of Israel. Though his reign appeared to be a dismal failure, we are reminded by the merciful and loyal heart of David that we dare not look down our nose at the Lord’s anointed – even though he be rejected and condemned by God and men. For it is here, mourned and loved by those whose hopes he had carried, his tortured body tenderly born away for burial, that the first king of Israel most resembles the last.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Wrath of Man and the Righteousness of God (I Samuel 21-26)

David is on the run, along with his mother, father, and kin. One easily forgets how, in the ancient world, revenge was taken out on the person’s entire family. Blessings and curses, immortality and utter damnation, were experienced through posterity.

David is no fool. Saul quickly proves to what lengths he will go to eliminate his rival. After leaving Jonathan, David had feigned to be on an errand for the king, and had received provisions from the High Priest Ahimelech. Saul learns of it from a man named Doeg the Edomite, and his retribution upon this completely innocent priest is severe:
And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father's house.” And the king said to the guard who stood about him, “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord, because their hand also is with David, and they knew that he fled and did not disclose it to me.” But the servants of the king would not put out their hand to strike the priests of the Lord. Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and strike the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod. And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep, he put to the sword.
If I pitied Saul before, I do so no longer. He was loath to carry out the Lord’s wrath against the Amalekites – preferring to keep the spoils for himself and his men. However, for the sake of his own wrath, he is willing to devote the city of the Lord’s priests to himself for destruction. Samuel’s words rejecting Saul come hauntingly to mind:
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Saul’s envy upon his brother “doing well” had sin crouching at his door. Its desire is against him, and it now rules him.

Meanwhile, the Philistines draw Saul’s attention away from David, who makes camp in the wilderness of Paran. Here he encounters a local group of shepherds. Perhaps David identifies with them, having been a shepherd himself, and makes sure his men make every effort to protect them and not exploit them in any way. When the time comes for shearing, David requests that Nabal, their master, share some of the meat of the feast with him and his men who have helped protect the flocks. Nabal not only refuses, but sends David’s messengers back to him with a string of insults. David, is furious. He calls his men together and makes a vow to kill every male in Nabal’s household.

As they are making their way toward Nabal’s house, swords in hand, Nabal’s wife Abigail comes out with gifts for David and his men.
She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt…Please forgive the trespass of your servant…And when the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord taking vengeance himself.”
David is touched – indeed, he is profoundly grateful. This woman, with her clear-headed gesture of kindness, has saved him in his anger from killing a host of innocent bystanders. (Interestingly, unlike Saul and Jephthah, upon realizing the foolishness of his vow, David doesn’t give it a second thought.) Ten days later, the Lord strikes Nabal dead. David then marries Abigail.

After Saul finishes dealing with the Philistines, he continues his relentless manhunt for David. By chance, the king stops in a cave to relieve himself – the very cave where David and his men are hiding. David’s friends urge him to take this chance to kill Saul, but David only sneaks up and cuts off a corner of his robe unnoticed. Afterwards, David comes out and confronts Saul:
Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed.’…May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.
Saul is amazed, and bursts into tears:
You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil…For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe?...And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father's house.
The two part ways, and I am left awestruck at the heart of David. The man has the spunk of Jacob and the integrity of Joseph. It isn’t just that David is merciful. He is, but the mercy is driven by an intense love for the Lord that I really don’t recall seeing yet in all of Scripture. It is the insult to the Lord first and foremost that roused him against Goliath. Saul is the Lord’s anointed, and so must not be touched, even though the man is actively trying to kill him.

Saul sought to cling to his kingdom despite God’s rejection, so that he fell into idolatry. David seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, so that even Saul recognizes that everything else will be given to him as well.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Height and Heart (I Samuel 16-20)

Samuel has one last act before retirement: a secret and subversive one. He travels to Bethlehem, to anoint a man to replace Saul as king of Israel. The Lord has told him it is a son of Jesse, so Samuel naturally assumes that it is Eliab, the eldest and most imposing. After all, Saul impressed everyone by his height. But the Lord quickly interjects:
Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
The lord chooses David, the youngest, who had to be called from watching the sheep. Samuel anoints him; the Spirit descends on him, and thus begins the career of the greatest king of Israel, save one.

Time goes by, and Saul and the army continue the war against the Philistines. They soon find themselves in an embarrassing and demoralizing situation. The Philistine champion, Goliath of Gath, makes a habit of coming out each day to challenge their best man to single combat. The man is a giant; even tall Saul and Eliab cannot stand up to him. So they simply stand there, as Goliath curses them by his gods and derides them for being the cowards they are.

Then David shows up to check on his brothers in the army. He hears Goliath’s speech, and is unimpressed. Who does this punk think he is, to insult the armies of the living God? Though he has no combat training other than what he’s learned in shepherding, David volunteers to fight the giant:
Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. . . . The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.
Saul has to admit that the kid has heart. And so Goliath finds himself face to face, not with a great Israelite warrior worthy of an epic fight to the death, but with a kid holding a sling and stick, as if he were no more than a dog trying to attack his sheep. The insult cuts deep, and Goliath prepares to kill the twerp.

But David, with a courage and confidence that still sends chills up my spine, calls out:
You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hand.
David slings a stone into Goliath’s forehead (knocking him out) and then cuts off his head. With this blow to the enemy's moral, the Israelites have no problem winning a decisive victory.

David gets all the credit. Everyone is quite impressed with him, especially prince Jonathan. He himself had once carried out a bold attack against a stronger Philistine force, confident that the Lord would give him victory. In cocksure young David, Jonathan sees a kindred spirit.

Saul, on the other hand, sees a threat. David’s popularity unnerves him. I don’t know if he had wind of Samuel’s treasonous anointing, but he can tell that the Spirit of God has left him and is on David. So he plans to kill him. Initially, Saul is more subtle. He offers David his daughter’s hand in marriage for the bride-price of a hundred philistine phalluses, hoping he will be killed in battle. David returns with two hundred. Saul then sends men to murder him in his bed, but David’s new wife tips him off and he escapes.

Finally, Jonathan warns David that his father is ready to pull out all the stops. He’s going to have to run for his life. But before he goes, Jonathan and David swear an oath of loyalty and friendship before the Lord.

It’s amazing to me the different responses people have to this young man. The prophet is initially unimpressed because he no form or majesty to draw his eye. His older brother was indignant at this kinsman of his acting like he was someone special. The people love him. The current guardian of Israel’s authority is threatened and plots to have him killed. The evil giant sees him as easy prey, and is lured into a trap. His closest friend confesses that he is none other than the Lord’s chosen king of Israel. And God looks on his heart and is well pleased.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Man Who Would Be King (I Samuel 13-15)

As far as Samuel is concerned, Saul’s career is over as soon as it starts.

The first incident seems pretty innocent (not unlike Moses at Meribah). The Philistines are invading with a mind-bogglingly huge army. Refugees are pouring out of Israel into Gilead. Everyone is terrified. Samuel had instructed Saul to wait at Gilgal seven days. When Samuel still doesn’t show up and Saul’s support is beginning to buckle, he goes ahead and offers a sacrifice without him.

Apparently, this was a very very bad move.

Samuel has some choice words for impatient Saul:
The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.
Saul has shown, by this little slip of protocol under pressure, that he’s not the sort of King that will follow the Lord’s commands. This seems rather disproportionate to me, and there’s obviously some tension between Saul and Samuel. At first glance it hardly seems fair – Saul never wanted to be king in the first place. Why, we ask, didn’t God pick someone else?

While Saul is trying to get his act together, his son Jonathan runs off with his armor bearer to check out the enemy. Compare Jonathan’s confidence with his father’s indecision:
Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.
Jonathan and his servant end up killing 20 men, and throwing the enemy into a panic. Saul sees it, and the Israelite army attacks. They end up routing the Philistines. However, thanks to a rash vow of Saul forbidding anyone from eating before they win the battle, the people are famished and end up eating raw meat with the blood still in it. What’s more, Jonathan didn’t know about the vow, ate a bite during his expedition, and is now about to be put to death by his father despite the victory. Thankfully the army will have none of it, and Jonathan is spared.

Finally, Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has decided the time has come to avenge the mistreatment that Israel received from the Amalakites. He is to devote their capital city to complete destruction – people, buildings, and cattle. Saul kills the people all right, but (like Achan at Jericho) decides to keep the cattle for himself, thus reducing an act of divine judgment to a raid for his personal gain. Oh – and he spares Agag, the king, for a trophy. This is the last straw. Upon hewing Agag down, Samuel announces that the Lord has officially rejected Saul as king over Israel.

Saul is actually a perfect example of the reluctant leader – apparently the sort of guy our culture likes. One of my frustrations with Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King was that he made Tolkien’s kingly Aragorn into one of these pathetic guys. We see the desire for power as dangerous above all else, so a good man would avoid it like the plague. The safest sort of ruler would be the mild-mannered man who is forced against his will to lead by circumstances beyond his control, and only does so with great reluctance. He doesn’t presume to know the best decision. He just tries to make the best call he can.

I guess he’s sort of like Esau. The guy never wanted much – just a bowl of stew when he was hungry. He’s humble. He’s practical. He’s not the type to chase after grandiose promises. That is, not until he finds his current station slipping away, and then he’s liable to lash out blindly.

Saul and Esau may be men after our own hearts, but the God of Jacob has someone else in mind.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Serving Two Masters (I Samuel 7-12)

Samuel judges Israel throughout his life. During this time he persuades the people to give up their idolatry and worship the Lord exclusively. When they are attacked by the Philistines, he prays to the Lord and gives the people a decisive victory. But he finally grows old. Though he has served the people his entire life, they do not want his sons to succeed him as judges.
Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.
Thus begins what for me is perhaps the most confusing and conflicting few chapters of the Bible I have come across so far.

Samuel is deeply offended by the request. He pours out his heart to the Lord, who is quite sympathetic.
They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.
Their rejection of Samuel’s house is the embodiment of their continuous rejection of their rightful King. And yet, in a surprising and unprecedented decision, the Lord commands Samuel to consent.

So he warns the people of what the rule of a king looks like. It will mean stiff taxation, heavy-handed authoritarianism, and the loss of their best and brightest men and women to fight in his wars and run his estate. But the people don’t care – they are jealous of the glorious national pride of the surrounding kingdoms.

Samuel asks the Lord, and he instructs him to anoint Saul the Benjaminite as the first king of Israel. Saul is a rather underwhelming character. He was only in the area because some donkeys ran off, and a servant talked him into paying Samuel to ask the Lord where to find them. When the time comes for his coronation, he is found hiding behind the baggage. But the Lord has a preference for humble beginnings, and reluctant Saul is crowned king. As his first act, he routs a besieging Ammonite army bent on committing cruel atrocities to poor Jabesh-Gilead.

Samuel then gives a farewell speech protesting their ingratitude, and warning them of how dangerous a desire this was. The Lord thunders agreement, and for a moment the people second-guess themselves. They cry out to Samuel to intercede on their behalf, and his response is the absolute paragon of a Biblical mediator.
Do not be afraid…For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way…But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.
The people may have their king, but they must take great pains to serve the Lord first and foremost. But the whole thing is rather confusing. The book of Judges strongly implies that the people really do need a king. The very fact that the Lord consents, despite their dubious motives, reinforces this. And are the motives really so bad? Yes they want to be like all the other nations, but Samuel’s sons don’t seem that great. Didn’t the Lord cut off Eli’s house because of his wicked sons?

Then again, this whole notion of a king of (what ought to be) monotheistic Israel is troublesome. Weren’t kings in the ancient near East deified? They certainly were in Egypt, Persia, and Rome – and the psalmist says of rulers “you are gods.” There seems to be an intrinsic tension between serving a lord and worshiping the Lord – between revering a god and honoring the true and living God.

Anyway, despite these deep-seated contradictions, Israel now has a king. They are no longer free to do what is right in their own eyes, but their loyalty is split between the will of their sovereign and their Lord.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Lord is King (I Samuel 1-6)

The book of Samuel begins with a touching story that we should be growing familiar with by now. A woman named Hannah cannot have children (much to the cruel delight of her husband’s other wife). In tearful anguish, she cries out to the Lord, and promises that if he opens her womb, she will give her firstborn to his service.

The God of Israel loves this sort of thing! Hannah gives birth to Samuel (meaning heard of God), and composes a song of thanksgiving to the one who sets slaves free:
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
Indeed he does. The case in point is the current high priest, Eli. His sons are bullying the people bringing forth the sacrifices, taking the choice portions of the meat without even giving them time to burn the fat on the alter. They treat the offering of the Lord with contempt.

Eli tells them they really ought not to be doing that sort of thing. But they don’t listen. And so Eli receives this message from a prophet:
Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,’ but now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.
Meanwhile, young Samuel is growing up under Eli’s patronage in the Tabernacle. One night Lord speaks to Samuel, who is just learning to recognize His voice. Samuel responds “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears,” while God proceeds to tell him about the downfall of Eli’s house. Both his sons, promises the Lord, will die on the same day.

The next morning Eli demands that the poor boy tell him God’s message. Fearful, but honest, Samuel relays the whole thing. With a shrug of his shoulders, Eli responds:
It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.
Compare Eli’s reaction to the destruction of his house to Moses’ on hearing of the impending destruction of Israel. When a people fall under judgment, what is the proper response of their leader? Calm acceptance of their fate? Or wrestling with God on their behalf? Moses pleaded with God and turns his wrath from the people. Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, speared an idolatrous couple and saved the people from the plague.

The Israelites go to battle against the Philistines, and are having trouble. In order to secure the Lord’s help, they bring the Ark of the Covenant with them to battle. This hardens the resolve of the Philistines with the cold courage of despair:
And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
The Philistines win the battle, capture the Ark, and kill the two sons of Eli. But they wake up the next morning to find their great idol smashed down before the ark, and their cities suffering horrible plagues. So, in humility, they send the ark back to Israel, with golden replicas of their plague tumors as tribute. (Incidentally, does this shed some light on what it meant for them to make a bronze snake in the wilderness?)

There is a lovely finishing touch to this story. When the Ark returns to Israel, the townsfolk of Beth-shemesh are ecstatic to see it. The glory of the Lord has returned to Israel – to their little town, no less. So they pull out all the stops, offer sacrifices, and throw a huge party. Then seventy of them are struck dead, for looking upon the ark of the Lord. So they beg the Levites to take the thing away.

The message is clear. This God is not to be trifled with. His ark is not a talisman that can be used for the purposes of whoever happens to be carrying it at the time. His promises are not to be presumed upon. Though compassionate and loving towards those in distress, he cannot be expected to simply underwrite the agenda of men, each doing what is right in his own eyes. No, the Lord is sovereign. The Lord is king.

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Year of Wonders for Oyarsa

Hey Everyone,

It's been a little over a year since I first began blogging the Bible. I've found the experience extremely rewarding, though tiring and overwhelming at times as well.

So far I've gotten through 8,198 of 31,103 verses, or just over 26% of the Bible (if I decide not to go through the deutercanonical books - which are quite tempting since I haven't read half of them). So, at my current rate it'll take me another three years. I'd kinda like to finish sooner than that - maybe the prophets will go faster?

Anyway, I wanted to open the floor up to you folks who have been kind enough to join me so far, and ask if you have any feedback for me.

  • What posts have been the most interesting or helpful? What am I doing right?
  • What posts have been the least helpful? What do I need to do better at?
  • Am I going too slow? Too fast?
  • What the heck should I do when I get to the Psalms? Any advice on how to blog those without having to do a post for every individual psalm?

Click Here to Continue Reading this Post...