Wednesday, November 20, 2013

1 Samuel: From Hero to Screwup Is a Short Trip

Welcome back to our cruise through the First Book of Samuel from the Bible. I hope you’ve all been well since my last posting. Let’s jump in, shall we?

When we left off, Saul had just been informed of his impending kingship by Samuel, and given a new heart by God. He also started prophesying among a group of other prophets, though there isn’t a single word mentioned about what he (or they) prophesied and whether any of it actually came true. We’re told this is the origin of the proverb “Is Saul also among the prophets?” though I have no idea why that would be considered a meaningful proverb.

From there Saul goes to the high place at Mizpah, where he runs into his uncle and tells him about his adventures in search of the donkeys. Except for leaving out the whole “I’m going to be king,” part. Samuel, meanwhile, is summoning all of Israel to join him there so he can announce the king. He makes a show of selecting the king by drawing lots, but of course this is just pointless theater because we already know he’s picked Saul.

The Bible seems pretty ambivalent about this whole king thing. Samuel accuses Israel again of rejecting God by asking for a king, but then the people who don’t accept the king are referred to as “worthless fellows.”

But anyway, after this everyone goes home, including Saul with a few notable warriors whose hearts God touched. And nothing much seems to happen for a while, until an Ammonite named Nahash decides to take a force up to attack the Israelite city of Jabesh.

Now the people of Jabesh offer to surrender to Nahash and become his slaves, but Nahash is a colossal dick and says he’ll only accept their surrender on the condition that they allow him to gouge out everyone’s right eye. The people of Jabesh aren’t thrilled with this idea, so they come up with a counteroffer: if Nahash will give them seven days to send messengers to other Israelite cities to see if anyone will come rescue them, they’ll surrender after those seven days if no one shows up. Nahash, it turns out, is not merely a colossal dick, but also a colossal fuckwit because he actually agrees to those terms.

So the messengers go out, and news reaches Saul as he’s coming in from plowing his fields (guess he hadn’t settled into this whole kingship role thingy yet). As he hears the news, the “Spirit of the Lord” came upon him and he flew into a rage (interesting how virtually every time we hear about the Spirit of the Lord coming upon someone, it’s to send him into an unreasoning rage. It never seems to inspire a burst of compassion). In his rage, he took his poor oxen and chopped them into bits. Then had messengers take the bloody bits all over Israel to threaten people that if they didn’t come join his army he’d have the same thing done to their oxen. So already we see the style of leadership he’s selected (under God’s direct inspiration) is “tyrannical asshole.”

So the people turn out to make an army of three hundred thousand, who go and smash Nahash’s force like little bugs. And there was much rejoicing (and offers to kill Saul’s detractors, though he turns those down).

After all the celebrating, Samuel gathers everyone around to that he can berate them about how wicked and evil they are for asking for a mortal king when God is supposed to be their king. Then there’s the usual admonition that they still have to follow God and his law, and the usual threats of punishment if they don’t. Samuel even has God create a thunderstorm as a sign to remind the Israelites how wicked they are in his eyes, followed by Samuel reassuring them that, in spite of their evil, he’ll still continue to do right by them by praying on their behalf.

Heh. “You’re evil, but I’ll pray for you.” I guess that line has been floating around for a long, long time.

The next passage starts Chapter 13, and it’s… weird. Let me just quote it for you.

1 Sam 13:1 Saul was … years old when he began to reign, and he reigned … and two years over Israel.”

This is the English Standard Version of the Bible, and the footnotes claim that the two blank spaces are places where the numbers are missing from the original documents from which it is translated (the Septuagint and Hebrew versions). A brief look online for other translations renders a wealth of interpretations of this passage, some of which try to supply numbers (though they don’t all agree on what the numbers are), and others just gloss it over by simply changing the meaning of the passage to “…and when he had reigned for two years…” as a preface to the next passage in which he picks three thousand men as his personal standing army. So yet again as is so often the case, nobody knows exactly what the book is trying to say here.

But anyhow, Saul has his army of three thousand. Two thousand he keeps with himself, and he gives his son Jonathan command over the remaining thousand. Jonathan takes his men and stages a successful attack on the Philistine garrison at Geba. So Saul sends trumpeters all over the land to spread news of their great victory, and summon the fighting men to join him at Gilgal. Meanwhile, the Philistines sent a large force into Israel in retaliation for the attack on their garrison, and people start getting scared.

This is where things get a little confusing again. See, we’re told that Saul waited at Gilgal for seven days, “the time appointed by Samuel” (1 Sam 13:8), waiting for Samuel to come and make burnt offerings and peace offerings. And though we don’t appear to have a scene where he’s actually told that, that could be simply written off as the author using the line “the time appointed by Samuel” to inform us that such a meeting had taken place.

Except that (if you recall from my previous post) there actually is a scene where Samuel told Saul to wait seven days in Gilgal for Samuel to make burnt offerings and peace offerings.  That scene took place way back before Saul was actually declared king, and appeared to be instructions for something he was supposed to do right after he had seen all the signs Samuel had prophesied that would demonstrate that Samuel was truly telling him God’s will. The thing is that way back then, he never went to Gilgal, but actually met Samuel again at Mizpah where he was officially declared king in front of everyone (I kind of missed that discrepancy in my previous post: sorry).

So it really looks like this scene is actually the fulfillment of those earlier instructions (which, depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading, could have been as much as two years of lapsed time in between). Or it’s a wholly separate occasion. I don’t know; like I said, it’s confusing. The timeline here is all kinds of fucked up.

But anyway, back to the events. Saul waits his seven days, but Samuel doesn’t show and some of his army is starting to desert for fear of the Philistines. So in desperation, Saul offers the sacrifices himself.

Well, no sooner has he completed all of the sacrifices than Samuel finally shows up. Whereupon he informs Saul that he has done a horrible thing in disobeying God by offering the sacrifices in Samuel’s stead. If only he had obeyed God, the kingdom would have been his and his family’s forever. But since he disobeyed, God has picked somebody else to be king after Saul.

Am I the only one who thinks this reads like Saul was set up? And always remember, at the start of his kingship Saul was “given a new heart” by God himself, so it’s debatable whether any of these decisions are legitimately Saul’s fault to begin with.

But anyway, written enough for today I think. Please tune in next time, when we continue the “Abusing the Hell out of Saul” follies. Until then, be well!

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