Friday, December 20, 2013

1 Samuel: God Turns Saul Against David

Welcome back! In our last installment of my Bible blog, we had just seen David defeat Goliath followed by king Saul’s son Jonathan falling deeply in bromantic love with him.

David is now full-time in service to the king, where he proves to be very successful at killing Philistines. Actually, too successful – Saul hears people praising David for killing more Philistines than Saul, and starts getting jealous.

1 Sam 18:10 The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. 11 And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David evaded him twice.”

Apparently even with that jealousy Saul wasn’t quite the murderous dick God wanted him to be, so he sent a spirit to goad him further into just randomly attacking David. You see how free will is clearly of paramount importance to Yahweh.

Anyway, unable to kill David himself, Saul decided to put him in charge of a bunch of men and keep sending him out to battle in the hopes that the Philistines would kill him instead. But the only result was that David kept having more success in war, which only made him more popular. So then Saul came up with the brilliant scheme to take David down by… ummm… marrying him to his daughter? Because somehow this would make the Philistines more likely to kill him. Erm… I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Saul is pretty clearly losing his mind.

But then for no apparent reason, Saul married his daughter off to someone else. However, he had another daughter Michal who was all smitten with David and he decided he’d offer her to him instead. He set the bride price at the foreskins of a hundred dead Philistines in the hopes that the ensuing hunt for penile trophies would piss the Philistines off enough to finally kill David for him. No such luck; David the overachiever managed to secure double the requested number of foreskins without ending up on the tip of anyone’s spear. So Saul had no choice but to let him marry his daughter.

Then there’s more war with the Philistines, bringing more success and popularity to David. So Saul gathers Jonathan and all his servants up and orders them to kill David. Jonathan talks him out of it, though, and Saul swears to his son that he won’t put David to death. But God can’t have any of that “being reasonable” shit going on in his kingdom, so he once again sends that harmful spirit to goad Saul into trying to stab David with a spear.

David finally tips to the fact that maybe Saul doesn’t have his best interests at heart, and flees to his house. Saul sends servants to arrest him, but David’s wife Michal (Saul’s daughter) helps him sneak out of the house and does the “pillows under the blanket” trick to fool the servants into thinking David is sick in bed. When Saul discovers the deception and demands to know why Michal tricked him, she throws her husband under the bus by claiming he had threatened to kill her. But I guess if Saul was determined to kill him anyway, what’s a little extra slander?

David flees to live with Samuel for a bit, but Saul hears about it and sends people to arrest him. The men he sends come across Samuel presiding over a group of prophets, and are overcome by the Spirit of God and start prophesying instead of arresting David. So Saul sends another group, and they start prophesying as well. So Saul goes in person, and the Spirit of God comes over him so that he ends up stripping himself naked and prophesying as well.

Meanwhile, David goes to Jonathan to ask him why Saul wants him dead so badly. Jonathan refuses at first to believe that his dad wants to kill his boyfriend, but agrees to put the king to a test. For some odd reason (insanity?), despite Saul’s repeated attempts to murder David everyone still expects David to show up to dinner with him on the evening of the new moon. Jonathan agrees to tell Saul that he had given David permission to go home to Bethlehem instead for some religious ceremony (he’s actually hiding out nearby) to see if that provokes a reaction.

Well, Saul completely loses his shit. After screaming insults about Jonathan’s mother, he demands that Jonathan bring David to him to be killed. When Jonathan refuses, Saul chucks a spear at him (but missed).

So the next day Jonathan goes to meet David under the guise of doing some archery practice. When he’s done shooting, he sends his servant boy back home ahead of him with his bow so the boy wouldn’t see him meet with David.

1 Sam 20:41 And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most.”

Yeah… the “gay David” argument is gaining a little traction there.

Our two young maybe-not-lovers separate then, and David flees to Gath after making a quick stop at Nob to con the priests into giving him some food (that they would only give him if he promised he hadn’t touched any women recently, because it was holy bread and pretty much any point in a Biblical story is a good point to throw in some gratuitous sexism) and Goliath’s sword (which they happened to have lying around). He accomplishes the con by lying to them to say he was on his way to perform a secret mission for the king; eighty of the priests would later be executed on Saul’s orders for believing David’s lies and helping him.

When David arrives at Gath, he finds the king there has mistaken him for the king of Israel and isn’t happy about it, so David pretends to be a madman instead so that they’d just let him get about his business. That business consists of going to hide out in some caves, where he is later joined by his father’s family and a ragtag group of about four hundred malcontents.

For a bit, David plays peekaboo with Saul, who starts pursuing him all over the place. The Bible spends some time on the game of cat and mouse, but the details seem largely unimportant until one day when Saul is getting close to catching up. David is hiding out in a cave when Saul shows up with his army. But Saul doesn’t realize David is in that exact cave, and goes into it on his own for some privacy to take a dump. David’s men urge him to kill the king while he’s alone and, erm… caught with his pants down. But David just sneaks up on Saul in the dark and cuts off a corner of his robe while the man is in the middle of relieving himself. Saul doesn’t even notice, and when he’s done he leaves the cave.

At this point David follows him out and makes a show about how he totally could have killed Saul if he’d wanted to, showing off the corner of the robe he’d taken as proof that he’d had Saul unawares and had chosen to spare him. At this point Saul declares that David is the more righteous man, and that he’ll surely be the next king. Then they part ways in peace… for now.

Which seems as good a place as any to call it a day for now. Catch you next time, and until then be well!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

1 Samuel: David and Goliath!

Hello, hello!

It occurs to me that First Samuel is taking a real long time to get through. This is the sixth post on this book, and we’re only about halfway through. If I want to not spend a dozen posts on it, I’m gonna have to streamline things a bit.

Anyway, when last we left off, Samuel had just informed Saul that God didn’t want him to be king anymore because Saul didn’t slaughter some animals exactly when and where God had wanted him to. We pick up with Samuel moping around mourning for Saul, when God pops by to tell him to stop sniveling because he’s picked a new king and needs Samuel to go anoint him.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that while God may say that Saul isn’t king, and Samuel may agree with him, everyone else in Israel thinks he still is.

Anyhow, Samuel goes to visit this guy Jesse, and on God’s orders has each of the guy’s sons paraded in front of him so God can tell him whether or not they’re the chosen king (I guess God couldn’t give a clear indication like just telling Samuel the name of the guy he was looking for). And after rejecting all of the older brothers in turn, the youngest David is brought in front of Samuel and God gives him his seal of approval.

Mind you, God had also approved Saul, and even “gave him a new heart,” to make him a better servant, and we saw how that turned out. So why Samuel should trust God’s judgment any more on David is kind of a mystery.

Anyhow, Samuel takes his holy oil and anoints David. So he’s the new king now, right?

Well… no. For some reason God is unable or unwilling to just tell the Israelites that Saul’s a fuckup in his eyes, so now David is going to be king. Instead there must still be years of drama that look suspiciously like court politics leading to a guerilla rebellion against a king who’s slowly going batshit crazy before God’s chosen king can assume his throne. So to get that all started…

1 Sam 16:14 Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from Yahweh tormented him.”

So here’s the mysterious Spirit of Yahweh thing turning up again, which is never adequately described nor the supposed effects of having it (other than that having it rush upon Samson seemed to generally drive him into a superhuman killing frenzy). But whatever it is, it has now left Saul and been replaced with a spirit that tortures him. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the effects of this harmful spirit manifest in psychotic outbursts, melancholy, and raging paranoia, so basically this passage is telling us that God is driving Saul slowly insane.

Anyhow, Saul’s servants recommend that he find himself a good musician to soothe him when the harmful spirit is affecting him.

1 Sam 16:17 So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.’ 18 One of the young men answered , ‘Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and Yahweh is with him.’”

The man he’s speaking of is, of course, David. Saul sends to David’s father Jesse to have the young man sent to him. So David comes to court to play his lyre whenever the harmful spirit is tormenting the king; he immediately becomes one of Saul’s favorites and is made his armor-bearer.

Some time after this, the Philistines once again march into Judah, and Saul takes his army out to oppose them. Among the Philistines is a giant of a warrior named Goliath, who is described as being six cubits and a span (nearly ten feet) tall. And Goliath makes it his habit to step out of the Philistine lines and challenge the Israelites to send a champion to face him in single combat to decide the battle. But the Israelites are all afraid to face him, so the two armies face off for forty days over this bullshit.

One day David’s father sends him to deliver some supplies to his three older brothers who are with Saul’s army, and while he’s there he hears about Goliath’s challenge. He also hears that Saul has offered his daughter in marriage to whoever defeats Goliath. So David goes to Saul and offers to slay Goliath for him. Saul initially objects on the basis that David is just a little shepherd boy. In fact, much is made throughout this part of the story of how David is just a youth and a shepherd, despite the fact that we were told in the previous chapter that he was a mighty man of war and Saul’s personal armor-bearer. But whatever.

David argues that as a shepherd he’s had to kill lions and bears that were trying to eat his sheep, so killing Goliath should be no different. Saul relents, and offers his armor. David tries it on and discovers it fits him so poorly that he can hardly move (I guess being Saul’s personal armor-bearer granted him no actual familiarity with Saul’s armor). So he heads out to challenge Goliath with no armor at all, carrying only his shepherd’s staff and a sling.

Of course most of you know the story. Goliath taunts David for his apparent lack of preparedness, David taunts back that he has God on his side. Then Goliath rushes at David, and David plonks him in the head with a stone from his sling. Goliath collapses, and David marches over and uses Goliath’s own sword to cut the giant’s head off.

Now, the text takes great pains to point out that David didn’t defeat Goliath with a “real” weapon. David, in taunting his foe, claimed that his victory would prove that Israel had a real god, because he would be saved without the use of sword or spear, and the text points out that when David defeated Goliath he “had no sword in his hand.”

What the author seems to be ignorant of (or hopes his audience is ignorant of), is that a sling is a real fucking weapon!

Slings in skilled hands are deadly and accurate weapons. People hunted with slings. People killed each other with slings. Slingers have been used to great effect in armies since time immemorial and many commanders considered them more effective than archers. Aztec warriors are recorded killing goddamn horses with a single slung stone!

You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones runs into the swordsman in the bazaar? The guy goes through a series of flourishes to demonstrate his skill with a sword, then flashes Indy a grin that clearly states how he anticipates carving off a nice piece of Indiana flank steak. So our hero draws a gun and shoots him in the face. The David and Goliath scene is exactly like that! Yeah, it’s kinda clever and kinda badass, but it most definitely does not require the intervention of the omnipotent creator of the universe.

Goliath lost because he failed to anticipate his opponent’s weapon, not because an unarmed man faced him with only the power of a god on his side.

As an aside, if you read only the portion of the text telling the story of David and Goliath, it tries very hard to create the impression that David was just a shepherd boy. But if you read the entire Book of Samuel (bearing in mind that David has been described as a “man of valor, a man of war” before this battle ever took place), you realize that David was “just a shepherd” in exactly the same way that Indiana Jones is “just an archeologist.”

Anyway, with their champion defeated, the Philistines completely lose their shit and start running away. The Israelites set about chasing them down and killing them, while David takes Goliath’s head back to Saul. In the meantime, Saul had been asking his commander who David’s father was, and the commander didn’t know. So Saul asks David when he gets back. Throughout the scene in which nobody seemed to know who David’s father was, Saul only referred to David as “this youth,” and “young man,” as if somehow the identity and provenance of someone we were told earlier was a court favorite has somehow slipped the mind of everyone who should have known him.

At any rate, Saul now decides that David will be a permanent fixture at court and no longer return home to help out with the sheep. Then…

1 Sam 18:1 As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 2 And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as his own soul. 4 And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”

Aww… isn’t that sweet? Love at first sight!

Much has been theorized about whether Jonathan and David had a homosexual relationship. I don’t know, nor do I particularly care – if they did, it’s never explicitly said. But whether there was sex or not, it’s certainly true that the bromance between these two would profoundly affect the future course of the Israelite royal succession. But we’ll find out more about that another time, since I think we’ve reached a pretty good stopping point for today.

Until next time, you all take care!

Friday, December 6, 2013

1 Samuel: How Saul Loses His Endorsement

Welcome once again to the First Book of Samuel. When we last left off, Saul had just been informed that God would be replacing him as king because Saul made some sacrificial offerings on his own instead of waiting for Samuel to do it. Meanwhile, a large force of Philistines has invaded Israel.

Apparently, Saul isn’t getting replaced right away, so he returns to the business of kicking some Philistine ass. We’re told that this is complicated by the fact that, other than Saul and his son Jonathan, no other soldier in their army owns a sword or spear (in spite of their excessively warlike recent history) because the Philistines don’t permit there to be any Israelite blacksmiths.

So at one point in the campaign Saul and Jonathan are joined up, but with only about 600 men with them. Most of the other Israelites are fighting elsewhere or just hiding out. So one night Jonathan tells his armor bearer that the two of them are going to sneak out of camp all on their own to go attack the Philistines on the chance that maybe God will grant them a victory. Said armor bearer jumps on this plan without a qualm, and off they go. Jonathan then further elaborates that they’re just gonna walk up to the Philistine guards. If the guards tell them to halt and not approach the camp, that means that God isn’t going to let Jonathan defeat them and they should stop approaching. But if the guards challenge them, then tell them to approach, that must mean God intends to grant Jonathan the victory.

Is the idea here that God told Jonathan this would happen, or did Jonathan just make this shit up in the hopes that God would run with it? Also, since the guards do indeed tell them to approach, and they do indeed kick a great deal of Philistine ass, does that mean that God made the guard tell Jonathan to approach, or he just knew that’s what they would do and told Jonathan about it? None of this is explained at all.

Anyhow, Jonathan and his armor bearer walk up to the guards and start beating ass on a wholesale basis. They kill twenty men right off, and this throws the whole Philistine camp into a panic.

Saul’s scouts notice the brouhaha in the Philistine camp, and report the news back to the king. After a quick survey of their own camp reveals that Jonathan and his armor bearer are missing, Saul rounds up his men to go join in the attack. They find the Philistines in such a state that they are actually killing each other (and unless you think it’s reasonable to believe an entire army was so freaked out by an attack from two people that they start killing each other, this would seem to be yet another example of God robbing people of their free will).

Then Saul, for no discernible reason, makes an oath to God that none of his people will eat anything for the rest of the day while they’re busy slaughtering Philistines. So of course, the people start getting fatigued. Meanwhile Jonathan alone among all the people hasn’t heard about this oath, and takes a taste of honey he finds as they’re moving through a forest. Then there’s a confusingly written series of events where Jonathan’s unwitting breakage of Saul’s oath somehow leads to other Israelites breaking Mosaic dietary restrictions against eating blood, and Saul finding out about it being Jonathan’s fault by casting lots (there seems to be a lot of examples of God communicating his desires by having people cast lots, in spite of the fact that divination is itself a practice God forbids). Saul declares that he must kill Jonathan for his sin, but the people ransom Jonathan’s life.

Anyhow, all that nonsense brought their pursuit of the Philistines to a halt, and so the survivors escaped.

Some unspecified amount of time later, Samuel approaches Saul with new marching orders from God. He’s been ordered to attack the Amalekites in retribution for them having attacked the people of Israel when they were escaping from Egypt. And of course the terms of this retribution to be inflicted on the Amalekites for the offense committed by their several-generations-removed ancestors should have a familiar tone.

1 Sam 15:3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Oh look, another divinely ordered genocide, complete with an explicit infanticide mandate. And a little quick research comes up with the fact that the event for which this is retribution occurred approximately 350 years prior. That is some hardcore grudge holding, right there! Three-and-a-half centuries, and God still has such a revenge hard-on for the Amalekites that even the sheep have to die!

So Saul gathers up an army of two hundred thousand men, and heads out to slaughter the Amalekites. Except that when it was all over, he kept their king alive as a prisoner, and his men kept the best of the livestock rather than slaughtering all of them. You just know God’s not gonna be happy about the idea of fewer deaths than he demanded, and sure enough he makes his displeasure known… to Samuel.

1 Sam 15:10 And the word of Yahweh came to Samuel: 11 ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’ And Samuel was angry, and he cried to Yahweh all night.”

Regret, huh? Isn’t that something you feel when you’ve made a mistake?

Moving on, Samuel goes out to meet Saul on his triumphant return. And Saul is quite pleased with himself for his successful campaign, but Samuel just demands to know why they have all this livestock with them that was supposed to be destroyed. Saul replies that the people wanted to bring the best livestock back to sacrifice as an offering to God, but Samuel puts the brakes on the explanation. He then goes on a rant that can be summarized as follows: “Sure, God loves a good sacrifice, but the most important thing to him is unquestioning, unthinking, and absolute obedience.”

It may be worth pointing out that God never spoke directly to Saul, but delivered his orders through Samuel. So to any outside observer, it would seem that what Samuel is demanding is absolute obedience to Samuel. But whatever. Samuel now informs Saul that because of his disobedience, God no longer wants him to be king and is going to choose someone else.

The encounter closes out with Samuel having the Amalekite king, Agag, brought to him. Agag is pretty cheerful, no doubt believing that as a king he will be spared and perhaps ransomed. Samuel quickly dispels that notion by hacking him to pieces with a sword.

Well, I think that’s quite enough for today. And anyway, the Bible is about to introduce an important new character. So we’ll leave off for now and pick up next time with the introduction of David. Until then, y’all be well!