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!

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