Friday, November 28, 2008

Saul's Reign Ends

1 Samuel 18-31

The rest of the story of 1 Samuel is troubling. After David's heroic deed, Saul starts to become jealous of him, and fearful of him. His fear and jealously turn out to be his own undoing, because the additional deeds of David are really in Saul's best interest, and David never himself appears to plot against Saul for the throne. Yet everyone seems just to know that David will eventually somehow become the next king.

What's puzzling is why Saul is so jealous and worried, given that David is not in a rush to become king. He respects Saul as king. He regards Saul as the one anointed by the Lord to be king, and in fact David does not become king himself until after Saul's death. The person who should be jealous and worried is Saul's son, Jonathan. But instead, Jonathan loves David, and seems happy at the thought of David's becoming king and looks forward to serving him in this role (something that never happens, because Jonathan gets killed in the same battle in which Saul dies).

In fact, while Saul pursues David (who is in hiding, having been helped in his escape by Jonathan), David gets two chances to kill Saul (Ch. 24 and 26), and declines. Both times, Saul is grateful and admits that David is the better man. Yet he continues to pursue David until David finally flees to the land of the Philistines. His being there and gaining the trust of their king (King Achish) seems to play into that king's desire to attack Israel -- that is the battle in which Saul and Jonathan die.

Meanwhile, Samuel too has now died (25:1).

And marriage conventions continue to be, er, interesting. After David conquered Goliath, Saul promised David his elder daughter Merab in marriage (18:17). But he ends up actually giving her in marriage to someone else (18:19). David is not reported as being dismayed or upset about this -- instead, it is next reported that another daughter of Saul loves David: Michal (18:20). Saul is pleased, because he thinks that offering her to David in marriage might work as a snare (18:21). David does marry her, after performing the requisite heroic deeds to earn this honor. Since Michal really loves him, and he succeeded in his heroic deeds, Saul is now more afraid of him than ever: "So Saul was David's enemy from that time forward" (18:29). Michal ends up helping David to escape from one of Saul's plots to kill him (Ch. 19). David never quite comes back, and, later, Michal is given in marriage to someone else (25:44). By then, David has two other wives: Abigail and (25:42) and Ahinoam (25:43).

The story of Abigail (Ch. 25) is an interesting one, framed between the two stories of David's declining to kill Saul. Abigail prevents David from killing her own people. David was angry at her then-husband Nabal for not appreciating the fact that David and his soldiers had been protecting them. In his anger, David was now going to attack them, but Abigail met them with gifts and talked them out of killing everyone. When Nabal heard this story, "his heart died within him; he became like a stone" and he died ten days later (25:37-38). When David heard this, he asked Abigail to be his wife.

These stories of mercy are moving, framed as they are within so many stories of wars and jealous pursuits. It's nice to finally see some stories of mercy celebrated as good: it was good that David did not kill Saul; it was good that Abigail talked David out of killing her people; it was good that David admired her for this, and even married her. The fact that these stories are portrayed as good gives some hope that the glorification of war after war is finally starting to falter a bit.

But we shall see. The story is not over yet...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David and Goliath

1 Samuel 17

Tensions between the Isaraelites and the Philistines continue. Now the Philistines have presented a giant of a soldier, Goliath, to threaten the Israelites. He challenges someone to fight with him one-on-one. For forty days, the Israelites do not respond -- they are very afraid of the giant.

David, a youth, is sent by his father Jesse to take food to his brothers, who are in Saul's service. Arriving at the battleground, he sees the giant and hears the challenge, and, despite his brothers' protests, decides he will fight the giant. Saul tries to deck him out in armor, but he is so young that it is too heavy and awkward for him, so he takes it all off again and challenges Goliath just with his slingshot. Goliath laughs at him until a stone shot by David from his slingshot brings Goliath down. David finishes him off with Goliath's own sword, and cuts off his head.

Everyone is amazed and impressed.

So, I had heard the story of David and Goliath, and knew that it was biblical, but it is interesting now to see it in context of the ongoing story.

Despite the violence in this story, the image of someone young and unlikely taking down a giant is a remarkable story, reminding us that sheer physical power alone is not always enough to force events to play out as the powerful would wish.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Divine Power of Music

1 Samuel 16

Interestingly enough, just after we find David selected as the next king (but before he actually becomes so) David enters the ongoing story line as a musician.

The spirit of the Lord comes "mightily" upon David (16:13), departs from Saul (16:14), and Saul is now tormented by an "evil spirit from the Lord (also 16:14). Saul's servants want to find him relief from these spells, and so they look for a musician, a lyre player. It turns out that David plays the lyre! He also is "a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence" (16:18). Saul "loved him greatly" (16:21), and "whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him" (16:23).

It's nice to see this acknowledgment of the magic healing powers of music!

But, unfortunately, it turns out that the good relationship between Saul and David does not last long...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

First King Rejected

1 Samuel 9-16

I find the life and reign of Saul, the first king, to be sad and puzzling. He keeps fighting these battles splendidly and winning, but the Lord becomes regretful for making him king, because he is not following His commands properly.

Well, Saul is fighting and winning the appropriate battles, but when Samuel doesn't show up in time to perform a certain crucial sacrifice, Saul does it himself. Saul also seems reluctant to totally destroy the cities he conquers, taking an enemy king captive instead of killing him, and thinking it better to save the best of the enemy's livestock to use for sacrifice instead of just slaughtering all the animals. (His army still did destroy all of the people, except for said king.)

So, the Lord rejected Saul as king. "The spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him" (16:14).

As I read these chapters, I had the sense that Saul was trying to do his best. He didn't seem to be trying to be willfully disobedient. If anything, he just seemed a bit clueless about what was really sacrosanct, and which matters he could take into his own hands when other things didn't work out quite as he expected. After all, he was not raised with priestly training, as Samuel was.

But I'll keep reading and see what happens next. Maybe this will become clearer as we watch the next king come on the scene: David.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wanting a King

1 Samuel 1-8

1 Samuel begins with the birth of Samuel, one of the last of the Judges. The previous Judge, Eli, had sons who were "scoundrels" (1 Samuel 2:12), and who ended up dying in battle; upon hearing this, Eli died too, and Samuel, who had been ministering to the Lord under Eli, now succeeded Eli as Judge.

But when Samuel got old and his own sons became judges, they "did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice" (8:3). So the elders went to Samuel and pointed out that his sons were not doing a very good job, and asked him instead to appoint them a king. Samuel was unhappy with this, seeing it as a rejection of regarding the Lord as king. The Lord told Samuel to warn the people by describing to them the ways of an earthly king (8:9).

So Samuel describes what would happen if they had a king. The king would force people to serve in armies and to grow and cook his food. He would, in effect, enslave his people to his own service (8:10-18).

"But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, 'No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles'"(8:19-20).

Here then was the transition from being ruled by God and the principles of goodness and justice, to being ruled by the earthly quest for power.

It reminds me of the difference between the first city and the second city in Plato's Republic. Early on in the Republic, Socrates constructs one vision of the perfect city that his interlocutors reject because, while everyone's basic needs are met, it is a city without luxuries and extravagances. So, they have to begin again, and the first step in constructing this new "fevered" city (a city always wanting more) is to create a warrior class both to protect this city and to enable it to move ever outward in its quest for more. They need a warrior class because other city-states are not going to let them take more willingly, and because, to the extent that they succeed in obtaining more, they now become vulnerable to jealousy and attack by others.

Back to 1 Samuel: we here see the people subjecting themselves to de facto enslavement in order to support a kind of power now based on avarice. They consent to support this military power so that their country can become mighty.

Which kind of power do you prefer to serve in your life: the power that promotes goodness and justice, or the power that seeks more for the sake of seeking more?