The First Book of Samuel
King James translation
October 24, 1999
Over the last couple of years one of the thoughts that has run through my mind on occasion, is that I ought to read the Bible -- more particularly the Old Testament. I'm not so sure why I find this important -- I have some ideas but nothing definite. One reason is to get better at understanding references to biblical themes, in books, movies and conversation.
Anyways after a couple of false starts with Genesis, I decided to try the two books of Samuel. I read them fairly quickly about two months or so ago; and I enjoyed the experience. The language is beautiful and I felt like I "got" the story pretty well. Today I started rereading the first book.
A beautiful feature of Old Testament writing is the song. I was reminded of this beauty when I started reading today. The first chapter of I Samuel is the narrative of Hannah, wife of Elkanah; she is barren but after she promises to give her first son to the service of the Lord, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. Straightforward and concise. But the second chapter opens with Hannah's song:
The next verse is back in the story, continuing on as if there had been no interruption.
Samuel's succession -- his becoming high priest after the death of Eli -- is never shown. I kind of expected a dispute between him and Ichabod's mother over who would take over the title, as later happens (I Kings 1) between Solomon and the other sons of David. I reckon this is because I'm more familiar with kingship than with high-priesthood. (I think the succession was actually effective at the first verse of chapter 4, "And the word of Samuel came to all Israel".) As it is Samuel is not mentioned in between the above verse and 20 years after the death of Eli (I Samuel 7:3).
I'm interested to know how many generations were between Moses and Eli. My concordance only references Eli in I Samuel; his father is not named so there's no real way to tell. But I know the lineage of David is given at great length inII Samuel; so I guess I can work backwards from that.
Something intriguing about the first book of Samuel (I've been trying to figure out how to work this in to my notes, but it doesn't seem to be working out): in the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes says, "...reading [I Samuel] gives one the feeling of what it was like in this partly bicameral, partly subjective world as the first millenium B.C. moved into consciousness."(p. 306) He spends about 2 pages on the topic of I Samuel; if you're reading either one of these books I strongly recommend reading the other as well. (I happened by coincidence to read them one right after the other without knowing of the connection.)
The story of Saul being selected as king of the Israelites (chapters 8 - 10) is very difficult to understand. It seems totally opaque to me, whether or not it is God's will that Saul be king -- well obviously it is God's will; but He seems to portray it, speaking through Samuel, as the Israelites' rejection of His will.
If the LORD does not want a King over Israel -- which seems clear at the end of chapter 8 -- why appoint Saul? I think I have figured this out; God (read "Samuel", if you prefer) seeks to maintain the legitimacy of the priesthood by investing the office of King with priestly authority, because there is a danger of a revolt if nothing changes. But then I don't really see how it makes sense for Samuel, chapter 10, to say:
It seems to me Samuel is acting against the continued legitimacy of the priesthood here, rejecting association with the king whom he is about to annoint. But it could be that God is hedging His bets, so that later, when Saul turns out to be a bad king, He can deny responsibility. Another kind of weird thing: after Saul is named as king, at the end of chapter 10,
"Children of Belial" seems to be used as a general pejorative description for people who are opposing the LORD's will; which in this context should be the Israelites in general; but whoever the text is referring to, it seems impossible to be in the right here. In verse 19, if you want the authority of a King, then you are rejecting God; and in verse 27, if you don't trust the King's authority, you are a child of Belial.
The fact of this line being here also makes me expect there to be some sort of public dissatisfaction with Saul's rule. I don't remember that happening, from last time I read it. But I'll keep an eye out, this time through...
Chapter 11 is the story of Saul's first achievement as king, the defeat of the Ammonites at Jabesh. The chapter opens on a disturbing note, when Nahash the Ammonite threatens to poke out the right eyes of the Jabeshites "as a reproach upon all Israel" -- I think he means as a reproach for not being able to defend their territory. But Saul rallies together 330,000 Israelites and Judahites, and slaughters the Ammonites. At the end of the chapter is a passage I didn't really understand last time I read it:
Now I see that the men whom the people want to put to death are the "Children of Belial" in verse 27. So maybe this chapter is pointing out the hypocrisy or fickleness of the people.
Chapter 12 clarifies some things and darkens others. Verse 12 gives me the important clue that Nahash had been a military threat for a while, that the people's request for a king back in chapter 8 had been prompted by the existence of this threat.
But in the rest of the chapter, Samuel's behavior seems inexplicable to me. In response to Saul's having defeated Nahash (the very reason, we learn, that he had been installed in his office), Samuel calls down divine wrath on the Israelites; but he also gives them an out:
If the people "turn not aside from following the LORD", (as near as I can make out) the catastrophe that Samuel has invoked will be only temporary. The only way I can really make sense of this is to think that Samuel is frantic over the coming end of his priestly power and is lashing out randomly -- I can't see this as a strategem.
Looking back at this diary I realize I am sliding into summary/book report mode. This is not my objective; I am trying to communicate some of what goes through my head when I am reading the Book. The main thing that happens for me while reading Samuel, is trying to figure out what's going on -- the archaic language and the tendency of characters (especially the LORD) to act on seemingly contradictory volitions, can make it hard to understand the text. I think with successive rereadings I could move past this to deeper understanding; but for now, please bear with me.
Chapters 13-15 continue the narrative of Saul's war against the Palestinians, with its victories and defeats and much intricate political intrigue among the Israelites. I get the feeling here that a book of several hundred pages has been compressed into four and a half; there is much that is not told.
The basic roles of the players remain as they have been up to now: Saul tries to do well, to obey God and further Israel's might; but he can not -- he is destined for failure. Samuel is his judge (by proxy); every time he enters the action it is to accuse Saul of failing to hearken to the voice of the LORD. Finally, at the end of Chapter 15, the LORD and Samuel repudiate Saul; because Saul failed utterly to devastate Amalek in his military campaign there, he is unfit to continue as King of Israel.
There is no mention here of what means Samuel will use to enforce the will of the LORD, and I believe Saul does remain King in name until David wrests power from him.
Today I did a semi-free-write (? It started out "free" but acquired some direction as I wend along) working with some verses from I Samuel.
The introduction of David is a major turning-point in the story. I felt very suspicious on reading, just now, how Saul fetched David to his court immediately after Samuel had annointed him. But the text doesn't seem to make anything of it -- like it's just a coincidence. There's got to be a lot more going on here than made it into the Official Version.
Chapter 19 ends on a positively surreal note. When I read the words, "Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?" (19:24) I wanted to know where I had heard that line before -- I did a search for it on Alta Vista and discovered that I had read it previously, in Chapter 10:
But Saul's situation is quite a bit different at the end of Chapter 19 than it was back in Chapter 10. Then, he was God's newly chosen (by the agency of Samuel) King; now, he has been rejected by God/Samuel and is seeking to kill David, the newly chosen replacement. Before, I guess I saw his prophesy as a token of God's favor; now, it seems more like a rebuke -- he is being thrown down, stripped of his vanity. The final repetition of the proverb, Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets? sounds positively sardonic.
Reading about David's encounter with Ahimelech today (Chapter 21), I noticed again what a different religion modern Judaism is from biblical Judaism -- this prompted by the reference to the "shewbread" (21:6), which Alter explains is
twelve loaves laid out in display on a table in the sanctuary. When they were replaced with fresh loaves, the old loaves could be eaten by the priests.
Anyways, I don't really want to go on at length about the differences between modern and biblical Judaism -- it seems kind of trite and self-evident -- just to note that it came up here. Also, wondering about the difference between biblical Judaism and the religion of, say, the Philistines, who also seem to be monotheistic; i.e. it seems like each state has its god, and Israel is one state among many. It would be interesting to know if any scriptures of the Philistines survive. I remember reading an essay in the Times (written by a Jew) with the thesis that the Jews should be thankful for the loss of their biblical homeland because it was the diaspora that allowed Judaism to become what it is now (was going to say "a modern religion").