Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bible in a Year: 1 Samuel 18-2 Samuel 8

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Last week I mentioned that the fate of the sacred town of Shiloh is a mystery. So are the Urim and Thummim, holy objects that appear in a few Old Testament readings like today's.

This website reads: "The Urim ('lights') and Thummim ('perfections') were gemstones that were carried by the high priest of Israel on the ephod / priestly garments. They were used by the high priest to determine God's will in some situations. Some propose that God would cause the Urim and Thummim to light up in varying patterns to reveal His decision. Others propose that the Urim and Thummim were kept in a pouch and were engraved with symbols identifying yes / no and true / false.... [But] No one knows the precise nature of the Urim and Thummim or exactly how they were used ... They are first mentioned in the description of the breastplate of judgment (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8). When Joshua succeeded Moses as leader over Israel, he was to receive answers from God by means of the Urim through Eleazar the high priest (Numbers 27:21). The Urim and Thummim are next mentioned in Moses' dying blessing upon Levi (Deuteronomy 33:8). The following Scriptures likely also speak of the Urim and Thummim: Joshua 7:14-18; 1 Samuel 14:37-45; and 2 Samuel 21:1." This site also notes that they are referred to one last time in the Bible, in Ezra 2:63.

The Jewish Encyclopedia has a much longer section on the oracles, as does this site. The objects also mentioned in the Book of Mormon and in LDS theology. The words themselves could translate Lights and Perfections, or Lights and Truth, or Divine Doctrines and Truth. The phrase "light and truth" (Lux et Veritas) became the motto of both Indiana University, where I used to teach, and also Yale University, where I got my masters degree. The Yale shield has the Hebrew words with the Latin phrase. That's where I first learned about these sacred objects once so important for the Israelites, and so I become nostalgic for New England as I write all this.


This week I've been studying 1 Samuel 18 through 2 Samuel 8. Back in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, the narrative has Moses warning the Israelites concerning a king. 1 Samuel reflects both pro- and anti-monarchical viewpoints; 12:17 even attributes the demand for a monarchy to the people's wickedness! The selection, anointment, and then divine rejection of Saul seems to attribute ambivalence even to God. Saul, "little in his own eyes" (1 Sam. 15:17) and afflicted with distress (16:14) nevertheless leads Israel for forty years in campaigns against the Philistines and others.

After David killed Goliath (chapter 17), the rest of 1 Samuel reflects contrasting and intersecting narratives of Saul and David. Saul offered David his daughter Michal, for whom David paid the gory bridal price (18:20-29), but Saul was jealous of David's battlefield success and subsequent fame. Both Michal and Jonathan---who of course is David's dear friend---helped David escape from Saul. At one point David was cared for by the priest Ahimelech, and Saul has the priest and eighty-five others killed in retaliation. We have two contrasting stories where David was in a good position to kill Saul but did not, and Saul affirmed David's greater righteousness (chapters 24, 26).

Among these adventures, we also find the story of David, Abigail, and Nabal; Nabal was foolish and surly and refused to cooperate with David, while the much wiser Abigail assisted him. She became one of his wives following Nabal's death (chap. 25). (I don't know if you're like me in taking some comfort in encountering a family name among the Bible stories: my mother's grandmother was named Abigail, although she spelled it Abagail, and that was also my mother's middle name.)

Samuel died, and his death is announced twice in the Bible (25:1, 28:3). While David went into Philistine country to continued raids with his men against several enemies of Israel, Saul---who was unable to gain direction from God through various means--sought the advice of the spirit of Samuel via a medium. Samuel's spirit only predicts Saul's upcoming death at the hands of the Philistines (chap. 28). While David and his troops continued successful attacks against the Amalekites (chap. 29-30), Saul's three sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) were killed and the badly wounded Saul took his own life rather than become prisoner of the Philistines (chap. 31).

David was heartbroken at the news of the deaths and the Israelites' defeat. An Amalekite messenger had come to David and falsely reported he had killed Saul at Saul's request--and David puts him to death for slaying the Lord's anointed king.

(As someone with lifelong mild depression, never suicidal but sometimes downcast and always cheered by music, I've had a soft spot in my heart for Saul for a long time. He had no precedent to follow as king, he certainly had no solid person to turn to---Samuel fails utterly on that regard; his pronouncements of God's rejection surely made Saul's condition worse---and Saul spent much of his reign in warfare, a psychologically battering experience to say the least. Here is an interesting article that speculates on Saul's psychology.)

In a series of stories of conquest and unification efforts (1 Samuel 1-8), David achieved what even Joshua couldn't quite do: united the northern and southern tribes.

He mourned Saul and Jonathan, lamenting them in a song that he taught to the people (chapter 1). He was anointed king of the house of Judah (2:1-7). Meanwhile, Saul's son Ishbaal began to reign over Israel and reigned two years, kept in power by the army commander Abner, while David was king at Hebron over Judah (2:1-7). A battle ensued, wherein the forces of Abner were beaten---and in that context we're introduced to Joab, Abishai, and Ashahel, who are David's sister's sons. Asahel foolishly pursued Abner and was killed. For the time being, the other two brothers make peace with Abner.

Civil War between the royal houses of David and Saul continued. Abner aspired to the kingship himself and sought a covenant with David, and the king and Abner made peace. Joab, though, was frustrated with David and went out and assassinated Abner on his own. David pronounced a curse upon Joab and his family but, as we will see in upcoming chapters, David retained him as commander of royal forces. (Joab seems to me a character like Luca Brasi in The Godfather, a faithful ally who is also a really, really dangerous person to be handled carefully.) Though David lamented Abner's death, I wonder if that was at least partly a ploy to keep the covenant with Ishbaal intact. But Ishbaal's own days were numbered; he was slain and beheaded, and David had the brothers who killed him executed (chapters 3-4). This assassination, too, worked to David's advantage.

The ten northern tribes of Israel made covenant with David and anointed him king of all the tribes. He remained seven years in Hebron, then he was able to capture Jerusalem from the Jebusites and established that place as the City of David. Repelling the subsequent attack from the Philistines, David had the ark brought to Jerusalem, where he famously danced before the ark, losing most of his clothes in the process. One man died in the process of the ark coming to Jerusalem, because the ark was improperly carried on a wagon and the man came into direct contact with it (chapter 6).

Glad that the ark was in the city, and likely overwhelmed by his successes and power, David worked through the prophet Nathan to seek God's permission to build a house for the Lord. God declined---God had not needed a house up till that time after all---but God promised to David a dynasty, and a successor to David would build God a house. David's prayer of submission is often cited as a model of humility to the Lord's will (chapter 7). Chapter 8 recounts the way God gave David continuing victories over several groups: Philistines, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, and others. Joab was military commander, Jehoshaphat was recorder, Zadoc was priest, and others comprised the king's government that "administered justice and equity to all his people" (chapter 8).

I'm stopping here because I've read my weekly goal, but also because the upcoming 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 have long been called "the Succession Narrative," a hypothesized early narrative that demonstrates both David's legitimacy as king and Solomon's legitimacy as heir (though Solomon was not David's first born, not even close).

But here's just a little more about Jerusalem. David captured the city from the Jebusites during his reign (2 Sam. 5:6-10), in about 998 BC. The word Yerushalayim actually means "city of peace." The city first appears in Joshua 10, and this 2 Samuel passage is the first biblical reference to the word Zion (ziyon), of uncertain meaning but perhaps "citadel". David brought the ark to Jerusalem, thus sanctifying Zion Hill (2 Sam. 6:10-12). Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem on the proximate Mount Moriah, which meant that the name Zion was applied not only to the particular hill named Zion but also the temple mount (Isa. 8:18, 18:7, 24:23, Joel 3:17, Micah 4:7), and eventually all of Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:21, Ps. 48, 69:35, 133:3, Isaiah 1:8, and others. The name Zion came to also apply to God’s people (Ps. 126:1, 129:5, Isa. 33:14, 34:8, 49:14, 52:8), and in the New Testament, for heaven (Heb. 12:22). All this is from a book my grandmother gave me forty-six years ago, the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, page 914. See my blog notes, here, for more Bible references to Jerusalem.

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