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.
We are moving along through biblical history. Here is an approximate timeline:
c. 1800-1600: Abraham and his family through Jacob's children (Genesis)
c. 1600-1200s: Egypt, Exodus, and conquest of the Land (Exodus through Joshua)
1200s-1000: Period of the Judges (Judges, Ruth)
1000-922: The united monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon), (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings 1-11, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles 1-9)
922-722: The divided monarchy (1 Kings 12 to 2 Kings 17).
722 -586: The kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 18-25, 2 Chronicles 10-36)
586-539: The exile
538-332: Judah during Persian rule (Ezra and Nehemiah)
Between the Old and New Testaments:
332-165: Judea during Hellenistic Rule
165-63: The period of the Maccabees and Hasmoneans
The New Testament period:
6 BCE - 135 CE: The Roman provence of Judea
It was also during the era of Hellenistic Judaism and the Roman occupation that Judaism as we know it began to develop, including the fixing of the canon. Rabbinic Judaism developed for the needs of diaspora faith after the Second Temple was destroyed; the Mishnah, for instance, dates from about 200 CE and the Gemara from about 500 CE.
This week, I'm studying Ruth and then 1 Samuel 1-17. If we continue reading from Judges straight into 1 Samuel, we get a more or less continuous narrative, because Eli (1 Samuel 1) is both the high priest at Shiloh (where we left off in Judges with the Benjaminites' rape of the women at Shiloh) and the next-to-last judge of Israel. After Eli, Samuel becomes the final judge of Israel and makes possible the transition of Israelite rulership from judges to kings. We find this narrative continuity in the Jewish Bible, wherein Ruth appears near the end of the canon.
In the Christian Old Testament, Ruth is placed between Judges and 1 Samuel. At this place in the canon, Ruth becomes both a lovely contrasting narrative from the era of the judges (allowing for the marriage practices of the time), and also provides a genealogical bridge to the upcoming stories of David.
The story is familiar to many of us. Three women---the Israelite Naomi and her Moabite daughters in law Ruth and Orpah---find themselves widowed. (The Moabites, whose land was just outside the Land, are biblical characterized as descendants of the union of Lot and his oldest daughter, Gen. 19:37-38.) When Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, Orpah returns to Moab but Ruth chooses to stay with Noami. There follows a familiar story, with some suspense, of how Naomi and Ruth work together to gain the favor of Boaz, a kinsman to Naomi. Boaz goes along with the plan. Although another kinsman is closer in relation (and thus more eligible to marry Ruth), Boaz fulfills legal requirements and they are able to marry. The book concludes with a reminder that their child Obed was the grandfather of David, and that Boaz was a descendant of Perez (whom we met back in Genesis 38).
I forget where I read that the book of Ruth provides a counterpart to other Bible passages where Hebrew marriages to non-Hebrew women were frowned up. In Ezra 9-10, for instance, the man were ordered to divorce their foreign wives. But in Ruth, a Hebrew man marries a Moabite woman---and they're forebears of King David himself!
One of the theological themes of Deuteronomistic theology is that God is the true Lord and King of Israel. This was established in the Exodus covenant and reiterated in Deuteronomy 29 and Joshua 24. The writer of Judges laments, over and over, that “everyone did as he saw fit” because Israel had no king. But the irony is that Israel had a king—the Lord—and turned instead to Canaanite deities and, at the end, the society degenerated into war among the tribes.
Here are some notes that I took a few years ago, which has significance for this upcoming section of Bible reading. In his book Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1986, p. 115), Brevard S. Childs (whom I had as a professor in 1979) notes that the OT scholar Julius Wellhausen identified a “promonarchial source in 1 Samuel 8-12, specifically 9:1-10:16 and 11:1-5. Those texts affirm the new Israelite monarchy, while 8:1-22, 10:17-27, 12:1-25 “regarded the rise of the kingdom as a rejection of God’s true rain”…and saw it as an act of disobedience which emulated Israel’s pagan nations.” Later, the OT scholar Gerhard Von Rad reinterpreted those passages as complementary rather than contradictory. Following Von Rad but also looking to the canonical shape of the text, Childs believes that the anti-monarchical source “brackets the earlier source at both beginning and end (p. 116), but that the pro-monarchical source still has power because “God is still deeply involved in the rise of the monarchy even when it was not according to his original plan for Israel (p. 116). Thus Israel has to choose for God or against God, whether ruled by a king or not (p. 117).
Even though the anti-monarchical source questions the properness of an Israelite king—because Yahweh is Israel’s true king, and the previous rulership of Israel had been the shofetim (judges)—the career of David becomes significant for Israel’s messianic hope: for instance, Isa. 9:6-7, Jer. 23:5ff, and Psalms like 45, 72, and 110 (Childs, pp. 119-120). Thus, even though the monarchy was not according to God’s original plan, God incorporated the monarchy—and specifically King David—as a “type of God’s kingdom.” (In another example, Childs further argues, with von Rad in mind, that the “succession narrative 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2 has not been artificially broken up by 2 Samuel 21-24, but that those four chapters places David’s career in context with the messianic hope of Israel, precisely as David’s speech in chapter 22 echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: p. 118.)
All kinds of interesting connections there! Of course, in New Testament affirmation, David and his kingdom become precursors and “types” of Christ (the great descendent of David and member of David’s tribe, Judah) and his kingdom.
1 Samuel begins when the ark of the covenant was at the sanctuary at Shiloh. I suppose you could say that Samuel and Jesus are the only two biblical figures whose stories begin prior to their births and extend after their deaths. As the book opens, Hannah, one of the two wives of Elkanah, could not have children and she tearfully beseeched the Lord to let her have a male child, whom she would dedicate to the Lord. Eli, the judge and high priest, blessed her, and the Lord in turn granted her prayer.
(Dr. Laurel Koepf-Taylor, who teaches at Eden Seminary where I’m an adjunct, has written a fascinating book, Give Me Children or I Shall Die: Children and Communal Survival in Biblical Literature (Fortress Press, 2013). She discusses the way that we read the Bible with modern eyes and thus can overlook economic aspects of the narrative, for instance, the fact that in the ancient world a child had economic value. The promised gift of Samuel to God provides God with a replacement leader when Eli’s sons are problematic, and in this “barter,” God opens the womb of Hannah, who because she devoted the “first fruits” to God has an abundant “harvest”: more children after Samuel. See pages 45-46. )
The child Samuel served the Lord with Eli and grew in the spirit (in contrast to the sons of Eli, who were terrible people). The Lord punished Eli and the sons while raising up Samuel to be the new high priest. His fame as a prophet preach through Israel (1:1-3:31).
As the Israelites engaged the Philistines in battle near Ebenezer, they carried the ark with them. But the Philistines routed the Israelites, captured the ark, and killed the two sons of Eli. Hearing the news, Eli himself fell and died. Eli's daughter-in-law went into labor, and as she died, she named the child Ichabod, meaning "the glory is gone from Israel" (referring to the ark) (chapter 4).
But the presence of the ark, set up at the Philistine temple of Dagon at Ashdod, was dangerous for them, causing damage to the idol itself and causing, of all things, hemorrhoids among the Philistines (chapter 5). Some commentators speculate that the ailment was more like a plague of some kind. In a memorable story, the Philistines put the ark on a wagon and let God providentially guide two cows to pull the ark back to the Israelites. The cows did so, and the ark arrived at Beth-shemesh, where its dangerous holiness caused more casualties (chap. 6). The Israelites subsequently took the ark to Kiriath-jearim, where it remained for twenty years (7:1-4).
(Why wasn't the ark returned to Shiloh? This is a mystery in the biblical record. Ambiguously referenced in Genesis 49:10, Shiloh was the place where Joshua had set up the Tabernacle, where it remained during the Judges period. But did the Philistines destroy the city when they took the ark? Apparently not, because about two hundred years later, a prophet named Ahijah lived in Shiloh (1 Kings 11, 14). On the other hand, Jeremiah refers to Shiloh as a desolate location (Jer. 7:12-15; 26:5-9). Psalm 78:60 says that the Lord forsook the Tabernacle at Shiloh. One of my seminary profs, B. Davie Napier, commented that the loss of Shiloh was apparently too painful for even Scripture to describe.)
Samuel returned Israel to the Lord. He assembled them at Mizpah, where they ceremonially repented to God, allowing them to route the Philistines. Samuel set up the famous Ebenezer memorial (7:14) and made the rounds each year from his home in Ramah to Bethal, Gilgal, and Mitzvah to judge Israel (chap. 7). Samuel’s sons Joel and Abijah, however, were dishonest and unsuitable as judges. Somehow God did not punish Samuel for lax parenting as God had punished Eli, and the Israelites beseeched Samuel for a king. Samuel advised against it, but the Lord allowed it (chapter 9). Samuel found the handsome Benjaminite Saul and installed him as Israel’s first king (not including the wicked and self-proclaimed monarch Abimelech of Judges) (chapters 9-10). Saul had initial success as a military leader, against the Ammonites (chap 11). Samuel still regretted the new monarchy as a sign of disobedience to God, the true king, but Samuel urges the people to follow and respect Saul, and promises to pray for them (chap. 12).
Saul, and now his son Jonathan too, faces another threat from the Philistines. Samuel stipulated that Saul wait for seven days at Gilgal, when Samuel would make sacrifice. When Samuel didn’t show up, Saul presented the burnt-offering himself. At that point Samuel arrived and pronounced a curse upon Saul’s dynasty (chapter 13). This passage always implied to me that Samuel acted in a very petty way, setting up Saul for failure because he (Samuel) disapproved of the new monarchy.
Sadly for Saul, his missteps continue. In another battle, Saul placed a curse on anyone who ate food before nightfall. But Jonathan, not realizing, had already eaten, and some other troops at as well, all of which withdrew divine favor from the battle (chap. 14). In a battle against the Amalekites, Saul spared the Amalekite king, Agag, and the animals of most value—a violation of God’s holy war stipulations---and then he blames the troops. Samuel scolded him and announced the withdrawal of God’s favor. After that, Samuel and Saul never saw each other again (chap. 15).
These chapters always frustrate me—as if both Samuel and the Lord chose Saul and then let him fail. I’m reading through modern eyes, of course, with leadership philosophy and workplace dynamics in mind.
God instructed Samuel to go among the Bethlehemites to find a new king. Interestingly, God gave him an excuse to use, just in case Saul learned of the errand (16:1-2). Samuel met the sons of Jesse, and while the older brothers were promising, God told Samuel to anoint the youngest son, David. David continued to work as a shepherd but also had a role in the king's service, wherein he at first had good relations with Saul (chap. 16).
The Israelites face another threat from the Philistines, presented by the enormous soldier Goliath who taunts the opposing forces. The story (apparently another ancient narrative edited into the history) reintroduces David, who expressed concern about Goliath’s taunts about Israel and its God. David told Saul that he (David) had killed lions and bears from attacking his father’s sheep and so he could manage Goliath, too. Saul gives David armor, which doesn’t fit. So David abandoned army, and set out to the battlefield with just his sling and some stones. We all know how this story turns out! (chap. 17).