Friday, May 7
First Samuel 1:1-28: It would be a comfort to think that all those who go up to the house of the Lord are led there by the Holy Spirit. It would also be an illusion. Even if experience did not testify that people sometimes attend worship with the most deplorable attitudes and for the worst possible reasons, Holy Scripture itself would caution us to realism on the point.
An early example, I suppose, is Peninnah, Elkanah’s “other wife,” who used the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh as an opportunity to render life miserable for barren Hannah. This latter she provoked severely, says the Sacred Text, “to make her miserable.” The provocation was not unintentional, we are assured, nor did it happen only once: “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat” (1 Samuel 1:6-7). It is easy to picture Peninnah looking forward to that annual pilgrimage with the family; it was perhaps her favorite time of the year, providing her the forum for feeling superior and spreading discouragement.
Now, as it happened, the God who brings good out of evil caused everything to work out well for Hannah, and the story soon turns into an account of grace and divine visitation. Still, there was a serious pastoral problem at Shiloh, and I suspect more than one worshipper at the time wished the priest Eli, pointing to Peninnah, would suggest to Elkanah, “When your family comes next year, brother, why not leave Miss Picklepuss at home?” Perhaps his failure to do so should be counted among Eli’s several pastoral shortcomings.
Oh that Peninnah was history’s last recorded example of a surly, mean spirited individual using the time of divine worship as the occasion to make someone else feel wretched and forlorn.
Not so, however. Another is the Gospel story of “the ruler of the synagogue,” a singularly unattractive, grumpy person who objected to Jesus’ healing of a crippled woman on the Sabbath. In the midst of the spontaneous praise of God that ensued upon that gracious deed, this particular bellyacher felt it his duty to sound a warning to the congregation about liturgical proprieties: “There are six days on which men ought to work,” he declared, “therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). Quick to pass judgment on others and blinded by his own vicious, miserly spirit, this religious leader was unable to recognize the divine presence and the outpouring of grace.
Devoid of mercy, we notice, he was also without courage. Consequently, instead of confronting Jesus directly, this coward had recourse to what had always worked for him in the past—he harangued the congregation about the woman herself!
It is often said—and it is said, I think, more often than is true—that churches are full of hypocrites. Here was one occasion, however, when the Lord really did use that noun to describe someone in the place of worship. Unlike Eli, who failed to give a proper pastoral admonition to Elkanah, Jesus turned His not amused attention to this so-called ruler of the synagogue: “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?”
The Lord’s indignation in this setting, which was scarcely untypical of Him (cf. Mark 3:5), suggests that a pastor’s patience in these circumstances should not be unlimited. Peninnah and the ruler of the synagogue behaved like wolves, not like sheep. They needed to be treated like wolves. The Lord gives here an example of the proper pastoral response to situations in which an individual apparently comes to church for the purpose of making other people in church miserable. Such folk need either to repent or stay home.
I began these comments by mentioning that not all churchgoing seems to be prompted by the Holy Spirit, an impression that opens the possibility of other spirits at work. One hates to consider this possibility, but there is evidence that some individuals are led to congregations for the demonic purpose of doing harm. Very early both the Didache and The Travels of Egeria mention the testing needed to settle that question. When a pastor admits someone into the congregation, we presume he is able to distinguish a sheep from a wolf. Indeed, we very much depend on it.
Saturday, March 8
First Samuel 2:1-21: Christian writers have long regarded Hannah, the mother of Samuel as a theological symbol—or “type”—of the Church. This understanding rests on the biblical theme of the barren woman, originally exemplified in Sarah, the wife of Abraham.
Indeed, even on an initial reading, the stories of these two women, Sarah and Hannah, are strikingly similar: First, each woman is introduced as barren. Second, both of them have “rivals” within their marriages: Hagar in the case of Sarah, Peninnah in the case of Hannah. Third, both Sarah and Hannah are portrayed as the “senior” wives in their respective marriages. Fourth, both barren women are treated contemptuously by their rivals (Genesis 16:4-5; 1 Samuel 1:6-7). Fifth, each of them—Sarah and Hannah—at last conceives a son through the fulfillment of a divine promise.
Latin Christians have long noted these parallels between the wives of Abraham and Elkanah. In the early ninth century, for example, Rhabanus Maurus worked them out in some detail.
Angelome of Luxeuil developed the parallel even further, comparing Elkanah’s two wives, not only to the two wives of Abraham, but also to Leah and Rachel, the two wives of Jacob. In each of these three cases, the barren wife, who conceived later in life and by divine intervention, was contrasted with the more fruitful wife who was less loved.
Furthermore, Holy Scripture develops the correspondence between Sarah and Hannah in order to introduce two major narratives of covenant: the covenant with Abraham in Genesis, and the covenant with David in the Books of Samuel. In each story, the barren woman signifies weakness and imperfection—the human condition—to which God directs the grace of His covenant. The author of Samuel readily found this covenant pattern in Genesis.
Now, it was precisely in connection with the theme of covenant that the Apostle Paul elaborated his contrast between Hagar and Sarah, because “these women are two covenants.” Hagar, who conceived according to the flesh, is likened to the Old Covenant, while barren Sara, who gave birth “through promise,” symbolized the New (Galatians 4:21-31).
Western Christian readers of Holy Scripture, taking Paul’s treatment of the two covenants in Galatians as an interpretive pattern, turned their attention on Hannah. They simply applied to her what Paul wrote of Sarah, and the Bible’s narrative parallels between the two women provided ample warrant for doing so.
Thus, many Western Christians have seen symbolized in Peninnah and Hannah—respectively—the Church and the synagogue. This pattern of imagery is found in Peter Chrysologus, Gregory the Dialoguist, Venerable Bede, Haymo of Halberstadt, Peter Comestor, and others.
All of these writers appear to be dependent on Ambrose, who spoke of Anna Sarrae consterilis—“Hannah sterile together with Sarah.” Summarizing this tradition, Isidore of Seville wrote, “Hannah, who was sterile and afterwards became fruitful, signifies the Church of Christ, who before was sterile among the nations, but now is richly powerful [largiter pollet] throughout the whole world by reason of her many offspring.”
Following this imagery, Latin writers see in the Canticle of Hannah (1 Samuel 2) the song of the Church. Thus, writes Gregory the Dialoguist, when Hannah sang, “My horn is exalted in the Lord,” “what is the horn of Hannah except the power of the Church?”
Since Hannah’s name was understood to mean “grace,” it is entirely proper to regard her as signifying “the Christian religion,” wrote Isidore of Sevi
Does the New Testament tell of the Church’s ill treatment at the hands of the Jews? This was all foreshadowed, Gregory the Dialoguist tells us, in Peninnah’s contempt for Hanna.
When St. Paul cited the proclamation in Isaiah 54:1 in reference to Sarah—“Rejoice, O barren, / You who do not bear! / Break forth and shout, / You who are not in labor! / For the desolate has many more children / Than she who has a husband”—he provided the interpretive key to understanding all the instances of barren women in Holy Scripture. All of them signify the Church, but few of them so clearly as Hannah.
Sunday, May 9
First Samuel 2:22-36: I have long wondered how anyone familiar with St. John Chrysostom's treatise on ordination could still summon the nerve to go through with the rite. The message of that book seemed to be: "Go ahead, fool, get yourself ordained; the devil is just waiting for you!"
Holy Scripture, too, speaks of the perils of the priesthood: Even as the rules for that institution were still being established, two brand new priests, Nadab and Abihu, came abruptly to a bad end when they decided to get fancy with the censer. (I've seen this, actually.) As a solemn warning on the subject of alcohol follows the story of their demise, I suspect the two new priests were intoxicated at the time (Leviticus 10:1-9). Not good.
Another pair of unworthy priests were the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, who served the shrine at Shiloh. They, too, came to a sudden bad end (1 Samuel 4:11,17), after ignoring their father's warning to mend their ways (2:23-25).
The offenses of Hophni and Phineas were not common moral failings, such as drunkenness; they were directly related, rather, to the ministry itself. That is to say, these two scoundrels used their priestly authority and position to take advantage of the very people for whom they were ordained (Hebrews 5:1). Their sins were particularly heinous.
Holy Scripture mentions two abuses of Hophni and Phineas:
For one thing, they violated the trust of "the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle" (1 Samuel 2:22). It was a sin of raw and crude exploitation: For the purpose of sexual gratification, they betrayed the confidence and exploited the vulnerabilities of those religious women, whom it was their responsibility to serve and care for. That is to say, their ministry in the Lord's house provided the very means and context of their infidelity.
The other offense of Hophni and Phineas involved the act of sacrifice itself. Disdaining that part of the sacrificial victim assigned to the priest, these two scoundrels insisted on taking a "choice cut" from the offered meat prior to the sacrifice itself (2:12-16). Thus, instead of serving the Lord's house, they made sure the Lord's house served them. This will always be the mark of an unworthy priest.
Following the lead of Venerable Bede's commentary on this story, we should regard those unworthy priests at Shiloh as foreshadowings of the later priests—chiefly Caiaphas—who condemned Jesus in the Sanhedrin and then accused Him before the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate. Indeed, it was at the home of Caiaphas that the whole plot was planned (Matthew 26:3-4). This supreme representative of the Jewish people used the very office of his ministry—the worship of God—to murder God's Son. Even Pilate read the motive as envy (27:18; cf. 21:38).
Thus, Caiaphas remains for all time the egregious example of a genuinely rotten priest.
At the same time, the Gospel writers were aware of the irony involved in that singular betrayal of the priestly office: By condemning Jesus to death (26:63-66), this unworthy priest unwittingly provided the means of God's perfect worship, the unique and supreme sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.
Given even the minimum standards for the ministry—" blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous"—it is not surprising that we find the occasional minister who doesn't measure up.
I fear the worst examples, however, are not those weak individuals who carry on a double life—priests with a gambling problem, for example, or drunken priests, even priests who violate their marriage vows. Although the canons of the Church properly bar such men from priestly ministry, their offenses are essentially manifestations of weakness, not malice.
Far worse, certainly, are those offenses associated with the very exercise of the priesthood, sins directly concerned with the setting and context of the ministry, such as the quest of power and absolute control. I have in mind the violation of trust in matters of conscience, the cultivation of malice in place of mercy, the disposition to answer criticism with revenge, and the abuse of authority to tyrannize the hearts and minds of the Lord's flock. Such offenses come closer to the sins of Eli's sons, and, more ominously, the unspeakable crime of Caiaphas.
Monday, May 10
First Samuel 3:1-21: This is the chapter in which the Lord directly reveals Himself to Samuel. When the chapter begins, Samuel is a sort of boy acolyte; when it ends, he is a prophet of renown throughout Israel.
The scene begins in darkness: nighttime and no vision (verse 1); diminished eyesight (verse 2); a lamp soon to go out (verse 3). An older order is about to be extinguished, as was prophesied in the previous chapter. God’s Word, now to be revealed, will be “the aroma of death unto death” to the house of Eli and “the aroma of life unto life” in the ministry of Samuel” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
Up to the present, Samuel has not known God directly but only through the quasi-parental ministry of Eli (verse 7). His state was like that of Jacob, who was familiar with the Lord only as the God of his father and grandfather (Genesis 28:13). Jacob was brought to a personal and immediate knowledge of God only through more mature experience (28:21; 32:30). So it is with Samuel, whom the Lord now summons by name. It is no longer Eli to whom he must have recourse (verses 8-9).
The triple summons to Samuel (verses 4,6,10) dramatizes the account of his prophetic call. In accord with the instruction of Levi (verse 9), he presents himself as the Lord’s “servant,” thus taking his place in the prophetic succession of Moses, “the servant of the Lord” (Exodus 4:10; Numbers 12:7; Wisdom of Solomon 10:16; Hebrews 3:5; Clement of Rome 4:12; 43:1; 51:3; Pseudo-Barnabas 14:4).
The revelation to Samuel, Eli recognizes, is the Word of the Lord. Five times in these few verses the old man describes this revelation with either a nominal or predicate form of the Hebrew root dbr, “to speak.” This is the usual form by which the Bible refers to a prophetic message.
Like David, later in this book (2 Samuel 15:26), Eli recognizes the righteousness of the Lord’s judgment (verse 18). His chronic failures, however, have already gone to seed in the generation of his sons. It is too late to call them back. The historical judgment of God is irreversible (cf. 2 Kings 22:14-17).
Tuesday, May 11
First Samuel 4:1-22: Breaking off the story of Samuel, these next three chapters are devoted to the “exile” of the Ark of the Covenant: its capture on the battlefield (chapter 4), its “captivity” among the pagans in an alien land (chapter 5), and its return to the Chosen People (chapter 6). Since its important presence at the crossing of the Jordan and the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6—8), the Ark has been little mentioned in the biblical narrative. Nor, apparently, has it always resided in the same place. We know that it was kept for a while at Bethel (Judges 27), and now we find it at Shiloh (3:3; 4:4).
These present chapters indicate how the Ark came to be at Kiriath Jearim (6:20—7:2), whence David will move it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. (The reference to the Ark in the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 14:18 is surely wrong. With the Septuagint, we should read that passage as referring to the oracular “ephod.”)
There are two parts to the present chapter: first, the loss of the Ark to the Philistines (verses 1-11); second, the death of Eli and the birth of Ichabod (verses 12-22).
After an initial defeat at the hands of their enemy (verses 1-2), the Israelite elders imagine that the Ark’s bare presence on the battlefield will assure the army of divine help in the next encounter (verse 3). Their reasoning on this point is doubtless inspired by the memory of the ark’s significant role in the Battle of Jericho.
However, those warriors commanded by Joshua at Jericho were assured of victory by the Lord Himself (Joshua 6:2-5), and they bore the Ark, not as a lucky charm or a magic talisman, but as an expression of their faith (6:6-8). In contrast, the elders in the present text forget that the Lord bases His judgments on the content of hearts. How can they imagine that the Lord does not regard the hearts of the two scoundrels who currently carry the Ark? Ironically, the Philistines seem to have more respect for the Ark than do the Israelites (verses 7-9). In the end, Israel’s losses in the second battle (verse 10) greatly outnumber those in the first.
The second scene of this chapter (verses 12-22) opens with the arrival of the messenger who runs 18 miles from the battlefield to the city of Shiloh, bringing tidings of the disaster (verse 12). Eli, apparently waiting at a gate different from the one entered by the messenger, becomes the last person to hear the message. The scene grows in drama: blind Eli, hearing the uproar and lamentation in the city, demands to know the reason (verses 13-16). We learn much of the soul of the old man from the fact that he is anxious less for the safety of his sons than for the fate of the Ark. Hence, the full effect of the message seizes him only when he learns of the seizure of the Ark: Falling backward from a stool, he dies of a broken neck (verse 17-18).
The ironic climax of the tragedy arrives when the pregnant wife of Phineas suddenly goes into labor, in reaction to learning the loss of her husband and father-in-law, along with the defeat of the army and the capture of the Ark. She dies after giving birth to a boy, on whom she confers the symbolic name Ichabod—“glory gone.”
This name is based on the important Hebrew noun kavod, “glory.” This is the glory associated with God’s presence with the Ark. This child, then, born on the day of Ark’s capture, will be a living reminder of the Lord’s judgment on the priestly family of Shiloh. Although some prophets continued to dwell at Shiloh (cf. 1 Kings 14:2, 4), its priesthood settled at Nob (1 Samuel 14:3; 22:11).
Samuel moves back to Ramah (7:17), his birthplace, and the Ark, though returned to Israel, will never again be installed at Shiloh. The Lord has abandoned the site, making it a symbol of the fate awaiting any city that forsakes His covenant (Jeremiah 7:12, 14).
Understanding this event within a larger biblical setting, two further reflections are appropriate:
First, in addition to the theological perspective of the author of Samuel, this story of the Ark’s exile should also be considered within the general perspective of the deuteronomic editor of the Bible’s historical material. Instructed by the Fall of Jerusalem and Israel’s experience of the Babylonian Captivity (587-538), this was the editor responsible for unifying the long narrative that runs from the Book of Deuteronomy to the end of Kings.
Within the context of this long history, the symbolism of Ichabod’s name attains its full meaning when the divine glory departed from Jerusalem in the greater tragedy of 587. The prophet Ezekiel described this “glory gone”: “Then the glory of the LORD departed from the threshold of the temple and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight. When they went out, the wheels were beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them” (10:18-19).
Second, the narrative in this chapter is used in both the theme and structure of Psalm 78 (77), a lengthy historical meditation composed by Asaph, the choral master of David’s pre-Temple shrine in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15:17-19). The long narrative of this psalm begins with the Battle of Aphek: “The children of Ephraim, armed and carrying bows, / Turned back in the day of battle. / They did not keep the covenant of God; / They refused to walk in His law, / And forgot His works / And His wonders that He had shown them” (verses 9-11).
Starting with this defeat, Asaph works backwards through Israel’s history: Just as these “children of Ephraim” forgot the things the Lord did for their fathers in the Desert Wandering (verses 12-39), so that earlier generation had forgotten what the Lord did before and during the Exodus (verses 40-53). Notwithstanding these sustained infidelities, the Lord brought the people to the Land of Promise, where they continued to offend and provoke Him (verses 54-59).
In response, the Lord then “forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh, / The tent He had placed among men” (verse 60). This rejection of Shiloh, which returns the narrative of the psalm to its starting point, includes the loss of the Ark: The Lord “delivered His strength into captivity, / And His glory into the enemy’s hand” (verse 61).
As the next two chapters of Samuel will illustrate, however, the Lord was not finished with the Philistines. Asaph continues: “Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, / Like a mighty man who shouts because of wine. / And He beat back His enemies; / He put them to a perpetual reproach” (verses 65-66). As here in Samuel, this rejection of the northern shrine leads to the Lord’s choice of that in the south: “He rejected the tent of Joseph, / And did not choose the tribe of Ephraim, / But chose the tribe of Judah, / Mount Zion which He loved. / And He built His sanctuary like the heights, / Like the earth which He has established forever. / He also chose David His servant” (verses 67-70).
It was Jerusalem and David that Asaph had in mind all along. His psalm was an early expression of the historical perspective found here in Samuel.
Wednesday, May 11
First Samuel 5:1-12: The victorious Philistines now take the captured Ark of the Covenant and place it, as a votive offering, in the temple of their god, Dagon, in the city of Ashdod. Although they intended this ritual to signify the subjection of Israel’s God to Dagon, the latter does not fair well in the encounter (verses 1-5).
Dagon was a local Syrian divinity adopted by the Philistines on their arrival in the region, roughly 1200 B.C. Although the exact derivation of his name is disputed, it is generally agreed that Dagon was a fertility god, and local legend made him the father of Baal. He had more than one temple in the region (cf. Judges 16:23; 1 Chronicles 10:10). Jonathan Maccabaeus destroyed his temple at Ashdod in 147 B.C. (1 Maccabees 10:83-84; 11:4).
of this story—particularly Dagon’s hands—render it curiously similar to the account of the ravished and slain woman in Judges (19:22-29). When her body is found, the woman lies at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold, similar to the hands of the prostrate Dagon. The woman is subsequently dismembered.
The Lord of the Ark, having disposed of the Philistine god, now turns to deal with the Philistines, wreaking havoc in three cities of their pentapolis (verses 8-12). The reader is reminded of the plagues visited on Egypt—both animal pests (Exodus 7:26—8:27; 10:1-15) and bodily affliction (Exodus 9:8-12), including death (Exodus 12:29-36). As the Ark is moved from city to city, Philistine panic intensifies. Its mere arrival at Ekron is sufficient to cause consternation, prior to any actual damage! In these descriptions, the biblical author is enjoying himself immensely.
Historians have variously identified the pestilence described here, the most severe suggestion being bubonic plague. Although interpretation would account for the rodents and the physical symptoms (buboes or glandular swellings), we should not permit a preoccupation with diagnosis to obscure the author’s literary and rhetorical intention—to portray the affliction in terms of extreme discomfort and embarrassment. The King James Version, grasping this intention, identified the swellings as hemorrhoids. That is to say, the emphasis in this account is on anal distress.
Modern readers of this passage have presumed that the victims died on a bubonic infection. However, our earliest commentator on the story, Josephus (Antiquities 6.1.3), believed that death came from “dysentery,” which also caused the piles. (Let us forego his description!)
The theological message of this chapter rests on the common biblical theme of victory arising out of defeat. The Philistines had barely time to celebrate their supposed triumph when they began to suspect their mistake: They had swallowed what they could not digest. After a single night they found their god humiliated—and after a second night dismembered—by the object they had captured. Dagon was now unsafe in his own shrine. Israel’s Lord began to show the conqueror of the prematurely partying Philistines. The tables were turned. Instead of parading the Ark as the spoils in a victory parade, its transport becomes the Lord’s own victory march. The Philistines began to know how ancient Pharaoh felt, when the full force of the ten plagues made him eager for Israel to leave Egypt.
The triumph of the “defeated” Ark within Philistia was a prophecy of the victory of “defeated” Jesus over the forces of the nether world. Like the Philistines, Death had swallowed what it could not digest. St. John Chrysostom said it best: “The Savior's death has set us free. ? He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh . . .. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.”
Ascension Thursday, May 13
Psalm 47 (Greek and Latin 46): Its eternal, “heavenly” character is an essential and defining feature of the priesthood of Christ our Lord. According to Hebrews, indeed, “if He were on earth, He would not be a priest” (8:4). We have been redeemed and justified by Jesus, our High Priest, not only by the shedding of His blood, but also by the power of His glorification over death, because He “was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the Cross, by which He ransomed us and paid the purchase of our souls, was completed, fulfilled, brought to perfection by His Resurrection and entrance into the heavenly holy of holies, that place “behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19, 20).
The Ascension of Christ is not, then, an afterthought, a sort of postlude to salvation. It is not merely an appropriate but optional parade celebrated in consequence of the victory. It is an integral part of the triumph itself; or more properly, it is the crowning moment of the Lord’s priestly offering. The Lord’s Ascension is a ritus, a liturgical event.
In this respect Hebrews contrasts the earthly tabernacle of the Old Testament, the scene of the Mosaic sacrifices, with the eternal tabernacle of heaven, consecrated by the glorification of Jesus: “But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (9:11, 12).
This Ascension of Christ into glory is likewise the object of biblical prophecy, especially in several places in the Book of Psalms. One of the more notable places is here in Psalm 47: “God has ascended with jubilation, the Lord with the sound of the trumpet. Oh sing to our God, sing! Sing to our King, sing!” This is an invitation to us on earth, a summons to join our voices in jubilation with the angels on high. The Ascension of Christ is the event where heaven and earth are joined forever.
David’s taking of the ark of the covenant into the Holy City may be seen as a figure and type of the Lord’s entry into the heavenly Jerusalem, and that long-distant day was likewise marked with the rapture of happiness at God’s approach: “Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet” (2 Sam. 6:14, 15). Our psalm calls for similar marks of celebration at the coming of Christ into the Holy City on high: “Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph! For the Lord most high is awesome; He is the great King over all the earth.”
What the Old Testament prophesied in narrative and psalm came finally to pass when God “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Eph. 1:20, 21).
Our psalm of the Ascension, therefore, sends forth its invitation to all the peoples of the earth. By reason of His glorification, all of history and all of culture belong to Christ. All nations are summoned before His throne, to share His exaltation: “God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne. The princes of the peoples are gathered together with the God of Abraham. For all the strong ones of the earth belong to God; they are greatly exalted.”
The place on earth where heaven and earth meet is called the Church, which finds her very identity in the exaltation of Christ. The mystery of the Ascension leads immediately to the mystery of the Church, God’s Chosen People: “He will subdue the peoples under us, and the nations under our feet. He has chosen us for His inheritance, the beauty of Jacob which he loves.” Christi ascensio, nostra provectio, said Pope St. Leo the Great back in the fifth century: “The ascension of Christ is our advancement.” In glorifying Christ, God also “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Immediately after describing the Lord’s Ascension, then, the Apostle Paul went on to speak of the role of the Church in that holy mystery: “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22, 23).
Friday, May 14
First Samuel 6:1-19: This chapter chronicles the return of the Ark to Israel and the aftermath of that ret
In view of the havoc and consternation caused among the Philistines, as described in the previous chapter, its captors determine to send the Ark back to Israel. Seven months of torture have proved quite enough (verse 1).
Sensing they are out of their depth, these political leaders of Philistia—the heads of the five cities—resolve to find a religious solution to their problem. They are wary. Accordingly, they seek the guidance of the local religious experts: priests and shamans (verse 2). We recall that Pharaoh sought the counsel of such men, back in the days when Moses was a problem.
The counsel given by the priests and shamans is complex. There are two stages in the instruction:
First, a sort of reparation offering must accompany the return of the Ark. The need for this ritual gesture was perceived from the fact that the Philistines continued to be tormented by rodents and the physical malady described in the previous chapter. The Philistines fear that these problems may continue even after the Ark is returned, unless they effect some kind of reconciliation with Israel’s God (verse 3). They are advised, therefore, to fashion small sculptures—ornaments, as it were—to represent the hemorrhoids and the rodents (verses 4-5).
The narrator of this scene obviously enjoys its irony: Having endured dysentery and hemorrhoids for seven months, these Philistines now suffer from an anal fixation so severe they imagine that Israel’s God might be placated by a gift of golden hemorrhoids!
The obvious parallel here is with the account in Exodus, according to which the Israelites, when Pharaoh finally compelled them to leave Egypt, took gold and jewelry with them (Exodus 3:21; 11:2; 12:35-36; Psalms 105 :37). This parallel serves mainly to heighten the improbability of jewelry shaped like hemorrhoids and mice.
The Philistines are certainly “winging it” here. They are totally confused, and they have no idea how the true God is to be honored. Their improvised liturgical experiment reminds the reader of the Ninevites, a few centuries later, who proclaim a citywide season of fasting in order to placate the wrath of Israel’s God. In this latter instance, we recall, even the livestock are forced to fast (Jonah 3:7; 4:11). Both biblical writers revel in ridiculing the clueless Gentiles—Philistines and Ninevites—who have benefited from no proper liturgical instruction. They must guess what to do: “Perhaps” (verse 5), “Who knows?” (Jonah 3:9)
The Philistines, for their part, compare their plight to that of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In both cases, hardness of heart is the great danger, and the Philistines are resolved to take instruction from Pharaoh’s mistake (verse 6; Exodus 8:15,32; 9:34).
Second, great care must be taken in the transport of the Ark back to Israel. Indeed, this transport becomes a sort of trial to determine whether or not the Philistines are really dealing with Israel’s God or simply circumstances of chance. Accordingly, the religious authorities advise, a brand new cart must be constructed, one never used for ordinary work. This cart must be drawn by nursing cows that have never been yoked. These must be separated from their suckling calves and, of their own accord, take the correct road to the nearest Israelite town. This complicated process, the Philistines reason, will guarantee that mere chance is not involved in the outcome. It is a sort of trial by ordeal.
When the Ark arrives at Bethshemesh, however, it is no less dangerous to the Israelites than it was to the Philistines. The rejoicing citizens of the place, apparently curious to learn if the contents of the Ark had been disturbed, unwisely open it and look inside. Being Levites (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:44), they should know better (Numbers 4:20), and they pay a heavy price for their presumption.
The tragedy at Bethshemesh is the climax in this story of the Ark’s power, which is felt by Israelite and Philistine alike. Both groups received the Ark with joy, but they are equally eager to be rid of it, once they experience their inability to control it.