Friday, May 14
1 Samuel 6:1-19: This chapter chronicles the return of the Ark to Israel and the aftermath of that return.
In view of the havoc and consternation caused among the Philistines by reason of its presence among them, the Ark’s captors determine to send it 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 hilarious 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.
Saturday, May 15
1 Samuel 6:20—7:17: The Bethshemites plead with their brethren at Kiriath-Jearim, some nine miles northeast, to come and relieve them of the Ark. To care for it, Eliezar ben Abinadab (cf. 2 Samuel 6:3) is consecrated.
The Ark’s history will be picked up again in 2 Samuel 6, where David arranges its transfer to Jerusalem. Its presence there will confer on the latter city, David’s capital, a historical connection, not only with Shiloh, but also with Bethel (Judges 20:27) and Shechem (Joshua 8:33). In the overview of the Deuteronomic editor, the Ark is the link of continuity joining Israel’s judges and kings.
Chapter 7 begins on a chronological note: the twenty years during which the Ark of the Covenant remained at Kirjath Jearim. If this length of time is taken to indicate the whole period before the Ark’s removal to Jerusalem under David, it appears to be too short for adjustment into Old Testament chronology. It seems more likely, therefore, that the twenty years indicates the period prior to the battle described later in this chapter.
During these two decades, we are informed, Israel “mourned to the Lord” (according to the Hebrew) and “turned to the Lord” (according to the Greek). That is to say, it was a time of spiritual renewal, when the Israelites, under the maturing leadership of Samuel, did four things: yearned for the Lord, put away idols, committed themselves, and served the Lord alone (verses 3-4). Their resolve was expressed in a rededication, symbolized in fasting, a water libation (cf. Lamentations 2:19), the confession of sins, and a sacrifice accompanied by prayer (verses 5-6,9).
This rededication took place at Mizpah, one of the cities included in Samuel’s annual circuit as judge (verse 16). The site is probably to be identified with Tell en-Nasbeh, eight miles north of Jerusalem. Mizpah is the place where Israel will choose monarchy over the charismatic leadership exercised by Samuel and the Judges.
Those converted to the Lord should anticipate an experience of trial, and this sequence is illustrated in the story that follows: the Philistines, victorious in their last military encounter with Israel, are bent on battle (verse 7). Their prompt and dramatic rout is credited to Samuel’s intercessory prayer (verses 9-10). This is one incident (cf. 12:19) that strengthened the memory of Samuel as a champion of intercession (cf. Jeremiah 15:1; Psalms 99 :6).
This victory comes from neither Israel’s military muscle nor Samuel’s martial leadership, but solely from the Lord, who puts the Philistines to confusion by a superlative display of thunder and lightning. References to this display are found in the hymns that begin (2:10) and end (2 Samuel 22:14) the original Book of Samuel.
The erection of a ceremonial stone to commemorate this victory (verse 12) has many parallels throughout military history.
In the general narrative development of this book, the present chapter represents the countervailing voices of those not convinced that Israel truly needed a king. In subsequent chapters—but especially at Mizpah in chapter 10—the opposite view would eventually prevail: Israel would have its king. Still, the book’s author determined that both sides of the argument should be heard. For him—and for the book’s final editors in the late sixth century—the material in this chapter bears witness that Israel needed no king but the Lord. What Israel did need was mourning, conversion, rededication, fasting, and prayer. The “rock of help”—Ebenezer—stood in silent but eloquent testimony to this thesis.
The full significance of Israel’s experiment with monarchy was complex, but that complexity included the fact that monarch
y, over the centuries, led to Israel’s historical ruin. No one knew this better than the survivors of 587 B. C.
Sunday, May 16
Acts 1:15-26: Among the literary features that particularly adorn the Gospel of St. Luke are certain points of symmetry and polish that unite the beginning and ending of that work. Some of these are fairly direct and easy to perceive. For instance, there is the clear parallelism between the two congregations praying at the temple, one at the beginning of the Gospel (1:9, 10, 21) and the other at the end (24:53). Again, most readers will probably note the presence of the angels at both the beginning (1:11, 19, 26; 2:9, 13, 15) and the ending (22:43; 24:4) of Luke’s narrative.
Fewer readers of Luke, perhaps, will observe that there is also a rolling of dice near both the beginning (1:9) and the ending (23:34) of that Gospel. However subtle, nonetheless, this symmetry was hardly lost on the refined Schriftsgefühl of St. Ambrose, who perceived therein
a comparison and contrast between the Levitical priesthood of Zacharias, chosen by lot to offer the incense, and that new priesthood by which
Jesus offered His sacrifice on the Cross while the soldiers cast lots for
His clothing. “So the priest was chosen by lot,” he says with respect to
Zacharias, and then he adds: “Perhaps on this account the soldiers cast lots for the Lord’s garments. Since the Lord prepared to offer sacrifice for us in His temple, the shaking of the lots around Him would also fulfill the precept of the Law.”
In addition to those tropes by which Luke unites the beginning and ending of his Gospel, there are also conspicuous lines of parallel between the early part of that Gospel and the early part of Luke’s second work, the Acts of the Apostles. Both books commence, for example, with an address to “most excellent Theophilus,” followed by the portrait of a congregation at prayer (Luke 1:10; Acts 1:14). And just as there were angels at the outset of Luke’s Gospel, so we find them again at the beginning of Acts (1:10–11). Moreover, near the front of each book there is the descent of the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:35) and anoints the Church (Acts 1:4–8; 2:1–4), which is gathered with the Virgin Mary (1:14).
Once more, also, there is a replicated rolling of dice. Just as Zacharias is designated by lot to offer the incense at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Matthias is chosen by lot to be numbered among the Apostles at the beginning of Acts (1:24–26). This latter juxtaposition, too, was detected by St. Ambrose, who thus commented on the choice of Zacharias by speaking of the choice of Matthias: “So the lot fell on the apostle Matthias, lest the choice of an apostle should seem to diverge from the command of the Old Law.”
Before their casting of lots, the brethren narrowed their selection to a choice between two men with identical qualifications. Matthias and Joseph Barsabas both met the technical requirements for being numbered with the original Apostles (1:21–23). One remembered, however, that Judas Iscariot too had met those requirements. Clearly something more was needed, as their prayer acknowledged: “You, O Lord, know the hearts of all.” God could read the hearts of both men, and, for reasons best known to Himself, He preferred Matthias.
God’s preference of Matthias, nonetheless, implied no censure of the other man. Joseph Barsabas was not chosen for that particular apostolate, but there was no implied criticism of him. All through Holy Scripture, indeed, God continually chooses some individuals over others with a view to the divine purposes in history. While each of those choices necessarily implies a rejection of sorts, such rejections are not necessarily condemnations nor repudiations.
Thus, the Lord was not condemning the other sons of Abijah, years earlier, when he caused the lot to fall on Zacharias. It was simply the case that God chose Zacharias to offer incense that day, and not one of the other priests. Not because Zacharias was worthier than his brethren; it was simply that the all-knowing Lord had some rather specific intention in mind, an intention involving Zacharias’s meeting, that day, with an archangel. God knew what He was about.
So with Matthias. The Lord had some specific plans for him. And while Matthias perhaps spent the rest of his life discovering what these plans were, he was keenly aware that God was reading his heart.
Monday, May 17
First Samuel 8:1-22: Here begins the chronicle of Israel’s transition to monarchy, framed between Samuel’s two antimonarchical warnings in chapters 8 and 12.
Israel’s movement to monarchy occurred around 1020 (some thirty years after the fall of Shiloh), and here again—as he did with Eli—Samuel served as the bearer of bad news.
Though his own instincts opposed the idea of kingship, regarding it at first as a rebellion against God’s covenant, Samuel bore some of the blame for this development. His failure to discipline his sons, after all, was the immediate reason given for the need of a king (verses 1–5).
There is an irony here. Samuel himself had witnessed how Eli’s failure to discipline his sons had earlier led to the destruction of Shiloh (1 Samuel 2:12–17, 22–25). It is no small paradox that Samuel, ever the visionary of the future, should be suddenly confronted with déjà vu.
Israel’s demand for a king is based on a desire to be “like other nations.” That is to say, it is a rejection of the unique character imposed by Israel’s covenanted relationship to the Lord. Essential to that covenant was the understanding that Israel was not like the other nations: its government was based on a theological premise, not a political contract.
Wanting to be “like other nations” was part of Israel’s constant disposition to worship “other gods.” As a radically unfaithful sentiment, it was just the most recent act in a rebellion going back to the time of the desert wandering (verses 7-8; cf. 10:18-19; 12:12; Judges 8:22-23).
Samuel prayed (verse 6). This prayer of frustration stands in striking contrast to his victorious prayer in the previous chapter (7:7-9).
And once again God spoke to Samuel, instructing him to accede to the people’s clamor for a king (verses 7–8). The author gives no explanation why the Lord acceded to the people’s request, nor, in the light of Israel’s subsequent history, was such an explanation necessary. God’s purpose was complex; indeed, human sinfulness made it complex.
Moreover, Samuel was the man God wanted to anoint that king (10:1). As Israel’s “seer” (9:9), however, he was also directed to foretell to the people the dire consequences of their choice. The sad list of evils that the seer predicted as attendant on the institution of kingship (8:11–18) was a prophecy amply fulfilled in the following centuries. It was truly bad news: Israel’s kings will equal and surpass the ancient oppression of Pharaoh. As they did in Egypt, the Israelites will once again cry out for deliverance from oppression, but the Lord—this time—will pay them no heed. The evil history of Israel’s kingship will run its full course.
Tuesday, May 18
First Samuel 9:1-13: Samuel’s dismissal of the people at the end of chapter 8 cleared the stage, as it were, for a new development. Now, Saul enters the stage, described as a young man of wealth and impressive physical appearance (cf. 10:23). Saul is not conscious of such things at the moment; becoming a king is the thing furthest from his mind. He is looking for his father’s wandering donkeys (verses 1-4).
When the lengthy search for the donkeys leads to nothing but frustration (verse 5), Saul’s servant (who appears in this scene as a sagacious man, perhaps older) favors recourse to oracular assistance (verses 6-10). By this time they have arrived at Zuph, near Ramah (cf. 1:19).
Our author, who described Samuel’s habitual circuit travels (7:16-17), set up thereby the circumstances of the prophet’s meeting with Saul. Samuel is not named at this point, but his ministry as a seer is described as particularly efficacious (verse 6; cf. Deuteronomy 13:1-3; 18:21-22). The unnamed servant provides the remuneration of the unnamed seer (verse 8; cf. 1 Kings 14:3; 2 Kings 4:42; Amos 7:12; Micah 3:5).
As Saul is seeking the donkeys, Samuel is searching for a king. This is the author’s way of saying that the providential Lord is preparing them to meet.
Ezekiel 43: God’s glory, which Ezekiel had seen depart eastward from the temple in 11:23, now returns from the same direction. This glory of God, witnessed by the prophet, was revealed in a great luminosity, in reference to which we are surely correct in thinking of the bright cloud of fire that led Israel through the Red Sea and the Sinai desert. This same divine luminosity adorned the face of Christ our Lord at His Transfiguration and is an image of divine revelation itself (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:6).
When the divine glory returns to the temple, it is accompanied, Ezekiel tells us, by all the mystic images that he originally saw at the time of his calling, at the beginning of this book. In verse 10 he is commissioned to write a description of all that he s
ees, and there immediately follows an account of the altar (verses 13-17) and its construction and consecration (verses 18-27).
One is particularly struck by the detail that this new altar must be ascended by stairs, a feature expressly prohibited in Exodus 20:25-26.
Wednesday, May 19
First Samuel 9:14-26: The Lord spoke to Samuel the day before Saul’s arrival (verse 15). That is to say, the God of providence was working from two sides in order to bring about the encounter between these two men. Nor is the present story the Bible’s sole example of the Lord pressing a meeting from two directions. Another instance is the account of the founding of the Church at Caesarea, for which the Lord revealed His will to Cornelius at Caesarea (Acts 10:1-8) and, the following day, to Peter at Joppa (10:9-16). As in the case of Samuel and Saul, it was the divine intent to cause these two men to meet. As though to emphasize this point, each man later narrated the details of the revelation (10:28-33; cf. 11:4-18).
In Samuel’s initial meeting with Saul (verses 17-21), two themes are especially worthy of note:
First, Samuel learns that Saul is the Lord’s chosen “prince and savior” (verse 16; cf. Stephen’s description of Moses in Acts 7:35). Saul is God’s reply to the people who cried to Him in their affliction (cf. 7:8-9; 12:8,10; Exodus 3:7,9; 4:31; Deuteronomy 26:7; Judges 3:9,15; 4:3; 6:6; 10:2,13,14; 2 Kings 14:26). Clearly, the whole question of kingship is treated very differently from the previous chapter: Whereas the Lord reluctantly agreed to a monarchy in chapter 8, here in chapter 9 monarchy represents the Lord’s intervention for deliverance.
Second, in professing his own low estate (verse 21), Saul picks up the theme—introduced by Hanna in 2:8—of the Lord’s exaltation of the humble.
We learn that Samuel, in prophetic anticipation of his encounter with Saul, had already enjoined the cook to prepare something special for the young man. Even before his anointing, Saul is given preeminence at table.
Ezekiel 44: The first three verses of this chapter testify to the special holiness of the temple’s east gate, consecrated by the entrance of God’s glory through it. This gate must remain sealed forever. Because God Himself has used this gate, the prophet is told, no one else may do so. Even the prince, who may approach the gate from the vestibule to the west of it, may not pass through the gate itself, though he is permitted to eat certain consecrated foods while within the gateway.
This account of the consecration of the temple’s eastern gate, by reason of God’s having entered it, is read at Vespers on most feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which interprets the text as an image prophetic of Mary’s perpetual virginity. According to this interpretation, her very body, because God’s Word used it as His entrance into this world by means of the Incarnation, was consecrated in an exclusive way; if this was the case with respect to the divine cloud of God’s glory in the Old Testament, how much more with respect to God’s definitive entry into human life by Incarnation. After His passage through it, the door of His entrance, because it was definitively consecrated, must remain forever shut.
(Mary’s perpetual virginity, unquestioned for centuries and considered defined dogma by most Christians throughout the world, was consistently defended by the Protestant Reformers. The sustained denial of it is not a product of Protestantism, but of modern secularism that has no sense of physical consecration.)
The rest of this chapter deals with the consecration of the priests and Levites. Himself a member of the priestly family, Ezekiel habitually shows special concern for the distinction between holy and profane, as we see here in verses 17-27.
Thursday, May 20
First Samuel 9:27—10:16: The next morning, Samuel separates Saul from his servant, mentioning a special message he is to receive in private.
Even as he anoints Saul as “prince” (nagid—17:1), Samuel foretells three signs that will reassure the young man, who may be rather confused by the unexpected of events of the past day or so. The first prophesied sign is an encounter with two men, who will tell him the lost donkeys were found (verse 2). The second sign is Saul’s meeting with three men who will feed him (verses 3-4). The third sign is an encounter with a group of prophets, in whose company Saul will receive the gift of prophecy (verses 5-6).
In order to avoid any confusion about these events, Samuel foretells them in considerable detail, including the exact place where each of them will occur: Ramah (Rachel’s grave), Tabor, and Gibeath-Elohim. After these three signs, Samuel instructs him, Saul is to wait for him at Gilgal.
Only the third of the three signs is narrated in the text: Saul’s reception of the prophetic spirit (verses 1-13). This outpouring of the “Spirit of God”—Ruach Elohim—is the grace Saul shares with Israel’s earlier charismatic leaders: Gideon (Judges 6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and Samson (14:6,19; 15:14).
On his arrival home, Saul remains silent about the extraordinary events of recent days (verses 14-16; Compare Judges 14:4-6). This silence clears the stage for the stories that follow (10:17—11:15).
Ezekiel 45: The first eight verses of this chapter treat of particular dispositions of real estate in Jerusalem: for the holy place, for the priests and Levites, and for the people and the prince. The disposition of the land is arranged in relation to the temple, with the property of the priests around it, and the real estate of the prince and the citizens out beyond that of the priests. The arrangement of the land in and around Jerusalem thus reflects the structure of society, with God at the center, then His ministers, and then the civic order.
The thought of Ezekiel envisions, then, the restoration of theocracy. His vision is entirely ideal, because even from the perspectives of demography and topography, Ezekiel’s purely symmetric arrangement would be impossible to implement on actual real estate on earth. Nonetheless, this same passion for precision must be applied to proper measurements and currency (verses 10-12), and to appropriate offerings to be brought for the various public sacrifices (verses 13-25). In offering these gifts, the people shall act through their prince (verses 16-17).
Friday, May 21
First Samuel 10:17-27: The last time Samuel assembled the Israelites at Mizpah, the Lord’s deliverance proved that they needed no earthly king (7:5-12). It is profoundly ironical, therefore, that the people are now summoned to Mizpah for the purpose of choosing an earthly king (verse 17). Samuel takes back nothing, however, from his earlier declaration: Israel’s craving for a monarch is tantamount to a rejection of the Lord (verse 19; cf. 8:7).
God’s choice of a king is determined by a process of casting lots (verses 20-21; cf. 14:41; Joshua 7:13; Acts 1:15-26). The chosen Saul is reluctant, notwithstanding the “signs” he had been given (verses 1-13). He is burdened by the same sense of modesty (verse 22; cf. verse 16; 9:21). It is hard, however, for a tall man to hide (verse 23), and Samuel is clearly impressed by Saul’s height (verse 24). (The Lord will later caution the prophet on this point—16:7!)
“Long live the king! (verse 24) became a customary acclamation in the Bible (2 Samuel 16:16; 1 Kings 1:25,34,39-40; 2 Kings 11:12).
This is to be a “constitutional monarchy,” and Samuel is charged to compose the charter (cf. Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
Now that the Lord has made His will known with respect to Saul, our author takes a dim view of those who oppose him (verse 27). Later opponents of the throne will merit the same negative regard (2 Samuel 16:17; 20:1; 23:6).
For the present, there is nothing further for Saul to do (verse 26). He must w
ait until some occasion presents itself: “Do whatever comes to hand, for God is with you” (verse 7). The new king will not have long to wait, for trouble is brewing in the land of Ammon.
Ezekiel 46: In this chapter the interest goes from sacred space to sacred time. The west gate of the temple’s inner court, the gate facing east, is to remain closed on ordinary work days, but the Sabbath and the monthly feast day (“the new moon”) are to be marked by the gate’s opening (verse 1).
The civil authority (“the prince”) will regularly consecrate the life of the nation by appearing reverently at that gate on those appointed days to present a special sacrifice (verses 2,8). The gate will also be opened for the prince whenever devotion prompts him to make an additional offering (verse 12). The prince shall also see to it that regular offerings are made, twice daily, at morning and at evening.
The prayers designated for those two times of daily sacrifice became a standard component of Jewish piety and eventually passed into Christian discipline as the “canonical hours” of Matins and Vespers; this explains the language about sacrifice found in the traditional texts of those two daily services of prayer.
Verse 18 indicates a return to the ancient Mosaic mandate keeping inherited real estate within family ownership (cf. Leviticus 25:10-17).