Friday, May 16

Ezekiel 27: This chapter continues the theme of Chapter 26. Ezekiel is told to “lament” as though Tyre had already fallen, because it most certainly will fall. Indeed, Ezekiel’s imagery of the fall of Tyre will be taken up in the New Testament to describe the final fall of the “world” itself, that “world” for which Jesus refused to pray (John 17:9), the immense geopolitical and economic empire of man and materialism in intellectual and moral rebellion against God. The final times themselves, then, are prefigured in the fall of Tyre.

A thousand industries and tens of thousands of farms depended on Tyre for their prosperity. Tyre drew the wood for its shipwrights from its native forests of Lebanon and from nearby Cyprus. The textile industry of Egypt and elsewhere supplied its sails. Its mariners were recruited from every coastal city of the Mediterranean, Adriatic, Black, and Aegean seas, and all the waterways from Sudan to India. Direct Phoenician trade held together a vast economic system that extended from the Persian Gulf to as far west as Cadiz (Tarshish) on the distant side of the Strait of Gibraltar. Thanks to Tyre and the Phoenician fleets, the coastal cities of southern Europe received the exports of Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Fittingly, the fall of Tyre is likened to a shipwreck (27:27). When a ship sinks, all of its accumulated wealth is lost. So, when Tyre comes to ruin, it will mean economic disaster for all the many industries that depended on Phoenician shipping. Deeply affected by this catastrophe will be such places as Javan (Ionia, on the Aegean Sea—27:3), Put (Libya, in northern Africa—27:10), Lud (Lydia, in what is now the Turkish peninsula), and distant Persia at the other end of the Fertile Crescent. Because Phoenicia represents the financial unity of three continents, its collapse will have a devastating effect on masses of people who live far from Tyre.

1 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 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, it is possible that 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 (1 Samuel 8:1–5).

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).

Saturday, May 17

Ezekiel 28: This chapter contains two oracles: one against Tyre, the other against the Phoenician city of Sidon. In the first, no particular king of Tyre is indicated; the message is directed, rather, at that monarchy itself, as an embodiment of wealth and power in idolatrous rebellion against God. Idolatries of wealth invariably become idolatries of power, and in this respect it is significant that the king of Tyre is also indicted for cruelty.

The king, in addition, represented the nation itself, given over to economic aggrandizement and the love of power. As in individuals, so in nations, economic prosperity tends to breed pride, and Tyre, as we have seen, was very prosperous. Quite self-satisfied, it was no longer subject to the Divine Authority that rightly holds sway over the nations, whose eternal law is written into the structure of the world as binding on all men, and before whose Throne the peoples of the earth will in due course be summoned for judgment.

Tyre, in short, thought of itself as a god, and in this respect it was a political form of man’s initial rebellion in Eden. Satan tempted Tyre as he had tempted Eve, and Tyre, succumbing to the temptation, now thought itself a god. Fallen like Adam, Tyre must now be expelled from the rock garden of Eden. “Stones of fire” (28:13f)—a most striking image—pictures the gold and precious stones of Genesis 2:11f as still being in their molten stage, still radiant with the heat that formed them. (Those stones will appear again in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation.)

The second oracle in this chapter, directed against the Phoenicians’ alternate capital of Sidon, is supplemented by a prose message of hope, renewal, and restoration for Israel. The editorial juxtaposition of these texts creates a literary irony that opposes Tyre’s expulsion from the garden of Eden with Israel’s restoration to its land to plant and care for its vines (verse 26). No longer will Israel be obliged to contend with the thorns and briars of Adam’s fall (verse 24).

1 Samuel 9:1-26: 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 an impressive physical appearance (cf. 10:23). Saul is not conscious of such things at the moment, and 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).

Sunday, May 18

Ezekiel 29: The prophet’s attention is now turned southward, to Egypt, the land where Israel of old had first learned the ways of idolatry. In Ezekiel’s eyes Egypt is worthy of special blame for enticing Judah into rebellion against Babylon (verse 16).

This first oracle (29:1-16) was delivered on January 7, 587 (verse 1), when the siege against Jerusalem was in progress. Two years earlier, in 589, King Zedekiah of Judah had turned to Egypt for help against Babylon. In response, Pharaoh Hophra (known outside the Bible as Apries, 589-570) sent an army, which had temporarily driven off the Babylonians and made Jerusalem feel safe. But when the Babylonians came back in force, the Egyptian army fled, and the siege was renewed in earnest (cf. Jeremiah 37:5-10). Such were the events that prompted the present condemnation of Egypt, a nation that proved to be a broken reed. (To complete our story of him, Hophra was not fortunate in his attempts to help his allies. The Greeks at Cyrene later defeated him when he tried to come to the aid of his friends the Libyans. In 570 he was deposed by Amasis (’Ahmose-si-neit), who replaced him as pharaoh and reigned from 570-526.

In Ezekiel’s present oracle, the pharaoh embodies the nation, just as the king of Tyre represented the Phoenicians in the previous chapter and, like the king of Tyre, the pharaoh, too, is condemned for his arrogance. The dragon of the Nile, the crocodile, is the pharaoh’s mythic symbol, which also represents the ancient serpent of Eden (cf. Revelation 12). As the kingdom of Judah was beginning to sink, it had unwisely reached out and grabbed this reed to keep from drowning, but the reed broke at once.

For Egypt’s sin Ezekiel prophesies forty years of suffering, including refugee status for many of its citizens. Never again, says Ezekiel, will Egypt be a great political power.

This chapter’s second oracle, much shorter (verses 17-21), was delivered much later, on April 26, 571. Indeed, this is the latest of all the oracles for which Ezekiel provides a specific date. According to the historian Josephus, the Babylonians had maintained a siege of thirteen years against Tyre, and by 571 the siege had ended without Ezekiel’s predicted fall of Tyre (verse 18). We may imagine what this circumstance did to Ezekiel’s reputation as a prophet. Had not Deuteronomy commanded that a prophet be stoned to death if his prophecy did not come to pass?

Ezekiel addresses these concerns in the present oracle, arguing that the Lord would give Egypt to the Babylonians in recompense for their failure to take Tyre (verses 19-20). In short, the Lord is free to change His mind. In this instance the evils prophesied against Tyre have been transferred to Egypt. Prophecy, which is, after all, a great deal more than factual prediction, is often founded on an hypothesis—an “if”—even though that “if” may be only implicit. We recall that Jonah learned this lesson in his dealings with the Ninevites.

Monday, May 19

Ezekiel 30: There are two parts in this chapter, the first of which (verses 1-19) is a series of short oracles directed against the cities of Egypt and Sudan (Kush, which is inaccurately translated as Ethiopia in several modern versions), to regions with close political and economic ties.

The second part (30:20-26) is an oracle delivered on April 29, 587 (verse 20). The “broken arm” of the pharaoh refers to the recent defeat of the Egyptian army near Jerusalem when that army was driven away by the Babylonians who had returned to renew their siege of the city. Egypt, Ezekiel foresees, will share in Judah’s exile in some measure.

It is not surprising that some ancient Christian liturgical texts took inspiration from this chapter, especially verse 13, to speak of Jesus’ flight into Egypt as narrated by St. Matthew.

1 Samuel 11:1-15: The abrupt beginning of this chapter appears to be truncated. In fact, a longer version of it was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the last century (4QSam). It reads,

King Nahash of the Ammonites was severely oppressing the Gadites and Reubenites, boring out every right eye, and allow no one to save Israel. Among the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan, no one was left whose right eye King Nahash of the Ammonites had not bored out. Nonetheless, seven thousand men had escaped from the power of the Ammonites and had arrived at Jabesh Gilead.

This expanded version was apparently known to Josephus (Antiquities 6.5.1[68]), who recounts the story this way:

Nahash had done a great deal of mischief to the Jews that lived beyond Jordan by the expedition he had made against them with a great and warlike army. He also reduced their cities into slavery, and that not only by subduing them for the present, which he did by force and violence, but by weakening them by subtlety and cunning, that they might not be able afterward to get clear of the slavery they were under to him; for he put out the right eyes of those that either delivered themselves to him upon terms, or were taken by him in war; and this he did, that when their left eyes were covered by their shields, they might be wholly useless in war.

Josephus elaborates:

Now when the king of the Ammonites had served those beyond Jordan in this manner, he led his army against those that were called Gileadites, and having pitched his camp at the metropolis of his enemies, which was the city of Jabesh, he sent ambassadors to them, commanding them either to deliver themselves up, on condition to have their right eyes plucked out, or to undergo a siege, and to have their cities overthrown. He gave them their choice, whether they would cut off a small member of their body, or universally perish. However, the Gileadites were so affrighted at these offers, that they had not courage to say any thing to either of them, neither that they would deliver themselves up, nor that they would fight him. But they desired that he would give them seven days’ respite, that they might send ambassadors to their countrymen, and entreat their assistance; and if they came to assist them, they would fight; but if that assistance were impossible to be obtained from them, they said they would deliver themselves up to suffer whatever he pleased to inflict upon them.

Both Josephus and the Septuagint indicate that this happened one month after Samuel’s meeting with Israel at Mizpah.

Tuesday, May 20

Ezekiel 31: The oracle in this chapter is dated June 21, 587 B.C. (verse 1). It is constructed of a lengthy and highly detailed poem describing Egypt as a large, imperial tree, dominating the landscape and offering shelter to all the nations (31:1-9). In his portrayal of this tree, Ezekiel once again resorts to the imagery of paradise (verses 8-9).

This poem is followed by a commentary in prose (verses 10-18), prophesying the downfall of Egypt. The great height of the tree, reaching up into the clouds, symbolizes man’s political and economic endeavors to attain heaven on earth by his own resources. To Ezekiel it is a symbol of arrogance, which he describes in terms reminiscent of the Tower of Babel. The cedar, which in olden times was symbolic of great longevity, represents man’s quest for a utopian permanence, a quest common to political idolatry.

Throughout the entire chapter the reader will observe in particular the image of water, bearing in mind Egypt’s long-time reliance on the Nile River and its highly developed system of irrigation.

1 Samuel 12:1-25: This chapter, made up of Samuel’s last public speech—interspersed with the people’s responses—continues the scene at Gilgal from the previous chapter. The context, then, is Saul’s coronation; he is certainly present (verses 3,5,13). (Some commentators disagree, objecting that Gilgal is not mentioned in this chapter, nor is Saul named. However, those objectors forget that the story was divided into chapters less than a thousand years ago. The biblical writers knew nothing of chapters. In fact, chapters 11 and 12 form a seamless narrative.)

Saul’s speech begins with as asseveration of his integrity as Israel’s leader (verses 1-4). This defense has often been compared to the final testimonies of Joshua (Joshua 23:1-16) and St. Paul (Acts 20:18-27). In contrast to the still untested Saul, Samuel’s life was an open book, so he summoned the Israelites to testify to his character and the quality of his service (verse 5).

Next, Samuel reviewed the circumstances of Israel’s request for a king, comparing it to the people’s earlier rebellions against the Lord (verses 6-12). His point? God had consistently raised up charismatic leaders as they were needed. Hence, the people’s wish for a permanent monarchy signified their lack of faith.

Wednesday, May 21

Ezekiel 32: This chapter contains Ezekiel’s final two oracles against Egypt.

The first of these (though given later than the one that follows it), is dated on March 3, 585 (verse 1). Although it was delivered during the winter that followed the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, no reference is made to that event. Some of the imagery of this oracle recalls the plagues with which the Lord had long before struck the land of Egypt: the floods of blood and the great darkness (the first and ninth plagues). The great sin of Egypt declared in this oracle was pride.

The second (and earlier) of these two oracles was delivered on April 27, 586, prior to Jerusalem’s downfall. In his massive and detailed description of the nether world, Ezekiel sounds a theme from classical literature; the attentive reader can hardly fail to notice the similarities that this oracle has to the nether world descriptions in the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

Ezekiel’s description is similarly preoccupied with the thought of warfare and conquest. As Homer and Virgil portrayed the netherworld in the context of the fall of Troy, Ezekiel portrays it in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, it is in the netherworld, the realm of death, that the prophet finishes his oracles against those nations that rose up in rebellion against God’s authority over history. This second part of the Book of Ezekiel comes to an end.

1 Samuel 13:1-23: This chapter and the next form a single narrative, in which we already discern signs that Saul does not measure up to the Lord’s idea of kingship.

Two preliminary observations are in order, one about the text and the other about the sociological context:

First, following the lead of most Greek manuscripts, we should probably drop the first verse.

Second, the self-references to the “Hebrews” (verses 3,7)—-rare in the Bible—is explained by its contextual connotation. As it was common for non-Israelites to refer to the Israelites as “Hebrews” (verse 19), the usage in this chapter reflects the social condition of the Israelites vis-à-vis these non-Semitic Philistines. Indicating “transients” and a folk of inferior status, the name “Hebrews” in this chapter indicates the contempt the Philistines felt toward them. De facto, the Philistines had become overlords of the Israelites. The military campaign in these two chapters, therefore, was one of liberation, a battle “for freedom” (ep’ elevtheria), as Josephus wrote (Antiquities 6.6.1[98]).

An economic and technical component expressed this social and political subjugation of Israel to the Philistines: the limited access to iron. The events chronicled in the Book of Samuel took place at the beginning of the Iron Age in the Holy Land. Iron was scarce, as was the technology for using it. Four chapters later, for example, we observe that the plentiful armor of Goliath included only one piece of iron (17:7); all the rest was bronze (17:5-6).

The Philistines used this iron monopoly—access to mines, mills, foundries, files, and forges—to control Israel’s economy (verses 19-22) and to enforce a strict arms embargo.

Thursday, May 22

Ezekiel 33: This chapter has four parts. In the first (verses 1-9) the prophet is portrayed as a watchman keeping vigil over a city, responsible for warning the citizens of any impending peril. It is not the concern of the watchman whether or not the citizens pay him any heed; his responsibility is simply to sound the warning. The remaining responsibility belongs to the citizens themselves. The dominant images in this part are the sword and the trumpet.

This theme of warning is what joins the first part to the second (verses 10-20). In biblical prophecy there is often an implied hypothesis: “Such-and-such will happen, unless . . .” Many prophetic predictions contain, by implication, a conditional clause: “If . . . then . . .”

In this second part of the chapter Ezekiel repeats much of the message that we saw in Chapter 18 — namely, it is not what a man was that is important, but what he becomes. Consequently, neither former good nor former evil will be credited to a man who has changed his ways.

The third part of this chapter (verses 21-22) takes up the narrative of Ezekiel’s life, broken off after Chapter 24 by the insertion of the oracles against the nations (Chapters 25-32). We recall that Ezekiel’s wife had died, leaving him struck dumb with grief. At that time the Lord foretold to him that he would recover his speech when a messenger arrived to tell of Jerusalem’s downfall (24:25-27).

This third part of Chapter 33 now tells of the arrival of that messenger on January 8, 585, narrating Jerusalem’s fall the previous summer. The walls of Jerusalem had been breached in July (cf. Jeremiah 39:2; 52:6f), and a month later the temple had been deliberately destroyed (2 Kings 25:8f; Jeremiah 52:12). When this news reaches him, Ezekiel’s tongue is loosened, and he is once again ready to be God’s spokesman.

Therewith follows the fourth part of this chapter (verses 23-33), which blames the desolation of the Holy Land on the sins of its inhabitants. Ezekiel’s fellow hostages in Babylon love to hear him for his eloquence, and they come often to listen to him. But it will do them no good, for they refuse to repent. Too late will they learn what they missed.

Friday, May 23

Ezekiel 34: Ezekiel knows that the recent disaster at Jerusalem and its dire consequences, such as the scattering of God’s people, were in large measure the fault of those appointed to care for them: the royal house and the government, the priesthood, the teachers. All of these were Israel’s shepherds, commissioned by God to tend, govern, and feed the sheep. Not only did they fail to do so, but also they used their relationship to God’s people in order to serve themselves.

Thus, unfed and without guidance, the flock had “been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” God Himself, however, will come to shepherd them, and He will do so through His Anointed One—the new David—who will inherit the promises made to his ancient forebear (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89 [88]). This imagery and its promise will in due course be taken up by that new David who, in John 10, describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.

Ezekiel then (verses 17-22) criticizes some of the sheep themselves, who have exploited and ill-treated one another. God will judge them, not by classes, but as individuals (“sheep by sheep”) responsible for their decisions and their behavior.

The final section of this chapter (verses 25-30) describes the coming care of the Good Shepherd in terms reminiscent of paradise (compare Psalm 72 [71]).

1 Samuel 14:24-52: King Saul, rising to a manic state, gives an imprudent order, followed by the enforcement of a rash oath: Until the battle is over, no soldier was to eat, under penalty of death (verse 24). By way of explaining Saul’s flight from rationality here, Josephus remarked, “reason runs out on the lucky” (Antiquities 6.6.3[116]).

When Jonathan, ignorant of the oath, violates his father’s injunction and was taken to task by a fellow soldier, he treats the matter with nonchalance, not to say contempt. In the end, the army defends him against his irrational father.

In this chapter the true and effective leadership has clearly passed from Saul to Jonathan, who wins the loyalty of the army. This same leadership and popularity are soon to pass to David.

For the nonce, however, Saul remains king and continues victorious (verses 46-48). The chapter closes with summary comments about his family (verses 49), especially introducing Abner and Saul’s two daughters, who will be important when David comes on the scene. The final verse, about military recruitment, opens yet another door, through which David soon will come on stage (verse 52).