Friday, May 20

First Samuel 6: 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 [104]: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.

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.

Saturday, May 21

First Samuel 7: This chapter 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 [98]: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 monarchy, over the centuries, led to Israel’s historical ruin. No one knew this better than the survivors of 587 B. C.

Holy Trinity Sunday, May 22

First Samul 8: 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.

Monday, May 23

First Samuel 9: 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.

In fact, 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.

The next morning, Samuel separates Saul from his servant, mentioning a special message he is to receive in private.

Tuesday, May 24

First Samuel 10: Even as he anoints Saul as “prince” (nagid—verse 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).

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 wait 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.

Wednesday, May 25

First Samuel 11: 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.

“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 anything 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.

Already designated by prophetic inspiration (9:15-16) and oracular verification (10:17-24), Saul will now be elected king by popular acclaim (verses 12-15). The acclamation follows Saul’s quick executive response to the crisis at Jabesh Gilead (verses 5-7). Whereas the report from that city caused great sorrow and consternation throughout Israel (verse 4; Josephus, Antiquities 6.5.2[74]), only Saul arose to take the matter decisively in hand. He thus demonstrated early the prompt resolve and high energy level that would, in due course, prove to be his undoing.

“The Spirit of the Lord” came on Saul (verse 6), as was the case with Samson (Judges 14:6,19; 15:4). Josephus describes him as “enthusiastic” (entheos), in the literal sense of being “God-possessed” (6.5.2[76]). This possession was marked by a righteous anger.

Thursday, May 26

First Samuel 12: This chapter, made up of Samuel’s last public speech and 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 in 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.

The sequence of Samuel’s historical survey—sin, judgment, repentance, and mercy—generally follows a pattern standard in Israel’s historiography. We should likely ascribe its literary form, including the present instance, to the sixth century editor of the Bible’s long historical narrative.

Israel now had its monarchy, argued Samuel, let them make the most of it. The effectiveness of this monarchy would depend—as everything in Israel’s history—on obedience to the demands of the covenant life (verses 13-15). The difference now would be the added complication of the throne. The moral obligations of the throne would be identical to those of the people.

Samuel’s speech affirmed the ambivalent quality of kingship in Israel: It was at once a punishment and a gift—an institution embodying both the sin of the people and the mercy of the Lord. The career of the king would determine which aspect would prevail.

To demonstrate that he was speaking for God, Samuel requested a heavenly sign, which promptly appeared: an early summer storm, virtually unknown in the Holy Land. This storm, putting the wheat harvest at hazard, was a further sign of divine judgment.

The people, correctly impressed, confessed their sin and sought the prophet’s intercession (verses 16-19). This incident showed Samuel to be a prophet like Moses (cf. 7:8-10; Deuteronomy 9:20; 18:15). Ironically, it was the prayer of Samuel that brought Israel forgiveness for the sin of asking for a king!

The final part of Samuel’s speech (verses 20-25) repeats, summarizes, and somewhat expands the core theme: How to make the monarchy work. Samuel closes with a warning of what would happen if it did not work. The final editors of the story, of course, were well aware of the tragic outcome, five centuries later.

This chapter brings to an end the practical question of choosing a king, which has been the preoccupation since chapter 7. Now it is time to see if the king, introduced several times and with so much promise, will come up to the mark!

Friday, May 27

First Samuel 13: This chapter and the next form a single narrative, in which we already discern signs that Saul did 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—are explained by a 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 conveys 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 monopoly—access to mines, milling technology, foundries, files, and forges—to control Israel’s agricultural economy (verses 19-22) and to enforce a strict arms embargo.

This chapter begins a series of military encounters. In verse 2 the troop numbers suggest a standing militia rather than an entire fighting force. Indeed, Josephus identified these groups as bodyguards (somatophylakein) for Saul and Jonathan (6.6.1[95]).

Jonathan, commanding a third of this group, is mentioned without introductory comment, though the Syriac version identifies him here as Saul’s son. Jonathan will be very important, of course, to the story in these two chapters.

After an Israelite victory over the Philistine garrison at Gibeah—perhaps by surprise attack—both sides rally. Saul’s rallying cry, “Hebrews, take notice!” conveys a sense of “slaves, arise” (verse 3). The Philistines, meanwhile, were more successful in raising an army swiftly (verse 5), causing the Israelites to panic.

Saul, with a diminished and constantly diminishing force, grew anxious as he awaited the arrival of Samuel, who was to conduct the appropriate pre-battle sacrifices. After a week passed, he determined to take matters into his own hands (verses 8-10), and at that point Samuel finally arrived. As the action of the king was disobedient, Samuel condemned it harshly (verses 11-14), seeing in the king’s infidelity a fulfillment of his earlier prophecy that Israel’s kings would be arrogant men.

Samuel declared that Saul’s lineage would not occupy the throne of Israel: “But now your kingdom shall not continue” (verse 14). This threat, of course, directly touched Jonathan, the prince and heir-apparent. As for Saul, he was not yet rejected outright.

The two armies camped over against each other and prepared for combat (verses 15-18,22).