Friday, June 17

1 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 op-pressing 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 Ammo-nites 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, wheth-er 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.”

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.

Anger, in turn, inspired fear, as Saul intended it should (verse 7), so a signifi-cant military force was assembled at the Jordan, ready to cross over and re-lieve the siege of Jabesh (verse 8).

Saturday, June 18

1 Samuel 12: This chapter, made up of Samuel’s last public speech and inter-spersed with the people’s responses, continues the scene at Gilgal from the previous chapter. The context, then, is Saul’s coronation; he is certainly pre-sent (verses 3,5,13).

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, com-paring 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—follows a pattern standard in Israel’s historiography. We should likely ascribe its literary form, including the present instance, to the sixth century ed-itor 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 differ-ence 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 peo-ple 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!

Sunday, June 19

1 Samuel 13: This chapter and the next form a single narrative, in which we al-ready 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 manu-scripts, 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 re-flects the social condition of the Israelites vis-à-vis these non-Semitic Philis-tines. 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 subju-gation of Israel to the Philistines: the limited access to iron. The events chroni-cled 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, found-ries, 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 num-bers suggest a standing militia rather than an entire fighting force. Indeed, Jo-sephus 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, direct-ly 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).

Monday, June 20

1 Samuel 14: In the previous chapter Saul forfeited Jonathan’s succession to the throne (13:13-14). In the present chapter we see him put Jonathan’s very life in danger. The irony of this story is introduced by Jonathan’s remarkable military exploit, with which the chapter begins (verses 1-16).

The contrast grows between this son and father: Whereas Saul feared having too small an army to face the Philistines (13:11), Jonathan declared, “the Lord is not constrained to deliver by the many or by the few” (verse 6). He went on to demonstrate that thesis by taking a single companion with him to engage and rout the Philistines, a force earlier described “as the sand on the seashore” (13:4).

It appears that in large part Jonathan owed his victory, not only to his boldness and the advantage of surprise, but also to other conditions: (1) the relative weakness of the picket force guarding the top of the sheer crags (Josephus 6.6.2[108-109]); (2) the drowsiness of the defending army in the early morn-ing light; (3) a confusion among the defenders—a mixed force of allied compo-nents (6.6.2[114])—who subsequently turned on one another in the bedlam (verse 20).

Saul, for his part, was showing signs of being what today would be called a “control freak.” Indeed, it was for this failing, which Samuel saw as a failure of faith, that the king was chided in the previous chapter (13:12). Here, too, Saul responded to Jonathan’s bold exploit by, once again, counting his troops (verse 17). The reader comes to realize that Jonathan would make a better king than Saul, and then he reflects that the father has already forfeited the son’s suc-cession to the throne. A strong sense of impending tragedy sets in, and a sus-picion that the king is losing his right mind.

At last discerning his army’s advantage, Saul made a precipitous decision to follow up the attack (verses 19-20). Other Israelites in the neighborhood fol-lowed suit (verse 21), and the army quickly swelled from 600 to 10,000 (vers-es 22-24), as deserters (cf. 13:5) came out of their hiding places.

Suddenly rising to a manic state, the king gave an imprudent order, followed by the enforcement of a rash oath: Until the battle was over, no soldier was to eat, under penalty of death (verse 24). By way of explaining Saul’s flight from ra-tionality here, Josephus remarked, “reason runs out on the lucky” (6.6.3[116]).

When Jonathan, ignorant of the oath, violated his father’s injunction and was taken to task by a fellow soldier, he treated the matter with nonchalance, not to say contempt. In the end, the army defended him against his irrational fa-ther.

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 populari-ty 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).

Tuesday, June 21

1 Samuel 15: Two scenes of unequal length make up the present chapter: the war against Amalek (verses 1-9) and the subsequent encounter of Saul and Samuel (verses 10-35). By the end of the chapter, Saul is no longer the Lord’s choice for Israel’s king.

An atmosphere of anger pervades this story: the anger of the Lord against the Amalekites, the anger expressed in the “total war” that ensues, and the anger of Samuel, who was obliged to deal with the aftermath. To modern sensitivities, the overwhelming experience of anger, expressed in violence and destruction, places this chapter among the least congenial in Holy Scripture.

The total destruction of Amalek is portrayed in terms not entirely innocent of hyperbole. If Saul’s invasion really had left no survivors, we would be hard pressed to account for the later troubles caused by the Amalekites, from the time of David (chapters 27 and 30) all the way to Hezekiah in the eighth centu-ry (1 Chronicles 4:42-43).

However literally it should be understood, the destruction of the Amalekites was long ago decreed (Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 25:17-19), nor had they done much, in the meantime, to improve their standing with the Lord (Judges 3:13; 5:14; 6:3,33; 7:12; 10:12).

We are not told why Saul spared Agag, the Amalekite king, especially in view of the unequivocal order he had received. Was this an early adventure in interna-tional diplomacy, of the sort that would lead Israel’s future kings to make their peace with the world?

The second scene or episode in this chapter is introduced by the Lord’s decla-ration, to Samuel, that He regretted His choice of Saul (verses 10-11). The king’s foregoing act of infidelity was the immediate cause of the regret. Having already rejected a dynasty for Saul (13:13-14), the Lord now rejected Saul himself.

This story not only prepares for the rise of David, it also outlines, by an initial and concrete example, the means by which the Lord planned to restrain Israel’s kings in the future—namely, by the prophetic word.

In the past the Lord had used the ministry of prophetic figures to address the arrogance and hard hearts of rulers. Broadly considered, the theme was dis-cernible in the instances of Abraham (Genesis 20:1-7; Psalms 105[104]:14-15), Balaam (Numbers 22—24), and especially Moses. Indeed, Moses became, in this respect, the very type of the future prophetic vocation.

In Samuel confrontation with Saul, this theme assumes its full form. If pagan kings were not spared prophetic censure, Israel’s own kings how much less! The confrontation we see in the present chapter will be replayed in the instances of Nathan with David, Elijah with Ahab, Isaiah with Ahaz, Jeremiah with Zedekiah, John the Baptist with Antipas, and St. Paul with Agrippa. In short, this story chiefly embodies a prophetic concern: the proper service of the prophetic vo-cation to the political order.

Wednesday, June 22

1 Samuel 16: As Saul was introduced by the combination of three episodes, so is David: First, there is a private anointing: Saul in 9:26—10:1, David in 16:1-13. Second, there is a more elaborate introduction: Saul in 10:20-24, David in 16:14-13. Third, there is a military exploit: Saul in 11:1-15, David in 17:1-31.

Whereas chapter 15 ended in Samuel’s mourning for Saul, at the beginning of the present chapter the Lord tells him it is time to stop mourning and so some-thing positive about the situation. The time has come to disregard Saul who be-longs—already!—to the past. Samuel must forget those things that are behind and reach forward to those things that are ahead.

Like Saul (9:16; 10:1; 11:15), David will be anointed three times: by Samuel (verse 13), by the tribe of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4), and by the elders of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

Right from the beginning of David’s rise, Holy Scripture insists that the process of that rise cannot be understood by external observation; considerations of flesh and blood do not explain it. The meaning of it eludes the scrutiny of the “objective historian,” who will see in it only a political narrative. Such a one will comment on the various political forces, including David’s own ambition, which will bring the son of Jesse to the throne. All such considerations, however, fail to cover the case, says Holy Scripture.

Consequently, Samuel is cautioned not to regard the matter with solely human eyes, because “God does not see as man sees.” David will become king because God wants him to be king. Whereas Saul was chose, in part, because he looked like a king (9:2; 10:23), such considerations must now be ex-cluded from the process (verse 7).

As in the case of Saul (9:12-24), David’s first anointing is preceded by a sacri-ficial meal (verses 3-5).

As is so often the case in Holy Scripture—Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Ephraim over Manasseh—David is chosen instead of his older brothers. As the “youngest” (haqqatan—verse 11), David is presumably the smallest, a feature in which he is contrasted with Saul (cf. 9:2; 10:23).

At the end of the first scene (verse 13), the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon Da-vid and abode there “from that time onward.” Only at that dramatic point is David’s name actually used.

The second scene in this chapter, which brings Saul and David together for the first time, introduces a situation of mammoth irony. The Spirit of the Lord, in descending on David, departed from Saul. The latter, as a result fell into a state of ever deepening depression—“an evil spirit”—manifest in jealousy (18:3-8), intrigue (18:15), violence (19:9-10; 20:33; 22:16-19), paranoia (20:25), and superstition (28:7-13).

To minister to this rapidly disintegrating king, David was introduced into the court as a musician, because Saul’s depression responded positively to the in-fluence of music. The reader and—except for David—only the reader recogniz-es that this musician had already been anointed as Saul’s replacement on the throne! The irony is heightened by the fact that Saul cherished David (verse 21).

In this chapter is our first explicit assertion that the Lord was “with” David (verse 18). Indicating the source of David’s wisdom and strength, this assertion will be repeated several times (cf. 18:12,14,28; 2 Samuel 5:10).

Thursday, June 23

1 Samuel 17: Here we come to the famous story of David and Goliath (cf. Si-rach 47:4-5; Josephus, Antiquities 6.9.1-5[170-192]. Several things are notable about this battle:

First, we observe the attention given to single-handed combat, a feature this story has in common with so many battle scenes in Homer. Because so much of ancient warfare was hand-to-hand, stories of individual heroism tended to dom-inate ancient epic accounts of battle. Although thousands of men fought on both sides of the Trojan War, for instance, the interest of the poet was largely directed to just a few outstanding warriors on each side, whose battles he de-scribes in dramatic detail. In this respect the present chapter of 1 Samuel al-most reads like a page of Homer.

Second, in that classical literature the significance of such battles was indicat-ed to the reader through the dialogue in which the battles were set. Thus, for instance, the significance of the fight between Hector and Patroclus is to be found in the brief speeches that each man gives in preparation for the encoun-ter. The same is to be said for the final fight between Achilles and Hector.

We find much the same thing here in 1 Samuel. The significance—in this case, the theological significance—of the fight between David and Goliath is to be found in the dialogues and speeches of this chapter: Goliath’s challenge, the announcement by Saul’s spokesman, David’s dialogue with his brothers and the other soldiers, the conversation between David and Saul, the challenges hurled at one another by Goliath and David, and the dialogue of Saul with Abner. Da-vid’s pre-battle declarations carry the theological weight of the narrative.

Third, great attention to detail characterizes the description of the giant and his armor (verses 4-7). He is definitely “the strong man fully armed.” With re-spect to the prophetic mystery of the battle with Goliath, our Teacher com-mented, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own pal-ace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils” (Luke 11:20-22). In this text, Jesus discloses the deeper identity of Goliath and David.

Fourth, when David arrives at the battlefield, things are not going well for Israel. First of all, the tallest man in the army, King Saul, is terrified of the apparently taller Philistine (6’9” in the Greek, 9’9” in the Hebrew). Since his recent emo-tional collapse, His Majesty is way off his stride. Saul is so chowderheaded that he does not even recognize David, who has already been identified as his armor bearer. Even at the end of the chapter, when the immediate crisis has passed, Saul has no idea who David’s father is, even though he wrote a letter to that fa-ther in the previous chapter (16:19). The king’s weakness and confusion have infected the whole army, as David discovers on his arrival at camp.

Fifth, Goliath is said to “challenge” or “reproach” Israel; the verb, haraph, found five times in this chapter (verses 10,25,26,36,45), bears both meanings. It conveys insult, not only to Israel’s army, but also to Israel’s God. We gain some sense of the verb’s meaning in this chapter by consulting the Psalms: “My enemies reproach me [herpuni], / While they say to me all day long, / ‘Where is your God?’” (42[41]:10). Again, “My dishonor is con-tinually before me, / And the shame of my face has covered me, / Because of the voice of him who reproaches (mehareph) and reviles” (44[43]:15-16).

Recognizing the blasphemy of Goliath, David could well have prayed on this oc-casion, “O God, how long will the adversary reproach [yehareph]? / Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?” (74[73]:10; cf. 55[54]:13; 74[73]:18; 79[78]:12; 89[88]:53; 89[88]:52 (twice); 102[101]:9).

Sixth, this battle is really about Israel’s “living God” and the idol of the Philis-tines. That is to say, this is a repeat of the battle earlier waged in Dagon’s tem-ple. When the mortally wounded Goliath falls on his face, he assumes the pos-ture in which Dagon was found before the Ark (5:3).

Friday, June 24

1 Samuel 18: The chief motif of this chapter is Saul’s growing suspicion and distrust of David, which is elaborated in the context of Saul’s family. Both his son, Jonathan, and his daughter, Michal, quickly become fond of David.

With respect to Saul’s daughter, Michal, the king sees a way to use her affec-tion for David as a means to dispose of him: He offers the girl in marriage but requires his planned son-in-law to pay one hundred Philistine foreskins as a brid-al price. Saul presumes that this requirement—which includes a streak of course (and ethnic) humor about Philistine genitalia—will enrage the Philistines enough to finish David off. In the Greek version, David simply produces the one hundred foreskins, but the Hebrew text is more interesting and ironical: David decides to show Saul a thing or two by producing—and counting them out!—two hundred Philistine foreskins!

With respect to Saul’s son, Jonathan, the king observes with distress that he become deeply attached to David, much impressed with the latter’s handling of Goliath. David’s abrupt intervention on the battlefield, at the hour when “Saul and all Israel . . . were dismayed and greatly afraid,” seized the attention of Jonathan. His eyes fixed on this newcomer walking calmly back into the camp, one hand gripping the giant’s sword and the other swinging the giant’s severed head.

Jonathan, unlike most godly men of the Old Testament, died young. Indeed, combat being a pursuit commonly ungenerous in respect to years, Jonathan’s prospects for maturing to grey hairs were never promising. However, as we have seen, he fought with a derring-do that lowered those chances further still. As for the enemies of Jonathan, their odds for old age were even worse, for he was truly fearsome in the arts of war.

Though he was manifestly adept as a swordsman, it was chiefly as an archer that men remembered Jonathan. They often watched him begin his day in the discipline of that skill (20:20–22, 35–38). The funeral dirge of Saul and Jona-than, memorized by the Israelites and in due course recorded in the Book of Jasher, was known, in fact, as the “Song of the Bow” (2 Samuel 1:18), named for that line that reads, “the bow of Jonathan did not turn back” (1:22).

Jonathan’s pursuit of warfare was formed by, and inseparable from, a warm commitment to his father’s throne. He was a faithful son, but his fidelity will be sorely tried in the chapters that follow. As it became obvious to both father and son that David, not Jonathan, would be the next king (20:15; 24:20), the situa-tion grew tense and progressively complex. Saul, increasingly deranged and act-ing in rage, not only disputed the fidelity of Jonathan (20:30, 31), but even made an impetuous attempt on his life (20:33). Remaining ever loyal to David, however, Jonathan stayed steadfast at the side of his doomed father, finally dying with him on the desperate slopes of Gilboa, brave and faithful to the end.