Friday, June 10

1 Samuel 4: Breaking off the story of Samuel, these next three chapters are devoted to the “exile” of the Ark of the Covenant: its capture on the battlefield (chapter 4), its “captivity” among the pagans in an alien land (chapter 5), and its return to the Chosen People (chapter 6). Since its important presence at the crossing of the Jordan and the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6—8), the Ark has been little mentioned in the biblical narrative. Nor, apparently, has it always re-sided in the same place. We know that it was kept for a while at Bethel (Judges 27), and now we find it at Shiloh (3:3; 4:4).

These present chapters indicate how the Ark came to be at Kiriath Jearim (6:20—7:2), whence David will move it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. (The refer-ence to the Ark in the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 14:18 is surely wrong. With the Septuagint, we should read that passage as referring to the oracular “ephod.”)

There are two parts to the present chapter: first, the loss of the Ark to the Phil-istines (verses 1-11); second, the death of Eli and the birth of Ichabod (verses 12-22).

After an initial defeat at the hands of their enemy (verses 1-2), the Israelite elders imagine that the Ark’s bare presence on the battlefield will assure the army of divine help in the next encounter (verse 3). Their reasoning on this point is doubtless inspired by the memory of the ark’s significant role in the Battle of Jericho.

However, those warriors commanded by Joshua at Jericho were assured of vic-tory by the Lord Himself (Joshua 6:2-5), and they bore the Ark, not as a lucky charm or a magic talisman, but as an expression of their faith (6:6-8). In con-trast, the elders in the present text forget that the Lord bases His judgments on the content of hearts. How can they imagine that the Lord does not regard the hearts of the two scoundrels who currently carry the Ark? Ironically, the Philis-tines seem to have more respect for the Ark than do the Israelites (verses 7-9). In the end, Israel’s losses in the second battle (verse 10) greatly outnumber those in the first.

The second scene of this chapter (verses 12-22) opens with the arrival of the messenger who runs 18 miles from the battlefield to the city of Shiloh, bringing tidings of the disaster (verse 12). Eli, apparently waiting at a gate different from the one entered by the messenger, becomes the last person to hear the message. The scene grows in drama: blind Eli, hearing the uproar and lamenta-tion in the city, demands to know the reason (verses 13-16). We learn much of the soul of the old man from the fact that he is anxious less for the safety of his sons than for the fate of the Ark. Hence, the full effect of the message seizes him only when he learns of the seizure of the Ark: Falling backward from a stool, he dies of a broken neck (verse 17-18).

The ironic climax of the tragedy arrives when the pregnant wife of Phineas sud-denly goes into labor, in reaction to learning the loss of her husband and father-in-law, along with the defeat of the army and the capture of the Ark. She dies after giving birth to a boy, on whom she confers the symbolic name Ichabod—“glory gone.”

This name is based on the important Hebrew noun kavod, “glory.” This is the glory associated with God’s presence with the Ark. This child, then, born on the day of Ark’s capture, will be a living reminder of the Lord’s judgment on the priestly family of Shiloh. Although some prophets continued to dwell at Shiloh (cf. 1 Kings 14:2, 4), its priesthood settled at Nob (1 Samuel 14:3; 22:11).

Samuel moves back to Ramah (7:17), his birthplace, and the Ark, though re-turned to Israel, will never again be installed at Shiloh. The Lord has abandoned the site, making it a symbol of the fate awaiting any city that forsakes His cov-enant (Jeremiah 7:12, 14).

Saturday, June 11

1 Samuel 5: The details of this story—particularly Dagon’s hands—render it cu-riously similar to the account of the ravished and slain woman in Judges (19:22-29). When her body is found, the woman lies at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold, similar to the hands of the prostrate Dagon. The woman is subsequently dismembered.

The Lord of the Ark, having disposed of the Philistine god, now turns to deal with the Philistines, wreaking havoc in three cities of their pentapolis (verses 8-12). The reader is reminded of the plagues visited on Egypt—both animal pests (Exodus 7:26—8:27; 10:1-15) and bodily affliction (Exodus 9:8-12), including death (Exodus 12:29-36). As the Ark is moved from city to city, Philistine panic intensifies. Its mere arrival at Ekron is sufficient to cause consternation, prior to any actual damage! In these descriptions, the biblical author is enjoying him-self immensely.

Historians have variously identified the pestilence described here, the most se-vere suggestion being bubonic plague. Although interpretation would account for the rodents and the physical symptoms (buboes or glandular swellings), we should not permit a preoccupation with diagnosis to obscure the author’s liter-ary and rhetorical intention—to portray the affliction in terms of extreme dis-comfort and embarrassment. The King James Version, grasping this intention, identified the swellings as hemorrhoids. That is to say, the emphasis in this ac-count is on anal distress.

Modern readers of this passage have presumed that the victims died on a bu-bonic infection. However, our earliest commentator on the story, Josephus (Antiquities 6.1.3), believed that death came from “dysentery.”

The theological message of this chapter rests on the common biblical theme of victory arising out of defeat. The Philistines had barely time to celebrate their supposed triumph when they began to suspect their mistake: They had swal-lowed what they could not digest. After a single night they found their god hu-miliated—and after a second night dismembered—by the object they had cap-tured. Dagon was now unsafe in his own shrine. Israel’s Lord began to show the conqueror of the prematurely partying Philistines. The tables were turned. In-stead of parading the Ark as the spoils in a victory parade, its transport be-comes the Lord’s own victory march. The Philistines began to know how ancient Pharaoh felt, when the full force of the ten plagues made him eager for Israel to leave Egypt.

The triumph of the “defeated” Ark within Philistia was a prophecy of the victory of “defeated” Jesus over the forces of the nether world. Like the Philistines, Death had swallowed what it could not digest. St. John Chrysostom said it best: “The Savior’s death has set us free. ? He that was held prisoner of it has annihi-lated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh . . .. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth and encountered Heaven.”

Sunday, June 12

1 Samuel 6: This chapter chronicles the return of the Ark to Israel and the af-termath 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 deter-mine 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 ex-perts: priests and shamans (verse 2). We recall that Pharaoh sought the coun-sel 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 con-tinued 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 Is-rael’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 hem-orrhoids and mice.

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 Philis-tines 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. In-deed, 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.

Monday, June 13

1 Samuel 7: This chapter begins on a chronological note: the twenty years dur-ing 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 Jerusa-lem 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” (ac-cording 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 ma-turing leadership of Samuel, did four things: yearned for the Lord, put away idols, committed themselves, and served the Lord alone (verses 3-4). Their re-solve 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 Samu-el 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 repre-sents 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 Is-rael’s historical ruin. No one knew this better than the survivors of 587 B. C.

Tuesday, June 14

1 Samuel 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 de-velopment. 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 disci-pline 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 Isra-el’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 ful-filled 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 Israel-ites 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.

Wednesday, June 15

John 19.38-42: It is instructive to reflect that the burial of Jesus is ex-plicitly listed in the most ancient forms of the Christian Creed. Indeed, the buri-al of Jesus was, from the beginning, included among those items considered of first importance in the Christian faith. It is a detail of the Gospel itself. Remind-ing them of their first instruction a few years earlier, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all (en protois) that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was bur-ied, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15.1-4).

Jesus was buried. His body was not cremated; Jesus was no Hindu, nor were the Apostles Buddhists. Jesus and the Apostles were Jews, who believed, with the Prophets and the Maccabean martyrs, that the dead shall rise again. This is why he was buried.

Throughout the Greco-Roman world the Jews were one of the few groups who insisted on burying their dead, and the Greeks and Romans, when they became Christians, did the same. From the beginning of the Gospel, Christians were convinced that burial—whether in the earth or in the sea—was the only acceptable way to treat the body of a believer. It is the only rite that expresses an essential feature of the Gospel itself.

Acts 4.13-22: Strengthening the testimony of Peter and John is the presence of the man healed of his lameness. Verse 14 observes that he is “standing” with them. Just standing, not jumping all over the place as he was doing in the previous chapter; by this time he is perhaps a bit tired.

What a difference in Peter! How little he resembles the weakling who, when he was previously at the house of Caiaphas, had quailed before the questioning gaze of a serving maid and thrice denied his Lord. Peter is now speaking with “boldness” (parresia — cf. 2:29; 4:29,31; 9:27-28; 13:46; 28:31).

Luke’s description of the trial strongly resembles the trial of Socrates; obey God rather than men.

The Sanhedrin is tired too, caught in a quandary about what to do with the two offenders. There being no prosecutable statute against the healing of the lame, and an agitated crowd now having gathered outside, the Sanhedrin must some-how save face. The two apostles are finally released with a warning, which they promptly announce their intention to ignore. Thus ends the first legal trial of Christians. Things will steadily get tougher.

Thursday, June 16

1 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 ra-ther 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 re-cent 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 rejec-tion 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, notwith-standing 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 brew-ing in the land of Ammon.

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. How-ever, the Gileadites were so affrighted at these offers, that they had not cour-age to say anything to either of them, neither that they would deliver them-selves 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 country-men, 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.

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).