The prophet-judge Samuel’s trials in the forging of a nation

This next step in the history could more accurately be called Samuel, Saul, and David, though it includes a string of other telling characters along the way, including Hannah, Eli and his wayward sons, plus Jonathan and his sister Michal. Indeed, no other Biblical character is portrayed as more vividly human — virtues and serious faults — than David, from his humble rise and military victories to his uniting the country as a kingdom. He’s capable as a combatant and commander, yet compassionate and loyal, even poetic, as the Psalms attributed to him attest.

Presenting this as one book, as the Hebrew Bible does, rather than two as the Christian Bibles do, makes more sense to me. The usual division reflects the overflowing of the narrative into two scrolls, which also occurs for Kings and Chronicles. In my overview, I’ll view these books as complete units but make citations that match the two-part convention. And, for these and the remainder of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, I turn to the New Jerusalem translation.

Stepping back from its character-driven narrative, a reader can trace an equally important consideration taking shape: the confederation of Twelve Tribes is not functioning satisfactorily from the perspective of the people, who clamor for a king — one like other countries, as they argue.

Samuel is mentored by Eli in the Temple grounds.

For Samuel, who is not only a prophet and priest but also, like his sons, a powerful judge, this conflict builds into the political drama that sustains the book. And, like Eli, his mentor, whose two sons transgress their responsibilities as priests, Samuel’s two sons, Joel and Abijiah, become corrupt as judges. Their biased verdicts, in fact, are one of the arguments the people give in demanding to be ruled by a king instead (1 Samuel 8), which Samuel counters in a detailed argument on the disadvantages of a monarchy — nearly a premonition of what will happen under Solomon before shattering into two opposing countries. Any union is tenuous. Even in the beginning, when Samuel finally relents and chooses a monarch — by casting a lot — he finds he’s still dealing with a divided populace. One the one hand, “The people then said to Samuel, ‘Who said, “We must have Saul reigning over us? Hand the men over, for us to put them to death”‘” (1 Samuel 11:13), while on the other hand, as he replies, “But when you saw Nahash, king of the Ammonites, marching on you, you said to me, ‘No, we must have a king to rule us’ — although Yahweh your God is your king. So, here is the king whom you have chosen; Yahweh has appointed you a king” (1 Samuel 12:12-13).

In being pressured into the role of kingmaker, first handing over rule to Saul, a man of who fails to live up to his great promise, and then clandestinely to David, Samuel creates a rarity among ancient nations: a prophet who stands as a balance of power, keeping the monarch subject to a greater deity rather than becoming a god-king himself. This establishes a unique polity for the Hebrews, and amid the political intrigue that follows, Samuel has to warn the people in the aftermath of military defeat, “Do not transfer your allegiance to useless idols which, being useless, are futile and cannot save anybody; Yahweh, for the sake of his great name, will not desert his people, for it has pleased Yahweh to make you his people. … But, if you persist in your wickedness, you and your king will perish” (1 Samuel 12:22-24, NJB).

It’s a theme that will continue throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, along with another, the control of the Cult of Sacrifice. Quite simply, Scripture takes a dim view of kings — and, in the end, even David’s rule has abysmal failures.

Again, Samuel’s rebuke of Saul and, by extension, the people is prescient (1 Samuel 15:22-24):

Is Yahweh pleased by burnt offerings and sacrifices
            or by obedience to Yahweh’s voice?
            Truly, obedience is better than sacrifice,
            submissiveness than the fat of rams.
            Rebellion is a sin of sorcery,
            presumption a crime of idolotry!


The book overflows with the failures of arrogance.

As Jerome Charyn notes in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, amplifying 3:1: “The First Book of Samuel is about the presence and absence of voices, the history of a tribe that has become tone-deaf. The Hebrews have forgotten how to listen. They cannot hear God’s voice. The Lord is absent from their lives. The go into battle with the Lord’s own Ark and lose it to the Philistines. It’s a sad and evil time for the Hebrews.”

And that’s for starters.

Carrying the precious Ark into battle is, to the modern mind, an ultimate act of folly.

I have to admit an ongoing difficulty in relating emotionally to the significance of the Ark in their journey from Sinai. Mentally, I can appreciate their intensity in preserving the central artifact of their culture and identity, the way Americans would to the Declaration of Independence, in an admittedly lesser degree with, but my modern mind cannot encompass the ancient worship of an idol as an awe-inspiring, terrifying presence. The Ark remains, in its own unique way, a representation of the absence of an idol-god as well as an acknowledgement of the vital place such physical artifacts occupied in the ancient mindset. It’s fair to ask just what equivalents exist in contemporary societies. The descriptions of the Ark have me picturing a kind of coffin or puzzling box of transport. Is there really anything inside? Does anyone ever even get to view the stones, which somehow resemble the bones or other relics of later saints? Do the high priests ever touch them or use them in worship?

And here we are, with its stupendously reckless capture in battle. (I lean with those scholars who argue that the event happened not in 1 Samuel 4 but later, in the defeat of Saul and Jonathan, at the end of 1 Samuel). After its return, both David and Solomon desire to keep it close to the royal hand, along with the worship.

In the intrigues that follow, it’s natural to start cheering for David to replace the faltering Saul. We do, after all, believe that good will triumph over evil, or that competence will beat incompetence, and knowing the upcoming outcome of this story merely intensifies its narrative.

Charyn, though, puts a different spin on the story. “I never cared much for David. The little giant-slayer is as competent as any Boy Scout. He has no demons to upset him. … He’s the darling of the nation, the bringer of song. David is like a musical score.”

Even his seeming mercies sting, as happens when he and his men confront the king who’s out to murder them. Saul “enters a cave near Wild-goats’ Rocks in order to move his bowels in private,” but rather than slaying his opponent, David moves “while the king squats” and cuts off the skirt of Saul’s robe. Leaves him exposed. And even while David allows none of his men to kill the king, his heart still smites the king, as 24:5 observes.

In contrast, according to Charyn, “Israel’s first king haunts us like no other character in the Bible. He’s as bewitched as our own century. Eaten with guilt, isolated, utterly without the Lord, he could have come out of Kafka’s parables or Borge’s bookish tales. I’ve lived with that maddened king most of my life. He sticks to my dreams.”

For Charyn, “Saul is this catatonic Everyman: godless, alone, with the mocking sound of the turtle in his head. We ourselves are armored like Goliath and Saul. … He’s always melancholic, afraid to rule. … Saul’s disease is the terror of a man who’s lost the voice of God. He seeks God and finds only demons. … The voices in his ear gradually darken.”

It’s easy to name similar leaders in our own time and recent history.

“Saul’s handsomeness wasn’t enough. His very selection ruins him. He was a little too handsome, a little too tall. And it’s the awfulness of his fate — the king as a doomed man — that moves the modern reader.”

Deeply personal currents in the brief book of Ruth

Growing up, I was puzzled by the name of one cousin my parents’ age. Orpha.

Later, as an adult living in Baltimore, I met another Orpha. She’d been raised Amish-Mennonite, and I was already getting a sense of how much Pennsylvania Dutch culture had thrived in my corner of southwest Ohio, including in my Grandma Hodson’s ancestry (as I detail in my Orphan George blog). That German awareness, though, was largely erased by the First World War — ancient history, in our awareness.

So, I asked my friend if she knew the origin or meaning of her name.

She laughed. “It comes from the book of Ruth in the Bible. You know, Naomi, Orpha, Ruth.”

The widow and her two daughters-in-law.

“But it’s spelled Orpah,” I protested.

“Not in the German Bible,” was the reply. “And it’s customary for a mother named Naomi to name a daughter Orpha, who then names a daughter Ruth.”

Later, on the phone with my cousin, I relayed the story. There was a brief silence, followed by, “That’s strange.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know my mother’s middle name was Naomi.”

Yes, I’d done the genealogy. She was Edna Naomi Ehrstine before adding Binkley in marriage. The next turn surprised me.

“And when my first daughter was born, I just knew, somewhere in my bones, she had to have Ruth as her middle name.”

This, long after traditional naming patterns had vanished from my family.

Ruth gleaning the field of Boaz. The scene was often found on Sunday school walls.

On first blush, Ruth is a love story. One of multiple loves, in fact, and a happy ending.

In the Christian sequence of the Bible, Ruth comes as the eighth book. In the Hebrew Bible, though, this brief tale waits to follow the Song of Songs.

In following Joshua and Judges, this two-thousand-word, four-page narrative comes as a welcome relief. It’s human-scale, rather than grand scope. There’s no war, and God, here as the LORD, is barely mentioned. The book’s all too flickering breath of fresh air appears an interlude from a feminine point of view before we’re once more immersed in smoky stretches of military history, political conflict, and royal intrigue.

Or, as the 18th book in the alternative ordering, it’s paired with another love story.

Either way makes sense.

After all of Everett Fox’s helpful notes in his Five Books of Moses, I sensed there was more than I’d picked up from my initial reading, and that led me to Cynthia Ozick’s 12,000-word, 20-page reflection in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible.

She opens with a set of personal history that includes the two framed works on the wall during her childhood. One was a widely reproduced painting of “a barefoot young woman, her hair bound in a kerchief, grasping a sickle, (who) stands alone in a field.” As Ozick, a novelist, goes into detail describing the painting, The Song of the Lark, by Jean Francois Millet, my own memories wander back to memories of seeing a similar sepia version on our Sunday school classroom wall. I can nearly smell the mildew or mold in our old building back before we moved a block down the street. I’m sure I encountered copies elsewhere, too, though little of the story stuck. What I remember was learning the words, glean and gleaner. Not in an especially positive sense, either. No, it was more like beggar or panhandler. And how could you possibly make the story have any meaning for an eight- to ten-year-old American child in the 1950s? Sickle? Grasping for food in a stubbled field? Real hunger? Widow? Even remarriage? Migration?

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When some individuals were set apart as holy

Numbers 6:1-21 introduces a concept that’s generally overlooked in Judeo-Christian history, the Nazirite or “consecrated” or “separate” person, either male or female, who took a special vow and ascetic life, as Everett Fox explains. While he notes that the vow can be for a definite period, that’s not what we see with some of the more famous Nazirites in Scripture.

Samson’s mother, for instance, desperate to conceive, makes a promise, as does Samuel’s mother later. In “Tests of Weakness: Samson and Delilah” (Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible), Phillip Lopate writes: “Before Samson is even born, he is in God’s debt. His body itself doesn’t quite belong to him — it’s a sacred weapon for God to inhabit with His spirit when He so desires. Moreover, without any choice in the matter, Samson is pledged to be a Nazirite: one who is consecrated, abstinent, separate from others, pure. No wonder Samson acts ‘bad’: he is trying to make space for his own life inside the one already owed to his parents and God.” His hair, apparently, is his last connection to the requirements that include celibacy and avoiding wine and corpses.

There are mentions of many more, though they go unnamed.

Samson and Delilah make for a passionate story, illustrated here by Gerard van Honthorst.
Of course, it leads to his defeat and seizure .

In the New Testament, we also have John the Baptist (or as I prefer, the alternative translation as John the Immerser) and possibly even Jesus the Nazirite, rather than Nazarene, as well as his brother James to consider. On top of it all, I now wonder about the Apostle Paul and his implicit intensely private, personal struggles. Well, there’s none of the sexuality and prowess we have with Samson.

There’s also scholarship contending that Samson draws heavily on the mythological figure Hercules. Oy vey, I’d say.

Facing the travails of independent Judges

In my straight-through traversal of the Bible, I approached the Book of Judges with an anticipation of glimmers into a viable alternative political system lost to the monarchy that follows, of a golden age followed by missed opportunities, of a period of relative calm before the drama that besets Samuel the prophet and final judge. This would not be a flashback, then, followed by something inevitable but rather a case study of shunted promise yet to come.

Instead, what we have is anything but a time of peace or prosperity. There’s no unity among the people, who are beset within and without as they encounter military resistance in their actions to take possession of Canaan.

In his reflections on Judges, “Tests of Weakness: Samson and Delilah” (Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible), Phillip Lopate sees a messy transitional period. As the book concludes, “In those days Israel wasn’t ruled by a king, and everyone did what they thought was right,” meaning right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25 CEV). Or, in the New Jerusalem: “In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he saw fit,” giving a slightly different nuance. Either way, so much for living out the Law of Moses.

What we see after the death of Joshua is that claiming the Promised Land intensifies in difficulty.

“The LORD helped the army of Judah capture Gaza, Askelon, Ekron, and the land near those towns. They also took the hill country. But the people who lived in the valleys also had iron chariots, so Judah was not able to make them leave or to take their land” (Judges 1:18-19, CEV). The Israelites also fail to defeat the Jebusites in Jerusalem or all of the Canaanites. And, crucially, Yahweh sends an angel to inform the Israelites of his displeasure that they’ve neglected to eradicate the altars of other gods as they go forth.

Slaughter, however, continues to accompany their seizing the land (“They killed about ten thousand Moabite warriors — not one escaped alive,” and so on into the hundreds of thousands), although we now have Biblical scholarship that questions the actual numbers, believing the actual takeover of the Promised Land was more an infiltration involving very few actual killings. This would fit the sense that the prohibitions against having foreign wives arises precisely because the marriage practice continues to be so widespread, which in turn could explain the repeated instances of idol worship in Judges and the implication of peace covenants with the inhabitants, contrary to Yahweh’s instructions.

Keeping track of their blood-soaked conquests proves difficult. Rather than endless small city-states ruled by small-time kings, I prefer the concept of sheikdoms (what prompted me to note that in the margins of this particular book?). Still, it makes more sense in light of the quote of Judges 1:6-7, “They cut off [the king of Bezek’s] thumbs and big toes, and he said, ‘I’ve cut off the thumbs and toes of seventy kings and made those kings crawl around under my table for scraps of food. Now God is paying me back.” How many kings? How Balkanized is this landscape, anyway? So they’re kings of cities or at least city-states? “Sheiks” fits our understanding better. And “God-oracles” suits rather than “judges,” although Lopate observes “though in fact they operated more like military chieftains than magistrates.”

As for cities, consider walled settlements of usually less than 5,000 people, without streets. Somehow Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar swelled to 200,000, most of them working fields outside the walls.

In other words, I keep trying to envision the landscape on a more manageable scale.

Lopate notes, “Judges lacks the literary unity of other Biblical books; it is more or less a parade of large and small characters whose very variety … puts forth a wide range of moral types as well.”

Then there’s the troubling matter of Jepthah’s sacrifice of his daughter — a consequence of a promise made to the LORD, though it would be more understandable in relation to idol worship — and still he was allowed to be leader of Israel for six years afterward.

In a way, it leads into the story of the rape-murder in chapter 19, and the civil war that nearly eradicates the tribe of Benjamin.

Or, as Lopate sees the cast: “So we get everything from the majestic singer Deborah to the cruel Abimelech, who slays seventy brothers in order to monopolize leadership; to the diplomatic, resourceful Gideon; to the cunning Ehud, who plunges a dagger into fat King Eglon’s belly; to Jephthah the outlaw, who is obligated to immolate his daughter after promising to sacrifice the first thing he saw on returning home victoriously; to the strongman Samson, with his self-destructive weakness for the wrong women.”

The Dore Gallery by Edmund Ollier – Cassel, Petter and Galpin (London-New York) 1870

Or, as I shaded this, nearly lost in all the gory detail is the attempt to govern the confederation of tribes at all. I’ve long liked the concept of holy judges, or oracles, scattered through the people, perhaps the best of them Deborah and her obedient general, Barak.

Yes, we have the military victories by Gideon, who then has the wisdom to turn down the invitation to become king, as well as the failed attempt by Abimelech to be king, along with a sequence of leaders good and bad, capped by the tragedy of Samson.

One thing that happens in the Book of Judges is that the good guys aren’t always that good. Gideon is the father of Abimelech, after all, and Samson is a holy Nazirite in name only.

Apart from Samson, it’s definitely not what I was expecting. It’s enough to make me ask: Are the Hebrews always at war because they’re unfaithful? The answers in all directions appear disturbing.

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What’s wrong with this religion? Or its relationships with its people?

It’s a question I started blurting out early in this reading, and it comes up again when Joshua’s exhortation to the people to rid themselves of idols fails to take hold. Remember, it’s not the first failure in the Israelites’ early history.

The continuing worship of idols — and the implicit continuation of the ways of the wider world rather than the regulations set out by Moses — is another of those themes that will run through the length of the Bible. Moses is barely buried before “the Israelites stopped worshiping the LORD and worshiped the idols of Baal and Astarte, as well as the idols of other gods from nearby nations” (Judges 2:11:13, CEV).

Moloch and his minions diverts the Israelites’ attention. The sacrifice of children continues long after the scary episode with Isaac. Adding trumpets and tympani makes this practice all the more horrific.

Only six books into the Bible, and this has definitely become a repeated theme! Think of trying to eradicate weeds. From the middle of Exodus on through to the end of the Hebrew Bible, with its unending stream of infidelities to the Temple cult, I’ll keep asking myself, “What’s wrong with this religion? What keeps drawing this people to the other gods?” And much of the New Testament will continue with difficulties in remaining wholeheartedly faithful.

It’s tempting to blame the Israelites, no matter how much they’re supposed to be unique among the tribes and nations on Earth. Or, with all of the imagery of adulterous women or prostitutes that runs through the collected texts (alas, another continuing theme), to blame women in general. But I feel that misses the bigger issue. No, blaming women as a whole is to blame Eve from the gitgo, and that evades the actual struggle.

Look closely and a curious subtheme emerges. How many of their new restrictions go beyond the Holy One’s demands?

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