So, I’ve been doing this thing – if you are catching us mid-stride, maybe you ought to start here instead? But reading here is fine too, whatever. Basically I am just going through every single book of the Bible. Reading it. And writing at least a 1000 words about it. I think I signed up for this task a little too lightly, because it is hard to do. The reading is easy enough. But the pondering it, and the cogitating about it? Hard. Regardless, we are on book nine – I Samuel. Interested in starting from the beginning? Join us here.
The Bible Experiment I Samuel
I Samuel is a turning point in the story of the Israelites and their history. It is also a turning point in the story of this one big long love story that God has written directly to you. It’s funny to think that most people see the Bible as a story of death, blood and chaos. I see that, but I only see that as a natural result of our choosing to walk away from the creator of the universe. I see that as a simple and obvious natural result of that wandering. But when we walk closely to Him? Wow. So, yeah, I Samuel is an important turning point in both those narratives.
The book begins with a barren woman pleading before an altar for a son. She is so fervently seeking God that the priest thinks she is drunk for her lips are moving but she isn’t saying anything. Hearing Hannah’s request, he prays that God would answer her request, and He does. And in return, Hannah offers her son Samuel up to serve at the tabernacle under Eli the priest who blessed Hannah’s prayer.
And so Samuel grows up in service to God at the tent. But all was not well… because Eli’s sons were hellions. They extorted food from the sacrifices and slept with the women who worked at the entrance of the tent. They were a bad sort. Samuel though sought after God’s heart. So much so that God called to Samuel in the night several times. Each time he believed that it was Eli calling him. Eventually he gets a clue and responds to God and asks what he wants of him. Apparently God is unhappy with the priests and that He was going to begin choosing priests from outside of Eli’s tribe. And to prove his point, God begins to send words of prophecy to Samuel.
Then come the marauding Philistines and battle broke out between the Israelites and the Philistines. And in round one of the battle the Philistines kick Israel’s butt. 4,000 men die. Now, remember that the Israelites and the Priests of that day had wandered away from God again, right? But the Israelites decide… ‘I KNOW WHAT WE CAN DO!” They decide that they ought to go and fetch the ark of the covenant, you know, the Raiders of the Lost Ark Ark? That one. And they would shove God into the middle of the fray and that would be their secret weapon. Whether you know this story or not I’m sure you understand where this is going. But the Philistines were legitimately afraid of this strange God and his reputation:
“The Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who shall deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who smote the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Take courage and be men, O Philistines, or you will become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight.” (1 Samuel 4)
And so they do. Very well indeed, for when Eli’s sons carry the ark into battle they end up getting killed. Not only that but the Philistines make off with the Ark of the Covenant as well. The Israelites were slaughtered. Literally. 30,000 men died that day. Putting that into perspective, that’s like half of the men who died during the Vietnam War. (Or conflict, whichever.) But it gets better. Because Eli was basically blind by then – and he was waiting for news from the battle line… and when one lone straggler managed to escape and bring word to Eli it goes from bad to worse. Eli falls over backwards and breaks his neck and dies. And when word comes to one of Eli’s sons’ wives who happened to be pregnant? She gave birth on the spot and died. It is worse then an episode of the Game of Thrones.
So yeah, there is a lot of evidence to support your view of the Bible if all you think about is fire and brimstone when you think about the Old Testament. There is carnage so great and so vast that its hard to fathom the scale of it all. But we also are seeing a people wandering away from their first love, from their Creator. At this point in the story maybe I would do well to ask you how your life is going? Whether you are a Christian or not, how is this whole life experiment thing going for you? And I don’t mean that question rhetorically. I mean it literally. But please don’t tell me that you have a BMW. Or a million dollar house. Because that isn’t what I just asked you.
What I am asking is, when you are awake in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling, how do you think your life is going? When you are worrying and stressed about whatever it is you stress about, how do you think your life is going? When your the technician that did your wife’s mammogram calls and says… ‘hrmm, we’d like to see her back again.’ (That literally happened.) Or when you total your car and barely make it out with your life. Or just when you find yourself zoning out on your day, and you are taking stock of your life… What I am really asking is, how are you relating to the God of the universe? The Israelites should have had it easy. But they don’t have it any easier than we do. I’d even argue that they’ve had it harder than we have because of this ‘special’ relationship they were given by God. At the end of the day, the question on the table doesn’t change… How do you relate to the God that created you? I’ll get back to this later.
Well, the whole ark stealing thing doesn’t go well for the Philistines actually because the ark causes a blight on their people and brings a wasting disease into their lands. The Philistines decide they’ve had enough with the plagues and so they return the ark back to the Israelites. And when the ark returns the people cheer, but I’m sure they couldn’t have been too exuberant seeing as though 30,000 men were still dead. But it was then that Samuel uses this opportunity to convince the Israelites to abandon their worship of foreign gods and to return to the one true God. They do actually, and then through their returning back to God they were able to beat back the Philistines and avoid captivity.
Cause. Effect. Draw close to God, and He will draw close to you. (James 4:8)
Now, up until this time, Israel was the world’s only Theocracy… or government ruled by a deity. And if you think this is just a figure of speech you are mistaken. The Hebrews were literally ruled by God. Look back through the last several books and their wanderings through the desert. God literally would guide them by cloud during the day and fire by night… ALL THE TIME. Every day a column of smoke. Every night a column of fire. And God literally pulled Moses aside and spoke to him directly about what to do. They spoke so freely and openly to one another that Moses even got a bit carried away in his arguments with God.
But the Israelites decide they want a King just like all the other nations around them. They literally said this stupidity. Word for word. God’s response?
“Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them. Like all the deeds which they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt even to this day-in that they have forsaken Me and served other gods-so they are doing to you also. Now then, listen to their voice; however, you shall solemnly warn them and tell them of the procedure of the king who will reign over them.”
Which is how we end up with the first King of Israel, Saul. It would seem that a King would unify the tribes in a better more efficient way, but anything but occurred. The division between political and religious leader begins here. And it is this division and the confusion herein that causes Saul’s eventual downfall. Saul basically wouldn’t wait for the priests to sacrifice before going to war for him, he did it himself. This was an enormous no-no based Samuel’s provisions with which the King was setup under and basically signaled the end of Saul’s reign.
1 Samuel then brings David to the forefront of the story and everyone knows David. You do know David, right? He was the guy that killed lions and bears with his bare hands. The guy that killed Goliath with a slingshot as a boy. He is the guy that was ordained to be King before Saul was ready to give up the throne. Which brings us back to Saul and his very small, but incredibly essential flaws. Saul loves being the hero and the king. He is immediately threatened by David and the esteem and the laurels he begins to receive from the people.
“Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (18:7)
And I want to stop us here and say, you know what. I’m not too much better here than Saul. We like dissing on Saul and his craziness – but seriously? How would you handle an upstart replacing you out of the blue? So the lesson here for me would definitely be, is my pride out of control? Am I too worried about the world and what they think? Is my ego rampant, and have I allowed my position in the world or my esteem in other’s eyes to become more important than anything else? It’s easy to do. Especially for guys, who tend to place a lot of emphasis on authority and reputation. (Not that women don’t… oh never mind.)
So we have an upstart wunderkind that appears completely out of nowhere. We have a king that is getting the clue that his time is short. And ultimately, segue to the inevitable, David takes over as king of Israel – where he becomes, potentially the single greatest leader of any nation state of all time. David basically pulls together a SWAT team of an elite fighting force that is working on behalf of Israel, but still constantly being chased by Saul simultaneously. As I Samuel ends Saul and his sons (including Jonathan) go to battle with the Philistines, but Saul catches an arrow or two and dies (as do his sons as well.)
Problems I have With I Samuel
I think probably the biggest issue – or thing I find hardest to swallow – is how the Israelites are constantly stumbling and screwing up. I Samuel is just the next example of what we saw happen throughout all of Judges. How the Jews would listen to the Judge/Leader, and then they wouldn’t and they would wander astray. A Judge would appear and they would be restored to God. And then the Judge would die and they’d go astray big time. It is getting old, to be honest. It is so old I wonder what their problem is. And yet, and yet, and yet… I go astray. I do my own thing. I go astray regularly. And I love God with every fiber of my being and only want to live my life for him. But, I can constantly find myself reenacting the stupidity of the Israelites.
But I take comfort from a simple story told by Jesus about a thousand years later. The story is that of the Prodigal Son. Do you remember that story? A little pipsqueak decides that he wants his inheritance before his father dies… he wants it now. (Never mind I would punch my son in the noes if he did that to me… just forget that bit.) And so he heads off to the big city and lives the life detailed out in the movie Requiem for a Dream. Remember that movie? (This is definitely the first Bible conversation wherein that movie was mentioned – I guarantee it!) Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll. But then the money runs out and he is destitute. He is literally feeding the pigs, and they are eating better than he is. And the guy decides, you know what… it would be better to go back to my father, and work as a slave then to stay here and starve. So the young upstart heads home – and he is afraid. He is wicked afraid.
So what happens next?
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
Catch that? While he was still a long way off. The father saw him coming – felt compassion for him – and RAN to him. The father, even though his son had been a complete jerk to him. So God, even though I’ve been a complete jerk to him, saw me coming, from a long way off… and He runs to me to restore me to my place as son, not as slave.
And by his being a jerk – I don’t think we really understand the depths of this jerk-ness. We just don’t. A couple years ago, a friend of mine recommended to me a book entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen. And it was this book that changed how I see this little story forever. Nouwen had stumbled upon on Rembrandt’s painting of the story and began digging deeply into the story.
Did you know that in that culture, older men should never, ever run? Did you know that in that day the father would have been considered cursed because of his son’s actions? That he would have been the talk of the town and he would have never heard the end of it. Everyone would have assumed he had sinned. That he had failed as a father? And to think, that my actions could convey such terrible things to my God? Seriously? My running off and doing my own thing causes him to be cursed? Wah? And yet, he RUNS to me when he sees me from a long way off? How long had he been standing there? How long had he been waiting?
And so even though I am discouraged by the repetitive sin of the Israelites, I am understanding of it, because I sin repetitively in my own life. What makes it all ok is the fact that this is a love letter. A love letter written to a prodigal son, a prodigal son like me, that continually runs away and is continuously being welcomed back into his arms again.