Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The First Book of Samuel

We're well into Israel's history now, and 1st Samuel has three main people whose stories we're following: Samuel, Saul, and David. Samuel and Saul are mainly the lead-up people before David arrives, because David and his family dynasty really dominate the historical books of the Bible.

Samuel was a special child. His mother Hannah was barren (you see a lot of childless women miraculously having children in the Old Testament) and she promised God that her son would serve the Lord all his life. And Samuel does. He's literally raised in the tabernacle by Eli, a wise old priest and judge who made a major mistake with his own children but somehow managed to show Samuel the right path. Samuel excels at his service and we're told "the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground". If Samuel says something is going to happen, it happens.

Samuel is a good judge for the people, but he has the exact same problem Eli had; he did not pass on any of his righteousness to his sons. Samuel's sons are as worthless as Eli's were, so Israel decides they've had enough of judges--they want a king. Samuel warns the people that if they get a king (which is not a form of government God has set up for them), the king will tax and oppress them and they'll regret it. But the people demand their king and Samuel anoints Saul, a tall handsome guy from the tribe of Benjamin. The Israelites are impressed with his appearance, but though Saul has some big military victories over the Philistines, it's not long before he shows some extreme lapses in judgement and the people are regretting their decision.

Saul makes wild, crazy vows on a regular basis and he disobeys God's outright orders. Samuel gives him a set-down about all his dangerous nonsense and Saul gets panicky because he knows that he's not going to stay king for long. Samuel goes to Bethlehem and anoints David, a teenager (I think) from the tribe of Judah to be the next king. This sets up a problem: we've got two anointed kings, and the first one is murderously jealous of the second. It doesn't help matters that David is inherently awesome--he's an amazing musician who plays the harp to calm the king down when he's troubled, he kills a giant with a sling and a stone, and as he gets older, he has more military victories than Saul.

So Saul tries to kill David. He throws a spear at him (twice). He gives David impossible tasks in the hope they will kill him, but David accomplishes the tasks. Saul tells his own sons to kill David, but Johnathan is David's best friend and he's definitely not doing that. David has to run away and hide from Saul, which leads to a lot of hardships, but David never tries to harm Saul, further proving that he's the better man. Saul spirals close to insanity, and God will not talk to him through any of the usual means. After Saul tries to contact Samuel's ghost, a forbidden practice that nonetheless succeeds, he learns that he and his sons will die in battle the next day. The prophesy comes true--Saul dies and the Philistines nail his corpse to a wall as a trophy. The First Book of Samuel ends with some Israelite men rescuing the desecrated bodies of Saul and his sons and burying them. A gory, sad end for Israel's first king.

My favorite person in this book: Saul's son Johnathan is incredible. Johnathan and his armor-bearer fight a whole garrison of their enemies by themselves and they kill twenty men. But he's not just an exceptional person because of his fighting skills--Johnathan has a rare gift for compassion and loyalty. Chapter 18 says that Johnathan "loved [David] as his own soul," which is a phrase I'm not sure we hear anywhere else in the Bible. You'd think Johnathan would be furious that he's not going to inherit the kingship, but instead he's 110% supportive of his friend. Johnathan's a man with integrity, and though he loves his father Saul, he knows that Saul is a ruined king and his reign is doomed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Ruth

After reading the horrors of Judges, Ruth is an incredibly welcome break. It's just four chapters long, but it shows part of the life of one of the strongest, most wondeful women in the Bible.

Chapter 1 starts off by telling about a guy from the Israelite tribe of Judah. His name is Elimelech, and when a famine strikes his city of Bethlehem, he takes his family to the idolatrous country of Moab to live. A famine in Bethlehem is really ironic because the town's name means "House of Bread," and the cruel ironies just keep coming. Elimelech and his wife Naomi have two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, and the boys marry women from Moab. Elimelech dies, and before long the sons die, too. Again, the names seem to be significant--Mahlon means "sickly" in Hebrew and Chilion means something like "pining" or "wasting away". It's like their very names were prophetic.

Naomi is almost more like the protagonist of the book of Ruth, and now she's left in a desperate fix. She's in a foreign country and her protector/providers are all dead. She tells her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth to go back to their parents' homes, but while Orpah eventually relents, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi. Ruth is so intent on staying with Naomi that she delivers this speech, which is such a strong promise that it is now often used in wedding vows:

"Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me." (Ruth 1: 16-17)

Ruth is deathly serious about her duty to Naomi. So they travel to Bethlehem, and now the tables are sort of turned--Naomi's the one who's on her home turf, and Ruth is a stranger in a foreign land. But just because she has come home, it doesn't mean that life has improved for Naomi. She tells the people who welcome her back not to call her Naomi which means "pleasant" but Mara which means "bitter," because she feels like she's been cursed by God. However, no one actually calls her this, perhaps because her life is about to get pleasant again.

Ruth and Naomi don't have a ready means of supporting themselves, and it's implied that Naomi is too old to work. So Ruth goes into the fields of Naomi's relative Boaz, and she picks up the leftover barley that the harvesters drop. Boaz treats her kindly, although most Israelites would be cruel to a Moabite woman, and he gives her food and instructs his workers to leave behind extra barley for her. Ruth and Naomi now have a temporary source of food, but Naomi lights upon an idea to make sure that Ruth has more permanent security. As a relative, Boaz has the right to marry his kinsman's widow and thus keep the family strong while inheriting the kinsman's land. Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, and it doesn't seem to be just out of obligation--he remarks on how virtuous and dedicated she is, and it's clear that he doesn't look down on her for being a Moabite, and actually thinks he's getting a pretty good deal. Really, they both are. Ruth and Boaz are both generous, hard-working people who care for those less fortunate than themselves and it's wonderful that they end up together.

In the latter part of chapter 4, Boaz and Ruth have a baby boy named Obed and Naomi is thrilled. She becomes the baby's nurse and her bitterness is erased. Besides being the crowning touch on the story's happy ending, Obed is important for other reasons, too. Obed later has a son named Jesse and Jesse has a son named David, who becomes the king of all Israel. So Ruth, a foreigner, is the great-grandmother of Israel's greatest king. Which is just so cool.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Judges

The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading

Judges is the book of the Old Testament that tells what happened to the Israelites after they got settled down in the promised land. It isn't pretty. I read Judges for the first time when I was 14, and I couldn't believe that this kind of horrible stuff was actually in the Bible.

While the book of Joshua was a catalog of victories, Judges is mostly a catalog of defeats for the Israelites. They keep going astray, and every time they stop obeying God they have trouble with enemies. In general, they just don't seem to do well without central leadership. Moses and Joshua are dead, so ideally the people would be able to rule themselves at this point, but they don't, so God appoints judges as decision makers and rallying points against the enemy forces. Israel grows strong and repents, then the judge dies and the Israelites fall off into idolatry and are defeated by their enemies again, then another judge rises and the cycle goes on.

Most of the judges have really awesome accomplishments to distinguish them. 1. Othniel, the first judge after Joshua's death, is Caleb the scout's nephew and he judges for 40 years. 2. Ehud is a left-handed Benjamite (watch the rest of the Bible--left-handedness seems to run in the tribe of Benjamin) who kills an obese Moabite king by stabbing an entire dagger into his stomach, hilt and all. 3. Deborah is a female judge who leads Israel as they fight against the Canaanites, and she chides a military commander for not being bold enough to fight without her. 4. Gideon's story takes up 3 chapters as he uses a force of 300 men to defeat thousands upon thousands of Midianites. So far, this sounds like the Israelites are stomping their opposition left and right, but the years between judges are nasty and filled with hunger and slavery.

Chapter 13 introduces Samson, the one character most people remember from Judges. Almost everyone knows that Samson was a superhumanly strong man who lost his strength when his girlfriend Delilah cut his hair, but the reason why a haircut damaged his strength isn't always clear. This is why: Samson was a Nazarite, a person set apart to God by a bunch of vows. God gave him strength and he showed his devotion to God by not drinking wine, not touching any dead things, and not cutting his hair. But apart from his feats of physical skill, the story of Samson is one long demonstration of how not to be a Nazarite. He touches a dead lion and actually eats some honey he finds in the lion's carcass--today, that just sounds filthy and disgusting, but was also active vow-breaking for Samson. He does a lot of major things for his people, but Samson's heart never seems too close to God and his end is a sad one.

Chapters 17 and 18 deal with idolatry and dispossession. The entire tribe of Dan steals idols from a guy named Micah, and he protests but then goes on his way when they threaten him. The whole episode is almost comical, because it shows how far everyone has fallen from any understanding of how to live and how to conduct themselves. Chapters 19 through 21 are downright sickening and contain gang rape, corpse mutilation, and partial genocide. I don't even want to discuss the specifics. The point of all the evil depicted in Judges is to show just how ugly things can get when people don't love God or love each other. The book ends on this verse: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." And their idea of "right" happens to be horribly twisted.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Joshua

Moses the man of God has passed away, and now his protege Joshua is taking over leadership and guiding Israel on their entry into the promised land. Joshua is rising to leadership on the cusp of something huge. There isn't much of a way to describe how big a deal it is that he's commanding the Israelites as they take possession of a entire country when previously they'd been slaves for 400 years, then wandered in the desert for another 40. It would be easy for Joshua to be overwhelmed by this responsibility, but God himself repeatedly tells Joshua to be strong and courageous, and offers him a major promise: for Joshua's entire life, no person or army will be able to overcome him or the nation he leads, and God will treat him just like he did Moses. So he's got that going for him.

The priests carry the Ark of the Covenant ahead of everybody and as soon as the Ark gets to the Jordan river, the water dries up and the whole troop crosses over dry land, in sort of a micro example of what Moses did with the Red Sea. Then, instead of attacking the fortress city of Jericho, they walk around it a certain amount of times for a certain amount of days, then blow their trumpets and shout and the wall falls down. But all's not right after this impressive victory because an Israelite man named Achan steals some accursed things and his whole family is stoned to death. That's the thing about big sins in the first part of the Bible--they usually result in death, and often result in extreme collateral damage in the form of innocents. Someone messes up and their kids always seem to pay for it.

There are a good many more battles and campaigns, most notably a battle against the Amorites when Joshua asks God to keep the sun from setting until they've defeated their enemies, and then it doesn't set for about a day. All told, the Israelites defeat thirty-one enemy kings in their battles. Then there are chapters and chapters of land division and inheritance allotment that are difficult to really follow unless you also have a map of ancient Israel to look at.

The book closes out on Joshua's death, where he speaks to the Israelites and delivers what is probably the most famous line in the book: "choose you this day whom ye will serve...but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (24:15). He's been a strong leader for his whole life and, like Moses, the people have nothing wrong to accuse him of now that he's near the end. He basically tells them that he's not going to be around anymore and it's up to them how they behave, but regardless of what they do, he and his loved ones know who're they're going to follow.

Interesting things: 1. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh actually stay on the other side of the Jordan river because it's good cattle land and they have a lot of cows. The men go and fight for the rest of Israel, but then they go home to their families when the fighting is over. 2. Rahab may be the most amazing person mentioned in the book. She's a harlot (prostitute) in Jericho and she saves two Israelite scouts. She extracts a promise that her life and her family's lives will be spared in the oncoming attack, and they are. Then she marries an Israelite and ends up in the genealogy of King David himself and later, Jesus. This is one of those ultra-rare Old Testament examples of mercy and redemption. 3. Caleb, Joshua's fellow land-scout from forty years back makes sort of a guest appearance. He's as strong as he was as a young man and he has lived to take his inheritance in the new land.