Well, this is embarrassing. It took me one night to read Ruth, and then it took me more than 4 1/2 months to get through 1st Samuel. What the hell took so long? Errgh … I’ve had a few distractions in the past few months, though not all of them are great excuses. I guess the most legit distraction is that I started a new job about a week after my Ruth review. I don’t think that timing is a coincidence. I’ve also gone on a couple vacations in that time, which sounds really trivial, but in my defense, I needed them to avoid going insane.
O.k. so let’s get to the point of this blog post: the story of 1st Samuel. I think a big part of the reason why I had so much trouble getting through this one is that the first half of the book is all backstory that is required to eventually get to the story of David, and it is really not all that interesting. It felt abstract to me because I had to get a good number of chapters in before I started to realize what the point of any of it was, or why I should care about any of the people in the stories. The book is 31 chapters long and it finally starts to pick up and come together around chapter 16, which is when David shows up.
Let me take a stab at the synopsis: The story starts out with a dude named Elkanah and his two wives, one of whom is named Hannah. In a stunning and shocking twist that we’ve never seen before in the Bible thus far, Hannah is barren, and she prays and prays for God to give her a son. She promises god that she will dedicate her son to the service of the Lord if he will allow her to conceive. Eventually he does, she has a son named Samuel, and when he is a child, she follows through on her promise and dedicates him to work as a little mini baby priest with Eli, who is a priest at Shiloh (where Hannah and Elkanah pray daily). Samuel grows up “in the presence of the Lord,” being mentored by Eli.
The next 5 or 6 chapters then go on a very strange detour that involves Eli’s two sons (also priests) being revealed to be wicked – they are abusing their power and have no regard for the Lord. A “man of God” tells Eli that God will punish Eli’s entire family for this by never allowing any of his descendents to grow old (Eli is already an old man by this point), and he says that he will kill Eli’s two sons together on the same day. The Lord also starts to give bad prophecies about Eli to Samuel, and Samuel eventually becomes well known across the land as a prophet, and eventually a judge. Meantime, the Philistines and the Israelites start fighting again (what else is new?) The Phils kill 4,000 Israelites. So the Israelites try bringing the Ark of the Covenant with them to the next battle, in hopes that it will magically help them win, as it has in the past. It backfires big time – the Phils kill 30,000 Israelites, including Eli’s wicked sons, and they capture the Ark of the Covenant away from the Israelites. Whoopsie.
When Eli hears about all this, he literally falls off his chair and breaks his neck and dies (at 98 years old). But the good news is, even though the Ark of the Covenant is now in the evil hands of the Philistines, it starts such a reign of terror on them that they quickly regret ever stealing it in the first place. The Ark magically destroys a statue of the Philistine god, Dagon, when it is placed next to it. Then, everyone in the town of Ashdod (where the Ark is being kept at this point), is cursed with tumors on their private parts! So they quickly move the Ark to Gath instead, and then everyone in THAT town gets the crotch tumors. When the people of Gath try to offload the ark to Ekron, the people of Ekron are like, “WOAH HOLD up dude. We do NOT want this cursed thing. Get it the hell away from us.” The Philistines then give up and send the thing back to Israel. And along with it, they send, I kid you not, five gold tumors and five gold rats (representing the plagues it caused them) to try to make it up to God.
The ark then winds up at some dude named Abinadab’s house, where it stays for the next 20 years. In the meantime, Samuel (who has not only grown up, but is old by now) tells the Israelites that they need to give up their other gods and only serve the Lord, so they can be delivered out of the hands of the Philistines. They obey, and then the next thing you know, the Phils attack again, but the Israelites slaughter them. Score!! The “hand of the Lord” is then against the Philistines for the remainder of Samuel’s lifetime.
Trouble returns for Samuel, though, when his two sons, who are now Judges just like Sam, become “dirty” and start perverting judgement and taking bribes. The Israelites are over the whole “judge” thing by this point, so they tell Samuel, “Can we not just have a regular KING now, just like every other nation out there?? Why do we have this weird judge system?” Samuel, however, is NOT thrilled about this idea, and neither is God. God has Samuel warn the people of how a king will just take advantage of them for his own benefit. The Israelites don’t care though, they still want a king. So Sam tells God and God is like, fine, give these ungrateful brats what they want.
Enter Saul. Saul is a “goodly” Benjamite who is not only a head taller than everyone else in the land, he is also super hot. He is like the Brad Pitt of Israel, but taller. One day, while wandering around the land looking for a couple of his dad’s donkeys who are lost, Saul’s servant suggests that they ask the “seer” in the district of Zuph if he can help them find the donkeys with his psychic powers. That seer happens to be Samuel, who informs Saul that the Lord has annointed him to be king of the Israel. God not only makes Saul king, but “changes his heart” … I guess to make him even more awesome? Saul is 30 years old at this point.
Fast forward a couple years, and we’ve now got king Saul and his son Jonathan and their army engaging in endless battles with the Philistines. God then tells Saul that he must massacre ALL Amalekites, including animals, women and children, as a revenge killing for past incidents (probably hundreds of years in the past) where the Amalekites had attacked Israel. Saul does as he is told, ALMOST. He slightly changes the plan by taking the Amalekite king (Agag) alive, and also keeping the best sheep and cattle alive for sacrifices to God. When Samuel gets word of this, he is LIVID, as is God himself. Saul begs for forgiveness, but Sam tells him that it is too late, God has now REJECTED him as king for not obeying his word. Samuel then never speaks to Saul again, though apparently he does “mourn” for him, while the only thing God is mourning for is his terrible decision to make Saul king in the first place.
Finally, this is where David enters the picture. God eventually tells Sam to pull himself together and stop mourning for Saul, because it’s time for him to appoint a new future king. He tells Sam to go to a man named Jesse (Ruth and Boaz‘s grandson), and the new leader will be one of his sons. Jesse brings 7 of his sons to Samuel, and they all look strong and qualified, but God says that none of them are “the one.” It turns out that Jesse has an 8th son, David, who he didn’t even bring along, because he is so young and small. God says “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Now, in a cruel and slightly contrived twist, Saul also happens to choose David to be his loyal and trustworthy harp player, at the same time that an “evil spirit from the Lord” is starting to overtake Saul. Next thing we know, the Philistines are back at it again, preparing to attack the Israelites at Socoh in Judah. And to make matters worse, this time, the Phils have a secret weapon: “A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall.” Goliath declares to the Israelites, “Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” The Israelites, meanwhile, are shaking in their boots. Goliath comes forward in the Valley of Elah (where the soldiers are camped) waiting for this proposed fight every morning for 40 days.
It’s at this point that David comes to the battle lines to bring his brothers some bread, and tells Saul that he wants a chance at Goliath. His brothers get mad and tell him he’s insane, but Saul doesn’t have much to lose at this point, so he tells David to give it a shot. David puts on a coat of armor, but can’t even walk in it because he’s too small and not used to it, so he takes it off. Instead he just chooses 5 smooth stones from the stream and puts them in his shepherd’s bag, and brings his sling with him, and approaches Goliath. Goliath talks the typical pre-fight trash to David, and David responds by declaring that the Lord will help him kill Goliath. David then takes the first stone and slings it at Goliath, and the stone sinks into his forehead and kills him immediately. Wow, that was easy. Guess that’s how it goes when God is there to help you kill someone. David then runs up to Goliath, and cuts off his head with Goliath’s sword. This sends the Philistine army into a panic, which allows the Isralites attack and slaughter them pretty thoroughly. After the battle is over, David brings Goliath’s head back to the Israelites.
Saul is extremely impressed by all this, but this sentiment soon turns to bitter jealousy when the women of Israel sing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” After an “evil spirit from God” once again comes forcefully upon Saul, Saul decides that he is on a mission to kill David. And then, literally the next 12 chapters (basically the rest of the book) consist almost entirely of Saul hatching new plan after plan to kill David, and failing over and over again. Most of this is against the backdrop of more wars with the Philistines, as usual. David is helped in this Saul situation not only by God, but by Saul’s son Jonathan, who loves David to a slightly peculiar degree, but I’ll get to that later. I’ll call out several specific stories from this section of 1st Samuel in the next couple sections.
I should also mention that in chapter 25, Samuel dies of old age and is buried at his home in Ramah. 1st Samuel ends (chapter 31) with Saul being gravely wounded in battle with the Philistines. He kills himself by “falling upon his sword,” to avoid being captured and tortured by the Phils. His three sons and all his men die that day too. The Philistines come and take Saul’s head and armor and bring it back to Beth Shan as trophies of their victory. But when the Israelites of Jabesh Gilead hear about this, they sneak into Beth Shan and take the bodies of Saul and his sons back, and give them a proper burial.
That was a LOONG synopsis, wasn’t it? This book was so all over the place that I found writing the synopsis to be as difficult and painful as it was to read the first half of the book to begin with. Uggh. Anyway let’s get to the good stuff and bad stuff.
1st Samuel is one of these books that doesn’t have anything that can be considered purely good. The reason for that is that even the small rays of light we get along the way are tainted by very bad elements to the stories. Here’s a few examples:
- During the second half of the book where Saul and David are going through story after story of Saul attempting to kill David and failing, David turns the tables on Saul and gets and opportunity to kill him twice (chapters 24 & 26), but he has mercy on him both times. On the surface, this is impressive. However, there are two problems with it:
- He doesn’t necessarily do it for the reason you’d expect. He only spares Saul because God had appointed Saul king, and he doesn’t want to go against God’s original word on that. He does not spare Saul due to any concern for him as a person. Another aspect to David’s decision is that he is/was Saul’s servant (as his harp player and then army commander), so he cannot bring himself to kill his master. I guess there’s something to be said for respecting a professional relationship, but, eh.
- David shows many times throughout this book that he has ZERO problem with maiming and killing people in general. So it’s not as if he is a peaceful person who is trying to live by those values or something. He is obeying God’s word in this particular situation, true, but God commands people to do HORRIFIC shit over and over again in the Bible. So at this point in my reading, the act of obeying God is not all that impressive to me.
- David and his men are in a place called Ziklag in chapter 30 when the Amalekites attack and burn Ziklag and kidnap all the women and children, including David’s family. They also plunder the town and steal everything. So David takes 600 men to go attack the Amalekites and rescue their fams, but some of the 600 men stop partway through the journey and do not go to fight because they are exhausted. So the 400 men who are left go with David and find the Amalekite raiders and fight and kill a lot of them and they get all their familes and their stuff and their livestock back. Some of the men who followed through with battling the Amalekites with David then demand that the 200 who stayed back don’t deserve any of the plunder from the battle. But David says, “23. No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the Lord has given us. He has protected us and handed over to us the forces that came against us. 24. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” David then makes this a statute and ordinance from that point forward. This is a respectable thing to do, but of course it is tainted by the fact that the plunder they took from the Amalekites is not ALL stuff that is rightfully theirs. The Amalekite raiders had stuff from other Philistine towns they had plundered too, and David and his men took all of it from what I can tell.
1st Samuel contains no shortage of the questionable acts and bloody murderous rampages by God and his appointed heroes (kings and judges) that are rampant throughout most of the earlier books we’ve read thus far. Here are a few highlights:
- In my synopsis above, I discussed God’s punishments and curses on Eli’s family due to his sons being wicked priests (Ch. 2). I get that God wanted to make a point that Eli’s sons were doing wrong, but to curse ALL Eli’s descendants to die in their prime of their lives?? Isn’t that a little harsh? Other than the issue with his sons, the Bible gives the impression of Eli being a good and loyal priest. God trusts him to train Samuel up as a priest from the time he’s a boy, but he also considers him to be a bad enough priest that he’ll curse his whole family for eternity? This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
- This is another story which has already been described in my earlier synopsis, but how bout that reign of terror that the Ark of the Covenant has on the Philistines after they steal it? Crotch tumors, rat infestations and death? Yikes. Another example of God’s rage issues. (Ch. 5)
- One passage I didn’t describe in my synopsis is what happens in the process of the Phils returning the Ark of the Covenant back to the Israelites in chapter 6. The Phils ask the advice of their priests on how to return the Ark and their guilt offering of 5 golden tumors and 5 golden rats. The priests come up with a very convoluted plan where the Phils are supposed to put everything in a cattle-drawn cart and let the cows go on their own, and see where they and the cart go. If they go up the the Israelite territory of Beth Shemesh, then that means “the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance.” The Phils do as the priests say, and sure enough, the cows and cart wind up in Beth Shemesh. “13. Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up
and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. 14. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord.” Are you seeing anything that the people of Beth Shemesh are doing wrong here? Because I’m not. BUT, “19. … God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting 70 (or 50,070 depending on which manuscript you read) of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them, 20. and the men of Beth Shemesh asked, ‘Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?'” Wow, another dick move by the Lord.
- Another story I relayed in my synopsis above is the story in chapter 15, when God rejects Saul as king because Saul did NOT fully obey God’s instructions to “go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” God as vengeful ragemonster continues.
- As I’ve mentioned, most of the last 12 chapters of 1st Samuel involve Saul trying (unsuccessfully) to kill David over and over again. Chapter 18 tells the story of the first time Saul tries to kill David. Saul appoints David as a military commander of a thousand men, mainly just to get David out of his sight, as he is jealous and afraid of David. David is very successful in all his military campaigns, because the Lord is with him. So Saul comes up with a creative plan to get David killed by the Philistines, thereby allowing him to avoid killing David himself. He has his servants tell David that he can have Saul’s daughter Michal’s hand in marriage if he exacts
some revenge on the Philistines by bringing Saul 100 Philistine foreskins. That’s right, foreskins. So what does David say? “Sweet! No prob.” He goes out and, because he is an overachiever, he kills TWO hundred Philistine men and brings their 200 foreskins to Saul. Isn’t David awesome??
- David spends a good amount of the last 12 chapters of 1st Samuel being on the run from Saul. There is a strange story in chapter 25 where he winds up in the Desert of Maon, and he has 10 of his young men approach a very wealthy man named Nabal and tell him, “7. Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time. When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing. 8. Ask your own servants and they will tell you. Therefore be favorable toward my young men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.” Nabal doesn’t know who the heck these people are, so he says no. David gets pissed about this and basically threatens to kill all Nabal’s men. The only reason he decides against his murderous rampage is that Nabal’s wife Abigail apologizes profusely and begs for mercy and brings them a bunch of stuff. So David decides not to kill Nabal and all his men, but instead the Lord strikes Nabal down with a heart attack 10 days later. David then takes Abigail as a wife.
- In chapter 27, David and his family and 600 men move into Philistine territory (Gath, home of Goliath of all people!!) for a year and 4 months to keep safe from Saul. He makes a deal with Achish, king of Gath, and Achish gives him the town of Ziklath for his people. He performs raids on several other nearby cities during this time and kills all the men women and children in the cities, and steals all their livestock and goods. And by chapter 28, David has joined the Philistine army to fight AGAINST the Israelites (and Saul of course)!! My my, David, how quickly we forget our God and our roots. These chapters confused the hell out of me, so I did some googling, and it seems that the common interpretation of this story from religious folk is that David has clearly made a huge mistake here in turning away from God, but eventually he
comes back to God. But the thing is, David does NOT leave the Philistine army willingly, they actually have to force him out because some of the people in charge suspect that he and his men could be spies for Israel, since they are Hebrews. By the time 1st Samuel ends, David is actually still living in Ziklag and doesn’t seem to have returned to Israel, so we’ll see where we end up at the beginning of 2nd Samuel.
- One last thing I want to make note of in this section is how many times Saul’s anger and death-plotting against David is brought on by what is described as “an evil spirit from the Lord.” Remember in Exodus when God purposely “hardened the hearts” of the Egyptians to make them refuse to let the Israelites go, just so that God could reign down his terror upon them and prove his power?? It seems that something somewhat similar is what happens in the Saul story. Is Saul really jealous enough of David to try to kill him, or is this just God treating him as a pawn in his weird twisted game?
There are several things I could mention here, but I just want to quickly call out one highlight, because I’m starting to think I may have reached yet a new record on length of a blog entry here, uggh. Let’s get right to it:
At the end of my synopsis of 1st Samuel, I mentioned that David and Saul’s son Jonathan are very close friends, and Jonathan helps David escape from Saul pretty often. This is really nice and all, but the interesting thing is that there seems to be a very homoerotic vibe in this story. I have NO issue with that either of course, except for the HUGE hypocrisy of the whole thing. The Bible has mentioned several times at this point that being gay is an EPIC no-no: a sin punishable by death. And yet, Jonathan and David (heroes of this book) seem to have a bromance that borders on … something a little more, maybe? Jonathan seems to have a major crush on David, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a gay crush, or just a hero worship, or how much it is reciprocated by David. Here are a couple examples:
- This is what happens directly after David returns home from killing Goliath: “18:1 And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.
18:2 And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. 18:3 Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. 18:4 And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle.” … hmm. What is a “covenant,” exactly? And why is Jonathan stripping off his clothes?
- Chapter 20 is when David is telling Jonathan that he is sure Saul wants to kill him, and Jonathan is upset thinking that his dad would never plan this without confiding in Jonathan. He is also upset thinking about any harm coming to David, so he swears to him that he will do anything he can to help him. In order to get the vibe of it, you really need to read the entire chapter. But for this, I’ll just give a few sample verses:
- “20:17 And Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for
he loved him as he loved his own soul.”
- “20:30 Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” This is a weird verse … but … is Saul accusing them of being gay?
- “20:41 And as soon as the lad was gone, David arose out of a place toward the south, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: and they [David and Jonathan] kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded.” Hmm.
- “20:17 And Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for
Look, again, like they said in Seinfeld, “NOT that there’s anything wrong with that.” And this one is open to interpretation. I’m just saying that it seems hugely hypocritical for a major hero of the Bible to have had a gay relationship and for God to have had no problem with it at all, even though several other books state in no uncertain terms that being gay is an abomination punishable by death. A google search on this topic leads me to the conclusion that most Christians conveniently overlook the homoerotic vibe to this story, and assume that David and Jonathan are just tight bros, no homo. And then these same Christians go and protest gay marriage at “Chick-fil-A Day”. OK ok, that’s unfair … not ALL of them do that. Just the assholes.
I mean, the whole David and Goliath thing is an extremely famous story for a reason – the idea of the little guy triumphing over the huge monster who seems impossible to beat is a good one. It’s a nice feel-good story on its surface. And I will give David one thing – unlike must of the characters in the Bible thus far, he seems to occasionally have a conscience and to feel bad about the idea of someone else being wronged in some way. However, there are many many MORE times when he acts simply as a ruthless killing machine. And one of these behaviors far outweighs the other for me.
Samuel is a somewhat decent guy, other than the fact that he follows God’s every command, even when those commands call for the slaughter of other people. Eli also seems like mostly a good guy, other than the issue with his sons, but he gets nothing out of that but a curse from God. Given these things, and given the fact that this book also contains a lot of the typical terrible stuff that most of the other books contain, overall I would have to rate 1st Samuel as a …
I toyed with 2/10, but ultimately I just didn’t feel like there was enough good stuff here to reasonably bring the score up. Next book up is 2nd Samuel. I really hope it takes me less than 4 months to read that one (it’s shorter than 1st Samuel at least).