Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Army, Useless, Idolatrous: 1 Samuel 4:2 - 6:1

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

In the previous post, I argued that the first chapters of 1 Samuel attacked the position of the priesthood. Now, it's time to attack the position of the military (at least for the time being; this will change later). The Israelites fight a major military engagement with the Philistines (yes, them again) and suffer several thousand casualties in an unexpected defeat. Displaying a strange new attitude about God as divine good-luck charm, they decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to the front lines in the hopes that it will bring them victory.

Eli's sons, Phineas and Hophni, lead the triumphal procession from Shiloh out to the main encampment, after which the Israelites hold a large and excited rally. The Philistines, displaying a courage their enemies rarely seem to possess, are initially taken aback that "a god has come into the camp," but they rally, attack the Israelites anyway, and win an even more resounding victory. This time, the Israelites lose tens of thousands of soldiers, the priests themselves are murdered, and - worst of all! - the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant.

In a series of bizarre and unlikely accidents, God continues the punishment behind the lines by killing off the rest of the priesthood. Father Eli learns about the death of his sons from a Benjamite deserter; stunned and grieving, he falls from his chair, breaks his neck, and dies on the spot. Phineas's wife goes into labour early and also dies. Her last words, after giving birth to a son, are that "the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel."

After proving that the Israelite military and priestly orders obviously can't properly defend the nation, God takes matters into his own hands. (After a fashion, anyway - initially his presence can't seem to extend far beyond the immediate proximity of the magic Ark.) The barbarous Philistines triumphantly carry the Ark into their own temple, devoted to the god Dagon, and set it before the idol of Dagon, symbolizing Dagon's dominance over the Israelites' own god. God dislikes the symbolism, naturally, and during the night knocks over Dagon's idol. The priests set up the idol again in the morning, so God repeats the act several times, gradually upping the stakes by lopping off poor Dagon's head and hands.

Once again, the theistic symbolism here is a little unclear. Dagon's body is said to be prostrate before God. Is the suggestion that God is the only god, or that Dagon is clearly an inferior God to the Israelite's very powerful LORD (as it is usually spelled in the Bible)? Obviously both we and the Jews have moved far enough into monotheism to make an answer seem obvious, but the original readers may or may not have shared our assumptions.

At any rate, Dagon is destroyed and God resorts to the more time-honoured custom of Numbers: plague. In this case, it's hemorrhoids - or possibly "tumours in the groin," according to the NIV. The Philistines, already unnerved by the damage done to their god in his own temple, reach what seems like an illogical conclusion: they will send the Ark on tour!

So, the Ark goes to Gath, but they start getting hemorrhoids too, so it's moved to Ekron, with much the same result. The Ekronites are incensed and hastily send the Ark back to the priests. But the priests don't want it either, so after some hasty consideration, they send it on its way back to Israel, along with a peace offering of five gold rats and five gold tumours - a very strange offering, you'd think, and I'm having trouble picturing the gold tumours. Miraculously, when the Ark is put on a wagon and the wagon hitched to a couple of cows, the cows march straight into Israelite territory and stop at Joshua's field, where the Israelites discover it, sacrifice the poor cows (so much for gratitude), and rejoice at having recovered the Ark. This comes at a price - 70 of the locals look into the Ark, and so God kills them all. It's so nice to see the old wrathful God again after all this time.