Friday, May 30, 2008

The Priesthood, Useless, Corrupt: 1 Samuel 1-4:1

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

Another book, another polygamous marriage gone sour. That's right, it's time to return to traditional patriarchy after a brief if flawed foray into women's standpoints in Ruth. The temple priesthood doesn't come off well in this one, either - in fact, in the beginning they seem pretty much useless. Perhaps this book is going to try to justify some alternative social order on the grounds that the priesthood is failed in its responsibilities.

An Ephraimite named Elkanah has two wives, one barren whom he loves, one with children whom he loves... less. Hannah is apparently emotionally abused by fertile Peninnah. After one particularly stressful festival in the holy city of Shiloh, Hannah goes to pray to God, vowing that if he lets her conceive a son, she will make sure he serves God forever as a Nazirite. Another Nazirite! Hopefully this one turns out better than Samson. Unfortunately, she meets Eli the priest, who is seated on a chair next to the tabernacle. He sees Hannah praying and decides she must be drunk, so he berates her about her drinking habits. Hannah protests that she was actually "pouring out my soul to the Lord." She is polite to him, but this must be a difficult episode - escaping her abusive co-wife and now being attacked by a priest. Eli decides to bless her anyways and she goes away cheerful. She gets the kid she asked for.

Significantly, everything about Samuel concerns his mother: Elkanah wanders around a bit but takes no action. After Samuel is born, Eli is going back to the temple for the annual sacrifice, but Hannah tells her husband she won't be along: she's going to stay home with Samuel. Another insult for the priesthood! Hannah makes up for it by taking her son, after he's been weaned, and leaving him at the temple, swearing his live over to the Lord. This is a bit of a strange decision given that it looks like one of the themes of 1 Samuel is that the professional clergy are going to be corrupt and unlikeable, and it's also another disappointing episode for opponents of modern save haven laws, I'm sure. Hannah sings a song about her kid - it's usually women singing songs in ancient Israel, interestingly - and then Samuel is left to grow up under Eli. Let's see how that works out:

Eli's sons are "wicked men" who have "no regard for the Lord." Among other things, the priests have started taking an excessive commission in meat from sacrifices. This sort of price gouging was a "very great" sin, 1 Samuel tells us. What's probably worse, however, is that they are having sex with the female interns who "serve at the entrance" to the tabernacle. Eli discovers one of them in the act and is most irate.

Meanwhile, Samuel has helped minister for them and "grows up in the presence of the Lord," even though he's an Ephraimite. This, too, tells us that the Aaronite priesthood has fallen, since the Levites have let outsiders perform religious duties. He's more righteous than they are.

Eventually, an anonymous prophet foretells the complete doom of the Aaronite high priesthood. He appears to Eli and declares that God has had enough with the priests. He will only honour those who honour him. Eli's sons are going to die - on the same day, no less - and a new "faithful priest" will be appointed directly by God.

So what's the priesthood for? When the new high priest is appointed, God claims, the remnants of the old priesthood will come before him and ask for jobs so that they "can have food to eat."

In due course, God appoints Samuel to be the new high priest, even though he isn't even a Levite. Eli is old and nearly blind. God calls Samuel, but in what must be a deliberately humorous passage, Samuel initially mistakes the calling for the voice of Eli. The third time he makes this mistake, Eli concludes that it must be God. God prophecies that Eli's entire house will be shamed for what they have done to the priesthood. A reluctant Samuel tells this to Eli, who seems unhappy but lets Samuel step forward as the new prophet of God.

Despite the pro-priesthood clauses of Leviticus and Numbers, much of the Bible has continued to be notably skeptical of the professionally and genealogically religious (which, among other reasons, is why I expressed surprise when God supposedly established an inherited priesthood under Aaron during those books back in the Torah). It looks like we're going to continue the skeptical trend, with a certain cynical tinge: priests assuming that praying women are drunk, pastors' kids hooking up in the sanctuary, God choosing an outsider as his new prophet, and so on. I don't remember most of the Samuel books being about the priesthood, so presumably this also serves as a quick way to get the priests out of the way so we can focus on the prophets again.