Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Clash of Church and State, Part 2: 1 Samuel 13-15

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


First off, a note on why the New International Version can be hideously biased sometimes.

What's up with verse 13:1? The original Hebrew and early manuscripts in other languages are missing a word! Later Septaguint manuscripts say that "Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years." But the older forms just say "Saul was years old." Naturally, the NIV translators assume God must have meant for that "thirty" to be in there and so they add it in anyways.

What follows, however, is even more inexcusable. The actual text of verse 13:1 says that Saul was ruler of Israel for "two years." Whoops! Acts 13:21 says that Saul was king of Israel for forty years. The NIV translators, laying aside even the slightest pretence of scholarly objectivity in favour of defending the supposed "inerrancy" of God's word, naturally inject an extra "forty" into 1 Samuel. Appallingly, the footnote doesn't even pretend otherwise: they freely admit that "Hebrew does not have forty-. So the solution is to turn "2" into "42"? That makes the Book of Acts wrong through imprecision, and the First Book of Samuel wrong through false inclusion.

What the fuck? Come on, NIV. I know it's important to believe in inerrancy if you're theologically conservative, but this is just bordering on open deception here. I'd curse the NIV further for it, but they're not the only ones playing fast and loose with God's "Word" - pretty much all English translations engage in some form of wild speculation coated in the garbs of "truth." This page offers further explanation. Thank God for the Jewish Tanakh, which actually translates the verse faithfully:

Saul was . . . years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years. (Footnote: The number is lacking in the Heb. text; also, the precise context of the 'two years' is uncertain. The verse is lacking in the Septuagint.)

Thank you, Jewish scholars, for being honest about the Scriptures. A pity the Christians couldn't be as helpful.


Saul is not a very competent king. For no apparent reason, he and his son Jonathan start a war with the Philistines using the remnants of the army they used to rout the Ammonites. Saul first demobilizes all but a much smaller, probably more mobile force of three thousand, then takes his new force and proclaims war on the Philistines. The Bible is a bit unclear on the nature of Israelite-Philistine relations at the beginning of the war. The Philistines appear to exercise hegemony over Israel, but on the other hand, it seems to be a fairly peaceful hegemony - like the U.S. and Canada, say, rather than the U.S. and Iraq. The Israelites have agreed with the Philistines not to train their own blacksmiths - but on the other hand, the Philistines are apparently happy to let the Israelites visit Philistine smiths for their metal-sharpening needs. The Bible helpfully even supplies a short price list, just in case anyone's thinking of going into the ancient smithing business and wants a standard for comparison.

Saul and Jonathan don't like this, though, and raid some Philistine outputs. The Philistines respond by mobilizing a massive army: three thousand chariots and "soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore." Given that Saul can mobilize 300 000 on a week's notice, this really ought not be critical - but it is, because he's just finished dismissing the main bulk of his armed forces. On the other hand, some Hebrew manuscripts say there's thirty thousand chariots, which is considerably more serious, though also quite implausible given that the largest chariot battle in the historical record, the 13th-century Battle of Kadesh, involved only 5000 chariots.

I've been hinting at tensions between church and state, so to speak, for some time now, and now matters come to a head. Saul summons Samuel to perform some good-luck sacrifices in the face of this new danger, but decides after a few days that Samuel isn't coming and conducts the sacrifices himself. Samuel is outraged, although Saul actually offers what seems like valid reasoning: he wanted to "seek the Lord's favour" before going into battle. This, Samuel declares, is not permitted. As a result, Saul's kingdom is going to collapse and at some point Samuel is going to come back, fire Saul, and anoint a new king. Essentially, this newly claimed power of hiring and firing kings is an attempt by Samuel to claw back a little bit of the power granted to the state and return it to the priesthood.

In the midst of his dispute with Samuel, Saul loses control of his army, most of which deserts, leaving him with only six hundred men. Undeterred and hoping - like all good crafty politicians - to re-win Israelite domestic opinion through a popular diversionary war, Saul organizes what's left into raiding parties and attacks the Philistines. His son Jonathan, alone except for his personal armor-bearer, sneaks out of the Israelite camp to attack the "uncircumcised fellows" of the Philistines all on their own. They challenge an outpost to single combat and kill about 20 men. In a very Joshua-ish moment, God inexplicably decides to bless Jonathan's boldness and strikes the Philistine army in a holy "panic," causing most of them to desert. Saul seizes the initiative and attacks, taking advantage of the confusion to win a key victory.

In the process, however, he's made the same foolish blunder as Jepthah and the non-Benjamite Israelite elders did way back in Judges. To ensure the loyalty of his troops, Saul promises to curse any who won't fast for the day and eat only in the evening, after the fighting is done. Jonathan and his armor bearer don't know this, of course, so stop to eat some honey on the way home. Some soldiers see him and tell him what he's done.

Jonathan isn't impressed, saying that "my father has made trouble for the country" and pointing out, quite logically in my opinion, that the army would have been much more effective in battle if the soldiers weren't faint with hunger. It gets worse: at the end of the day, the famished soldiers plunder livestock from the surrounding farms and eat them with the blood still in the flesh. This is a grave sin and Saul tries to make amends with God by building a new altar. When God refuses to answer Saul's demand for military advice, Saul realizes something has gone wrong and vows to kill whoever broke the fasting oath. He seems quite intent on carrying out this promise even when it's revealed to be his own son, but at the last moment, loyal soldiers grab Jonathan and carry him off to safety.

If we were to go by the yardstick of Joshua, in which God's will is made known through military success, then Saul is a very successful king. He fights "valiantly," the Bible says, against every one of the old enemies: the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Zobahites, the Philistines, and the Amalekites. But the author of 1 Samuel is less convinced, noting that the Israelites have received all the suffering that Samuel promised them so many years before: "all the days of Saul there was bitter war... and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service."

This story is vague enough that one could draw two possible conclusions from it - either God has had mercy on Saul and blessed him despite not killing Jonathan the way he promised to (as demonstrated by Saul's continuing wars against Israel's enemies, according to the Joshua militarist yardstick), or, alternatively, God has withdrawn his blessing from Saul and left Israel to fight wars on its own (as demonstrated by the fact that God never does speak to Saul again after the Jonathan incident and none of these wars ever seem to lead to a moment's peace).

What follows, however, is considerably less ambiguous. Samuel makes one less effort to wrest control of the state back, this time in terms every Biblical reader should be familiar with by now: a holy war. Don't forget, this is the one exercise in which the priests and the military were once able to gain mutual benefit. The target this time is the Amalekites, and Samuel offers up the traditional Torah-style call for genocide: "attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." Saul obediently mobilizes an army of 220 000, marches on Amalek, manages to break up an Amalekite-Kenite alliance, and easily defeats the Amalekites. He is, however, not capable of following through on orders (yet again): he lets his men keep "everything that was good," i.e. all the good livestock, and himself spares the life of King Agag of Amalek.

God has had enough and decides to fire Saul. For the task he chooses Samuel once again, and the latter walks up to Saul's camp. Saul offers the excuse that the living livestock that were taken are intended for a massive sacrifice to God, which Saul doesn't think is outside the instructions. Once again, Samuel says that Saul is not authorized to make those sacrifices - and, in any event, God doesn't want them! This is because "obedience is better than sacrifice." So much for the Levitican sacrificial order! What is the priesthood going to do? Samuel furiously sends Saul away, personally murders the captive king Agag, and never speaks to Saul again.

I said I liked Samuel before, but that was before he turned into chief warmonger. Still, the results are intriguing. Samuel has demolished the state structure he himself put in place, and in doing so he may also have done considerable damage to the legitimacy of the priesthood. After one last attempt at a good old-fashioned genocide, Samuel washes his hands of the king experiment and leaves Saul to continue his unending wars alone.