Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Why I Prefer Samuel to Moses: 1 Samuel 11-12

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

The middle chapters of 1 Samuel are a somewhat confusing combination of the stories of Saul, who's coming into his own as military leader; and Samuel, who's nearing the end of his career as prophet.

First, the Ammonites invade Israel and besiege Jabesh Gilead, where, you may recall, the Israelites slaughtered their brethren and illegally abducted virgins way back in Judges 21. King Nahash offers a truce to the Israelites, on fairly brutal terms: each man must gouge out his right eye. The Jabesh Gileadites strike a bargain which makes you seriously question Nahash's intelligence: they will agree to gouge out their eyes, but only after they are allowed to send messengers to all of Israel explaining the situation, and then wait seven days to see if there's a response.

Saul learns about the siege while he's working his fields in Gibeah (an interesting moment, this - why is "king" Saul still doing his regular farming chores?). He takes two oxen, slices them into pieces, and sends all the pieces around Israel, with the warning that any clan that fails to send soldiers to help him fight the Ammonites is going to be cut apart just like the poor oxen. State coercion in the service of military conscription! It's an old story, although these days most countries don't use oxen as examples anymore. Literally killing the oxen to scare the people, which isn't quite as nice as the way the Chinese put it (killing the chicken to scare the monkeys) but evidently gets the job done. Saul raises an army of 330 000 - an astonishing figure which should be more than enough to make Israel the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of the United States, albeit without a thermonuclear reserve - and, in a daring night raid, ransacks the Ammonite camp. Saul and Samuel hold a grand celebration afterwards, which is used to reaffirm Saul as King of Israel.

Samuel is leaving, however. This is highly symbolic: as the power of the state rises, the status of the prophet declines. I kind of liked Samuel: he was honest, he had integrity, and he didn't appeal to the people through military victory (à la Judges, Joshua, or for that matter Saul), or through the economic bounty of the fabled Promised Land (à la Moses). He did anoint the state, though at least according to the narrative, he did so reluctantly (as did God). He delivers one final sermon in chapter 12 in which he prophecies that the Israelites will one day regret establishing the king, but by and large it's lacking the pessimistic ramblings that characterize the later chapters of Moses's swan song in Deuteronomy. He also doesn't kill people left and right, preferring persuasion to bloodshed. Of course, he doesn't have long lists of tedious laws to his name, which I guess is why Moses still trumps Samuel.

(Of course, the speech is still riddled with warnings about divine judgement and punishment - I think I've just been desensitized by Numbers and Deuteronomy.)

Two things are interesteing about Samuel's last speech, aside from what I've noticed above. First, there's an increasing level of tolerance, or even pragmatism, to the threats about divine punishment. Back in Joshua and the Torah, an enormous deal was made out of the seemingly minor sins of even individual Israelites (recall, in the first chapter of Joshua, a witch-hunt to locate just a single Israelite who'd taken unauthorized booty from a raid.) Now, Samuel is more serene than Moses and Joshua were, then. Here, Samuel acknowledges that all of Israel has done many evil deeds, not least among them creating a state. But that's okay, he says. They can still "serve the Lord with all your heart." God isn't going to reject the Israelites, because, Samuel reasons, they're God's people. (This God is much preferable to Moses's God, who on more than one occasion came perilously close to wiping out the entire nation in his uncontrolled rages.)

Second, although Samuel is effectively high priest and therefore still represents that elite institution, it's noteworthy here that he completely bypasses the usual political and social authority structures in delivering this speech. He is speaking to "all Israel." He is not speaking to the king; he is not even speaking to the elders. Obviously we must assume that not "all Israel" was really present at this speech, but whoever was, it doesn't appear to have been the king - Samuel devotes a lengthy section of the speech to criticism of the monarchy, but it's addressed to the people, not to those in power.