Thursday, May 24, 2018
1 & 2 Samuel
Samuel, Saul, David…
The events of these books happened, if at all, 1000 years before Jesus. By the time our editions of these books took shape, the writers were marginalized remnants under other empires: Persian, Seleucid, (later Byzantine), and Ptolemaic, Roman (later European). Whoever signed off on these scrolls, centuries after the fact, had the benefit of hindsight, and a sense of irony!
‘Why can’t we be like other nations?’ Samuel warns ‘be careful what you ask for!’ We get a story of Saul, David, and Solomon here – each with gifts and tragic flaws. There was a historic political transition from the anarchy of tribal federations alluded to in Judges, but the Samuel version adds great character studies of Saul, Jonathon, Michal, and David.
According to this story, David cleans up loyally after Saul’s mess, then over time becomes king, preparing for succession to Solomon. What makes a king legitimate? Did David kill the heir apparent Jonathon? It’s a political story, where David, guerrilla leader in the north, ends up ruler from the south of the whole of Israel.
The soap opera of David’s seduction of Bathsheba, and incestuous struggles of Absalom, Amnon and Tamar, culminate in insurrection by Absalom in David’s dotage. This account affirms David’s ascendancy, and the creation of a United Kingdom for Solomon to rule. However, the original readers knew it was more a complex story – and you should too!
Sometimes we tell our community and national stories without as much nuance as this. We deal with heroes and manifest destiny. Other times, biographers and historians take time to use the foibles and flaws of individuals to introduce wider themes. Samuel does not suppress the stories of scandal and conflict – perhaps we could try to do the same in telling the stories of Trinity, Calgary, the United Church, and Canada!
Succession, Division, Decline and Fall
Think of these as volumes 3 and 4 of the 1 & 2 Samuel volumes. We begin with succession from David to Solomon. Expansion and affluence mean a big temple, and dalliances of the ruler with a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh, and the African Queen of Sheba. Take a look at chapter 11 for the recital of Solomon’s women – and their gods.
This account suggests that Solomon lost focus, being so inclusive with so many partners that he lost the core identity of Israel. By the time this account is written, the community is scattered in diaspora, and tempted to assimilation and intermarriage – this account resists and warns about such ‘upwardly mobile’ ambition, like Solomon’s.
Jeroboam revolts first, is exiled to Egypt, but when Solomon dies, the kingdom is divided between Rehoboam in Judah (south) and secessionist Jeroboam in Israel (north). The account continues, listing the stories of the two kingdoms, their rulers and their wars.
Browse your way to the Elijah story starting in 1 Kings 17, the prophet challenging King Ahab, wed to Jezebel. Elijah calls in an ‘air strike’ by God against the prophets of Baal, while the royals steal Naboth’s vineyard – all a challenge to the northern kingdom’s corruption, justifying its fall to Assyria in about 750BCE.
Browse your way to the Elisha story in 2 Kings. The southern kingdom tries reforms under Hezekiah and Josiah, closely related to the Deuteronomist editorial voice. However, you can see that the kings get younger, and rule for shorter periods, until the Babylonian conquest and exile in the early years of the 500’s BCE.
There are warnings here for a scattered community about nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of wealth and power. We can be proud of former glories, without aspiring to returning to the sins of pride. Can we claim the virtues of the prophets Elisha and Elisha, without seeking their fate for ourselves?