Um, okay…

February 21, 2011

Dear reader, it’s been a while. Have you missed me? Well, okay, I suppose 6 days isn’t really that long, but since this was originally a daily blog it feels like an awfully long time to me.

I’ve been very tired recently and am determined not to make blogging another stick to beat myself with, so I gave myself a little break. It may also have been to do with the incredibly low level of inspiration I’ve got from 1 Samuel 11-15, in which we learn about the misguided as short-lived reign of Israel’s first king; Saul. The dominant thought that arises while reading this rip-roaring war-fest is ‘seriously, this guy?’.

God anoints Israel’s first king and, well, he’s not very good! Perhaps this is because God didn’t want Israel to have a king. As I wrote in my last post on this book, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. But then we’re used to flawed protagonists in the Bible, aren’t we? I mean apart Joseph, Daniel, Mary and Ruth I can’t think of many irreproachable characters, can you? (yes, Jesus too, obviously!).

The bit that really gets me, then, is not any of Saul’s rashness, but what appear’s to be God’s! In Chapter 15 Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has ordered him:

Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

Um, okay.

So what does Saul do? He kills everyone, adults and children alike, but spares the King takes the good cattle for his troops and to sacrifice to God. And for this heinous crime he’s told that that’s the end of his anointed kingship.

Um, okay.

Any one else find it difficult to believe that God ordered the killing of entire people? I mean, as the kids say, WTF? (excuse my implied language).

And I’m afraid I don’t have a snappy wrap-up or turn-around. I feel I need to read more about these stories to understand them better but as it stands I find this section of the Bible hard to get fired up about, at least fired up in a good way. But I needed to write something, just to get back on the bloggin wagon, I knew it wouldn’t be pretty, but here it is.

I wanted to be honest about that with you guys, because this is a blog about experience, not insight. And right now I’m finding it hard, perhaps you find some of the Bible hard too; that’s okay. But it that could all change tomorrow. Bring on the psalms.

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‘Because there is no other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.’

A response taken from the Anglican liturgy of Evensong.

 

Today I read 1 Samuel 6-10. I’ve always been fascinated with what happens in chapter 8, it seems to be a hinge on which Israel’s future turns.

War torn Israel asks Samuel for a king. God has given them tribes and judges, a more diffuse, perhaps even more democratic (in the wider sense of the word) set up, but they want a king “like other nations.”

It is quite clear from this telling of the story that in asking for this they are rejecting, whether consciously or not, God’s kingship over them (8:7-8). Why?

Reading the chapters preceding, it is quite perplexing. The Philistines had victory against the Israelites, yes, but when they stole the arc of the covenant their luck certainly changed (1 Samuel 4-5). In chapter 7 we are told that God “thundered with a mighty voice” against the Philistines and Israel’s land was recaptured; that’s pretty decent stuff (kind of). But then I noticed that just before this victory they had asked Samuel to ‘cry out’ ceaselessly for them. Is it, then, that they trust not in God’s deliverance but in Samuel’s prayer?

Perhaps they can’t quite trust what they don’t see. Perhaps they think they need an intercessor, that there is no way to follow God without following man (and we ain’t talking ‘full God, fully man’ here; just man).

At first I thought  this choice was all about not trusting themselves to hear God, to be guided by God. While I think that’s part of it I think there’s something else going on. They want a ruler, they want someone to tell them what to do. Why? Perhaps because they don’t trust each other to be guided by God.

As well as a rejection of God, I see this choice as a rejection of community. In the systems of clans and judges there is room for debate, for consensus perhaps; but with that room comes messiness and effort. It is, I think, the harder route.

When you try to live in community, when no one person is ‘in charge’, then you have to be open to listening to others and to questioning yourself. You can’t just follow the rules, you have to engage with them, test them, even challenge them, or their interpretation. You have to be willing to change.

When someone is telling you what to do from on high you don’t need to wonder if it’s right or wrong, you don’t need to inquire into yourself; you’re just following orders.

In this, latter, model there is no personal responsibility. There is no group ownership of faith. Is there really what you could call a faith community?

From my impression, the early Christians seemed to embrace community living (Acts 2:43-47). There are natural leaders, apostles, of course, there are different roles within community, but there is still engagement of all. This is key for me. And I worry, sometimes, that many just go to church and listen to a sermon and believe it, rather than engage with it. The more I read the Bible, the more sure I am that there could ever be one person who ‘has all the answers, but I’d still love there to be. I still look for a teacher other than Jesus (Matthew 23:8).

There is a telling verse near the end of chapter 8. The Israelites hope that “our king may govern us and may go out before us and fight our battles.” I think they were afraid of the almighty, unpredictable force that has been going out before them. They want something they can pin down, someone they can hear physically, not something they have to stop and listen to ‘in their hearts’.  I think that they would rather just have a nice predictable human who they can see and touch; they think it will be easier to obey him. That once they have the right leader then everything will be sorted; life will be easier. They look to another, rather than within themselves.

Enter Saul… but that’s a whole other post.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a reduced Bible company? You know, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but performing shortened and hilarious versions of books of the Bible? It was this thought that led me to today’s experiment (not on Psalms, that’s tomorrow; I was getting a little ahead of myself) on 1 Samuel 1-5.

After all, this is a busy world, who has time to read actual scripture? What we all need is nice little summary, someone else can put in the hours. In fact, perhaps this is where I can make my fortune: the condensed Bible! I’ll call it ‘the Bible lite’, or the electronic version; the i-ble.

Actually, I think it already exists, and it’s a rubbish idea. If you shorten it you take out the poetry and probably a lot of the prophecy, just keep the stuff in that makes ‘the story’ flow. I bet a lot of the women’s stories get axed as a consequence! So, don’t take this too seriously (as opposed to all other posts, which are gravely serious), but here’s my reduced 1 Samuel 1-5, for your enjoyment:

Chapter 1: Hannah wants a child she prays to God and gets one; enter Samuel future Nazarite.

Chapter 2: Hannah sings; Eli’s (the high priest) sons are naughty; God gets angry; Samuel grows.

Chapter 3: Samuel hears voices and it turns out it’s God; phew! But God’s going to kill Eli’s entire family; not so phew!

Chapter 4: Israel goes to war, the ark of the covenant is captured, Eli and his son’s die (big surprise) but their daughter in law gives birth; every cloud has a silver lining?

Chapter 5: The Philistines have the ark, but discover it comes with a large helping of terror and tumours. After passing it around to various unwilling cities, they soon decide it’s not worth the trouble.

So there you go, that’s it in a nutshell, no need to read it yourself now, if there? Well, okay, it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the whole text…

This was an interesting experiment. It feels a bit like a task out a textbook in school ‘read the first five chapters and then briefly summarise…’ It was amusing, and I’m all for Bible reading being fun but it felt a bit mechanical and that’s not really what reading the Bible is about is it? This exercise shows me that just knowing what it says isn’t enough. The feeling I got with this experiment in contrast to the one in my (very long) last post, where I wrote the whole thing out as a story, is markedly different. I feel sort of flippant about the first five chapters of Samuel, whereas I felt so emotionally engaged with the story of Joseph. So it’s not enough just to read, or just to regurgitate. The reading requires something of you, asks you to invest and to empathise.

Today’s experiment seems to have kept these stories distant and their protagonists imaginary. Perhaps a better way to do something like this would be to give each actor a sentence to say. Hannah’s might be “I have made a blessing into a sacrifice and so I have been more blessed” (see 2:18-21), or Samuel might say “How is it that I hear God? Who am I and what does he want with me?” Instantly I feel more engaged and I hear God speaking through these lives.

The Bible is a book about people. What an obvious thing to say, yet it seems to me like a revelation. It is a book, of course, about God, but all is expressed through the words, the lives, the experiences of people. It shows a glimpse of the Almighty, but it also shows us the breadth of humanity. And I, in my humanity, am discovering a new way to be with the Bible. There are so many voices in these texts, waiting to be heard. Perhaps this has a wider meaning.

We wait for the voice of God to speak to us like he does to Samuel; loud and clear and from the sky. But perhaps he is always speaking to us through the lives and voices of others, just as these lives written down in the Bible speak to us. Perhaps if we paid attention, we’d hear him everywhere…