Saturday, December 15, 2007

"Israel, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten kings?"

The Advent season is always misplaced for me. The period from Thanksgiving to about a week before Christmas is always filled with the finals and decisions that come from the end of the semester. Nor do we do big decorating in my house.

But on the first Sunday of Advent, I found myself reading 1 Samuel, and realized that this time I had stumbled on powerful Advent reading. (Now why haven't I written about this before? Go read that first paragraph again, please.) As many know, Hannah's song is the model for Mary's Magnificat:

And Hannah prayed, and said,
My heart rejoiceth in the LORD, mine horn is exalted in the LORD: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.
There is none holy as the LORD: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.
Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength.
They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: so that the barren hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble.
The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.
The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up.
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD's, and he hath set the world upon them.
He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail.
The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them: the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed.

A few years ago, I read Robert Polzin's reading of 1 Samuel, Samuel and the Deuteronomist. In one way it's a very typical inter-testamental exegesis delighting in irony (that is, any disjunction between surface meaning and deep meaning), but in another way it's very UN-inter-testamental, preferring ambiguous characters to clearly good or evil, and deeply involved in questions of narrative voice. (More on these features of inter-testamental Bible reading here.) In his reading Samuel emerges as a profoundly ambiguous figure, responsible for Saul's destruction. I don't agree with all his readings -- in part because as a Christian I read it all in the context of a different canon, that includes the Gospels -- but as the blurb for another volume of his says, having read his work, I can't read 1 Samuel the same way again.

Let's go back to Hannah. Did you notice the part at the end? About the king and the anointed? The odd part of that is of course Hannah is singing this at the time of the Judges, when Israel has no king. Higher critics explain this, of course, by saying that this psalm is a monarchic-era psalm retrojected to the time of Hannah. Or that the song is actually about Saul: Hannah says in 1:27 that she "asked for" (sha'ul) a son, and sha'ul is the Hebrew of Saul. So "really" the song is about Saul.

Polzin follows an entirely different tack -- a literary one. What is the author trying to say here? Remember the context: traditionally Joshua to 2 King (minus Ruth which was part of the Writings) were all one book. Polzin follows Noth's identification of this as one work with Deuteronomy, a single history beginning with Moses and concluding with the destruction of Judah. The book is unified by language and themes that form a history and a meditation on the Israel's experience with the Word of God and the monarchy.

So back to Hannah: this song is a foreshadowing of monarchy, of Israel's desire for a king. And why? To have triumph over her enemies, to be able to sing: Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the LORD (Is. 54:1). Her enemy is Penninah because Penninah had children and Hannah had none, just as the nations had kings and Hannah had none.

Hannah's lord tried to comfort her, saying "Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?" but she would not be comforted. She must have sons; she will not bear to be bested by her rival. And so the theme of the work from 1 Samuel to 2 Kings is set: Israel must have a king, she will not bear to be bested by the rival nations. And all along the Lord speaks to her "Israel, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten kings?" And Israel's stubborn refusal to listen to this gentle persuasion is the beginning of the Messianic promise. (Just as Israel was right when she protested: "Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not" Deut. 18:16).

And so she bears Samuel. One might think (with the higher critics) that there
has been a mistake here, that Samuel is not a king. But no mistake has been made here. For we soon see the theme: the priest Eli has two evil sons, and God pronounces judgment on him to condemn his sons and overthrow the priestly dynasty of Eli. Israel had been ruled by a priest with at the ark. And in 1 Samuel 4, the promise is fulfilled. The priest's family is struck down, and the "glory has departed from Israel." After comic adventures among the Philistines, the ark ended up in a family of Judeans, Abinadab and Eleazer his son, while Israel mourned the absence of the Lord (1 Sam. 7:2-3).* Who then takes up the mantle of authority? Samuel, son of Elkanah, who is an Ephraimite, who judges Israel, holding both religious and political authority simultaneously.

In other words, literarily, 1 Samuel has cued us to respond to Samuel's exaltation as a proto-kingship, a simultaneous exercise of priestly, prophetic, and political authority. And so when Samuel makes his sons rulers after him (1 Sam 8:1-3), we can hardly be surprised -- he is already a dynastic ruler.

And we know what will happen: he too will be replaced, just as Eli was replaced. And the new replacement is introduced in just the same way Elkanah was introduced (compare this passage: Now there was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Bechorath, the son of Aphiah, a Benjamite, a mighty man of power: And he had a son . . . to this: Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite: And he had two wives . . .)

Now we have all been primed by everything we read outside the text to see the people's demand for a king as unequivocally bad, when they demand of Saul, "now make us a king to judge us like all the nations." Samuel then is unequivocally good. After all, as Americans we know that monarchy is bad, and that knowledge is essential to reading Scripture. And after all as heirs of the Greeks we know that the "regime question" (i.e. what's the best type of government, in the abstract) is the most important question we can ask. This passage MUST be about republic vs. monarchy, because that's what we want to know.

But is that what the text is cuing us to hear? After all the people once before demanded an intermediary, in Deuteronomy 18, and the Lord approved. And Hannah asked for a king, and she received one. And when Samuel as a small boy told Eli that his family was rejected, he said quietly "It is the LORD: let him do what seemeth him good."

But Samuel refuses to accept this! He is angry with the people! God tells him "Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee." Well, we can read God in two different ways here, as a passive-aggressive figure who says one thing but means another, or we can see Him as a figure who, while knowing the people's hearts, has determined before hand what He would do. So how does Samuel read him? The first way!

And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD.

And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said unto the men of Israel, Go ye every man unto his city.

God doesn't really mean what he says! He's just complaining! He not actually expecting me to do anything about it! So Samuel sends the people away. Not until he meets Saul, is he willing to anoint his successor, and even then, only secretly.

Well there is much more to say here, but suffice it to say that in listening to 1 Samuel he hear Hannah singing the carol:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

But we will also hear the doubts: will the existing dynasty accept the voice of the people? Or use the sins of the people to ignore their voice? And will this new dynasty, born of a mother-to-be's triumphant receipt of a child-king, become a corrupt worldly kingship (whether it has the name like Saul's or doesn't like Samuel's)? And will we then wish there had never been kingship in Israel?

* One can see here the narrower sense of Israel excluding Judah, the biggest of the tribes, which was always somewhat separate.

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