Nehemiah

Nehemiah

Nehemiah serves as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia, and when he learns that Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3) Nehemiah weeps and prays to God to help him return to Jerusalem and redeem the Israelites. He starts the prayer, “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Neh. 1:5). It struck me anew that the Old Testament God does not give love freely. He loves those only who love him. It is a conditional love, for we have seen God’s anger against those that disobey him. I’m starting to drift toward the conclusion that God, Old Testament God anyway, requires loyalty an obedience over all else. His love for his people is secondary, and conditional on obedience.

Artaxerxes sends Nehemiah to Jerusalem so that he may rebuild it, and Nehemiah does so with the help of the Israelite tribes. The other nations nearby despised this action, however, and saw it as rebellion against their king. They threatened to kill those who were building. This threat again places the Israelites in a weakened position, a dangerous place which only God can deliver them from. Again, I find that the ebb and flow of love and anger coincides with the amount of power the Israelites have. When they are weak they call out to God and God delivers them because they need him, but when they gain strength they turn away and God rejects them. In this instance they are weak, so God will help them. “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work” (Neh. 4:15). God is credited with frustrating the attacks, even though Nehemiah sets up guards and patrols.

Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem’s walls, serves as its governor for 12 years and returns Jews sold into slavery to exiles back to Jerusalem. Because of his leadership and restoration of the Jewish people, enemies believe Nehemiah is “about to become their king and ha[s] even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’” (Neh. 6:6-7). Nehemiah denies that he is a king, and that is true. But I can’t really blame the neighboring groups too much. The Israelites originally came and slaughtered nearly everyone who used to occupy the land around Jerusalem. Their armies terrified the population that they didn’t kill. Plainly, the Israelites were ruthless invaders. To fear them and believe a king had come to retake the land seems reasonable. Nehemiah, again, does not do this. But the fear is justified. 

After Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem, he gathers the people and repopulates the city. They meet in a main square and Ezra reads the Book of Law to them. The people weep. I am reminded again that most of the population could not read, and would listen to their leaders. This reminder helps me understand how a population can seemingly switch entire religions or beliefs so quickly, as they do in Kings for example. If your king says something, and says it’s from God, then you believe it. Leaders then had huge amounts of power over the minds of their followers and citizens. In many ways, if the population doesn’t educate themselves, leaders still do.

After nearly two days of hearing the Book of Law, the people collectively repent their sins and pledge themselves, or perhaps more fittingly re-pledge themselves, to the laws of Moses. “All these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord” (Neh. 10:29).

So we find ourselves back in a familiar place. The Israelites have been delivered from a place of weakness due to a strong leader who credits God over all else. The people have repented from their previous wicked ways. And, this is as consistent as anything else in the Old Testament, anyone who is not from the original tribes will be outcast and despised.

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent. (Neh. 13:1-3)

Us versus them. Separation. Truly, if you are not descended from Abraham, the Old Testament God wants nothing to do with you. In fact, he probably wants to kill you. It flies in the face of so much of New Testament teachings of Jesus that I’m struggling to reconcile them being part of the same religious canon. This rejection of all foreigners is what still makes Ruth my favorite book so far. Ruth shows what I believe is the ideals of God’s love, as opposed to most of the Old Testament describing the grisly realities of it.

Thank you for reading,

AR

 

 

 

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Ezra

Ezra

Ezra tells the story of the rebuilding of the Solomon’s temple. King Cyrus allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, even giving them the plunder that was originally stolen. Back in Jerusalem, work on the temple begins almost immediately, but former enemies of Israel and Judah work to stop construction.

Eventually, for a time, construction does stop, but begins again in earnest once King Darius decrees “Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site” (Ezra 6:7).

There is not universal joy at the rebuilding, however. The older generation, who had seen the original temple, weep at the site of the new foundation. The younger generation, raised in captivity, cry out for joy. When the new temple is completed the whole population celebrates, but this original sadness harkens back to the message of Chronicles and Kings. The root of yearning for mercy from God after being taken captive, coming from a knowledge of how strong the relationship between God and the Israelites was, most likely caused this weeping at the new temple foundation. A sadness that comes from replacing something divine with something lesser.

A warped version of replacing the divine with pagan ends the book of Ezra. The men of Israel married foreign wives and had children with them, going against the will of God. Because of this, Ezra calls on all men of Israel with a foreign wife to expel them from his home, along with any children they have. They must not anger God. “Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor?” (Ezra 9:14).

First, any “detestable practices” had been done by previous generations of Israelites under previous kings. And we’ve seen time and time again some truly horrible things done in the name of God. Second, why expel the families? Why not bring them into the Israelite fold? That has certainly happened before. Why break up more families so soon after returning to a homeland?

Regardless, any mixed families are exiled at the end of the book and the Israelites can presumably continue rebuilding their city, culture and population.

Thank you for reading,

AR

2 Chronicles

2 Chronicles

The book of 2 Chronicles mirrors that of 2 Kings, just as the first respective books did. But because Chronicles was written when the Israelites were in captivity, the following passage stuck out to me far more than it did in 2 Kings.

When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you. 2 Chronicles 6:36-39

From the perspective of a people who actually are captive in a foreign land, recounting time after time a king disobeyed God and ultimately led to the sacking of Jerusalem, this passage is especially moving. Through all the reigns of kings, both good and bad, the people of Israel always had their land and the promise from God that they would keep it. Now, however, they’ve been taken captive by the Babylonians and this passage struck me as a people pleading for help but knowing they may have used all of God’s forgiveness. In short, they don’t know if they’ll ever return home, and this book tells how they lost their way, almost as a warning.

Throughout 2 Chronicles we learn of kings who either obey God and prosper, or disobey God and suffer tragedies, losses in battle and civil uprisings. Some kings do both. Kings follow Baal and build altars to other gods, bringing God’s wrath upon them, and their rules end in ruin. Their son or successor then destroys the altars and returns to serving God, and they prosper until they die or follow idols again. And the cycle begins anew.

We also see the kingdoms of Judah and Israel battle each other in addition to fighting other bordering nations. These battles follow the same pattern, where a king in Judah is doing God’s work by “humbling” Israel and its arrogant king, or vice versa. These battles seem especially egregious because Judah is one of the 12 tribes of Israel. There are a few instances of commanders breaking sieges or not pursuing routing armies because the “enemy” is their own people.

That’s not to say these kings didn’t do horrible things to their populace. The switch from worshiping other gods to worshiping Jehovah wasn’t always smooth. For example, when King Asa converts “they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and soul. All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death,whether small or great, man or woman” (2 Chron. 15 12-13). From the perspective of a common person, it seems exceedingly harsh to kill all those who don’t convert, though it does fit with the precedent set. But if Baal-worship was the norm, then it switched, and on top of that you knew that the same switch had happened two or three times before in previous generations, what do you do as a common person? There’s the argument that, according to the books of Moses, the people should be taught the earlier books of the Bible and their fate is in their own hands at that point. Yet God usually aided each king gain the throne only to see them turn away from him, and then lead the people to another religion. In short, why kill your own people?

That question stems from the larger question: Why does God keep helping these kings? Many of them follow in the footsteps of Solomon, obeying God, and in some cases having direct contact with a prophet or angel, until their reign is comfortable and then they turn to Baal or an idol. One king asks God for a victory, an angel of God descends and destroys an army with fire in front of the king’s eyes, and he still turns away years later. So what’s the point? The given answer is that God is keeping his promise to David and allowing his descendants to rule. But towards the end, I don’t know if I was more baffled at the kings turning away or God bringing a new king back.

One passage that I found very interesting occurs late in the book. Necho, king of Egypt, marches up near Judah to fight an enemy. King Josiah marches to meet him, though the Egyptians aren’t coming to fight Judah.

But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me? It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war. God has told me to hurry; so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”

This ultimatum is almost a verbatim example of what kings of Judah and Israel would tell their enemies before battle. But in this case, it’s an Egyptian king giving the ultimatum to Josiah. The kicker is that Josiah ignores him, disguises himself, rides into battle and dies. Necho was right, at least by Biblical standards. Necho’s god destroyed Josiah. Or is the God of Israel with Egypt this one time? It’s a strange antithesis to everything else in the Bible so far regarding the Israelite god and battle.

Finally, at the end of 2 Chronicles, the Babylonians attack. Maybe God finally had enough of his chosen people turning away from him and their day or reckoning had come. God “brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar” (2 Chron. 36:17).

Israel is humbled and taken captive. Jerusalem is sacked. If Solomon’s rule served as the high point of Israel’s power, this certainly is the low. Israel and its people are once again strangers in a strange land, praying toward the land of their ancestors.

Thank you for reading,

AR

1 Chronicles

1 Chronicles

The book of 1 Chronicles reviews Biblical genealogy going all the way back to Adam, and most of the events of the kings of Israel. So while there wasn’t any new stories exactly, there were some added insights, and also discrepancies, to stories I had read previously.

Something I missed in the first reading of David’s rise to power was presented plainly in 1 Chronicles 15:1 – “After David had constructed buildings for himself in the City of David, he prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it.” In my first read I didn’t realize so much time passed between David conquering Jerusalem and preparing a place for God. Building a palace for himself fits with the general idea of David thinking about himself over all others, and David himself realizes when it is done that he lives “in a palace of cedar” while God still lives in a tent. God does tell David he can’t build a temple because of the blood David has spilled, thereby paving the way for Solomon. So the argument could be made that David would establish the kingdom for God’s people, with Solomon building God’s temple. That said, there isn’t a reference of David choosing to build a temple first and God saying no. I did find it ironic that David, a man after God’s own heart, could not build a temple because of too much bloodshed. This is the only time bloodshed has been a hindrance.

So, Solomon is charged with building God’s temple. As a promise to David, God says of Solomon, I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever” (1 Chron. 17:13-14). Solomon’s reign, while prosperous, decays because he worships other gods and spirals to the point of Nebuchadnezzar sacking Jerusalem many generations later. I understand the relationship between obedience and prosperity in the Old Testament, but it’s a promise that isn’t kept.

The name “Satan” makes, I believe, its first appearance in 1 Chronicles 21. Satan “rises up” and forces David to order a census (the census that God was angry at and asked David to choose the punishment for in 2 Samuel 24). The “serpent” is referenced in Genesis, but I think this is the first time Satan has been called Satan. Does this have to do with Chronicles being written almost 70 years after Kings? Perhaps. I’m curious what role, if any, Babylonian captivity played in the differences between the two sets of books. I’m also curious if Satan will become more prevalent as I keep reading. Baal, idols and other gods have seemed to be the enemy thus far much more than Satan.

Because 1 Chronicles re-tells stories from previous books, there were a few times I noticed some differences in the account. In 1 Chronicles 28:6, David says God told him Solomon would be the son who reigns after David’s death. If we go back to 2 Kings chapter 1, Nathan the prophet tells Bathsheba to convince David to name Solomon king. Nathan does this after another of David’s sons, Adonijah, declares himself heir to the throne. David then names Solomon king, referencing an oath he made to Bathsheba in front of God to anoint Solomon. A small difference, probably from the books being written by different people at different times, but it made me go back to check.

The second is 1 Chronicles 29:24, regarding Solomon as king, which says “All the officers and warriors, as well as all of King David’s sons, pledged their submission to King Solomon.” Again, this doesn’t match the account given in 1 Kings chapter 2, which details Solomon having both Adonijah and David’s top general, Joab, killed. To say all the officers and David’s sons pledged submission when a son and the best general David had did not, made me pause a second time.

Are these glaring discrepancies? No. Two people, 70 years apart, with Israel on opposite ends of the power spectrum … it makes sense that some things would be different, or forgotten. It isn’t so much a change of story as it is a change in the details of the story. Still, I found myself reading this book carefully, flipping back to check if the events were written about the same way. I’m sure I’ll read 2 Chronicles similarly.

Thank you for reading,

AR

1 Kings

1 Kings

Most of the Old Testament thus far has established what is good in the eyes of God and what is not, and then explores the often disastrous repercussions for disobeying God. We have Abraham, Joseph and Moses who serve as better examples of those who follow the Lord’s rules. They are in the genesis phase, with God promising a mighty nation to Abraham. However, it is a time of oppression, and the nation of Israel can’t become a reality until they escape Egypt.

When Israel enters the promised land, we enter the era of extermination and expansion. We have Joshua, David and, in 1 Kings, Solomon, whose obedience to God we are told exists, without really being shown it exists. Joshua’s incredible violence, Solomon’s love of women who follow other gods, and David’s issues with both, blur the line that marked obedience and disobedience that was set in stone earlier on.

The book of 1 Kings starts close the end of David’s reign. One of his sons, Adonijah, declares himself king before David’s death and without David’s blessing. Because of this, Bathsheba decides to go to David and ask him to declare their son Solomon as the next king.

I need to stop here and point out that Solomon is the baby born after God killed David and Bathsheba’s first child. According to 2 Samuel, that child was killed because David saw Bathsheba, knew she was a married woman, slept with her anyway, got her pregnant and had her husband killed in battle. This caused God himself to say David acted “in utter contempt” of him. The same relationship that birthed a child cursed to die, later birthed the child who would become what the Bible calls the richest and wisest king in Israel. That same king would build the temple that finally housed the Ark. Again, a relationship that held God in contempt eventually led to building God’s temple.

This baffles me. Throughout 1 Kings, David is mentioned as a man who always followed God in every way (except for one brief aside in 1 Kings 15:5 mentioning he did have Bathsheba’s husband killed). This isn’t true. The end of 2 Samuel ends with David holding a census and God becoming furious to the point of sending a plague on Israel for three days, as just one example. But even if it was just that one act, men who did much less than David had their bloodlines punished much more harshly, if not exterminated. Achan, from the book of Joshua, who stole some plunder from Jericho and was stoned to death along with his entire family, comes to mind. David covets another man’s wife and essentially has that man murdered, breaking two of the Lord’s commandments. And while yes, David and Bathsheba’s son is killed, David himself is not upset once the child dies. He sleeps with Bathsheba the same day and conceives Solomon.

David names Solomon king over Israel. The next part plays out a lot like the end of The Godfather. David, on his deathbed, tells Solomon to kill those who were against him. David’s last words are “Bring his grey head down to the grave in blood” (1 Kings 2:9). Solomon kills Adonijah (he asked for David’s attendant as a wife); kills Joab, David’s right-hand man and best general, while he was holding on to God’s altar; and banishes Shimei (he had mocked David when he fled Jerusalem). Solomon later kills Shimei when he returns to Solomon’s territory. “The kingdom was now established in Solomon’s hands” (1 Kings 2:46).

A common theme or reasoning for violence in the Old Testament is that God “delivers the enemy into your hands.” What Solomon does not strike me as deliverance, but more as retribution and a cementing of power. The people of Israel had accepted Adonijah as king before David said otherwise, so killing Adonijah eliminated the biggest legitimate threat. Joab had fought side by side with David, doing David’s dirty work in some cases, and may have wanted power himself. And Shimei? Shimei insulted David, but David swore he would not kill him. Solomon, however, made no such promise.

As king, Solomon is known throughout the world for his wisdom. He expands Israel’s power and wealth to a level never seen before, and builds a temple for the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon’s success is dependent on one thing: “And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life” (1 Kings 3:14).

Perhaps it is fitting that, just like his father, Solomon’s love of women serves as his downfall. Or, his family’s downfall, as God doesn’t punish Solomon directly. Solomon has 700 wives and 300 concubines, from all different religions, and Solomon adopts their gods. This, predictably, angers God and causes God to wreak havoc on Solomon’s descendants.

Yet even breaking the first commandment, have no other gods before me, doesn’t hold the punishment it once did. Back in Exodus the Israelites worship a golden calf, and God wants to destroy the entire populace. He instead orders Moses to have the Israelites kill each other, “friend and brother,” to atone for their sin. But Solomon gets to live out his life as king, and the atonement falls on his sons.

Most of the middle chapters of 1 Kings goes through the descendants of Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials and king of Israel, and Rehoboam, one of Solomon’s sons and king of the tribe of Judah. Most kings continued “in the ways of their father” and worshiped other gods, so very few of them had long or successful reigns. They do rule, however, and no real calamity falls on them. Certainly none are stoned to death with their families.

Finally we get to Ahab, king of Israel. Ahab worshiped Baal, and enters conflict with Elijah, the last remaining prophet of God. After years of hiding for fear of execution, Elijah confronts Ahab and arranges a test of God against Baal. Elijah sets up two altars for burnt sacrifices. He asks 400 prophets of Baal to call on Baal and light the altar. They dance and pray for hours, but noting happens. Elijah then calls on God to light his altar and it erupts in flames. Elijah then states God is the one true god and executes all 400 prophets (1 Kings 18: 16-45).

With Elijah we return to the more brutal repercussions of disobeying God, in that he slaughters those who don’t believe. But 1 Kings gave me the impression that if God likes you, you can get away with things. If he has not chosen you, you can expect his full wrath. David was not the upright man he often gets portrayed as, and he does not get punished the way many others before him did. Solomon broke the first commandment nearly a thousand times over, yet still lived as a rich king, who was charged with building God’s first permanent home among his people.

The first books of the Bible set a certain standard for what is acceptable to God, and makes very clear the punishments for breaking them. Yet here we are with multiple, blatant examples of not upholding those laws without direct repercussion.

Thank you for reading,

AR

2 Samuel

2 Samuel

The second book of Samuel covers David’s rise to the throne and most of his reign over Israel. David is heralded as one of the greatest kings of Israel and followers of God. But many of his actions in 2 Samuel make me question both.

David absolutely expanded and secured Israel as a nation. He defeated every army who fought against him and Israel grew more powerful under his rule. However, David also fought two civil wars, one with Saul’s sons after Saul’s death and another against his own son, Absalom. A third rebellion was stopped by a “wise woman” convincing a besieged Israelite city to behead the rebellion leader to save the city, as David’s men were literally ramming down the gates (2 Samuel 20). David knew how to fight and win battles, but outside of wartime he had trouble leading.

In fairness, the first battle against Saul’s family wasn’t necessarily started by David. Saul’s descendants didn’t want to lose out on the throne and therefore tried to stop David with force. The second, however, stems directly from David’s actions. David had many wives and concubines, the most infamous being Bathsheba. David saw Bathsheba bathing, called her to his palace to sleep with her (although he knew she was married to another man) and got her pregnant. David then orders one of his generals to put the husband “out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Once he is killed in battle, David takes Bathsheba as another wife.

These actions anger God and he punishes David’s “utter contempt for the Lord” by killing the son born to Bathsheba, though he spares David’s life. The same day that child dies, David sleeps with Bathsheba again and she conceives another son, who God loves (2 Samuel 12). So ends David’s atonement. This seems a far cry from the God who killed a man’s entire family for, just to use one example, taking plunder from Jericho. God does, however, promise to bring calamity to David’s family, which leads us to the second civil war.

Amnon, a son of David, rapes his half-sister Tamar. Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, finds out about this and, two years later, murders Amnon. This leads to Absalom fleeing from David to avoid being executed. David, mourning his son’s death while ignoring the sibling rape, lets Absalom go. That comes to haunt David, as Absalom wins the hearts of the people of Israel during the years he spends in exile. Absalom eventually gains enough of a following to challenge David’s rule. David flees Jerusalem to muster his own army and soon goes to battle with with his son. David’s forces win and restore his rule, at the price of 20,000 Israelite soldiers and Absalom.

There’s a lot to digest in that chain of events. It starts with David breaking the two of the Ten Commandments by both coveting another man’s wife and committing adultery. God, in an uncommon act, forgives those sins and doesn’t punish David directly. He does kill the infant boy though. Amnon then rapes his sister (forbidden in Leviticus), then Absalom murders his brother (arguably justified by Leviticus, but still fratricide) and later as king sleeps with David’s concubines (forbidden by Leviticus). As a king, father and man of God, David does not have his house in order.

As a counterpoint regarding David’s love for God, earlier in the book, while leading the procession moving the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, David “dances with all his might” in front of the ark. Michal, the daughter Saul betrothed to David before exiling him, sees this and ridicules David. David replies “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this” (2 Samuel 6:21-22). This story is often used to depict the how much David loves God. A king, half naked, dancing wildly in front of the whole city of Jerusalem is not regal but shows that we all, regardless of social status, should not be afraid to show our love for the Lord. But to paraphrase from previous books, is not obedience to God’s laws the best way to show one’s love? For the sake of argument though, David clearly holds God’s opinion higher than any man’s, and that is shown here.

Well, perhaps David holds his opinion of himself slightly higher. In 2 Samuel 24 David calls for a census. This action causes God to become angry, though I still don’t quite know why. David does though, telling God he has “sinned greatly” and “done a very foolish thing” once the census is complete (2 Samuel 24:10). God says he will punish David in one of three ways, and David gets to choose which. “Shall there come on you three years of famine in your land? Or three months of fleeing from your enemies while they pursue you? Or three days of plague in your land?” (2 Samuel 24:13). David chooses the three days of plague and 70,000 people die. On seeing the devastation caused by the plague David says, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep.What have they done?” (2 Samuel 24:17). The answer is nothing. Those sheep died because of David’s self-interest.

David constantly puts his own interests over that of others. Whether it be fighting against Saul’s descendants, or giving some of those same descendants up as human sacrifices (2 Samuel 21: 1-14), or sleeping with a married woman and killing her husband, or choosing to kill 70,000 of his people instead of facing harm himself.

Joab, David’s right-hand man, said to David “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you” (2 Samuel 19:6). I found this to be the most accurate depiction of David. He loved Saul, who tried on multiple occasions to kill him. He loved Absalom, who murdered his own brother and tried to take David’s kingdom. But more than anyone he loved himself. David shows it over and over again.

Thank you for reading,

AR

 

1 Samuel

1 Samuel

The book of 1 Samuel follows the lives of Samuel, Saul and David. Samuel represents a new line of priests, with Saul and, after Saul’s demise, David representing a new line of king.

We start with Samuel, born to a previously barren mother and then given to the local priest to be raised under God. That priest, Eli, eventually angers God to the point that God revokes the promise of Aaron’s family line (of which Eli is a part) being the priesthood. “‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.'” (1 Samuel 2:30). God breaking his covenant with the Levites results in Eli’s death, the ark being stolen (temporarily) by the Philistines and Samuel’s ascension to the top of Israel’s priestly ranks.

This reminds me of God wanting to destroy the earth again after Noah, or of God arguing with Moses over whether or not to kill the Israelites after they escaped Egypt. I understand the idea of being rewarded for obedience and punished for rebelling, but the idea of God “changing his mind” on previous decisions puzzles me. But more on this later.

The Israelites ask Samuel to select a king for them. The king God reveals is Saul, and his reign begins soon after.

Saul loses God’s favor quickly. While fighting the Amalekites, Saul receives these instructions from God: “‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul does defeat the Amalekites, killing every man, woman and child except their king. But Saul’s army also takes cattle and sheep, which Saul says are to be sacrificed to God. Because of this, God “regrets” having made Saul king and rejects him as king over Israel. To repeat: because Saul did not kill every living thing, he was rejected.”Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?” (1 Samuel 15:22).

This mentality calls back to the man who took plunder from Jericho and his entire family was stoned to death. I struggle to see a reasoning behind which enemies live and who die, or even in what battle. Some cities should be absolutely destroyed, some you can plunder, some only the animals are spared. It’s so arbitrary, and the punishments so punitive, that “obedience” serves no other purpose than for the sake of obeying.

Another puzzling addition is that God regrets making Saul king, implying God made a wrong choice. God certainly changes his mind about Saul, with him starting as “God’s anointed” but ending tormented by “evil spirits”. So God is all-knowing, but changes his mind? God has a plan, but also has regrets? Samuel tells Saul, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). This line comes a dozen verses after God states his regret for making Saul king, and rejecting him as such. Then half a dozen verses later we see again, “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 21:35). Assuming God is the “Glory of Israel,” aren’t these two statements completely at odds with each other?

The third main character in the book is David, who wins Saul’s favor by famously killing the giant Philistine Goliath with a sling and a rock. David serves as Saul’s right-hand man and wins battle after battle, growing Saul’s empire. By all accounts David is a ferocious warrior, but this eventually causes Saul to disdain him.

“As they danced, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
    and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:7-9)

This offers a glimpse into where power comes from in this world; the more you killed the more you were either feared or revered, and therefore your fame and potential for power grew. Saul believes David will try to overthrow him. This is in part because of God’s rejection of Saul as king, and also due to David’s incredible talent as a warrior. Saul offers David his daughter’s hand in marriage, hoping the dowry will be David’s downfall.

They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”

When Saul’s servants told him what David had said, Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.

When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed,27 David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. (1 Samuel 18: 23-27)

Among the barbaric things I’ve read thus far, asking for 100 foreskins and receiving 200 foreskins ranks fairly high. The initial request shocked me, but the fact that David doubles it shows me that bloodlust may be his second love, behind his faith in God.

Saul, undeterred, continues to plot against David, to the point that David flees Israel. Saul pursues him and, twice, David has the chance to kill Saul but refuses. After the second time Saul pledges to leave David be, and David resides in Philistine lands. While living there, David continues to wage war on a small scale to keep favor with the local ruler.

When Achish asked, “Where did you go raiding today?” David would say, “Against the Negev of Judah” or “Against the Negev of Jerahmeel” or “Against the Negev of the Kenites.” He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, “They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’” And such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory. (1 Samuel 27:10-11)

It’s telling that David’s “practice” for years was raiding, plundering and killing. This is our hero, the one known for killing “tens of thousands” and leaving no man or woman alive, but because he refuses to kill Saul, his king, he is held in high regard.

Later the Philistines attack Israel and Saul goes to meet them on the battlefield. Seeing he is outnumbered, Saul consults a “medium” who conjures up Samuel’s ghost. This struck me as strange because it is essentially forbidden to use a medium or perform “magic” in Israel. It is explicitly outlawed in the Bible and the medium herself is at first afraid to perform the ritual. Only after Saul assures her he won’t kill her does she do it. The act is moot anyway, because Samuel’s ghost rebukes Saul and tells him he will die. The next day the Philistines rout the Israelites and Saul falls on his sword, setting the table for David, who had actually wanted to march against Saul’s army but was denied the chance.

I had heard of David as a man after God’s own heart. David certainly has faith in God and obeys his commands, as proven by not killing Saul, God’s anointed, when he had both reason and opportunity to do so. But David also revels in bloodshed and death. Moreover, David had no qualms about going against Israel as long as he didn’t have to harm Saul personally. The preservation of one chosen person while causing harm to the rest of the Israelites certainly lines up with God’s actions in the Old Testament thus far. While David may not be a good man, he is certainly a man who understands God.

Thank you for reading,

AR