Friday, August 9, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: 1 Samuel 15, Proverbs 15-16 and Augustine's Confessions 22

1 Samuel 15 – Samuel tells Saul that God is sending him to destroy the Amalekites for opposing the Israelites when they came up out of the desert on the way from Egypt years earlier.  Now all the Amalekites are to be destroyed or put under “the ban.”

Saul goes out with a huge force (200,000 soldiers, 10,000 from Judah). The Kenites (living amongst the Amalekites) are warned to remove themselves (the Kenites had helped Israel). 

Saul defeats the Amalekites and takes the king (Agag) captive.  They also spare “the best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs and all that was valuable, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed” (18:9). 
This makes Samuel very unhappy with Saul.  When Saul meets Samuel, he explains that he spared the best in order to offer them up to the Lord in sacrifice.  Samuel sees the matter as Saul not obeying the voice of the Lord (15:19). Then there is this very important speech by Samuel:

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offering and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king (15:22).

I always thought that the call for obedience over sacrifice was from the later prophets, Isaiah and others.  But here it is in Samuel’s mouth, and the act of obedience desired is not care for the orphan and widow, but the destruction of the Amalekites.  Surely this is where Isaiah got the concept from.
Saul admits his fault and admits that the reason he preserved the “best” was not for the Lord but out of fear of his people.  Instead of obeying the Lord, he obeyed “their voice” (15:24). He asks for forgiveness, but Samuel will not. Saul catches hold of Samuel’s robe and tears it (pleading? threatening? I think pleading, but it does not really say). Samuel says, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.  Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind” (15:29). Then Samuel orders Agag be brought to him and he “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (15:33).

Tough passages these.  The Jerusalem Bible note says the criticism directed at Saul here is different from the anti-monarchy tirades.  It is directed toward him as an individual for his individual disobedience.  The anointing is removed from him and given to David, but the office of king is not at issue. After this, Samuel goes home and does not see Saul again until his death, “but Samuel grieved over Saul” (15:34).

I have to say I have trouble with the moral arch of this story – both the demand that every man, woman and child among the Amalekites be slaughtered is rough; but the turning on Saul is also difficult for me. And the man who will replace him wasn’t flawless either.

Proverbs 15 – More proverbs:
“A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (15:1) “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (15:4).

“A glad heart makes a happy face; a broken heart crushes the spirit. A wise person s hungry for knowledge, while the fool feeds on trash” (15:13-14).

“Better to have little, with fear for the Lord, than to have great treasure and inner turmoil. A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate” (15:16-17).

“Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success” (15:22)

 “A kindly glance gives joy to the heart, good news lends strength to the bones” (15:30).

Proverbs 16 – These stand out to me:
“The Lord has made everything for his own purposes, even the wicked for a day of disaster” (16:4).

“Unfailing love and faithfulness make atonement for sin, by fearing the Lord, people avoid evil” (16:6).

“Better to have little, with godliness than to be rich and dishonest” (16:8).

On the powers and importance of the king: “A king detests wrongdoing, for his rule is built on justice . . . The anger of the king is a deadly threat; the wise will try to appease it. When the king smiles, there is life; his favor refreshes like a spring rain” (16:12-15). Sounds like he’s seeing himself as God in a way – I guess God is meant to be the model for what a king should be.

“Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall” (16:18).

“From a wise mind comes wise speech; the words of the wise are persuasive. Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” (16:23-24).

“Better to be patient than powerful; better to have self-control than to conquer a city” (16:31-32).

“We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall” (16:33).

Augustine (354-439)
22 - But now, O my God, cry unto my soul; and let your Truth say unto me, "It is not so; it is not so; better much was that first teaching." For behold, I would rather forget the wanderings of Æneas, and all such things, than how to write and read. But it is true that over the entrance of the grammar school there hangs a veil; but this is not so much a sign of the majesty of the mystery, as of a covering for error. Let not them exclaim against me of whom I am no longer in fear, while I confess to you, my God, that which my soul desires, and acquiesce in reprehending my evil ways, that I may love your good ways. Neither let those cry out against me who buy or sell grammar-learning. For if I ask them whether it be true, as the poet says, that Æneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know, the learned will deny it to be true. But if I ask with what letters the name Æneas is written, all who have learned this will answer truly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have arrived at as to these signs. Again, if I should ask which, if forgotten, would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what every one would answer who had not entirely forgotten himself? I erred, then, when as a boy I preferred those vain studies to those more profitable ones, or rather loved the one and hated the other. "One and one are two, two and two are four," this was then in truth a hateful song to me; while the wooden horse full of armed men, and the burning of Troy, and the "spectral image" of Creusa were a most pleasant spectacle of vanity.

It seems to me here that Augustine has fallen into a common human mind-trap: feeling that the significance of one aspect of human life must involve the denigration of some related aspect. No doubt the words and numbers that form the foundation of human thinking and communication are important – they are foundational. But the castles built with those tools are also of great value. We cannot forget that the biblical narrative is a construction very like the construction of a brilliant author to plumb the depths of human experience and the meaningfulness of human ideas and human lives. I think it is our capacity to create these “narrative castles” that makes us know we are more than the other animals around us.

There are many “castles” [ideas, narratives] built with the words we learn: personal identity, communal narratives, theories that shape the narratives we learn and modify or build from scratch. The ones that drew me growing up were the political narratives – my grandfather’s admiration for FDR, the communal [American] narrative that gave meaning to all the social norms I grew up with. Robert Bellah, who just passed away this week, was very influential in my later life for giving me the “narrative” language I feel best captures the way we humans build those “castles” of thought.

No comments:

Post a Comment