Today’s blog is a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily reading which is following the marvellous books of Samuel. A headline from world news is added.
Snowden-the image of freedom?
1 Samuel 5:1-12
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
5 The P’lishtim had captured the ark of God and brought it from Even-‘Ezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the P’lishtim took the ark of God, brought it to the temple of Dagon and set it next to Dagon. 3 But early the next morning, when the people of Ashdod got up, there was Dagon, fallen down with his face to the ground before the ark of Adonai. They took Dagon and set him in his place again; 4 but early the following morning, when they got up, Dagon was again fallen down with his face to the ground before the ark of Adonai; this time, the head of Dagon and both hands lay there, severed, on the threshold; all that was left of Dagon was his torso. 5 This is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and those entering his temple never walk on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod.
6 Adonai began oppressing the people of Ashdod; he ravaged them, striking Ashdod and its surrounding area with tumors. 7 When the people of Ashdod came to understand what was happening, they said, “The ark of the God of Isra’el can’t remain with us, because he is oppressing us and our god Dagon.” 8 They summoned all the leaders of the P’lishtim and asked, “What are we to do with the ark of the God of Isra’el?” They answered, “Have the ark of the God of Isra’el carried to Gat.”
So they carried the ark of the God of Isra’el to Gat. 9 But after it arrived there, Adonai oppressed that city, causing terrible panic. He struck the people of the city, great and small alike; tumors broke out on them.
10 Next they sent the ark of God to ‘Ekron; but when the ark of God arrived in ‘Ekron the ‘Ekronim shouted, “Now they’ve brought the ark of the God of Isra’el to us, to kill us and our people!” 11 So they summoned all the leaders of the P’lishtim and said, “Send the ark of the God of Isra’el away! Let it go back to its own place, so that it won’t kill us and our people!” — because death and panic pervaded the whole city; God’s oppression was very heavy there. 12 The people who didn’t die were struck with the tumors; and the city’s cries for help reached the skies.
This splendid piece of black comedy is a good way to begin the week. I’ve used the Jewish translation in which P’lishtim =Philistines and ADONAI = The Lord.
The previous story told how Israel had been defeated by the Philistines after trying to use the Ark of God as a magic WMD when they were collectively guilty of permitting sacrilege against it. Now the Philistines think that possessing it will give them power, but find it seems t bring trouble. The think the magic object brings disaster but the text insists that it is ADONAI himself who punishes their presumption: the Ark belongs with the people who entered the covenant with God, even if they neglected their duty. The Philistines commit exactly the same error as the Israelites, treating the holy symbol as a magic talisman.
( A reputedly even more ancient object, Jacob’s pillow from Bethel, the so-called Stone of Destiny used in Scottish coronations at Scone, was stolen by the English King Edward 1st I 1296 and kept for centuries in Westminster Abbey, as part of the English and British Coronation Chair. In 1950 it was stolen by some Scots students and taken to Scotland but eventually surrendered and returned to the Abbey. In 1996 it was officially given into Scottish keeping in Edinburgh Castle. Nobody in Scotland however thought that mere possession of the stone would restore our nationhood or confer any significant benefits on our people.)
The place of images in the Abrahamic faiths is always in question. “You shall not make a engraved image of anything that is in the heaven above or the earth below… you shall not bow down to them nor serve them…for I, ADONAI your God am a jealous God….” The commandment seems clear enough. But then what about the Ark? Is it a reminder of the covenant or an image? And later, what about the symbols in Israel’s temple, the bulls, the pillars and the great basin?
Early Christians were sparing in their use of images, the signs of cross and fish were identifiers rather than holy objects. Pictures of Jesus and scenes from his life, however, began a process whereby rich imagery was believed to enhance worship, and some even to communicate spiritual power. Against this trend the so-called iconoclasts, (image-breakers) repeatedly struggled over many centuries. Most Reformation churches moved decisively against imagery, restoring what they considered to have been the purity of early Christian worship. Meanwhile, Islam, with its complete rejection of representation, had established itself, and continues to challenge what it sees as Christian idolatry today.
A clergyman in a TV programme I saw last night bewailed the attempts to “cleanse” Salisbury cathedral of “idols” in the time of Cromwell, as if all decent people would agree that the preservation of beautiful objects should come before issues of theological truth.
The black comedy of the Ark as told in Samuel sees it as a symbol of the relationship between Israel and its God. Only as such has it any meaning. Anyone, Israelite or Philistine who thinks it has power in itself is an idolater whom ADONAI will punish. On the whole, the Bible takes a dim view of much that is precious to the religious temperament.