This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
NEWSPAPER APPEALS AGAINST BLOCK ON PUBLISHING PRINCE’S LETTERS TO POLITICIANS
1 Samuel 31:1-13
New King James Version (NKJV)
The Tragic End of Saul and His Sons
31 Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 Then the Philistines followed hard after Saul and his sons. And the Philistines killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul’s sons. 3 The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers.
4 Then Saul said to his armorbearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me.”
But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it. 5 And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him. 6 So Saul, his three sons, his armorbearer, and all his men died together that same day.
7 And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, and those who were on the other side of the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they forsook the cities and fled; and the Philistines came and dwelt in them. 8 So it happened the next day, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. 9 And they cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and sent word throughout the land of the Philistines, to proclaim it in the temple of their idols and among the people. 10 Then they put his armor in the temple of the Ashtoreths, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth Shan.[a]
11 Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, 12 all the valiant men arose and traveled all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth Shan; and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. 13 Then they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.
Although the Samuel books in their final version have depicted Saul as a king rejected by the God of Israel, the story shows glimpses of Saul as faithful enough to this same God-for example by banning witchcraft from the land. He looks desperately for guidance from God but does not receive it; presumably because the prophets of God refused him a message. Here in the story of his death, Saul dies a defeated hero, by falling on his sword; and his defeat is interpreted by the Philistines as a defeat of Israel’s God and a victory for their own Gods. The despoiling of his body and its public display are intended to announce this victory and to taunt the defeated Israelites. That’s why the warriors of Jabesh take great risks to recover the bodies and inter them. It seems that although God refuses to acknowledge Saul as his man, most people, including the idolatrous enemy, do so.
The author is a master of his art, trying to deal faithfully with his sources, one of which at least presented the whole history of the Israelite monarchy as a rebellion against the kingship of God. No doubt this source also highlighted Saul’s failures and injustices. In spite of all this, there’s also evidence of a source which saw Saul as a great, if ultimately defeated hero. The author accepts the challenge of uniting these witnesses in a coherent narrative that presents Saul as a credible character, plucked from obscurity by God’s prophet and catapulted into the role of king only to be denounced by the same prophet for what seems a pardonable error, that of allowing his men to keep some booty from a holy war.
But that’s just the point the author hopes the reader will understand: behind all the justifications of God’s rejection in Saul’s own actions, there burns the unbridled wrath of a God who has been deposed by his own people in their demand for a “king as other nations have”. It is this wrath which is transmitted to Saul himself as an “evil spirit sent by God,” and which results in his self-destructive persecution of David, who knows he has been chosen by this meddlesome God as Saul’s replacement.
These are uncomfortable and maybe unacceptable characterisations of God for modern readers, especially Christian readers; for which reason even scholarly interpretations have tended to avoid them in their examination of sources and literary techniques. These of course have their place, but they should not be allowed to obscure the plain meaning of the narrative: the rule of one human being over others usurps the rule of God. Now that’s quite an uncomfortable thought.