Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Book of Samuel and the Credibility of Scripture

Skeptics claim that the Bible cannot be regarded as historical because it has a theological commitment. However, none of us approach history with a blank slate. We all have our philosophical, worldview commitments. However, these commitments do not preclude us from writing credible history.

I’d like to take the Book of Samuel to briefly demonstrate this fact. Clearly, Samuel is more than history. It is also theology. Right from the start, this book betrays its spiritual perspective. Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1) had two wives. One of his wives, Hannah, had been barren:

  • But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. (1 Sam. 1:5-6)
As a result of her anguish and desperation, she vowed:

  • “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” (1:11)
Consequently, the Lord answered her prayer:

  • Elkanah made love to his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. So in the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” (1:19-20)
Admittedly, the Book of Samuel, along with the rest of the Bible, is entirely God-centered. Of course, the revelations that the “Lord had closed her womb” and “remembered her” go beyond normal human historical accounts and partake of divine revelation. Therefore, the skeptics charge that the Bible cannot be regarded as reliable history but as pious myths.

However, pious myths – human creations – are written in a mythical, human, story-telling manner. Samuel is not! Let me try to demonstrate.

Firstly, there are many rough edges and subtleties – not the kind of thing you’d find in a humanly constructed myth. The boy Samuel was nurtured Eli the priest – clearly, a very human and mixed character – both faithful and unfaithful. On the one hand, he tried to correct the sins of his sons:

  • Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons [also priests] were doing to all Israel and how they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. (2:22) 
He faithfully tried to correct them but to no avail. However, without any adequate explanation, we are then given a very different portrait of Eli the priest. A prophet came to Eli and announced to him His Lord’s great displeasure with him:

  • Now a man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the Lord says: …I chose your ancestor out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest…’Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’” (2:27-30) 
A faithful Eli is suddenly followed by an unfaithful Eli and a promise of punishment. The transition is very rough – just as we should expect from an historical account. People are messy compositions. However, myths smooth out these messy portraits to give us something to which we humans can easily respond.

In addition to this, the theology is also messy. It doesn’t seem to cohere. On the one hand, we are given the revelation of a good and just God. On the other, it seems that the Bible reveals to us a highly nuanced and confusing God. After Eli tried unsuccessfully to correct his sons, we are told that:

  • His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death. (2:25) 
How just can this be! It seems that the sons didn’t have a chance. Instead, it seems that God coerced them to sin so that He could punish them! This is not in character with a human myth. Instead, this reflects a theological tension reflected throughout the breadth of Scripture. We recall how God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to accomplish His purposes, and how He gives people over to the corrupt desires of their hearts (Rom. 1:24-28).

However difficult that this might be to understand, this humanly troubling phenomenon reflects the divine consistency of the Bible rather than humanly constructed myths, created to justify a particular worldview.

The rough edges persist. God had chosen Samuel to be His prophet:

  • The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s [prophetic] words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (3:19-21)
At this time, Israel was under the control of the Philistines masters and revolted against them. Humanly, we would think that now, with the respect that Samuel had finally commanded through God’s validation of his ministry, things would be different. However, Israel was badly defeated. In a desperate attempt to gain their independence, Israel took the ultimate step. They again went to war against the Philistines, this time carrying the Ark of God into battle. Never had the Ark failed them. However, again they were routed, and the Ark was captured.

How could God allow such a thing to happen! This event is so unlike pagan mythology where so much emphasis is placed on rituals and objects. However, the God of the Bible cannot be coerced or manipulated by any human techniques, sacred objects or rituals. This is because the Israelite God is not a man-centered god but a God who transcends our control and manipulations.

Meanwhile, the Ark brought death to the Philistines. Finally, realizing that it had been a curse to them, they returned it to Israel.

Israel’s rejoicing was just what we would have anticipated. However, to our great embarrassment, in the midst of the rejoicing, God punished them severely because they didn’t rejoice in the prescribed manner:

  • But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them. And the people of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God?” (6:19-20)
God had turned viciously against His own people for what seems to have been a minor infraction. From a human point of view, God’s action was repignant and unacceptable – not the substance of myths. Also, so many of the Biblical accounts directly contrast the Old Testament Apocrypha where we encounter fully comprehendible, heart-warming, pious stories.

In Second Samuel, we see the re-occurance of almost the same thing. Years later, after the godly David became king and decided to bring the sacred Ark up to Jerusalem, he had to struggle with the same perplexity:

  • David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled.  The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God. Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.
From a human standpoint, God’s timing couldn’t have been worse, and David’s anger couldn’t have been any more understandable! It seemed that Israel was doing everything that they were supposed to have done, and, in the midst of this rejoicing, God brought punishment. What a way to end a celebration, and one that celebrated God Himself! This is very troubling and doesn’t seem to be the substance of human myth or story - telling.

However, there is a divine consistency here permeating the entirety of the Bible. There was no object as holy as the Ark of the Covenant. It had been sequestered in the Most Holy Place, where only the high priest could enter, and that was only once a year. Actually, it was not so much a matter of the Ark but its covering – the “atonement cover”:

  • "Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the Lord, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover [“mercy seat;” KJV] above the Testimony [the Ten Commandments which had been placed in the Ark], so that he will not die.” (Leviticus 16:11-13)
Even the high priest was not allowed to look upon this cover – the lid to the Ark. In order to prevent this, it was covered by the wings of two huge gold cherubim. Also, the high priest had to bring an incense censor producing great billows of smoke into the Most Holy Place, lest he see the cover and die. This was the only object that carried with it the threat of death. God communicated to Israel, in this manner, that there was nothing holier or even more secret.

We later learn that the atonement cover, resting over the Covenant of the Law, represented the atonement of Christ (Romans 3:25), which had not yet been revealed in its fullness. Clearly, nothing was closer to the heart of our Lord. This represented the secret of His glory – that He would die for the sins of the world (John 12:23; 13:31). How this secret had to be guarded and sanctified until God was ready to reveal it!

Israel understood a bit of this. They understood that God had His boundaries that needed to be respected. However, they didn’t understand why. Instead, they were horrified by God’s seemingly arbitrary and severe judgments.

Although the Book of Samuel is thoroughly God-centered, it isn’t God-centered in a way we humans would invent. It’s certainly not the substance of myths! We do not find a God in the Bible created after the image of man, but a God who is often hostile to the things that we humans esteem.

Well, where was Samuel during all of this? After the debacle at Beth Shemesh, the Ark was taken to Kiriath Jearim where it remained for twenty years. This was followed by a great revival in which Samuel played an important role:

  • Then all the people of Israel turned back to the Lord. So Samuel said to all the Israelites, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah, and I will intercede with the Lord for you.”  When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the Lord.”
Subsequently, God gave Israel victory over the Philistines, and along with victory, independence. Along with this, Samuel’s esteem grew. However, Israel rebelled against his leadership and wanted a king instead.

The circumstances are very nuanced and troubling. On the one hand, Israel had a legitimate grievance. Samuel’s sons were corrupt. How could this happen to the godly Samuel, especially in the wake of this great revival? We aren’t told. However, these troubling nuances are the substance of human history, not the substance of myth and imaginative stories.

On the other hand, Israel was beginning to lose their focus on God and wanted to be like other nations by having a king. What a disappointment and how unedifying! And after all they had been through! This would subsequently cost Israel dearly. (This is not the story I would write!)

What was motivating the author of Samuel? I have tried to argue that this book transcends normal human motivations. It’s messy. From a merely human perspective, it is all over the place, and consequently, it is a very unsatisfying read. However, from the perspective of New Testament revelation, it makes deep sense.

Did the author understand about what he had been writing? I would guess that he understood it only superficially. This is exacting what Peter wrote about prophetic revelation:

  • Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:10-12)
Even the angels did not understand. How much less the critics of our day!

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